Bringing the Best into 2021

Bringing the Best (from 2020) into 2021 is a work of heart, and as we all “head back to the office” today, however that looks, I find it’s a great time to feel the pull of what is new and exciting about a new year, while bringing in the best elements from what’s past. “The past is prologue,” after all!

Naturally, it’s hard to assess the year 2020 in its totality; so much of it has been challenging, and I look back on the past 12 months and want to look ahead at the same time… The year contains so much adversity and discomfort; so much that we would not choose. And within a year of constraints came adaptation and resilience, and a willingness to choose to grow. With hindsight, insight and foresight, our approaches to time might have shifted. This past year defied traditional routines, asking for deeper and different forms of connection. And so, contemplating that, this turn to the new year seems to invite stillness, greeting me with an invitation to sit still and look back on the past year, seeing moments to appreciate. Drawing from what has been meaningful, I can look toward the future with courage, hope and a sense of renewal. 

So, I’m extending deep gratitude to partners, colleagues, friends and collaborators over the past year of change and heart-filled temerity. These are among the standout elements that I honor as we enter 2021:

In the beginning of 2020, one highlight was serving as a mentor for the MIT Virtual Reality Hackathon called MIT Reality Hack.” I loved getting to support teams from around the world, and the projects were incredible. I also served as a guest lecturer about VR, mindfulness, wellbeing and storytelling at the University of San Francisco, with Beste Yuksel (founder and director of the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Lab at USF) and her talented, insightful group of students in the Honors College program. This was such a motivating and fulfilling in-person experience in February 2020, engaging with students firsthand as they design ways to shape the future of virtual interaction design.

Also, early in the year, I spoke on a panel at the AWP conference alongside Tara Skurtu and Ariella Katz. Gathering with fellow writers was a powerful experience, forging new friendships and collaborations as creative artists. Since then, I’ve spoken at several online poetry events, including the amazing weekly sessions hosted by Sandra Yannone “Cultivating Voices LIVE Poetry.” Thank you to my friend Sly and this group for lifting up creative voice and vision! Also, the San Francisco Creative Writing Institute, founded by Alexandra Kostoulas, has been amazing to join as an instructor, and teaching a poetry workshop about mindfulness and a 5-week course about Sci-Fi writing for new media has been wonderful and fulfilling in so many ways. Open mic readings and sense of community in this group, fostered by many, including the charisma of Paul Corman-Roberts and Hollie Hardy, are part of what makes it shine. I trust 2021 will involve even more creative work on my sci-fi novel (you can ask about it, but she won’t say much until she’s ready to emerge into the light!).

I’ve valued the chance to support educators worldwide over the past year, whether it’s in posts I’ve written (such as this one for Edutopia, this story about SEL or this piece about vulnerability for EdSurge or this one for EdTechTeacher) about online teaching and remote learning supportive practices, teaching mindfulness, wellbeing and innovative design courses for teachers through exciting, heart-filling work with Kat Johnston and The Teacher Collaborative, Holly Jackson, Bo Gorcesky and The HCS Influencers, Andrea Parker and FCSN, and other amazing organizations.

I have also enjoyed joining different podcasts as a featured guest, including with Tim Cavey’s Teachers on Fire, with Julie Stern and Trevor Aleo on “Conceptually Speaking”, with Julie Smithson’s for her XR for Learning podcast, an Instagram and Facebook Live podcast “Driven Woman” with Miisa Mink, and as a special guest talking about VR, mindfulness and poetry with C.J. Casciotta on the Digital Poets series. Each of these podcasts should be a separate post here, yet this at least gathers those resources in one place, for those who want to dive in and listen. I know I’ll be revisiting them in 2021 for rejuvenation!

One unexpected delight, too, was discovering a way to share my love of poetic verse with my one-year-old dog. Fondly termed “Poetry Pup,” Luna has been a calm presence who reminds me of her spirit of curiosity and love of the musical sound of poems, which is one of the reasons I began to love them when I was little. Sharing poetry with Luna has been one highlight of my days, and I think poetry has the capacity to be a story and salve, as well as pure music, for those looking for a moment of reverie. Poetic voice is intrinsic to our beings as humans. It feels elemental to me, like breath. And, on that note, these poetry videos Luna and I recorded led to me sharing more mindfulness-related content on my YouTube channel, including a simple mindfulness breathwork video called “Just 3 Breaths” that as of this date has more than 4k views. Breathing practices are a part of every one of my days, and I posted this video to help people craving space to focus on calm, connected breathing as an anchor for their day, too. 

A true highlight of the year has been deepening my presence, leadership and XR collaboration masterclasses and experiences, offered through my organization MindWise. In 2019, I began designing sessions in VR, and partnered with Chris Madsen to offer numerous live group workshops in ENGAGE’s social VR platform, with different focuses related to mindful leadership, collaboration, storytelling, wellbeing and presence. We continued to expand these offerings in 2020, reaching new creative heights for what is possible in VR. At the end of December, Chris and I hosted a Solstice event and a New Year’s Winter Wonder celebration that we agreed really changed the whole dynamic of what is possible to do in worlds of transformative VR shared experience. 

In 2021, I’m enthusiastic about continuing my work as a part of the Stanford teaching community, with courses focused on the intersection between wellbeing and technology, As we look at enhancing social digital wellbeing and forming healthy relationships with technology, among other related topics, it’s been a privilege to work with colleagues and students so devoted to applying best life practices as we navigate shifts in conditions and remain dedicated to finding ways to flourish in adverse times.

It has also been my honor to join forces with groups including Educators in VR as a speaker for their February 2020 event, expertly run by co-founders Lorelle VanFossen and Daniel Dyboski-Bryant and event producer Donna McTaggert. I also had a great time speaking this year at Facebook, the Global HR Summit with Matt Burns, the INconnectED conference, the 3rd annual CPDinVR with Steve Bambury, and the XR Collaboration Summit, among other gatherings. In Spring, I co-led a transformative VR workshop with Dana-Maria Fanaeker focused on mindfulness and wellbeing. At the ISTE 2020 digital conference, I presented 8 different sessions across 4 distinct platforms, and the shining highlight was the chance to spend even more time connecting with colleagues and collaborators across these spaces. Thanks to my co-presenters Steve Dembo and Rayna Freedman, as well as James McCrary and Steven Sato for inviting me as a guest on their Fireside Chat for the ISTE Virtual Environments network.

This fall, I joined Evo Hannan and friends for an hour-long “Education Talks Live” conversation about E-Sports and VR, which was insightful and paves the way for deeper dives in 2021. I was also honored to have my 2019 book Mindful by Design selected as a featured read for #BookCampPD, hosted by Meredith Johnson, where it was the book study focus and subject of online chats for educators in November. It was a privilege for me to be able to provide tips about ways to integrate mindfulness, storytelling and design thinking into remote learning spaces, personal life and beyond. These resources are timeless.

Writing a piece about The Importance of Presence in the Global Resource Guide to XR Collaboration, and getting to talk about engaging ideas with Julie Smithson and Terry Schussler, among others, was also a thrill this past year. My part of the publication was unveiled at the AWE Summit; expect an update to that piece of writing coming soon in early 2021! Speaking of Presence, I also loved speaking on this panel “Beyond Accessibility: How AR Will Enhance the Human Experience” held in Spatial XR alongside Brian Schwab, Yuhang Zhao, and Thomas Logan as part of Open AR Cloud’s 3rd State of the AR Cloud Symposium, moderated by Suzan Oslin.

Saving some of the best for last, in 2020, I wrote a book called Designing Wonder. It’s a book that begged me to be written, because it didn’t exist elsewhere. I knew there is a calling and a need to talk about the wonder and emotions of the user experience when it comes to designing transformative tech applications that are human-driven and filled with inspiration and imagination. How do we build these meaningful experiences, and what do we prioritize when we want them to be emotionally resonant and filled with a sense of wonder? 

Designing Wonder is all about mindful experience design using technology, specifically for virtual reality. I spent the latter part of the summer devoted to finishing the research and fully diving into the writing. Within the book, I talk about storytelling and The VR Hero’s Journey, as well as my SCUBA diving VR methodology and the process for designing and leading an incredible VR experience for others. While writing the book, I interviewed many industry experts, researchers and leaders in areas of cognitive science, VR development, education and psychology, and I found the interviews just as fascinating and absorbing as the book writing itself. Conversations with Dr. Tom Furness led to the introduction to the book, a revelatory process for which I’m grateful (more on this below!). Thank you to everyone who engaged in conversations and interviews, and special thanks to Lorelle VanFossen for designing the most amazing place to have a book launch in VR!

After publishing the book, I held a special, curated 7-week meditation series in EvolVR based on the Facets of Wonder practices that I talk about in the book Designing Wonder. Each of these hour-long sessions focused on a different facet, using experiential practice to deepen awareness and insight into our creative voice and potential to flourish and grow when we can tap into our capacity for wonder. It was a joy to lead this program with the EvolVR community and the genuine enthusiasm of founder Rev. Jeremy Nickel. I also loved talking about the book at places like Andy Fidel’s #GetSocial space in VR, where I was guest at a wonderland virtual Advent calendar event, as well as a guest to talk about wonder and the VR Hero’s Journey at the magical #GetSocial tent during BCVR’s Burning Man in AltspaceVR this year. What a dynamic conversation we had there!

In addition to the many gifts of experience writing Designing Wonder prompted, this bookwriting process brought me in greater contact with one of the most inspiring humans (of 2020 and all time), Dr. Tom Furness, who graced the book by penning its beautiful foreword. Over the course of many conversations, we uncovered many convergences and confluences in histories, philosophies, and dreams for future humanity. It’s been my joy and honor to join the team at the Virtual World Society (an organization started by Dr. Furness that traces back 3 decades of doing work promoting applications of virtual reality that lift up hearts and minds worldwide), where we are looking toward 2021 with expansive hopes and dreams, illuminated by inspiring members at global scale. One highlight was a December 17 community workshop, where Tom Furness, Haley Douglas, Daniel Dyboski-Bryant, Matt Cook and I hosted a hybrid event online and in immersive VR; not an easy feat! I’m motivated by the team at VWS and excited about what is to come this year.

In closing, it’s hard to believe that all of the above and more happened in 2020, in midst of tragedy, unrest and an unsettled time. There was a tremendous sense of connection that is uplifting and sustaining. I am ever grateful for these human connections, for what we have created together, and also for the abiding wholeness I feel when immersed in nature and in virtual reality. It’s these connected times, among many others, that have exemplified ways to increase presence and collaboration, even and especially in times when safety and social distancing are paramount. Thank you to everyone pushing boundaries and forging new paths in worlds of remote work, learning and innovation, for being pioneers on this journey! I’m animated and invigorated by you, and greeting 2021 with excitement, ready to thrive and grow together!

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