With the Virtual Reality market growing at an accelerating rate, there are now more than 171 million VR users worldwide. In the digitally growing world we live in, we’ve seen faster internet, a more digitally receptive audience and access to internet. The VR and AR market is expected to grow to $409.2 billion by the end of 2022 alone.
For volume 8 of our Female Voices series, we are joined by female-leader Alina Mikhaleva, who boasts experience in media and technology. Now in her most current position as the CEO of Less Media Group, she shares her experience in trying to bring VR into mainstream use to bring communities together virtually, in the most realistic way possible.
Please begin by telling us about you and how you ended up in the industry?
My name is Alina Mikhaleva. I’ve been working in a virtual reality field for about eight years now. Before that, I had a career path in media and marketing. So, through media, I gradually transitioned to be very interested in different types of technology that allow us to interact in a different way. I’m very excited to be on this journey continuing to discover new ways of communication. I have a small company called Less Media Group and as a team we work on helping to distribute the best narrative to work in virtual reality. And we have a long standing partnership with the Engage XR platform where our team helps to coordinate and organise virtual events for different teams and companies.
I started working in media and news media around 2007-2008. So that was the time when the shift towards YouTube and then different social platforms was happening. All the traditional players in broadcasting were concerned and looking how they can evolve and place themselves in these new platforms. And for me, that gradually transitioned into VR as a completely different technology because the main difference that I can summarise, because of my eight years of exploration, is that virtual reality headset gives you a deeper sense of presence that is harder to achieve with other types of media.
For this industry, of course, the pandemic has become a huge accelerator because in March 2020, all of us realised that this is the turning point. Zoom and Microsoft Teams and all the flat forms of communication, they have their own limitations but they give us the freedom to connect from different parts of the world from our homes. But at the same time, they’re not giving us the sense of being united, being present with other people in one space, being together. And this is something that we’re missing. And this is exactly the part that virtual reality technology can provide if done correctly.
Can you tell us what it is about VR that inspires you and how do you envision the future of the VR industry?
My background in the news industry taught me a lot. I understood that we’re so overwhelmed with information, and that traditional patterns of overloading people with more content isn’t going to work. It’s creating more distraction and it’s more stressful for people in a way. Then when I first saw 360 video and then tried a headset, my thought was that that’s the next medium we need in a world where we struggle to trust people and absorb mass information. Where we lack a connection in flat forms of communication, we don’t understand who’s right and who’s wrong, the only judgment that we can make is if we are there. And if I’m there; if I can really be present somewhere and see with my own eyes, that’s the moment that makes much more impact for me.
Out of all the mediums it is the one that is giving you the sense of presence and also the sense of having your body. So, if we are comparing that to the Internet right now, I can consume information in on the Internet, I can talk to other people, but mostly for my body, it’s a passive experience. Whereas in VR from the user experience requires your body to be present and is more involved. I think that we really need to start thinking about the next iteration of the Internet from the body’s perspective, and what experiences we have there. Do we go dancing? do we go exploring? Do we go and create a joint experience of the meditation? These are all the questions that a lot of people are thinking about for the next social iteration of virtual reality. And I’m very happy that at least partially, I’m part of this movement trying to find new formats for people to connect digitally in meaningful ways.
When I hear the term Virtual Reality the first thing that comes to mind is that it has something to do with entertainment and games. Do you think that we will encounter the same stereotypical depiction of the ‘feminine woman’ that we once saw in non-VR game dev for example?
One of the things that I enjoyed the most from the transition in my career path from traditional media to this new media format was when I moved to Los Angeles, where it was the centre of the industry. It was great to see that this new industry was tackling the presence of women in the industry and taking this question seriously from the very beginning. It’s a very small community of excited professionals that that are passionate about this medium. Most of us really know each other. And I can confirm that through the years, I see continuous effort to bring more women into the technology. And to be honest, we do have quite a lot of women who are becoming leading directors in in kind of creating exciting experiences.
The depiction of women is interesting in VR. For instance, if you go to community chat where a lot of avatars are animated avatars, they can be very sexualised and stereotypical. But a lot of those avatars are created by the communities. So once again, maybe we need to not only look at the studios that create this imagery but also educating our users. This will help to stop the pattern of repeating similar designs and start creating new avatars and ideas. That way we begin to break the cycle that we always see of people are replicating something that they’re used to, including the vision of women or female characters.
VR is like next level of experience in these digital environments. And it’s also becoming much more gender fluid because if I want to explore different genders, different personalities, I can be a hot dog, I can be a mushroom, I can be anyone there. It’s very often that we see male/men choosing female avatars and exploring their virtual personalities as a different story or vice versa. So, I think that we don’t understand exactly how this is going to evolve because it all relies so deeply on our own representation in those virtual environments. Who do we become when we can be anyone? And this anyone can be gender fluid or non-gender and that’s kind of a new story in our understanding of the perception of each other.
With the emergence of more metaverses and alternative realities, what advice would you give to young women, who are interested in pursuing a career in them?
My main learning is that this space and just the technology space in general is changing so quickly. So when learning, don’t try to learn one thing and stop there. Just learn to learn constantly and evolve constantly, even from the production perspective. The tools that were used in virtual reality, for example, eight years ago are completely different from what is available today.
So that’s why this industry can only grow when more people come into it, who would be interested to create experiences for other people and guide them through those experiences. But remember not all of these jobs require any hard skills and coding. Of course, it’s beneficial if you can do that as well but be prepared that even from the kind of the content creation perspective, the tools that you are using today might not be the tools that you will use in two years. The space is evolving so quickly, we are truly in still in the very beginning, the hardware will be evolving at least for the next ten years.
Just like fintech, the VR industry seems to be a predominantly male dominated environment. Why do you think there aren’t as many women in technology and specifically VR?
The VR industry is hard to take it out from the broader tech narrative from my perspective. For many companies and individuals, they instantly think of Facebook/Meta as leading the way, but people are still confused because we don’t fully understand what it is, especially as the Metaverse doesn’t exist yet. But VR is the future of digital communication in virtual spaces. A lot of tech companies has proclaimed that this new technology is their future, and those companies are male dominated. So as those tech companies gradually transition to the VR world, the hierarchy and balance of male vs. female transitions as well.
However, I’m working with a lot of independent, smaller companies. There are numerous teams that are led by women, especially because I think women are very passionate about content, creating meaningful experiences and storytelling in general. And I’ve seen very powerful stories led by female experiences in this space, and hopefully it continues.
As a senior team member, what advice can you offer to other senior team members to create an open environment which promotes female inclusion?
I think that most of the organisations that we work with, they understand that the more representation they have makes them more successful. Because I think that it is becoming a known statement that your company would benefit if it had more voices represented because at the end, you want to target the wider market of everyone and be inclusive. And if your company wants to be successful, you want to tailor to different audiences and not only to the male audience. You need to understand from the psychological, business and consumer perspective who your different audiences are thinking and how to be successful with them as well.
So, my advice would be just to give it a try and give responsibility to some female colleagues that you have. From my experience, because I came and started my career in a female led organisation, it was always a very natural thing in a way and doesn’t mean a business is less effective.
Was there a time when you felt that your gender made your career harder to pursue? How did you overcome that challenge?
In the beginning of my career, I was lucky because I was working with female leaders. And it was kind of logical and natural for me that gender is not the most important thing. But I was lucky to work in this specific organisation, and later learnt that it isn’t the same in every other company. The technology sector is one of the sectors which is still quite dominated by male voices. I think that I was lucky to be already in the position of my career where I’m not shying away from that dynamic, and I don’t really care whether I’m expected to be speaking or not. And it’s that mindset which helped me.
There are so many other things that are important in this field – funding to build a team, creating an internal culture and working as a team for that product. I think that it’s long overdue that we just overcome those gender questions and start working more respectively towards us as human beings with our own struggles, with our own interests.
Even though VR has been around for some time now, I am sure there are still people who aren’t familiar with it. What would you recommend newbies look into to learn more and what new VR projects, that you saw recently, blew your mind?
The main challenges in Virtual Reality is distribution and discovery: where to start, where to go, what to do, what to find. So, first of all, there are quite a lot of locations that are offering experiences of virtual reality content. Look out for museums because from my perspective, art in VR projects can allow you to feel the importance of this technology as a medium, not only for entertainment and gaming, but also for deeply connecting with the story.
Don’t just go into your VR chat communities, but maybe find some spaces or virtual events that you would be interested in. And you can check out Engage, the platform that we work with. It has some public facing events where you can join a meditation or a different language class because it’s more of an educational platform. But please be careful to find a dedicated community where you know that you’re coming to the event, and you would meet real people and that you would be able to engage with.
With great potential comes risk and dangerous. We always need to remember that there are a lot of ethical questions that the industry needs to battle. In a way, I’m happy that it’s not becoming mainstream right now and too quickly because we still don’t have a full understanding of our virtual interactions and how to make them safe and secure.