Preserving Hawaiian Culture Through Computers

Growing up, computer scientist Kari Noe noticed that there weren’t many video games that accurately depicted her homeland, the Hawaiian Islands. She says those who did almost always showed crimes on the islands or insisted on including zombies.

So she decided to use her computer skills to paint a more nuanced and accurate picture of the Hawaii she knew and loved. At the Laboratory for Advanced Visualization and Application (LAVA) at the University of Hawai’i, Mānoa, Kari has coded a range of innovative interactives ranging from immersive digital tours of island forests to virtual reality experiences of her island. native, Kauaʻi.

When YR spoke to Kari, we realized that there are ways art and technology can collide to preserve the best parts of culture. She still thinks that we should be wary of AI…

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 computer science or programming programs. They had robotics. I got into robotics and I knew nothing about it. They let me do more computer work; I installed computers. It was the initial start to get interested in computers.

For a school project, I made a little video game using an HTML file. From there, when I was a senior in high school, I was like, ‘OK, that was really fun. I really want to learn how to make video games. I then became a computer science student at the University of Hawai’i, Mānoa.

CR: What project are you working on at the moment? What makes it special?

KN: Currently, I’m working on a mixed reality environment in the Create(x) Emerging Media Lab at the University of Hawaii at West O’ahu. In this space, we project the video onto the three walls of the lab to create an immersive environment. The environments are modeled after a real place. So for the demo I’m showing, it’s Wainiha Valley on Kauaʻi.

Being from Kauaʻi, I have a particular fondness for the Wainiha Valley, from camping in the valley to helping eradicate 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: Technology 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 because you get the feeling of presence. There are a lot of conversations or debates about whether virtual reality could actually improve empathy. Just being present in these experiences affects the way people see things.

CR: How is AI changing computing?

KN: AI is already exploding, we are already using it in our daily life now. It will quickly grow. It’s going to get a lot smarter. And with that, I feel like there are still a lot of questions we still have to ask ourselves, like: how much privacy do you give? How do you create a skill in the general public to understand what AI can do?

I think a lot of people have to talk about [how] Algorithms that do machine learning are biased because they are always learning from the data you feed them. AI results have yet to be reviewed and studied and are not 100% reliable..

CR: Is there a void in your field and have you seen your contributions fill that need?

KN: It’s like Jurassic Park: we didn’t wonder if we should do, we just asked if we could do it. What you see is that a lot of technologies are very exciting, they can be implemented quickly, and we don’t think about the backlash or the effects they have.

When I discovered research opportunities and how extended reality technologies could contribute to cultural preservation and language learning, that’s when I really got interested in it.

CR: What advice would you give to young people looking to break into your world?

KN: Be passionate. Go after. Try to be strategic in the environment. It’s really nice not to be the smartest person in the room, even if it’s scary. It’s really good to be around people who are better than you, because you’ll learn from them.

CR: How do you want your legacy to be remembered?

KN: I would really like to see more technology that is more competent in Hawaiian culture, more technology that helps us preserve and practice our culture, whether it’s through the way we do science here and the mythological methodologies that 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 this, I would be very happy.

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