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 (XRA) sat down with Athena Demos, CEO and Co-Founder of Big Rock Creative.
Below is an excerpt of the interview with Demos, which has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.
1. What’s your XR story? How did you first get involved in this space?
My XR story started during the COVID-19 pandemic. I wasn’t actually in the technology space, I’m a community builder.
Back in 2015, I was one of the regional ambassadors to Burning Man for Los Angeles and the head of the LA League of Arts. An artist came to me with a project to recreate the 2014 Burning Man event in VR. But at the time, it felt very lonely [since it was a single user experience]. So while Burning Man liked the project, it didn’t really go anywhere.
Fast forward to 2020 when everything was shutting down. Doug Jacobson was looking for a way to celebrate his birthday and contacted a friend who was building VR spaces. He had built the 2014 VR experience. He sent it to Doug who uploaded it to the AltspaceVR platform. Then they called me. 20 minutes later, we were all standing together on the virtual playa. A week later, Burning Man was canceled. The entire community was left trying to figure out how to get together still. We had a solution. I contacted Burning Man to share what we had created. We became one of the official virtual Burning Man experiences for 2020 and 2021. We continue to build our Burner community in the virtual space and plan a BRCvr Re-Burn event in Jan 2023.
After Burning Man 2020, we started winning awards and we were just blown away. Companies including Microsoft and Ubisoft started contacting us to produce their virtual events. We became experts in world creation and event production in the virtual space.
2. What’s your background in?
My background and abilities come from 15 years of experience in producing large-scale events in Los Angeles. Thank God they don’t have permits in the metaverse. With each event, I learned through trial by error. It’s not just leading a corporation or a production; I’ve done those things. Leading a community takes a special type of nurturing energy that I had to learn.
Not governance, but leadership. It’s been this long growing, experiential learning journey over the years and I am able to bring that to the metaverse. I’m so fortunate and honored.
3. As your company began building out events, what are some of the lessons that you learned since starting out?
I think someone needs to do a study on human behavior in the metaverse because there are things that transfer from the physical world into the virtual world that give us comfort even if we don’t need them. For example, we don’t need bathrooms, we don’t need furniture. But we like having those things in our worlds, we like seeing them. It gives us comfort to have furniture.
When we were organizing our virtual Burning Man, we jokingly put in porta-potties because, at the real event, there are port-potties everywhere. One crazy world was created out of only porta-potties, called the Porta-Party. And it was just this crazy world, but it was so much fun and everybody loved hanging out [in the porta-potties.] I wondered, what is that? Why do we need that? We didn’t need to exactly recreate Black Rock City. But we did it to create a sense of normalcy, to welcome people home. They would get there and be like, I know exactly where I am because it looks so familiar. So it would be a fun study to see why we want these things in virtual spaces even though we dont need them.
4. What inspires you to continue working in XR?
The community has always inspired me. At the core of my being, I’m a muse. I am here to inspire others. And as others create, and work together to create things larger than themselves, I’m inspired to bring more people together.
It’s about moments in building and coming together as a community around a common goal, whether that art project is digital or physical. It doesn’t make any difference. Now we have the opportunity to do both. That is what makes me the most excited and inspired. I’m so inspired by this community.
5. So you’ve talked about how the industry has changed since you’ve been in it. What is some advice you’d give to a younger person starting out now?
I would say to look into your heart and see what aspect of it lights you up. What fascinates you, what gets the wheels going in your head? And then start reading everything you can about that.
LinkedIn for this industry is your best friend. As you read articles about the topics you’re interested in, look at who wrote them, and send those people LinkedIn requests. Say, “I read your article, it resonated with me in this way and I’d like to read more about what you’re talking about”. That’s how you build your network. And through that, you’ll start seeing job offerings and opportunities to volunteer, intern and get further involved.
Make sure you have a Discord account. A lot of platforms and programs have Discord channels that help connect you to that community. Everyone is willing to answer questions and help you understand how to create your passion.
Also, falling down happens. [When that happens] pick yourself up, and try again. This industry is just starting to take off, and everyone is helping everybody right now. It is the perfect time to get involved.
6. What can the industry do to attract more gender diversity into the talent pipelines?
There are a few educational programs, like XR Boot Camp, and XRTerra and others that really center on teaching skills. They’re going out and looking for people that are underrepresented within the industry or don’t have the opportunities that others do to bring them into this space and teach them the skills they need to be successful. I think they’re the ones that are really doing the good work. There are now universities jumping in and creating XR programs or storytelling programs. And they’re actively looking for untold stories.
You can reach out all you want, but if [minority communities and younger generations aren’t exposed to XR directly] they’re not going to respond, because they’re not going to be open to the possibility of XR.
7. Are there any key lessons we need to be aware of from immersive technology?
The one lesson that we can learn is to be open. Be open to the possibilities and opportunities for those lessons as XR evolves and learn from them. Don’t repeat the things that aren’t worth repeating. This creation of the metaverse gives us the most amazing opportunity to build a society how we want it to be. Right now what we have is a multiverse. A diverse array of different platforms that are not interoperable with each other.
The metaverse gives us this opportunity to build on a global scale, without borders and for the greater good of all. Our instincts as homo sapiens are to compete or to conceal. To fight, earn, and govern. But that’s not being a human being. To be a human being you must be a humane being. The metaverse gives us this golden opportunity to just try building something new.
8. At XRA, we like to say that the XR industry has a limitless future. What does that mean to you?
The XR industry is limitless. First of all, to me, extended reality is anything that is not our physical space. At Burning Man this year, we had a window where people could talk to each other in real-time physically and virtually as if they were just standing at a window with each other. And that’s reality. And that world is blowing up right now. Everything and anything is possible. Our motto is, if you can hallucinate it, we can create it. That is limitless.
I see it all the time at Burning Man. It’s a constant state of awe. In the virtual world, it’s not limited to one week in one location. You can access it from anywhere in the world whenever you want. That state of awe is more accessible to a wider array of participants. And it goes way beyond art and entertainment. You have a memory problem or phobia you are working through? We have a VR experience for that. You want to learn how to drive a forklift or fly in an F-18? We have a VR experience for that. It’s literally like a constant state of all limitless and infinite possibilities.