13 Mar 2020 | Emily Friedman
Women Making History: Meet Joanne-Aska Popinska, Tribe of Pan
Women in AR/VR

Women Making History: Meet Joanne-Aśka Popińska, VR Director & Producer, Tribe of Pan

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?

Joanne: I am a PhD candidate at Polish National Film School. My thesis was originally about directing in 3D but, having shifted towards the VR medium, it's now about using VR as a storytelling tool.

My background is in 3D film and I used to work in the camera department and in post (colour-grading, vfx). Currently, I am the co-founder of a VR startup Tribe of Pan. We've developed our own volumetric capture process combining stereoscopy and depth and the system is mobile, so unlike large volumetric stages, we can travel and film anywhere.

I'm also working on several VR documentary projects: One is about reproductive rights, The Choice VR, and another is about climate change - Embers of Borneo. 

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

Joanne: I think I have a very specific take on that, as I've been working on a very women-oriented project, a documentary about reproductive rights. I know people working on VR documentaries are having a hard time. Since the medium is still so new, there is no established distributtion model, so it's hard to find financing. I've heard my own share of ridiculous comments about my choice of subject itself: People keep asking me, for example, why I'm 'wasting' such cool VR technology on 'women's stuff.' I never know how to react; should I laugh or be offended? I usually laugh. I mean, I am a woman and for someone to tell me that working on women's issues is a waste...I hope I stop hearing such questions with my other projects. 

On the other hand, I find the medium pretty demanding, but I'm not sure I can connect that to my gender. It's more that being a documentary filmmaker working in VR has its toll, and I see this with my male friends doing similar work, as well.

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

Joanne: Some men in the industry assume I know 'nothing' and jump in with 'helpful' (basic) explanations, which is better than pretending I don't exist, I guess, because at least I can prove them wrong. I was recently preparing a presentation about my project for a non-tech conference and looking for ways to explain 3dof and 6dof to my audience. I was searching for some gif or video I might show to help people understand. I asked a VR group where I could find some good examples, explaining the situation. Not only were guys jumping in explaining what 3dof and 6dof means to me (clearly they hadn't read the post properly and were trying to be helful) but some guy began giving me examples as if I were a child: "Imagine you are sitting on a train. The train moves slowly from a station..." Three paragraphs of this! I don't think guys treat other guys in a VR group as half-brained as that.

There was another situation in which a guy offered me no money to start a compnay with him based on my work. One male 'offered' himself 50%, offered my partner another 50% and for me, as the director, nothing. This was to be a company founded on my project, to show our abilities and start working with other clients. I'm not even sure what that guy's job would have been other than having his 'name on the wall.'

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

Joanne: Yes, and even by women, which is probably more upsetting. I remember meeting with a female producer. Tribe of Pan is a company I founded with a male partner. We do everything together and share a lot of duties between us. We go to meetings together as partners, as equals, but one of us ends up taking the lead (naturally) depending on how the situation unfolds. In this specific meeting that I had set up, we talked a little about my documentary and then the female producer said, "Okay, Joanne, that's it with you; now I'll talk with Tom about Tribe of Pan." I wish I had more positive stories, but it feels the mindset just isn't there, even among some women!

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

Joanne: I have no opinion really other than it can be annoying to use VR with makeup--it leaves marks on the headset! I wish the headsets were easier to clean, but the same can be said for facial sweat. It's not pleasant to take a headset from someone who just played Beat Saber for two hours. The same goes with hair--yes, it's much harder to put on a headset, especially if I'm wearing a ponytail or have done anything with my hair. If the straps had some clip, perhaps, it would be easier.

6. Do you feel there's a lack of content for women AR/VR users? What would you like to see?

Joanne: I would say there's a lack of content that isn't games or education. I'm a documentarian and it's very, very hard to produce a VR documentary. I'm not sure there's a gender connection to the type of content. Instead, I'd say VR is a great tool not just for fun and education, though it's still overlooked outside those arenas. 

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

Joanne: Figure out what's interesting to you in this field, what you want to do, and then find people who will do it with you. It's much easier to work with someone who is trying to achieve similar goals but has slightly different skills, so you can help each other

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

Joanne: We are all people. Don't treat us better or worse because we're women. Let's just remove the gender aspect, talk and work together as humans. 

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

Joanne: The most critical is to be perceived as fellow subject matter experts, fellow creators, and partners. This requires a change in society that should have happened ages ago: A society made of humans who are all very different and from those differences comes value. When all of society understands and acts on this, we'll be in a more 'normal' world for VR and other fields.

Joanne-Aśka Popińska is a documentarian working on an innovative VR documentary about reproductive rights, The Choice, and a co-founder of Tribe of Pan - a company that invented a pioneering volumetric capture system, combining depth and stereoscopy, resulting in incredibly realistic volumetric video of a human. 

The Choice is an immersive VR experience allowing you, the viewer, to meet real women who share their personal stories about their choice to have an abortion. The experience establishes an immediate, personal and powerful connection. This approach leads to a deeper understanding of the issue as well as creating a stronger sense of empathy towards women and their stories. The team is currently working on an interactive demo, presenting some interviews and interactive dialogues with the subjects. Read more here: https://www.thechoice-vr.com/

As Tribe of Pan, Joanne and her partner Tom C. Hall have developed a pioneering stereoscopic volumetric camera system for capturing people for use in AR & VR applications. They combined the strengths of 3D cinematography and depth camera, and as a result, this system can produce an incredibly vibrant and live-like video that expresses a spirit and sense of humanity that even the most sophisticated photogrammetry based solutions cannot capture. Unlike the big volumetric stages, the system is mobile, easy to travel with and set up even in small spaces. Read more here: https://www.tribeofpan.com/stereoscopic-volumetric-studio/ 

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