19 Mar 2020 | Emily Friedman
Women Making History: Meet Parul Wadhwa, VR/AR Storyteller
Women in AR/VR

Women Making History: Meet Parul Wadhwa, VR/AR Storyteller 

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?

Parul: I am an immersive storyteller. I grew up in India before migrating to South Korea where I discovered my love for entertainment technology, followed by successful stints in London and New York. My path took me to Silicon Valley, where I'm currently based making immersive experiences. This hydridity of identity, belonging and othering has had a deep impact on my career, critical thinking and narrative vision. I'm interested in depicting the production of "identity," yet more than rote discussions of race, gender and place; identity - if understood in terms of social significance - is intimately tied to ideas of belonging and social legibility. It's this conundrum of absent, spectral or liminal presence specific to the latter that animates most of my work within the metaphors of migration. 

My first enounter with AR/VR was back in 2014, when I was finishing up an artist-residency in NYC. I was doing an interactive art project and stumbled upon an AR app for making art come alive. Soon after, I decided to formally educate myself and learn the complex art of narrative techniques for AR/VR, and was awarded an MFA from the New Media Program at UC Santa Cruz. I created my first VR experience on the Partition of India, dealing with issues of inter-generational memory and trauma. At the same time, I also launched an immersive media storytelling app specifically designed for non-profits using principles of design justice. My current work is a participatory VR piece about exploring memories of home and belonging with immigrant women under the aegis of StoryCenter, an organization in the Bay Area. More about me here: https://www.parulwadhwa.com

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

Parul: It's quite exciting and challenging, because AR/VR is such an unpredictable industry right now. This futuristic industry puts me in the company of mostly badass women, 'roughing' it and contributing a variety of voices and narratives that I absolutely love. 

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

Parul: I think the biggest challenge is fundraising and distribution. Investors seem more confident in our male counterparts' ability to deal with money. Although this is true of most industries, in AR/VR it's more so because of the inaccessibility of expensive resources to women creators. 

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

Parul: Of course! I read a post just recently about how British Mayor Sadiq Khan called for misogyny to be treated as a hate crime. I agree! It's easy for women to be bypassed because of our gender and consequently our opportunities are more sparse, especially in technology. I grew up in India and navigating a space like art and technology has had its own cultural adages that I had to resist and that, in turn, made me resilient to the fact that I am 2% of the population in Silicon Valley. 

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

Parul: It's an interesting question! There are a lot of good experiences out there, which have been extensively researched in terms of the user-experience for women and companies are increasingly mindful of designing for a diverse audience and being inclusive of women. Nevertheless, a lot of AR/VR content consists of games meant for more testosterone-driven audiences, leaving women behind

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

Parul: Definitely. As I said, I think there's a dearth of content for women and non-binary folks. I would love to see content that speaks about our varied experiences in the form of narrative, serious games or educational apps. Bring it on!

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

Parul: Don't be afraid to be authentic. Be true to your vision and intent. Be prepared for hurdles. Look for allies and sisters. Build a community and most importantly, keep moving despite all failures because you have the onus to pave the path for other women after you.

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

Parul: Listen! Don't shun our ideas. Respect womens' voices and do as much as you can to pave the path for women on your team. Be sensitive to your feminine side. Be open to difference, become an ally and, if you are more experienced, offer sincere advice. 

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

Parul: I think there's a glass ceiling when it comes to women in AR/VR and the most critical issue to address is making women a part of the larger conversations about moving these technologies forward. Women have to come and join the industry in scores as engineers, artists, developers, designers, researchers and scientists and make recognized contributions to see a ripple effect take shape. 

Parul Wadhwa is an immersive storyteller. As an XR director, her artwork includes immersive and interactive narratives, virtual and augmented reality experiences and serious games. She is committed to the use of new technologies (AR/VR/XR) for social impact. She advocates for diversity in XR as a Different Games Collective Ambassador. Currently, she is an Adobe Creative Insider Ambassador, Oculus Start Developer and recently an Oculus Launchpad fellow (2018-2019). Previously, she has worked in the entertainment indstry in the United Kingdom, South Korea, and India. She holds an MFA in Digital Arts and New Media from University of California. Her research in new-media storytelling has been felicitated at the Capitol Hill, Sacramento. She is an Interactive Fellow Alumna of the prestigious Tribeca Film Institute and also a European Social Documentary Alumna, Italy. She is currently based in Silicon Valley, California. Website: https://www,parulwadhwa.com 

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