Designer and technologist Haiyan Zhang, talks to us about gaming as an art form, how we should approach data and the future of the Internet of Things.
Haiyan is a maker, designer and technologist based in East London, co-founder of OpenIDEO, she’s now Innovation Director of Lift London, a Microsoft Games Studio. With an impressive background, including working as a software engineer and user interface designer creating applications for the biomedical and data-mining industries, Haiyan’s work has consistently explored the ways we can use technology and design to inspire communities.
Q: Over the last few years we’ve seen a new wave of films actually based on games and games shifting dramatically into a more respected art form. What’s your take on this transition?
A: I think in the last five to ten years, there’s been this elevation of video games as an art form to be on almost on a par with film. Video games can communicate emotions and create immersive experiences. You can have a very intense emotional experience through a video game, as you would through watching a film, to the extent that BAFTA now recognise video games alongside film and television.
Q: In terms of the apps that we're building, the cinema we're creating and the games we're designing, there are impressive products and experiences announced almost daily. With so much going on in this space, what does the future look like to you?
A: It's a tough question. I would be very excited to see the kind of diffusion of technology; digital technology interacting with the surfaces and objects in the world around us. Right now, we're experiencing digital worlds on mobiles and tablets, whilst those screens are getting better, I want to see those digital experiences translated to the real world. For example, the HoloLens’ holographic experience is part of that. They literally turn your whole world into an interface. I really want to see technology take advantage of more than just your retina.
Q: In a talk you gave at Thingmonk, you said ‘data is not the same as information’ in reference to citizen science, and the work you’ve done in this space, particularly your work in Japan. What do you think the implications are of projects like this for governments and large organisations in terms of agile and open source approaches?
A: I think citizen science has a lot of value that governments and science agencies should be taking advantage of, and they are starting to. For example, NASA is running a lot of maker competitions for people to design things for the space station or shuttles. My experience with the Japan Geigermap, was that there was data available in the network, but that data wasn't made readily open and it wasn't really made understandable to normal people. Data needs to be democratised to make it usable, then the best solutions will bubble to the top.
Q: This idea of democratising data and making it readily available to citizens brings up the question of morals and ethics when it comes to building and designing new technology.
A: Whichever way science is progressing, there are ethical guidelines and sometimes there are grey areas. Technology doesn't care what direction it goes in, it's really the people who are moving technology forward who need to think about the ethical implications of what's happening with the data. At the moment, as technologists, we’re just starting to understand the subtle, human things in cognitive psychology. For example, listen to the Trust Engineers Radiolab podcast where they talk to Facebook’s Social Engineers about the nuances of language and how tiny changes in wording have a massive impact on response rates.
Q: This pushes us into the realms of data ownership and control.
A: I think it's really good for there to be a forum for debate and for people to be acutely aware of what's happening in the technology space. By being informed, people can have an opinion, that way we can develop ethical guidelines around what should happen with open data and with big data.
Q: What key pieces of advice would you pass onto startups, designers, makers or technologists?
A: The key thing I always tell startups is you really have to know yourself as founders. It's really about the team knowing who they are, what they're passionate about and what they want to work on. As a startup, you and your team are going to devote several years of your lives to this endeavour. There's a lot of risk and if the team has different goals, it's less likely to succeed. A startup I spoke to recently, are deeply interested in applying algorithms to a real world case. Their idea was to do this for the pet market, but none of them had pets or knew much about the space, it was for economic reasons. I’d say, don’t create a startup around an idea because someone told you that’s how to make money. Do it because you're really passionate about it. There are a lot of challenges along the way and you have to really know who you are in order to get through those.
Q: Finally, tell us about your favourite hack at the moment.
A: Recently, one of my favourite things has been podcasts, in particular, the Serial podcast. This is a twelve episode serial spun out from This American Life. The host, Sarah Koenig, did a series on one story, which was about a murder that happened in '89, and now it has become one of the most popular podcasts in the world. It had four million downloads on iTunes alone, it’s become a phenomenon. There's even a whole Reddit discussion forum on it. A whole community has built up around it. It's really nice to see people going back to this kind of storytelling in an audio format, like the days of radio, someone able to tell a story over a prolonged period of time and having people engage with that story. Also, one of the best cases for 3D printing and making I’ve seen recently is a podcast. It's another one by Radiolab and it was a story about the oldest skull specimen ever found of a species that is between us and apes. The skull is 2.5 million years old and the podcast told the story about how it was discovered and first dismissed, until somebody proved that it was a missing link. What was great was that alongside producing the podcast, they also 3D scanned the actual skull and made it openly available so you can download the 3D model and 3D print yourself. While you listen to the story, you are physically holding the artefact in your hands, I found that really compelling.
Q: Did you print it?
A: I did, yes. In the story, they actually make references to the physical model and to things you can see on the skull, you can listen to the story and see the physical thing. I just think, it's such a strong case for education and how 3D printing can have an impact on someone's education. Imagine if there was a curriculum where museums of the world 3D scanned their artefacts so schools could print them out. Students could be holding pieces from across the globe and listen to the stories. New technologies are making this a reality.
*image credits Shoot Digital and Microsoft