International Women's History Month: Celebrating women innovators, researchers & creators in XR
Updated: Mar 9
Extended Reality (XR) is a rapidly growing industry that encompasses virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality and is changing the way we experience collaboration, entertainment, education, and communication. While VR has been historically dominated by men, women have been making significant strides in this field as well. Women pioneers and game changers in VR have been breaking barriers and pushing boundaries, making extended reality a reality.
In this article, we will take a closer look at some of the notable women in XR, exploring their contributions, achievements, and impact on the industry. From developers, engineers and researchers to experience designers, entrepreneurs and activists, these women have been driving innovation and advancing the field of XR in unique and inspiring ways.
Through the stories of these women pioneers and game changers, we hope to shed light on the importance of diversity and representation in the XR industry and inspire the next generation of women and girls to pursue their passions in this exciting field.
[The names are mentioned in alphabetical order, based on the first name.]
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Ann Lasko-Harvill is a trailblazing woman in the field of virtual reality. At VPL Research, she held the position of Product Design Director, where she developed novel devices and user interface concepts for networked virtual reality. Among her notable inventions was the DataSuit™, a comprehensive full-body motion capture system.
Antonia Foster is a Senior XR Technical Specialist at Unity, a co-founder of the LGBTQ+ VR Museum, and a Web3 Circle of Trust Ambassador. She has won several awards for advocating for women and LGBTQ+ people in tech. Starting her career as a biologist with an MSc in animal behavior, she transitioned to the XR domain and is known for blending scientific expertise with radical science communication techniques. At our Web3 Gala by Evenness, she spoke about creating virtual spaces centered around inclusion and accessibility:
Anna Zhilyaeva is a globally-known artist and an early adopter of virtual reality who creates immersive art experiences with VR, holograms, and other technologies. She produces mixed-reality videos. Her creations are more than paintings, they are whole visual experiences. Anna utilizes Google Tilt Brush to produce remarkable virtual artwork. Among her masterpieces is a VR replica of the renowned painting "Liberty Leading the People" that was showcased at the Louvre.
Dr. Beth Marcus is an engineer, an inventor a founding CEO of EXOS, a startup that was acquired by Microsoft in 1996. She played a pivotal role in developing the Dexterous Hand Master, which remains one of the most advanced input devices used in virtual reality. Currently, she is the Senior Principal Technologist for Halo Health & Wellness at Amazon.
Dr. Brenda Laurel is a pioneering interaction designer, video game designer, and researcher who co-designed and produced the ground-breaking Virtual Reality system Placeholder. She is an advocate for diversity and inclusiveness in video games, and the founder and chair of the Graduate Design Program at California College of the Arts.
Carol Shaw: the pioneer female game developer, started her career as a Microprocessor Software Engineer at Atari. She worked for Atari, Inc. from 1978-1980 where she designed multiple games including 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe (1978) and Video Checkers (1980). After Atari, Carol Shaw joined Activision where she created River Raid, a title almost universally regarded as a masterpiece of game design for the Atari 2600 console. It quickly became a classic and generated $500,000 in revenue by 1985.
Dr. Caroline Cruz-Neira is a pioneer in the areas of virtual reality and interactive visualization known worldwide for being the creator of the CAVE virtual reality system. With over 100 publications and $75 million in awards, grants, contracts, and donations, she has received numerous national and international recognition. Dr. Cruz-Neira has been inducted as a member of the National Academy of Engineering, an ACM Computer Pioneer, and received the IEEE Virtual Reality Technical Achievement Award and the Distinguished Career Award from the International Digital Media & Arts Society among other national and international recognitions for her contributions to the field.
Carrie Heeter is known as an award-winning designer and developer of cyber meditation experiences. She designed and directed the development of more than 50 interactive experiences including meditations, games, online learning systems, virtual reality, and patient empowerment software. Her many awards include Discover Magazine’s Software Innovation of the Year and Meaningful Play’s Most Innovative Game. As a professor of Media and Information at Michigan State University, she ran a lab and created works like “Hands over Hawaii” where participants saw their real hands inside of a photorealistic virtual Hawaii.
Cathy Hackl is a globally recognized metaverse/web3 strategist, tech futurist, sought-after business executive, speaker and media personality with deep expertise working in metaverse-related fields with companies like HTC VIVE, Magic Leap, and Amazon Web Services. She’s the Chief Metaverse Officer & Co-founder of Journey, where she leads Journey's Metaverse Studio. Cathy Hackl actively invests her money and time in helping move the nascent web 3.0 industry forward.
Dr. Diane Gromala is a Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) computer scientist and designer, and a pioneering researcher in VR & interactive health technologies for chronic pain. She is the Founding Director of the Chronic Pain Research Institute & Pain Research Lab. Her VR research has been recognized as a Google Moonshot initiative and has been featured by various media outlets. Dr. Diane Gromala is a Distinguished SFU Professor at the School of Interactive Arts & Technology (SIAT).
Evelyn Miralles is a trailblazer and visionary who previously worked as the Chief Principal Engineer at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Her groundbreaking work in the Virtual Reality Laboratory at NASA has been instrumental in advancing human spaceflight exploration, specifically in training US and international astronauts for spacewalking and working outside spacecraft in microgravity. She currently serves as the Business Associate at Aegis Aerospace Inc. Miralles designed and co-wrote the state-of-the-art flight software called Dynamic Onboard Ubiquitous Graphics (DOUG), a Virtual Reality training tool that has been used to prepare astronauts for every Space Shuttle and International Space Station mission since 2000, earning her several awards. Miralles has received numerous accolades for her significant contributions to critical engineering tools for NASA's operations and is recognized as one of the BBC's Top 100 Inspirational Women in the World and CNET's Top 20 Most Influential Hispanics in Technology.
Dr. Jacquelyn (Jacki) Ford Morie is a pioneering VR researcher and artist who has been instrumental in advancing the VR industry and technology's capabilities by placing emotional experiences at the heart of immersive engagement. Her decades-long career has been marked by numerous achievements, including developing multi-sensory VR techniques using psychology and art to elicit powerful emotional responses from users. In 1999, she helped establish the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies, where she spent 14 years as a senior research scientist and patented a scent collar to deliver evocative odors within immersive environments. Notably, she co-created ANSIBLE, a virtual world ecosystem for psychological benefits and astronaut training for long and isolating missions to Mars at NASA.
Dr. Ingrid Daubechies is a Belgian physicist and mathematician who is known for her pioneering work on wavelets in image compression. She is a Distinguished Professor of Mathematics and Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke University. Her contributions to the field of signal processing have had a profound impact on audio, image, and video devices, communication systems, and the VR industry. In 2023, she became the first woman to receive the prestigious Wolf Prize in Mathematics. Learn more about Dr. Daubechies
Dr. Jannick Rolland is the Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering at the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester. She is also the co-founder and CTO of LighTopTech, a women-owned business focused on creating medical imaging technologies with biomimetic noninvasive imaging technology. Dr. Rolland has made significant contributions to the field of freeform optics, optical design, optical coherence tomography, and virtual reality. She has over 19k citations and is the Director of the NSF I/UCRC Center for Freeform Optics and the R.E. Hopkins Center for Optical Design and Engineering.
Dr. Karon MacLean is a computer scientist and researcher who has made significant contributions to the field of haptics, developing technologies that allow users to interact with virtual objects using touch and other physical feedback.
Dr. Margaret Dolinsky is a digital artist who has been creating virtual environments since 1995. Her work has been exhibited at various venues worldwide, including SIGGRAPH and Ars Electronica. She has also designed digital projections for opera and experimental film, including the American Opera Theater's "Annunciation + Visitation: Operatic Projections of her sexual insight". Dr. Dolinsky's handcrafted, AR, and 3D printed sculptures focus on how digital art enhances sensory awareness. Dolinsky is currently an Associate Professor and Area Head of Digital Art at Indiana University in Bloomington, holding a PhD from the University of Plymouth, UK and an MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her work involves digital painting fused into projections for opera and experimental film.
Dr. Margaret Minsky is a Visiting Professor of Interactive Media Arts at NYU-Shanghai. Her recent research areas are whole-body interaction, learning environments, and craft computing with research aimed at increasing cognitive, social, and physical wellbeing. Previous work includes the first technique for creating haptic textures (developed while at the MIT Media Lab and UNC), and Research Lead positions at Atari Cambridge Laboratory and Interval Research Corporation. She has published research in areas of computer graphics, computing learning environments, mechanical engineering, and served on numerous conference program committees including ACM Siggraph. She is also a recreational performer in Trapeze and Circus Arts.
Mary Lou Jepsen is a technical executive and inventor who specializes in display, imaging, and computer hardware. She co-founded One Laptop per Child (OLPC) and served as its first CTO. At Google X, she led two ambitious projects as a moonshot leader under Sergey Brin. Dr. Jepsen also held an executive role at Facebook/Oculus VR, where she spearheaded efforts to advance virtual reality technology.
Dr. Mary Whitton pursued a career in computer graphics technology after leaving her teaching job in 1976. She co-founded Ikonas Graphics Systems and Trancept Systems, which produced user-programmable hardware and software, serving markets such as seismic exploration and scientific simulation. Ms. Whitton held Director of Technical Marketing positions in Adage, Inc. and Sun Microsystems after Ikonas and Trancept were acquired by them. She is now a Research Professor of Computer Science at UNC Chapel Hill, leading the Effective Virtual Environments research group since 1998. Ms. Whitton has been actively involved in the Society of Women Engineers, ACM SIGGRAPH, ACM, and IEEE, holding leadership positions in these organizations. She was awarded the SIGGRAPH Outstanding Service Award in 2013 for her contributions and leadership in the organization. You can see her contributions here.
Dr. Maribeth Gandy is a computer scientist and the Director of the Interactive Media Technology Center at Georgia Tech. She is interested in creating compelling and entertaining user experiences through cutting-edge AR applications and often uses human-computer interaction techniques for design and evaluation. She teaches video game design and has developed entertainment applications for mobile devices, desktop computers, and museum installations. Maribeth is currently developing hand-held AR games to explore appropriate design processes, game mechanics, and interaction techniques. She is also involved in an NSF-funded project to develop cognitive games for older adults. Maribeth has collaborated with Duran Duran to integrate real-time AR effects into their live concerts and has performed usability analysis and evaluation on prototype products for healthcare, communication, and entertainment.
Nicole Stenger is among the first female VR artists, making her “VR Movie Trilogy” - Angels, Chambers, and Dynasty - at the University of Washington HIT lab that was completed in 1991.
Dr. Nonny de la Peña is the CEO of Emblematic Group, which uses advanced technologies to tell stories that deeply engage viewers. Her pioneering work in immersive journalism has earned her the nickname "The Godmother of Virtual Reality" and recognition from Fast Company as "One of the People Who Made the World More Creative." In 2007, her first VR project was a collaboration with digital artist Peggy Weil designed to bring Guantanamo Bay to the forefront of public consciousness. Together, they built a virtual Guantanamo Bay in Second Life, one of the earliest metaverse spaces. With over 20 years of experience in journalism and storytelling, Dr. de la Peña's VR projects have been featured by major media outlets and screened globally. She coined the term "immersive journalism" and premiered the first-ever VR documentary, Hunger in Los Angeles, at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.
Sylvia B. Wilbur, a British computer scientist who helped develop the ARPANET, and a leading researcher on computer-supported cooperative work, whose work included 9 research papers, such as "A Framework for Immersive Virtual Environments (FIVE): Speculations on the Role of Presence in Virtual Environments" and “Virtual Social Clubs: Meeting Places for the Internet Community.
Dr. Tish Shute pioneered innovative approaches to machine learning to create a new generation of augmented mobile social experiences. She served as a "Reality Architect" at Super Fun Club, where she collaborated with Will Wright, the creator of Sims and Sim City, to design advanced entertainment products such as smart toys and AR television. Until December 2022, she worked as a Director, Spatial Computing (AR/VR/AI), Strategy & Technology Planning at Futurewei Technologies where she developed new display technologies and innovative approaches for content creation. Using computer vision and AI, she aims to transform video and redefine XR communications and entertainment. Dr. Shute is also one of the co-founders of AR.ORG, a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of AR and VR, and the Augmented World Expo (AWE).
Dr. Victoria Interrante is a computer scientist specializing in computer graphics, scientific computing, and virtual environments. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on applying insights from visual perception and cognition to the development of more effective virtual reality experiences and the more effective communication of complex information through visual imagery. In addition to her appointment in Computer Science, she is currently serving as the director of the university-wide Center for Cognitive Sciences and as a member of the graduate faculty in two interdisciplinary programs: Cognitive Science and Human Factors & Ergonomics. Dr. Interrante is a recipient of the 2020 IEEE VGTC Virtual Reality Career Award and has a 20+ year history of mentoring undergraduate students in research
While there are many more women shaping the future of XR, may these shared profiles make you curious to conduct research and find many more stories that are out there. Thank you to all the incredible women innovators who have made the extended reality a reality of today!
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