Brenda Chen was pretty much clueless about the possibilities of virtual and augmented reality until she tried on a VR headset for the first time in college. “It changed my whole trajectory,” she says.
As an immersive extended reality (aka XR) artist and designer, Brenda found her niche designing virtual concerts. “A virtual concert is kind of like if a live concert and a video game had a baby,” Brenda explains. Instead of a performer singing on a stage in front of a crowd, they wear a motion-capture suit to control a virtual avatar that streams a performance to a metaverse or virtual world.
Brenda has created metaverse concerts for big-name artists like Justin Bieber, John Legend, Tinashe, and The Weeknd. (Fun fact: The concert she directed for Biebs was just nominated for MTV’s VMA for Best Metaverse Performance.)
Learning how to code unlocked a new world for Brenda, who came from a fine art background and majored in animation. “As an artist, my goal is always to make people feel as if they've been transported to another universe,” she says. “When I first tried VR, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do.’ With immersive mediums such as VR, you are actually taking someone to another world, and it's so much more powerful than just a flat 2D drawing.”
Here’s how Brenda learned how to design XR, scored a job while networking at a party, and launched a freelance career working for A-listers in Los Angeles.
What got me interested in the job
“I had always been drawing, painting, and making sculptures, so I thought I was going to be a fine artist. My first foray into coding was in high school through Tumblr, because I would post my artwork there — I actually learned HTML from Codecademy through a free trial. Then, at a CalArts summer camp, I discovered experimental and stop-motion animation, which led me to major in animation in college.
Freshman year, my friend and I were wandering around the buildings in the cinema school, and we accidentally walked into a VR lab on campus. A super cool girl who was also in animation had the Google Cardboard VR headset and was like, ‘Hey, do you want to try VR?’ I was like, This is the coolest thing ever.
I had this idea for a VR project that I wanted to build sophomore year, but I realized that I was really stunted in my ability to build it because I didn't know how to code. A programmer on my team suggested that I learn C++. I'm pretty sure I went back to Codecademy and did the C++ course. I actually ended up minoring in video game programming, but Codecademy got me through probably the first 3 weeks of my college coding class.
Coding helps me elevate my art, because there's so many things you can do on a computer that’s a lot harder by hand. I like coding because it allows me to do things a lot quicker and create tools to make my process faster.”
How I got in the door
“Before [NFT artist Mike Winkelmann] Beeple was this NFT god, he was famous for making everyday renders on Cinema4D, which I use for a lot of my art. He threw a party in LA every year called Ctrl-Z. I told my friends, ‘We have to go to this party.’ At the party, my friends ditched me because they were trying to network, so I was standing alone thinking, This is so awkward.
I recognized this guy, because the day before I ditched class to go to TechCrunch LA where I saw the CEO of the VR platform Wave, Adam Arrigo, giving a talk. So I went up to him and I was like, ‘Hi, are you Adam?’ We exchanged contact info and emailed, but I was expecting nothing. We kept in touch, and a few months before I graduated he reached out saying, ‘Hey, we're hiring technical artists, do you want to join our team?’
I really just thought I was going to be working on a VR app or teaching people how to DJ in VR, but on my first day, Wave decided to pivot to streamed virtual concerts. It just kind of snowballed from there, because during the pandemic, every artist and their mom wanted a virtual concert. That's how I ended up working with all these big artists. I'm so glad that the job turned out like this because it was so much cooler than what I thought.”
What I actually do every day
“As a XR director, my main job is coming up with the creative vision: What is everything going to look like? What is the story flow? What are the interactions? The first concert I directed was for [a DJ] Jauz; I programmed most of the art and I performed live as his VJ. For Justin Bieber, my role was to define creative, collaborate with his team, direct the mocap [motion capture] shoot, make key art, and lead the live broadcast.
Now that I’m freelancing, every day is a new adventure. Like a lot of creatives, my brain doesn’t work linearly from 9 to 5. I'll get bursts of energy where I do a 10-hour sprint to get a lot of stuff done. Or sometimes I'll be really sluggish and just need to watch TV.
When I was working full-time, I would have 6-hour blocks of meetings and my brain would get fried. I like freelancing because there are fewer meetings. Every so often, I'll have a client meeting where I discuss all the work that I worked on for the week, and then we'll review the work that other people are doing. The rest of the week, it’s up to me. I'm really thankful that my clients are very flexible.”
Here’s what you need to get started
If you want to work in XR as a developer or director, Brenda suggests learning C++, because it’s the language that’s used most for building VR projects. “I've been able to code in a bunch of different random things because I know C++,” Brenda says. For example, the popular real-time 3D platform Unreal Engine uses C++ and the game development platform Unity uses C# (which is easy to pick up once you know C++).
Although creative directors in XR may not be writing code on a daily basis, it’s important to have an understanding of basic programming principles, Brenda says. “It helps me be a better leader, because I'm more cognizant of how much time something takes and can set realistic deadlines,” she says. “And when I'm coming up with concepts for my projects, I won’t think of something too wild because I know what it takes to build it.”
Brenda’s advice for freelancers who are hustling in the tech industry? Post about your work on social media — that’s how she gets most of her clients. “I used to be really scared of posting things online because I felt like I was bragging,” she says. “Now I don't think of it like that. I'm not bragging, I really did do that work.” You can check out Brenda’s website to learn more about her work, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.