There has been a lot of talk about VR’s potential to build empathy, and I think that’s very real, but perhaps was overstated at the peak of the most recent hype cycle. Companies like Embodied Labs are creating powerful experiences that help people understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. In the case of Embodied Labs, it’s better to understand various scenarios elderly people might experience. That kind of learning can be transformational and healing. I think the important distinction is to view VR as an opportunity to educate, but not to conflate it with actually having a given lived experience.
The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, as a part of our interview series called “Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Amy LaMeyer and Martina Welkhoff.
Amy LaMeyer and Martina Welkhoff form a nucleus of know-how and vision into the virtual reality ecosystem as startup founders, globally recognized industry influencers, and venture capitalists. They are Managing Partners of the WXR Fund, which invests exclusively in what they know to be the two greatest opportunities of our time: the next evolution of computing and women-led startups. They are advocates for the underrepresented and are always happy to connect with innovators changing the VR/AR/AI landscape. Find them on LinkedIn, Twitter, our through WXRfund.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
Martina Welkhoff: I had a very atypical entry into AR/VR/XR. I moved around quite a bit throughout my childhood and young adult years. I was born in Canada, moved to the United States and spent much of my childhood bouncing around small towns in the Midwest, attended college on the East Coast pursuing pre-med, and then traveled and worked on organic farms for nearly a year after graduation. Drifting away from my medical school plans, I settled in Seattle for my first “real” job — coordinating youth programs for the Major League Baseball Players Trust. It was there I met my future co-founder of my first company, an enterprise mobile gaming platform. After that I was hooked on the startup space. I later went on to found ConveneVR, a VR production studio, and became more entrenched in the AR/VR/XR world, and eventually connected with the right team to build the WXR Fund to invest in two of the greatest opportunities of our time: the next wave of computing + female entrepreneurs.
Amy LaMeyer: I launched my career by jumping in the deep end of the technology pool. Right after graduate school I joined a growing startup, focused on scaling the Internet, as it transitioned into a publicly traded company (Akamai Technologies). I spent most of my time there on corporate development, which ultimately involved investment and mergers & acquisitions, cybersecurity, content delivery, media and ad tech. I then took all of that technical and financial experience and pivoted to the spatial computing industry, advising AR/VR/XR and artificial intelligence companies on corporate ventures, M&A, artificial intelligence, and engineering. And through that I was introduced to Martina, which led to the decision to join her in building the WXR Fund.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Amy: When I was first learning about augmented and virtual reality about five years ago, I started every morning with the Voices of VR podcast by Kent Bye. It is an encompassing view of all things virtual reality. He’s now nearing his 1000th episode — literally a timeline of the growth of the XR space.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.
Martina: Since my first company was in social gaming, I’ve always been passionate about technology that could help people build authentic connections and create shared experiences. The first time I put on a VR headset, I was enamored with the possibilities the immersive digital landscape could provide and how it could bring people together — especially after designing experiences for mobile phones for several years.
One especially memorable moment in my early days of VR exploration was the first time someone gave me a virtual “hug.” I was playing a game with a friend in a different city, and when we won his avatar leaned over and wrapped his cartoon hands around my shoulders. I know it might sound silly, but that was when I realized just how transformative the technology could be. I felt like I was in the same space with my friend, celebrating a victory together. The pandemic has made those sorts of opportunities for connection even more salient.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
Amy: During the pandemic, many conferences have gone virtual, including South by Southwest (SXSW). I recently experienced venues in SXSW via VR that I have been to dozens of times in real life, and I had the opportunity to connect with individuals across the globe through their virtual conference. The virtual experience increased accessibility and lowered social barriers to connect with people from diverse backgrounds that I likely wouldn’t necessarily have met had it not been for the new VR format of SXSW.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Martina: One of the first projects I was fortunate to work on was a feminist production with artist Drue Kataoka called Yes! Now is the Time. We were hosting an event in VR and live streaming it out to a larger audience, so there was quite a bit of pressure to get things right. During our technical rehearsal, one of the engineers had someone come to his door, so he took off his headset and set it down. In the VR environment, this had the horrifying effect of looking like he’d been decapitated, and his head plopped l to the floor in front of us. Thankfully, we realized ahead of the event that it was important to tell the speakers not to remove their headset unless it was an emergency.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Amy: My business partner Martina has been a key figure in my career success. We met in early 2018 when I was chosen as a mentor as part of the WXR Accelerator. We realized we had a shared mission to create opportunities for women-led startups in the AR, VR, XR and AI, and both recognized the huge financial and social impacts these investments can deliver. We continued to build our relationship over the course of a year while deciding to raise a fund focused exclusively on women-led startups pioneering the next wave of computing. I wouldn’t want to be on this journey with anyone else.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Martina: I recently joined the Advisory Board for Find Ventures, an organization that’s providing early stage grants to underrepresented entrepreneurs to help grow startups to the point where they can attract institutional capital. I was drawn to the mission of this organization because traditionally the first checks to new founders come from friends and family, but many founders from underrepresented backgrounds do not have people in their network who can invest. The structural inequity in venture capital is vast and deeply entrenched, so I’m drawn to solutions addressing that in new ways at various stages of the startup lifecycle.
Amy: We are also really excited about the companies we are investing in and the remarkable work they have underway. While we are not able to discuss all of them in depth quite yet, a few of the companies we are excited about working with are Obsess, a virtual store platform for experiential e-commerce, and Embodied Labs, an immersive health care training platform using VR. Along with the fascinating startups we’re seeing in the e-commerce and training spaces, we’re also really excited to get more involved in education, remote connectivity and productivity, and telehealth.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?
Amy: The XR space is particularly exciting right now. There are weekly, sometimes daily, announcements of growth in the industry, especially in the education, remote connectivity and productivity, and telehealth sectors. The pandemic has been a catalyst to the ecosystem that is ready to support a new computing paradigm: 5G, depth cameras, gaming engines, processors and headsets.
As the VR and AR technologies combine with AI, we will be able to have a more personal integration, especially in areas like training and education. Prisms VR, teaching math through VR and immersive environments, is one example of this movement in the education sector. And we mentioned Embodied Labs earlier, which is a great example of how VR is used for training in health care.
We’re also seeing household names like Apple, Facebook and other major tech companies drop hints that they are working on smart glasses — ultimately a hands free augmented digital world existing on top of the reality we’d see without smart glasses. It’s really exciting to see this gain momentum so quickly.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
Martina: Privacy is a concern top of everyone’s mind. Immersive experiences have the potential to collect an extraordinary amount of personal data, so it’s imperative that products are created with strong security and ethical standards, and ideally transparent, accessible privacy policies.
Emotional and psychological safety are also a concern. The visceral nature of XR is what makes it so exciting and appealing, but it comes with great responsibility to protect users from potential harm. A simple example of this would be exposing a user to a traumatic experience in VR that could have long-lasting negative impact. Experiences should be designed so that users understand exactly what they are opting into and always have easy, effective ways to disengage or report harm.
And finally, accessibility and equity. Like any new technology, there are barriers to access that mean certain groups are more likely to have exposure to the technology than others. Historically this has led to a small, privileged population reaping the benefits of technology and disproportionately influencing how technology evolves. We have an opportunity with XR to be more thoughtful about accessibility across multiple dimensions, such as physical ability, socioeconomic status, race, gender, and more, but it will require intention and investment across the entire industry.
I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?
Amy: There is a real convergence of gaming and entertainment with retail, education and remote work, among other industries. Presence, immersion and easy-to-use interfaces will enable our ability to connect with colleagues, partners and isotherms with the convenience of reduced travel. It will also provide time efficiencies and convenience working from opposite sides of the coast.
I believe in five to ten years we’ll have transitioned away from many flatscreens in the workplace. We’ll communicate, work, engage and build workplace communities in 3D virtual and augmented environments. When our kids enter the workplace in ten or twenty years, they will wonder what all the flatscreen were for.
Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?
Martina: There has been a lot of talk about VR’s potential to build empathy, and I think that’s very real, but perhaps was overstated at the peak of the most recent hype cycle. Companies like Embodied Labs are creating powerful experiences that help people understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. In the case of Embodied Labs, to better to understand various scenarios elderly people might experience. That kind of learning can be transformational and healing. I think the important distinction is to view VR as an opportunity to educate, but not to conflate it with actually having a given lived experience.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in broader terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? If not, what specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Amy: Statistics show that there is still a wide disparity of engagement between women and men in STEM. Continued encouragement and updated learning models are areas of focus that will inspire more women and girls to participate. I also think that networking groups that support women specifically will help encourage further growth. The leadership of women in the space also needs to be recognized and amplified more effectively.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?
Martina: I think a lot of people are intimidated by AR/VR and think they need to have a degree in computer science or a lot of specialized experience to dive in. It is of course helpful to have a technical background, particularly for product roles, but there are so many different types of experiences and skill sets that are valuable at AR/VR companies, and necessary to help the industry evolve. My advice for anyone, especially women, who want to break into the AR/VR industry is to start exploring, building, and meeting people. Don’t wait until you meet arbitrary qualifications.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in Tech” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Martina and Amy’s Top 5:
- Fail forward. I (Martina) have a plaque by my bathroom mirror that says, “There are no mistakes, only lessons.” Women are often under a high level of scrutiny, particularly in leadership roles with high visibility, and sometimes we are our own harshest critics. I used to be incredibly hard on myself, and it’s taken years of strong mentorship and therapy to finally learn to let things go and embrace a growth mindset.
- Build self-awareness and confidence in your leadership style. It’s taken a long time to realize that leadership is not “one size fits all” and the world needs a lot of different types of leaders. Some of the advice women get might make sense for one person or context, but not for others. For example, Amy often finds in her leadership style that in most cases there is no need to apologize or caveat, and recommends reducing the use of “sorry” and “kind of.” Martina’s leadership style doesn’t necessary follow that same rule of thumb. Find what works for you and cultivate those attributes.
- Be concise and don’t over explain. Yeah. That’s the whole lesson.
- Every decision is just a step on your journey, and not the last step of your journey. Decisions don’t need to be perfect, just allow yourself to learn and grow.
- Remember to celebrate both the big and small wins. We’re all moving so fast these days, it’s easy to let victories pass you by and move on to the next challenge. We’re big believers in taking a moment to acknowledge and celebrate when things go well. It’s good for team morale and it helps people to avoid burnout.
You are both people of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Amy: I would encourage a deeper awareness and action for global climate impact across all areas — enterprise, government and consumer. XR can help the effort in many ways: by replacing some physical objects with digital objects, by reducing the amount of travel needed while still fostering human connection, and by providing digital representations that educate on the impact of climate change, to name a few.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Martina: I admire Mellody Hobson of Ariel Investments for all that she’s achieved in her professional life and the way she advocates for increasing diversity in the business world. I’d love to take her to lunch!
Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!