Reality Labs

Celebrating Black Excellence in AR/VR

February 28, 2020

From a fun effect added to a photo or video shared with friends on Instagram to fully immersive experiences that let us experience new worlds, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) have the power to bring the world a little closer together — helping people connect in new and interesting ways. In honor of Black History Month, we sat down with some members of the AR/VR community at Facebook and beyond to hear about their unique experiences and how they’re shaping the industry for the better.

Recommended Reading

Ommy Akhe: Fashion forward

After starting her own small clothing line at 15, Ommy Akhe had to learn the ropes of web development and infrastructure. “I always had an affinity for computing, or anything vaguely technical,” she says. “It all kind of escalated from there!”

Today, she works as a creative technologist focusing on social AR experiences. “I build immersive experiences for clients — from Instagram filters to installations,” Akhe explains. “Every day is different, and I’m constantly having to adapt and create for new use cases and the future, which I love.”

When it comes to Black history, past and present, Akhe looks to the fashion industry for inspiration. “I really do look up to and aspire to those in the fashion industry, Dapper Dan being a big example, but also modern-day figures such as Kerby Jean-Raymond and Virgil Abloh. In an industry that historically has not been representative of all walks of life, it is amazing to see designers and creators of color not only visible, but also being extremely influential.”

As for her own legacy, Akhe would “love to be considered somebody who thinks about the future and makes what she envisions in the present — whether that be in XR or any other field,” she says. “I’d encourage you all — as cliche as this sounds — to be the change that you’d like to see in the world.”

Charlene Atlas: Moving mountains

Since childhood, Charlene Atlas knew she wanted to make video games. “I loved playing games with my older brother and wanted to create the same fun for others,” she explains. After attending a science and technology magnet program in high school and completing her bachelor’s at the University of Southern California with a double major, she did just that, beginning as a test engineer on Xbox games.

After working in user experience design on HoloLens launch experiences and other incubation projects at Microsoft, Atlas joined Facebook Reality Labs as an interaction designer, where she helps invent and explore new technologies. “I love driving AR/VR technology to meaningfully improve people’s lives by focusing on the user at the research stage to unlock future product experiences,” she says. “We have a lot of fun envisioning and experiencing the future through concepts and prototypes!”

Looking back, Atlas points to Mae Jemison — the first Black woman to go into space — as one of her heroes. And with a NASA internship under her own belt, it’s not hard to see why. “If I hadn’t gone into games and AR/VR, I would likely be doing space exploration, so I like to think about that iconic picture of her floating in zero-G and imagine being her,” Atlas says. “Also, travel to Mars is not too far away, so who knows?”

In the future, Atlas wants to establish AR’s benefits to humanity toward bringing people closer to each other and to their own creativity. “We can accomplish a lot more together than we can alone,” she notes. “Find the right people to make history with, set a goal, and you can move mountains.”

Clorama Dorvilias: Mobilization through tech

After graduating with a bachelor’s in political science, Clorama Dorvilias realized the unique potential of technology to help mobilize and empower local communities. “In 2011, I noticed that technology was being underutilized to boost the impact of community stakeholders in local government, businesses, and community residents to organize and advocate for mutual interests,” she explains. “I took an initiative to build a membership website for stakeholders to share and exchange resources. The website did so well for attracting and distributing resources — I knew that this was the solution for the future.”

Dorvilias became a self-taught website developer and enrolled in online social media marketing courses. “I began my tech career as a ‘digital nomad’ freelancer,” she says. “I built websites for NGOs and women entrepreneurs (including Issa Rae) in 2014 and witnessed the value it brought to marginalized groups.”

At Facebook, Dorvilias works as a product manager on the AR/VR Social Experiences team. “Our mission is to expand human connection with virtual connections,” she notes. “It’s been thrilling to pioneer new features for Oculus Quest that enable users to grow a community of new friends to play and share experiences with in VR. Every day, I get to help design innovative solutions to big problems affecting people’s introduction to this experiential technology.”

Dorvilias singles out Harriet Tubman as her favorite figure from Black history. “Not only was she extremely brave and courageous, building the Underground Railroad, leading an armed expedition in the Civil War, and just continuously putting herself in harm’s way to free enslaved people, she had a heart and mind of gold,” she says. “She was multifaceted and used her freedom to liberate others. That woman was straight-up G.”

In her own right, Dorvilias feels a responsibility to give her work her all, living her passion and helping to shape emerging technology for people’s benefit. She also works to expand opportunities for underrepresented people to pursue their own passions in the tech industry through sponsorship, mentorship, and motivational talks.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Dorvilias says. “If your heart is truly in it, just keep learning from failures to improve the strategy of your approach.

Richard Duck: Opening doors

“I’ve always been a huge fan of the cutting edge, retro computers, and video games,” explains Richard Duck. “From learning BASIC to making retro computers work with modern tech, all of my passions led me to a career in technology.” 

After networking helped him parlay an internship at a large tech company into a career in video games, Duck made his way to Facebook and Oculus as a store operations manager. “I work on calendaring of launches, ensuring that our titles launch with accuracy, and improving processes for our developers as our platform grows,” he says. “It’s an important role as I help make sure that we all stick the landing.”

Duck’s favorite figure from Black history? Malcolm X. “I used to listen to his speeches while working on computer science projects,” he notes. “I knew about him in general, but listening to the passion and perfection of his words to describe his time (and our history) resonated with me.”

Duck says he aspires to pay it forward by opening doors and supporting others who aren’t traditionally invited into the spaces that he now has the privilege to occupy.

His advice to aspiring developers? “If you want to make a game, start making one now! You really can do it, and there’s a ton of information available. We even provide a tutorial on how to start your first VR application. Find others who are also working on game development, network, and create the future you want. Right now.”

Robbyn Ennis: Representation matters

Before joining Facebook, Diversity & Inclusion Marketing Program Manager Robbyn Ennis worked outside of tech — but the legacy of her career keeps going strong. “For the last 15 years, my job has been to ensure that underrepresented people are reached and represented in the world of advertising and marketing,” she explains. “I have spent most of my career proving why representation matters.”

At Facebook, Ennis leads the AR/VR team’s inclusion strategy and execution with consumers and developers. “We’re lucky enough to be present in an era where tech has become such a huge catalyst in changing the world for good!” she says. “This is why it’s even more critical and important to ensure we’re encouraging the growth of AR and VR in inclusive ways.”

When it comes to Black history, Ennis draws inspiration from novelist, editor, and professor Toni Morrison. “She was unapologetically Black by dedicating her life to telling stories of the Black experience in America during times when it was not popular,” Ennis notes. “Many people aren’t aware that when she wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye, she was a single mom of two who would wake up at 4:00 am every morning to write while her sons would sleep. This is just one example of her drive, passion, and commitment to her craft. She paved the way for generations of Black authors and creators after her to tell our stories.”

For her own part, Ennis advocates and pushes her colleagues to think differently in the hopes of removing barriers faced in today’s world.

“Black History is American History and should be acknowledged for the impact it’s played in all of our lives,” Ennis says. “We should also welcome the opportunity to celebrate such a rich history of diverse people, movements, and impact throughout the year, honoring the sacrifices made during Women’s History Month, Pride Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian Pacific Heritage Month, etc. I’m looking forward to a time when we won’t need the reminders to celebrate, educate, and honor year round.”

Hessvacio Hassan: Indie hustle

Fascinated by technology from an early age, Made in Brooklyn Games Co-Founder & Lead Developer Hessvacio Hassan actually spent his summers as a child in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. “One summer, I brought a Gameboy Color to share my with my Amish family, and everyone was blown away,” he recalls. “Just by a couple of pixels on a limited color palette, I could change a person’s entire perspective of the world. I saw how something as trivial as a bargain bin video game could affect people. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew I wanted to affect others like my experiences with games did for me.”

As the head of a minority-led indie studio, Hassan understands what it means to be small and scrappy. “We found ways to hustle a dollar out of 15 cents through development,” he says. “Navigating through the difficulties of developing games as an indie studio while also having full-time jobs almost felt like a mini-game: When we couldn't afford an office space, we worked out of a cafe. When we didn’t have VR hardware for testing (before the Oculus Start days), we worked on builds to test when we got access to equipment during classes, game jams, or had friends with hardware to spare.

Hassan points to two key figures from modern Black history as his sources of inspiration. “On the software side, Brian Fox has shown me that individual creators have the ability to solve problems with software, like GNU Bash shell, and make life easier for millions,” he says. “Aaron McGruder is a figure that I always look up to in terms of content creation. McGruder can create a dialog about subjects in Black culture by wrapping them in humor. Utilizing humor as a tool to disarm listeners helped open the floor for healthy discussion, which I felt wasn’t yet possible in this capacity. Deep subject wrapping like this is an art I am still trying to master, and it would be an honor to get to his level one day.”

Hassan is currently focused on the production of Museum Multiverse, a VR puzzle platformer that challenges the lack of representation of artists of color in institutional spaces. “I don’t really care about being remembered or making history — I am in love with the process of creation, and I know that I am not alone,” he says. “I hope my content and presence in the VR space inspires other underrepresented people to understand that making experiences is possible, no matter your income bracket or where you are from. You can change the world.”

Jasmine Hester: A rising tide

As soon as she got a taste of the tech industry, Jasmine Hester felt a passion ignite within her and knew she wanted more. “Very early on, I spearheaded the communication efforts for a leading company that specializes in artificial intelligence and speech recognition technologies integrated with financial service companies like HSBC, Barclays, Citi, and Wells Fargo,” she says. “As my career in tech progressed, I went on to lead and support integrated strategic campaigns and initiatives for consumer tech brands such as Verizon, Adobe, and eBay.”

As part of the AR/VR Communications team at Facebook, Hester now drives and supports high-impact communications programs for Oculus and Portal. “This is an exciting time for Facebook’s AR/VR hardware!” she explains. “They represent a depth of connection that people have never experienced before. I love that my work allows me to communicate our efforts and investment in AR/VR in a way that gets people excited about what’s available to them today, what these emerging technologies have to offer, and the future promise of AR/VR as the next computing platform — we’re just getting started!”

Hester’s hero is Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress. “Shirley Chisholm was relentless in breaking political barriers with respect to both race and gender,” notes Hester. “She was a pioneer and is a guiding influence in my life, especially as I strive to advance my career as a Black woman. She was truly one of a kind and a force to be reckoned with during her time. So, the next time you queue up Solange Knowles’s album, A Seat at the Table, be reminded of Chisholm’s words: ‘If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.’”

Adds Hester, “I aspire to leverage my own personal experiences as a woman of color to empower young women through mentorship and education to help them achieve their full potential in life and their careers. I believe when we uplift each other and work hard, we get the opportunities we deserve and amazing things start to happen. And the world, by all accounts, gets better.”

Hester also brings some advice to the table: “It’s pivotal that we acknowledge the excellence in each of us and commit to elevating ourselves. Because when one rises, we all rise.”

Oneil Howell: A family affair

From the early ’90s when his parents shared their love of science fiction TV shows and comics, Oneil Howell was hooked on tech. “Weekly series like Star Trek, Quantum Leap, Airwolf, and Knight Rider broadened my understanding of technology and the potential role it was going to play in our society’s future,” he says. “In college I became sort of a futurist myself by receiving a graduate degree in architecture with a thesis focusing on its influence on game design. This ultimately opened doors for me in the gaming industry, which subsequently landed me here at Facebook doing what I love on a daily basis: inspiring and shaping the future.”

As a level designer on the Oculus Strike Team, Howell draws on his deep knowledge of architecture to create immersive gameplay environments for the Oculus Platform. “Unique to Oculus, I help research and develop their latest tech,” he adds. “Our team creates use-case gameplay implementation of the tech to better refine the hardware. Our most recent byproduct of this was the well-received Dead and Buried II. It features kinetic gameplay with the unique freedom of full locomotion.”

When it comes to Black history, Howell doesn’t need to look far for inspiration. “My selection is personal, an ancestor of mine—my granduncle, Leonard P. Howell,” he says. “In the early 1900s, Jamaica was still under the colonial rule of Britain, and many of its citizens were still facing a tough and terrible life due to intolerance and segregation by the powers that be. My granduncle came face to face with these struggles every day, so he set out to Harlem, New York, where he met national hero Marcus Garvey. Together they created the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a group focused on economic self-sufficiency, unity, and the dismantling of racial-societal laws. This organization even gave birth to the Pan-African flag, a symbol of unity across the world to all descendants of Africa. My granduncle spent his entire life fighting for racial equality. Some notable victories were Jamaica’s independence from Britain as well as many schools of thought still practiced today. For me, my granduncle’s legacy is something I’m incredibly proud of.”

Looking ahead, Howell sees VR and immersive media as the next great technological leap in storytelling. “Technology should be used in service to humanity and as a tool to expand our empathy,” he says. “I’m hoping my content will help us see each other in a whole new light, entertain, and redefine empathy through experiential worlds hand-crafted by me.”

Deneesha Lawrence-Williams: Claiming space

“I’ve been surrounded by tech my whole life,” says Facebook Creative Producer, AR/VR Deneesha Lawrence-Williams. “My dad was an engineer and teacher in my home country of Trinidad and built the country’s first robot when I was very young. In the late ’90s, my older brother used to build his own computers, so my house was always filled with different computer parts.”

After beginning her career as a digital producer at various marketing agencies, Lawrence-Williams was hired as a producer at Google’s Creative Lab in New York. “That role allowed me to work on tech-forward projects related to artificial intelligence and AR/VR,” she says. “After Google, I landed a role at Facebook and have been here for almost three years.”

Lawrence-Williams has three favorite figures from Black history: Michelle Obama, Isabel Wilkerson, and Rhianna. “I  admire how Michelle Obama commands everyone’s respect as a strong Black woman,” she says. “Isabel Wilkerson wrote my favorite book ever: The Warmth of Other Suns. Through her writing, she provided me with the historical context of why racism and inequality are woven into every facet of American life. She opened my eyes to the importance of fighting against inequality. And ‘What Would Rihanna Do?’ is what I ask myself everyday. Rihanna is unapologetically Black and is able to be her authentic self, all while influencing culture. She makes it clear to the world that Black culture is American culture. I admire her for always speaking her truth.”

Through mentoring, speaking on panels, and injecting her own culture into her work, Lawrence-Williams says she hopes to help Black girls and women believe that they belong in all the spaces they occupy. “Every month is Black History month,” she says. “I believe that helping to ensure that Black people are tapped to drive and make decisions in marketing, tech, and business is where my impact will lie.”

Charlotte Lewis Jones: Behind the mask

“I got into tech from the hardware side of the house when I joined an end-to-end supply chain solutions company that designs and makes emerging tech products for companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon,” says Charlotte Lewis Jones, who joined Facebook in 2016 as an associate general counsel. “I was one of two lawyers supporting what felt like a startup within the company and was fully immersed in all that makes tech what it is (fast-paced, scrappy). Since joining the company, I have handled a wide breadth of legal issues while supporting various teams, including research, data collection, product testing and development, privacy, employment, and IP matters as well as commercial matters — and I’ve loved being a tech lawyer ever since.”

It’s difficult to choose just one favorite figure from Black history, so Lewis Jones chose two. “Literary works move me, so I’d say Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem ‘We Wear the Mask’ resonates with me probably far too often, at which point I have to decide if I need to put on a mask, what type of mask I may need to wear on a particular day and why,” she notes. “And importantly, Chester Himes wrote If He Hollers, Let Him Go. I haven’t been the same since reading that book.”

Looking to the future, Jones hopes to help pave the way while bringing others along with her. “I hope to make history by getting in on the ground floor of important emerging technologies, particularly AI, while ensuring other minorities are getting access to similar opportunities,” she says. “Specifically, I hire talented attorneys and outside counsel (OC) teams that are diverse and, with respect to OC, are able to stand out in their law firms, also making history, as young, minority associates and counsel bringing in meaningful work from Fortune 500 clients.”

Malcolm Wells: Revolution and evolution

Although he transitioned to the legal sphere, Facebook Lead Counsel, AR/VR Malcolm Wells started out as a software engineer at Raytheon after graduating from the University of Maryland. “I worked on a NASA project for about a year before transitioning to law school,” he explains. “After a few years working in the mergers and acquisitions field as a lawyer, I wanted to get back into tech. I landed at Facebook on the AR/VR legal team, and I’m happy to be back in tech.”

When it comes to Black history, Wells finds it too hard to choose just one favorite. “My favorite figures today in Black history are Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter, Malcolm X, and Tupac Shakur,” he says. “I admire Barack and Michelle because they are Black excellence personified. I admire the evolution of Jay-Z and Malcolm X. They were products of their environments but didn’t let that define their destiny or block their path. I admire Tupac because of the complexities of his humanity, which is showcased throughout his art. These individuals are great leaders not only through their words but also through their stories.”

Wells hopes to make history himself by contributing to the technological and social revolution driven by AR/VR. “On another note,” he adds, “I see myself making history by supporting others to achieve their goals and helping to open doors for those with obstacles in front of them.”

Black history, bright futures

This is just a small handful of the amazing people helping to shape Black history by breaking new ground in the fields of AR/VR and beyond. Members of the African diaspora are at the forefront of the tech industry, and we’re honored to be able to share some of their stories with you.