WHAT HE DOES
Builds multimedia installations.
Techart Group and Storynest
WHERE HE DOES IT
He plays with new technologies to produce engaging, interactive art exhibits for fun and profit.
This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on Dream Jobs 2011.
Hsin-Chien Huang grew up daydreaming about becoming a comic book artist. He invented his own comic strips and doodled imaginary spaceships and military bases. But his mother, an oil painter, had other ideas.
“It was 1980, and back then Taiwan’s economy was not so great. Most people didn’t have the money to spend on artwork,” Huang says. “My mother hoped that her son would have an easier life, that I would study engineering and make a stable living.”
Huang listened and got a degree in mechanical engineering from the country’s top-ranked school, National Taiwan University, in Taipei, where he thrived in his robotics courses. But in 1986, during his third year, his outlook suddenly changed. The tragedy of the Challenger space shuttle dominated the news, and the images of the shuttle blowing apart left a deep impression. “It made me think that as an engineer, what if I did something that hurt someone or caused an accident?” he recalls. Building actual spaceships and military bases, he realized, was not for him.
Then it dawned on him: He could return to art. By weaving together technology and art in the years since then, the soft-spoken and amiable 44-year-old has become one of Taiwan’s best-known multimedia artists.
The first step was to go back to school. He got a second bachelor’s degree in product design at the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, Calif., followed by a master’s degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, in Chicago. As he was finishing up, Huang landed an unusual gig. In 1994 he won an interactive media competition, and the renowned performance artist Laurie Anderson happened to see his winning entry. She invited Huang to collaborate on Puppet Motel, an interactive CD-ROM that would integrate her images, video, and music in a ghostly exploration of technology’s alienating effects. Huang created animations and designed virtual rooms for Anderson’s imaginary world using Lingo, a scripting language for Adobe Director software. “This was something where I could use my left and right brain,” he recalls.
Huang then returned to California, where he spent two years as an art director at Sega of America in Los Angeles and Redwood City and another two years at Sony Computer Entertainment America, in Santa Monica. He helped design the environments for a game called Geist Force for Sega’s Dreamcast console and Kinetica for the PlayStation 2. He played video games for hours every day. It was research, not recreation, and over time he began to worry about the toll all that gaming might be taking on his brain. “After you finish playing, you feel very stimulated, like you’ve done something very active and fast, even though your body hasn’t actually moved,” he says. And as the years ticked by, he grew homesick for Taiwan.