9 Mar 2020 | Emily Friedman
Women Making History: Meet Deepa Mann-Kler, Neon
Women in AR/VR

Women Making History: Meet Deepa Mann-Kler, CEO, Neon & Visiting Professor in Immersive Futures, Ulster University Northern Ireland 

Sorry, boys; the women of augmented and virtual reality are 'killing it.' Nevertheless, the immersive technology industry has a ways to go towards gender equality. As in the technology industry as a whole, women in XR typically receive less VC funding and occupy fewer leadership and technical positions compared to men. So, for Women's History Month 2020, we're interviewing real women who challenge the idea that the AR/VR industry lacks visible female role models. Enjoy!

1. To begin, could you provide us with a little background on yourself and your career? What does your job entail and what was your very first encounter with AR/VR?

Deepa: I am CEO of Neon, an immersive health and wellbeing company, Visiting Professor in Immersive Futures with Ulster University in Northern Ireland, and an Artist. These three roles are complimentary and work well together. 

Neon was founded in December 2016 and is largely R&D although we have brought a couple of products to market: RETNE and BreatheVR. RETNE is available on Steam and Viveport and was my first experience creating, producing and directing VR, which we premiered at SXSW 2017. BreatheVR is an app for Gear VR and Oculus Go that uses breath and visual rewards to help the user reach a relaxed state of deep breathing. The benefits of deep breathing and meditation have long been recognized. Recent studies using VR evidence further benefits. BreatheVR combines the power of VR and deep breathing to create a uniquely relaxing immersive experience for the user. 

Our latest R&D project is Talking Sense, which is an AR conversation training tool using artificial intelligence with the aim of supporting parents of children with autism, helping them better understand their children plus coping strategies and appropriate interventions. By using dynamic machine learning processes with an integrated dialogue engine, the parent can have a conversation in real time with an AR character. This character represents their child so the parent can practice real-life scenarios and strategies for supporting and understanding their child. 

My first experience with VR was Bjork's Vulnicura album in Reykjavik in November 2016. I had been feeling unwell that day but all of that changed the minute I put on a headset and found myself dancing with Bjork. I returned to Belfast and by December 2016 had established Neon. * Read more about Neon below. 

2. What is it like as a woman working in AR/VR?

Deepa: That's tricky to answer. I am an Indian British European woman who grew up in India and England, has lived in Denmark, Holland, France and Belgium, and refuses to be defined by anyone's perceptions. Having said that, I think there are broader institutional equity issues in the tech sector in general that intersect gender, race and age but are certainly not limited to those areas. These issues are equally applicable to AR/VR. 

I think it's interesting that the focus is always on how we can get young women into the tech industry, as if the problem is with young women themselves. To be honest, many tech companies should be focusing on retaining the women they already have in their workforce. The industry needs to recognize the role policies and culture play in inequality. By implementing more open recruitment strategies, with specific and measurable performance evaluation criteria, and having transparent procedures for pay, bonuses, promotions and project allocation, this will help start to address some of the systemic barriers. The tech industry also needs more women in leadership positions. When young women see other women in these roles, they'll find it easier to imagine themselves in those positions. It's not rocket science and like Marian Wright Edelman said, "you can't be what you can't see." We need to start thinking seriously about implementing quotas. Quotas aren't anathema to meritocracy; fascinating research out of Sweden finds that quotas actually increase competency by displacing mediocre men. Once again, we need to shift the burden of the argument "from the under-representation of women to the unjustifiable over-representation of men."

3. What challenges do you face that your male colleagues and peers don't?

Deepa: Again, difficult to answer. It would be interesting to pose the queestion "What's it like to be a man in AR/VR?" How often is that question asked? I guess almost never, and what does that tell us?

4. Have you ever felt judged or overlooked because of your gender?

Deepa: Honestly, I don't know. There have been some decisions where the outcome confused me, but you never really know the thinking process behind reaching those decisions, do you? My approach is to take every experience as a learning opportunity

5. What about the user experience for women; how do today's XR devices fit and perform for women?

Deepa: I haven't had any challenges with XR devices to date. Any product design process has to be inclusive and test the widest range of needs. The business case for diversity and inclusion is overwhelming. We know that profit margins at the most diverse companies are 14% higher (McKinsey 2012). The relationship between diversity and inclusion and innovation is fascinating, where companies with more diverse management teams have a 19% higher revenue due to increased innovation (Boston Consulting Group 2018). For me, it's very simple; diversity in thinking, experience and background are strategic competitive advantages to drive innovation and by getting this right tech companies will build the next generation of meaningful digital experiences, services and products. It also means that tech companies will be more likely to meet the needs of all their customers, and to generate ideas and qualify concepts to fill the innovation growth pipeline more efficiently.   

6. What is your advice to women who want to break into AR/VR?

Deepa: If I were a woman in AR/VR or the tech industry in general looking for new employment opportunities, I would do my due diligence. Look at the company structure and pay close attention to the composition (gender, race, age, etc.) of their board, executive suite and senior management teams. Read Glassdoor reviews. Read the company's gender pay gap reports, its equality, diversity and inclusion policies, and see what commitments are made on the company website. I would reach out to women currently working at the company to hear their first-hand experiences. We're in a market of high demand for these skillsets; you have a choice. 

7. What would you like to say to men in the space? What should they be doing to help women in tech?

Deepa: I have had so many kind and well-intentioned men and women mentor me throughout my career. We need to work together if we're ever going to achieve full equality.

8. What is the most critical issue for women in AR/VR in the next decade?

Deepa: My concerns are largely to do with tech in general. We don't know what we don't know. With the current exploitation of data, facial recognition tech, machine learning and artificial intelligence, we should really be informing our young people and each other about the complexity and impact of these technologies. Society is being redesigned as we speak. We haven't future-proofed our tech, nor have we thought through the intended and unintended consequences of everything that is happening currently. We are designing a society that will benefit powerful corporations and I think we will be/are pawns in that. I want people to question what is happening and I try to do it in my own way through the talks that I give. I am not alone. We're part of a growing community that wants to change this narrative. We have to take responsibility for our own learning. 

Deepa is an award-winning visual artist, author, CEO of Neon (a health technology company), Visiting Professor in Immersive Futures with Ulster University Northern Ireland, and serves as a non-executive director across the UK. As a thought leader and TEDx speaker, she keynotes at conferences on the intersection of creativity, technology, innovation, diversity, ethics, bias, culture, data, health and wellbeing through compelling storytelling. As an artist, she has a strong focus on public art neon installations, notably Lumiere Durham 2019; London 2017 and 2013 in Derry/Londonderry UK City of Culture. Deepa authored the first report on race discrimination in Northern Ireland titled "Out of the Shadows." Deepa is invited to speak at technology conferences and by multinational corporations to develop leadership future trends and tech capabilities. www.discoverneon.com | www.deepamannkler.com | @deepamann_kler | TEDx "Being Human"

*Neon has a clear vision to create software applications in virtual, augmented and mixed realities to give people choice. Our values are to develop products that meet consumers' needs and are designed in response to and alongside these needs.
We believe successful technology teaches people skills they can use in real life and enables them to feel human. Technology is enabling consumers to choose how, when and where they use products and this is disrupting old modes of interaction and formats. Neon works alongside the world's best designers and developers to bring VR, AR and MR apps to market from concept design, build, consumer testing, data gathering and launch. Neon, however, isn't just defined by the products we make but by the customer benefits we provide and the lives we improve. Our successes are RETNE Online Platform Steam and Viveport 30k global downloads; Festivals & Arcades Nevada Film Festival VR Pavilion 2017; CtrlV VR Arcade Canada; Viral Arcade Canada; Award RTS Finalist Interactive Content 2017; Women in Tech Finalist 2018; Pitch at Palace Finalist 2018; Talking Sense shortlisted for Digital DNA 2020 awards. 

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