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Alumna Ksenia Avetisova is a human at the heart of technology

Ksenia Avetisova moves around the virtual world as part of her job, but what brought her to Finland was a live rock gig.
Aallon alumni Ksenia Avetisova katsoo peiliin järven rannalla, kuva: Aleksi Poutanen
Photos: Aleksi Poutanen.

‘This spring certainly was demanding,’ Ksenia Avetisova agrees in Helsinki’s Lapinlahti Park on a late summer day. Avetisova, who heads TietoEVRY’s  Enhanced Reality centre of excellence, has, like so many others, worked  remotely from her home office while simultaneously overseeing her children’s  schooling. Interestingly, her work also involves exploring how people could work more efficiently and be more present virtually.

‘The change to full-time work from home was substantial. Conventional online meetings became more arduous, and provided little variety. That’s one of the key areas where immersive technology opens up new ways to be more present and collaborate on a deeper level while being physically distant,’ says Avetisova.

Immersion refers to the user feeling completely present in the world of an application, such as a game.

Virtuaalilasit, kuva: Aleksi Poutanen

Virtual spa is always open

The coronavirus spring also taught Avetisova how important the work-life balance really is, and how much harder it is to maintain it when both work and life take place from one location for a prolonged time.

These insights are very relevant as input for a project she is working on. It focuses on the mental wellbeing of people engaged in expert work, and the aim is to research the use of technology in measuring stress and lowering or preventing it. Funded by Business Finland Avetisova’s team is analysing the  effect of immersive experiences on employee’s productivity with the aid of  virtual reality glasses and biofeedback sensors.

‘Wouldn’t it be nice to take a break and recharge at an exotic island, or in the mountains? Virtual reality offers limitless opportunities to take you to a different place – right when you need it the most. “Stepping out” of the workplace can really take your mind off the stressful atmosphere for a while and ultimately
help you perform better,’ Avetisova says.

However, the technology is still relatively new and the effects of virtual reality on the human brain are not yet sufficiently studied.

‘I see immersive technology as a tool to empower people and enhance their performance. By training with support of VR, our aim is to recreate a focused and calm state without any technology. And this makes us more resilient in any situation – we can meet it with a smile,’ Avetisova points out.

After all, research has shown that smiling has a positive influence on productivity and promotes the ability to cooperate.

Career path influenced by grandmother and HIM

Avetisova comes from the city of Taganrog in the south of Russia. Her family has distinguished itself academically over several generations and in many  different fields.

‘My grandmother founded the English department at a local university, and my grandad was a pioneer in remote learning decades before it became  mainstream. My mother specialised in maths andfuzzy logic, a field we’d today call artificial intelligence, while my father worked on advanced medical  technology.’

Inspired by her grandmother, whom she greatly admires, Avetisova set on the path of excelling in linguistics and intercultural communication, however she did not stop there. She was among a few students from the Russian Federation awarded a scholarship for a study program at Stanford University.

Surprisingly, her first contact with Finland happened thanks to the rock group HIM: she and her friends travelled to see the band’s New Year’s Eve gig in Helsinki and she fell in love with the northern city. It prompted her to choose Finland as a place to continue her academic journey.

‘Helsinki is a small city when compared to the major urban centres of Russia or the USA. It allows to connect more intimately with people and nature. Seamless blending of technology into everyday life in Finland made a lasting impression on me,’ she says.

Human elements of technology

In the early 2000s, Finnish universities offered only a few English-language Master's level programmes. Luckily, the exact programme that felt right for Avetisova was one of them – the New Media Master’s programme at the University of Art and Design Helsinki. By the time she completed the degree, the school had become part of Aalto University.

The degree programme at Media Lab raised viewpoints that were, at the time, novel, but have gained traction since then. For example, user experience and design thinking.

‘Media Lab is an amazing creative space. I enjoyed experimenting with hardware and software tools, but kept focus on user experience and the human elements of technology. At Media Lab I also encountered virtual reality for the first time, and it was fascinating already back then, but had little practical use.’

Avetisova was also impressed by the laid-back attitude at Aalto and its lack of hierarchy compared to universities in Russia at that time. The freedom to choose her own learning path, mixing technology, science and art laid a strong foundation for Avetisova’s career in digital user experience design and concept development.

A weaver of networks

With our lives becoming increasingly digital, the importance of personal connections plays an even more important role. Avetisova was an active participant in student union activities, and a number of professional networks including those that are highlighting inclusion and equality.

She enjoys mentoring younger colleagues and at TietoEVRY she is the person most likely to be put in front of students to share her career story. As a side project Avetisova has facilitated the launch of the XR Women Nordic community. The network aims to bring together women who are passionate about virtual and augmented reality in the Nordics, Russia and Baltic countries.

‘The vision of XR Women Nordic is to provide an opportunity to connect with peers to exchange knowledge, develop competence and, above all, inspire and support each other.’

Avetisova, who is interested in different cultures, has travelled a lot and speaks several languages, with Finnish being a constant work in progress. She has worked in other countries during her earlier career as a digital user experience
consultant and says that trying countries out will help you discover which one feels like home.

Avetisova is used to frequent travel. But when she steps off the plane at Helsinki airport, she always feels happy.

Virtuaalinen laite, kuva: Aleksi Poutanen

Looking beyond the limitations

Having previously worked with Fjord and Accenture, Avetisova joined Tieto
over 5 years ago to work with strategic innovation, which lead her to the  immersive dimension.

‘We explore how new technology changes our perception of time and place, the ways in which we connect and work. Our activities lean towards the future: hardware may still have its limitations now, but we have to look beyond them.’

An impactful example of the services made by TietoEVRY XR is Virtual Forest, which enables forest owners to access their assets remotely using a VR headset, or a web browser.

‘Virtual Forest supports easier decision making, helping owners to estimate when and how their forest should be treated. Correct management will substantially increase the income generated by these privately-owned forests and have a positive overall impact on the environment.’

In her work, Avetisova looks towards the future applications of the immersive technology across different industries and business domains.

‘Technology is moving towards becoming ubiquitous and ever-present. Though we have to make sure that the accessibility of technology does not pose a trade-off in terms of privacy and ethics.’

Virtual reality is unlikely to fully replace the feel of actually being in a specific place, Avetisova reckons. It can, however, help people sharpen their hard and soft skills, and prepare for dangerous jobs by practicing scenarios virtually. Immersive technology is a go-to tool for empathy development – taking someone’s role, literally, and diving into experience first-hand creates a very powerful emotional response and long-lasting compassion.

‘Think about, say, climate change: if you were to experience forest fires or the rise of water levels being fully immersed in this situation, instead of merely looking at statistics on paper – that impression is hard to shake off. An experience like this can steer people to take action much more effectively.’

Ksenia Avetisova
• Heads the Enhanced Reality centre of excellence at TietoEVRY. Also involved with the company’s new digital consulting innovation centre.
• Holds a Master of Arts degree from Aalto University, majoring in New Media. Also a Master in Linguistics & Cross-Cultural Communication from Taganrog State University.
• Founder of XR Women Nordic network.
• Lives in Espoo with her husband, two children and a dog.

IS ALSO
• Interested in space & science: ‘I draw inspiration from the subjects that are far from my daily life, and I love to learn new things.’
• An amateur painter: 'I feel like painting is the best way to express myself in a non-digital format.’
• Half Armenian: ‘I am Armenian by my mother’s line and I’m proud of that cultural heritage.’

Text: Heidi Hammarsten.
Photos: Aleksi Poutanen.

This article is published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 27, October 2020.

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