Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Morgan Mercer is a product-enthusiast and idealist who founded the social VR company Vantage Point in 2017. Vantage Point is a comprehensive sexual assault educational program conducted in virtual reality focusing on the core concepts of identifying sexual assault, sexual assault stigma, and bystander intervention through simulated learning. Prior to founding Vantage Point, she concurrently served as the Head of Digital for an e-commerce startup and an Analyst for a digital agency where she has worked on high-profile contracts focused on attitude change and behavior change within the domain of complex social issues. Morgan splits her time between Washington DC and Los Angeles, but has traveled to over 23 countries, serves as a mentor to inner city children, speaks on numerous panels, mentors at hackathons, and is proficient in Italian and Russian.
What is the idea behind your project / idea and how did you come up with it?
Vantage Point is leveraging virtual reality for education and training around sexual assault at the collegiate and corporate levels. I, personally, have close ties to the topic and my story is worst than most - and it’s one I’ve chosen never to share and haven’t been able to share until about a year ago. What I’ve realized over the years, and as I’ve grown up, is that sexual assault doesn’t stop. It just takes on new forms, and new faces. It starts as being raped or molested, and then it transforms into being pressured sexually by your peers in high school, and then it transforms into being date raped or being drugged in university, and then it transforms into being sexually harassed and assaulted in clubs, at work, and on the street. You force yourself to forget it, and you force yourself to ignore it, and then you find that most women (and men) don’t really talk about it unless somebody brings it up first. When you finally bring it up, you’re reminded that you’re not alone in your experiences. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, it’s just that nobody wants to be the first to talk about it. Our current training tools and educational tools fail to do what they’re intended to do, and we can see this via the statistics around the sexual assault landscape. This topic is important to me, and I want to play a role in changing those failures on behalf of society so that we can truly create the future we would want to presently live in.
We approach driver's education by playing students videos of stories from parents whose children were killed in drunk driving accidents. We iterate the consequences of an individual’s actions, but yet we approach sexual assault as such a textbook topic - so black and white. Don’t do it because it’s illegal, and don’t do it because it’s morally wrong. We fail to iterate the importance the individual plays in re-shaping the landscape. We fail to humanize the topic - a topic so pervasive that affects the large majority of the population. Further, we fail to provide users with training that takes into account how a user would actually react with the emotional stimuli present. If a user watches videos on how to respond when somebody tries to rob them, and then somebody actually tries to rob them, their response in that moment won’t be what they watched in the video because the video doesn’t take into account all of the external factors like fight or flight, psychological reactions, emotional stimuli… these are things we can simulate with VR. We can make these tools more effective by empowering users to make the right choices through simulating real-life situations - both as an individual and as a bystander. Through VR, we can place users in the same room as a survivor and create a personal narrative and dialogue around the topic - through storytelling of real-life situations. We can create the individual and global impact necessary to tackle this social issue.
When did all start and do you have other members in your team?
Actually, I first had this idea after hearing my good friend and now board member Sara Elizabeth Dill (Director of Criminal Justice Standards at the American Bar Association) give a TED talk in Monaco in November of 2016. Her talk was on women as weapons of war, and afterwards at the speaker dinner all of the keynote speakers were discussing the lack of education around responding to sexual violence. I quite literally woke up on a Thursday morning, three weeks following the trip, at 6am with the idea for Vantage Point, and I frantically texted both Sara and my other board member Samier to tell them about it. Fast forward a year, and I now have a full advisory board, a production agency, a few pending partnerships we’re in negotiations with, and a colleague - Louisa Spring.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
Within the industry - one year. Within my professional life - my entire life. I believe that everything is linked and that everything you face, accomplish, and master prepares you for the next level of your life.
What was the biggest obstacle?
It’s difficult to get into virtual reality when you don’t have a background that specifically relates to the space. The space is so nuanced. Coming from a marketing background, I couldn’t even go into marketing for virtual reality software companies because I would always hear that I ‘didn’t have experience marketing to developer communities’, or I ‘didn’t have experience marketing video games’. Ultimately, I think skills are not finite: if you’re a comedian and can connect with an audience, you can probably write a novel. If you can learn the overlaying fabric of the skill, you can apply it to anything. However, nobody else believed that (or could risk it) except for me - so I gave in and bought an Alienware with my tax refund, taught myself to code through self-run ‘coding bootcamps’ over the weekend, and started going to (and winning) hackathons. It was a much faster route than convincing people my skills were transferrable.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Most will argue that people are a product of their environment. Given my upbringing, the chances that I would be as accelerated as I am in life - both personally and professionally - were statistically improbable and not in my favor. My biggest achievement is being able to transcend my environment and to leverage anything I’ve overcome to make the world a better place for future generations.
What are your projects you are currently working on within your company?
We’re currently leveraging virtual reality to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment at the collegiate and corporate levels. Most people respond by telling us that it’s “timely”, but this has always been a pervasive issue that’s just been swept under the rug. It’s as timely now as it was a year ago, when we first started ideating this project, and our goal is to make sure “timely” is never linked with “sexual assault” within the same context in the future. We’re launching our crowdfunding campaign on November 1st with the hopes of raising enough to build out a prototype that we can pilot in the summer of 2018.
Private Crowdfunding Page with Secret Perk for WoW Community: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/2219994/x/17365789?secret_perk_token=35ce60b7
What We’re Doing
We want to get our audience involved in this conversation! We want to hear about your experiences, and why this matters to you. We are making it for you, after all! Everyone on our team has a close tie to this topic and a very personal reason about why this is important. We’re sharing our stores, and want to give you a chance to share your story too.
Why is this important to you? Why do you care about this?
We’ll give away two sets of 1 insta360 camera and 2 branded Google Cardboards to two randomly selected people who join the conversation. In addition, we will randomly select one person and fly them to LA to join the 360 experience as an extra!
Bonus - Send us a video and we might include it on our website! If you send it in 360 video, we might make you our Facebook banner for a day!
What will be the key trends in the AR/VR industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
I don’t think I can speak to this - I can absolutely state the trends I see and what I know the industry is discussing and trying to solve, but that’s common knowledge. If you want to know where the industry is heading, have one of the hardware manufacturers leak some information. They’re the ones with the knowledge. Without the hardware, you can’t have the software. Without the software, the hardware is useless. But we all know that you design content for the mediums people ingest it on - you don’t design the medium for the content.
What are the challenges of being a female founder and entrepreneur in AR/VR?
I almost don’t want to say this, but I feel like I have to if I want to be honest; having to worry what you look like. Women, more so than men, have to fight a double edged sword when it comes to appearance. Not only do you have to worry about the landscape as it pertains to the ‘tone’ you convey, but you also have to worry about how women perceive you because I feel like women can almost be as judgemental or more so judgemental than men when it comes to another female’s appearance which really can take a toll if you don’t learn to mentally silence it. Further, finding a core group of women allies. If you want to be the top 1%, you have to surround yourself with the top 1% but it’s difficult when there are significantly fewer women at the top. I recently went to a conference, and was bored on a layover so I counted the female-to-male ratio of keynote speakers: 1 to 4. That affects you psychologically, especially when you want to figure out how to become part of that 25%.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs in AR/VR out there?
Just do it. You can question yourself, and your abilities, and whether or not something is right for you or whether or not you’re right for it. You can listen to all of the people who question you, and who question your abilities, and who question why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you’re doing and whether or not you can actually do it - I think this is more so true for women. But at the end of the day, nobody else has to live with the consequences but you. So if it’s on your mind, just do it. Otherwise, you either live with the consequences of other people’s actions or you live out of fear. I would rather fail or be horribly embarrassed than live out of fear or let somebody I don’t know choose the course of my life.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in AR/VR?
First and foremost, my colleague Louisa Spring. She’s candid and meticulously calculated - her straightforward no-frills approach innately articulates a level of confidence that I have yet to see in many women in, and out of, the industry. Her qualifications and level of experience attest to the fact that she’s pioneered a space before the space had a grounds upon which to build. To me, this is the truest real-life articulation of a visionary. I’m honored that I’m able to both be able to learn from her and to work alongside her as we leverage virtual reality to combat sexual assault at Vantage Point.
Second, Rose Troche. When focusing on an issue, I feel that we tend to only focus on the issue at hand and forget that we all come to the table with a preconceived mental framework that’s composed of all of our experiences, desires, wishes, expectations and limitations of what we believe. This is why EQ is so important - our ability to empathize impacts the way that we connect. The ability to leverage a medium as infinite as virtual reality to quite literally communicate the nuances of communication requires an inherent level of pure narrative talent. Everybody tells stories, but Rose has a sixth sense for placing you inside of one.
Third, any and all women who choose to join the AR/VR community. I know what it’s like to not come from a technical background, but to be absolutely mesmerized by this sort of world of infinite possibilities that’s created by VR (that you can enable when you put a headset on). Regardless of how the women I meet initially got into VR, I always find that it required taking action and following her own curiosity - with the belief that this rather unknown medium can open the doors to worlds we can’t yet see.
Website URL: www.tryvantagepoint.com
LinkedIn: Vantage Point
Facebook: Vantage Point
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO 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.