Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Kim-Leigh Pontin enables teams to experiment with interaction design prototypes, identifying the opportunities and implications of emerging technologies. She is currently investigating new forms of interactive, immersive storytelling in AR + VR. Her specialties are: Conceptual innovation, interactive storytelling, interactive VR narrative, uncovering opportunities for emerging tech, pitching and presenting, creative direction, interaction design, UI design, motion transition design, motion sketching, prototyping, and major interests: challenging technology, public engagement, interactive narratives, natural interaction, invisible UI. She is Creative Interaction Director at Sky and VR Experience Designer at Kimeleon.TV.
What does your current job role in Sky entail? How about Kimeleon.TV?
KimeleonTV is my experimental design research practice. I arrive at discoveries through making, and having no outside commercial ties really frees me up to figure out how I truly think and feel about a subject. KimeleonTV uses a rapid prototyping process in the true sense of the term -- over 6 weeks it is possible to quickly sketch an idea through scriptwriting, working with actors, immersive theatre, user experience, gameplay mechanics, world creation, interaction design, prop design, and graphic design. The desired outcome is to create an experience that raises questions and discussions about emerging technologies and their effects.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
Before my masters I was an experienced interaction designer and creative director, in the interactive television space. I had spent many years trying to get a fluid TV interface for broadcast, into the real world, but my first two systems didn’t make it into production due to outside factors. There are many hurdles to overcome in big corporations – markets, technology, politics — many parameters are out of the designers’ control. As lead interaction designer for Sky Q, I was able to apply everything I’d learned from the previous projects, and I’m very proud of the product. It was great working with a wonderful team of visual designers and information architects to flesh out the detail.
Once I knew this product was going to make it to market in a reasonable state, I immediately wanted to do something else. I have a creative “problem" in that I enjoy learning so much, I value new discovery more than being an expert in a single field. Sometimes it’s a challenge to communicate to other designers that there is this “other" role in design that is not necessarily based on craftsmanship, but relentless curiosity.
Designers are taught to be craftspeople, to be polishers and problem-solving experts in a micro-domain of production. I’ve always been working in emerging technologies where the rules haven’t been written yet, so I’ve become an “expert” in being comfortable with not being an expert. It’s harder than it sounds! It’s very comforting to know what you are doing. I now trust myself in uncomfortable situations.
I was lucky to get into VR by being slightly ahead of the most recent interest explosion. Because my interest is not purely in gaming, but in interactive cinematic / narrative experiences, there is still a lot of uncharted territory to explore. Some of the challenges have been in understanding the different cultures of all the crossover industries in this space — broadcasters think differently from game studios think differently from design studios think differently from artists think differently from post-production houses think differently from theatre production think differently from technology corporations. Finding a common language is a huge challenge.
Has your arts degree helped in your product design process for VR industry?
My BA was a long time ago, in photography and "multi-media" as they called it then. Photography has been a huge help in terms of understanding lighting principles and how to create with a camera in mind. Multimedia was a good intro to systems design, but software and systems go out of date so quickly that the best thing was to learn how to learn. My recent masters helped me, in that my course, the Design Interactions MA at the Royal College of Art, is well respected in innovation and research fields – this is because the Design Interactions approach uses design methods as a probe for speculation, rather then purely a problem-solving tool for industry. I worked at Apple in their research / prototyping dept for 3 months directly off the back of connections made on that course. Sadly the course is no longer running. I do worry that education in general is so commercially driven now that designers are being given less room to think about why they are making the products and services they are making. I believe that now more than ever, designers and creative technologists have an ethical responsibility to consider the context in which we are making.
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle?
I’ve been a designer in interactive media since 1999. That’s a long time! When it comes to getting good work out, the biggest obstacle has been in convincing big corporations to invest in technologies where the path to monetisation is not clear. I completely understand why that’s an obstacle. I manage to convince them eventually, although I don’t always get credit for that. It helps to be bloody-minded, have a consistent vision and be persistent.
What are your projects you are currently working on within both companies?
KimeleonTV have been running a one-to-one immersive theatre / mixed reality piece since mid-2016, called Human Imagination Task Force. This explores the psychological effects of mixed reality, through a narrative sparked by the idea of hacking the imagination to plant false memories. In a world of “alternative facts” it is important to draw attention to the science of how malleable our memories are.
This piece has led to a huge amount of learning for me in terms of VR experience design, the nature of identity in VR, interactive storytelling mechanics etc — and all those threads can be developed further on the projects I work on with the talented team at Sky VR. I can’t really outline exactly what I’m working on at Sky VR but it’s really a lot of fun — the future of media without a doubt exists in this space. I’m heavily involved in content-making at this point, with an emerging focus on interactive drama / speculative fiction.
What does the #WomenInVR movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur and woman in VR industry?
Any support that women can give to each other is so needed. We are in a male dominated world, without a doubt, and the tech industries are particularly bro-centric. Our culture, our very language is constructed to promote masculine ways of communicating and dealing with the world, women are held to account for the way they look and communicate simply because we don’t act like men. Yet if we act like men we are also criticised for being too aggressive. All of this chips away at female confidence, and without confidence we end up in a self-fulfilling spiral of self-doubt. Big yourselves up, ladies! Diversity is not a buzz word, it is absolutely necessary for true innovation.
The WomenInVR movement is essential for the VR industry to become mainstream. Social interaction is going to be huge, and women are great assets to helping figure this out. Altspace VR recently did a great job with a female-led team in creating the Space Bubble, a personal space protector to limit VR harassment. Without this solution, it can be kind of creepy pretty quickly. Men don’t really experience these social spaces in the same way women do, so it’s very, very important to have women involved in the design process.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
The humble-bragger in me should say things like winning the BAFTA and D&AD for interactive TV when I was at the BBC, ooh la la! But although awards are nice, I’m most happy about my recent achievement of moving into content design again. I’m still a (hybrid) product designer, but having the mix with content + experience design is something the design industry hasn’t validated yet. For me it feels natural to consider all elements of the experience at once, and the influence of global computation on all aspects of human culture means that understanding systems design is going to be an important part of content creation. I believe that one day, content + experience hybrid designers will be like the way visual + UX hybrid designers used to be viewed with skepticism, but now they are considered to be the sought after design unicorn. New kinds of storytelling are emerging and it’s so exciting for me to be learning more right now then I’ve ever learnt before.
What will be the key trends in the VR industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading? Do you think it’s going to get more popular and what industries it will affect most?
Mixed Reality is still in its infancy, and currently is being designed for enterprise with the likes of the Microsoft Hololens. There are wonderful applications visualising information in situ for engineers in construction, doctors in surgery, etc. Once the headset sizes come down, both in size and expense, it is going to really take off for the mass market. I see VR as escapism and MR as a way of enhancing the real world. Both are valid and exciting areas, and will need to use the same hardware eventually. MR will have advantages in that it will be less intrusive into peoples’ time and space. The fact that you can still see the real world means you can still carry on interacting with the real world (eating / walking etc).
This means it is more likely to have a broader reach and affect more industries. VR requires commitment on the user’s part, but commitment isn’t a bad thing. People pay to commit to an experience — films, theme parks all require commitment to the experience.
Can you name any prominent women in the industry that you admire?
Maria Ruskovic is the social genius of the VR world, the queen of connecting everyone to the right people. Debby Shepard of AltSpace, has the interests of women at heart, which are of course the interests of everyone. Everyone at GeekGirl. Samantha Kingston at Virtual Umbrella. Esther Kuforiji of The Jeli. Luciana Carvalho, VR/AR Evangelist. Alyssia Frankland, Breaking Fourth.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs in VR out there?
Separate yourself from your business, e.g. say “my business” or the name of the company rather than “I”. I find it hard to not minimise myself and my achievements, I constantly battle this – I hope your readers are beyond this but I suspect a lot of women still do it. I’ve only learnt this recently (highlighted by Merkel’s famous meeting with Trump), but I’ve noticed that a lot of men in tech won’t make eye contact with me during meetings / discussions, they will only talk to the other men even if I am the expert on the subject — which causes me to disengage as a self-protection mechanism. Don’t disengage if you notice this happening, it’s hard but try to engage more. Point it out when possible. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Equally, don’t wait for permission. Listen to yourself to figure out your vision and don’t be afraid to believe in it. A lot of people don’t have an accurate vision of the future -- it’s a wonderful thing, not a problem, if you do!
Who are your 3 inspirational women in VR?
Embodied Cognition experts
EleVR (Vi Hart + M Eifler) — check the Voices of VR episode
360 Filmmaker Avril Furness
Tiltbrush artist Liz Edwards
LinkedIn: Kim-Leigh Pontin
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, co-founder of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.