The responsible development of XR technology requires a diverse community of voices. To celebrate the limitless number of perspectives in the XR industry, the XR Association sat down with Seyitan Oke, a Senior Product Designer at Unity Technologies.
Below is an excerpt of the interview with Brewster, 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?
Growing up in Southern Ontario, Canada, I was kind of a Popular Science kid. When the Scholastic Book Fair came around, I would always want to get the Popular Science books. I loved the combination of science and technology and how it’s going to change our world.
Fast forward a bit, I’m at the University of Waterloo and I’m undecided about what I want to do. All I know is I want to be future oriented. So I’m studying digital art and global business, and taking some computer science classes. And then I’m on Twitter and I see this tweet from the MIT Media Lab about an “XR hackathon.” And I’m like, what is XR, and I clicked it. I started learning a lot about AR, VR, and MR and instantly knew that I wanted to work in this space. I knew that I wanted to put everything I know about tech, design and business, into this industry. I just wanted to find the future.
I became obsessed with the idea that not only did we create the internet and smartphones, but we can create this entirely new spatial paradigm, where we are ingesting content and being entertained in the context of our spaces. I attended this hackathon at MIT, and I felt like I had tasted the next thing in technology. I was meeting with new people and working in different areas of the XR space. I learned what the Magic Leap was, I was trying on all these headsets. And I was like, I really need to create this!
2. How does your background and identity shape your ability to do your job now?
I have multiple layers to my story. I’m not only Black, but I’m also an immigrant in Canada. I grew up for some of my childhood in Nigeria, then moved to Canada at a young age and grew up here. It’s interesting because my social, racial and ethnic identity has kind of been tested and gone through different phases. I mean, growing up in Nigeria, it’s like a different culture, being Black is not a local thing. I didn’t feel it around me. What I did feel was being Black in context of the world. But then coming to Canada, this hodgepodge of different races and cultures, which is very similar to the U.S. is like, oh, being Black means something in daily life here.
I think it’s been an interesting story, because I can relate with people who are immigrants from different races and cultures. And I can really relate to people who were raised here, because I faced a lot of the discrimination and the cultural rejection that happens to people who are Black and grew up in the West. But I can also relate to this feeling of like, “the world is my oyster.” Being from a predominantly Black nation, I felt like, oh, I’m allowed to create things. I had a mix of these understandings and coming to this tech world, I was able to feel the pain of like, oh, man, this society doesn’t really want me to succeed. Like, it’s not really geared for me to see. But at the same time, I have a little bit of an audacity of like, yeah, let’s do it. I think it’s because I wasn’t raised with restrictions.
3. What about the tech itself? Why are you so interested in this kind of technology?
I think I’m primarily a visual person. I think of XR as a medium of art, expression and entertainment. I have a digital arts background in storytelling. I really liked the idea of being able to tell something through a digital space.
That’s something I am still trying to pinpoint in my career. What is it that makes me so interested every time I think of an XR problem, or I’m trying to learn how to manipulate an object in VR. I haven’t built any world class experiences or anything, but I haven’t lost interest. I think because I’m visual, I imagine things in my head as if they were in real life. So I constantly have this mental overlay across the world. The ability to externalize that creativity into a technology that’s going to show [my vision] to others, or just have it exist is exciting.
It’s like a weightless infrastructure. I use this term a lot. On my table, I can set up an entire 3D model of my house and try to remodel it even though it’s all virtual. That’s very weightless. Being weightless means it can move at the speed of thought – which is not unique to VR. It’s like a piece of software. But again, it’s the power to visualize things that really excites me, the power to see things with your eyes.
4. Have you noticed any changes in the way that the industry has adapted its diversity and inclusion priorities since you first started?
One thing [I’ve noticed] is there has been more money available in the last five years. We’ve seen companies provide more opportunities for BIPOC voices, creators, engineers and researchers.
It was always true that, for example, a Black lady from DC or Montreal could change the world and solve the problems that we face. It just wasn’t realized. So I’ve been seeing that a lot more.
I think that there’s also been a lot of progress for women. I’ve also seen a shift in people wanting to experience more creative spaces, and more immersive experiences that are more socially focused. People are getting really excited about what XR is going to do [as it continues to advance].
5. If you could give a younger person advice about getting into XR, what would it be?
Since XR is still in the pioneering stages, try to tap into the part of your abilities that is a builder.
For example, the people who traveled out into the Wild West had some kind of tangible skill. They knew how to chop wood, how to farm. You need tangible skills to actually make progress and to fight off any discrimination you’re going to face. If you have a tangible skill, you can kind of use that to stay afloat. I think that’s one thing I feel I could have done better [at the start of my career]. I wasn’t as focused on building tangible skills. I was letting myself just do whatever.
Secondly, as you’re building, reach out, and talk to more people. Reach out to communities. I would dare myself and other people to walk into uninviting spaces, whether it’s people who have loads of experience like they’ve been researching XR for decades, or it’s like a predominantly white space or somewhere in the middle. I would really encourage anyone to enter one or two of those spaces because nobody should have a monopoly on knowledge or power. So where there’s a crack – steal it, take it, that’s what I would say, because that’s the only way you have to Robinhood this.
6. You talked a bit about how uncomfortable it was to enter these XR spaces at first. Can you talk more about what helped you in terms of finding people who looked like you, who wanted to help you?
One thing I’ll say is advice is generic until someone who’s actually sat in your shoes and has full empathy for your personality, your background and your approach to things can give you advice. So please take everything I say with a grain of salt.
That said, Twitter is the first thing I’d say that worked for me. I love it. Being physically present in spaces was a little uncomfortable [at first], and expensive. I couldn’t go to all these conferences all the time. So getting on Twitter was very important to me and liking, and commenting was the next step. I get shy about publicly having a personal brand. Some people tell you, you need to have a personal brand. I definitely think that’s good advice. But for myself, I needed to toe the line between being visible enough that I could learn first, and then participating and being recognized. I had somebody who actually recommended me for [my current job at Unity]. He has a strong personal brand online and is a Black creator. I engaged with everything he posted.
On that same thread, I would advise connecting with people who look and talk like you. For your own sanity, I would say expect just a small amount, and be appreciative of anything more. For example, I reached out to a prominent Black creator in the XR space. She was extremely nice to me – more than I expected. Not only did she tell me how she got to where she did, she also made connections for me and gave me career advice. And she told me what things I could be working on in my spare time or reading or getting to know more about. But all I expected from her was for her career journey and a book recommendation. Reach out to people that you feel comfortable with.
7. Are there any key lessons that we need to be aware of from immersive technology as it has evolved so far? Where’s it going next? What have we learned that we need to apply to the future?
I’m happy that tech in general has a culture of trying to do better than our society has done previously. But we actually need to take it a little more seriously, particularly with our technical decisions. We need to guarantee the future is no longer just men, we should empower people to come into the industry who come from diverse backgrounds. We need to bring people in first, otherwise, your computing paradigm is going to be non-inclusive.
By sheer principle, just mandating that things need to be diverse to start with will help us avoid technological disaster. And again, once we get that, let’s start internationalizing. Asking ourselves, how can this tech make sense in less developed areas of the world? Let’s get an early start on that. Because then you can actually have a really inclusive paradigm, and you can share the benefits of it across the world.
As a technology group, let’s make sure that our decisions on how API’s are working on tech are actually working and make sense for people. We want to share the benefits of tech, like even the physical hardware. Do you have a low, affordable version as well as an expensive version? Why not offer both, right?
8. At XRA we like to say the XR industry has a limitless future. What does that mean to you?
The full benefits of this spatial computing paradigm have not been fully realized yet. So the way I see it, it doesn’t even have an end to it of how far we can realize. As we move further and further, there’s gonna be a lot more things that enter XR, and it’s going to become very exciting. So to me, it’s extremely limitless. And that makes it so exciting. That, wow, in the future, we can create things that I cannot even begin to imagine now. And those things will be positive and they will help people, they will help societies, they will help us laugh and be entertained.
That makes it even more crucial that we embed good values into our design of XR experiences, infrastructure decisions, technology decisions, research decisions, or policy decisions. That’s what being limitless means to me, because it kind of puts the pressure on us now to get things right because it’s going to go really far.