Jessica Ward ’08

wardMajored in linguistics and French; minored in media studies

Cofounder, Virtual Reality Los Angeles

SCRIPPS COLLEGE: Tell us about your career path—you’ve had an interesting trajectory, from working in more traditional media like music and film to working with 3-D and virtual-reality technologies. How did that unfold?

JESSICA WARD: If you had told me while I was a first-year student that one day in the future, this new social website (Facebook) would acquire a virtual-reality headset company (Oculus) that would revolutionize our world, and I would be a part of that revolution, I would have thought you were crazy. But here we are.

While at Scripps, I thought I would like working in some aspect of entertainment after graduation, but I didn’t really know how I would do it. Every summer I’d find internships in Hollywood, doing everything from assisting on a documentary film project about sex trafficking to getting coffees and lunches for old-school producers on the Warner Bros. studio lot. I began to learn how Hollywood operates and see how vastly different careers in entertainment can be. Through some early connections I made, however, I wound up managing the careers of several DJs in the electronic dance music world. Along the way, I developed a deep interest in new technologies.

Thanks to Scripps’ amazing study abroad program, I spent spring semester of my junior year in Paris. It changed my life—and I returned there for three months after graduation, greatly improving my French language skills. I never imagined my French skills would help me in the working world, but through a simple keyword search for “French” jobs in Los Angeles, I landed a job with a French company in the cinema technology industry. They provided 3-D glasses and 3-D cinema equipment, and they needed help developing their business in Los Angeles. As it was a start-up, I wore many hats and learned many different aspects related to running a business: accounting, invoicing, logistics, hardware, software, and customer service, along with French-English translation.

While there, I kept up to date on new technologies and entertainment. I had been following the excitement around the Oculus Rift and its successful Kickstarter in 2012. People wanted to feel as though they were actually stepping into another world—an experience that made 3-D television and movies pale in comparison. Virtual reality (VR) became the latest buzzword. It was also finally affordable, thanks to cell-phone technology. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it!

SC: You are a co-founder of Virtual Reality Los Angeles (VRLA). What is VRLA, and how did it come about?

JW: I had my first real taste of the VR renaissance at the 2014 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. I tried out many different kinds of VR head-mounted displays and games. The technology was early but promising. A few days later, Facebook announced they had acquired Oculus for $2 billion. Suddenly, the whole world was paying attention to VR.

I went to my first VRLA meet-up one month later in Los Angeles and joined the organizers. I helped coordinate the next event during the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), and from there we held VRLA events every few months. Because VR hardware was still mostly unavailable to the public, people could get these experiences solely at our events. VRLA has grown froma 100-person meet-up to a full-fledged expo with an attendance of more than 3,000—the largest in the nation—in the last two years. Los Angeles has become the hotbed of VR. The medium is a very welcome thing for game-makers and filmmakers here—they are excited about combining their technical and storytelling know-how and learning from each other. We recently launched a popular new initiative called VRLA School—monthly workshops where people can learn how to produce their own VR content.

SC: You are on the cutting edge of entertainment and gaming technologies. What are you most excited about?

JW: I’m excited about so many new technologies, but the untold powers of VR incite a passion in me. Many have called VR “the empathy machine,” and female storytellers in particular have a whole new extremely powerful medium in which to tell their stories. VR is already used successfully in areas beyond entertainment, such as cognitive therapy. And immersive journalism experiences like the award-winning Clouds Over Sidra (2015) are virtually transporting viewers to war-torn areas around the world, bringing a deeper understanding and impetus for justice.

The tech industry is still male-dominated, especially the gaming industry, and they’re driving VR adoption. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that discrimination toward women in tech still exists, but I’m noticing a change. Groups like Women in VR on Facebook are growing. Story-driven games with non-linear narratives, like Life Is Strange (a game currently for PC and consoles), are enjoying unprecedented success with female fans. VR might be one of the technologies that can push beyond the male-dominated culture of gaming and entertainment. The barrier to entry is being chipped away such that people of all genders, ages, races, and ethnic backgrounds can be a part of it.

For me, the most important thing has been the ability to adapt to change and evolve with the times. Scripps gave me the confidence to embrace the unknown, take initiative, communicate openly, and bravely interact with new technologies— skills that have been crucial to my career success. I’m exited for the future generations of women who will graduate from Scripps; their education will enable them to take on the challenges of emerging industries.

 

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