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NEU NOW LIVE Retrospective: Part 2 - Koji Wakayama, Experience Designer

19 July 2013

'Do you have a pet?
Are you comfortable in the presence of robots?
Would you like to have a robot as a pet?
Would you like to have a robot as a servant?
Would you like to have a robot as a slave?'

These are just a few of the questions Koji Wakayama, Swedish Experience Designer and participant of the first edition of the NEU NOW LIVE Festival, investigates through his work with applied robotics and new technologies. 

Wakayama's presentation in Design at the NEU NOW LIVE Festival in Vilnius, ‘Robot Garden: Can Machines Have Experiences?’, primed the audience to consider these matters. 

Wakayama recently landed the position of Frontend Developer for the Nordic region's leading digitial agency, Creuna, and in the past has created electronic promotion campaigns for household names like IKEA, Volkswagon, and Grolsch as well as having taught Experience Design to Master Students at Konstfack University.

The NEU NOW team dispatched Jessica Maxwell, resident festival tech nerd, to catch up with Koji and see where life has taken him - and his creations - over the years.

This interview was conducted via skype on June 20, 2013. 

Wakayama at NEU NOW LIVE 2009

JESSICA MAXWELL: In 2009, you participated in the NEU NOW Festival in Vilnius with your work, ‘Robot Garden: Can Machines Have Experiences?’ Can you talk a little bit about this piece?

KOJI WAKAYAMA: It was the outcome of my Master’s thesis, ‘Can Machines Have Experiences?´. I graduated from Konstfack, University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm where I sstudied experience design at
the interdisciplinary studies department.


'...Start messing around with material
and use it as a tool,
as a painter uses colour.'

When it comes to robotics, my discipline of interest, there's not much room for designers or creatives. It's a big discourse but I felt that within that discourse there was not that much participation from the arts and design field, and I made a research into this.

Robotics and new technologies are changing and forming our lives, and I think that it's important to have creatives on board to discuss how things should develop. I undertook theoretical studies but half of my final thesis for this was practical work. I felt that designers are often seen only as creatives that have an idea but don’t execute it themselves and it was important for me to actually get into the nitty gritty and start messing around with material and use it as a tool, as a painter uses colour.

MAXWELL: You wanted to do practice as research.

WAKAYAMA: Yes, exactly. We had a lot of practice-based research. It was a big topic at the University. And I felt that through actually immersing myself with the material, I learn and see things from a different point of view, and then I started developing tools for myself that I could prototype with robotics technologies, sensor technologies. I built this very complicated robot with tons of sensors, which developed as a platform I could use and rip apart again to create something new.

And then I made ‘Robot Garden’ and I literally took the saw and cut away everything I didn’t absolutely need and ended up with the design of the robot. My developing platform is lots of electronics and it looks very techie but since I removed everything non-essential it was more about creativity, asking what do I really need for this to work, and I came up with the minimum solution. That was at least my goal.

MAXWELL: You were focusing on economy of design?

WAKAYAMA: Absolutely, but I also took into consideration the experience that a visitor has when they first see a very machine-y thing, people are very distant and I wanted to counteract that. I was surprised and pleased when I exhibited at NEU NOW and people were calling the robots in Robot Garden animals, like a little insect. They were projecting human behaviors on those little machines, when the robots were interacting people would say, ‘Now they're fighting!’ or when the battery ran out people commented, ‘Okay, this one looks very tired’. 

That was something I really learned from exhibiting Robot Garden and it took me a long time to come to learn it. In the beginning, I wanted to make everything extra robust and secure on the robots. In the end, I realized that the designer’s approach is different than a technician’s approach. Technicians are focused more on the machine itself than on the humans that are actually interacting, using, or experiencing it.
I learned that I wanted to focus more on the human experience.

MAXWELL: Were you surprised by people personifying the machines? Is that something that you didn't expect to see as a reaction?

WAKAYAMA: It was to an extent. The thing that fascinated me is usually you're lucky if your machine gets attention for half a minute but at NEU NOW, people actually spent hours sitting around Robot Garden and just watching what was going on and what was happening with their kids running around.

MAXWELL: They really took it in and actually made it a durational experience then?

WAKAYAMA: Exactly. When people were first coming in, it felt like they were just curious, but once they saw things moving and changing they stayed because the machines always behaved a little bit differently each time. Every time was unique. It's not like a movie that just plays and the next time will be exactly the same thing. It's always different. It's evolving all the time.

MAXWELL: How do you feel about Robot Garden now?

WAKAYAMA: Right now it's a piece of knowledge that I developed and I see it as a research project, as my starting point, and now I'm interested in moving more towards a thing that is…it's hard to explain. Robot Garden is something that is for itself basically. The human is the observer and now I'm getting more interested in how I can actually use the same material and technology while emphasizing bringing in the human aspect more.  

Experience Design

MAXWELL: You identify yourself professionally as an experience designer and you studied experience design at university. What exactly does an experience designer do?

WAKAYAMA: An experience designer designs time. Since it's an interdisciplinary discipline, there are several approaches, but for myself I see my design medium as robotics or technology. I use robotics materials to design time, because you can design behavior like you design machines.

MAXWELL: What space is there for designers and other creative practitioners in the development of robotics and artificial intelligence?

WAKAYAMA: It’s important to have designers actively contribute because the designer’s job is to work for people, to create something to use or to experience.

As an engineer, the job is to focus on building the machine, its performance, making the machine better. I think both disciplines are very important and often they work and decide together but there is often a gap within this dialogue. I think now it's more important to have people bridging the gap.

MAXWELL: You view the role of experience designer as bridging the gap?

WAKAYAMA: Yes. It's an interdisciplinary discipline so it’s inherently trying to bring other disciplines together to create something new and with experience design, it's to create experiences.

MAXWELL: Do you view experience design as an emerging field that will become increasingly more prevalent and well known in the future?

WAKAYAMA: I think it is already now, actually. Nowadays people have everything, so interest goes away from the material to the experiential. There’s an example of this from this book, ‘Experience Economy’, where they talk about this cafe. If you go to a cafe you pay some price, but if you’re in Venice and you buy an espresso it's five times the price. People are more interested in taking part in unique experiences. For me experience is something important. I think it's an emerging thing, but it's already here. 

The Children Are Our Future: An Outlook on Robotics and Artificial Intelligence 

MAXWELL: In the past you taught courses on robotics to kids.

WAKAYAMA: I have done that. It was lots of fun and it's great to work with kids because with kids everything comes naturally. They still act out of instinct. They don't think too much. It's learning by doing.

'Everything is trial and error.
A lot of error

MAXWELL: What is your vision for the development of robotics and AI in the future? Say when the kids that you gave these courses to are your age and working in the field.

WAKAYAMA: The thing is that the more people participate, the better. Until recent years, companies put out a product and people are forced to use it if they need it, but I think it's important to understand how things work and to know how to build something on your own with your own needs and priorities in mind. With this type of understanding in hand people will build better products, with more relevance. It's the same phenomenon that develops out of the open source movement or the DIY scene.

MAXWELL: You build robots, which to an outsider sounds like a very technical thing that requires a lot of education and training, so where did you acquire that knowledge?

WAKAYAMA: Everything is trial and error. A lot of error.

MAXWELL: You really teach yourself.

WAKAYAMA: Absolutely. I want to understand. I want to know and that's how I get into things and I usually go quite far. I guess it's my personality in a way as well.

'There's already a
robot's rights movement
going on today

MAXWELL: How do you think robotics will change in 10, 20 years from now?

WAKAYAMA: The simple answer to that is it will be much more integrated into our society.

MAXWELL: When you tell people that you’re working with robotics and artificial intelligence do you often get responses with dystopian visions of the future?

WAKAYAMA: I actually did a survey starting in 2009 that is still running today that gauges this. It asks questions like:
‘Do you have a pet?,
Are you comfortable in the presence of robots?,
Would you like to have a robot as a pet?,
Would you like to have a robot as a servant’, 
Would you like to have a robot as a slave?,
Do you think robots can have personalities?,
Could you feel empathy for a robot?,
Could you accept robots as social partners in the future?,
Have you ever thought of yourself as a machine?,
Do you think that in the future robots who have responsibility should also have rights?,
Are you optimistic or afraid about a future of robots?,
Do you think machines can have experience?'

There’s no right or wrong answers to these questions, it’s more about creating awareness around the topic.

MAXWELL: It sounds maybe silly for me to say but do you feel like in the future there will be robot's rights movements?

WAKAYAMA: There's already a robot's right movement going on today. There's a discourse about all of this. A specific example is the debate that robots should pay taxes.

MAXWELL: There’s an ongoing debate that robots should also pay taxes?

WAKAYAMA: Yes, because they replace human workers. Factories are full with people working there, who have to pay taxes.  Let’s say now the factory is filled with robots, shouldn’t they pay taxes? Maybe one day they will also have rights and responsibilities.

NEU NOW: A Testing Ground

MAXWELL: What were your expectations of the NEU NOW festival?

WAKAYAMA: Expectations? I'm a person with no expectations. I was focusing on creating an immersive experience for the people. Even when I arrived, I was still working on it.

MAXWELL: Did the festival have any impact on your career?

WAKAYAMA: The most interesting thing for me was testing Robot Garden, because that was the second time I showed it and the first time on a much bigger scale than its initial exhibition. The first exhibition I had maybe five robots, and then at NEU NOW I had 15 robots. It was a much bigger scale and attracted more people. It was for me interesting to see the reaction of how people behave and learn from that.

MAXWELL: It was a testing ground for you. Did you spend your time alone, solitarily working with the robots, or did you have the opportunity to interact with the other artists who were participating as well?

WAKAYAMA: I met other artists and I was speaking with many people, many artists. During the show I had to be at the piece all the time because those machines sometimes behave in a way you don't want them to. Sometimes you have to fix something or maybe some robot is running away. I spent a lot of time at Robot Garden and next to people observing it.

MAXWELL: Have you ever had an escaped robot that just went AWOL and you were like, ‘I have no idea where this robot went.’?

WAKAYAMA: Yeah. Kind of. The thing is there's also so many it's hard to keep track of everything.

MAXWELL: Do the escapees ever come back to you, sort of like if your dog runs away and then turns up a week later?

WAKAYAMA: If it’s a good robot. Sometimes it comes back.

MAXWELL: Sometimes it doesn't.

WAKAYAMA: It's like that with everything.

MAXWELL: As much as I want to keep talking about runaway robots, I feel compelled to ask what your professional ambitions were at the time of your participation in NEU NOW.

WAKAYAMA: It's hard to say. I had just graduated. NEU NOW  was a couple of months later so after graduation I was working for the festival producing more robots, refining the whole project and then when I was at the festival I was purely focusing on this piece.

'Sometimes things stay
and sometimes technologies disappear 
because they did not prove themselves,
but maybe they come back.

MAXWELL: And in a more general sense? What did you want to do professionally?

WAKAYAMA: Kind of what I'm doing now, working with that same material but in a more applicable way by putting it into design, because Robot Garden was still research. I figured this out when I applied for jobs and spoke with people.  They saw a guy that is a designer but also builds robots and so it took me also sometime to communicate the relevance.

That's why I started to work as an Interactive Developer. I found that companies were increasingly interested in electronic projects. These types of projects were getting more popular in the media world, so naturally agencies were also interested in having them as part of their promotional campaigns. I worked as an interactive developer at Society 46, an agency in Stockholm, doing promotional work from 2011 until very recently. That was basically how I got into the field that I'm working in now.  I transitioned from media campaign work and now I actually work with creating robust solutions as Frontend Developer for Creuna, the leading digitial agency in the Nordic region. I don’t work on so many campaign projects anymore. It's more long term projects focused on developing interfaces, what people actually see, feel, and experience.

MAXWELL: Sounds like a perfect fit for you. Do you feel like there is as much room for research in your current work in the commercial world than in academia?

WAKAYAMA: Yes. To be honest I actually think there is much more room for research. Distribution happens on a much larger scale than in academia. In the commercial world you reach so many people and your works gets used and tested by them quickly. There's so many people that will experience the work. That, along with more resources to work with new material, new media, was my major motivation to work for clients in the commercial sector.

MAXWELL: How does your creative practice change with the development of new technology?

WAKAYAMA: I'm keeping myself always updated, and I try always to not focus on only one thing, but to keep a very broad point of view and experiment with new technology. I'm testing a lot of things all at the same time. Sometimes things stay and sometimes technologies disappear because they did not prove themselves, but maybe they come back.

MAXWELL: I was just about to ask you if there is a fear or anxiety of having your work become outmoded by new technology.

WAKAYAMA: No. Never. It's still knowledge, and I think it's good to learn something even though maybe it's not exactly what you will use in the end. This will help you to understand something else with more ease. It's a process. I don't think it's possible to jump from A to Z. You first have to go through the other steps to understand what is really essential. I always aim to get really immersed in the technology and then see if it's interesting and if it's something I want to work further with.

MAXWELL: Even if something becomes obsolete, you view it as being an essential part of the wider process of knowledge development.

WAKAYAMA: And maybe it comes back. 

Intuitive Playful Experience: The PLAYSP

MAXWELL:  An example of this is your latest work the ‘PLAYSP’ controller, which works with a vintage drum machine.
WAKAYAMA: Exactly. The PLAYSP itself is a dedicated controller I created for the SP 1200 drum machine, a legendary kit released in 1987 by E-mu Systems, Inc., that’s noted for having this unique sound. What I did with the PLAYSP was extend the SP 1200 drum machine’s functionality using current technologies to make it work the way I want it to work. The PLAYSP is designed for use by musicians, djs, and
beat makers to programme beats in an easy and playful way. 

MAXWELL: Are you resurrecting the SP 1200 or is it something that is still in common use?

WAKAYAMA: About two years ago a book was released about the SP 1200, how to use it and exploring its history with interviews about it. It has a cult status, particularly within hip hop and rap music, but any music producer would know the SP 1200.

MAXWELL: Why were you interested in working on this?

WAKAYAMA: Well, I’m a DJ. That is to say, I started as a DJ and then I became more interested in the production side and now I have a little studio with my machines. I consider my interest in music to be my passion. I don't see it as my occupation. Basically robotics, design, those projects are my occupation. Music is my passion. 

MAXWELL: You use your occupation in service of your passion?

WAKAYAMA: Yes. I mean, in my daily life I work for a client but with the PLAYSP it's purely for myself. It's because I think this is a relevant piece. I think it's very useful. Because I wanted it, that's why I made it.

MAXWELL: That's a great motivation to do something.

WAKAYAMA: Also, nowadays with the music industry, there's new music software coming out all the time. Companies are very focused on adding more features with every software release.

When it comes to music, I feel the aspect of playing and interaction is neglected. There's not enough focus on the actual player, the user. That's why I was focusing on a very simple machine that does one thing, but does it very well and encourages you to play around and see what you can do with it, because it has limited functionality.

That is exactly the same concept with the drum machine from the beginning. The SP 1200 has only 10 seconds of sampling time and people used it with very limited functionality but they made whole songs with it because they used it in a very creative way. I think through this approach the outcome has a bigger impact because people are very aware about their decisions.

MAXWELL: Is there interest from other people involved in the scene in the PLAYSP and having a PLAYSP of their own? Have you considered manufacturing it for wider use?

WAKAYAMA: That's a good question. I have many friends that are passionate about music and everyone I invited to use it and try it out was, I think, blown away and wanted to have one. For me, it's a prototype. I have used it now for quite a while, for one and a half years and I'm still learning and seeing how I should change elements. I have ideas how to make it better and it's not a finished product yet.

MAXWELL: Are you interested in open sourcing the plans for the PLAYSP so people can replicate it, make one of their own, or even tweak the design? You've been talking so much about knowledge production so I would imagine this might strike your interest. 

WAKAYAMA: Yeah, I'm a big fan of open source, but in this case it's not ready yet so it's something I keep for myself. I would like to produce more or have people producing them by themselves. It would be great to have a lot people using it and have more machines out there because you can also connect them all together. You can have many people playing with their PLAYSPs together.

MAXWELL: You mean in the same physical space?

WAKAYAMA: No, actually, because it's a sequence all the players will be synced together, and they can play together on the same piece of music.

MAXWELL: Across distances.

WAKAYAMA: A-ha, you mean like that. Yeah. That could be also something in the future. As I say, it's just a starting point of this controller. It could be also that, because with the people playing together from distance, not locally, that's something I'm very interested in, but it might be a different project.

MAXWELL: Right. That could develop out of this project.

WAKAYAMA: Exactly. It's the same process as with Robot Garden. Now with the PLAYSP, I use knowledge that I gained through the Robot Garden. I apply things that I learned before and add something new to it.

MAXWELL: Does using the PLAYSP require intensive focus or is it something that a DJ in a club can use even when they´re drunk?

WAKAYAMA: When DJs deliver a show, they need equipment that just works the way it should work. They can't go through a bunch of menus or have a complicated interface. Even when they are drunk, they want to be able to do the right thing and have the right functionality just at their fingertips.

Also, for myself, I like to uncomplicate things. I uncomplicate my machine interactions. That's something I tried to do when I was working on the PLAYSP, really keeping it simple and not overwhelming a player with features but really focusing on the play aspect. I did not add any letters, no language, no description. I wanted to keep everything like LEGO, very intuitive. You go with how it should be. I was focusing on giving the person a play experiencing.


PlaySP Introduction from Koji Wakayama on Vimeo.


Looking to Koji's Future 

MAXWELL: You have your passion with PLAYSP, you have your profession with Creuna, what are your ambitions for the future? Where do you hope to go?

WAKAYAMA: I'm continuing on my path. Constantly learning. Constantly progressing and see what happens.

MAXWELL: It's like that very, very corny phrase, ‘It's the journey not the destination’.

WAKAYAMA: Or like dogs. They live in the now basically.

MAXWELL: They live in the now.

WAKAYAMA: I live in the now.

MAXWELL: Like a dog or a robot.
WAKAYAMA:  Yes, except I’m not running away.

Jessica Maxwell is Communications Officer for The European League of Institutes of the Arts (ELIA) and is currently working on editing the upcoming ELIA publication 'Art Futures' due out in March 2014.


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