Dina Khalil On Redefining Storytelling in the Digital Age

Dina Khalil | Photo from personal archive

Dina Khalil is not your typical tech enthusiast. With a background in journalism, her fervent love for storytelling drives her to create immersive VR/AR experiences that shed light on social issues. Dina thrives on pushing the boundaries of technology and creativity, using immersive technologies to craft experiences that inspire, educate, and connect people on a profound level. 

Dina started her journey by studying Journalism at the American University of Kuwait. However, she soon discovered that traditional journalism alone didn’t fulfill her passions, as she also harbored a strong interest in design, coding, and filmmaking. This realization led her to pursue a Master’s degree in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at New York University. She attended a UX/UI boot camp at Columbia University to refine her skills further. There, she learned the significance of user-centric design and the development of interactive interfaces that deeply engage and resonate with users.

She later joined Meta, where she contributed to groundbreaking projects harnessing the potential of virtual and augmented reality to enthrall audiences. Working alongside cross-functional teams, Dina utilized cutting-edge tools such as Unity and Meta Spark Studio to craft immersive experiences seamlessly blending technology with storytelling.

Currently, Dina works as a contractor at Google while simultaneously pursuing independent projects highlighting critical issues like freedom of the press.

In an exclusive interview, The Urban Watch sat down with Dina Khalil to delve into her unique upbringing in Kuwait and her journey from journalism to technology. 

Please share your background with us. Where did you grow up, and what led you to New York? 

Although I’m an Egyptian citizen, I was born and raised in Kuwait and only visited Egypt in the summers. I always describe Kuwait as less traditional than Saudi Arabia but more conservative than Dubai. 

I went to the American University of Kuwait where I majored in journalism, got a minor in business administration, and took graphic design as an elective course. When I graduated, I decided to focus on video journalism and start an indie studio with my friends, but unfortunately, that plan didn’t work out. I felt really lost and down on myself for not sticking to one thing. Having studied many different things harmed my job hunt, too. Every rejection I got made me feel like a failure. 

I secured some short-term contracts and gained experience. I had a four-month contract as a social media graphic designer at a pharmaceutical company and also worked in customer service for some time at the British Council.

To find my passion and direction, I began volunteering. One notable organization I volunteered for was Nuqat, a non-profit in Kuwait dedicated to cultural development in the region. They host conferences that are similar to TED talks, centered around creativity. I remember attending a talk about coding, but the speaker wasn’t very encouraging. He repeatedly emphasized that coding was very challenging and not suitable for everyone.

Coincidentally, I stumbled upon a free workshop called “Intro to Coding,” hosted by two organizations, Women Techmakers and Google Developer Group (GDG). Intrigued, I signed up. I initially anticipated it would be challenging, but to my surprise, I was captivated by the subject. Suddenly, things started to make more sense, and I fell in love with coding.

Although I finally knew what I liked, I still wasn’t entirely sure about my next steps. After several talks with family and friends, I decided to pursue my master’s degree. I turned to Google and searched for programs combining coding, design, and filmmaking. The first result was NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP). New York was appealing, though I doubted that NYU would accept me. 

Despite my reservations, I went ahead and applied, reasoning that I had nothing to lose. When I received my acceptance letter, tears of joy streamed down my face. I moved to New York and have been enamored with the city ever since.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve experienced? 

I think living as an expat my entire life made me feel like I didn’t belong anywhere. Not in Kuwait because I’m not a citizen, and not in Egypt because it’s culturally different from Kuwait. This definitely created a big challenge for me and made me doubt myself. It was very hard to get out of my comfort zone. Sometimes, it still is, but pursuing my passions makes it easier. 

In Kuwait, the difference in the treatment of foreigners was noticeable, especially in professional settings. While I didn’t really notice this as a child, it became glaringly evident in the workplace. After graduating from undergrad, I landed a job at a startup founded by an alum at a marketing agency with a reputation as an excellent workplace. However, my experience there was far from ideal, so I quit after just one week. I’m glad I had the choice to leave because of my privileged background; that was not a choice for many others. My workload was imbalanced, and my salary was significantly lower than that of my colleagues. I felt undervalued and unappreciated and immediately knew it wasn’t the right fit for me. 

Let’s delve into the social issues close to your heart and how they shape your work. 

Equality is something I’m deeply passionate about. I was drawn to journalism during my studies but encountered obstacles even in my thesis year. I wanted to investigate the mental strain experienced by domestic workers, mainly focusing on instances where they tragically took their own lives or harmed the families they worked for. Often, these workers were from India or the Philippines, and the mistreatment they endured was appalling. While conditions are slowly improving with the millennial generation, the early 2000s and 2010s were especially troubling, with reports of suicides among domestic workers all too common. My thesis topic was rejected, and I felt this would happen in the workplace if I stayed in journalism.

Consequently, I shifted my focus toward social media and design, recognizing the potential of technology for digital activism. I could enact more meaningful change through tech projects than through writing alone.

The issue of press freedom hits close to home, particularly considering the violations witnessed during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, where journalists were targeted and killed. Many sought asylum in countries worldwide, including the U.S. This sparked my desire to foster empathy for journalists, who are often misunderstood and unfairly vilified. While some may perceive journalists as mere paparazzi, their role in reporting on politics and decision-making processes is invaluable, providing essential information for society.

One project I am working on that holds a special place in my heart and encapsulates my passion is an AR app called “Freedoom of the Press.” Originally conceived as part of my thesis, it has since evolved into a standalone augmented reality app. 

The concept behind “Freedoom of the Press” is to present augmented silhouette figures, symbolizing the spirits of female journalists who lost their lives while working. These figures share their stories with users, engaging them through interactive elements to evoke empathy and understanding. It’s my way of paying tribute to these courageous journalists we’ve lost. Recently, I incorporated a geolocation feature into the app. Users who visit specific areas receive notifications indicating where a journalist was killed, allowing them to listen to their story through audio recordings. I’m excited about this addition and hope to finalize the app’s development for publication on the app store soon.

Initially, I aimed to highlight the disparity in press freedom between the Western world and the Arab world. However, events like the arrest of journalists covering Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests during the Trump administration challenged this perspective. It became apparent that freedom of the press is under threat globally. Journalists who are simply doing their jobs should not face persecution or violence.

The peak of the pandemic in 2020 saw a concerning rise in attacks on female journalists. Maria Ressa, a Filipino-American journalist, was notably targeted for her reporting on the president of the Philippines. Discussions on platforms like Reddit highlighted the gender bias in how she was treated, underscoring the misogyny prevalent in the field. Female journalists often face more significant risks than their male counterparts, a reality reflected in my choice to depict female silhouettes in my work.

Another app that I am proud of building is called “Conciously Controlled.” The app showcases real-time articles from The New York Times op-ed section in large speech bubbles. Smaller bubbles represent publications from various countries that may not have as significant a voice as those in the U.S. The redacted parts symbolize censorship, indicating limitations on freedom of the press in certain regions. 

How did your background in journalism contribute to your approach to VR/AR development, especially in terms of storytelling?

Journalism shaped my storytelling voice and taught me to prioritize and balance the details throughout the experience/project. It also trained me to think of the narrative and organize it to be as inclusive as possible. It taught me to ‘KISS’ – Keep it Short and Simple.

Delivering journalism through VR/AR offers a more engaging experience, allowing people to immerse themselves in a headset and encounter unique narrative experiences. 

Even without the headset, visually-driven and data-heavy stories like those on COVID-19 by the New York Times are more engaging. This approach to storytelling has an accessibility angle because individuals with dyslexia or those who do not speak the language can rely more on visuals to understand the content.

What do you think is your biggest accomplishment?

It’s challenging to single out just one. Everything I’ve experienced in the past has prepared me for where I am now, and everything happening now is shaping me for the future. However, if I had to choose, I would say that obtaining my CPACC (Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies) certification last year would have stood out. Passing and receiving this certificate was a tremendous honor for me. It signifies that I am proficient in designing for accessibility. I dedicated considerable effort to studying for it, with the aim of integrating accessibility-friendly designs and interactions into my work and projects.

What are your aspirations for the future in terms of pushing the boundaries of VR/AR technology, and how do you envision contributing to transformative experiences that inspire, inform, and connect people?

Dina Khalil at work | Photo from personal archive

As I mentioned earlier, obtaining my CPACC certification was my most significant achievement, and it aligns closely with my aspirations for the future of VR/AR. I love this tech so much that I want everyone to be able to enjoy it. However, I recognize that current VR/AR projects often lack accessibility. I have also been guilty of creating inaccessible projects in the past due to the challenges of designing for accessibility without proper knowledge and research.

I am committed to sharing my knowledge and finding solutions to make VR/AR technology more accessible. I’ve begun taking initial steps in this direction by advocating for accessibility considerations in the early stages of projects with the art directors I collaborate with. It’s essential to consider how differently-abled individuals can enjoy these projects, and I’m dedicated to ensuring inclusivity in every aspect of my work.

As someone deeply involved in AR/VR development, how do you perceive the current state of the industry, and what trends or advancements do you find particularly exciting or impactful for the future of virtual and augmented reality?

The industry is rapidly evolving, and the pace of innovation is exhilarating. It will continue to progress and reach even greater heights in the future. I’m fascinated by integrating artificial intelligence (AI) into extended reality (XR) projects. This integration allows lifelike interactions with non-player characters (NPCs), significantly enhancing the immersive experience. It represents a powerful fusion of both industries, promising to deliver impactful messages and artistic experiences to the public.

I envision a future where 360-degree videos captured on devices like GoPro can be experienced within VR headsets, providing users with the sensation of being present in the scene. Late-night shows and news programs could potentially leverage 360-degree video technology to enhance viewer engagement and immersion, offering audiences a more interactive and immersive experience.

While this trend has enormous potential, widespread adoption may be delayed due to accessibility issues surrounding VR headsets. However, with companies like Apple entering the market and marketing headsets as personal computing devices, I anticipate that VR will become increasingly prevalent over time, although the high cost may initially limit its accessibility.

Regarding media consumption, social media, and video journalism are reshaping how information is disseminated. Citizen reporting through videos has become common, although there is a risk of misinformation due to the potential for manipulated content. Even written content, such as blogs, can be manipulated using tools like chat GPT, further complicating the landscape of news consumption. This phenomenon reflects a growing skepticism towards traditional news organizations perceived as biased, leading many individuals to rely on alternative sources for information. 

What advice can you offer for aspiring AR/VR professionals?

Never depend on one gaming engine or software; always learn different ones. This not only enhances your resume but also expands your debugging skills. Follow your true passions in design and development, regardless of trends. Trust your skills and ability. Make friends, not connections. Take deep breaths and, most importantly, enjoy the journey. 

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If you’re eager to delve into immersive storytelling, Dina suggests exploring the following selections from The New York Times:

“Your Guide to Augmented Reality in The Times” 

“How We’ll Bring the News Into Your Home”

“Explore NASA’s InSight Mission on Mars”

Dina particularly enjoys articles by Yulia Parshina-Kottas, who graduated from the same program at NYU as her. Dina had the privilege of receiving this journalist’s feedback on her thesis project. 

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You can follow Dina’s work on her website

Demi Vitkute

Co-Founder & Editor

Demi Vitkute is a New York-based journalist and editor who’s passionate about reporting on the fashion industry, its problems, and its changemakers. She’s a founder of The Urban Watch Magazine and has written for The Washington Post, Inside Hook, and Promo Magazine, among others. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Emerson College.

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