‘Be That Champion’: A Game Developer’s Uplifting Advice for the Next Generation of Women in Tech

by | 30 March 2021 | Conferences, Gaming, Industry Leaders

Image courtesy of Dr. Evie Powell

Dr. Evie Powell wears many hats — president and creative director of Verge of Brilliance, engineering manager for Proprio, gaming fan, and champion for those rising up in the industry. Evie’s passion for her work stems from a love of video games as a kid, and it’s only grown from there. We had the opportunity to sit down with Evie to hear about her contributions to the gaming industry, what technology she thinks deserves more love (hint: outer space and robots make an appearance), and the best advice she has for those coming up in tech, especially gaming and science.

SIGGRAPH: Share some background information on your career. What brought you to computer graphics? What’s your favorite thing about your job?

Evie Powell (EP): As a kid I think I spent, arguably, more time than is appropriate sitting in front of consoles and playing video games. Ever since then, I’ve been absolutely hooked. I also was a big music buff, so as I started to become more familiar with the amazing storytelling potential of video games, the idea that people are shaping these fantastic worlds and soundtracks to go with these games was something I couldn’t get out of my head. As a kid in middle school and high school, I was committed to getting into the industry, originally as a musician, but over time, as I started to think of it as a cheat, like, “Oh, I really want to do music, but it looks like it’s easier to break in as like a game programmer because those skills are a little harder to come by.” I decided to wiggle my way in the door with that and then switch over to music.

Honestly, as I started to learn more about programming and engineering in general, I realized I can create the music soundtrack which is really, really awesome, and not to diss anybody who does that, but I also can create the whole world around it, too.

I learned more about I wanted to do, and I went down a rabbit hole that led me toward an education in future computing, which included things like immersive experiences and pervasive game design, so that’s where I ended up getting my Ph.D.

My master’s was in graphics and visualization and so, by the time I was done, it landed me toward a career building some of this these experiences around next-generation technology, meaning things that were highly mobile, contextually aware experiences.

Eventually, I went to work at Microsoft for a few years on the Xbox and the Xbox Kinect system. I eventually started my own company building experimental games and wound up being a virtual reality architect at Proprio, which is a medical device company that focuses on using immersive technologies to aid surgeons.

SIGGRAPH: What is the best career advice you ever received? Who gave it?

EP: I would say that was probably my Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Tiffany Barnes, and what’s funny is that her advisor told her the same thing.

One day, I was sitting with her just listing off all of these things that I want to do and the research questions that I wanted to answer. Clearly, I would not have enough time to do all of that stuff, and she stopped me at one point and said, “Evie, I want you to know you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.”

That really resonated with me, not just from the pat-on-the-shoulder, you’re-an-awesome-person aspect of it, which was very much present. It also really honed in on the idea that to do great things, you have to prioritize, you have to plan, and you have to be mindful of your time.

“You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.”

SIGGRAPH: In your opinion, what technology doesn’t get a lot of love but has greatly improved the world?

EP: The thing that doesn’t get enough love today but has been around for a while is space exploration. I have my little moments when I get really excited about space exploration.

It’s not uncommon to overhear a conversation about why we put so much money into NASA, with people saying there’s nothing on any of these planets and that we need to focus our energies here, but looking out actually helps us better understand the world we live in.

A lot of the space exploration we’ve done has resulted in technologies that we use here on earth today, everything from braces and memory foam to prosthetics. There are many areas where space programs and space explorations and the technologies that have enabled those things, or the technologies that have been picked up along the way, directly influence people here on earth today.

With that in mind, the future of space exploration is absolutely wild. We talk about clean energy, windmills, and solar panels, but I look forward to when we can harness the full power of the sun, though I’m not sure that will happen in my lifetime.

I was watching a video about putting mirrors around the sun to figure out ways of harnessing that energy, and at that point, you would never really have to worry about running out of energy. It’s absolutely amazing to think about the hypothetical technologies out there just waiting for us to harness the energies of solar systems.

Besides space exploration, I think people are starting to get the idea of where robotics can go. Robotics is still in its infancy, though, and I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface of what robots could look like in our future.

The ideas and strategies people have for integrating robots into the day-to-day lives of average humans is truly fantastic. What are these helpers going to look like? Are they going to be androids, or are they going to be four-legged creatures that can run really fast or winged creatures that can scout a danger zone without any risk of injury. Maybe they could pull people out of rubble without actually putting other people in danger.

Many people worry that robots will end up taking human jobs, but we’ve been introducing technology into our world for forever now. I wouldn’t say my life has become necessarily easier because of technology, but now I can focus on much bigger problems. Robots could do so much for us.

SIGGRAPH: What excites you most about your work? Where does your passion come from?

EP: The thing that excites me now, especially in the work that I do with Proprio, is the idea of a reduction of distractions, a calmer world. I can see a future where you’re as fast, as efficient, or as smart as the contextual systems around you, so you don’t necessarily have to have a device on you that takes your attention away from the world. Instead of the world becoming busier, it becomes quieter, calmer, and everything is connected in a way that is relevant to you.

That’s a really exciting aspect of the work that I do with immersive technologies. It’s the idea that we can shape the world and its information to enhance us and to remove distractions, rather than add them.

One other aspect is immersive systems and technology and the idea that you’re using more of your senses to learn and gain information and experience data. This can lead to learning empathy for people who have different experiences than you. It’s much easier to put yourself in someone else’s shoes if you literally put on their shoes. There’s so much opportunity in the game and medical spaces if we can change the way we absorb information so that it’s more meaningful to us.

SIGGRAPH: What is one contribution you’ve made to the industry that has been most meaningful to you?

EP: A lot of the contributions I’ve made are in the realm of research, and I’ve explored embodiment. Where presence is the idea of feeling like you’re there, embodiment is the idea of acting like you’re there, meaning taking in different streams of information and doing things related to the activity that is being presented to you.

A lot of my early research, especially the research I did on “Epic Snowday Adventure“, was this idea of playing in snow. I remember sitting on the floor in my headset, and I had created a bare bones snow world around me with trees and snow falling from the sky. That by itself was triggering enough to make me realize that it felt colder than it used to. Then, I wanted to run my hands on the ground and make a snowball.

Instead of thinking about my controller as an assortment of buttons, I started thinking about it as an extension of my hands, how I’d scoop up snow, how quickly I’m moving my arms. What happens if I stack snowballs on top of each other? Now I’ve got a snowman. Building this play experience was more than pressing a button and getting a snowball and pressing a button to release the snowball, but actually swinging your arm toward a player and the satisfying feel of hitting them with an amount of speed.

It was that approach to game design that was really exciting, and I hadn’t approached games like that before. While I was building it, I felt this sense of embodiment that I hadn’t experienced before.

Immersive technology is really interesting in that way, because it’s hard to anticipate what’s going to bring a player into your world and also what’s going to bring them out of it. The early development phases focus on figuring out how to build a sense of trust for the players coming into your world and also what breaks that trust to bring them out of it. It’s kind of in its Wild West phase of people trying different things and seeing what happens, and I’m here for it.

SIGGRAPH: What’s one thing you keep at your desk that you can’t live without? Or that inspires you?

EP: There are a couple of different things that I keep at my desk. One is a little plushy that my girlfriend gave me. It’s that little dog that’s in a lot of memes, holding a cup of coffee with the world on fire. On days where things aren’t going my way, it’s the perfect thing to have on my desk.

The other is a set of non-prescription glasses. They’re super retro and look like they’re pixelated. I got them at a virtual reality conference several years ago, and I slip them on whenever I want to seem that much smarter. I always call them my “intelligence, plus two, charisma, minus one” glasses. They’re just a bit of humor that really makes me appreciate where I am in the world that I’ve found myself.

SIGGRAPH: Share a resource you frequent for inspiration.

EP: During non-pandemic times, I typically go to GDC and San Diego Comic-Con International. I’m not the most extroverted person, but being around so much culture and appreciation for the same things that I love excites me. It’s so exciting to see the latest and greatest in games, movies, and comics.

It’s an amazing experience to meet fans and developers and make connections with the rock stars of your element. It becomes my home away from home, especially as someone who is underrepresented. As a woman and person of color, events like these have a concentration of all of these people with similar interests. It’s a place where I see other people who are like me.

SIGGRAPH: What is your fondest SIGGRAPH conference memory?

EP: When I was in college, SIGGRAPH was paired with a conference called Sandbox, and Sandbox was really focused on gaming and things of that nature, and so I ended up going to a lot of SIGGRAPH and Sandbox crossover sessions.

I recall meeting some of the designers of Harmonix, who did “Guitar Hero,” and that was the perfect blend of music, which inspired me so much, and video games. I remember nerding out with people who also were playing that game and it had touched their lives like it touched mine. We talked about how the team put it together and how the music scrolled toward you on a musical highway. It was so humbling to talk with the designers and hear about their experience, because I definitely had the mentality of “I’m not worthy.”  

Connecting with other professionals made pursuing this career approachable. I recall at least one of those designers being a woman, and I didn’t see that often at the time, so that was exciting to me. Representation matters. People don’t always think of it, but it truly does matter.

Over time, I started to think of Dr. Barnes as a champion. It sounds like a big name and a big pedestal, but ultimately, the idea of it is simple. A champion is a person who believes that you can do the thing you’re setting out to do. For me, it’s super important that everybody has champions, whether you’re male or female or Black or white, you don’t get where you are without somebody believing that you can do what you’re setting out to do.

Having that dedicated person is very powerful, and I think it’s especially important for people in underrepresented communities, because sometimes it’s harder to find that person. A lot of times, people leave engineering or mathematics because they’re surrounded by people who aren’t championing them. Representation means seeing someone who’s in a position that you’re interested in being in some day, someone who looks, behaves, and acts a little more like you than all of your peers, and that means a lot.

SIGGRAPH: Finally, since we’re celebrating Women’s History Month, tell us a female pioneer you admire and why.

EP: I have trouble just narrowing it down to one person! By the time I finished my Ph.D., my Ph.D. advisory board was entirely women. Wow. I know. When I did my dissertation, one of my advisors said, “Can we just take a moment to be in awe of what’s happening right now?”

So this is a shared honor among my Ph.D. advisory board. It was such an amazing moment, and just because they were all women didn’t mean they were easy on me. But it was a really big moment to me and they were all part of that huge milestone in my life. All of them share a piece of the education that I have today, they all contributed to it in some way, and I will be forever grateful for that.

SIGGRAPH: What advice do you have for the next generation of women entering computer graphics?

EP: I’d say pay it forward, be that champion for someone else. It’s not even just that it’s important for the next generation of the industry, but it’s also a self-inspiring thing to do. You’ll quickly find out — once you start mentoring someone and sharing your experiences with other people — that a lot of people are struggling with things that you struggled with or maybe even continue to struggle with. The difference between them and you is time, and it’s very valuable knowledge for someone to go into an industry, knowing that they might not see people who match them for quite a while, and they’ll have moments where things don’t seem fair, they’ll have moments where they doubt whether or not they’re supposed to be in the field. They’ll experience imposter syndrome and microaggressions, and all of those things eat away at a person over time. Sometimes the answer is having someone else who says, “Yeah, that’s real. It’s not made up. It’s not in your head. And you can get through it.”

It’s so valuable and so important for the next generation to know that it’s possible to do the things that they want to do, and it’s possible to be happy and have an amazing career.

Celebrate women in computer graphics with us all year around! Discover more ACM SIGGRAPH Blog content women in computer graphics.

Dr. Evie Powell is an engineering manager at Proprio, a surgical imaging company fusing human and computer vision into a powerful new system for surgical performance. She leads the CoreUX engineering team and specializes in AR/VR technologies. She also founded Verge of Brilliance LLC, an independent experimental games studio in Seattle, and previously worked at Microsoft on natural user interfaces and the Kinect technology at Xbox. With a unique career bridging gaming and healthcare, Dr. Powell integrates game design and UX design to create meaningful experiences that help people learn, play, and work differently. At Proprio, her focus is on anticipating how surgeons think and designing a suite of tools to empower them to think and perform optimally. Dr. Powell graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte with her Ph.D. in computer science. Her research centered on socially pervasive game experiences and context-aware gaming using mobile technologies.  

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