Wisdom From The Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries, With Sarah Socia of OVR Technology
…Especially for young women beginning your career, when you’re interviewing at a company, don’t forget that you’re interviewing them, too. This advice has been helpful for me to ask the right questions to help me determine if it’s a good fit. I think finding a good fit is important, especially when you consider you spend about 40 hours at work per week, which is a good chunk of your waking hours.
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 Sarah Socia.
Sarah Socia is the VP of Scentware at OVR Technology, a company in Burlington, Vermont dedicated to incorporating olfaction into virtual reality for better outcomes in training, simulation, health and wellness. At OVR, Sarah spearheads scent R&D and manufacturing, as well as provides a scientific lens for product initiatives and research projects.
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 was adopted from South Korea and grew up in a small town of fewer than 2000 people in Vermont. Growing up I had diverse interests and wasn’t sure what career path I wanted to go down. I toyed with the ideas of being an artist, chef, engineer, doctor, and lawyer to name a few; on my college applications, I chose different majors. Mainly, I was curious and wanted to explore.
Ultimately, I attended the University of Vermont and majored in neuroscience, and minored in both psychology and chemistry. As an undergraduate, I assisted research studying the effects of a chemotherapy agent on the taste system on a cellular level in the laboratory of Dr. Eugene Delay, which was a great experience for cultivating laboratory bench skills and learning about academic research but after college, I wanted to see what else is outside the walls of traditional research.
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?
I’m in the midst of reading Behave: the Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky. The book dives into how hormones, brain structures, experiences, evolution, and more contribute to complex human behavior such as violence and empathy, along with nuances of those behaviors and how we perceive them. It resonates with me because it transcends the segmented scientific disciplines and unites so many areas of science to better understand human behavior. I really appreciate a multidisciplinary approach to examine ourselves and the world around us. Sapolsky explains many factors that shape complex human behavior while also making the content very digestible.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.
When I graduated college, I wasn’t looking for a job let alone a career in the X Reality Industry. In the beginning, I was ideally looking for something that mixed creativity, science and healthcare outcomes where each day was not a carbon copy of the last. However, most people I knew graduating with a neuroscience degree were following the more traditional paths of laboratory research in academia, graduate school or medical school. Less traditional paths weren’t well paved. So, when I first learned about OVR Technology and how they are incorporating olfaction into virtual reality for better real-world outcomes, I felt like I stumbled upon this unique magical opportunity. The work I do at OVR really blends together everything I was looking for: recreating scents is a mix of art and science, the product’s application isn’t for entertainment, but for real-world outcomes in markets including healthcare, and my input for strategic decisions often tap my learnings about neuroscience, sensory science, and psychology. Although my journey to the XR Reality industry wasn’t a laid-out map, I am inspired to continue because of the exciting progress and evidence that demonstrates how these new technologies can be used for positive change.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
In a recently published study, Dr. David Tomasi and team at the University of Vermont Medical Center were investigating the use of Olfactory Virtual Reality on wellbeing and reduction of pain, stress, and anxiety. Participants were immersed in the OVR Technology multisensory camping environment and asked to self-report levels of pain, stress, and anxiety during three timepoints (before, after, and immediately after the OVR experience). It was really exciting to support one of the first studies investigating olfactory virtual reality in an inpatient setting and being part of the groundwork of OVR Technology research. We’ve had a lot of positive anecdotal feedback from our demo experience, but it feels very validating to have some promising scientific data on the use of OVR, especially the use in a clinical setting; before experiencing olfactory virtual reality, the median self-reported stress level of patients was “9” on a 1–10 scale, and then immediately after experiencing OVR, the median self-reported stress level was “3”.
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?
Not all the scents created at OVR are particularly pleasant. We create a variety of malodors such as urine, feces, and burning flesh for medical VR applications and high-risk occupation training. So one day, I went to the office to work on a project with a coworker and I kept getting faint whiffs of a “feces” smell. I thought I might be imagining it, but after a while, I realized I had gotten some of the formulation on my shirt from production earlier in the day, and my coworker was too polite to say anything. Anyway, I learned to always have a spare set of clothes
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?
I’m very grateful for Kara McGuire who is a fellow woman in science and whom I’m fortunate to call a friend. Kara introduced me to the flavor and fragrance industry and has been an inspiring example of someone who doesn’t wait for opportunities to present themselves, and energetically embraces changes and challenges. I’m extremely grateful for her support, advice, and friendship.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We have some really exciting projects in the works. Currently, we’re working in collaboration with Daniel Stricker and his company DP Immersive, on “Shifting Homes”, an immersive multisensory virtual reality experience highlighting the effects of climate change in Samoa. Virtual reality is a powerful tool that facilitates understanding and connection to events happening around the world — there’s a level of “presence”, the feeling of being there, that a video or news article just doesn’t quite achieve.
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?
In no particular order, three things that excite me about the industry are: (1) the use of virtual reality in healthcare, (2) the rapidly growing body of VR research, and (3) continuous innovations pushing the boundaries.
It’s exciting that virtual reality isn’t just an entertaining gaming technology, but also has promising applications in healthcare. It’s being used to train surgeons, improve patient relaxation, reduce patients’ chronic pain, and more. These boundary-pushing capabilities are partially due to the rapid increase in VR adoption over the past few decades, which has been fueled by relatively affordable VR headsets entering the market. Another reason for VR adoption in healthcare is the growing body of research that validates peoples’ assumptions about the capabilities of VR; there are thousands of published studies. Along with research in healthcare, there are many groundbreaking studies exploring the potential of VR. An interesting area of research is virtual embodiment — there are studies demonstrating people feeling ownership and agency over a virtual body. This embodiment illusion has enabled people to ease death anxiety through virtual out-of-body experiences, as well as develop empathic connections by existing in a virtual body different from their physical body.
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?
A few things concern me about the VR, AR, and MR industry including the lack of prolific adoption, VR being dismissed as just a gaming technology, and user privacy. The headset sales are growing each year, but we’re still early in the adoption cycle. I’m optimistic that we will see more adoption as more people experience the technology, lower-cost options are available at the consumer level, and VR, AR, and MR industry infrastructure continues to grow. However, time will tell. It also concerns me that people have a narrow view of the potential of VR, AR and MR. When people think about these technologies they often think about entertainment and gaming, but these technologies can also be used to create positive outcomes in the workplace, healthcare, and education. Again, I think many people just need to try out the technology. We’ve had people that are skeptical about the addition of olfaction to virtual reality and dismiss the impact of smell, but then they try it and the gears start turning about all the ways it could be implemented. Lastly, I’m concerned about user privacy. With the connectedness and convenience that technology allows us, there are legitimate concerns about privacy including user personal, biometric, and psychometric data. I think it’s important that standards and guidelines are created for developers and companies by various stakeholders including consumers.
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?
VR, AR and MR are great tools for job training and skills acquisition, especially for high-risk occupations such as EMTs, and firefighters. Using VR, people can be immersed in various training scenarios that may otherwise be expensive to simulate, difficult to repeat, or potentially dangerous. These technologies can also be used to increase relaxation in the workplace which may result in greater productivity and engagement. There are studies that suggest nature VR environments, in particular, promote relaxation. A person who works in an office environment could be transported to a virtual forest, smell pine and flowers, and be led through a guided meditation.
Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?
There are many applications outside the workplace where VR, AR, and MR are improving lives, especially within healthcare. Dr. Skip Rizzo and team at the University of Southern California developed a multisensory virtual reality exposure therapy program called Bravemind to help treat veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress. Another example is Dr. Tomasi and colleagues at the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) who recently completed a study investigating the use of OVR Technology for wellbeing and reduction of pain, stress, and anxiety in the inpatient psychiatry unit. Participants self-reported levels of pain, stress, and anxiety before being immersed in an OVR camping environment, and then immediately after, as well as 1–3 hours after the OVR experience. The median patient self-reported scores were reduced across the board immediately after, and the reduction was maintained 1–3 hours after.
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?
Satisfied? No, I’m not satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM, but I am optimistic that we’re heading in the right direction. According to the Census Bureau, in 1970 women made up 8% of the STEM workforce, which has increased to 27% in 2019 — so we’re headed in the right direction but not there yet. I think it’s important to encourage women at a young age to pursue careers in STEM by providing them with opportunities to explore those fields, promoting diverse role models, and not gendering occupational roles. I also think it’s important for businesses in the STEM field not to grow complacent and continue to strive toward equality by breaking down the barriers for women to be in leadership roles and creating a healthy diverse workplace environment.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?
There are pervasive myths about virtual reality, as well as olfaction. As previously mentioned, many people think about VR, AR, and MR only in terms of entertainment, but these technologies can be levered for better outcomes in the real world. I think it’s important to underscore their capabilities in the realms of healthcare, training, and education. In regards to olfaction, our sense of smell is one of the most underappreciated senses. There’s a study referenced in TIME that found more than half of young people surveyed would rather lose their sense of smell rather than their laptop or cellphone. I’d like to dispel the myth that olfaction is just a “nice to have”. Our sense of smell provides us with insight into the invisible, silent, chemical world around us, and it is our only sense directly connected to the limbic system, which includes brain structure involved in memory, emotion, and behavior. Our sense of smell is responsible for the majority of what we perceive as flavor and notifies us of potential dangers such as spoiled food and nearby fires. A whiff of a familiar smell also has the powerful ability to evoke vivid memories.
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.)
First, especially for young women beginning your career, when you’re interviewing at a company, don’t forget that you’re interviewing them, too. This advice has been helpful for me to ask the right questions to help me determine if it’s a good fit. I think finding a good fit is important, especially when you consider you spend about 40 hours at work per week, which is a good chunk of your waking hours.
Second, celebrate your successes. It’s easy to get caught up in the forward momentum and where you’re headed next, but remember to pause and celebrate your successes.
Third, you can produce so much through collaboration. I’ve been working with our Head of Design/co-founder, Erik Cooper, on our circular economy initiative, and we were experimenting with techniques to best refurbish our cartridges. It was a collaborative process, bouncing ideas off each other, about developing the process, as well as finding and creating the tools for scaling the process. It was fun to hear about how we’d each approach a problem differently, and build upon each other ideas.
Fourth, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and need. Oftentimes the worst scenario is being told no, and more often than not you’ll be surprised with the outcomes. There have been times I’ve asked to sit in on meetings when the topic content sounds interesting or asked for a half-day off to recharge on a sunny day. You are your own best advocate.
Fifth, being busy doesn’t mean you’re making progress. At OVR, we’ve recently adopted an OSKRs framework, which is like OKRs (objective and key results), with an added S for strategy. It’s been a reminder to consciously think about our day-to-day work and assess whether or not it’s contributing to where we want to go.
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. 🙂
Part of what drew me to OVR was that the company is centered around creating a better virtual reality for a better reality. I would love to inspire a movement where VR, MR, and XR were affordable and widely available to use as tools that promote health and happiness in regards to both mind and body.
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 🙂
I would be interested in having lunch with Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize-winning psychology/economist. I’ve read his book Thinking Fast and Slow which included decades of his fascinating research around decision making, cognitive biases, and heuristics. I would be interested to learn about the journey and evolution of his research, as well as events and people that influenced and inspired him.
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 Sarah Socia of OVR… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.