Interview with Native Hawaiian Interactive Media Designer Kēhau Noe

Native Hawai­ian vision­ary Kēhau Noe is an artist and sto­ry­tellerKehau-Noe. Her media is com­put­ers, and her mis­sion is to design pro­grams that help peo­ple to inter­act with and learn from the environment.

The chal­lenge of build­ing soft­ware or games that take advan­tage of what tech­nol­o­gy affords us, but still be acces­si­ble and use­ful to the gen­er­al per­son is fun to me. Soft­ware can be capa­ble of per­form­ing com­plex and seem­ing­ly impos­si­ble tasks, but if the aver­age per­son does not like to look at it, or can’t under­stand how to inter­face it, then not many peo­ple will use it.

Her inno­v­a­tive sto­ry­telling immers­es view­ers in the Native Hawai­ian world view. We are pleased to fea­ture this trail­blaz­er on our blog today.

For those who havenʻt met you yet, could you please tell us a lit­tle about yourself?

I’m Kari Kēhaulani Noe, I usu­al­ly go by Kari or Kēhau. I was born and raised on Kauaʻi and moved to Oʻahu to go to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa for my under­grad­u­ate degree to major in both Ani­ma­tion and Com­put­er Sci­ence. I am now pur­su­ing a PhD in Com­put­er Sci­ence at UHM. I work as a research assis­tant at the Lab­o­ra­to­ry for Advanced Visu­al­iza­tion and Appli­ca­tions (LAVA) where I also co-lead Create(x), a sis­ter-lab man­aged by both LAVA and the Acad­e­my of Cre­ative Media (ACM) at the Uni­ver­si­ty of West Oʻahu. I also work as an Indige­nous Tech Spe­cial­ist at the Office of Indige­nous Knowl­edge and Inno­va­tion. I also have my own stu­dio, Stu­dio Ahilele, where I work on cre­ative projects and col­lab­o­ra­tions on the side.

In my per­son­al life I love nerdy things. I often will be draw­ing comics, try­ing out some kind of art form (I’m learn­ing carv­ing at the moment), and play­ing video games in my free time. I also love hula and have been study­ing ʻōle­lo Hawai’i. 

Where did you grow up? What high school did you grad from?

I grew up in Kalāheo, where most of my time was spent hang­ing out some­where in the west or south side of the island as that is where most of my fam­i­ly lives. And of course Līhuʻe as that is the main town and where my high school is. I grad­u­at­ed from Kauaʻi High School.

Go Red Raiders! What are your goals for the Create(X) lab you co-lead and for your research? 

My goal for Create(x) is for it to be a space where stu­dents can devel­op emerg­ing tech­nol­o­gy sys­tems and soft­ware that aug­ment spaces in ways that change how we inter­act with com­put­ers both for research and enter­tain­ment pur­pos­es. The core goal is to teach stu­dents skills in immer­sive design, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and pro­gram­ming so that they may cre­ate inno­va­tions that enhance their prac­tice, whether they are a sto­ry­teller, sci­en­tist, or artist. We wel­come and engage in inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research with part­ners to under­stand how tech devel­oped at the lab can be used to sup­port projects and prac­tices out­side the walls of our lab. 

Image: Ilio VR App @ Create(x) Lab, Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaiʻi-West Oʻahu

What kinds of skills are required for your role? How did you acquire them?

The major skills I have are in design and pro­gram­ming. I devel­oped skills in visu­al design from my time as an under­grad­u­ate at the Acad­e­my of Cre­ative Media at UH Mānoa. Grow­ing up, I always loved to draw, but through my time as an under­grad­u­ate I gained a foun­da­tion in use­ful skills such as dig­i­tal art tech­niques, 3D mod­el­ing, and dif­fer­ent tech­niques in ani­ma­tion that to this day is a large part of the work that I do. I learned pro­gram­ming from my edu­ca­tion in Com­put­er Sci­ence at UH Mānoa, where I have done my Bach­e­lors, Mas­ters, and now PhD in. With­out all of these skills, I could not devel­op the projects that I do. I want­ed to become a video game devel­op­er when I start­ed uni­ver­si­ty, which is why I tried learn­ing skills from all parts of the process because I did not know exact­ly what I want­ed to do. In the end being a jack-of-all trades has helped me immensely. 

The oth­er impor­tant skill is orga­ni­za­tion. I think I got that skill from watch­ing my mom who is a very orga­nized per­son and runs her own busi­ness. With­out hav­ing good orga­ni­za­tion and effi­cient process­es it would be very hard to imple­ment the projects we work on, even if we some­how had the world’s best artists and pro­gram­mers on the project.

What was the jour­ney to becom­ing an inter­ac­tive media design­er? Why did you choose such a unique career? How did you know that this is what you want­ed to do? 

I was actu­al­ly going to go to uni­ver­si­ty enrolled in Trav­el Indus­try Man­age­ment. I was put in the AOHT (Acad­e­my of Hos­pi­tal­i­ty of Tourism) track in high school. It wasn’t my first choice, but I did enjoy my teach­ers and class­mates on the track. My expe­ri­ence with that, and from advice from coun­selors, I was con­vinced that if I want­ed a good job and to stay in Hawaiʻi I should aim to be some­thing like a hotel man­ag­er. How­ev­er, I was also tak­ing Japan­ese when I was a senior, and we had a project where we could design any form of media for our project as long as every­thing was in Japan­ese. This became an excuse to try to learn how to devel­op a video game. I made a lit­tle RPG on Construct2. That is when I want­ed to become a game devel­op­er, and I think in like a month or two before I start­ed uni­ver­si­ty I man­aged to change my major to both ACM and Com­put­er Science.

While I was in uni­ver­si­ty I took Dr. Jason Leigh’s video game design class. It was at this time LAVA was first being devel­oped because Dr. Leigh was new­ly hired. As time went on, I hung around LAVA and even­tu­al­ly got hired there as an under­grad­u­ate research assis­tant. It was through my expe­ri­ence at LAVA that made me see there are more path­ways than just becom­ing a video game devel­op­er. So now I am here where I am today.

We are very glad you did­n’t study TIM! What do you enjoy most about your career? What are some of your great­est challenges?

What I enjoy most is design­ing things. The gen­er­al process of brain­storm­ing, plan­ning, and cre­at­ing is one of my great­est joys in life. It could be as sim­ple as design­ing my desk space to design­ing the com­plex projects we imple­ment at the lab. The joy of my career is that I am able to design things that can enrich and sup­port our lāhui. For instance, work­ing at the Office of Indige­nous Knowl­edge and Inno­va­tion means that the projects I work on include com­mu­ni­ty co-design and impact. We have inten­tions of devel­op­ing and uti­liz­ing emerg­ing tech­nol­o­gy to aid in the devel­op­ment of process­es and actions to improve envi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship and heal land in ways that align with ances­tral prac­tice and values.

I believe the great­est chal­lenge is time and capac­i­ty. I wish I had more time in the day to work on projects, and had more capac­i­ty to work on the myr­i­ad of pono projects that are in var­i­ous stages of devel­op­ment in Hawaiʻi. That is why I am focused on hold­ing space for teach­ing and not just research. I believe if there were more peo­ple from Hawaiʻi who had sim­i­lar skills that I have learned and a pas­sion for cul­ti­vat­ing abun­dance for both land and peo­ple, we could devel­op great things. In Hawaiʻi there is no short­age of peo­ple who alo­ha ‘āina. How­ev­er, there is only a small com­mu­ni­ty of us that also have skills in immer­sive and inter­ac­tive design and the capac­i­ty to hold those types of careers since the cost of liv­ing con­tin­ues to rise here. I try to take my own action as well as sup­port ini­tia­tives that will make these skills more acces­si­ble to stu­dents and devel­op an indus­try for this sort of work. 

Image: Kilo Hīkō VR @ Wayfind­ing Interactive

Where do you get your inspirations?

The typ­i­cal places: my fam­i­ly, friends, teach­ers, and Hawaiʻi itself. When times are hard I have always turned to spend­ing time in a good sto­ry whether through a book, video game, or movie; talk­ing sto­ry with beloved peo­ple; or spend­ing time in famil­iar places such as my favorite beach­es or places in the moun­tains. Doing these things is refresh­ing and brings me the inspi­ra­tion to con­tin­ue work­ing and brings new ideas and per­spec­tive to my work.

Of your many suc­cess­es, which project or accom­plish­ment are you most proud of?

It’s hard to say I’m proud of any of my accom­plish­ments. As an artist, I do fall in the com­mon feel­ing of “things could have been done bet­ter.” Often my feel­ings are more like I’m thank­ful that it hap­pened. The work I do is com­plex in that it can’t be built by a sin­gle per­son. I may be the one who can take cred­it for devel­op­ing a piece of soft­ware, but held with­in most of our projects are data, knowl­edge, and sto­ries col­lect­ed by oth­ers such as com­mu­ni­ty experts, sci­en­tists, or cul­tur­al prac­ti­tion­ers. With­out the will­ing­ness to share that knowl­edge, these projects wouldn’t exist. So I’m thank­ful for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work with oth­ers and I sup­pose I am proud that they trust me. I aim to con­tin­ue to devel­op and per­pet­u­ate prac­tices to earn and hon­or that trust.

Can you share a bit of a cur­rent project?

A cur­rent project that I am work­ing on is called the Makawalu Edi­tor (for now, it’s a work­ing title). I can’t talk too much about the details as it is still in devel­op­ment, but it essen­tial­ly is an inter­face to visu­al­ize envi­ron­men­tal data using a tan­gi­ble inter­face. It grew from a project that was devel­oped at LAVA in col­lab­o­ra­tion with HECO called the Pro­ject­Table 2.0. A pro­to­type of this sys­tem was recent­ly used as a part of an intern­ship run by the Office Indige­nous Knowl­edge and Inno­va­tion and Mala­ma Puʻu­loa. The interns learned the basics of ArcGIS and sto­ry maps to tell their own sto­ries con­nect­ed to the land they helped care for dur­ing the time of their intern­ship. The Edi­tor was used to help visu­al­ize their maps.

Your projects have includ­ed design­ing apps and “seri­ous games.” What are some of these? What does suc­cess of these projects look like to you?

For me, the suc­cess of any project is if it devel­ops some sort of knowl­edge or capac­i­ty in the play­er. For instance, for Kilo Hōkū VR, where we devel­oped a VR appli­ca­tion to teach the basics of mod­ern Hawai­ian wayfind­ing prac­tices, the suc­cess for me was pro­vid­ing an alter­na­tive to study­ing in cas­es where stu­dents may not have access to clear skies or a planetarium.

Wao Kiʻi, a project I devel­oped for my master’s the­sis, aimed to be a tool to learn basic Hawai­ian envi­ron­men­tal vocab­u­lary with­out using Eng­lish. This is done through a character’s fea­tures and attrib­ut­es that change based on where tiles with Hawai­ian words or phras­es are placed. So for exam­ple, if you place an ʻiʻi­wi tile onto the board, the char­ac­ter will turn into an ʻiʻi­wi. If you place a lele tile onto the board, the char­ac­ter will start to fly. This cre­ates the con­nec­tion between the word and its mean­ing. A fur­ther con­nec­tion is made as in Wao Kiʻi, the scene you are in deter­mines the vocab­u­lary that is pre­sent­ed to the user. So for instance, if the scene is meant to resem­ble Waini­ha Val­ley on Kaua’i, the vocab­u­lary will be relat­ed to a spe­cif­ic place rather than gen­er­al Hawai­ian words. In this way, this devel­op­ment of under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ship between words, mean­ing, and place is what I con­sid­er a success.

The ulti­mate mea­sure of suc­cess is acces­si­bil­i­ty. This is a met­ric I’m still try­ing to work on improv­ing. Lots of what I work on is inac­ces­si­ble due to the tech it’s cre­at­ed on, but slow­ly things are changing.

Image: Kilo Hōkū @ Wayfind­ing Interactive

How do you avoid let­ting the pres­sures of inno­va­tion and cre­ativ­i­ty over­whelm you?

Try­ing to be inno­v­a­tive and cre­ative to me is a joy, and I think I have had enough fail­ures in my life that I’m not afraid of it. I also don’t feel the pres­sure that any project has to be my mag­num opus, because there is no way of know­ing what that will be until it hap­pens. Some­times what I think would be a stel­lar idea is actu­al­ly my worst one in prac­tice. I enjoy the ride, and if it doesn’t work out, that only means I know how to do bet­ter next time.

What are your hopes and dreams for the year and beyond in terms of your career and what you would like to send out into the world in the future?

For this next year(-ish) my hopes and dreams revolve around fin­ish­ing my dis­ser­ta­tion. There is a lot I put on pause to final­ly get that last fan­cy paper. Once I get that degree my hope is to con­tin­ue to be work­ing in a place where I can be in a posi­tion to con­tin­ue design­ing tech­nolo­gies and sys­tems that sup­port com­mu­ni­ty abun­dance, knowl­edge, and heal­ing. I also want to be able to pass on the skills that I’ve learned so that in the future there will be many local stu­dents who can do what I do and do it bet­ter. Togeth­er they can take advan­tage of what­ev­er emerg­ing tech­nol­o­gy devel­ops in the future and use it to also cre­ate abun­dance and capac­i­ty in a pono way.

Do you have any expe­ri­ences as a woman of col­or in your field that you might share with our read­ers? What would you like to see change in the indus­try regard­ing the accep­tance of BIPOC creators?

In my indus­try there should be more women & BIPOC. That’s still where we are at. In Hawaiʻi I think we have a lot more POC com­pared to oth­er places, but in my per­cep­tion there is still a lack of women and Indige­nous com­put­er sci­en­tists con­sid­er­ing the pop­u­la­tion of Hawaiʻi and the DEI ini­tia­tives that exist. In my expe­ri­ence, I do try to make an extra effort to help women, Indige­nous, & LGBTQ+ stu­dents where I can (rec­om­mend­ing them to posi­tions, advis­ing on fund­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties, get­ting them access to lab space). But often what lim­its these stu­dents are two things:

  1. life cir­cum­stances that com­mon­ly affect a per­son based on their background
  2. the inevitable stress and tur­moil from being a minority.

I’ve had younger stu­dents who, for instance, don’t have as strong finan­cial sup­port from par­ents due to mul­ti­ple rea­sons, which means that the stu­dent has to take on extra work to be able to make a liv­ing wage, which lim­its the time they can ded­i­cate to their stud­ies and abil­i­ty to do extra cur­ric­u­lar work that would help them devel­op as pro­fes­sion­al. So they get left behind or have to drop out totally.

Per­son­al­ly in my expe­ri­ence I have dealt with things such as:

  • giv­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion about a project that involved Hawai­ian cul­tur­al ideas and prac­tice, and the first response from the audi­ence was some­one mak­ing an inap­pro­pri­ate joke about Hawaiians.
  • peo­ple when I bring up projects like Wao Ki’i that teach ‘ōle­lo Hawai’i, their response is “Is Hawai­ian a real lan­guage? Like can you have full con­ver­sa­tions in it?”
  • being asked mul­ti­ple times by the same per­son “You devel­oped this?”
  • class­mates not let­ting you do any of the work on class projects because “it’s ok, they can just do it”  and so on.

I think that these sorts of chal­lenges and headaches are not unique to Com­put­er Sci­ence but many oth­er fields. All I can say is that the most impor­tant thing is to find your com­mu­ni­ty. Hav­ing friends and col­leagues that share your hopes, val­ues, and strug­gles is the best way to be able to weath­er any cir­cum­stance and sit­u­a­tion that may come your way. When the weath­er gets rough, you can keep each oth­er afloat.

Image: Wao Kiʻi Vir­tu­al Envi­ron­ment @ Create(x) Lab, Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaiʻi-West Oʻahu

What beliefs is your work challenging?

I think that by work­ing in the spaces that I do, I’m prov­ing that tech is not out of reach for any group or com­mu­ni­ty. When I give demos to peo­ple, they often ask where I went to high school. They then take a guess like, “Puna­hou? Kame­hame­ha?” I then laugh because I went to pub­lic school on an out­er island for my entire life. They have an assump­tion that I must be a pri­vate school grad to do the lev­el and kind of work I do.

I also think that my work also chal­lenges the notion that Indige­nous knowl­edge and tech­nol­o­gy do not mix. In my opin­ion, Kāna­ka Maoli have always been tech enthu­si­asts. From tak­ing advan­tage of the print­ing press to installing elec­tri­cal infra­struc­ture; I think our kupuna were good at see­ing new tech­nol­o­gy, quick­ly mak­ing it their own, and using it to their advan­tage. This is not to say we need to adopt every new tech­nol­o­gy; we still have to gauge what is pono. But gen­er­al­ly I get the feel­ing that, espe­cial­ly peo­ple not from Hawaiʻi, think Kāna­ka Maoli are anti-tech and anti-sci­ence. They couldn’t be more wrong, and I think (and tru­ly hope) projects we devel­op help them see that. And if not, we will keep build­ing great things regardless.

What advice would you give a stu­dent inter­est­ed in join­ing your field?

Gen­er­al­ly: Find what inter­ests you and stick with it, even when things feel dif­fi­cult. Learn­ing skills in both art and pro­gram­ming is like rid­ing a bike through an area with a lot of hills. At first it’s hard while you try to learn foun­da­tion­al skills. It will feel like cycling up a hill. But then your under­stand­ing will click into place and you will feel like you’re coast­ing down. Then you begin to learn a new more advanced top­ic, and yet again there is anoth­er hill to climb. Learn how to enjoy the ride and chal­lenge. Make sure you find some bud­dies that will ride with you. Learn when to get off your bike and walk to go easy on your­self. Push your bud­dies up the hill when they need it, and let them help you when you need it.

Specif­i­cal­ly: Go down­load a game engine like Unity3D, Unre­al, or Godot. Go down­load Blender. Think of an easy game idea, like pong, pin­ball, space invaders, etc. Look up tuto­ri­als and try to build your idea. You will start to under­stand what it takes to make a game when you attempt to make one. See which parts that you like, what parts that you can’t stand, and what parts you feel excit­ed to improve on. From there you will dis­cov­er if you will like this field, and what part of the process you may want to focus on. This will deter­mine if maybe you are more of an engi­neer, artist, or pro­duc­tion man­ag­er sort of per­son. Go find oth­ers that are doing this. I can’t empha­size this enough, hav­ing com­mu­ni­ty is important. 

What’s your online pres­ence like? Are you on social media? 

I’m a com­put­er sci­en­tist who is awful at social media. But I do lurk there. Because I’m not very active I don’t get many mes­sages. I’m try­ing to change this. For those who know me, they know how often I say, “Oh I prob­a­bly should have tak­en a picture/video of this.”

And niele ques­tions, if youʻd like to answer:

Who is your biggest supporter?

My part­ner and my fam­i­ly. I try to be on top of my game when I am at work and in pub­lic. So when I get home I am often act­ing goofy and tired. I am thank­ful for their patience.

What’s your favorite mem­o­ry of grow­ing up on Kauaʻi?

Rain. It feels like it rarely rains on O’ahu (at least where I live). I miss wak­ing up the sound of the wind blow­ing the rain against my win­dow. I often miss the smell. I also am fond of the mem­o­ries of my broth­er, friends, and I just wan­der­ing around as kids. We would go walk through fields and col­lect bugs and things. We would feed flow­ers to someone’s cows. We’d steal eggs from chick­ens. We would dig a giant hole in the sand for no rea­son oth­er than to mar­vel that we dug a big hole.

What’s your favorite app? Which app do you wish you could’ve had a hand in creating?

I wouldn’t want to cre­ate any of the apps I enjoy, because if I had a hand in cre­at­ing it I’d be much more crit­i­cal of it and may not enjoy it. I real­ly like an app called Notion. It helps both in work and just keep­ing track of things that I like.

This was so cool, Kēhau! Maha­lo nui loa for shar­ing your man­aʻo with us!

To learn more about Kēhau Noe and her work at the Create(X) lab at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaiʻi at West Oʻahu, vis­it her web­site at

Images cour­tesy of Kēhau Noe.

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