Rachel Sibley: “Technology is personal. It tells a story”

September 21, 2017

In less than 10 days, IT Arena 2017 will gather some of the most aspiring global entrepreneurs, investors and CEOs from the world’s leading brands. Let’s introduce you to another amazing speaker who will take the stage at Arena Lviv Stadium. We talked to Rachel Sibley, Vice President at Leap Motion. Read more about her view on technology, the link with dancing and VR/AR and her personal experience as a woman in tech.

Dancing at a conference

You wrote that “tech is not external to us. It’s as an extension of us; its nature should be not only our responsibility but a welcome challenge”. How do you see our lives change with tech?

Technology is no more or less than an extension of our selves.  Steam engines extended our capacity to move efficiently at speed. Bifocal lenses extended our ability to see with clarity up close and at distance. Mobile phones extended our capacity for communication and, increasingly, computation and learning. Virtual and Augmented Reality extend our ability to manipulate information and knowledge and project ourselves into new worlds of our own imagining.

Every product is a result of the culture that creates it. And if that product is successful, that product then shapes culture. And the cycle repeats.

Did a generation of children raised by passively staring at cartoon dramas play out on television screens give rise to a more passive engagement with the political process once those children became adults? Does the “selfie generation”—raised by social networks promoting our own personal photos, opinions, and “likes”—promote “me-centricity” at scale?

One thing we know for certain: our desires, needs, curiosities, capabilities, and flights of fancy are the birthplace of technology—and they are, in turn, shaped by it.

Technology is intimate. Technology is personal. It tells a story. Our story.  And it’s time that we started taking responsibility for that story.

Yes, technology is changing the way we live. But that’s an old story—it’s been true since we first banged together flint stones to spark fire.

I’d like to refocus the conversation not on how technology shapes us (a constant trend throughout human history), but on how we collectively shape technology. Because today, with the advent of big data and machine learning, we are all co-creating our technology products.

It’s time to take responsibility for that on a personal and societal level.

I have faith that we can do that. Throughout history, our species has shown that we’re capable of big picture, meta-level, complex systems thinking. That’s why we draft treatises on human rights. That’s why we build recycling programs. That’s why we rally worldwide around the UN’s sustainable development goals.

It’s time we turned that lens—a very personal lens—on how we use our technology every single day. With every like, tweet, and sentence you send into the cloud, what values are you entrenching in the machines that are now learning from you?  Are you creating values of inclusion and open dialogue, or hate speech and groupthink? As my good friend and AI expert De Kai says, how are you raising your AI children?


From choreography and art to technology and VR. How and why did you end up in tech?

I was musing on this subject a few weeks ago over breakfast with an old friend. He’s a lifelong software engineer and dancer; we met years ago in the professional dance scene before I’d entered the tech industry.

“Can you believe I ended up in tech?!” I laughed, jokingly.   “After professional careers in dance, the arts, interpretation and translation, UX design, storytelling, acting… if you’d told me 10 years ago that tech and business would be the most exciting work I’d do, I’d have thought you were crazy.”

“It makes perfect sense to me,” my friend said, grinning conspiratorially over his plate of scrambled eggs. “Especially now that you work in the Augmented and Virtual Reality space.”

“What on earth do you mean?” I asked, incredulous.

“Rachel, you’re a pioneer and an adventurer at heart. You can’t help but go where there be dragons. Today, all the edges on the geographic maps are drawn in. There are no more mythical monsters in the sea reachable by sea-faring voyage. Now the adventures lie elsewhere. And the fastest ticket to the big adventures of our time is through technology. That’s why you’re there.”

What is the next step for VR/AR in education? How can VR/AR transform education?

Imagine being able to play with a planet. Throw it into space, track its orbit around a star. Learn about seasons, the Goldilocks zone, solar eclipses, the tides. Or maybe you want to learn about quantum mechanics – experience wave functions collapsing, or physically interact with things that can be particles and waves simultaneously. All of these things are abstract concepts that can be made physical. VR has the power to make these subjects accessible, and allow students to gain a more intuitive understanding of physics, math, biology, chemistry, and more.

One of the biggest barriers to this next step for VR/AR in education has been the form factors and capabilities of first-generation headsets. We are on the verge of a major shift catalyzed by second-generation mobile VR, which explodes many of the limitations that have prevented VR/AR from achieving mainstream adoption. These headsets will be totally portable, powerful, and capable of tracking heads and hands in 3D space without the need for gaming computers, external sensors, handheld controllers, or long cords.


What is your experience with ‘women in tech’? And what would you like to see differently? Any advice to share?

I’m a passionate advocate for diversity, inclusion, and empowerment. In fact, this is one of the core reasons I work so hard in my career. I want to show what is possible for young women, who—like me—never would have imagined a professional career in technology.  And, more importantly, I want to be in a position to makes things better for those who are unfairly discounted through bias. And it’s not just about gender—oppression systems work across many axes.

Confronting oppression and bias, for me, starts with being authentic in the workplace. Have the courage to be real. Be honest. Be you. I know so many women who suffer from imposter syndrome (including me, at times!). Recognize that your unique perspective, experience, skills, talents and skills are your value add.

I would recommend that everyone do some solid research on gender bias in negotiation techniques. Learning to prepare and strategize with gender bias in mind will help you negotiate more effectively, and those negotiations—in business deals, for raises, etc.—can have massive impact on your career.

Finally, I recently co-authored a diversity manifesto featured by VentureBeat, which offers tips for how to be a leader in diversity, inclusivity, and creativity.

Rachel will talk on Sep 30 at 12:30 about “Reaching In and Reaching Out: How VR Interaction is Transforming Healthcare for Patients and Practitioner” in the Press Conference Room at Arena Lviv Stadium.