Whenever VRLA hits the L.A. Convention Center, it brings with it a wave of excitement and anticipation for the future of a nascent medium. Part trade show for virtual reality makers and part fan con for virtual reality users, this weekend's iteration had everything from virtual meditation to a mixed-reality Easter egg hunt. But off the expo floor, inside a small room on an upper level of the convention center, a group of teenage girls in matching T-shirts working on large, powerful computers may have been the most shining example of VR's bright future.
“As girls ourselves, we think it's super important that we're all playing with this fun world,” says Georgia Van Cuylenburg, with a hint of an Australian accent in her enthusiastic voice. Van Cuylenberg is a founding member of Girls Make VR, a program formed through VRLA, which aims to train girls between the ages of 13 and 18 on how to create virtual reality. Girls Make VR launched at last summer's VRLA event and, so far, it has been a success. Van Cuylenberg notes that some of the students here had been a part of that inaugural workshop. This time around, there are a couple young boys in the class too, but really it's designed for female students.
Girls Make VR has a goal: to level the playing field between men and women as the virtual reality industry takes shape. It seems like an ambitious aspiration, but it could be a feasible one. Virtual reality is young, but it's related to several other fields that are well-known for their gender gaps: tech, Hollywood and video games. Last year, the L.A. Times reported on research showing that men in tech made an average of 28.3 percent more than women. Meanwhile, both the entertainment and video game industries have, in recent years, received hefty criticism for a laundry list of sexist practices. But, while VR draws from these industries, it has also become an entity unto itself. Those who work in VR often talk about the possibilities that come along with working in a field that's still so new, for instance how VR can help change society. With that in mind, the industry has an opportunity, perhaps even an obligation, to work toward gender equality now. That's what's happening with VRLA and Girls Make VR.
“We went in with this larger picture in mind, but it was also pretty modest,” Christian Falstrup, one of VRLA's producers, says by phone about the Girls Make VR program. “We're like, let's start with an education workshop and see what happens.”
So far, both support and demand for the program have been promising. A number of VR-related companies including Unity and Oculus have pitched in to get the class up and running. This session of Girls Make VR filled up in advance of the class. Van Cuylenberg says that the goal is to turn this into a weekly series of workshops where students can learn various skills that pertain to working in virtual reality.
For now, though, the students are learning Unity, a game engine that can be used to create content for VR. Today's teacher is Sarah Stumbo, a 25-year-old VR/augmented reality evangelist for Unity. Stumbo studied electrical engineering in college before moving into virtual reality. Thanks to a games workshop for women, she connected with Unity and ultimately landed her current gig. For a little more than two hours, she guides the students through the basics of Unity.
They're working on a project called Viking Quest VR with assets found in Unity's store. The students click, drag and scale pre-existing artwork to build a scene for a character named Mini Viking Eric. They give Eric a weapon and a quest. They figure out how to make him move without falling through the ground or tumbling along the site. Eventually, they might learn more about making and animating art themselves or how to code, but, for right now, the focus is on learning how Unity works.
“The class is really an introduction, but a broad introduction,” Stumbo says after the session. She notes that youth-oriented classes like this are becoming more common. “I'm super inspired to see so many talented high schoolers, even middler schoolers, who are using Unity, because they are the ones that are going to be building the future. No doubt, this generation of kids will grow up with strong technological skills that they can take with them as they continue their studies and embark on their adult careers.”
Jasmine Chau, an 18-year-old high school senior from the South Bay, is part of that future. She joined the Girls Make VR workshop after hearing about it from a teacher. “This experience really helped me narrow down what I want to do in the future,” Chau says. She's interested in computer science and may end up majoring in the subject when she goes to college. This was her first time working with Unity, and it could end up playing a part in her future. “I like plugging in stuff and problemsolving,” she says. “This is definitely within the realm of things I like to do.”