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Cool Jobs: Human Computer Games Researcher

Imagine a job creating interactive games that help people learn and communicate better. Meet technologist Katherine Isbister who does just that.

Episode filmed live at the 2013 World Science Festival in New York CIty. The full Cool Jobs program from that year can be viewed online.

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Katherine Isbister:

How many people here in the audience play video games? How would you like to do that all day long?

Katherine Isbister:

Well, I hate to break it to you. I don’t play games all day long, but I do actually get paid to play video games because I build games and I need to do research with them. Now my lab is not full of test tubes and lab coats and that sort of thing. Here it is. It’s full of people from all over the university, playing around with technology and building really interesting experiences for people. So I do have computer scientists. I have mechanical engineers, but I also have artists, sound designers, people from all over NYU and NYU Poly. And this lab is right here in New York City. It’s actually in Brooklyn. Shout out to Brooklyn. Yes.

Katherine Isbister:

So it takes all kinds of people to build the kind of games we do. And I’ll show you an example that’s really appropriate for today. This is a game called Yamove. It’s actually a dance battle game and believe it or not, it requires MCs and DJs and that kind of thing to play it right. You put mobile phones on your wrist and you and a friend makeup moves together and you compete against another team. It’s a really fun and interesting game to play. And certainly took people to program the mobile phones, but it also took artists. It took sound experts. And whenever we run this game, we actually do have a live DJ and an MC. And that helps make the experience amazing and what it is. And this game is all about the power of improvisation together.

Katherine Isbister:

So how many people have played Dance Central, something like that, maybe Just Dance? So in those games, you imitate somebody on the screen. With this dance, you get to really get together with your partner and make up a move and that actually builds connection between people. So that’s what we’re up to with that game.

Katherine Isbister:

Now, it’s not so surprising that I ended up in this field, which requires all these different kinds of talents. This is actually a picture of my dad in his early Clark Kent days. And that’s me pontificating to a doll before I had awesome audiences like you guys. I was one of those kids who just liked to learn. I was into math. I always had my nose in a book. I liked the sciences. So I ended up going to a science and math high school. But then to the chagrin of my engineer father, when I got to college, I majored in English literature. He was panicking. He was like, “What is going on here?” Because when I was a kid, he used to take me to the computer lab that he took care of. He would drive me over and had me sit at the lab while he checked on stuff. And I would play these really old primitive video games like Pong, that sort of thing. He never suspected that I would end up getting a PhD from Stanford, focusing on game characters. And let me tell you, he was pleased. So if you’re worried about your kids playing video games, just take that to heart.

Katherine Isbister:

Now the real reason that I started to focus on games happened because of my first job. So right out of college, I started working at a zoo called Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. And everyday on my way to work, I got to pass through this bird house. It was this beautiful environment with these amazing birds. They were so pretty. But I have to tell you a secret. I really did not like birds. I was kind of scared of birds, actually. A bird bit my finger once going for a crust of bread. I had a bird swoop my head. I was kind of scared of them. And you would think that passing through this building day after day would have changed how I felt because there were these real animals. But it wasn’t until a video game got installed in that bird house that I changed my tune.

Katherine Isbister:

And what happened was, there was this exhibit. It was called Be a Redwing Blackbird. You had to pretend to be a bird. You had to choose where you’re going to put your nest, who you’re going to try to mate with, the bossiest bird, or maybe a less bossy bird. And then you had to defend your eggs. And I have to say, after a couple of seasons of trying to survive as a Redwing Blackbird, I suddenly had so much more empathy for the bird. That is really powerful. That was more effective for me than seeing the real animals. So when I experienced that, I decided I’m going to go back to school and I’m going to try to get to the bottom of what makes games so powerful for people.

Katherine Isbister:

So I told you before about Yamove and how we’re trying to get people to stay in sync and how that leads to trust and connection between people. So we build these games in my lab, but we also do things like install cameras to look at what’s happening as people move around. That’s the sort of science we’re doing behind the games. You’re going to get to play one of our games in just a minute. But before you do, I want to introduce someone. Now it takes a big team of people to build these games. So I actually brought one of my students with me and she’s actually an anthropologist by training. She’s fabulous. So please welcome Holly Robbins.

Holly Robbins:

Hi. I’m an anthropologist. So I actually study how people interact with each other. And I work with Katherine at the lab to help design technology and games that really think about how people work together. So we actually want to show you a game of ours. Now, we worked with Bell Labs to think about different ways we could use surveillance cameras, in a way that maybe could help people instead of just watch people. And what we really wanted to do was have them be a tool to help people work together with people they may not know. And this is our surveillance camera over here.

Katherine Isbister:

We brought our own.

Holly Robbins:

Yeah. And what surveillance cameras detect is motion. So are you guys ready to play our game? Yeah? Okay. Can we put our game up on the screen? And while that’s getting up, I need four volunteers.

Katherine Isbister:

Oh my gosh, look at this. Look at this.

Holly Robbins:

Okay. Do you want to come down? I’m so happy to have so many volunteers up here. So we’re going to explain the game first. So here’s our surveillance cameras and again, it detects motion and it’s a good thing you guys are facing it because that’s the right thing. They’ll understand. Don’t worry. Now what you guys have to do is with your motion, you want to clear off the pixels or the dots on the screen. Okay? You have 30 seconds to clear all of the pixels from the screen. When you win and get them all off, you get to take your picture. And then the ones with the fastest times go up here on the leaderboard. So are you guys ready? Because the next game’s about to start? So here we go. Five, four,

Katherine Isbister:

… three, two, one.

Holly Robbins:

Get ready to move.

Katherine Isbister:

Go.

Holly Robbins:

Clear the pixels.

Katherine Isbister:

You can move all around. You can run around if you want.

Holly Robbins:

You have to move around the whole space.

Katherine Isbister:

There you go.

Holly Robbins:

There you go.

Katherine Isbister:

Oh. 60, 70, 80. Oh, we’re almost there.

Holly Robbins:

Oh, great job. Great job. Now you guys get to take a photo. So you can take a photo with Godzilla and the statue of Liberty. Excellent. Now they did a great job, but you know what? I think that they might be able to complete it even faster if they had your help. So do you think that maybe you guys in the next game could make some motion in the audience?

Katherine Isbister:

Yes, wave around from the audience.

Holly Robbins:

Yeah? Okay.

Katherine Isbister:

Because the camera sees you guys too.

Holly Robbins:

This is the hardest level. So we’re going to need your help.

Katherine Isbister:

Oh yeah, they’re going to need help.

Holly Robbins:

Everybody in the audience make some motion.

Katherine Isbister:

Yeah. Oh yeah, look at this. Oh my gosh.

Holly Robbins:

You guys did a great job. Okay, here’s the photo.

Katherine Isbister:

You guys can pose in the peanut gallery too. Awesome.

Holly Robbins:

Excellent. Okay. You guys did a great job. You guys can sit down.

Katherine Isbister:

Thank you so much.

Holly Robbins:

Thank you so much.

Katherine Isbister:

Let’s go back to the slides.

Holly Robbins:

So as you guys may have noticed, the game goes a lot faster and you get a much higher score when you have more people working together. And this is exactly what we wanted this technology to accomplish. So great job guys.

Holly Robbins:

Now we’re right now in the early stages of analyzing some data from this game. This game is now running at the Liberty Science Center. And we’re looking at the data of all the different motion that it’s collecting. And finding in fact, we are creating that environment of collaboration.

Katherine Isbister:

So this is actually a snapshot of Holly and I and [inaudible 00:08:03] who I think is somewhere in the audience here. I just want to give a shout out to all of the students who are here today, who work so hard, particularly [inaudible 00:08:09] and Chris. As you can see, I have an amazing job. I get to build really cool games that ask interesting questions, with really talented students like Holly. If you are passionate about video games and you have other skills, it doesn’t have to be programming, could be art, maybe you love music, maybe you aspire to be a DJ. I just want you to realize that it takes all kinds to make video games and to do serious research with them. So I highly encourage you to go into it if that’s your passion. Thank you.

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Cool Jobs: Human Computer Games Researcher

Imagine a job creating interactive games that help people learn and communicate better. Meet technologist Katherine Isbister who does just that.

Episode filmed live at the 2013 World Science Festival in New York CIty. The full Cool Jobs program from that year can be viewed online.

Transcription

Katherine Isbister:

How many people here in the audience play video games? How would you like to do that all day long?

Katherine Isbister:

Well, I hate to break it to you. I don’t play games all day long, but I do actually get paid to play video games because I build games and I need to do research with them. Now my lab is not full of test tubes and lab coats and that sort of thing. Here it is. It’s full of people from all over the university, playing around with technology and building really interesting experiences for people. So I do have computer scientists. I have mechanical engineers, but I also have artists, sound designers, people from all over NYU and NYU Poly. And this lab is right here in New York City. It’s actually in Brooklyn. Shout out to Brooklyn. Yes.

Katherine Isbister:

So it takes all kinds of people to build the kind of games we do. And I’ll show you an example that’s really appropriate for today. This is a game called Yamove. It’s actually a dance battle game and believe it or not, it requires MCs and DJs and that kind of thing to play it right. You put mobile phones on your wrist and you and a friend makeup moves together and you compete against another team. It’s a really fun and interesting game to play. And certainly took people to program the mobile phones, but it also took artists. It took sound experts. And whenever we run this game, we actually do have a live DJ and an MC. And that helps make the experience amazing and what it is. And this game is all about the power of improvisation together.

Katherine Isbister:

So how many people have played Dance Central, something like that, maybe Just Dance? So in those games, you imitate somebody on the screen. With this dance, you get to really get together with your partner and make up a move and that actually builds connection between people. So that’s what we’re up to with that game.

Katherine Isbister:

Now, it’s not so surprising that I ended up in this field, which requires all these different kinds of talents. This is actually a picture of my dad in his early Clark Kent days. And that’s me pontificating to a doll before I had awesome audiences like you guys. I was one of those kids who just liked to learn. I was into math. I always had my nose in a book. I liked the sciences. So I ended up going to a science and math high school. But then to the chagrin of my engineer father, when I got to college, I majored in English literature. He was panicking. He was like, “What is going on here?” Because when I was a kid, he used to take me to the computer lab that he took care of. He would drive me over and had me sit at the lab while he checked on stuff. And I would play these really old primitive video games like Pong, that sort of thing. He never suspected that I would end up getting a PhD from Stanford, focusing on game characters. And let me tell you, he was pleased. So if you’re worried about your kids playing video games, just take that to heart.

Katherine Isbister:

Now the real reason that I started to focus on games happened because of my first job. So right out of college, I started working at a zoo called Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. And everyday on my way to work, I got to pass through this bird house. It was this beautiful environment with these amazing birds. They were so pretty. But I have to tell you a secret. I really did not like birds. I was kind of scared of birds, actually. A bird bit my finger once going for a crust of bread. I had a bird swoop my head. I was kind of scared of them. And you would think that passing through this building day after day would have changed how I felt because there were these real animals. But it wasn’t until a video game got installed in that bird house that I changed my tune.

Katherine Isbister:

And what happened was, there was this exhibit. It was called Be a Redwing Blackbird. You had to pretend to be a bird. You had to choose where you’re going to put your nest, who you’re going to try to mate with, the bossiest bird, or maybe a less bossy bird. And then you had to defend your eggs. And I have to say, after a couple of seasons of trying to survive as a Redwing Blackbird, I suddenly had so much more empathy for the bird. That is really powerful. That was more effective for me than seeing the real animals. So when I experienced that, I decided I’m going to go back to school and I’m going to try to get to the bottom of what makes games so powerful for people.

Katherine Isbister:

So I told you before about Yamove and how we’re trying to get people to stay in sync and how that leads to trust and connection between people. So we build these games in my lab, but we also do things like install cameras to look at what’s happening as people move around. That’s the sort of science we’re doing behind the games. You’re going to get to play one of our games in just a minute. But before you do, I want to introduce someone. Now it takes a big team of people to build these games. So I actually brought one of my students with me and she’s actually an anthropologist by training. She’s fabulous. So please welcome Holly Robbins.

Holly Robbins:

Hi. I’m an anthropologist. So I actually study how people interact with each other. And I work with Katherine at the lab to help design technology and games that really think about how people work together. So we actually want to show you a game of ours. Now, we worked with Bell Labs to think about different ways we could use surveillance cameras, in a way that maybe could help people instead of just watch people. And what we really wanted to do was have them be a tool to help people work together with people they may not know. And this is our surveillance camera over here.

Katherine Isbister:

We brought our own.

Holly Robbins:

Yeah. And what surveillance cameras detect is motion. So are you guys ready to play our game? Yeah? Okay. Can we put our game up on the screen? And while that’s getting up, I need four volunteers.

Katherine Isbister:

Oh my gosh, look at this. Look at this.

Holly Robbins:

Okay. Do you want to come down? I’m so happy to have so many volunteers up here. So we’re going to explain the game first. So here’s our surveillance cameras and again, it detects motion and it’s a good thing you guys are facing it because that’s the right thing. They’ll understand. Don’t worry. Now what you guys have to do is with your motion, you want to clear off the pixels or the dots on the screen. Okay? You have 30 seconds to clear all of the pixels from the screen. When you win and get them all off, you get to take your picture. And then the ones with the fastest times go up here on the leaderboard. So are you guys ready? Because the next game’s about to start? So here we go. Five, four,

Katherine Isbister:

… three, two, one.

Holly Robbins:

Get ready to move.

Katherine Isbister:

Go.

Holly Robbins:

Clear the pixels.

Katherine Isbister:

You can move all around. You can run around if you want.

Holly Robbins:

You have to move around the whole space.

Katherine Isbister:

There you go.

Holly Robbins:

There you go.

Katherine Isbister:

Oh. 60, 70, 80. Oh, we’re almost there.

Holly Robbins:

Oh, great job. Great job. Now you guys get to take a photo. So you can take a photo with Godzilla and the statue of Liberty. Excellent. Now they did a great job, but you know what? I think that they might be able to complete it even faster if they had your help. So do you think that maybe you guys in the next game could make some motion in the audience?

Katherine Isbister:

Yes, wave around from the audience.

Holly Robbins:

Yeah? Okay.

Katherine Isbister:

Because the camera sees you guys too.

Holly Robbins:

This is the hardest level. So we’re going to need your help.

Katherine Isbister:

Oh yeah, they’re going to need help.

Holly Robbins:

Everybody in the audience make some motion.

Katherine Isbister:

Yeah. Oh yeah, look at this. Oh my gosh.

Holly Robbins:

You guys did a great job. Okay, here’s the photo.

Katherine Isbister:

You guys can pose in the peanut gallery too. Awesome.

Holly Robbins:

Excellent. Okay. You guys did a great job. You guys can sit down.

Katherine Isbister:

Thank you so much.

Holly Robbins:

Thank you so much.

Katherine Isbister:

Let’s go back to the slides.

Holly Robbins:

So as you guys may have noticed, the game goes a lot faster and you get a much higher score when you have more people working together. And this is exactly what we wanted this technology to accomplish. So great job guys.

Holly Robbins:

Now we’re right now in the early stages of analyzing some data from this game. This game is now running at the Liberty Science Center. And we’re looking at the data of all the different motion that it’s collecting. And finding in fact, we are creating that environment of collaboration.

Katherine Isbister:

So this is actually a snapshot of Holly and I and [inaudible 00:08:03] who I think is somewhere in the audience here. I just want to give a shout out to all of the students who are here today, who work so hard, particularly [inaudible 00:08:09] and Chris. As you can see, I have an amazing job. I get to build really cool games that ask interesting questions, with really talented students like Holly. If you are passionate about video games and you have other skills, it doesn’t have to be programming, could be art, maybe you love music, maybe you aspire to be a DJ. I just want you to realize that it takes all kinds to make video games and to do serious research with them. So I highly encourage you to go into it if that’s your passion. Thank you.