Wisdom From The Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries, With Athena Demos of Big Rock Creative
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Lesson number two is more of a life lesson and I don’t want to say it’s a “women in tech” thing — it’s just a life lesson: Treat everyone as if they are greater than or equal to yourself. This has gotten me through a lot of situations in which someone wants to explain something to me that I already know. I learn about who the person is at that moment. They don’t know that I know the information, I should not get upset by them explaining it to me. The fact that they want me to be more informed on that information I am honored to receive but it takes work to listen in that way.
The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, as a part of our interview series called “Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Athena Demos
Athena Demos is the Co-founder of Big Rock Creative, producers of BRCvr, an award-winning, official virtual Burning Man experience. BRCvr and its partner, Microsoft’s AltspaceVR, offer the only fully immersive Burning Man experience built on a social VR platform and essentially is the first to create a true metaverse in social VR.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
I grew up in South Texas and spent my entire childhood there. I grew up on a ranch, so I was out in nature all the time. Trees, cows and horses were my childhood companions and mentors. It was a lovely way to grow up. In 1996, I moved to Southern California to pursue a career in acting and modeling. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to work steadily. I still do. Early on, I worked for many years as a figurative art model. My likeness has been in museums, galleries and shows all over the world. More recently, I became involved in film production. I spent eight and a half years working for an Oscar award winning documentary film company, Moriah Films, as their production manager. I was fortunate to be able to continue my acting, as well. During that same time, I increased my involvement in the Southern California Burning Man community. Within 15 years, I served as the Los Angeles regional contact producing festivals, orientations, and film festivals. I was a founder and producer of the LA Decompression Arts and Music Celebration in Downtown LA from 2002 to 2017 that saw hundreds of artists from the Burner community showcasing their art to the greater Los Angeles community.
So how did I get involved in VR? It’s quite the story. Because of my position with Burning Man, I was introduced to Greg Edwards. He had built a low-res Google cardboard version of Burning Man 2014 for VR. I was very excited to experience this version, but had no idea what it could lead to. I arranged for us to go to the Burning Man office in San Francisco and present it to the executive leadership team, including founder Larry Harvey. They loved it! But their lack of technological vision prevented them from doing anything with it. So, the virtual playa ended up on a hard drive on the top shelf of Greg’s closet.
Fast forward to 2020. The pandemic was shutting down all gatherings. My dear friend Doug Jacobson, who was already exploring VR, was looking for a way to celebrate his birthday. He contacted Greg to see about creating a venue for his party. Greg remembered he had the Burning Man playa he had created in 2014 on a hard drive. They dusted it off, literally, and gave it a whirl. Next thing you know, they were standing together on the virtual playa. Quickly, Greg and Doug called me to get involved. They asked me to once again reach out to the Burning Man leadership. At that exact moment, Burning Man announced the cancelation of Burning Man 2020. They asked us to help create a virtual version for the world to enjoy. That is how BRCvr was born.
I am in love with the XR space. The potential it presents artists to create is astounding. To the core of my being, I am a muse. I am here to inspire and facilitate the creative process. That is why I became an actress and production manager, why I worked as a figure model for artists, and why I got so involved with the Burning Man community. It has been a logical progression to my joyful journey in the XR space.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
My favorite film is Being There with Peter Sellers. The reason it is my favorite, besides the fact it is an exceptional film, is that it shows you the power of words and the way we understand words to be, and the many different meanings that one can take from the simplest of conversations. It makes you think how important it is to use your words wisely and to make sure that the meaning that you speak about something is received the way you wish it to be received.
You know, it’s the story of that game called telephone where you say something to somebody, who says something to somebody, who says something to somebody, but by the time it gets to the other end of the line it’s something completely different. It’s stuff like that that I find very fascinating. The film is also about being in the present moment, about living in a space of now, not worrying about the past, not having anxiety about the future, but just being here now. Being There really connected and resonated with me.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.
I never saw myself getting into the XR industry. I’m more of a community organizer than a technologist. How I ended up with Big Rock Creative and BRCvr is merely from community organizing. I am bringing the burner community together, encouraging them to build amazing art. And to create a community within BRCvr to field other people’s creativity into reality, literally and virtually.
The opportunity presented itself from an immediate need. We were in the middle of the pandemic and we needed to figure out a way in which Burn Week could happen because now, more than ever we needed it. We had this virtual playa from back in 2014 that was created for a solo experience. But it did not have an immediate use. Bringing us forward to 2020, now it does. My job was to engage the community and help them get the tools they needed to create their art, gather, and connect with each other. That’s how I got involved in extended reality — by community organizing. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I seriously doubt I would be in this industry. But now, I absolutely love the potential for art in this industry. I could not wish for a better place to bring the global Burning Man Community together.
At my core I am a muse. My purpose in life is to inspire creativity in others. That is why I got so involved in the Burning Man community. My first year at Burning Man was 1999. I immediately knew I was home. All I wanted to do was be of service to artists and their art. VR has allowed me to extend my passion for helping artists beyond my wildest dreams.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
This one is just near and dear to my heart. People think VR and AR are just a game. And you’re not really engaging. However, immersive social VR is very engaging and compelling. And it feels like reality. We have the Physical Meat Space (yes, meat) and we have the Virtual Meet Space.
Every year at Burning Man we have a temple where you can leave offerings. An element of your life you are ready to release. You can write a note on the temple. I’ve seen people leave everything from wedding dresses and ashes. I left photos of my dog and his collar after he died. My mother and I placed pictures of my dad after his death. The Temple is this place of acknowledgement and release. There was not a year that needed the temple more than 2020.
The Virtual Burn had a temple. You placed your offerings on a dedicated website. Decided whether it would be private or public. The public ones were shared in the virtual Temple. My dear friend Jim lost his daughter, in 2020 by some unknown problem they still haven’t quite figured it out. It was very quick and extremely painful. No one needed the temple more than Jim in that moment and he didn’t have one — but he did in VR. I was thankfully on the platform and present when the temple went live and he was there. And I said, “Jim we have to go to the temple and we have to go now.”
The Empyrean Temple was breathtaking. Jeremy Roush did the virtual temple design and built the World. Sylvia Lisse and Renzo designed the temple to be physically built. Easily one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had in VR.
Jim and I arrived at the temple. There was a general sound of calm reverberating through the virtual air. About five other people were there, spread out on the divergioning platforms looking at the offerings left on the Temple website. Jim clicked through the offerings trying to find the one he wrote to his daughter. It took over 45 minutes of clicking until he found it. He read it to her, there in the virtual Temple. He had that Temple moment. I held space for him as he cried that Earth shattering soul-crushing cry. Normally in the physical Temple you would hold someone and we call it holding space and I truly understood what it meant to hold space in that moment because I couldn’t touch him. All I could do was hold the space that he was in. I held out my avatar arms and I created a ball of energy around him while he cried. I said nothing and I listened. He took a deep breath in but his head was down, his Avatar head was down, he took a deep breath in, he sighed. It was so painful. He looked at me and he just said, “Athena, it’s so painful.” I took his hands in mine and we stared into each other’s eyes. I felt like I was staring directly into his eyes. He said he felt like he was staring directly into my eyes and we were avatars in virtual reality mourning, sharing and being together. That to me, is easily the most interesting story that happened to me. There have been lots of interesting stories and lots of interesting things but to be able to have that type of moment with another person in VR, that we normally only have in the physical world, and have it be compelling and engaging. It was an important moment.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I don’t consider myself a technologist. I didn’t spend my life learning technology. I don’t have a degree in computer science. It’s all a learning process for me. In May of 2020, I acquired my very first headset. It was the Oculus Go which didn’t really work well on AltspaceVR. I was living in Southern Mexico, where it is super hot and my headset would overheat after ten minutes. I needed to get something to prevent it from overheating. I looked for something like a gel ice pack, but it’s not really something they have in the tiny pueblo I was living in. So, I found one of those frozen marinated steaks that come pre-packaged in plastic. It was like an ice pack! I wrapped it in a sock and would hold it with my left hand on my GO and use my right hand to move around with the controller. That would give me an hour before the battery died. Then the steak would melt on one side, then I would flip the steak over to the other side. It was a hilarious solution. Ultimately, that technology and platform don’t really go together. I thought it was funny that I would spend everyday with a steak held onto my Oculus Go. I learned that I needed an Oculus 1. When they came out with the Oculus 2, I bought that, too. I learned that you need the hardware to go with the software. You really do. I’m learning from the ground floor. I have been sharing my early experiences to allow other people to feel empowered to learn. There are so many people that are like me, that aren’t used to being around technology. I can say, “Hey, I can do it, you can do it. I can get on this platform, you can get on this platform. I can learn the functionality, I can learn the basics of world-building and so can you!” It’s so empowering and inspiring.
Smooth roads are never something I’ve looked for. I like off-road adventures.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My business partner, Doug Jacobson. He is the perfect partner to achieve success with. He’s great to work with, he does have a full understanding of the technology, he loves it, he’s been around it. He is an accomplished editor and filmmaker and storyteller and VR and AR is very much about telling stories. Working with him is a dream.
His first year going to Burning Man was ’98 and he’s been documenting the event ever since. My first year was ’99. I think we met in 2001. Actually the first time we worked together, I was an actress in a movie he was making. We have been in the same communities and have gotten to know each other really well and become really close friends, his wife is one of my best friends. We fell into VR together.
We were both having monumental birthdays for 2020 and he wanted to have a big birthday party, but obviously we couldn’t gather because of the pandemic so he was looking for a way that we could gather. He started digging into the different VR platforms. He had a VR headset and was exploring options when he found AltspaceVR. He realized that their community was a lot like burners. That we would all get along really well.
Once he uploaded the digital playa from 2014 onto the AltspaceVR platform — he and Greg, who built the first 2014 playa, were standing there together on the VR playa and realized “oh my gosh this is a thing, we are here”. They quickly contacted me. I had just landed in Mexico after narrowly getting out of Panama as all the world was shutting down. On my little laptop computer I joined them on the virtual playa. I remember thinking, we are in three completely different places and we feel like we are all together.
That started the ball rolling. We decided that it was a good idea to build a company to be the foundation for BRCvr. That is the origin of Big Rock Creative. I had built companies before, so I jumped into action. Plus I know many people at the Burning Man organization, so I started reaching out to the people that I knew. All the pieces started to fall into place. It was the immediate need to have people participate, to be radically inclusive and work on a communal effort. The Burning Man Principles were in play.
The next thing we knew, Doug and I were in business. Many companies reached out to us post-Virtual Burn Week to see what we could build for them. Their company party, departmental celebration, their new office building. A way for their “community” to gather.
Now our vision is on virtual events. Both Doug and I have a background in physical event production. We are combining what we know from both worlds and creating something new. I couldn’t do that without Doug.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We just finished Virtual Burn Week 2021. Now my sights are on a new project we are excited about. We always center around community building, bridging global communities together. This new project will do just that. I’m not able to share much about it because we have NDAs signed.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?
I’m excited about mixed reality and hybrid events; the ways in which we are going to connect the globe. How people at an event in person are able to be present with people that are at that same event in virtual reality. Having the performer in person streamed into virtual reality and then what’s going on in virtual reality streamed back into physical reality and the ways in which the attendees of both can communicate with each other. Bridging the global community together into a “single space.” And I say “single space” in quotation marks because it is anything but a single space. It is more like a single space for consciousness. So we can all be in the safety of our own homes while being together as one.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
My number one concern with all of this is that we’re going to lose our connection with the natural world, lose our connection to the planet, to nature, the trees, grass, and birds. We’re going to ignore them. If we ignore them they will cease to exist. I don’t mean that in a metaphysical way. If we don’t pay attention to what’s going on in our environment, we won’t notice the changes that are happening like wildlife dying as their homes no longer exist. We need to pay attention to those things. So my VR mantra is “One hour in, one hour out” — If you spend an hour in your headset, then spend an hour outside with nature. If you have five hours in your headset, then go for a hike or bike ride. #OptOutside
I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?
Recently we had a company hire us to build their own New York office building in AltspaceVR. The building was recently completed just as Covid shut everything down and no one was able to experience the new building. We made it possible for their team to enjoy the new building virtually. We hosted an event to introduce them to their new work space. This virtual work space offers them the ability to work together and collaborate virtually.
A virtual work space helps with carbon footprint too. Many people travel for business. The airplanes, cars, hotels, and the whole system feeds a massive carbon footprint. Having a mixed reality workspace alleviates the pressure of our planet that business travel causes. Someone in China can be in an office in New York and collaborate without having to actually travel there. They don’t have to get in a car, to go to the airport, to get in an airplane, to fly to a place, to get in the car, to go to a hotel, to check into a hotel, to get into a car, to go to the office so that they can have that meeting — that entire carbon footprint goes away. We need to find a way for all of those different layers to continue and be sustainable while we lower our carbon footprint. I think a combination of physical in office meetings as well as augmented reality/virtual reality meetings will help.
Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?
XR allows us to come together as a humanity in a way that we have never been able to do before. We meet people of all different walks of life. When we meet people in the physical world we ask, “where are you from?” but in VR we ask “where are you?”. VR provides us with a tool for being in the now. Avatars give us the ability to be open to learning about a person first instead of making a decision before the learning begins. That is an opportunity to unify — to evolve from society to humanity.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in broader terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? If not, what specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
My first problem is with the question because STEM learning is limiting. I like to say STEAM learning. It’s science, technology, engineering, ARTS and math. We need the Arts in there. The Arts is out-of-the-box creative thinking. The Arts is using your imagination. The Arts are part of science, technology, engineering, and math. You have to have that creative out-of-the-box way of thinking.
So I think the first problem is that we are still stuck on STEM and we need to get stuck on STEAM. Steam is powerful. Steam gets a locomotive going.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth about working in XR is that you need to have a Computer Science degree to even understand it. While there are aspects that do require advanced skills in programming, there are positions for anyone with a love and curiosity in the XR industry. I can explain it by talking about building art at Burning Man.
At the physical Black Rock Desert when you’re building a piece of metal art you need designers, welders,and electricians. But there are people who do not have those skills but want to be a part of some big art piece. At Burning Man we have the principles of communal effort, participation, and radical inclusivity. Those three mean that everyone is included to participate in the joint effort and it is our goal to find where their skills can benefit the project. There’s some simple ways people can participate like bringing water or food to everyone who’s working, or helping to build the camp or driving the truck to the Playa. There’s all these roles I need to fill in order for the project to come to fruition. It is not all computer programmers you don’t have to know code. Maybe you’re really good at business, maybe you’re really good at bookkeeping, maybe you’re really good at spreadsheets, maybe you’re really good at community organizing. All of those aspects bring a project to fruition. Thinking you have to be a programmer to be in this industry is a myth. All you need is passion.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in Tech” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- I’m still learning and I’m open to learning and I’m excited about learning. My first foray into virtual reality was last year, when we started BRCvr and Big Rock Creative and it has been a learning curve of astronomical proportions, not just learning technology but also learning tech business. I have been open to meeting as many people as I can, networking, and learning from them. Every person you meet has something to teach and something worth learning. I come to every relationship I have with curiosity.
- Lesson number two is more of a life lesson and I don’t want to say it’s a “women in tech” thing — it’s just a life lesson: Treat everyone as if they are greater than or equal to yourself. This has gotten me through a lot of situations in which someone wants to explain something to me that I already know. I learn about who the person is at that moment. They don’t know that I know the information, I should not get upset by them explaining it to me. The fact that they want me to be more informed on that information I am honored to receive but it takes work to listen in that way. Now lucky, being new to virtual reality that I see everyone and every explanation as new information for me and the industry is changing so quickly that you have to be completely open to change at all times you might start working on a project and the technology just change it and what you’re doing great set it doesn’t work anymore you got to go in a different direction and it’s like a rocket shooting off into space and you’re just hanging on to all the information.
- Delegation is the key to sanity. Create a strong team of people you trust with various responsibilities, so you can concentrate on sailing the ship.
- Allow people to show up as their authentic selves at that moment while giving them room to shine.
- Have fun!
I am lucky to be a woman in tech because I get to nurture art, artists, technology, engineering, and science. I get to nurture community — it’s a privilege to be able to do that.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I want to inspire the Burning Man movement into a global VR platform for the understanding of the 10 Principles of Burning Man. So that people can take those principles and apply them to their life. I would like to see society, which is a group of homo sapiens evolve into Humanity, which is a group of human beings. We like to call ourselves human beings but are we really? What is a human being? It’s a humane being and to be humane means we have kindness, empathy, and compassion. We are humane to each other. We are humane as individuals and we are humane as a group. That is what makes us humanity. I would like to see and inspire through the virtual reality world a coming together of the global community that we evolve from society to humanity.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
There’s a long list — world leaders, leaders of organizations. I would love to sit with Kamala Harris and discuss all this with her. I think discussing the principles and how they apply to people’s lives and putting the A in STEM and making it STEAM. Talking about and showing her the ways in which we come together as a humanity in virtual reality. I think Kamala would be an excellent person to sit down with and share ideas.
UNESCO would also be great to work with and bring their projects into VR for all the globe to enjoy without the carbon footprint of getting there as well as the actual footprint of being there.
You know we have people that would love to go to Burning Man that can’t go. You know, President Obama, he couldn’t show his face at Burning Man, just wouldn’t happen — he would be walking about with his entire secret service. But he could come in VR and I think it would be useful to have someone like President Obama, President Biden, or Vice President Harris experience VR and what the community is like inside this world of our own. That’s why I want to reach out to governmental leaders.
Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work
Wisdom From The Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries, With Athena Demos of Big Rock… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.