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Published 1 year, 6 months ago

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Celebrating Women in VR: Q&A with Helen McWilliams

International Women's Day may be one day out of the year, but Oculus is celebrating all month. So, today, I'd like to highlight one of my talented friends and VR developers—Helen McWilliams, VP of Creative at Harmonix Music Systems.

Like me, Helen is a musician, and she loves to talk about music and the ways in which it brings people from all walks of life closer together. I worked with Helen on three of four VR titles made by Harmonix including Rock Band VR, SingSpace, and Dance Central. We adapted some of their most loved IP, gave it new life, and made it unique for people to play in VR. These titles fostered immersion and camaraderie in VR like no other.

How did you get your start in the tech industry?

Helen McWilliams: I started at Harmonix 16 years ago (!) as a QA Tester on EyeToy: AntiGrav. Was so thrilled to get a foot in the door, and basically just did every job and took every opportunity I could get for the next 16 years.

Tell us about your current role.

HM: I’m VP of Creative, which I’m pretty convinced is the best job at the studio. I get to drive a lot of new IP development and help shape the creative on the games we release. We have an AMAZING creative department, so a lot of my job involves putting rad people in positions where they can thrive and then ensuring they have the support they need to crush it.

Who’s your favorite figure from women’s history?

HM: Okay, so you asked my favorite, so I have to go with Joan Jett, haha. When I was a kid, I saw her on television—I think it was probably the “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” video—and distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, that’s what I am. Whatever that person is, that’s what I am.” She not only gave me a vision of the kind of musician I could be, but also gave me my first notion of a kind of identity I could have. A brilliant friend of mine said, “Rock ‘n’ roll is its own gender,” and Joan Jett was my first experience of what that meant.

How do you see yourself making women’s history?

HM: I have been incredibly lucky to be a part of video game history. I hope I can be one of many, many people of marginalized genders who can represent to young people that there is a place for them in video games, in tech, and really in any space they want to occupy.

If you could give one piece of advice to a young girl considering a career in tech or the arts, what would it be and why?

Multiple times in my career, I didn’t feel like I saw a role that I could take on—I don’t have a computer science degree, I’m garbage at art, I can’t read music—so I learned to invent roles that were custom-tailored to what I can and do bring to the table. I would say, Hey I wrote a req for a job that we really need here at the studio—it’s someone who can write in-game text and narrative, and produce our games, and direct VO, and do some PR, and manage people, and some random other stuff. We need somebody to do that job, and the title is X title, and oh hey look, I’m amazing at all of this, so you should give that job to me, and here’s what I want for a salary. You don’t need to fit any specific mold in order to add value—you have special strengths that any company would be thrilled to benefit from, and just promote the hell out of those strengths.

How do you see women pushing the state of the art forward in the fields of augmented and virtual reality?

One area where I think we are dramatically and quickly improving things is in the area of online/virtual comfort, and protecting against physical encroachment and harassment in VR. I’m not sure men who have experienced this less in the physical world are as cognizant of the need to protect and design strategies against it. I’ve watched that sort of protective design in VR improve so quickly in the last few years, and I believe women are driving it.

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Mar 17, 2020 at 05:08

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