Interview by XR Inclusion for the XR Creator Spotlight:
Hey Ylva, welcome to the XR Creator Spotlight, it’s an honor to have you. To kick things off, can you please tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi, I’m Ylva Hansdotter, the founder of XR Impact, a non-profit organization that leverages immersive technologies to help achieve progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. I am an enthusiastic VR-ambassador, but I am still a baby in the VR-industry — I started working with VR first in the spring of 2016 when I was invited to move from Stockholm to San Francisco to work with HTC Vive in the launch of Viveport.
I am now back in Stockholm, where I live together with my two teenage daughters, my husband and a blind and deaf rescue dog that I call “the old man”. If I was an animal, it would definitely be an overenthusiastic puppy, super eager and bouncy (contrary to the mellow nature of “the old man”). I used to try to act more like a sober, cunning cat… but I was never any good at that. I sometimes tried to role-play, pretending I was “Bob, 54 years old, with a need for space (physically and metaphorically)”, that did work :), but it was too exhausting.
Generally, I am a big fan of humans, and I have an almost naive notion that we will “overcome” anything, even if it gets harder and harder to logically defend my stance. OK, let’s dive into the questions!
What inspired your interest in immersive technology?
I have a background in computer science (MSc) and behavioral science (BSc) and have always been fascinated by how technology can impact us, and our way of being human. The first time I tried VR I was hooked! My first experience was “theBlu”, the beautiful underwater experience where you meet a whale. During the experience, I realized just how powerful immersive technology can be. I have done some diving in my past, so I know how my body reacts and feels while actually underwater. In the experience, I felt the same sensations — my breathing changed, my heart rate changed, it was automatic. Even though I knew I was not underwater, my body was so fully tricked into thinking it was, it behaved as if I was in the ocean!
That is when I realized the superpowers of virtual reality and I have been in the industry ever since.
What has your experience been like working in the XR industry?
Great. However, it is still a young industry. The guiding principles and structures are not there yet, and it is hard to find sustainable business models. Many, if not most, XR studios/companies are struggling. As to the guiding principles/structures, we do not have any control or guidelines for development and/or consumption which can have negative consequences for consumers (especially considering the psychological effects that immersive technologies can have). I also think that the industry still focuses too much on entertainment/games, but overall — my experience has been great.
In terms of diversity, it is obviously a very a male dominated industry. I know that many women have been subject to discrimination and some have even experienced sexual harassment. Luckily, I haven’t. At HTC my boss, Rikard Steiber, me and other parts of the management were Swedes. I think this could be part of the reason as Swedes have a very non-hierarchical system. Decisions are usually team decisions, and so are the results. I think this makes us a little more holistic in our thinking, making us ask ourselves how we can optimize from a company perspective instead of from a department or an individual point of view (“grow the pie” vs “grow my piece of the pie”). The Swedish system is of course also far from perfect, but it is one of the most equal and inclusive systems I have ever experienced. In Sweden, most families share parental leave, and I think this is one of the most important policies we enforced; i.e. in a mother-father-baby family, part of the 390 (!!) days of paid parental leave is dedicated to the mother and part is dedicated to the father — and you cannot transfer the days to the other partner. This policy has had a ripple effect on other areas, taking Sweden years ahead of US in terms of gender equality.
To conclude, I would say that the immersive tech industry is like most industries, no better, no worse — and ALL industries would benefit from reviewing their diversity and inclusion practices.
Can you tell us more about what you’re currently working on?
Yes, of course, it is my passion project — “Be Earth”!
I am working on a virtual reality platform focused on helping achieve progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. After leaving HTC Vive, I moved back to Stockholm with my family and I started a nonprofit organization, “XR Impact”. We focus on using immersive technologies to make us all better humans. How hard can it be, right? ;).
XR Impact is what I call a “collaborative” non-profit, meaning that I intend to keep a diverse team of experts, artists, storytellers and researchers to help co-create the platform.
The first experience, created together with the brilliant Boo Augilar and Paulo Gibbs, recently premiered in Davos. It is called “Be Earth #13.” This title draws from the 13th UN goal: climate action. The experience lets you embody Earth and do something about climate change. We were lucky to get funded by The Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) and Facebook and we are now in the process of fundraising to continue to build the platform and add more experiences around the various goals.
Please tell us a bit more about your “Be Earth #13” experience.
Our first experience, Be Earth #13, is, as noted, about climate change. As a user, you embody Earth on a journey from space to the Amazon Rainforest, while witnessing the ongoing deforestation. During the journey, you transform into the various elements — you can see your hands changing and becoming air, water, tree, ash. You can then use these elements to help fight further deforestation. You are accompanied on this journey by Mother Earth who explains the interconnectivity of the world to you. When leaving Earth to return to space, we change the perspective to give an “overview effect”, the cognitive shift in awareness reported by astronauts when seeing Earth from outer space. Earth is small and fragile in the vast Universe. You cannot see any boundaries between countries and our daily problems seem far away. The message is that we are responsible for Earth and we are at the beginning of the mother of all transformations.
Be Earth #13 is targeted towards schools (+13 years old), it will be distributed for free, and we are collaborating with museums both for exhibitions and school road-shows. First exhibition will be at the Technical museum in Stockholm later this spring. We will also share the experience free online, but first we need to optimize it for more devices (it is currently built for Oculus Rift S with Leap Motion for hand tracking).
What inspired you to use XR to communicate information around climate change?
When I joined HTC, I knew I wanted to find a way to use VR to stimulate social change. I soon got an opportunity to start a program that I named “VR for Impact.” It was a multi-year, $10M USD program to support creators who were, or wished to start, creating experiences that had social impact. In just two weeks from initiating the program, I had received 1400 applications! If there was ever any doubt in my mind about the benefits of using VR to stimulate social change, these doubts immediately disappeared! Around this time, I also started to research the neurological and behavioral effects of VR as well, something that eventually led me to the PhD I am currently doing on how positive storytelling in VR can simulate prosocial behavior. Super fascinating!!
The research confirms what most of us VR-ambassadors know; that VR is the most psychologically powerful platform humans have ever created!
Decades of research show that VR can stimulate attitudinal and behavioral change in a way that is unprecedented.
The plan is to use this immersive superpower to stimulate change focused on helping humanity achieve all the UN Global Goals, we just started with SDG #13: Climate Action, because it is most urgent. Everything begins and starts with the Earth. If we fail to understand how delicately interlinked everything is, and how we humans have a responsibility to fix what we are breaking, we will automatically fail with all other goals as well.
How exactly can XR empower people to understand climate change?
Going back to the research, it has been shown that virtual reality can help humans learn faster, learn better, and to retain more of what we’ve learned. There is no doubt that VR is a potent medium when it comes to increasing our understanding, both when it comes to understanding of complex concepts e.g. in a school setting, but maybe more importantly; it is established that we are more likely to help those that are familiar to us, the ones we understand — and research has shown that VR can help us understand those who are different to us. To me, this is the true superpower of VR, it can enhance our cognition, and if used right, it can make us better humans.
It’s also been shown that when we feel immersed in an experience — for example, embodied in VR as someone or something else — we start to associate ourselves with the characteristics of our avatar. There is a lot of interesting research about this topic from professor Jeremy Bailenson and the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford. If we embody Einstein VR, we perform better on real-life problem solving tests. If we are an inventor in VR, we are more creative in real-life brainstorming sessions afterwards. VR can change not only where we are, but actually change WHO we are — and in a way that persists outside of VR.
Our team used all of this incredible knowledge and research when creating Be Earth #13. We believe that the embodiment of the Earth will create a deeper understanding of the world’s interconnectedness, and help communicate that every one of us is part of the Earth itself — increasing the sense of responsibility and accountability of our future. We are all Earth, and we can only exist successfully as part of this system.
How did you embed inclusive design into your project? Can you describe some of the design decisions?
Inclusive design is a core part of my research. My PhD is within Inclusive Design and Creative Technology Innovation at SMARTLab/UCD. My goal has been to be inclusive both in building the team and when designing our experiences. When it comes to the team, I think we need to be diverse, because if we are not, we will not find a story that is worth telling.
When it comes to the design, we carefully made development decisions to remove obstacles and make the experience more accessible. Some examples of inclusive design decisions include:
Our decision to use hand-tracking to navigate, making it easier for most people to intuitively engage in the story. We also extended this tracking to include heads, for those who do not have, or cannot use, their hands. We also made a version of the experience that requires minimal or no interaction, so if you cannot use either your hands or your head, you can still enter into and complete the experience.
We chose to make the experience relative to the height of the player, so that those in a wheelchair can access it and so that whether you are short or tall, the experience will have the same impact.
We also thought through sound, for those users who are deaf or hard of hearing. Our team made the experience workable with or without sound, so that users can get through it and gain meaning from the experience without the narration being absolutely necessary.
What advice do you have for other immersive product designers so they can make their experiences more inclusive?
Involve more people! Both in the design process and in the development and testing of your experience.
After your experience premiered at Davos, did you see any other interesting content at the event?
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to visit any other experiences in Davos, as I was with my team, demoing the entire time. But — I know that there were several gifted artists showing their work! For example Lynette Wallworth, who made Collisions and Awawena. Immersive tech is certainly being noticed in Davos, and I’m very thankful for that!
What was your experience like at Davos? Do you think they could have made the event more inclusive?
When it comes to inclusion, I saw both positive and negative things in Davos. We were generously hosted by an organization called “The Female Quotient, in their “Equality Lounge.” Unfortunately, in this place where equality was to be cherished and celebrated, I heard men walking in saying “I better watch my mouth in here.” That was very disappointing. Even worse, the all-female-CEO-panel, called “Women at the Top,” was introduced by a powerful male executive, who promptly made a sexual joke about “women being on top.” Sadly, it seems that while an effort is being made to be inclusive of women, there is still a long way to go towards true equality and inclusion.
And last but not least, what advice do you have for people looking to enter the XR industry?
“Just do it!” Engage with the brilliant XR community that already exists; there is so much talent out there. Start small. There is a lot of talk about “how things should be done”, how experiences must be of a certain graphical quality to be immersive enough, but honestly, I’ve experienced many powerful effects from relatively rudimentary immersive experiences. You don’t have to be a pro to effect real change with immersive technology; in fact, sometimes, the technically advanced experiences are the ones that engage me the least. So don’t be afraid to jump in, start small, and iterate. You’ll learn. Be sure to include different perspectives and always test, test, test!
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