As we navigate our way through a global pandemic, everything we know about technology—and our relationship with it—is being questioned. Discussions around virtual reality (VR) are blossoming as we look to new ways that we can work, learn, and have shared experiences online. Just ask CareerFoundry UX design graduate, mentor, and VR specialist Cordula Hansen PhD.
In our latest alumni spotlight, we (virtually) sat down with Cordula to talk about her journey from sculptor, to UX designer, to VR extraordinaire—and why we can expect VR to be a fixture in our lives a lot sooner than we might think…
Hi Cordula, thanks for joining us! To start, talk us through your background before becoming a CareerFoundry student.
Like most CareerFoundry students, I was thinking about a career change—though I prefer to think of it as more of an evolution. My undergraduate degree was in fine art, specifically sculpture. I then worked in several creative jobs before going back to school to do a Masters, which then spiraled into a Ph.D. To finance my studies, I took up a job as a teacher of art history. I started getting interested in design, from the process to the theoretical aspects. Before long, I was teaching design myself.
Through teaching design, I began learning more about UX and digital design. To solidify my knowledge, I enrolled in some UX design summer schools and—with the help of some facilitators from the industry—organized a few workshops for my students. I started a research group for design and social innovation and got super interested in design’s practical aspects. I wanted to hone the practical skills that could complement my theoretical knowledge. That’s when I knew I wanted to take it further.
What made you decide to take the CareerFoundry UX Design Program?
I didn’t want to go back to studying full-time at university—I needed something that I could do alongside my day job. When I came across the UX Design Program, I was struck by the one-to-one interaction with mentors, tutors, and career advisors. It felt like there would be a whole team dedicated to my success. I also liked the emphasis on the design process. I wanted to learn how UX works in real life, so I knew I’d made the right decision.
Once I’d completed the program, I took the Frontend Development Specialization. I had no experience in web development, so it was completely new. Having that specialization bridged the gap between coding and design—I wasn’t afraid of code anymore!
What’ve you been up to since finishing the program?
Since CareerFoundry, I’ve been working full-time as a freelance Virtual Reality (VR) designer, as well as mentoring for CareerFoundry. In 2018 I decided to take a career break, and I noticed that VR headsets were becoming more commercially available. That’s when I felt like it was the right time to delve into the field. There’s so much innovation happening in VR, so it’s been fascinating.
When did you first develop an interest in Virtual Reality?
It all started back in art school. Sculpting made me start thinking about digital technologies, but that was back in the later 90’ s, so the field was just emerging. The render technology required to digitally create things in 3D wasn’t accessible in university back then, so we forgot about it for the time being. The idea of spatial design would resurface later on in my research work. I remember a friend saying to me, “did you know you can buy headsets now?” and I was like, “where? Take all my money!” That’s when I realized there’d been more of an investment into virtual reality, and it was the right time to join the field.
How would you describe VR to someone who’s unfamiliar with it?
When you watch a movie, you know that what you see in front of you isn’t real. You’re not pretending that you’re actually in the movie; there’s a clear separation between the movie and yourself. But with VR, the idea is that you’re actually there in the space. You use things like headsets and trackers to simulate where you are in this computer-generated environment. Proper VR is also supposed to be interactive; you interact with your environment. It’s like a computer game, but the environment is all around you.
What were your next steps when exploring this field?
There’s an application called tilt brush, which is what a lot of VR designers use. It allows you to draw and design things digitally in 3D that you can then interact with in real life. It was a great starting point for me—it’s really addictive! The idea that you can walk around something you’ve designed digitally, for me, was a total eye opener. So I played around with that a lot.
What other skills, tools, and technologies did you have to learn to become a VR specialist?
It’s an ongoing learning curve. There were two things I needed to learn; the first one was how to merge UX design with VR. I knew that there were so many issues when designing VR applications, and a solid UX process was essential. Still, there are some pretty big differences. For example, when wireframing for VR, you’re wireframing and sketching for things that are all around you. Instead of wireframing on one piece of paper, you might, for example, put post-it notes all around you to see if you could physically reach them. That’s when I realized just how complex these processes were. The second thing I had to learn was the technology—the applications where you import your content and set the interactions. That’s what brings it all together.
There’s also a lot of theatre involved in VR. Instead of user mapping with pen and paper, you actually have to stand up and act things out, physically moving around the space to figure out the user journey. As a former sculptor, I really enjoyed that aspect.
What types of VR projects have you been involved in?
One project I was recently involved in was the creation of a blockchain browser in VR. We had a client in Malta, and he’d commissioned a team to develop a data visualization tool for blockchain. I was brought on to help define the user needs and pinpoint the design problem. I had to quickly get up to speed with blockchain, which was a challenge—but so much fun.
Right now, I’m creating some content on a VR platform called Somnium Space. It’s an experimental playground for VR creators. A couple of weekends ago, we had a VR burning man festival, and I got to make costumes for the avatars and do other cool stuff. I love to experiment so I can hone my skills. There’s a lot to learn!
What excites you about the future of VR?
VR is definitely a double-edged sword—it’s exciting and scary! There’s so much potential with remote learning and education, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what we can do. We can already see things like 3D media being incorporated into mobile apps, so innovation is already happening there. To be able to have that immersive entertainment experience during this pandemic is super exciting. There’s a lot of things you can do in VR that you can’t do in real life, like defying gravity—so from a creative point of view, the possibilities are endless. Also, things like hazard training and risk management scenarios that allow you to practice something dangerous in a simulator—like diffusing bombs, or engineering at height.
The flip side of VR is that it isn’t very accessible to wider audiences. There’s an investment threshold that you have to cross, and in terms of the ergonomics, it’s nowhere near where I think it could be in the future. We’re always asking, does the technology come first, or does the user come first? Who is this really benefiting? Are we making it as accessible as we could? So there are a lot of discussions happening there.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to work in the field of VR?
For designers, you have to be prepared to create your own job. There’s loads of work, but not so many jobs at the moment. You have to be prepared to create your own value proposition and be willing to work on multiple projects. Also, learning to code is a great step. I think that good designers can always create their own prototypes—you have to be able to talk to developers in their own language. If you’re happy to work freelance, and you’re up for the challenge, it’s so worth it!
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