Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Sarah Jones is an immersive storyteller, using 360 degree technology and virtual reality to bring together new forms of narrative. Sarah focuses on technological embodiment, understanding an environment and culture through being someone else in a virtual world. Her works interrogate ideas of increased presence through multi-sensory films and challenging perspectives within the virtual world. These tools are consequently applied to educational scenarios to foster experiential learning through VR and Sarah is an advocate for using virtual reality technology for teaching and learning. Sarah is the co-founder of VR Girls UK and an active champion of women in technology. She is listed in the top 100 of global influencers in VR. She spent more than a decade working as a television reporter covering everything from the US elections 2008 to being in Sex and the City, Sarah moved into academia and works at Coventry University, happily spending her days immersed in a virtual world.
What does your job role entail?
I work as Deputy Head of School of Media and Performing Arts at Coventry University. I spend around half of my time in immersive technologies either for research, in film production or in education. My background is in television and I spent ten years working as a journalist, focusing on immersive journalism so this is then brought into my role here. I focus a lot of my work on how you can use VR to understand being someone else, rather than just being somewhere else in the virtual world. I then challenge the ideas of what creates virtual embodiment and how different sensory experiences can enhance that.
I see that you are an Apple Distinguished Educator, what does this mean and how has this helped in teaching in classrooms?
I was selected as an Apple Distinguished Educator in 2015, which brings me into a community of incredible educators that do amazing things in the classroom. In the last couple of years, I have focused my education practice in experiential learning and using this through immersive technologies, mostly around VR. I have been developing various educational resources for teachers and educators using 360-degree films, embodiment and also more student-created resources, using platforms like CoSpaces.io. VR in the classroom brings so many opportunities for students to learn through experience and create a unique deep learning environment that increases engagement, retention and creativity. I am currently working on a project using a film for schools in the geography curriculum and also a simulated news event for journalism students in universities.
What is VR Girls UK how did you come up with it? Did you set it up on your own or with other females?
I met Sammy Kingston when she interviewed me about being a “kickass woman in VR”. We spoke about the importance of establishing a network to shout about all the amazing women in the industry and to offer support for them as well. We had an amazing event at Somerset House at Bjork Digital, which was great because she has really seen how VR can bring together art, technology and music in a unique way that explores the tech. We had great support from AMD and Rewind and so many women working within the space came to share ideas, work and network.
What was the biggest obstacle?
Time is always the obstacle for so many people. Otherwise, we have great support from so many people to use this as a platform to shout about the amazing work being done in VR, not just because it’s being done by women, but because it’s simply amazing work.
Why is the #WomenInTech movement important to you?
I have two young girls so letting them see the faces of women in tech is really important. I’m a firm believer of “if you can see it, you can be it” and so we need to see the work of women in this space. One thing that drives me mad are ‘manels’ which are a familiar sight at some events.
Did you face any challenges being female in the journalism industry?
TV is an interesting area when discussing gender and challenges to being female. Discussions about hair and what you wear are common place. I remember being shouted at as I went brunette from being blonde. That’s all pretty commonplace. However, I also had great opportunities because of my gender. I always felt the need to convince people I was a ‘serious journalist’ as being a young female in the industry, stories about fluffy bunny rabbits and chocolate facials were often given to me.
I see that you have won many awards, what are your biggest achievements to date?
I work really hard. I don’t believe in a work-life balance as I love what I do and am happy to work all hours. It’s hard to name my biggest achievements, graduating from Warwick in Philosophy was a great achievement, I worked really hard to get the NY Correspondent job at GMTV and that was a big goal of mine and then consequently covering the US election in 2008. Establishing VR Girls UK and working within immersive technologies is another big achievement. And then there’s my girls, who are incredible!
What are your projects you are currently working on with VR Girls UK?
We are working on a number of events for VR Girls UK. They are mostly focused around conferences, networking events and supporting women. We are also working on a directory to represent all the women working within VR so we can avoid any more ‘manels’.
How has your career progressed since being an ITV reporter to today?
I have always been interested in immersion and this began during the reporter involvement movement at ITV around 2004. I then moved into academia to really interrogate and challenge these ideas and to establish new and emerging forms of practice. I am doing my PhD in this area as well.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
I love Sheryl Sandberg and my screensaver is ‘what would you do if you weren’t afraid?”. I ask myself this all the time. My other favourite line of hers is; 'If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, get on, don't ask what seat.' You can do anything, if you believe it, you just have to do it.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in VR?
I love seeing people challenging ideas of storytelling within VR so people like Jessica Brillhart and Nonny De La Pena are great. I also have to shout out to my VR Girls UK partner in crime Sammy Kingston, who is a massive inspiration for young entrepreneurs and she’s killing it right now.