Kickass women of VR interview 4: Sarah Jones, spherical video journalist

"VR is getting ready to explode, so you have to jump on board"

It’s part four of our Kickass Woman in VR interview series! Here’s part one, part two and part three. We’re getting to know some of the leading women in virtual reality – what got them into it, what makes them tick and what they’re excited about.

This week, it’s Sarah Jones, who started her career as a TV news reporter for ITV and GMTV, followed by spending a year in New York covering the ’08 Obama elections. During that time, she did a lot of immersive reporting, which partly inspired her passion for virtual reality. When she then moved into academia, she was able to experiment with mobile filmmaking –shooting and editing on phones and tablets. That led her to become interested in 360-degree filming, and opportunities to create virtual worlds.

At the moment, Sarah’s working on a PHD in immersive reporting; where the journalist becomes the story. She’s currently experimenting with 360 rigs with GoPros attached, then using VideoStitch to bring it all together. She’s planning to use this as an educational tool for her students.

Next, she’ll be mixing journalism and gaming to create a VR platform where students can make choices about where they are and where they go to create their news reports. The choices they make will have a huge effect on the outcome of the story, and the assignment. Sarah will be talking about this project at the Media Education Conference in Boston this November.

In the meantime, she’s been talking to us.

Hi Sarah! Can you tell us about your first introduction to VR?

My best memory of an introduction to VR comes from my three year old. I put Google Cardboard on her earlier this year and her face was amazing. She could see dinosaurs and ride rollercoasters. It is that opportunity to bring learning environments to life that inspires me.

What inspired you to join the VR industry?

I’ve always been looking for new ways of telling stories and this led me to explore the opportunities for VR. I’m not a gamer so was looking to find an accessible opportunity for VR that had serious applications. For me, that came with Cardboard and stories like Vice’s Millions March, or the Hong Kong Unrest. This was when VR became an opportunity to develop storytelling and further enhance the learning experience for students.

How has working in the industry changed your first thoughts on VR?

I’m very much starting out and looking at it from two perspectives; the first is a platform for education and the other is immersive storytelling. What I find exciting about VR is the opportunity to apply the technology to any platform. There are brilliant examples of VR for healthcare in the rehabilitation of patients in Birmingham University and through military training exercises. These projects are exciting and show the serious applications of the technology, away from just film and games.

It is a lot more accessible than you would think and there are great online communities to follow and engage with on social media. I’m always seeing awesome new groups like @vrgrls on Twitter and people like Nonny de la Pena who are paving the way for women in VR. Like a lot of tech organisations, it is male dominated but I hope that is changing. It has to when my three year old daughter is walking around experiencing virtual reality.

What would you like to see happen within the industry and in the next year?

The introduction of Cardboard instantly transforms the potential for VR and makes it accessible. In education, we can buy or make Cardboard headsets to equip students with the technology to experiment and design a VR learning platform. The initial outlay for higher-end headsets makes it less accessible.

In the next year I hope to have been able to build an immersive education platform for media and journalism students so they can learn in the virtual world. This will have a gaming platform and can really transform how students learn, particularly in vocational subjects.  I really hope in the next year there will be lots of serious applications for VR, using the technology to really explore environments.

Any interesting lessons learnt so far?

I’ve had a lot of fun trying to learn how to film in 360 degrees. I use 360Heros casings to hold GoPro cameras and then stitch together. Getting the kit was interesting: it got held up in customs, then returned to the manufacturer. When you’re experimenting with new products and a new area, there’s always interesting hiccups along the line.

Have you had any difficulties along the way with being a woman in VR?

I am very conscious that the VR world, along with a lot of technology companies, is male dominated. However, there are great examples of women in VR that are creating new technologies and avenues to explore. What infuriates me most is when women in VR are pigeonholed to be involved with applications in fashion or retail.

What are your goals?

My main goal is to create a VR gaming platform that transforms the learning experience for students by placing them at the heart of a news scene. On a secondary level, I want to see more applications of 360 filming in news to create a different method of storytelling and one that brings the audience much closer to the story so they can experience it for themselves. I hope to be part of this movement.

Would you encourage other women to look into starting a career in the VR industry? Do you have any advice for them?

Absolutely. VR is getting ready to explode, so you have to jump on board. There are so many opportunities so think of something you can create and build in the virtual world, and do it.

Which women in the industry do you admire?

Image: Nonny de la Peña, via Wikipedia

Nonny de la Peña is great as someone that is building immersive journalism worlds. I also work very closely with Ruth Callaghan at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia and we’ve been conquering the VR education world and immersive storytelling together, even with the time difference.

What have been your best experiences of VR?

I love the news films and immersive documentaries. For me, films on VRSE are incredible and really moving. The Millions March by Vice News is one of the best and it really creates an immersive experience that I want to continue to build on and create.

Want to hear more from Sarah? Follow her on Twitter: @VirtualSarahJ

We’ll be back before long with more of the most interesting women in virtual reality. Watch this space.

Main image: Google Cardboard