The first time I met Fabrizio he was messing about with his motorbike outside of the guesthouse where we were both staying in Kashgar – I’d travelled west from Urumqi with a fellow teacher, and he’d just entered Xinjiang from Pakistan. I half-jokingly half-hopingly asked him if he needed someone to help him ride the bike through the desert. His thickly Italian-accented response was perfect and – I now know – pure Fabrizio: ‘Sure, we can take turns sleeping on the back and driving’. Over the next week or so we rode from oasis to oasis, talking about psychology and other lenses on human experience, always appreciative of the simple Chinese motorbike that kept us moving through the desert.
That was during the summer of 2008, the Beijing Olympics captivating much of the world on the other side of the country. Fabrizio made his way back to his starting point, Dali, and I headed back to Hangzhou where I was teaching and working on my PhD thesis. We kept the conversation going, meeting and travelling here and there. Seven years and much life later I’m living and teaching in Dali, and Fabrizio is returning after 18 months or so in Africa and Europe. Within minutes of arriving at Rishi Labs Fabrizio is telling me about the advances in portable emotion recognition software and we’re discussing how an onscreen avatar and a child might develop a close emotional bond.
I’ve spent quite a bit of my life working within and around concepts of developmental psychology, mainly doing research into infant-caregiver attachment. Attachment theory suggests that the extreme dependency of human children during the first few years of life (compare to other animals that emerge pretty much mobile and mentally mature!), and the complimentary ways caregivers have evolved to take care of them, has a huge (huge!) impact on how we experience life and relate to each other. This mundane yet mystifying stuff happens everywhere and doesn’t much need reflection to occur. However, the past few decades of scientific study of human relationships, communication, and development have unveiled amazing details that can be used to strengthen relationships and improve well-being of parents and kids alike.
So as we’re sitting there in the Rishi Labs’ yard increasingly animated by coffee (well, Fabrizio is typically Italian in his animation anyways) we got excited by the ways we might be able to cultivate an emotional attachment between a human and an avatar teacher: if we could design a computerised teacher who could ‘see’ the child, follow his emotions and patterns of interest, respond contingently, and if this could be mutual – nurturing the child’s representation of the avatar, and sense of being recognised and understood – then learning could be happier and more effective. We started reading around what had been done, especially progress in affective computing, Fabrizio’s former field of work, testing emotional recognition software, and sketching out how the interface might look and function.
In parallel, Fabrizio, was telling me about another friend of his, Martin, with whom he’d met the previous week in Germany. Not only did Martin have a background in tech start-ups, and know people who might be interested in providing financial support, he had time and interest to dedicate to a project. Things were falling into place without much effort, a latent team was quickly forming, and it was clear that much of what we’d done in the past could be brought nicely together for this project.
A few weeks and much Skyping later Martin flew from Hong Kong to Dali and we spent a long weekend eating, drinking and crafting a roadmap for our start-up journey. Martin had lived in Dali from 2010 to 2013 when he’d both met Fabrizio and founded a successful start-up. Midnight oil burned as we discussed many facets of our project, often with input from other friends at Rishi labs.
One of the fundamental points of discussion was why we would choose to do anything that draws kids away from the ‘real world’ to ‘staring into a screen’. While a range of thoughts were expressed, all three of us firmly converged on the idea that technology – including tablet based apps – have always and could always enhance our engagement and joy in reality. Our agreed aim was not to replace the ‘real world’ with ‘staring into a screen’ but to enhance screen time with real world qualities in ways that would feedback into the total experience of life: social, emotional, physical, mental…holistic. In essence, if kids could enjoy learning more, and learn more effectively, they’d both experience higher levels of well-being and have more time to pursue other things.
We realised that we’d set ourselves a pretty ambitious task. Still, meeting over those few days we felt increasing confidence that our modest team had sufficient breadth of expertise and ample passion to set out one baby step at a time.