Growing up, Computer Scientist Kari Noe noticed there weren’t many video games that accurately portrayed her homeland, the Hawaiian Islands. She says those that did almost always showed crime on the islands or insisted on including zombies.
So she decided to use her computational skills to paint a more nuanced, accurate picture of the Hawai’i she knew and loved. At the Laboratory for Advanced Visualization and Application (LAVA) at University of Hawai’i, Mānoa, Kari coded a range of innovative interactives from immersive digital tours of the islands’ forests to virtual reality experiences of her home island, Kauaʻi.
When YR talked to Kari, we realized there are ways art and tech can collide to preserve the best parts of culture. She still thinks we should be wary of AI though …
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Chloe Reynolds, YR Contributor: Tell us why you chose to study computer science in the first place.
Kari Noe: Being from Kauaʻi, when I was in school, they actually didn’t have a lot of programs for computer science or programming. They did have robotics. I got into robotics, and I didn’t know anything about robotics. They let me do more of the computer I.T. work; I was setting up computers. That was the initial start to get me interested in computers.
For a school project, I made a small video game using an HTML file. From there, when I was a senior in high school, I was like, ‘OK, this was really fun. I really want to learn how to make video games.’ I went on to become a computer science major at University of Hawai’i, Mānoa.
CR: What project are you working on right now? What makes it special?
KN: Currently I am working on a mixed reality environment in the emerging media lab Create(x), at the University of Hawaiʻi at West Oʻahu. In this space we project video onto the three walls of the lab to create an immersive environment. The environments are modeled after an actual place. So for the demo that I show, it is modeled to be Wainiha valley on Kauaʻi.
Being from Kauaʻi, I have a particular fondness for Wainiha valley from camping in the valley to assisting in the eradication of invasive plants. The main idea behind the development of this project was that the more users program new elements in Hawaiian, the more abundant and diverse the forest becomes.
CR: How can augmented reality and virtual reality be used for the greater good?
KN: Tech is always a double-edged sword. For virtual, augmented, or extended reality technologies, they have a lot of good because it’s a very interesting experience for someone to have because you get the sense of presence. There’s a lot of conversation or debate about whether virtual reality could actually improve empathy. Just being present in these experiences affects how people see things.
CR: How is AI changing computer science?
KN: AI is already blowing up, we already use it in our day-to-day lives now. It’s going to rapidly grow. It’s going to get a lot smarter. And with that, I feel like there’s a lot of questions we still need to ask ourselves like: how much privacy are you giving away? How do you create a competency in the general public to understand what AI can do?
I find that a lot of people have to talk about [how] algorithms that do machine learning are biased because they’re still learning off of whatever data you give them. The results of AI still have to be looked at and investigated and not 100 percent trusted.
CR: Is there a void in your field and have you seen your contributions as filling that need?
KN: It’s like Jurassic Park: we didn’t ask whether we should make it, we just asked if we could make it. What you find is that a lot of technologies that are very exciting, they can be implemented quickly, and we don’t think about the backlash or effects they have.
When I discovered research opportunities and how extended reality technologies could help with cultural preservation and language learning, that’s when I got really into that.
CR: What advice would you give to young people looking to break into your world?
KN: Be passionate. Go after it. Try to be strategic in the environment. It’s actually good not to be the smartest person in the room, even though it’s scary. It’s actually good to be surrounded by people who are better than you, because you will learn from them.
CR: How do you want your legacy to be remembered?
KN: I really would like to see more technology that is more competent in Hawaiian culture, more technology that helps us preserve and practice our culture, whether it be through the ways we do science here and the mythology methodologies we have here in Hawai’i for scientific research, or how we tell stories. If the work I do inspires more people to create technologies and projects like that, I would be very happy.