Take time out to work on the business, not in the business. Step out of the day to day and take a wider view by looking objectively at every part of the business and make sure you are keeping both eyes clearly on the business long term goals. All decisions, including decisions about projects you take on, should be made through that lens.
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 interviewingSimone Clow, CEO of Zebrar.
Simone has worked in experiential, design, visual effects and mixed reality for over 30 years in New York, London and Sydney. She has produced global channel rebrands, feature films, and bespoke large format content as well as creating XR (extended reality) products from scratch. Whilst Head of Production at Cutting Edge, Simone built and managed the VFX department, producing visual effects for TV commercials and feature films.
Since co-founding Zebrar in 2017, Simone has acted as CEO leading both the strategic direction and commercial growth of the global business. Zebrar produces cutting edge mixed reality experiences including augmented, mixed and virtual reality activations and installations for brands such as Facebook, IBM, Salesforce, Accenture, Optus, Woolworths, Westfield, McDonalds, and Singapore Airlines. Simone is passionate about building purposeful technology in all its forms, and utilising her visual effects expertise to bring the craft of feature film visual effects into real time technologies.
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?
I grew up in Melbourne, Australia. I finished school in the mid 80’s and attended an all girls school that prepared us for being career women with the belief that we could be just as successful as men in whatever vocation we chose, which was still a rarity at the time but something that was instilled in me early on. I started my career in television commercial production and quickly gained a very good technical understanding of post production and visual effects, even back in the days where digital VFX (visual effects) was just starting.
It felt like a natural progression for me to become a Visual Effects Producer where I worked in commercials, film and television. I was fortunate to work all over the world with so many talented artists (including Oscar Winner, Andrew Jackson!) over a career that spanned a couple of decades before moving into X Reality and starting this new adventure.
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?
The podcast STARTUP had a profound impact on me starting this business. It normalized startups for me. It felt possible. I was able to learn from the success and failures of the companies it profiled. And I understood the emotional toll it would take on me before I started on my own journey. It immersed me in the startup space, and put me in the right headspace to actually take the leap.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.
I was approaching 50 and realized that I could soon “age” out of VFX, so I needed to find a way of controlling my own destiny i.e. start my own business. I had run visual effects companies before, but project based work is not easily scalable. The STARTUP podcast had taught me scale was the key to success so I was looking for that next step. In 2016 I was contracted to travel around the world creating branded films for a premium car company for all the motor shows for a season. In that role I worked alongside the Virtual Reality team. In some ways VR is an obvious extension of visual effects and what I have always done, but I didn’t know that until I put the headset on and was completely immersed in another world.
My first experience with VR and 6 DOF (degrees of freedom) blew my mind, I was completely immersed in a fully CG world and believed I was on the ship with the Kraken tentacles trying to wrap around me — disbelief was completely suspended. It was literally taking what I used to do in film on a 2D screen and bringing it to life as an immersive realtime fully 360 experience that I could control.
The lightbulb moment was when I first put on the Hololens (Microsoft’s mixed reality glasses). I could see so clearly that this was the future, wearable AR devices with a digital layer over your view of the real world — this would be the next evolution of mobile technology.
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?
Oh my goodness, nothing but mistakes when I was starting. I am still making them… but in software development mistakes are a normal part of product development. My funniest ever career mistake was back in in my first days of television commercial production working on live action shoots. It was my first shoot and I was given a list of equipment to order for the camera department, the grip department and the lighting department.
The Cinematographer asked me to order a “henway” and to ask the Grip (technician) what size he needed. The Grip said he thought a large but I should check with the Gaffer (lighting) and this went on and on for days until the Cinematographer said “just ask the question — What’s a henway?”. I did. He answered “4 pounds”. Ugh.
It was a joke that was all the more ridiculous because I never asked the question “What’s a henway”. With equipment such as dolly, apple box, pancake, etc the henway seemed to fit right in!
The lesson was don’t pretend to know something you don’t….people are always happy to share their knowledge. That lesson is as relevant to me today as it was 30 years ago, the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know.
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?
There are so many people that have helped me along the way so it would be impossible to note them all here and to single out one individual, when it takes a village 🙂
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’ve definitely got some exciting new projects in the pipeline but my favorite is a big healthtech initiative. We’re working with our corporate and government partners to develop the first AR powered glasses for dementia patients. Patients with dementia will have more independence and autonomy than ever thought possible through the use of real time, AR glasses that inform or remind the patient of important details about their surroundings, both animate and inanimate — basically filling in the gaps in their memory. This not only provides the patient with more confidence and dignity, it also takes some of the heavy burden off of their carers and families as well. I think this could have a profound positive impact on society as a whole.
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?
- 5G is one of my favorite subjects because it is truly game changing technology that unlocks so many other game changing technologies. Sure it will mean videos on your phone will download faster, but it’s so much more! It basically enables technologies that have been hyped for a long time, but have not been able to thrive because of connectivity and latency issues. High speed and low latency means real time communication between device and web, which enables technologies with incredible social impact like autonomous vehicles and vehicle-to-vehicle communication, telemedicine, AI diagnosis, robotic surgeries, smart cities, connected farms and agriculture, as well as the fun retail and entertainment stuff like holographic entertainment, VR multiplayer gaming or try before you buy virtual dressing rooms. There is so much more, 5G will make the impossible, possible.
- Wearable X Reality Technology — AR Glasses. I truly believe augmented reality or mixed reality glasses will become mass market which will unlock so many opportunities. We are seeing Google, Apple and others putting a lot of effort into building MR glasses which have so far been used almost exclusively for enterprise in training and remote maintenance but once the processing power is offloaded to the web — thanks to 5G — the glasses become lighter, less of a battery drain and more viable as a consumer device. No more head buried into the phone — everything that is currently displayed on our phones will then be a digital layer over our real word as viewed through the glasses. That’s what we are planning for and working towards.
- Realtime Technologies for filmmaking. The biggest shakeup in the film industry in my lifetime since digital cameras replaced film cameras is the use of realtime technology. Using realtime engines such as Unreal Engine through pre-production, production and post provides enormous efficiencies and is changing the way VFX heavy films are made.
Virtual Production is something that I am particularly interested in given my background in VFX. Rather than greenscreen, actors can now be filmed on an XR stage where they can be in the environment rather than have to imagine the environment. The improvements in real time engines mean we are now able to use traditional film VFX methods to build photoreal CG environments in engines. It’s pretty cool stuff.
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?
I think a bit of healthy scepticism is a good thing — like we see with A.I and social media — especially now that we have a better understanding of their negative implications. It’s important to be cautious about how new technologies can be used not just for the good but potentially for bad as well — it keeps us honest and aware as we create.
A few things that I am mindful of in the XR industry:
- Extended screen time in general, especially by younger generations does concern me, and I know things like XR won’t necessarily help that. The link between screen time and chronic diseases like depression, anxiety and even attention is something I’m mindful of. In terms of addressing that, I think it’s all about transparency and education on behalf of the creators or publishers (whether that’s an Apple, Google or small content creator), and then intentioned awareness by the audience. That could be as simple as limitations on screen time, putting a stop to the endless scroll or content loops, a time stamp on content that shows how long a consumer has spent there, or even a warning notification about the detrimental effects of screen time (much like cigarette packaging). I’m just spit balling here, but there are certainly things we can do as content creators to be conscious with our work.
- Equal access to technology. The digital divide is very real and that is certainly a concern for the XR industry particularly as things like wearable technology and physical hardware is still very expensive. 5G will also likely become available faster in wealthier countries and communities which may extend this divide. Creating inclusive XR content, experiences and products with this in mind is important to cater for the widest possible audiences — especially those things with important social impact. Thinking globally and advocating for technological development in communities where it’s needed (and wanted) is very important.
- Synthetic media or “deep fakes” being used malevolently and without permission are a concern for the industry, and especially for the people being affected. I hope it doesn’t get to a point where it gives the whole industry a bad name, but it’s concerning. Where there is new and exciting technology or content development, a “black market’’ tends to follow.
Again, I think the antidote is transparency and education from the legitimate players in the industry to enhance audience awareness and how to spot deep fake content. We need the publishers and social platforms to be educated and do their part to ensure audiences aren’t being misled. In good news, there is also corporate and government funding to support research to detect deep fakes from authentic content which is pretty cool.
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?
I think the most important component of VR, AR and MR for the workplace is the ability to tell stories in an easier, more engaging and more impactful way than any other medium. Since the workplace can be a complex environment, these crafts can bring complex ideas to life and make them tangible for people.
For example, we worked with Accenture to develop unconscious bias training using virtual reality to help teams truly experience what it is, how common it is and how to identify it. By putting on the headset, the program provides a deep dive into two people’s perspectives during a conversation. The script was based on real interviews with people from Accenture. By experiencing the behavior, rather than just reading about it or watching a video about it, ultimately teams can develop a more inclusive environment and lead to far more long term behavioral change.
Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?
Naturally the quality of healthcare is synonymous with the quality of our lives, so I see this as the most important area of focus for these technologies that would have the biggest impact on our lives — whether that’s for the patient, carers or training for healthcare workers.
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?
Technology is traditionally a male dominated space so of course I would like to see more females in senior management and in engineering or development roles. I think we will see change in the next 5 to 10 years as more girls are encouraged to study STEM subjects at school and college. Right now, globally, to be frank — it’s still very much a boys club.
In 2019, less than 3% of all VC investment went to women-led companies, and only one-fifth of U.S. VC went to startups with at least one woman on the founder team. The average deal size for female-founded or female co-founded companies is less than half that of only male-founded startups. That number has only reduced though covid with women taking on the brunt of the domestic work. There is a lot of work to do to get us even close to an even playing field.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?
That we’re gaming or walking around with a VR headset in a quasi-Matrix simulation all day. I mean, that’s only true half the time 😉
Working in mixed reality is really like other professional creative industries — there is the creative brainstorming and trialling new technology during the research phase which is really fun, but there is also a lot of hard work. We spend most of our time in the development phase with tricky and challenging technical issues to work through. It takes a lot of diligence, grit and patience to make sure we get the job done right.
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.)
- Take time out to work on the business, not in the business. Step out of the day to day and take a wider view by looking objectively at every part of the business and make sure you are keeping both eyes clearly on the business long term goals. All decisions, including decisions about projects you take on, should be made through that lens.
- Resist the temptation to micromanage. Be generous with your knowledge and praise, and give your team members responsibility where you can — it empowers them to learn and succeed.
- Be completely transparent. You don’t have all the answers, and no-one expects you to. Tech moves so fast that you need to keep learning. If you make mistakes, and you will, own those mistakes.
- Give your team members choice and autonomy where you can, for example through the pandemic we have all learnt that it is possible in many roles to work from home, so allow for this flexibility where possible. Be generous with parents having flexible hours. Having been a working mother for much of my career, I am a supporter or both mums and dads being able to spend time with their children and working flexible hours.
- Balance: This is something that I still struggle with as I am definitely a workaholic. But make sure that you and your team find work/life balance because the alternative is unsustainable and not conducive to good culture or good work.
You are a person 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. 🙂
One of the tech ideas I am passionate about, that is now possible with 5G thanks to real time data processing, , is to scan a product in store to reveal information about the manufacturing and material sourcing of that product. For example, where the product was manufactured, was it made with renewable energy, do they recycle waste materials, were the materials ethically sourced etc. This enables customers to make more informed purchasing decisions by giving a score on sustainability and ethics in the supply chain.The higher the score, the more environmentally friendly and ethical the sourcing of materials and manufacturing process is. This transparency will force brands to act more responsibly.
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 🙂
Melinda Gates. She is the most powerful woman in philanthropy, an advocate for women and girls rights and she works tirelessly to solve global challenges from poverty and education to sanitation and contraception. And of course she understands technology and helps female founders through her incubation company. What an incredible human!
Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!