Wisdom From The Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries, With Dr. Evie Powell


Originally published by Authority Magazine. May 28, 2020.

Foster creativity. As a leader, it’s not just about my ideas coming through but setting up an environment for the best ideas to come through. Making it possible for people to feel empowered to come to me and say ‘I have a better way to do this’ or ‘I had an amazing idea and want […]

Foster creativity. As a leader, it’s not just about my ideas coming through but setting up an environment for the best ideas to come through. Making it possible for people to feel empowered to come to me and say ‘I have a better way to do this’ or ‘I had an amazing idea and want to try it out.’

The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, as a part of our interview series called “Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries”, we had the pleasure of interviewingDr. Evie Powell.

Dr. Evie Powell is a games researcher and developer specializing in immersive interactions and prototype design. With a unique career bridging gaming and healthcare, she integrates game design and UX design to create meaningful experiences that help people learn, play, and work differently. At Proprio, her focus is on anticipating how surgeons think and designing a suite of tools to empower them to think and perform optimally. Previously Dr. Powell founded Verge of Brilliance LLC, an independent experimental games studio in Seattle, and worked at Microsoft on natural user interfaces and the Kinect technology at Xbox. She graduated from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte with her Ph.D in Computer Science. Her research centered on socially pervasive game experiences and context aware gaming using mobile technologies.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?

Ever since I was little, I’ve always been into video games. I’ve also always been into math, science and music and knew whatever I did, I wanted to be creative. I just didn’t know how to turn science or math into that. I was at odds with being a musician or math professor but video games seemed like a cool bridge. Games are the perfect combination of programming and engineering with beautiful stories that you can get lost in and the music is incredible. I realized from an early age I wanted to get into that space and use engineering and math for play. So I went to college, studied game design and development at UNC Charlotte and got into game-based research.

Working with my PHD advisor, Dr. Tiffany Barnes, I did a lot of research on games for education. I then pursued a graduate degree in that same area and went on to pursue my masters in graphics and visual arts and continued on to achieve my PHD in pervasive game design. Games not only have an innate sense of teaching and learning, but also this amazing ability to over time transfer that learning into the real world. Through game design and contextual systems, like pervasive systems, highly mobile and context aware systems, I realized I could further bridge the gap between play and things that can affect you in real life.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

There’s a nonfiction book by Johan Huizinga called Homo Ludens. It’s the idea of play theory and where you find play and games in society, in the things we do, in law, in war and all these things. It creates this sort of framework for people to think about how play affects people, even if they don’t think of themselves as gamers, and how play affects society. It talks about how the things we do for entertainment and enjoyment are also how we solve problems. It helped me think about if I was going to change the way people thought about games, I needed to think about all the ways we defined games. When we think about games being a very tightly bound game with rules, you can make things more discrete and constrain problems with special, temporal or social boundaries and that’s where we thrive. It helps us wrap our heads around ideas. That book really impacted my work and the way I view life.

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.

Back when I started Verge of Brilliance, which is an experimental games company, I wasn’t really into VR/AR. However, I went to a hackathon and got to play with a prototype Oculus Rift when it was very early on. It was really neat but I thought I could really see this going somewhere in a year. Six months to a year later I was at another hackathon, Ludum Dare, and someone had a prototype of the Vive and I started working on a game there. I built this environment, got it set up, had a whole room with my team to ourselves. I remember getting the environment in place, putting the headset on and beaming myself into my own game and walking around in it for the first time and I was blown away that something that was in my imagination for so long, I was now in it! I was hooked. It was transformative. I had always imagined where the future was heading but I was shocked that my reality was what I created.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

There’s this one game I put together, an epic snow day adventure, that stands out in my mind. I was actually contracting another VR game that took a long time to build — turning the code into something executable took some time for the computer to churn through. So while I was waiting, I pulled up another game engine and started building another game with whatever came to mind. I put together a snowy world and I remember thinking this goes really well with a song I was listening to over and over again. So I placed it in the background and it was such a nice little world that I ended up putting my headset on and laying in this virtual world (in reality I was laying on the floor in a collaborative workspace) and letting the snow fall on me, looking at this virtual sky, listening to my favorite song. I was like ok what do I want to do now — I want to make a snowball! What’s interesting is the mapping isn’t what you’d traditionally see. Typical controls map to game controls you put in your hands but in my world it was like you had to reach down onto the ground and pack the snow just like in real life and then actually throw it like you would in reality. I remember that being my first interaction and experience with embodiment. Just the idea that the person feels like they are there, that’s easy, but having the person behave and act like they are there is really special and triggers something in your mind. When you feel embodied you use all your senses and you’re able to feel and learn with your whole body rather than just a small part of it. People thought the effect was really interesting. In fact, that game made its way into the Pacific Science Center in Seattle where visitors get to play it.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Can you call them mistakes if you were doing them intentionally? For example, I was going to a lot of talks about do’s and don’ts of VR from folks who have been doing it a while. One person said to me, “just try it even if someone tells you it’s a bad idea. Try it and see if you can understand why they tell you not to.” So, one of the first things I wanted to try was to break that sense of trust that a person isn’t going to actually fall in real life when they fall in VR. I wanted them to feel the rush associated with falling in my virtual world. So I made it so the player fell into a level I was building. So when you first start the game, instead of just appearing in the virtual environment already standing, you would fall onto this platform. I would launch the character into the air and onto a safe platform but they felt like they were actually falling. People would brace themselves and their knees would give out — people actually fell onto the floor! I didn’t do that for very long but it drove home that even though the world I created was virtual, it was real enough to override the sense of being in the physical world. It was also enough to override logic. It was clear that the player was giving me access to their perception of physical presence. It’s important to take care of the player when you have that kind of influence.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Dr. Tiffany Barns, my PHD advisor. I was one of her first students at the Games 2 Learn Program she started at UNCC, and she was instrumental in me pursuing my masters and PHD. If it weren’t for her, I never would have pursued my PHD or gone into the field I’m in today. It’s hard to find funding to help pay for your masters and that’s what I was interested in — I didn’t want to be a professor or get a PHD. A masters was good enough. But she brought to my attention that funding happens through the PHD program. She was right, I had the funding to complete the PHD and along the way I was doing such powerful research that to this day I try and repeat what I was doing at the lab. She helped me understand how to think about all problems and find answers when there are none.

She also helped me build the world I want to see and be in. There are many things about me that make me different from people in my field. One of the things I took away from her is to find a champion and then be a champion to someone. These words have a lofty sound but it’s simple. People don’t go through this world alone, even if they think they do. There’s always someone or a series of people who believe they can do what they set out to do. If you’re under represented, that’s harder to find so you have to make a conscious effort to find them. That’s something I sought out in her and others in my career, and inversely something I thought was necessary to give back. People don’t need much. They just need someone who knows the shortcuts and can remind them they belong here and that they know what they are doing. That has been helpful in my career in being able to stay in an industry that is underrepresented and find ways to make an impact.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am working on technology at Proprio, a company that is changing the way information flows in an operating room and transforming surgery through technology. It’s super exciting to work on something that directly impacts lives and is changing the way surgeons think about their patients. We are bringing a sense of embodiment to surgery. If surgeons have the feeling of being in the body or seeing the body in a way that talks to all their senses, I think that is something that will help focus them and help them do their jobs quicker, more comfortably and safer. There’s a lot we can do by introducing machine learning and contextual mental processing to help surgeons not just see more information, but see it differently and see it as it becomes irrelevant or relevant to them.

I’m working to introduce calm technology. Today’s surgical systems are big, gaudy and distracting. If you can create an experience that not only makes more information available but is smart enough to know when to take information away so surgeons can focus in a very busy operating room, you are creating something truly special. At Proprio we are taking information and layering it with contextual awareness and augmented systems. I’m really excited about how all that tech comes together because it’s going to change our operating rooms.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?

I already talked a bit about it above, but it’s exciting to think about how VR, AR and MR can help information become calmer. Right now, we are sort of at this crossroads with technology. When we think about the tech we access today such as a smartphone, it’s always on and always with you and always asking you about stuff or telling you about stuff. We spend a lot of time focused on our phones and that’s a problem. When you think about phones and push notifications, every app wants to tell you about something. Constantly fighting this idea of knowing what’s happening across all areas in different apps you’re interested in knowing about. With augmented reality, imagine wearing a set of glasses with built-in GPS, how do you show info about where you need to turn without distracting the user? How do you know when it’s safe if the user is focused on something else? There’s a lot of AR research and interest in answering those questions. What happens when something is always with you and attached to you, how do you create a level of awareness to know when and what info to show the user? If done correctly, information becomes quieter — you don’t have to search for it or dismiss it because it’s evaluating your world and what you are hearing, seeing and experiencing. I find that it’s hard for people to envision a world like this today because technology is currently rarely built with this in mind. Technology seems like the ultimate distraction nowadays.

My go-to example is if you have a set of glasses on and it’s evaluating the world around you and sees your mouthwash is low — currently it’ll say ‘hey your mouthwash is low’ and tells you when you’re in the bathroom when you can’t do anything about it. In the future, technology will tuck that info away and if you’re at the grocery store it’ll remind you your mouthwash is at 10% and there’s a sale on mouthwash in X aisle. It’s listening and knows you’re shopping and is a good time to remind you.

I’m also excited about this idea of asymmetric experiences. Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality are all tools people can use to complete a task and they have very specific purposes. AR, I think of environmental matters and it’s great for things where you need additional information overlaid on top of the real world. VR is virtual content that is best for story telling, empathy and putting yourself in someone’s shoes. Eventually, technology will converge so that both of these experiences are possible at the same time and it’s all based on what the person needs at the time. If they need focus, story telling or entertainment, the headset goes ok and transports the person into that world. When they need additional info about the world around them or the ability to tease out a lot of information, then maybe AR is more important. A world where people can get information in the most effective, efficient way and work together to solve the same task will be really cool.

Right now everyone can agree if they didn’t have their phones they wouldn’t be able to function. It’s one thing that’s good and bad. AR, VR, MR will bring us together in a way we never thought possible. One thought experiment is what if maybe in 5–10 yrs everyone has glasses or contacts where they have basic augmented info and what it does is inside the glasses there are microphones to hear what people are saying and parse whether it’s your native language and if it’s not, it presents subtitles over the heads of people talking to you and translates for you. Imagine this in a classroom where everyone speaks different languages but can all fully understand each other! That changes the way classrooms are done. People can go traveling without worrying about being unable to communicate with the locals ; people would be able to meet in groups of no one speaking the same languages but still work and get jobs done. The best of the best could come together to solve big problems.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

  1. Downside of these technologies is for them to be really impactful, people need access and it needs to be affordable. That’s key to building a world like I just mentioned. Not having that tech could exclude a lot of people and populations. So while I’m excited about the future, I’m hyper aware and interested in making sure that everyone gets to have access to technology. It should be provided in public schools and libraries, so people can get familiar with how to use it so they don’t end up at a disadvantage.
  2. Another concern is that not all data is good data. For every technology we’ve had there are ways people have exploited it. The ability for people to filter the content that’s coming through to them is going to be key. If anyone can throw up virtual data or alter data, it’s hard to know what is reality and what’s not. A fun thought experiment is to imagine a series of augmented reality, wearables, etc. that’s always processing — pervasive systems — a set of tech that’s always evaluating the world around you and adjusting for your own comfort. There’s a lot of value but the downside is the potential to lose shared experiences. For example, if it’s too bright out it puts a filter on. Or if you’re too warm, it’s regulating your temp through your clothes. If technology is constantly doing this stuff for you, the shared experiences of what the day is like will disappear. The idea of what is real and what’s not becomes a lot more blurred and subjective based on what personal settings you set for yourself. It’ll be interesting to see how people navigate that world. But indicates that level of control people need to be aware of and protect.
  3. Another concern is the ability to turn things off so people can’t infiltrate your reality without your express permission. This will be imperative. And if you have a VR experience that scares or triggers you, there needs to be rules and ways for people to have a kill switch. When people get scared in games, they tend to toss the headset off and throw it because they were so shocked or scared. There’s a really good game that I saw that helped with this. I let my niece play a game that had zombies in it and she was surrounded and got really scared so she held her head down, looked at the ground and closed her eyes. She stopped moving and what was cool is that the game recognized, through enough user testing I’m assuming, that if they go into that stance they are likely not having a good time. I was watching her play and when she did that they all stopped moving and making noise — that’s smart design.

All of this is going to affect us in ways we’ve never experienced. Designers need to be more mindful as a result and people need to have more control. I’m hopeful for the future and there’s a net good that comes from technology.

I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?

Context and focus are key areas VR, AR and MR can help. There are ways information comes to us using our eyes that are unfiltered and when we get information that way, there’s a lot of processing we go through. Same goes for selective hearing to filter out noise. Our brain has to do a lot to filter out noise we get from our environment. When I think about immersive systems, people always need more information but need to filter out the stuff that’s not relevant. For both sides of the spectrum in extended reality, both systems have a way that information can be created so most important info comes through and they can focus on what’s relevant and help the brain remove noise. I can imagine technology that can help enhance selective hearing, filter out your periphery for less distraction, highlighting a person of interest in a crowd so they are easier to find. Also there’s the concept of rerouting information. Maybe information coming through your ears might be better coming through your eyes through color or texture to help you better interpret it.

Two years ago I went to a talk where someone was working on a virtual reality for people that have trouble seeing. Most VR is focused on your eyes and showing information, so how can VR help someone who is having trouble seeing? They have technology that reroutes information that comes through your eyes. For a lot of degenerative eye conditions, it’s focused on the front of vision and not your periphery. Degenerative conditions can often leave your periphery intact. VR could take the letters on the page you are reading and redirect to the periphery so that someone who is legally blind can read because the text is displayed where they can still see!

Redirection, focus, filtering out noise and changing the way info gets to the brain will help people in the workplace in valuable and meaningful ways.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in broader terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? If not, what specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Well…no, not really. I think that depending on what industry you’re in there are steps that are being taken, but just because we might be on the path doesn’t mean we are where we need to be. The Seattle VR community, for example, is focused and committed to bringing more underrepresented people into this space and not just because of the goodness of their heart. We’ve learned very valuable lessons of what happens when you leave big chunks of populations out of the building process. When only one type of person is there to represent that type of technology, you end up with only a fraction of customers and consumers you would normally have. Not just that, you leave off the table a ton of ideas and walks of life for people who think differently. Ideas and innovation suffer when you don’t have representation. The Seattle community is aware of that and they host a suite of different hackathons with different focuses and try to get people involved in the design process even if they don’t have the engineering background. A lot of good work is being done ensuring these different ideas get through to the technology.

But more work can be done. For example, making it so people feel like they belong in a space and that they can do what it is they are setting out to do. A lot of the time, people think ‘oh if you get the education and you get the degree you’ll be fine and go do your job and that’s that.’ But it’s very trying if you only see one other type of person who resembles you, thinks like you, or lives like you. It’s tiring if you feel like people are constantly pointing to you as the example of diversity. Clearly it’s not very diverse if the same person is in every article focused on diversity and broadening participation. I’ve read articles and talked to those who have a degree and after a couple years say the industry wasn’t for them because it didn’t feel like a space that wanted to include them. There’s a lot companies can do to make sure that the people they hire, especially at the junior level, have the community they need. Companies can send them to conferences for example. For me, GDC is something I go to every year and I love it because I can’t help but meet other women like me who are focused on gaming and futuristic technology. That meeting once a year is so meaningful to me — it’s like having your champions surrounding you. The ability to talk about your unique challenges and ask for advice from people with similar experience and background who can validate your feelings or help you tackle a challenge is invaluable. Forming a community is very important.

There’s always room for improvement and a lot that has been done, but we are just scratching the surface so that women, people of color, LGBT, people who are neurodivergent, everyone can have a place and make an impact.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?

It depends on where you’re from. I don’t think this myth is as big of an issue in the PNW but one thing I fought with a lot as a kid and as a young girl was that engineers, scientists and mathematicians are people who have trouble holding conversations, are introverted and the like. I think in a lot of ways I fit that description, so I’m not going to say that’s not true. The myth is that the industry is ONLY made of people that fit that description. Building technology is a very human problem to work on. Especially nowadays with information and technology being a global scale problem. There are a lot of different types of people that build technology. Just because someone is an engineer doesn’t mean they have to abandon being social, being feminine, or being themselves. If you have a mind for engineering and you enjoy it, you should be an engineer.

Technology is built for all types of people across the spectrum so we need all types of people representative from all communities and genders and neurodiversity — we need that representation to make technology that works for everyone. If you leave it to the people you think fit that space, then that’s who the technology will be for. It’s not just for one type of person.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in Tech” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Don’t be afraid of mistakes — they are a part of the process. They are just as important as successes.
  2. Find your champion, be a champion.
  3. Have someone you can talk to and talk through your concerns and doing and being that for other people. This also helps with imposter syndrome — a lot of people fight with that. To me, it’s not something I’ve fought with in the last couple years or for a while but that’s because I surround myself with people who are willing to help and I am that person for others as well. Hearing my own problems through other people helps me put things in perspective.
  4. Foster creativity. As a leader, it’s not just about my ideas coming through but setting up an environment for the best ideas to come through. Making it possible for people to feel empowered to come to me and say ‘I have a better way to do this’ or ‘I had an amazing idea and want to try it out.’ This will help you be a better and more creative thinker by hearing all these thoughts from people but it will also help you create the next generation of people. When people feel heard and their ideas turn into products they will work harder, smarter and want to collaborate more.
  5. “Maybe you can do anything, but you can’t do everything” Someone told me this and it’s a lesson I learn over and over every few months. I enjoy a large variety of hobbies, side projects, and research interests. There’s a lot of good that comes from my willingness to jump into a lot of different things, but focus is good too. Furthermore constraints are usually one of the driving forces of creativity. Figure out what your goals are, figure out the story you want to tell, no matter how ambitious, and use that focus to do something amazing. Oftentimes, it is not a matter of if you can do something, but will you stay focused and driven enough to do it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would bring it back to the idea about people being left behind by technology. It would be to come up with processes for getting technology into the homes of people that are underprivileged. One thing that worries me, a social issue that keeps me up at night, is the idea that certain people who are perfectly capable to be the next gen of engineers or thought leaders will never get that opportunity because they don’t have access to the technology to explore now to help them become that person in the future. That to me is one of the greatest tragedies.

Technology is an enhancement, it’s not just a person’s brain that leads them to being the next generation of engineers, it’s the technology they get to work with and play with everyday. Working with big businesses and companies to redistribute technology into public school systems, underrepresented communities and into peoples homes will be transformative. I worked for Habitat for Humanity one year and set up computers in people’s homes and did tutorials for them on how to use the internet, Word, etc., and taught them how to get up and running with the computer. Something like that makes sure kids get access to resources for things like homework and starting to build games. Programs like that are instrumental to closing the technology gap.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I suppose at the moment, I have a lot of fond memories concerning VR games where Justin Roiland contributed. There is a chaotic, disorienting, and hilarious energy I feel when playing those games, and I would want to talk to him and some of the principles and thinking he uses to tell a story and how he translated his stellar storytelling abilities from animation into VR. I’m also just a really big fan of cartoons and it’s always exciting when two of my favorite worlds collide. I would love it if more of my favorite creators dabbled in VR!

Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!

Also featured in Thrive Global, read more of Dr. Powell's interview here.