This is the second part of my discussion with Christian Hill If you haven’t checked out the first half of the interview where we talk about accessibility and transhumanism. Click Here. What started as a discussion on innovation and AR/VR quickly turned into our experience as African Americans and our first impressions of being in the “technology” industry has been so far.

AJ: Okay, so now here comes AR/VR questions. Let’s explain the picture of EMG first and how you’ve integrated, something that you were interested in, which is accessibility, into an AR/VR context.

Chris: Yeah so NASA SUITS for the first part of the project I developed a EMG device. Basically EMG stands for electromyography. It measures the electric potential, the most these cars when they move. So, you know, a lot of people think that electricity and their body are completely separated email electricity will kill them. Not true your body actually generates a good electricity and your heart is a perfect example of that to wear EKG very similar where we’re working with EMG measures the electric potential of your heart when it beats the heart beats, it creates some sort of electric field through measure.

So basically, we went to participate in the NASA SUTIS project. I care very little about space, I still do. But I care very much about the idea of these people in space having accessibility needs that probably match people on earth.

So for example if people are developing technology just for NASA, and they keep it closed source. They’re not interested in sharing it, then it doesn’t really benefit anybody except NASA if you make it open source. Then there’s a ton of hundreds of thousands of different people who have difficulties that the EVA astronauts face every single day on ground. So, I wanted to create a device that allowed for really anyone to interface with a AR/VR headset display in a way that is novel in a way that uses some sort of different body function that does involve the hands or to interact with their display.

AJ: Oh, that’s amazing that’s I love that, I love the EMG, I love the idea behind it. It wasn’t until we were presenting the like last day that we were there that I realized, what your inspiration was for the EMG. Once I found that out I was like, That’s so cool.

It made me think of when I’m thinking about something, is this accessible to people? For me, maybe I don’t have a physical impediment, just thinking about accessibility to people. And that’s really something that’s important to me, just from across cultural backgrounds, you know, I think. Colorado is really different from Kansas. And then, you know, the typical socio economic groups right?

Compared to Kansas Colorado is a very higher ed educated place right? So the opportunities here are so great when you’re even just in high school, you know, and I’m just like, Man, this is like everybody here is so educated people look at Kansas where you when you could buy a house in Kansas on a modest salary.

Chris wearing the EMG he built

Chris: Yeah, and I mean, in my mind, there’s a difference between accessibility and creating a device that is accessible to everybody. So for example, there’s a lot of accessible technology that is completely amazing, but it is not made for me, and I can’t use it or interact with in a way that sort of opens up my horizons or open it up in my opinion of how difficult or how, how much people who are differently abled have to experience the world in many ways. So what I’m really interested in is bridging that gap, and certainly how to create things that create empathy, letting people in, and sort of add a genuine understanding. So 20 years from now, when someone is creating the next accessibility device, they’re like well, we can create it for just one population to the other population to create something that benefits both populations

AJ: Yeah, for sure. So I tried to think about explaining how to use a smartphone for augmented reality with children. This is starting from zero, you know. Making technology unintimidating and making STEM unintimidating to people is something that I’m feeling passionate about, like, I feel like everybody can benefit from learning a little bit about STEM. So just making it seem like accessible is really important.

Which of your projects have you worked on do you think they will integrate best into AR/VR.

Chris: I mean all sorts. Sorry, that’s honestly a difficult question. So, I see, the 20th century, that’s the physics generation. I see the 21st century as the biological generation. As a part of that I see possibly the seeds of the 22nd century being the AR/VR generation. With the idea that right now we, you know, again, very similar to what I’ve been talking about. You either developing AR and VR or you don’t develop for AR/VR. I think in the future, people, those are going to be so intermeshed that people will see no different between the devices. There’ll be an interconnectivity.

AJ: Here’s hoping, Yeah, definitely. I’m putting my eggs in the basket and I better get a return.

Chris: But currently, I feel like all my projects to have some sort of benefit in a AR/VR environment built for that device, I guess.

So, for example, the glove that I developed that allowed you have longer length fingers; You look at the device and you can tell that it’s clearly hardware. You can tell there’s clearly developed by a sophomore engineer. But in AR/VR we’ve been able to feel that device, have the same interactions, able to feel same tactile responses tactile meaning the same physical responses. But you get the same visual, as if it was your own hands and fingers(with AR/VR). So me as a designer designing human augmentation, or augmentations that are meant to be like an animal senses I’m limited by my own knowledge and skill but my own design prowess. That’s something that isn’t really I feel like isn’t a limitation in VR. To where I can have whatever I designed to look for our design, and have it interact however I want it to interact. So I feel like everything I designed could be implemented in an AR/VR context.

After this I proceeded to ask Chris a rap up question, to list all the projects he has worked on. Let me tell you, it is an impressive amount for the 23 year old. I highly encourage you to check out the links below for more information. In the next portion we have a discussion on more personal maters. what are family think about what we do, our identity and how it plays a role in how we got into tech, and our experiences as so far emerging into the tech industry.

AJ: Bonus round, folks! Let’s talk about being a minority in tech.

I know we had briefly discussed what your ethnic background is. What is your ethnic background and how has that played a role in kind of how you approach a field that is predominantly… homogenously… white males. Where they’re traditionally heavily represented in STEM. Did you know you were going to get into STEM from a young age? When did you get the confidence or the knowledge that you knew you were going to get into STEM and how has your background affected how you approach it?

Chris: So I would say I got to see him for a lot of reasons. laughs So I grew up with one brother in my household who’s similar my age, and he was very much into STEM. I was very much not drawn to STEM. I felt like if I gone to STEM he would shoot in the back of my head right there. But I took CS classes, and I looked up on monster and I saw a “CS degree pay”, And I was like, Okay, this is for me, like okay yeah, I can do this, I get the idea.

But then I want to see CU Boulder for the opportunities, and I met a professor who really… I you know I hate to say the word colorblind, but I could tell that he was interesting to me because of who I am.

AJ: That’s amazing. Yeah, because I, I just want to add. As a person of color. For me, personally, it feels like sometimes I question whether people(employers) are into me because it’s a tax cut… or if their into me because they actually believe in me.

Chris: Yeah, yeah, and so, growing up, I don’t know a better way to put this, but it was like, you know, it was me. And then the other end of the line, it was the police and teachers. As far as like people who like I could trust, you know, and so throughout my whole entire life I was like, you know, teachers were with us they’re just coming into a job. At the end, we don’t talk to each other. we don’t care about each others personal lives, and then we split up. But I met him(his mentor) and he took a genuine interest in who I am as a person, not only when I was in school as person but outside of school as a person. And then, what really was really innovative to me was, you know, felt like I made a friend, not a professor. And, you know, that’s really good. And eventually like I would say that my coworker, Mike Eisenberg and his wife Ann Eisenberg, and they were both like her parent figures to me, you know, and losing him was like losing a dad hundred percent you know, and I would say like that, that specific relationship is the reason why I’m going into teaching, and getting my PhD. Yeah, I think that there’s a 1000, or maybe every student feels this way, and they just need someone who is interested in not only their technical prowess. But the way that they think is a person and the big picture ideas that they really feel like could impact their work, as well as other works.

AJ: I love all questions that I’ve asked so far and the answers you’ve given, but I didn’t even think about touching on, you know, just our cultural backgrounds. I’m not sure why it is, why there’s not very many African Americans, I have theories but who knows.

I know personally for me. It was more like a representation issue. I didn’t really see people that looked like me, featured in articles and it took me a really long time to get the confidence to pursue this, even though there was an interest. So that’s, that’s interesting.

Chris: Yeah, yeah I think for me even on a college level, I feel like they have cases that are for Africans in STEM or African Americans against. But those people are not my type of people. You know like the people that I grew up with. They don’t like STEM. I’m the weird one. I’m like, who are those people? You know who are the people who are outside of STEM that throughout my whole entire life I connected with, you know, I don’t feel like they’re being represented. I don’t feel like they’re being talked to. you know their interests are in fashion, music, their interested are pretty much entire area that is dedicated people who are smart in high school. I feel like they aren’t being talked to you right now, And those are the people are going to create the big ideas you know our next generation yeah those are the people who know our culture. You know, for example you know you think back to the 70s they think back to black-splotation films. Those films were targeting a specific demographic that never had been targeted to. Those films reached a new demographic and made boat loads of money for people who did not care about those communities. how do we avoid that, as engineers. Avoid the idea of us being utilized just for our knowledge of our communities. So, yeah, definitely tough questions here.

AJ: Yeah, this this is good that we’re talking about it.

Yeah, that’s just not a conversation that’s really had. this is more like whenever I hear about “minorities in STEM” I only ever hear “We need more of them!” (which is true)

Image courtesy of the Pew Research Center linked below

STEM needs people that are from diverse backgrounds. Currently it feels like if your parents are in STEM lets say they encourage you to be in STEM. so you become really good at math. Then that’s your whole world and then you’re like, I’m a really smart person. According to society right. And society rewards these people with these certain qualities and whatever other attributes they pick up along the way good or bad. there aren’t really consequences because they can remain in that bubble for ever.

You become that type of person where like, I’m gonna be in STEM. and I’m going to study aerospace, and I got to be really good at math and science, I’m going to dedicate myself to this from childhood. And that’s what I’m gonna do and then they got to college and they’re like, I don’t want to do this! But by then assuming they went to a decent high school they have already been separated out from their peers and put into special classes and told they are more worthy of attention and nurturing. So their reality and perspective is skewed.

Chris: The way that I see STEM currently, I would say that that minorities are kind of treated like novelties. You know, like we don’t know why we want it, but we know that we want it, because people tell us that we want it. We see it and then once we get to it, and we see that it isn’t for us yeah we see that it is something that is not moving way faster than we can move, yeah we’re like, well, I’m already. I’ve already lost my house I don’t know how to get back there. So I guess I’m just gonna keep walking.

AJ: Yeah. That could definitely speak to the problem with the retention rate of underrepresented communities in STEM. Dealing with a constantly changing industry and people that are out of touch with communicating with people from diverse backgrounds can take a toll. I don’t know how to deal with it just yet, but at work I had an issue early on. It wasn’t like anybody I work with directly so that’s good. but, it’s hard to deal with, like, people that have prejudices, or have really huge generalizations about certain communities.

At work, I was attending a workshop, which included all the people that were developers and business people, And the guy he was from California, and my parents are from California, and your mom’s from California right?

Chris: Some of her family members are kind of from California.

AJ: This guy that was discussing about the debate where Kamal Harris called out Joe Biden for the bussing legislation passed in Los Angeles or something about people with different cultural groups mixing. He had really negative opinions about African Americans in California. And from my experience, like just hearing what my mom has said about what she grew up with. It sounds like it was much more of a community back then, than what the media is interpreting it to me right now. So I don’t know, I just, I didn’t know how to really handle that situation, it was, it was really awkward because he was on the other side of this long conference room but he was talking loud enough that I can hear him. He was talking about how many African Americans they don’t want to be integrated into these white schools because they prefer to be with people of their own color, and how they’re more comfortable that way. And I’m like you’re projecting your own opinions, sir, first of all.

At the same time, we live in Boulder, Colorado, so I’m not going to say that I’m colorblind, because I don’t think that’s progressive either. But… we live in Boulder, Colorado, and it often is the case where we I feel a sense of isolation. I know our team for NASA SUITS, we have the most women and we had the most minorities on our team last year and I was proud of us. Hopefully this year that is not the case ya know.

It’s just like my mom and dad made me in tune to these kind of thoughts like okay maybe that’s good or maybe that’s not good(ignorance is bliss?). How do you get the students that aren’t necessarily (and I was one of these students) who are intimidated by stem. I thought, “no way I don’t see people that look like me doing this. It sounds cool but why would I pursue this.” No, I didn’t want to be a groundbreaker, I wasn’t confident enough I would say to do that. But how do you get people that maybe are intimidated by some fields. To feel like they’re included in these areas of innovation?

Chris: Good questions.

For more information about retention and successes of underrepresented communities in STEM careers I found some interesting data at the links below.

Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering

Unlocking the Barriers to Women and Minorities in Computer Science

Diversity in the STEM workforce varies widely across jobs

For more information on Chris and his projects check out the links below:

Craft Lab

Instructables

Website

Twitter

GitHub


Bonus, here is a picture of Chris and I in Houston at JSC last year for our NASA challenge. which you can read about here.

I am at peak frustration and about to throw the laptop.