The responsible development of XR technology requires a diverse community of voices to help build it. To celebrate the limitless number of perspectives in the XR industry, the XR Association sat down with Antonia Forster, the Senior XR Technical Specialist at Unity, award-winning mixed-reality developer, TEDx speaker, and advocate for LGBTQ+ people and women in tech. Most recently, Forster created the world’s first LGBTQ+ VR Museum, which won the prestigious New Voices Award at Tribeca Film Festival.
Below is an excerpt of the interview with Forster, which has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.
1. Let’s first talk about your XR story. What sparked your interest in working on XR?
I did not have a typical career journey by any means. I received a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at the University of Bristol studying Zoology and Animal Behavior. I was working in research at the time, but later shifted to science communication and began working in zoos and science centers as a presenter for a number of years.
Then, in 2017, I was invited to give a TEDx Bristol talk to an audience of about 2,000 people. I gave a talk on LGBTQ+ in the animal kingdom. People sometimes claim that LGBTQ+ is “not natural”, or that you don’t see it occur in non-human animals, but research clearly disproves this. Prior to my presentation I came out to my family — and that really didn’t go well. I ended up in a difficult situation both emotionally and financially, where I had a lot of support withdrawn, and I had to pivot my career path.
I taught myself C# and Unity, using free tutorials on YouTube, and a course on Udemy. After about a year I landed a role as a professional Unity developer in a company called Ultraleap, which specializes in hand tracking. A little later, I got a call from Unity — where I am now — and eventually became a Senior XR Technical Specialist.
My journey was unconventional — I think that has given me certain strengths and a unique viewpoint that has helped me succeed in the XR industry.
2. What about the XR industry made you decide this was the career you wanted to pursue?
I’m a visual learner, so coding in a terminal — put code in, get code out — confused me when I first started out. Since Unity is visual, I found it really clear, and I could see the impact of what I was coding straightaway. I was drawn to VR and AR in particular because I loved the idea of building my own worlds, where I could explore and be whoever I wanted to be without any of the negative repercussions that were outside of my control in the ‘real’ world.
Growing up in a homophobic household, I’ve always found solace in digital spaces. I’d spend a lot of time online, playing games or in digital communities, and it was great to be able to talk to people and engage with online games. The sense of ‘presence’ in virtual reality really appealed to me, and still does. It’s basically sorcery in my mind. It never stops being really surprising and magical to me.
3. How has the industry changed since you started?
There are a lot more people interested in VR and AR than when I started a few years ago. The language has changed — though the word “metaverse” existed, it wasn’t a popular buzzword when I started, but it’s now exploded in popularity. There is much more information online nowadays, but there’s also a lot more noise, which can make it more challenging to find relevant information.
That said, despite having been involved in the XR industry for about five years now, I still consider myself relatively new. Everyone in XR is sort of new because it’s such a rapidly changing world. We’re all constantly learning, which makes it a very equal playing field.
4. How does your background and identity shape your ability to do your job?
There are obvious ways, and non-obvious ways. For example, my work combining technology and social justice is very directly related to my background and identity. But it also has more subtle impacts.
People who are under-represented in a field, like women or BIPOC in tech, will always have a viewpoint and cultural experience that is also under-represented. So having diverse teams gives us the ability to innovate.
For example, I recently had an interview with Kent Bye, on the Voices of VR podcast, about the metaverse and what I see it as. I see it not as a binary or clear thing, but as a constellation of traits that make an experience more or less “metaverse-y” along a spectrum. I’m sure my cultural experience as a queer and neurodivergent person is part of why I might frame something that way — not as a binary, but as a spectrum or constellation of traits.
5. What career advice do you have for someone who is just starting off?
Create a brag deck. Whether you’re working for a company, or yourself, or building out your portfolio — keep information related to your success. Both qualitative, like testimonials from clients or bosses, and if you can get it, quantitative. Directly show how your own actions resulted in positive business outcomes. It’s not fair, but your career success depends as much on your ability to promote yourself as it does on your technical skills.
Additionally, for anyone just starting off — don’t let impostor syndrome fool you. It’s easy to feel intimidated, and think that the people around you are experts and you’re a fraud, but I promise you it’s not true.
6. You were recently recognized for your work as Director and Producer of the world’s first LGBTQ+ VR museum. How did you first get that idea?
After coming out, I couldn’t help but feel that if certain members of my family had visited a museum — a prestigious space filled with things that we consider worth preserving and celebrating — and had seen queer stories being celebrated and normalized, then they might have felt differently, or at least acted differently [when I came out]. If I’d had access to that space as a queer person, I might have felt less alone going through that process.
I knew I didn’t have the resources to build a physical museum, but I did have the technical skills to build a virtual one. So I approached people from the LGBT+ community and asked, “If you had your story preserved in a museum, based on one object from your life, which object would you choose? And why?” People chose a variety of things from a teddy bear that was given to them by their best friend, to an African headdress, to a pair of wedding shoes that someone bought before it was legal for them to marry. They had held on to the shoes, unworn, for about 40 years until they could wed.
In addition to the objects, we reached out online to different LGBTQ+ artists from all over the world. The centerpiece itself is a marble statue by the artist Patricia Cronin called ‘Memorial to a Marriage’ and is the world’s first and only LGBTQ+ marriage equality monument.
Patricia’s medium is marble. My medium is code. But really, we created these two artworks for the same reason, because it was something we needed that didn’t exist. The LGBTQ+ VR museum premiered in London in September 2021, and has since been exhibited in Australia and the USA, including winning the New Voices Award at Tribeca Film Festival.
7. At XRA we like to say the XR industry has a limitless future. What does that mean to you?
For me, it means a few different things. First of all, the hardware and the software are constantly evolving, changing faster than in any other area. So the possibilities are limitless and constantly growing.
But also, all the information you need to learn is online, and there are more job opportunities than there are people and talent to fill them. So it’s also limitless in terms of career growth.
XR is like conjuration magic to me — you can create anything that you can imagine. It’s completely limitless in terms of what you can do with it. You could build a museum, or a space, a game, a world, or you can use it for digital activism to change the real world, which is what I’m really passionate about doing. I find XR limitless in terms of its possibilities, but also its form and function and what you’re able to do with it.
8. We’ve learned that it’s critical to have different voices at the table when developing new technologies. Are there any key lessons we need to be aware of for immersive technology to flourish?
Immersive technology is actually doing pretty well in terms of gender representation compared to other areas of tech — but it’s still poor in terms of ethnic and racial diversity. One of the lessons here is that diversity directly leads to innovation. The more broad a range of cultural experiences a team has , the more ways the team can approach a problem, and the more likely you are to come up with a novel, innovative solution.
But, having diverse teams is also essential in making sure the content we’re developing is diverse. With immersive technology, we are literally able to enter the imagination of a creator. If the creators of these worlds are always from one single demographic — that’s a dangerous situation to be in, where we are highly likely to see unrecognized and unchallenged biases seeping in.