Tell us about what you do.
I am a front-end developer working at Hopin, a really great events platform. I build out the front-end and am responsible for making sure the user has a flawless experience. I love the intersection of design and coding, and front-end development really fits the bill there. I’m also the co-founder of vrcalm. It’s designed to support people with their mental wellbeing and combat anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
How did vrcalm come about?
I have a passion for technology that positively impacts people – specifically tech for good and social enterprises. I started to read around the online papers and scientific research about what had been done in the health field. And, my great-grandmother had dementia – so I had knowledge of her experience in her care home – so I took that as a potential opportunity to put my knowledge of VR into practice on a real-world problem.
The project helps people with their mental wellbeing, with a particular focus on seniors in care homes who are stuck inside, aren’t able to go outside whenever they like, and don’t have the autonomy that they might like to have.
Shortly after doing that project, I went to a hackathon, where I met someone who became my co-founder, who works on research and development, and we got some funding which enabled us to get headsets and focus on developing it. We then got to test it with people with dementia which was really exciting – we got some great feedback.
It’s been a whirlwind – I do it in my free time, evenings and weekends. Obviously, it’s not always going to be fun, it’s going to be stressful, there’s going to be problems along the way – but it’s been a great passion project to work on. Since it launched we’ve pivoted and adapted the product, and it’s grown a lot.
What’s happening with it today?
We’ve hit a bit of a roadblock. We haven’t been able to do testing the last year and a half due to the pandemic, and going into a care home just isn’t viable. But under the umbrella of vrcalm, I’ve been building out a new project in partnership with a startup in South Africa called Marimba Jam that is trying to improve the accessibility of indigenous African instruments in South Africa. They have this huge collection of all these awesome, indigenous African instruments and they go into schools to educate people on how to use them, the history of them, how they’ve been long forgotten in the rapid urbanization of South Africa. We’ve got campaign funding to help build that, which is great. It’s not only going to benefit students and seniors in South Africa – we’re also going to offer this as part of vrcalm in the UK. It’s great for cultural preservation and for mental wellbeing – interacting with such unique instruments is not something that a lot of people are able to do, it’s a moment of creative stimulation.
"You have to think about the user - what do they need, how will they interact with what you’ve built. You need to think about the accessibility side of things, from the colors that you’re working with, the size, what just looks good and pleasing to the eye."
Kudos on attracting so much funding for your projects. Tell us what that’s been like.
It can be exhausting! You can spend hours on an application and just get no response, which isn’t fun, but eventually, you get better and better and understand the process a lot more. You get much more natural when it comes to pitching and speaking and knowing your audience. I really empathize with any and every co-founder that has to go through this, especially those who do it alone.
What I can really see in my experience is that I’m fortunate to have this day job. So many startup founders rely on this as their main income stream, and when they’re pitching for funding, this isn’t just pitching for funding for a passion project, it’s pitching for an income.
What kind of advice would you give to someone who has this kind of passion project?
Keep an eye out for these opportunities, be constantly on the prowl for them because sometimes they’re not advertised where you might expect them to be. I find a lot of opportunities via Twitter, but some people might find them on LinkedIn or on Facebook. Just keep looking for them and keep applying.
"I think it’s one route you can go down which you can be assured that you’ll be set for a while – it’s just so future-proof."
What kind of skills do you need to have to be able to build something like vrcalm?
It’s a common misconception that if you are in the tech space, you’re a very logical or a mathematical person. I’m quite bad at maths - it’s never been my strong point - but I really enjoy the UI and UX side of things. It can be so very creative. You have to think about the user - what do they need, how will they interact with what you’ve built. You need to think about the accessibility side of things, from the colors that you’re working with, the size, what just looks good and pleasing to the eye.
Crucially, you’ve got to be really good at Googling. You need to know how to identify the problem and then research how to fix it. That’s really a fine art.
You’ve got to have user empathy too. As you can imagine, with vrcalm I have a huge challenge of understanding how a senior person will use a VR experience, because using a controller just isn’t viable. My great-grandmother would have issues using a TV controller, so I wouldn’t make seniors try and learn how to use this complex VR controller. There are so many assumptions you can make when you use it yourself, which you forget that it’s not applicable to everybody else.
It helps to enjoy it. I think a big part of learning something is to apply it in tandem with something else you enjoy. So, let’s just say, for example, if I was learning front-end development. It’d be more fun to build out a project which shows pictures of puppies than something really dull. Because motivation plays a big role in it, and when you’re developing, you will encounter so many problems, and it can be super draining and annoying, so you have to want to do it. It helps to try and see the synergies between what you enjoy, and coding, because it can be done.
Why do you think 3D is such an interesting space to be in right now?
It’s a really rapidly growing industry, so much more money is being pumped into it. It’s just got so much potential, not only in the gaming world, but in everything else, from health tech to collaboration to marketing. I think it’s one route you can go down which you can be assured that you’ll be set for a while – it’s just so future-proof. And it’s a very exciting place to be, and being at the forefront of it is awesome.
Read more about Hannah at hannahblair.co.uk
Follow her on Twitter @erhannah
Learn more about VR Calm