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Dream Jobs 2011: Meet Hsin-Chien Huang, Pixel Provocateur

How an engineer became one of Taiwan’s best-known artists

4 min read
two men and an installation
Photo: Justin Guariglia/Redux

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Hsin-Chien Huang

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.

In 2002, he moved back to Taipei and founded Storynest. Huang began creating interactive art installations with a team that now includes 25 artists, software designers, and engineers. Five years later, Storynest merged with Techart Group, a multimedia production company that produces interactive displays for the likes of Nike and Nokia. In both roles, Huang sees himself as a hunter in search of the ideal pairing between a creative concept and technology.”

For the 2008 Shanghai Biennale, for example, Huang built an interactive installation called Shall We Dance, Shanghai? that used an infrared camera to capture viewers’ movements as they stood against a white wall. Software transformed the feed in real time into animated 3-D avatars derived from digital images of Shanghai’s high-rise buildings. As audience members waved their arms, they watched projections of shifting buildings mirror their movements, with sections of concrete and steel disappearing and reappearing against a bright blue sky.

The installation was a hit, but Huang wasn’t entirely happy with the compromises in the design, especially the white wall. Without the wall, the infrared camera would not have been able to distinguish each person’s shape from the surrounding spectators, and so the avatars would have appeared as a muddled mass. But the wall also blocked visitors’ views. Now the Storynest team is looking to replace the infrared camera with a depth-sensing camera. Depth cameras can pinpoint and track the positions of objects in 3-D space. By programming the device to record people only within a certain distance from its lens, Huang hopes to dispense with the wall. “With that setup, it will be more open and lively,” he says.

The tech-savvy artist’s two companies provide the stable living his mother wished for him, even if they haven’t made him a millionaire. And that’s okay. Two of his engineering classmates have made enough money to retire early, he notes. “But they still have to find things to do with their time.” For Huang, that’s never an issue: “My job is my passion.”

An abridged version of this article originally appeared in print as Pixel Provocateur.”

About the Author

Catherine Shu is a features reporter for the Taipei Times, in Taiwan, where she covers pop culture, style, and art. Her favorite part of profiling new media artist Hsin-Chien Huang was watching children gleefully shove each other out of the way for a turn at one of his interactive installations, something that would get them kicked out of most art exhibits. Shu has also written for Barron’s, the Wall Street Journal, and Psychology Today.

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