Tell us what you do Max!
That’s always a long answer! I work for a virtual reality production company that’s based in Eastern China, in a city called Hangzhou. We are a startup, which means I wear a lot of hats.
We do VR production, anywhere from 360 videos, safety training programs, to completely computer-generated VR world-building. We do these things using 360 cameras that are proprietary, along with proprietary software and a video player.
I started working for the company just over three years ago, I was living and studying in China at the time and randomly stumbled upon the job opening to be a Social Media Manager. I got that job, and my whole life changed. I ended up staying in China a year longer than anticipated, after quitting my old job. I managed their social media, while also making invoices, setting up PR campaigns, marketing campaigns, and a bunch of stuff I didn’t expect I would be doing.
Two years later I had to go back to the east coast to handle some personal things. And my boss and I always talked about having a U.S. branch. So we said, “Why don’t we just do the thing, set up the U.S. branch right now?”
Ever since I’ve gotten back I’ve been trying to get the U.S. branch going. So, now I do social media management, marketing, and business development. Business development is a big part of my job now, I do a lot of that. We are trying to transplant the success we’re seeing at the China branch, in a new market, which is not something I’ve ever done before. It’s really hard, but it’s also really cool and very rewarding.
Do you need a technical background to do what you do?
No! At times it’s extremely frustrating that I don’t, but I’ve noticed that you just have to understand the vernacular of the industry that you’re working in.
I had a lot of imposter syndrome in the past because I did not have a technical background. But at the end of the day, I realized that you don’t have a company without the people who are doing the business development, the marketing, the community management, etc. You just can’t succeed without these people in these roles. So, it’s important that you do sort of learn the language, but you don’t have to learn how to do it.
Who are your closest collaborators in your organization? Who do you work with most?
I work mostly with the business development guys on the China side, closely with our design team, and very closely with our CEO.
What is your favourite type of project to work on?
One project that I’ve been managing, and it was actually my first U.S.-based client, is a foundation that raises funds from donors to improve the economic, educational, and medical infrastructures of a third-world country. They raise almost all of their money through in-person events - galas, challenges, walks you can go on. So, obviously, this year, they’ve struggled immensely. But the country that they work with is full of innovation and up-and-coming tech and ideas, which the rest of the world is often ignorant about. So, one of their goals is to bring some attention and eventually make it sort of like a technological hub.
The foundation is very interested in utilizing new technologies to both raise money and also bring a more positive light to the country.
So what we’re doing is completely rebuilding, using blueprints and photos and videos in VR, one of the buildings that they built that was very beneficial to the community, and we’re going to co-host events with the foundation. There’ll be plaques on the wall, museum-like elements that teach you things, there will be speakers and presentations and some interactive elements that give you the feeling that you’re in that building, in that country. Hopefully, it will incentivize people to make a donation! VR is such an incredible tool for education.
Done properly, with VR you can enable the user to make neurological connections that essentially trick the audience’s brain into thinking and feeling that they are there in the situation.
This type of neurological impact strengthens when you have a virtual body, when you can look down and you can see your hands moving in a pretty natural way. Sometimes there’s even a mirror in the space, you can see your entire self in the mirror.
This type of real-world to virtual world movements and existence really puts you in this environment neurologically. So, whatever you experience in that environment, whatever you do, it’s going to connect with you much, much, much more deeply than if you’re just playing a console.
When I was in university, I actually did a field study for about two semesters and wrote a thesis on using virtual reality for education. I narrowed in on how it can be used for building empathy and diminishing implicit biases. So, all of a sudden, this became my world and I was able to understand the power that this technology has for good, which is why now I’m putting all of my business development eggs in the basket of organizations and foundations and whoever is interested in using technology to improve the state of the world or the state of society.
I think most people who aren’t already in VR, think of it as an immersive gaming console or opportunity. But I want the mainstream public to see virtual reality for its educational potential, and its potential to completely change the world. Previously we’ve had to use textbooks to learn about new worlds. Imagine if you could step into that world instead and experience it.
"At this point, the virtual reality industry is a bit of a goldmine, because it’s still new enough and untapped enough that whatever you do, it’s highly possible that you’re the first one to do it."
There’s clearly huge potential for immersive tech. What responsibilities do you think people who are building these new worlds have?
I compare it to people who are in charge of building the real world. Whether you’re physically building the roads and the bridges and the houses, or if you’re making these 3D worlds, you are building the infrastructure and the foundation for where people are going to be existing, spending time, meeting people, working, and learning. And so the responsibility is huge. I think a lot of people don’t fully understand the consequences that are possible, whether they be positive or negative.
We are, in my opinion, a little way away from the mainstream public really spending significant time in what we call the metaverse, but we’re not that far away. At this point, the virtual reality industry is a bit of a goldmine, because it’s still new enough and untapped enough that whatever you do, it’s highly possible that you’re the first one to do it.
What would you say to those people who want to build a career in this space?
I went to school for global studies, and now I am head of the U.S. operations for a VR company. The CEO of my company never got a degree in anything, and now he’s running a 35-person, multinational VR company.
I’m not saying don’t go to school, but I’m saying don’t put too much pressure on yourself to have a degree or go get a degree that’s relevant. You’re trying to enter a market where nobody has gone to school for what they’re doing.
I would also say, because a lot of people ask the question, “can I get involved if I don’t have a technical background?” And I think everything that we’ve talked about proves that no, you don’t need a technical background, but you do need to study up. If you want to manage communities, or you want to manage social media, or marketing, or business development, or anything else that you can really think of, that's not technical in this industry you need to understand the vernacular of what you’re working with. The most important thing is you need to be diligent and you need to want to study.
And lastly, I would say it’s crucial to surround yourself in as many ways and places as you can in the industry. If you don’t have a headset yet, and you can't afford one – I know that they’re not the cheapest piece of technology to buy – but if you can afford one, get one because you need to start utilizing the experiences and what all of the possibilities are. Then you need to get yourself on social media. Twitter, I have found, is the most important place for meeting other people in the industry, and also having them know who you are. Just follow 500 or however many VR people, and your newsfeed will be flooded with VR news and VR trends. And by interacting with these professionals, they’ll start to remember who you are.
Utilizing Facebook groups is also extremely important. By doing a quick search in the group section for virtual reality, you’ll find general VR groups and you’ll find all of the cross-section of VR education, VR mental health, VR sports. Anything that you’re interested in, just join that group, start reading posts and start interacting with them. Once you really start surrounding yourself with it, the knowledge just floods in automatically without you even having to try. Also, you’ll have access to a lot of job opportunities, because that’s where they get posted.
"Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to have a degree or go get a degree that’s relevant. You’re trying to enter a market where nobody has gone to school for what they’re doing."
Great advice! Now, you are a neurodiversity advocate - we’d love to know more about that.
I have had epilepsy and chronic Lyme disease for almost a decade now. The last two years of my life have been much higher quality than the previous eight before those because luckily, I was able to get both my epilepsy and my chronic Lyme disease under control. But it took me eight years to get to that point.
Now I have all this energy I don’t want anyone anywhere to ever have to go through what I went through. So, now I spend a lot of time, mostly through social media, sharing tips and tricks with the chronic illness community and the epilepsy community. I learned a lot because I had to self-advocate the whole way through because the doctors just didn’t really know how to make my life better,
I get this question a lot: “Does VR give you seizures?” I consider myself to be one of the world’s luckiest epileptics because my medication was able to get my seizures under control and so I can go to things where there are strobe lights and VR doesn’t affect me in that way.
I am really, really keen to build VR experiences that explore what it’s like to live a day-to-day life, as an epileptic and also as somebody with chronic Lyme disease. Because I think there’s such a lack of knowledge for both of these conditions in the masses, nobody really knows what goes on behind a couple of the symptoms and how it really just changes your life completely.
I’d also like to build immersive experiences that are therapeutic for the people who do have the conditions and help them to improve their day-to-day lives. So, anyone who wants to fund that, please hit me up!
What would you want peers or bosses or juniors to know about someone who has conditions like this? How does it interplay with work?
It’s really, really difficult. There are days where you feel like you’re barely surviving.
For me, for example, my epilepsy and my Lyme disease were both on set in 10th grade in high school. I was a straight-A student, I never had to study for a test in my life, I just retained everything that I heard. And then practically overnight, I lost 21 IQ points and stopped being able to read. I was also sleeping 18 hours per day.
You can imagine how difficult it is to pass your classes and to hold a job successfully. And most chronic Lyme disease patients and many epileptics find that they can’t hold a job because of these things.
Advice to people out there first who might be dealing with certain medical or mental conditions, first things first is, if you don’t self-advocate, you will not make it.
In the first year of college, everything was still new to me, so I didn’t tell my professors, and I just started falling out of college. So, I dropped out for a year while I basically had to learn how to use what I call my new brain. I learned that I need to listen to books, instead of reading them, I learned that it’s better for me to do an oral presentation than write an essay. So, when I rejoined college, and when I got my jobs, the first thing that I would do is, I would sit my professors or my boss down and - even though it was embarrassing - tell them, these are my conditions, this is how they affect me, these are the tools that I’ve learned that help me succeed in this environment. And when you do that, if you’re working with good people, typically it goes over very well.
Advice for the people who may have an employee or a student who has one of these conditions is - you need to work with them because they want to succeed, they don’t want to let you down, they want to feel like there’s meaning in their life. We don’t want cheats, we don’t want shortcuts, but we do need to be given the freedom to learn information, to present information, and to present results in ways that we are capable of doing.
I would say the best thing you can do is to ask, “what is it like to have your condition, how does it affect you in this environment, and what types of things can we do together to work together to ensure that you succeed here?’ That’s the most important thing.