The Future is Now: Virtual Reality Artist & Researcher M Eifler

By: Ellie Gordon M, who has a shaved head and round glasses, stares directly into the camera. M wears loose fitting clothing in mixed patterns and has an orange cane. The room is surrounded with vibrant colors and photographs. M. Eifler

When M Eilfer describes their position on the eleVR team as an artist/ researcher “who works on virtual and augmented reality systems,” you might feel as though you have slipped into the pages of a really good sci-fi novel. It would make sense then, that their office/ studio in a lofty industrial building in downtown San Francisco would look like a futuristic art laboratory. Once you leave your shoes at the door and walk past the large geometric shaped sculptures to sit on green and purple mats, you notice that the brick walls are strung with series of bright abstract paintings. Instead of a desk, M’s computer sits on a low to ground table surrounded by red cushions and yoga blocks.

M is one of four people on the eleVR team, a non-profit research project of the Human Advancement Research Community, that studies and experiments with virtual reality and immersive virtual media in order to understand and develop new ways of thinking with computation. EleVR’s many projects, shown on their website, can look like everything from mathematical experiments to Seuss-like art projects that combine both real and virtual materials. In 2014, the team created the first spherical video player for web virtual reality. Instead of having hard deadlines or end-goals, the team works from an open ended research model in which technological inventions affects how their psychical testing is done and how the material practice is done in turn aids the development of new technology. This, M believes, “is the future of technology research."

The cyclical process of research and art making is something M learned when they were sick and out of work for many years due to a traumatic brain injury caused by carbon monoxide/ chlorine gas poisoning they were exposed to at a swimming pool when they were ten. When M was home-bound they “became an artist because [they] needed a way to function and learn how to be an adult with a body that couldn’t do what [they] thought it would be able to do.”  From their years at home, they found that art was a therapeutic and transformative tool that taught them how to be a hard worker and creative problem solver - all skills they use in in their work at eleVR. A large computer monitor sits on a low table. The surrounding floor has colorful padding, yoga mats, and pillows. Artwork lines the walls. M's customized workspace.

M says their full-time work and productivity is not only supported by their personally curated environment but also because of a culture of trust built with their intimate and highly collaborative team. Chronic migraines, extreme heat sensitivity and spontaneous loss of motor skills leave M. incapacitated for moments throughout the week.  But in the company common space, “there are couches out there, and if I suddenly get a migraine, or suddenly my hands aren’t working, going out and laying on those couches isn’t socially inappropriate at my work environment. If I fall asleep at 2:00 in the afternoon, no one would think ‘oh you’re a lazy human.’” M has not always worked in such an accessible environment and recalled a time at a previous job where the elevator was constantly broken and if they got sick, had to spend 45 minutes going down the stairs on their butt.

M believes that disability inclusion in the workplace is built upon three different elements: physical infrastructure, social infrastructure and personal infrastructure.  On a personal level, M says they are fortunate enough to have a supportive partner and service dog who helps them function while working full time. M doesn’t think that every job is able to support every disabled person in all the ways they need, but that they hope that recruiters and managers can start to take a more holistic vision of accommodation that consider factors that go beyond physical access to ensure general life quality. And building a supportive infrastructure at work, M says, goes both ways:

“Not only does the person with the disability trust the environment that they’re working in, so they can disclose and actually ask for what they need…but the working environment also has to trust the person with the disability…if you trust people to do a thing that you need them to do and they trust that they can ask for the things that they need, you will build a work environment that’s better for everyone.”

M admits that asking for needs at work can be very difficult and personal. As a queer, non-binary person, the way M presents themselves is a work of art. They make almost all their own clothes out of funky fabric and often rock cubist-style panting’s on one side of their shaved head. While everyone at work knew of their disabilities and that they were queer, disclosing to their team that they were non-binary, a gender identity on the transgender spectrum, was deeply emotional: “My disability needs a lot of help so I felt like this weird shame… [At first] asking people to change my pronouns [and use them/they] I felt like I’m already asking people to make a mental effort to help me when I’m disabled. It definitely felt like, am I taking up too many mental resources?” M’s coworkers embraced them coming out as non-binary but too often are disabled people forced to compromise aspects of their identity due to ableist cultural standards that pigeon-hole them or threat their needs as burdens.

While universal design may seem like a futuristic fix to access issues in the workplace, M isn’t having it.  A universal model would not be realistic to cater to each person’s individual and unique disabilities. Workspaces, they believe need to be custom in their accommodations and flexible to change. The concept of diversity, like universal design, is a buzz word that M is also critical about.  Don’t forget, M says, that tech is mostly run, and its work environments deigned by “a network of white boys.”  Thinking ahead to the future of the industry, M says; “Disability is not just a hiring pipeline thing… you actually have to every day, on an ongoing basis, support someone that has needs that the rest of people, of many able bodied people in your company are not going to need.”

Interested in more on disability in tech? You can watch our webinar “Beyond Diversity 101: Learning from the Perspectives of People with Disabilities in Tech” now  (with captioning and audio description).  Read more from our Disability in Tech series here: