Aashna Mago talks about the first Women in VR event in San Francisco that she helped organize on September 20th, 2015. There were over 200 people who attended the event that featured 13 women luminaries who are working in virtual reality, demos from Bay area start-ups, as well as brainstorming sessions about how to get more women into VR. Aashna talks about what gets her excited about getting more women interested within VR, and adding more diversity to the virtual reality field. Aasha has had an interesting path for getting into virtual reality that’s included teaching herself programming, taking a number of strategic mentorship positions, and studying computer science at Stanford University. She aspires to become a virtual reality engineer, get more involved with education using VR, and continue to evangelize VR to new users.
Check out a video of the first Women in VR event produced by Upload VR.
For more coverage of the first Women in VR meetup, be sure to check out these two articles. “The movement to get more women in VR” by Sophia Dominguez of AllThingsVR and “Virtual Reality is about to get very real for women” by investor Anarghya Vardhana.
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Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio
[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.
[00:00:12.005] Aashna Mago: My name's Ashna Mago. I'm a junior at Stanford studying computer science. I'm also a VR engineer, and I'm working on building a women in VR community, starting in the Bay Area. And we just had our first meetup on Sunday. I'm building a VR community for women, but I'm also building a VR community at Stanford. And in general, I'm just really excited about getting more people involved in VR, figuring out what it is and how it's relevant to what they do. So I'm excited about helping people different industries with skills beyond just development and technical art to help them understand why VR is really important and why they're able to work in it.
[00:00:50.092] Kent Bye: Great, so tell me a bit more about this meetup and what you hope to get out of this women in VR community.
[00:00:56.133] Aashna Mago: Sure, so it was the first event we did and it was the first event I've ever organized and it was really overwhelming to see how many companies and individuals in the community were supportive. So we had sponsorship from probably about 15 companies. We had about 15 companies demoing as well. held in San Francisco and we had over 200 attendees and we had tons of people on the wait list which is really surprising and the way the event was organized was that I wanted it to be an active event rather than just passively trying demos and hearing speakers so instead of having speakers we had 13 female leaders in VR as luminaries and we did a brainstorming activity that was kind of the center of the event so we had post-its on walls with prompts like my mom would buy a headset if, or we should be cautious about VR because, or my industry could use VR for. And then we had these luminaries who came from different industries, had been in VR for varying amounts of time, but they all have different backgrounds and amazing stories, and they facilitated discussions around these prompts, and people could come up with Sharpies and Post-its and write ideas on the wall relating to the prompts, and they would talk to the luminaries, ask them questions about how they got involved in VR, and get advice about their own journeys. So it was really cool to see people get a little bit hands-on, and try demos, and be inspired, and then try to figure out how they could get involved. And the event was majority women, which is the first time I've seen that at a VR meetup, or any tech meetup or conference at all. And it was just a really supportive environment, and people were really excited about getting involved in VR. So it was cool.
[00:02:27.507] Kent Bye: What were some of the big takeaways from some of these brainstorms?
[00:02:31.362] Aashna Mago: I had originally planned for the brainstorm to be about individuals figuring out how they could get involved in VR and why they're not involved in VR yet and I don't think that with the prompts that we had we were able to push that far but it was cool because people would write things on the wall like we could use VR for treating PTSD and people would come up to the wall and be like who wrote that like I want to figure out who wrote that and I think my biggest takeaway from the event is that people really want to VR is just a technology and it's a huge space and the event was about helping people figure out where they fit into it and there are different verticals like education and gaming and health and journalism that all can use VR and there are a lot of different types of people with different skills and those people really want to find each other and it was really powerful to see how like we would point out certain post-its like someone wrote VR is like a really powerful medium and you can make people it's an empathy machine but with great power comes great responsibility and people really that really resonated with a lot of people and so there's certain ideas and areas within VR that resonate with people and people really want to meet other people like them so I think trying to find a way for people to find where are the other people who are really passionate about education in VR and how can I learn from them or where are the other people who want to treat PTSD I think that was one of the biggest takeaways.
[00:03:44.630] Kent Bye: Who are some of the luminaries that you think people should know about that are there and what type of stuff are they working on?
[00:03:50.314] Aashna Mago: Yeah, well, Altspace VR had a pretty great representation. We had Mary Treat from Altspace, we had Amber Roy, we also had Debbie Shepard, and then we had Anargi Verdana, which she was the only, she was also one of the organizers, and she was the only investor, female investor there, so that was really cool for her to be able to give her perspective, and I think she and I and some of the other attendees who've been involved with the River Accelerator were really able to help people who are new to VR to figure out Here are some companies you might want to meet." And people were like, oh, I don't know of any healthcare companies. And for Inargi, it was really easy to be like, I've seen these companies and looked at investing in them. Maureen Phan was there. I was really excited about having some people who didn't necessarily start in VR. So Maureen was originally at Zynga, and now she's working on VR. And so it was really exciting to have people who have a story about how they got involved in VR for the first time and how they learned about it. And I know for Mary from AltSpace as well, she was like, oh, I found out about VR as an accident. And so I know that helps people who aren't already involved in VR figure out how they can get involved.
[00:04:50.474] Kent Bye: And what type of demos were there?
[00:04:53.382] Aashna Mago: So we had a pretty wide variety. We had Jaunt there, which is cinematic VR. River Studios was there. We had Ballula. We had Unimersive. So that was educational demos, which was cool. And then we had zSpace, which was doing, it was kind of an educational and healthcare-related demo. I thought that was really exciting. We really tried to have a wide range so that people could understand that VR is not just about gaming, and that was kind of the focus. AltSpace was there showing off some of their stuff in Gear VR. So yeah, it was just, the companies were all amazing, but it was good to have a really wide range.
[00:05:23.987] Kent Bye: How did you get into VR, and what's been sort of your path towards becoming a VR engineer?
[00:05:28.429] Aashna Mago: Yeah, so I guess it's kind of a long story, but I shared a little bit of it at the event, and I kind of just offhand said I learned about VR about two years ago, and then I taught myself how to code, and now I'm an engineer, and I want other people to see that they can get involved in VR, and people came up to me afterwards, and they were like, we really want to hear your story, like, I'm trying to learn how to code, or like, I don't know how to get involved in VR, and it really resonated with people. But I was really involved in molecular biology research in high school, and my senior year, I was presenting cancer research at an Army-Navy Air Force sponsored competition, and I heard Randall Hill from USC's Institute for Creative Technologies talking about virtual humans and VR. And I was like, wow, for the first time, I was like, I can use technology to help people. I don't have to be working on molecular biology to make a difference in health care. And so I was super inspired. I was just heading off to college. And so I was like, wow, it'd be really cool if I could work in that lab, which was the mixed reality lab at ICT. So I started teaching myself how to code that summer. And then when I went to Stanford, I started taking computer science classes. That summer, I had the opportunity to work in MXR. They were like, what skills do you have that are relevant to us? I was like, I don't know how to do anything except molecular biology and a little bit of coding. And I begged them to let me come down and work for them. in Mark Bolas' lab and he let me come down and I worked with an engineer there, a Thai fan, who actually worked with Palmer Luckey when Palmer worked there. And I just learned a ton about Unity and 3D printing and 3D modeling and just so many skills and it was amazing. And I came back to Stanford super inspired about design and programming and VR and I got involved with the VR lab at Stanford and design on campus and a few months later I learned about the River Accelerator and I was like, this is an amazing opportunity to learn about what companies are in the VR space from different verticals and really get some experience. And so I ended up taking some time off from school to work for them as an engineer. And then we spun out River Studios. And yeah, it's just a series of really great mentors. And I guess not being afraid of my not fitting into places and not having the right skills at the right time, just pushing forward.
[00:07:34.391] Kent Bye: And so what type of experiences do you want to have in virtual reality then?
[00:07:38.679] Aashna Mago: I'm really passionate about education in terms of applications for VR and I'm passionate about education in general and so that's something that I'm really excited about in the future to work on. It's not something I've worked on yet and I'm still trying to figure out the best way to affect change in education but I'm really excited about that. I'm really excited about industrial design and using VR as a tool and I'm really excited about things like Tilt Brush and now with Medium from Oculus, checking those things out. I am also just, I really like hardware, like as an engineer I'm really interested in hardware and I want to make VR accessible and that can mean a lot of different things and like one thing I'm really interested in is hand tracking, positional tracking and making them great and so maybe working on something like that in the future would be cool as well.
[00:08:20.075] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you see as the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:08:28.402] Aashna Mago: That's a big question. I don't know. I think this is my philosophy and I think River and Rothenberg Ventures' philosophy as well. I think VR is going to touch every industry and I have no idea what it's going to look like in the future. I don't know if we're all going to live in headsets or if it's going to be something that we only do when we go home at night, but I know that VR has a place in every industry. I love education. I don't know if we're going to be educated entirely in VR in the future, but I know that there are some applications within education where VR is important. Same thing with healthcare and design and gaming and pretty much everything. I think VR is going to have a huge role in entertainment and gaming. I think it will touch every other industry to some extent, which is really, really exciting.
[00:09:08.710] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?
[00:09:13.733] Aashna Mago: If you're a woman in VR or interested in education, reach out to me, I guess. I don't know.
[00:09:19.340] Kent Bye: OK, great. Well, thank you.
[00:09:21.021] Aashna Mago: Thank you.
[00:09:22.343] Kent Bye: And thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash voices of VR.