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Immersed Conference Spotlight: VR Artist, Stephanie Mendoza

Next week, I’m thrilled to be attending the Immersed Conference in Portland, Oregon. The conference is a two day event focused on immersive technologies like VR and AR and how they are impacting the world around us.

I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on empathy, empowerment and embodiment in VR featuring my colleagues and friends Donna Davis, Tawny Schlieski and Jerri Lynn Hogg. You can learn more about all the conference sessions, buy tickets and join the community on the Design Reality website.

Stephanie Mendoza, an immersive media artist and enthusiast will also be participating in the conference. She will be teaching a workshop on WebVR and PIMG will be demoing on the exhibition floor along with other Portland VR/AR startups. She was kind enough to answer a few questions on her experience with VR, Portland and becoming a dragon!

1) How long have you been in Portland? Why did you decided to stay here?

I’m coming up on 4 years now, I arrived in May 2015 to take some front end web development courses over the month. Then I got a job in Seattle- didn’t like Seattle very much so I went to Canada for a month and a half to visit old friends. I’d also made enough money selling drawings at an art auction to visit Portland again before going home (also my car was there). The intention was not to stay, but to spend two weeks with the friends I’d made and then move back to Texas.. well my student loans kicked in and automatically took money I didn’t have, leaving me with a balance of
(-$600) and no gasoline to get back. I would have been homeless, had I not been taken under the wing of a Cyborg Anthropologist I got nerdy with at a Hackerspace in NE called CtrlH. That really started it all.

2) Describe the creative and emerging tech scene in Portland? Could it be recreated elsewhere?

Portland is pretty special, though I’m not sure if I’ve traveled enough to know exactly how unique it is. The city is easy to navigate, creative and there are many programs that support practicing artists. I can meet people from almost every socioeconomic/cultural background, and not be restricted by notions of cultural bias, so long as a common interest is pursued. This place is incredibly community oriented, it seems that each group has about one or two degrees of separation between its members, that tend to just get together en mass, and hack at whatever they are doing.

3) What latest tech trends excite you the most?

GDPR. I’ve been an advocate for data protection since I was in 8th grade and social media was taking off. Specifically, what gets me excited is GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in Europe which comes into effect on May 25th- most importantly, it states that 1) Right of Access: Users have full access to all of the data a company has on them as well as how it is being processed, and 2) Right to Erasure: Users have a right to have that data removed. Failure to comply could lead to sanctions as high as 4% of annual worldwide turnover, so it’s not toothless.

Additionally, people are finally listening to me about dumping Facebook, and caring about how companies treat their user’s data. I strongly believe that this is the most important trend to evangelize in our modern tech climate.

4) How did you get involved with social VR? Which social VR platforms do you hang out in and why?

I started in Anyland, a social VR sandbox where anyone could make anything with unlimited resources (well, until their GPU choked on the particle effects). Anyland was and is still an incredibly powerful tool for rapid prototyping of ideas that just can’t exist yet in tangible space, but who’s presence we can prepare for in a simulation.

I’m in VR Chat a lot now too. I got sucked in to watching a bunch of Ugandan Knuckles videos over my VR deprived trip to visit family in Mexico, and spent months making highly detailed avatars (also converting my Anyland one). I still think I prefer the open and immersed creativity of Anyland, but I’ve been spending much of this year exploring VR Chat.

5) What do you see as the BIGGEST potential for VR, AR and immersive technology?

VR is an incredible tool for exposure therapy and it shields us from own own biases about identity when avatars come in to play, exposing something deeper. One of the first things that happened when I started developing for VR in Unity was loosing my fear of heights, which was pretty bad at the time and hasn’t returned since. I did the same for my stage fright, where I simulated the old New Relic office and practiced in there with my slides in front of a fake audience of zombies, tigers, and men in blue suits. This all gets amplified when it involves social learning and observation.

6) Do you feel large corporations such as Intel and Nike have played a role in the technology innovations happening in Portland? What role should corporations play in promoting innovation?

Bike town provides a good model of accessible equipment. Also Intel sponsors a lot of events like hackathons and small conferences/meetups (that feed us starving tech artists, many of whom us won’t admit to barely having enough to feed ourselves), so keep doing that!

7) Do you feel immersive communities and social VR can help empower and heal people or do you feel they will have more of a negative impact?

Both. Back in Anyland the crowd was mostly west coast, with a good amount of midwestern conservatives, and a few Europeans and Asians sprinkled into the mix. It was a small but tightly knit community. We actually managed to build bridges between the two wings of American ideologies (liberal redditors, and 4chan trump trolls) using the unlimited creativity Anyland provided us. We could coexist extremely well in a simulated utopia, void of any ‘economy’ other than a gifting one based on creative capitol. It sounds unrealistic, but also not impossible. I think this kind of thing can work wonders helping people get out of the mindset that everyone has to have a job, in a rapidly approaching post-work world.

That being said social VR can be a serious trigger for those with preexisting conditions who have PTSD from combat or assault. People in these spaces can be ruthless, but there are definitely ways to deal with them as an individual without getting the mods or the company involved. Trolling in real-time is a double edged sword and often the worst offenders are terrible at comebacks, which in my experience changes the game. Most of the other users will also have your back, you just have to have some thick skin, which comes with experience. It can be harrowing for a first timer.

8) How has spending time in social VR communities impacted you pesonally?

I have finally realized that yes, I can grow up to become a dragon; nine year old me is very pleased. I feel like anything is possible now, and I can test new inventions people come up with, before they manifest in ‘reality’. I wind up having these extreme experiences that can only be described as if they were a dream, since often it involves shapeshifting, and strange worlds/contraptions that exist as pure imagination manifested by data. Also shapeshifting was always my go-to superpower so thats a huge incentive drawing me back to the territory.

9) Currently VR is really only accesible by a small number of users – when do you think VR will hit mass adoption and why?

Probably once the next generation of headsets comes out, just like any other console or ‘gaming’ hardware. Go to goodwill and you can see the stacks of unwanted Wii’s and Xboxes, and on the shelf below them, every variety of mobile VR headsets.

10) Which local start ups or local innovators do you feel have the most potential? Why?

So I can’t answer this question in the context of financial potential, because the places I see the most creativity come out of, and have the greatest community impact, are also the places that earn the least and are burdened the most- especially during this current administration which has dramatically cut funding for the arts nationally. Take Open Signal and Enthusiasm Collective- they provide a vital service to the Art and Tech community, and without places like that many VR devs/artists would not have had opportunities to get started.

I have high hopes for our local hackerspaces as well, I want to give a shout out to CtrlH for the amazing things they’ve done, providing equipment for local creators, and bringing together a variety of interesting meetups- Dorkbot (robotics) and Exploit(information security) come to mind, and they have even supported Portland Immersive Media Group(VR) when we needed a venue.

11) How did you get involved with the Design Reality community? What will your upcoming presentation at the Immersed Conference cover? Who do you feel should attend this conference and why?

Luck. I met Joshua at Kent Bye’s house when Kent had a pre-release of Google Earth VR. A few weeks later I got an email about the new VR meet up, noticed that he was charging for tickets, and promptly wrote a concerned letter. I knew that charging ANY amount would immediately discourage most of the artists that I knew were currently participating in VR from attending, since even a small $5 fee is detrimental as costs add up when you include parking/MAX fares, and that resulting $10-15 is a grocery budget for the week. Yes we are that economically challenged. I worried that this would result in further homogenization of the group, creating the beginnings of an elitist VR scene in Portland. Fortunately that didn’t happen, and Joshua completely understood what I was talking about. He is still charging for tickets, but there are both volunteer and scholarship opportunities for those of us who wouldn’t be able to participate otherwise.

I feel like this conference is for anyone who wants to get the full scope of what Portland VR has to offer. I will be teaching a workshop on WebVR and PIMG will be demoing on the exhibition floor along with other Portland VR/AR startups.