Tech+Art Podcast: Anna Henson


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Welcome to the new Tech+Art Podcast!

Join us on this adventure as we meet & speak with: artists, makers, researchers, designers and creators from all background and fields.

Our objective is to understand their creative perspective, dive into their workflow & creative process, be inspired by new ideas and their work – and stay one step ahead of cutting-edge industry developments.

"Our brains are very plastic and we accept a reality that we perceive very quickly. It’s kind of a survival technique."


In this episode, we’re chatting with Anna Henson, an artist and researcher who’s focused on spacial computing and immersive experiences.

Anna’s work focuses on studying and surfacing the human side of technology – specifically how embodiment and social interaction design within new and emerging spatial computing technologies and immersive experiences is changing our relationship with each other, with technology and with the companies that are behind these new tools.

Question 1: What were some of those first experiences where those two worlds really came together? How did you transition from the stage as a creative medium into technology as a creative medium? And what were some of the projects in between that helped your bridge that gap?

[ 7:02 ] – Well there was another stage in between theatre and XR where I worked in experiential advertising for a brief moment. […] Brands would want to promote something and they say we want an interactive experience where people, members of the public, or whoever was encountering this could actually interact and play around with some kind of scenario that would help communicate whatever they wanted to communicate. So that is when I started to get into creative technology and that was in New York, so I started to learn about the ways you could use code to make interactive experiences.

[ 8:58 ] – My first instinct is to always look for collaborators. I’m an extremely collaborative person, I always work well with performers or in teams. I love working with really great engineers and figuring out how we’re going to best leverage the technology to tell the story that we want to.

[ 11:25 ] – So I blended those two techniques to see: ‘how can we represent people, using these different kinds of motion capture? How can I put real, recognizable people in a virtual environment? What’s the extension of photography? Essentially. […] So that was some of the earliest experiences that I worked on to move into AR & VR but then my work has transformed a little bit now into more questions of embodiment and sensory design and also into questions of the ethics of this immersive technology and kind of community-based dialog about ‘what is the user experience of people wearing headsets? How does this work or not work in society.

Question 2: How does collaboration play an important role in this emerging field and in the type of work that you do?

[ 13:00 ] – I think collaboration requires a lot of – of course – communication and translation from different people who may not come from the same backgrounds, who may have different ideas about how to go about a project. But essentially the nature of collaboration is ‘how can we communicate with a group of different people to make one thing that’s bigger than what we could all create by ourselves?’. So I am a huge proponent of collaborative work, and especially interdisciplinary collaborative work, where you are working with people who you may not always think of as immediately being relevant to the project you’re working on.

[ 14:13 ] – Expand the dialogue essentially. Don’t leave the creation of technology to just traditional roles where people are developing technology – in kind of behind closed doors. I think we need to open the conversation a lot more in society in general.

[ 17:17 ] – The question of bias in algorithms is huge […] ask the really hard questions. And that means that tech can’t just sort of sit by and just say ‘oh it’s just an algorithm, it’s not bias. It’s just a computer, it doesn’t have an agenda’. That’s false. It absolutely has an agenda. And that agenda is coded by the people who are making decisions, who decide what products to make and how to build them. […] Collaboration extends into hard dialog. Encountering people who are different from you and asking hard questions and coming to some kind of compromise or understanding.

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Question 3: What do you think is missing? What do you wish existed?

[ 18:54 ] – I think that a lot of this tech was massively adopted without a lot of thinking about what its impact was really gonna be. And the tech has also been designed, really consciously, to be addictive and to continue engagement so that, for instance, a lot of the business models of Silicon Valley companies are advertisements. It’s all delivering ads to you. So the longer they can get your eyeballs on something, the more ads they can make you watch – basically.

[ 20:28 ] – The problem with tech right now is that it’s a black box to the public. The public doesn’t necessarily have a background in knowing how this tech works. A lot of this stuff is behind closed doors. So I think, in terms of conversations and dialogue, we need to work on how to communicate between the general public – who has all kinds of priorities, all kinds of backgrounds, all levels of understanding – and the companies who are making this tech. But a lot of the companies who are making this tech don’t really want to have these conversations because it impacts their business. So that’s where people like ethicists, philosophers, policy makers and social scientists and community developers come in.

Question 4: How do you see the rest of the immersive industry continuing to evolve? What is the artists’ role in helping the space continue to evolve?

[ 23:08 ] – So in terms of the role of the artist and the role of community development, we have to think about how to design experiences that set a good behavioural standard. We have to do research into that and we have to take lessons from the real world into the way we design immersive experiences because, really, an immersive experience can feel as real as your real life.

[ 23:33 ] – Our brains are very plastic and we accept a reality that we perceive very quickly. It’s kind of a survival technique. It’s like an evolutionary survival skill for our brains to be able to perceive a reality and act on it. […] Immersive experiences are no different.

[ 24:36 ] – […] and then I think in terms of just artists in general – artists, for a long time, have been the ways that a society feels the pulse of it changing. If you think about counter-culture movements or other situations in which an artist is able to say something that other kinds of people with different jobs or different responsibilities are not able to. Or they help us see situations from other perspectives and in new ways. So I think right now, it is vital that artists engage with these questions and put work out there. And I also think that it’s important that the artists are supported in doing that and I think that is especially challenging in America right now…. There’s not a lot of money for this kind of work….

Question 5: What advice or insights would you share with a younger version of yourself?

[ 30:20 ] – Basically, find mentors and build community. I think what I would say is that there may be times where you feel like this world that you want to get involved in is not really open to you, or is not friendly, or you don’t have the right background, or you didn’t study computer science when you were like 10 so therefore you can’t participate in it. No. You can learn. There are resources and places where you can try things out.

[ 31:08 ] – And if you don’t see them out there, then become that so that you can help the next person, really. Lift each other up.