Monday Musings: How I got into VR

Augmented Reality ,Blog Posts ,Random Musings ,Virtual Reality
November 30, 2015

Welcome to Monday Musings! These are are shorter-form, note-like blog posts that I share that may or may not be related to VR/AR, but that I want to share some quick thoughts on, get some extra insight on, or share out quickly.

I was inspired to write this for a few reasons, but the most prominent was the inspiration that I got from reading Helen Situ’s article on Medium sharing her own story: Why I Uprooted my Life for Virtual Reality. When I talk about virtual and augmented reality, it’s almost always one of the first questions that I get asked, and while I think I’ve mentioned it in a few posts here before, I figured that I’d share my story in its own post as this week’s Monday Musings topic!

Just as a heads up: there’s a lot of rambling about my experience getting into the tech industry in general before the VR part comes, so here’s Jedi-Livi to tide you over until then:

My first-ever experience with the Oculus Rift at SVVR last year

My first-ever experience with the Oculus Rift at SVVR last year

My Story

I started coding back in 2006 as a sophomore in high school taking ‘Computer Math’, the prerequisite coding course for AP Computer Science. I had spent most of my childhood obsessed with computers, teaching myself Photoshop and web development (I ran a particularly embarrassing Star Wars fan blog and convinced several friends of mine to collaborate on a teen girl quiz site with me), bargained with my parents for a laptop in exchange for good grades – the idea of a programming class just made sense for me. I happened to participate in a pilot program that had me getting to school early to take English before the official start of the day, so I had room in my schedule for an extra class – and thus my complex love-hate relationship with programming began at the age of 15.

At the time, I didn’t notice the patterns I see now – I loved the parts of the class where we would use Java’s graphics libraries to draw scenes, and felt no greater sense of accomplishment (maybe even to this day) when I finished my first-ever game, a Star Wars themed ‘brick break’ application.  I moved into AP Computer Science the following year, and while I did great on the exams, I met my first obstacle: a teacher who subscribed to the “CS isn’t for girls” mentality. I finished the class knowing that I’d be a computer science major in college, but the seed of doubt was there.

In college, I jumped immediately into the CS courses and struggled through algorithms courses. I wasn’t motivated to build another sorting program year after year, and although I look back on my formal language and systems-level classes fondly, during school, I found myself drawn to the design and management courses more than any of the coding ones. I declared myself a “CS major who hates programming” and filled my electives with theory over practical courses.

Okay, I know – still no VR yet. Here’s a cat photo to make up for it:

I force my cat to wear VR headsets. He deals with it.

I force my cat to wear VR headsets. He deals with it.

My senior year, I started to see the trends in the courses I loved. I had a wonderful professor who let me learn Windows 8 development as an independent study project, where I learned how to write tutorials and experiment with new platforms. I took an amazing class on Ethics in Gaming and Virtual Environments, which set the foundation for a lot of my interest in how VR and AR are both perceived and used by the general public, and how gender issues tie into the technology industry. I started coding for fun again, but when I landed at Microsoft Silicon Valley as a program manager, I thought that I was happy to leave the developer days behind me.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. Maybe it’s the nature of Silicon Valley, maybe it’s just the fact that 7 years of development experience didn’t want to go away, maybe it’s that I finally saw The Matrix – I found myself envious of the passion that was surrounding me in the startup founders I met. The Thiel fellowship, the YC events – I knew that, while I had a job that I really enjoyed, I was missing the fire that so many people seemed to have.

I started on a personal task to find that fire, and dove into a number of new side projects: iOS and Android development, graphic design, web development – but none of them stuck. I was growing my skills technically, but still hadn’t found anything that I felt inspired by. I couldn’t see myself ever feeling the way it felt like everyone around me did.

One night, browsing through YouTube, I came across PixelWhipt’s channel and watched the first two episodes of VirtuAlly, a show about the VR industry and how it was growing rapidly. I watched in fascination as Ally talked about Oculus and interviewed people in the industry. I felt that burning sensation that I had been waiting for. The room seemed brighter – fueled by something bigger. I call this my “literal lightbulb moment” – the exact place in time where I realized that I had found what I wanted to spend my life working on.

I immediately went and ordered a Google Cardboard. I found Silicon Valley Virtual Reality on Meetup and went to my first event. I tried the DK 2 for the first time and immediately ordered my own when I got home. I downloaded Unity and started teaching myself how to use it. At first, I made spinning cubes. As I learned the tools, I was also diving deeper into understanding more and more about the industry at large.

In a project that ended up falling through, I started writing everything that I did with Unity and virtual reality development in a tutorial for a friend’s developer resource site – but I wasn’t discouraged, and published the walkthrough anyway. In all of my free time, I was pushing my laptop to its limit with VR demos and development environments. I wouldn’t shut up about my love for VR, so I turned to the internet.

While at an SVVR meetup, I heard how Samsung’s Developer Conference had a VR track, so I did what any normal person would do: took off 3 days of work to go to an event that I had no idea about. I attended all of the sessions on virtual reality and GearVR, and met other enthusiasts about VR. I loved everything about that week, and the momentum fueled me to keep writing about my experience.

Finding your purpose in the industry can be challenging - my advice? Constantly push your comfort zone!

Finding your purpose in the industry can be challenging – my advice? Constantly push your comfort zone!

Several weeks after SDC, the developer experience team at Microsoft offered me a position as the virtual and augmented reality developer evangelist in Northern California, and I officially joined the team in February of this year. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of immersive delight – if you had told me a year ago that I’d be where I am now, I would have laughed in your face and then maybe cried a little bit. In the VR industry, I’ve found an amazing blend of life changing technology, wonderful, passionate people, and the power to work on something that I truly see impacting the world in an incredibly positive way.

When I tell this stories at events, I do so from the perspective of someone who felt incredibly lost. I had heard about impostor syndrome but I never really realized what it meant until I moved to the Bay Area and was surrounded by some of the most motivated and passionate people I had ever met. And even though it was overwhelming at times, and I felt like I was faking my way through my career, I didn’t stop looking until I found something I knew would help fuel that drive I was looking for.

My Advice

As much as I enjoyed writing this post, my motivation is simple: I want to get more people, especially those who feel like they don’t have a place, into VR. But it’s even more broad than that: I know what it feels like to not know where life is taking you, and I want to help others find out how to have their own “literal lightbulb” moments.

1. Try Everything

There’s a neat little graphic I’ve seen floating around that describes purpose: it’s the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid to do. Finding the specifics, though, can be really challenging. Narrowing down things you love into actionable pieces can be incredibly hard.

purpose

I didn’t immediately know that I wanted to be part of the VR industry. The building blocks were there, but this time a year and a half ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that I wanted to work in virtual reality. I didn’t even realize, at the time, that it was an option – the industry is massive, and there are so many combinations of roles and technologies to work on. Like I mentioned above: I spent eight solid weeks teaching myself web development and building websites before I finally admitted that being a web developer just wasn’t what I was passionate about. I bought graphic design software and learned the basics of color theory and visual design before I realized that I needed to be able to code, too. I paid an exorbitant amount of money on a MacBook Pro thinking that iOS development was going to be my new calling and spent several months figuring out the basics of Xcode and Objective C before discovering that 3D development was the perfect hybrid of creative coding I was looking for. It wasn’t something I found out over night, but each step of the process refined what I was looking to do. Try everything – the worst that happens is you develop a skill set, reinforce how you learn about things, and discover more about yourself.

2. Be open to being a complete n00b

I honestly don’t know if I’d be where I am today if I hadn’t met so many other developers at SDC who were just starting on their own journey into the industry. Not having ever built anything for virtual reality wasn’t an immediate write-off: so many people were just getting started themselves that embracing n00b status wasn’t something to be afraid of. Sharing learnings, trial, and error is just built into an industry that is finally starting to realize the potential and promise from the last several decades. It wasn’t until I finally embraced being truly and completely new to a technology that I was able to allow myself to start working on something new. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t ever written a 3D game before – everyone that I’ve met in the industry has welcomed new people in with open arms, and provided a safe place to learn. If you are finding yourself truly passionate about a field, don’t let a lack of experience keep you out.

3. You don’t have to be the best, just be your Best

Okay, so that line is cheesy as hell, but I stand behind it. I am not ever going to be John Carmack level of greatness from a developer perspective. I may never release a hit game for VR, and I’m okay with that. In any given skill or task, there will always be someone better than you – especially because we’ve just established that we’re okay with being n00bs, remember? Don’t let your own beginner status keep you from being your best. My apps are buggy and I haven’t gotten optimization down yet to hit 120fps – but you know what? I’m still going to get feedback on them and share what I’m learning. That’s how industries grow. In a paraphrase of Tim Ferriss: You’re an expert when you call yourself an expert, and you know more than the people you’re talking to. You don’t have to be the best, you just have to know that you’re being your own best.

4. Be honest With Yourself and with the people around you

I didn’t realize how often I lied to myself until I started being more honest with myself. Deciding to find something you are truly passionate about isn’t something you can do if you’re lying about what you like. If you know you’re also looking for that fire to fuel you and your own purpose, but tell yourself that there’s nothing you can do about it, that’s okay – but it’s probably a lie. You have to be introspective and honest. I knew after 9 straight weeks of web development that I could probably convince myself it was a good skill set and start working on it full time, but I also knew that it wasn’t really what I had hoped to find when I set out on my adventure. Being honest was what propelled me to keep looking.

I also had this problem (I blame the impostor syndrome!) where I felt the need to try and convince everyone I met that I was more of an expert than I actually felt like I was. If I was talking to other web developers, I played up that part of my experience. I felt like I would be considered a fraud if I told everyone up front that I was just starting out with Unity development (again: embrace your inner n00b!) and considered myself a VR developer – but keeping up the pretense of knowing more than I did was exhausting, stressful, and unproductive. Being able to say “You know what, I’m super pumped about VR but I’ve only just started out learning Unity” was actually an immense relief, and I learned so much more from people. Aside from my two months of web development, my JavaScript experience is limited to what I’ve done with WebGL and WebVR with Three.JS. Preparing to speak at my first JavaScript developer conference made me feel like a huge fraud until I realized that what I brought to the table wasn’t inexperience – it was just a different set of experiences. I didn’t go into that talk pretending to be someone who had done JS development for years: right off the bat, I set the stage and my natural enthusiasm poured out. If you are honest about what you know and don’t know, you are setting a great stage for sharing information and knowledge.

Final Thoughts

I didn’t really know when I decided to write this how it would turn out. Long, apparently. If you’ve made it this far, you get a virtual cake. GLaDOS is bringing it to you. I wanted to end with a cute picture or something, but I already pimped out MosbyVR above, so you get a goofy picture of me with my Wearality lenses instead:

Great selfie, or greatest selfie?

Great selfie, or greatest selfie?

Instead of writing up another five hundred word conclusion, I’m going to end with this: if you are interested in learning more about VR or AR, want to develop something but don’t know where to start, or just want to grab coffee and chat – if you want a mentor in virtual or augmented reality or someone to talk through your own career options – shoot me an email. Ping me on Twitter. I will help!

<3

-L

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