CG In Asia
March 20, 2012

CG In Asia

The computer graphics industry continues to stretch its boundaries across markets throughout the world, from films to games to industrial applications and more. To satisfy this growing interest outside the US, SIGGRAPH introduced SIGGRAPH Asia a few years ago, with the fourth edition of the conference held this past December in Hong Kong. 
Presenting a clear picture of computer graphics in the Asian market through a Q&A is Aaron Marcus, president of Aaron Marcus and Associates. Marcus is a computer graphics pioneer who has done extensive research into cross-cultural designs and globalization of user interfaces in software and devices. At SIGGRAPH Asia last December, he presented a course, Cross-Cultural User-Experience Design, which touched on how cultural differences affect user design for Internet-based product/service user interface development. These concerns impact all design disciplines, all platforms (Web, client/server PCs, mobile, appliances), applications (productivity, entertainment, commerce), user communities (professional, consumer), and markets (office, home, industrial), and all content themes (video/music media, information bases, games, etc.).

What is your background, and what is your connection to Asia?

I designed my first user interface when I was 10 years old in 1953 (a simulated control panel for my make-believe rocket ship to fly me to other planets), and I have been designing user interfaces and information visualization since 1968. I have been interested in cross-cultural communication most of my professional life.

I first visited China (Hong Kong) in 1975. I also visited cities in Iran, India, Nepal, Thailand, and Japan on that trip. I was delighted and fascinated by my experience being with the cultures, histories, cities, and peoples of Asia. 

In 1978, I served as a Research Fellow at the East-West Center, in Honolulu. Our project was to research, write, and design a multi-cultural, non-verbal storytelling presentation about global energy interdependence, about 10 years before Al Gore began his campaign to inform people. I invited colleagues from China, Japan, India, and Iran to join me in working on this project. At that time, I learned what the East-West Center viewed as an essential change of perspective: the 21st century would be centered around the Pacific Basin, and China, India, and other Asian countries were destined to play a much larger role in the world economy than they had for several centuries. 

Since that time, I have traveled throughout China, Japan, South Korea, and India to give lectures and tutorials/workshops at conferences, companies, and universities/design schools, and to consult with clients who are developing products/services for national and global markets, such as our clients Samsung, Epson, Ricoh, and others.

What are the strategies for the Asian market, and how does that differ or coincide with the US/Europe or other regions?

I have presented tutorials about cross-cultural user-experience design at ACM SIGGRAPH Asia 2010 (Seoul) and 2011 (Hong Kong). In 2010, I had the second largest tutorial audience ever (about 200 people), and I was amazed at the interest. People in Asia seemed to show a much stronger interest in achieving user-centered design incorporating cross-cultural knowledge, more than I had found in Europe and even in North America. This experience indicates to me that software and hardware developers may be awakening to these two key ingredients of innovation and product/service development: user-centered design and culture-centered design. Many of the developments at SIGGRAPH focus on games and media, so this seemed even more interesting to me. But the impact is wider, across all forms of computer graphics usage.

China is a key player. China itself is not a single market, unlike the pre-conceptions held by some European and (North, Central, and South) American people. Just as in the US and Europe, there are north, south, east, west, and central variations in language, cuisine, demographics, and culture. It seems likely that Asian developers will become more sensitive to culture preferences, to similarities and differences among Chinese, Japanese, and Korean markets, for example. These characteristics of these markets are different from those for the European Union nations or the US’s regions. Insights gained may help foster unique approaches that work well for Asian markets and work better than those brought in by well-intended European and North American developers that do not take the time to learn the Asian context…and cultures.

For example, in 2002, a Sony-Ericsson “Chinese” personal digital assistant (PDA), a so-called “Wukong” prototype based on the Chinese Guanxi principle of life-long relationship building, was tested in China and demonstrated that it was much better received than any other product being offered because it matched better the user’s metaphors, intuitive navigation, expectations, and preferences. More recently, eye-tracking studies from the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) showed that Chinese and Korean Web viewers follow different viewing patterns than do people in North America. 

These studies suggest that new approaches to metaphors, mental models, navigation, interaction, and appearance may evolve in Asia that are better suited to Asian users and communities. Many of these new approaches may find their way to becoming usable and/or fashionable (that is, “trendy”) in European and North American markets, as well.

What does the Asian market bring to the CG industry?

I have enjoyed attending SIGGRAPH since 1980, when I gave the opening plenary keynote and introduced the concept of graphic design to the computer industry. I also gave my first tutorial at SIGGRAPH then. I have noticed over the years that I find more novel, stimulating, exciting experiments in human-computer interaction and communication at ACM SIGGRAPH than I tend to find at the conferences at ACM SIGCHI (Special interest group on human-computer interaction) or at the Usability Professionals Association conferences and exhibits, although both of these conferences serve their professional communities well.

SIGGRAPH Asia 2011 did not disappoint me. In addition to the increased sophistication of augmented reality displays, and the increased use of computer-animated characters and facial emotions displays, I was fascinated by projects like eaTheramin from Japan, which developed a concept of eating utensils that provide sound effects. Together with some other examples from the Experiments in Art and Technology exhibits, these research and development projects are exploring the world of sound, not only vision. Perhaps Asian developers will be able among the first to push sonification as well as visualization innovations. This approach is in line with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean drama/opera, for example, which are masterpieces of not only visual, but also auditory/musical experiences.

Certainly, all of these countries have very significant collections of their own stories, characters, events, scenes, and sounds to contribute to the world’s production of computer-graphics imagery and sound, and to the experiences of people with products and services, not only entertainment media.

What can we expect to see coming out of this region in the next six months to a year? 

Next year is the Chinese (Asian) Year of the Dragon. Perhaps we shall see some significant new approaches to dragon-related games, media, products, and services.

Mobile devices often feature screens that are smaller but of improved visual quality. Even with small screens, devices can feature “large” powerful sound experiences. Coupled with the visuals, these can have an increased impact on usability, usefulness, and appeal.

It is well known that South Korea and Japan innovated greatly in mobile phone services that 18 months later were popular in Europe and 18 months later were popular the US. I predict that many graphic storytelling applications will emerge for mobile products and services, featuring personalized characters (often cartoon-like) that can be incorporated into almost every type of productivity, leisure-time, and educational application. These new approaches may work with augmented reality, real-world robotic characters, and use-contexts that are more unfamiliar to European and North-American markets….so far. 

Consider friendly avatars and robots that help clean the physical house, clean the virtual mobile messaging house, or provide assistance and companionship to those who are lonely or in need of just-in-time knowledge. 

Design, research, and evaluation centers are springing up in many major universities and design schools throughout China, South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere. The ongoing developments will lead to well-educated professionals who help their countries develop products and services for local and national markets, as well as for global, international markets. What is needed in all of these centers of professional development are strong educational curricula in user-centered design, information visualization/sonification, and cross-cultural user-experience design.
These changes are coming rapidly, as my experience shows me from visiting such educational and professional centers in China, Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere, and in looking at the work displayed by faculty and students at the leading conferences worldwide.

The role of Asian developers in the 21st century will clearly be an ever-stronger one, not only for production, but for design. Today, Apple’s packaging says “Designed in California, USA. Made in China.” Many of tomorrow’s products will say “Designed and Made in China.” Eventually Asian-branded, including Chinese-branded, designs will be as popular and powerful as Apple’s.