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Joowon Kim, Biodesign Digital Health Fellow at the TMC Innovation Institute

Joowon Kim_ TMC Fellow

Joowon Kim is the founder and CEO of Amodo Technologies LLC—a Houston-based interactive technology and VR company—as well as a Biodesign Digital Health Fellow at the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute. She’s an expert in VR game art, animation, mobile and video game development, business planning, and community outreach. She serves as a lecturer at the University of Houston and is the cofounder of the LevelUp Camp, which teaches kids how to design their own VR/AR environments, websites, and mobile apps. Most notably, she continually leverages her expertise to make the world a better place, paying thought to the philanthropic applications of her work through teaching, volunteering, and designing technology for public-spirited causes.

Ms. Kim graciously agreed to a 30-minute interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Questions

[] How did you initially get into virtual and augmented reality?

[Joowon Kim] I got into virtual reality during the Gear VR competition. They were asking developers to come up with ideas for Gear VR games and it was awesome because I was able to work with people from all over the United States; I collaborated with guys from Florida, Ohio, and Washington State. I was in charge of the art direction and game design.

At the time, I only had the regular 2D and 3D game development under my belt, but I’d always wanted to make VR games. I had a Gear VR with me, and I thought this is the best chance to see what could come out of it. The result was [a game called] The Bon Bon. We used Unity Engine and created an amazing experience‚ partly inspired by Ratatouille the movie. You’re a little mouse trying to save your dying grandmother by going to the French chef’s kitchen to collect all the desserts; the French chef is trying to kill you. As a first person experience, we learned a lot, because it was a lot of fun to play, but it created a bit of nausea. We learned a lot from the experience and we were able to implement co-ops, when two players can play at the same time. I think it was pretty unique in that way because there were very few multiplayer Gear VR games out.

[] As a fellow now with the TMC Innovation Institute, you’re plugged into the incredible potential of VR, specifically in healthcare. What do you think are some of the most promising and benevolent applications in the future?

[Joowon Kim] Let me go through the accelerators specifically. In the medical space, doctors do clinical rotations. The [VR] feedback from doctors or surgeons allows us to actually go into the surgery room and be able to touch and feel the equipment; we learn about the whole process. Today, for example, I went to the cardiology area and I think that VR would be fantastic for for training the doctors and the whole medical staff. Also, augmented reality could be very useful in the healthcare space. It’s going to be a lot of effort—not just from the technology gurus, but also from the health care administrators and the providers themselves. It’s going to take some time, but I hope that we can really come together because it takes a village to make a difference.

[] One of the things that I really admire about your experience is that it’s almost all non-profit. You taught how to make games through the University of Houston and other schools, and you also cofounded the LevelUp camps for kids. Now you’re working on the applications of VR/AR in healthcare, so that’s really admirable. Prior to getting into design, you had a computer science and software engineering background, right?

[Joowon Kim] Yes. My parents didn’t want me to go to an art school. I don’t know if you have any Asian friends, but you know how it is: “You’re going to be an engineer, lawyer, or doctor. Choose one!” I tried graphic design for two years, and then eventually, I switched to computer science and finished a degree with a double major in software engineering, as well.

I’m an artist; I’m very much right-brained, but I had to really develop that other side of the brain which I think complemented my skills. I can understand, communicate, and design complicated solutions with the engineers. Looking back, I think my parents guided me the right way by giving me that push that I needed.

[] I want to ask you about the demographics of your workplaces. Are you typically one of the only women in the room? Or is it pretty equal representation?

[Joowon Kim] Usually I am either the only woman in the room or in the group, or part of a small minority. I learned how to deal with it because going through school, I was surrounded by highly masculine guys; they say things that can be a little bit vulgar, but I didn’t show that I was offended because if you say something, you lose that camaraderie. So I kind of played like I was one of the guys going through school. But then there are certain guys that just disrespect me because I’m female; they just don’t know any better. I learned to not take it personally, and to not really respond. By responding to them, you give them more power. That was a hard-learned lesson going through school.

[] Was it verbal harassment or just them ignoring you?

[Joowon Kim] Verbal. My fault, I think, was to respond and give them the respect that they did not deserve. I’m very understanding and a great listener; I try to help people. I’m huge into meditation and that really helped to draw myself away from that situation, not to be just completely submersed in my emotions and interacting with those negative people.

[] I noticed among your numerous accomplishments, you’re a trained yoga teacher; that’s amazing.

[Joowon Kim] Modern Western society is taking yoga more as exercise, which is good because it draws people’s interest. But ultimately, I think yoga was developed so that you can sit for a long period of time and correct your posture, to be more in touch with your body and mind.

For me, meditation came after yoga, actually. I went through an awesome meditation course; I was going through a very difficult time in my life, and it gave me an enormous amount of strength and maturity. Spiritually—in life’s scheme of things—it leveled me up. I feel like I’m a different person because of that experience. It was ten days of silent meditation, so it was very difficult in the beginning, but you end up listening to yourself with your eyes closed and you identify a lot of things; you become your own guru, gaining the wisdom by going through your own experience and learning how to manage sensations in your body. That was the biggest takeaway. Anyone who is going through challenging times should consider meditation. That’s huge. The last company that I cofounded, which is now in Belgium, allowed cancer patients to use mediation and virtual reality to manage pain.

[] That’s very admirable and I imagine improved patients’ lives tremendously. Speaking of stresses, what types of challenges do you think women and minorities face in gaming and virtual reality?

[Joowon Kim] There are occasions where female players are sexually harassed in the VR space. I haven’t had that experience—only in playing normal games like World of Warcraft or something. The VR just makes it that much more visceral because you’re with that person. It’s not a third-person character you’re playing; someone is literally right behind you. The VR space is so intimate, and the people definitely give feedback. The terms of many games now say things like, “We don’t tolerate sexual harassment.” I’m sure there are other ways to protect the VR space, but at least that’s one step forward. I think being transparent and letting people know what has been happening is important. I really trust that the community will build a better system.

[] Do you have any advice for women who are aspiring to be in leadership in virtual reality, or create companies that help people as you’ve done?

[Joowon Kim] There are a lot of naysayers, even in articles that you may read. One might be titled, “Female Founders Have More Difficulty Raising Money than Male Counterparts,” and people will share that. I don’t usually comment or share that article because most likely, it may not be backed by the right type of data and it may bring people down. It’s the same thing as a racial issue, I feel. By putting some data out there that says, “You have more of a chance of failing,” it’s discouraging. Encouragement really can change the person’s future. I don’t want media to shape the future of what we are capable of. It’s important to focus on the positivity; believe in yourself that you know what is the best for you; follow your passion; and make a difference.

[] That actually reminded me of your dauntless approach to work that you had in college, too, despite any problems that you had with your colleagues. You kept your head down, focusing on your own potential and the more positive influences around you.

[Joowon Kim] Going back to meditation: don’t look outwards, but look deeply inwards because the wisdom really is inside. You’re the person who knows what’s best for you, and you can make the right decisions. And if you do not love yourself, then you cannot help anybody. If girls learn to love themselves, they can make a difference to the society and to the whole world. Learning that was hard for me, but yoga and meditation taught me a lot.