Friday, November 29, 2013

SXSW 2013: blending bendy materials and bendy life

A talk by Ping Fu at SXSW 2013 blended, in an odd way, self-help advice and 3D-printing technology. The only thing in common between the two may be her own personality, which, like those raw materials shaped into an infinite collection of shapes, succeeded by flexibility and adaptability.

Ping Fu at her SXSW 2013 speech 'Digital Reality: Life in Two Worlds'.

The title of her speech, "Digital Reality: Life in Two Worlds" ostensibly refers to the merge of physical and digital reality. She reviewed exciting things happening in three-dimensional scanning and printing technologies -- and her company, Geomagic, is among the players in the field. Standing on the stage in 3D-printed platform wedge shoes, she said you may be able to walk into a Nike store tomorrow, have their feet scanned, and pick up custom-made shoes tomorrow. You may also have custom-made prosthetics that would let artificial limbs look like real ones, "because currently they look like airplane landing gear". You just have to scan a soccer player's "good" leg, and print an artificial one based on that model. 3D-printing can produce filling for dental cavities, and repair tiles on NASA space shuttle -- two technologies that surprisingly (or not), are related. Preservation of historical artifacts is also a big application for 3D-scanning. Mount Rushmore took a hell of a long time to scan, but it was eventually done, and US Parks and Wildlife has a scan, said Ping Fu.

Ping Fu's 3D-printed shoes she wore at her SXSW 2013 speech 'Digital Reality: Life in Two Worlds'.
Ping Fu's 3D-printed shoes she wore at her SXSW 2013 speech 'Digital Reality: Life in Two Worlds'. More pictures from this speech and overall SXSW 2013 are in my photo gallery.

On the other hand, life in two worlds can be a metaphor for Ping Fu's own life, that has certainly spanned two vastly different worlds. As a young child she was taken from her loving family in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution, and raised in a camp. She was put through communist brainwashing, being forced to go up on stage and scream "I am nobody!" So she has no stage fright, she jokes. If anything saved her, it was her father's advice to be like a bamboo, that bends but does not break in the wind. She even made it the title of her book, "Bend, not Break".

A soccer player's 3D-printed prostethic leg: a slide from Ping Fu SXSW 2013 speech 'Digital Reality: Life in Two Worlds'.
A soccer player's 3D-printed prostethic leg. More pictures from this speech and overall SXSW 2013 are in my photo gallery.

Looking up this book on, I saw that many reviewers accuse her of fabricating her life story. They claim her actual life was not nearly as horrible as described in the book, and that she might not have lived in a labor camp. I have no way to verify the claims of either side, though there is no doubt that the horrors of Chinese labor camps, where middle class children were sent for "re-education", actually existed. There is also no doubt that Ping Fu at some point immigrated into the US, and went from a person who knew just 3 English words, to a tech entrepreneur. And though she chose a technical field, she credits her love of language for her design skills. She may have known little of English, but she had a love of language all her life.

In China, she went to graduate school for journalism around the time when China's one-child policy started. It made not just subsequent-child births, but also pregnancies, illegal. When Ping Fu heard rumors that baby girls were being killed in the countryside, she went there as a journalist to investigate. There she witnessed "abortions" done via C-section in 8th or 9th month of pregnancy. For writing publicly about these atrocities she was put in jail, and was certain she would die there. Luckily, Cultural Revolution soon ended -- this was a few years before the Tiananmen Square -- and Ping Fu was released. (Again, I have no way of verifying how much of it is true.) Then the government gave her a choice: quietly leave the country, or be exiled to a remote corner of China. She chose to go to America, and took a crash course in English on the plane. By the time she landed in San Francisco, en route to the University of New Mexico, she already knew a few English words. Not enough to be accepted into comparative literature program, which was her first choice, but enough for computer science.

Mobile 3D-printer demonstrated during Ping Fu SXSW 2013 speech 'Digital Reality: Life in Two Worlds'.
Mobile 3D-printer. This guy and another one with a similar printer walked up and down the aisles to let the audience take a look at the printers. They, however, did not demonstrate how it works. More pictures from this speech and overall SXSW 2013 are in my photo gallery.

Myself, as someone who had a love for languages all my life, but didn't go into linguistics because I didn't think there were any jobs in it beyond school teacher, felt vindicated. There are not many people (or perhaps we're just not visible) who come into computer science not because of fascination with technology, but because we enjoy teasing out complex logical structures from the code as we do from human languages. And so when Ping Fu said that somebody back in the day suggested to her that she check out this new field, computer science, because it's a "language" that lets you make stuff, I thought that it was the same kind of thing that attracted me to the field of computing. Her life tale of a foreign student turned tech entrepreneur also has a special resonance to me because I, too, initially came to the US to go to graduate school. She, however, did not think she was a good programmer, because she lacked a science background, so she became a designer and project manager. Her secret to working with programmers is to ply them with Coke to keep their juices flowing. It must have worked, because at some point she hired Marc Andreesen, who developed Mosaic, and eventually licensed it to Microsoft to become Internet Explorer.

For a long time she didn't consider becoming entrepreneur, and when she finally started her company, Geomagic, people were still skeptical. Of the first seven employees all but her had PhDs, and 4 of them were mathematicians. People said you can't start a company with a bunch of mathematicians, as math doesn't make money. But Ping Fu replied that she liked to do impossible things, so she did it. A win for language nerds and foreign students everywhere!