Diversity, Inclusion and Exclusion in Immersive Technologies: Nina Salomons

Following on in the series, Digital Democracies:Voices, Practices, Stories, Futures, curated by Donna Close and Prof Helen Kennedy, we’re pleased to be talking with Nina Salomons, Co-Founder of Anomie XR, about diversity, inclusion and exclusion in immersive technologies.

Donna Close: Hi Nina, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Asian woman with microphone talking to group of women in front of a white board full of post its
Nina Salomons. Image credit Cheska Lotherington

Nina Salomons: Ah, so I’ve got many different hats! I’ve got a background in filmmaking. I really got into video games whilst I was at university and made a documentary about female gamers which went to the Knickerbocker Film Festival in New York back in 2013. I was a YouTube gamer before influencers were a thing! I got really interested in VR and AR and set up the women in VR Meet Up group in London in 2016. I worked as a presenter for VR Focus and went around the world to different conferences and festivals looking at what worked well to tell stories and what didn’t work well. I also ran VR training for foster parents. I’m adopted myself, so I had a keen interest in that, and then I ended up developing the XR Diversity initiative trying to bring underrepresented groups into this space because obviously it was mostly dominated by a certain group of people.

I think accessibility and inclusion are the key to true innovation. I always say if you don’t have the ability to walk, how would you walk in an immersive space; If you don’t have hands, how would you interact? And practical things like if you’ve got different types of hairstyles, how do you put on a headset? If you’ve got Asian eyes, does eye tracking work? This is not really thought about by hardware designers.

black woman wearing VR headset and holding controllers in front of a wall of images
Image credit Cheska Lotherington.

I’ve been bringing VR into prisons as well in the UK, working with Wolverhampton University to try and look at prisoner’s wellbeing. I got COVID and I’m still suffering from long COVID and so I was really struggling in the pandemic and I realized what I wanted to provide access to mental health therapy for all so I built Anomie XR. It’s all about creative world building so it incorporates storytelling with video games and therapy. [Responding to] the huge increase of depression, anxiety and especially amongst younger children being impacted by the pandemic. What we are creating is a way to remove language and to integrate spatial immersive agency for people to tell their stories and be able to communicate how they truly feel and to make that available for everyone.

Diversity and inclusion are integral to everything that I’ve done. I have lived in so many different countries all over the world and I understand what it’s like to be on the other side of the stories not being told, so that that’s a huge passion of mine.

Donna Close: What do you think of the current problems with the current direction of travel in relation to the metaverse?

Nina Salomons: I’m having a lot of discussions around ‘closed metaverses’ versus ‘decentralized metaverses’. There are a lot of metaverses that are trying to democratize and build their own ecosystem. Rec Room is doing a really fantastic job at creating a community and incentivizing that by giving real money to builders and creators. I think that’s really where the power lies. It lies in community, and it also relies on purpose: the purpose of what you are creating, whether it’s a world or a 3D asset. The safety and the ethics around the Metaverse users as well – who is allowed to use what type of NFT or protocols that are built into it is, I think really important. Who’s going to win in that? Who knows? There’s so many new metaverses being built and being destroyed all the time.

woman wearing VR headset and holding controllers. Looking up
Image credit Cheska Lotherington.

Prof Helen Kennedy: What are your thoughts around the regulation that might be required in order to create a safe community?

Nina Salomons: Well, the first thing that I think 100% needs to be integrated is that everyone needs to be notified that they are being recorded for safety and ethical reasons. At the moment that’s not being done and it’s not being done in video games. I think that that’s really important, especially for younger children and the dangers inherent in that being used against you or unbeknownst to you, in the same way that it’s being used in the real world.

There does need to be some form of regulation around privacy and data.  There should not be a monopoly around who owns data and it shouldn’t be sold and be used against your wishes. So much information can be taken, from your eye movements, from your voice, from the way you speak to other people, the way you look around. And that could be amazing for telling stories, for analysis, for diagnostics. But if it’s used against you, I think that that’s dangerous.  People need to be held accountable and tech companies should definitely be held accountable. Hacking is such a huge problem. Cybersecurity is important. We haven’t seen any real repercussions from personal information being leaked so far, but I think in today’s and potentially in the future, ‘cancel culture’ could be quite devastating emotionally.

Prof Helen Kennedy: Perhaps you could say a little bit more going a little bit more detail about the VR and XR inclusion work that you’ve done.

Why is that important and what kind of tactics have you used to support inclusion in those spaces?

Nina Salomons: The number one rule is always hire inclusively when designing your product.

You cannot imagine or design something that’s inclusive or accessible unless you’re involving those people from the very, very beginning, so user testing needs to be brought to the forefront earlier on in development and production.

Do a two-day accessibility Sprint workshop. There are resources out there  such as the GitHub resource where you can download various different code, whether it’s for this headset or that headset and it allows you to integrate what researchers or developers have already built for another group of people. The games company, Naughty Dog (The Last of Us) have demonstrated how accessibility as part of players control is really important. I’ve had individuals show up to our workshops who have physical disabilities and being able to create something is so empowering to them and you hear stories of people in metaverse who, for example, might be wheelchair users and in these virtual spaces they can fly and for the first time be on a level playing field with other people.  So my tips are always design with user testing, hire individuals from diverse background sand make sure that you run through several tests before you release your product. At the minimum do an Accessibility Sprint where you try to integrate that into your product, and you know the feedback from our sessions is that modifications like subtitles for example, can improve the experience for everyone.

Prof Helen Kennedy: What did you learn from the experience of working with prisoners?

Nina Salomons: The most interesting part is the loss of freedom in prisons. We were not allowed to use games with crime or violence obviously. I thought that they [the prisoners] would like experiences that were mindful and they actually enjoyed more experiences that have to do with action and things that they wouldn’t be able to do in real life i.e. Jumping out of a plane, playing ping pong. The most surprising bit was that they enjoyed a fishing experience the most.   I think the reason for this is because the environment was highly realistic. The first level of the game you are at this bridge and there’s water and you’re watching the sunsets and you fish. It’s very relaxing and it feels ‘large’ which is probably the opposite of what they might be feeling in a cell.

VR prison workshop, Nina Salomons.

Prisons are more interested in VR for training, which is really great but the content that we’re trying to implement has to do more with mindfulness and breathing regulation, so it’s still quite tricky. We’re dealing with a very old difficult system that’s very underfunded, very understaffed. More research is needed and partnerships with universities are key. We’ve been looking for universities to do the research together because I don’t have a huge resource for things like compliancy in terms of GDPR, how to keep the data safe and going through the NHS ethics. The NHS think of VR as a medical device, which in our case it’s not. We’re still trying to get through ethics a year on because it’s very difficult to try and explain VR to people who don’t have any understanding of what the content is, what the experience is, because ultimately all you are doing is you’re just sitting in a space, you’re being told to relax and do these breathing techniques, and that’s it. We want to measure and see if it actually decreases incidences, if it does help [with mental illness].

But all of that data is highly protected, it’s probably the most dangerous data in terms of talking about data and ethics. We have to keep this 100% anonymized and treat it the same way that I think anybody in the Metaverse’s data should be treated. We are trying to do that research with the National Institute of Mental Health and Innovation who are responsible for bringing VR into a lot of prisons in America.

America is so much quicker and faster around implementing and looking and analysing because it reduces potential costs. But no one is interested in prisoner well-being. And again, coming from being adopted and working with the foster children, I see the whole cycle. I understand that how easily you could end up in a situation and never come out of it. Being able to try and help people understand how to break out of that cycle would be amazing. You know the way that we treat incarceration, especially in America – it’s awful, you know?

Donna Close: What are the key roadblocks or barriers that we face in designing for inclusive public spaces?

Nina Salomons: Asha and I are running XRD workshops and are now also looking at these as remote workshops to explore exactly this, so let’s keep having that conversation.

The immediate thing that I can tell you from organizing these workshops around different places is there needs to be a set of questions around how accessible these are: location, facilities, content.  A workshop needs to be designed as you would design an environment or building or space, whether it’s immersive or real, you should bear XY and Z in mind to make it as accessible as possible.

The most powerful story I can share with you is we did a workshop where we did quick design prototyping in VR and invited a lot of fashion students to attend. The artist that we worked with had a friend who was a makeup artist for films with pretty severe scoliosis and who walks around with a cane. The goal of the workshop was to create a backpack where the weight would redistribute in a way that it wouldn’t hurt her. We had a doctor there as well and they prototyped 3 different backpacks in virtual reality and then printed the back plate in 3D, and now she has a backpack specifically designed for her.

So, that’s kind of the power of if you were to bring in a doctor and people who understand the needs of makeup artists, you can make custom creation very, very quickly.  I like the idea that this changed her ability to work and to live and reduce her pain. So I think that’s very, very powerful if you if you think about why quick prototyping is important.

Prof Helen Kennedy: Have you encountered any interesting grass roots interventions to increase representation and accessibility? What are your tips for people wanting to get involved?

Nina Salomons: Asha and I have been very inspired by what Christopher Lafayette is doing with Black Technology Mentorship Programme. He’s really fantastic in terms of thinking about accessibility and being open to everybody. One of the problems with entering the space is that it’s expensive. It’s becoming cheaper, but you still require a certain headset and a certain Wi-Fi connection and certain computers to be able to really build powerfully. That might change as web development grows, but we need to be building this accessibility in now as we go.  My tip is 100%: ‘Build, build, build, build, build and build more’ and meet more, and go places and experience things more.

Also be aware as there are lots of people who come up to you and they’re like yeah, we care about accessibility and we’re going support you but in the last minute they drop out and they don’t care. And it’s similar to ‘green washing’. It’s quite difficult to learn who to go to and who not to go to and who’s reliable, who’s not reliable.  Through our work, Asha and I try to create opportunities where you can physically meet people who care. It’s been so amazing where I’ve seen people go on to win awards, set up immersive companies and create immersive content.

middle aged woman wearing VR headset and holding controllers in front of a window
Image credit Cheska Lotherington.

I love the stories where women over 60 attend and they don’t know what to do with their career. They’re really intrigued. They might be an opera singer, a filmmaker, a photographer or they might come from accounting and they’re like, what is this VR? And what do I do? How do I get there and at the very end of the day, they’ve created something tangible, nothing amazing, but maybe a giraffe in a VR environment or something like that and they realise this isn’t that difficult and that maybe they can do this, you know.  Having that growth mindset, that ability to fail quickly and try to meet the right people is key.

Speak to the right people. Hopefully you’ve got the right vibe and there are really fantastic communities in different metaverses AltSpace and VRChat and Rec Room. I make friends in Rec Room every single time I go in and they may be like 12 years old but you they’re really lovely and you can learn so much. Don’t be dismissive around age – Young people can really help you get to that next step.

My cofounder, he came from construction and quit his job because he got depressed. He found it difficult to tell his friends in real life so he went into VR and people taught him how to 3D build. Now he’s a 3D artist and brings brands into life in VR, so it’s all about getting into the right community and there are people out there who want to help, who will give their time.  Don’t be afraid if you’re a little bit older.  Be inspired always. Look for new experiences and sometimes it takes about, half a year until it clicks, but when it does click you know what you bring to the table is something that no one else can bring and that’s the kind of the magic of it.

Donna Close: You’ve worked as a filmmaker – what do you bring from that practice into your work now?

Nina Salomons: In my filmmaking, I was always as interested is nonlinear storytelling. VR360 removes the camera and becomes immersive theatre. Everything that you create as a filmmaker is world building, which is also the premise of what I’m doing with my start-up. It’s about creating that world and bringing someone on a journey. It’s what I love about video games and immersive theatre.  In immersive theatre anything can go – there is a human-centric-ness to it.  I never expected this to happen, and the audience behaved in ways that we never expected. And I love what Tender Claws do in this space.

Immersive borrows from games, from films, from theatre, and just mashes them all together to get the best out of everything. There’s still story and structure, like act one, act two, act three it’s just done a little bit differently and I think that’s exciting.

Filmmakers might be very scared of it. I always just say throw away the frame, forget everything that you learned and think more about the possibilities of which roads that you can go into. I personally think that a machine learning is really interesting here, and I’m very excited to see what happens when we start integrating all of that into immersive spaces too.

Donna Close: What’s your vision of the future, Nina?

Nina Salomons: I don’t know why no one ever asked me this question before. They always ask me what is the worst future and what is the best future, and no one’s ever said what’s your future?

I guess, it would be a healthy relationship with technology. Because you know, my mind’s going wild at the moment and I’m imagining, well, what if you could hook up like a computer to like a bacteria and start talking to it, you know? It’d be like that movie Arrival. The aliens came, they shared knowledge. They were unique in their own perspective but can communicate. It’d be incredible to learn how whales think, what fish experience: all these strange creatures including humans being connected all together.

One of my favourite movies is Trolls 2, which celebrates diversity and inclusion. Don’t destroy everything and under rock music, there’s funk, jazz pop and it’s OK to be different and it’s good to celebrate uniqueness and something inside of you that’s really powerful. I always watch it when I’m feeling down!

It would be awesome if in the metaverse you had unique sets of language, culture, communities, but you 100% understood each other and you 100% respected each other’s uniqueness.

If you do interact with technology, you end up being more you and learn more about yourself and others. That would be a healthy relationship.

XRDI workshop. Image credit Cheska Lotherington

Prof Helen Kennedy: What one thing would you change to make democracy and inclusion in public material and virtual spaces of reality and not just a fantasy?

Nina Salomons: Layers. More layers.

There’s, like a really awesome spatial audio technology from Israel, Noveto Systems.  You look at a screen and you don’t put on any headphones and it tracks your eyes and you hear something just for you that no one else in the room can hear. It’s a trip. It’s really incredible. I am trying to use this as an example because it’s just for you in the same way as you put on glasses just for you.

If we had layers of like braille or big letters or audio implemented into layers in the same way as sign language on TV it’s accessible for everybody, information becomes 100% accessible.  The way we communicate and everything that we have, it’s all about knowledge. It’s all about communication, that’s what makes us human.

The biggest struggle with 360 films is language, right? Like if you want to translate your experience to another, it’s so expensive. What if you could just create a plugin that would allow you as a developer or creator to speak and share your stories with anybody and everybody in every language and every single way automatically. That would democratize the metaverse. If you had layers, different layers for different forms of accessibility that you required with really intelligent experiences that are uniquely responsive to your own individual circumstances, etcetera. It’s really fascinating.

It’s all about connecting, really. It’s just about understanding. And that means diplomacy. My father was a diplomat and poetry, language, diplomacy, it’s all about how we communicate with each other. If you keep traveling and moving to different places and speaking to different people, different cultures, you can struggle to communicate. If you could communicate, there’s just so much beauty and connection there that people miss out on.

Donna Close: Thank you Nina. Our next conversation will be with Catherine Allen, for our final interview in the series.

asian woman with long brown and blonde hair wearing pink lipstick and a black top
Nina Salomons.

Nina Salomons, Co-Founder of AnomieXR, VR therapy and coaching.