It all began with Super Mario All Stars

discovering my love for immersive entertainment experiences

When I was five years old, my parents took me down an aisle of a Toys “R” Us  and asked me what I wanted for Christmas. Overwhelmed, I pointed randomly to a colorful box. The very next day, the Super Mario All-Stars game was underneath our tree – a brilliant compilation of five treasured titles released 1985 to 1993. This event was significant for two reasons. First, I completely bypassed believing in the Santa myth. And second, I fell in love with Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, and gang – the strange whimsical worlds they inhabited, the goofy musical themes, the buoyantly heroic storylines, the thrill of advancing to the next level in the game.

At the Stanford freshman "Fro Show."

At the Stanford freshman "Fro Show."

Super Mario All-Stars might very well be where it all began. The following years of exploration were a gradual build-up of creative mediums. I wrote my first poem when I was eight years old, in 3rd grade science class. It was about the birds and the bees (quite literally; we were learning about ecosystems). Around this time, I also began taking classical piano lessons and fell in love with the instrument. A few years, later, I wrote my first song with lyrics, combining piano with poetry. 

Throughout high school, I considered myself a classical pianist interpreting someone else's work, not a singer-songwriter. But, after a thrilling debut performance at my college's freshman year talent show, I realized that telling stories through music brought a lot of joy to me  – and to other people. I began to write and perform more, eventually earning the opportunity to open for Grammy-nominated R&B artist Jazmine Sullivan.

At the House of Blues in Hollywood. Photo by Lesley Park for  LA Music Blog .

At the House of Blues in Hollywood. Photo by Lesley Park for LA Music Blog.

After college, I continued to pursue singing and songwriting while working as a management consultant in Los Angeles. I played everything from small scrappy gigs to corporate galas and historic venues like the House of Blues. It was a real roller coaster ride, filled with humbling lows, like playing to an audience of four, as well as serendipitous wins, like placing Top 5 in an international songwriting competition.

During this time, I also wrote and produced an original pop album, embracing my classical and acoustic roots while experimenting with more modern electronic sounds – and occasionally, even rap.

The inspirations for my album are eclectic.  Lyrical influences include Bon Iver, Sara Bareilles, T.S. Eliot, Maya Angelou, and late night instant message conversations, producing what one music blog described as "poetically cerebral yet quirky lyrics."  Melodic heroes include Chopin, Debussy, and Hans Zimmer.

On set for the production of  "Passenger."

On set for the production of "Passenger."

It was producing my music video "Passenger" that gave me my first taste of a multi-sensory production. In the video, I played one of two characters exploring a series of surreal fantasy worlds, from dancing through a star-filled galaxy on a beach to exploring a floating art gallery. I loved the magic of adding camera direction, set design, and digital effects to immerse the viewer into a story, a game, a journey, an adventure.

By then, I had gathered a hodge-podge collection of fascinations, from Super Mario to Cirque du Soleil to escape rooms to immersive theatre.  I realized that, as vastly different as they may seem, they are all united by common elements: sensory immersion, being transported into a different universe, a compelling narrative, and a shared social experience. 

Keeping room in my heart for the unimaginable, as poet Mary Oliver recommended. A still from  "Passenger."

Keeping room in my heart for the unimaginable, as poet Mary Oliver recommended. A still from "Passenger."

From there, it was a natural progression into parks and resorts, an industry that is constantly dreaming up new worlds that leverage the best of cinematic storytelling, physical adventure, and digital innovations. In particular, I am fascinated by the ways in which immersive technologies such as virtual and augmented reality are being applied, across industries and businesses. Among my favorite VR experiences: I embodied a dancing amoeba in an evolutionary journey over several billion years, and I glimpsed the set of stark choices that a journalist might make while being interrogated by an oppressive regime.

I want to keep telling stories and keep exploring new possibilities. As I reflect upon our current times and look forward, I am fired up about the potential of immersive, location-based entertainment experiences to educate, empathize, inspire, and delight – and ultimately, to enrich our stories and change our realities for good.

"Empathy is wholly insufficient"

How AR/VR technologies can boost economic growth & reduce violence within communities

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In November 2017, I attended Future of Reality, NYC Media Lab's annual VR/AR innovation event. There were industry panels, startup demos, and hands-on workshops. By far my favorite session was the Future of Cities panel, which shared ways in which Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technologies could be applied to actually improve the economic and bodily well-being of a community.

The panel featured featured representatives from the Brownsville Community Justice Center, Columbia University School of Social Work, NYU Future Reality Lab, and NYCx. I was particularly drawn to the work and commentary shared by John Bryant and Jasmine Bowie from the Justice Center.

From what I gathered, the Justice Center serves Brownsville, a 2-square mile space in Brooklyn. The lives of Brownsville residents are severely impacted by the presence of highly territorial gangs, to the point that even traversing across certain adjacent neighborhood blocks is near impossible. In the pursuit of safety and violence reduction, the Center has developed several VR and AR enabled solutions:

  1. Fireflies. This VR game pairs up residents living across gang lines and housing projects and enables them to learn about one another’s life narratives. Fireflies uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data to replicate the neighborhood and uses 3D scans of some 300 actual residents to put faces to names as their stories are told. By allowing residents to virtually cross gang lines and by facilitating relationships that were previously impossible, Fireflies hopes to improve understanding and reduce violence.

  2. Virtual Storefronts. Many of Brownsville’s artists and small business owners cannot afford rent for a physical storefront. This AR app bypasses the problem by enabling them to set up virtual stores at real physical sites. Prospective buyers simply walk up to a predetermined location (e.g., an abandoned or unleased venue). Using their mobile app, they can then browse for products by the owner of that store. The app acts as a market place for buyers and sellers, offers step-by-step business guidance, and even enables buyers and sellers to meet face-to-face.

As one panelist remarked, “Empathy is wholly insufficient.” Yet, empathy can be a starting point for tangible impact. It is incredible to glimpse how the Brownsville Community Justice Center has used immersive technologies to build empathy and improve economic well being for the local community. I would love to see how these technologies can be replicated and scaled in other geographies.