Kimberly Cooper is the CEO and cofounder of Spatialand, a VR design platform and toolset for companies and individuals to shape immersive digital environments. She’s an expert in business development and leadership, and cofounded Prologue and Prologue Immersive, revolutionary companies which designed visual effects for Iron Man, Iron Man 2, X-Men, Tron, American Horror Story, and many other popular titles. Notably, Ms. Cooper received two Emmy nominations for her exceptional work on effects for the Academy Awards. Additionally, she’s a regular speaker at influential industry events such as the Women in Film Speaker Series and Digital Hollywood.
Ms. Cooper graciously agreed to a 30-minute interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] Not only have you cofounded two companies, which have created visual effects for internationally renowned movies, but you’ve also been nominated for two Emmys. In your ability to create effects for films—including Prologue’s work on Iron Man’s Jarvis Interface—you’ve probably thought about where virtual reality is headed. Can you tell me what you envision for the future of media consumption and how Spatialand is going to make that happen?
[Kimberly Cooper] Yes. You hit it on the head. We started Prologue in 2003 doing silent visual effects, and I got introduced to VR in 2014. The Iron Man project took a really big team here a year, but when I got into VR, I was just so inspired by the technology. It wasn’t really what I saw, because back in the day, VR wasn’t very good, but rather what was in my head; it was just the possibilities—everything you could do with the technology. So I was thinking wouldn’t it be great if brought our work on Iron Man into real life? If we could bring that into the real world, and make that really happen…
I think we’re still learning today what’s possible. At Spatialand, we’re building the stepping-stones to get to that augmented reality “Iron Man moment” from back in the day. How do you even begin to start to design and create? We’re building those basic tools that enterprises will need and eventually consumers will use. I believe that with VR you can create these spaces, and I call them “destinations” because they’re places you continue to go back and visit; you can get more information than you normally would from a book or a flat computer screen; you can interact.
I created educational content for Oculus like Science 360: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. That was one of the first VR pieces that we did. It was all done with illustrations, but after I created that, I realized how powerful VR could be to educate people. You learn in a different way. You’re experiencing information and stories so differently than if you are just reading them or if someone were to explain them to you. I think by learning this way, you are creating an experience for these users, which also creates a memory; I think that is an easier way to remember complex information—by interacting with it and seeing it in a dimensional way like in real life.
So I saw the power of VR there. Designing for VR is so much different than designing visual effects for film and TV. We create our designs in Photoshop, and then we bring that into VR and we have to make changes. We’re also starting to create these basic tools to use in virtual reality to create your own designs. The interfaces are very different and have artificial intelligence mixed with three-dimensional interfaces that hold dynamic data, and then adding fantastic visual effects and great sound. What I’ve learned is that the user experience and making something very intuitive is the hardest part of virtual reality. That’s been the most challenging part: how do you get people to understand how to use it, click it, and figure it out?
[OnlineEducation.com] Apart from the user experience, what are the major disjunctions between what you’ve imagined for the future of VR and what the reality is today?
[Kimberly Cooper] The thing that people in VR talk about all the time is when is the market going to be ready? When is everybody going to be able to have a headset and a PC, or whatever type of computer that will run these fantastic experiences? When is that going to happen? I don’t know if it’s going to hit the market like our cell phones or laptops, but I feel that VR is a component that people will eventually want and need to understand information in a different way. Until that time comes, you have to understand and do your R&D; you’ve got to stay alive with funding, projects, and jobs. At any moment, your company can run out of money or lose its startup funding. It’s all about time. You have a certain amount of money you’ve raised and it’s all about what you can do with that. How fast can you get more people to see the vision and what’s possible?
The other obstacle is just trying to stay alive, maintaining your young company. I created two VR companies: one is Prologue Immersive—our VR content company that works across education, entertainment, and film. We did a piece for a museum in Washington DC about the history of the Berlin Wall, which was pretty exciting. We also brought a VR series to YouTube about major crimes. My other company, Spatialand, covers tools and software platforms. My vision is that we are creating these tools and building these destinations for brands and enterprises; once those big destinations are made, consumers are going to want to build their own destinations to share with their friends. I think that people are going to create all types of destinations. Right now, everyone shares their photos. I think in the future, people will create destinations for others surrounded with things that they made.
I did a little experiment with my daughter. She’s applying to college, and to me, the whole college process is so painful for parents and students. I think every student probably breaks down and cries at some point. After all of these years, students still have to write about themselves a lot for the applications; I think that’s an old system. These kids are so incredible, and I think there’s more to them than just reading about them; I wish that there was a way you could see these students and who they are; what they do; and what their passions are. I think we can do it with VR. So I let my daughter use some of the Spatialand tools to see what she would come up with. Basically, she put in an art project that she had created and documented her process. She took a futuristic space, which was white with these big, giant bubbles all around her; in that space, she has this interactive timeline of her project where she documented the progress each day. You can touch it, read about it, and see pictures of it. So that’s all in this big space, and you can turn around to read about her and look at some comments from other people. For the project, she used a paper shredder, and she sorted the pieces by color; she used those pieces as paint to glue on a board to make the space. She assembled a mosaic face all with paper-shredded colors. That’s just one example, but I think VR allows us to see more.
At Spatialand, I believe that VR is not just a one-off or a one-time experience; I think that you can continue to go back to it. Again, it’s about the destinations, which are like websites, in a way, but in virtual space. In that destination, or spatial land, you’ll be able to carry information about a product with dynamic interfaces. You can pick your environment; you can add Twitter and Instagram; you can add 2D video, and so much more. We’re just trying to build what we did in Iron Man for real life.
[OnlineEducation.com] You said something so beautiful in an interview that touched on that. You spoke to Upload VR back in March and said, “We’ve fallen in love with something we can’t quite see,” which I was really struck by. My imagination is tickled by the prospect of everybody building their own immersive worlds, and you’re absolutely right: the experience is greatly enhanced if you have these multi-sensory mediums as opposed to flat paper.
[Kimberly Cooper] I truly believe in that statement. You’re just kind of in this black space; you’re trying to find your way, and there is something there that you’ve fallen in love with. Your curiosity has taken over, but you can’t quite see it. You know it’s going to be great, but it’s not fully formed yet. I think everyone is just trying to find their way to it.
[OnlineEducation.com] Who have been your greatest mentors?
[Kimberly Cooper] Laura Ziskin is one of my greatest mentors. I worked with her on “Stand Up to Cancer,” and she is the executive producer of all the Spiderman movies. She passed away, but she was a great leader. She would have these meetings and fill the room or the table with all these great people. Even though I felt sometimes I didn’t have the best ideas, she always believed in me, and that always gave me a lot of push. She gave me the courage to go after these dreams of mine, which I’m doing right now.
[OnlineEducation.com] I actually wanted to move a little to talk about the demographics in the industry. When you’re sitting around your table or speaking with clients, are you typically one of the only women in the room or is it more equitable?
[Kimberly Cooper] Yes, it is more male-dominant in the VR industry. There are times when I am the only woman in the room, but I just kind of ignore that. I try to just get past that. I do see more women joining the industry, and they’re excited and passionate. We all say the same thing, “Oh my gosh, it’s so great to have a woman in the room.” I’ve been to so many conferences and it is more male-dominant; we are the minority.
[OnlineEducation.com] Why do you think there aren’t as many women in technology and specifically VR?
[Kimberly Cooper] I think sometimes women pull back, especially when the meeting or the group is more male-dominant. I never want to design or create something in a bubble because it’s a pretty hard fall once you’re out there in the public and nobody really likes it or gets it. It is important to get all points of view and all sides.
[OnlineEducation.com] What advice do you have for women who are interested in working in VR?
[Kimberly Cooper] It took me about a year to make a proper deck to pitch to investors, but the great thing was that I actually started going to these VR conferences. My advice for getting women into a new industry is to go to a conference. Go to a conference; make friends; meet people; talk; figure out who’s doing what; and that’s where you start.