Zenka: Augmented Reality Artist Challenging us to Embrace Change and New Technology

"Technology isn't about technology, it's about human beings connecting, that's what we want technology for, and that's why the internet is so powerful. Because it connects people with similar interests, and it connects families that are separated."

Our next guest on What's Your Why? is augmented reality artist, Zenka, who is challenging us to embrace change and the new technology of our time.

Emy diGrappa (00:02):

Support for this podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We take a closer look at our human experiences, and use stories to explore culture, history and contemporary issues. You can find us on thinkWY.org.

Zenka (00:17):

You can see augmented reality through their phone, and that's what people do when they look at my art.

Emy diGrappa (00:27):

Hello, I'm Emy DiGrappa, and this is What's Your Why? Each week we bring you stories asking our guests the question, "Why?" We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care, and what can we learn? What abetter place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for it's incredible landscapes; Wyoming. And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities? Serving our state for over 45 years, we share stories, ideas and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why?

Emy diGrappa (01:14):

Today we are talking to Zenka. Zenka is a Los Angeles based artist who makes art for the galactic age. Welcome Zenka.

Zenka (01:23):

Thank you.

Emy diGrappa (01:24):

And more specifically, she is an artist that does augmented reality art.

Zenka (01:30):

That's right, augmented reality art.

Emy diGrappa (01:33):

Define augmented reality first of all.

Zenka (01:35):

Sure, sure. It's a very new technology, uh, that people are working very hard to make happen. It is basically where you can take your cellphone or a tablet-

Emy diGrappa (01:46):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Zenka (01:46):

Or even a headset.

Emy diGrappa (01:47):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Zenka (01:48):

You put it on, and you can see virtual objects on top of the real world. And those objects can be 3D, so you can take your phone and more it to the right and see the right of something. Or you can take it to the left and see the object from the other side. Sp it's this bizarre world where all of a sudden you're putting three-dimensional virtual objects into everyday life. So you can add a dragon, or you can dd information about how to fix your printer, you know, what buttons are you supposed to turn?

Zenka (02:20):

It's signaling an age where we are gonna be gesturing with our computers, we're going to be talking to our computers, the idea of a mouse is gonna go away. You're gonna just grab into the air information, you're gonna organize your computer the way you want. You want a screen here? Put it there. You wanna move screen there? Put it there.

Zenka (02:38):

So your grandma is gonna be able to use a computer very easily, naturally, because we're gonna have information in the world, and we're gonna be able to touch it and move it around, and merge it with our world.

Emy diGrappa (02:51):

So how do you compare that with the 3D gaming you can do?

Zenka (02:56):

Uh-huh (affirmative)

Emy diGrappa (02:56):

You know where you can kind of put yourself inside of a game?

Zenka (02:59):

Well there's virtual reality where you can actually put on a headset and you can get into another world. But it's not only gaming that you can do this. So you can step into a documentary, you can go to the Great Wall of China. And put on a headset and look around and look at the birds and look at the floor and look at whatever you want. The idea of immersion on steroids. You will be in these experiences using virtual reality. And it's so real, the headsets have gotten so advanced that y-your body can't tell that you're not really on the Great Wall of China.

Emy diGrappa (03:34):

Well what is the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality?

Zenka (03:38):

Virtual reality blocks out your field of view. You can't see anything; you're just in the world. Whereas augmented reality is your world in the radio station, but we're seeing other objects added to it. One is blocked out, you can't, you know, you're, you're in somewhere, another world, and augmented reality is taking your world, so it's kind of like having a clear glass. So you do it with regular glasses. So you're looking around, you're going through your day, but then all of a sudden information shows up.

Zenka (04:08):

It's hard to imagine it, uh, the best way to do it is to go on YouTube and search, you know, "Augmented reality" and see some, some kinds of demos. You know, uh, there's, there's a lot of companies that have started using it, like, Ikea. So you put your phone up, and you can see what your table's gonna look like in your house.

Emy diGrappa (04:27):


Zenka (04:27):

So only thing that's different is this new table that you're trying to check out. And you know, Legos do it with their boxes, so the kids can walk up and they can twist around a box and see the full Lego spaceship on top in 3D, as they move it around, they can see what it would look like built. So-

Emy diGrappa (04:45):

So that's already happening.

Zenka (04:46):

It's already happening, it's already happening. W-the headsets haven't arrived yet, we're still working on those, but you can see augmented reality through your phone, and that's what people do, uh, when they look at my art. They install a free app on their phone and boom, they can either look at it online or walk down the gallery wall and see it come to life in a way that's almost magical. It's hard to believe as an adult that these three-dimensional images can pop outta the wall. It's just wild.

Emy diGrappa (05:14):

How did you start on this path, how did you take on this journey?

Zenka (05:17):

(laughs) I am an impatient person. And I've always been obsessed with the future and what's next, and I've always been c-really curious about what's coming. A friend introduced me to this technology and you will see, once you try it, it is so mind blowing that it has caused every single tech company to drop everything and start entire departments. We're talking Google, Microsoft, Apple, Samsung, Sony, and then a ton of small companies, like [inaudible 00:05:49]. You know, all these people are rush because this is gonna be the new operating system. We've got the internet, we've got our cellphones, this is the new thing. And it's gonna cause a paradigm shift in the way that you do everything.

Zenka (06:03):

You're not gonna try clothes on when you go shopping, you're just gonna see the clothes on you without having to go and take off your pants and put on [inaudible 00:06:10], you'll be able to see it. So it's gonna affect the way we do everything; communicating to learning.

Emy diGrappa (06:16):

Right. I'm too picky though. I have to try on my jeans.

Zenka (06:20):

Well you'll have a body scan.

Emy diGrappa (06:22):


Zenka (06:22):

I think you can already do that.

Emy diGrappa (06:24):

Oh my gosh.

Zenka (06:24):

So it knows how those jeans are gonna fit you. The, you know, the less advanced system just kind of, put on your glasses, you can do that now, or you can go online, and try on different glasses with your photo. But yeah, you'll have a scan of your body, 3D scan, and you'll be able to see how things fit.

Emy diGrappa (06:40):

Oh my gosh, that's so crazy.

Zenka (06:42):

[crosstalk 00:06:42] I know, and this stuff is right around the corner. All this technology has been moving so fast. One of the things, there's an augmented reality that Canon did in 2013, guess how much it cost?

Emy diGrappa (06:53):

How much?

Zenka (06:54):

$125,000. Plus $25,000 a year. Now granted, they were selling it to industrial, you know, for, for companies, but now, you know, when these things are gonna be released, they're gonna be $1000, and then in three more years, it's just gonna be part of your, whatever, quote unquote, "Cellphone plan". You know what I mean? It's gonna be you just pay $30 a month or so.

Zenka (07:16):

So this technology is moving quickly. People are passionate about it. Um, people that work in this industry don't even care about money they're so excited about this, I mean you, you go to these conferences and you can just taste the passion and excitement in the air, of bringing this new world into being. Because it's, it's something we don't know, it's a new thing. We don't know how it works, we don't know what it's good at doing, we're just, we're just having fun with it right now and it's, it's surprising us at every turn.

Emy diGrappa (07:47):

What came first, the artist or the technical guru that you are now?

Zenka (07:52):

(laughs) well I don't know. My mother was an artist so I was surrounded by art my whole life, but I never had the courage to become an artist, so I made my living in technology, in film and technology. And then I, my husband convinced me to stop and do my passion. And it took a year to get my bearings, and now I wake up every day and I'm so grateful that I know that this is my, this is my purpose, this is my calling in life. And I know I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing and it's really exciting. It's like riding a magic carpet, you know? It's really, really exciting. I'm very grateful.

Emy diGrappa (08:35):

Are there people that are fearful of this new technology? That find it a threat or maybe not good or healthy for us?

Zenka (08:43):

Of course, of course. You know when radio came out, it was like, "Oh this is terrible." You know, it was gonna ruin the, everything, you know. That is one of the things that I wanna study in this next year. I believe the world is getting better. But a lot of people think the world is, is getting worse. And it's in part because humans have this innate fear of change, because it's unknown. I'm scared of the unknown. I'm scared of new th-I mean we're all kind of scared of new things because we don't know what to expect. But we're living in an extraordinary, extraordinary moment in history where change is going to be part of our lives. You know, fortunately or unfortunately we're living in a world of change. And it's just gonna be moving more and more quickly.

Zenka (09:31):

We have to learn how to be curious about change, and one of the things I've learnt about virtual reality is that it's surprising us. When you put on a virtual reality headset, and you put someone into an experience that they've never had, maybe you're putting them in another culture, maybe you're changing their gender, maybe you're sending them to another country, they feel compassionate. It's like getting to live in someone else's shoes. And that's what we've always tried to do in storytelling. That's what we do do in storytelling; in books, in movies and whatever. So this takes it to a deeper level and it's causing people to feel, um, very empathetic and compassionate. And I think that that's an important part of the world today, is finding compassion in our lives toward people that are different. Because we've got one planet, we've got a lot of people with a different customs and cultures and ideas. And out ability to build that compassion is one of the things that's important.

Zenka (10:32):

Virtual reality's already being used in the United Nations to change the votes on the refugee crisis.

Emy diGrappa (10:39):

Oh really?

Zenka (10:39):

Yeah. It's being used to change laws about solitary confinement. It's being using to train policemen to understand these situations that happen really quickly. And it's being used to train everyday people of how these things happen.

Zenka (10:54):

One of the exciting things is these cameras, these virtual reality cameras are $100. The cheapest ones are $100. That's one of the beautiful things about, about technology changing is that everything gets cheaper. And you and I can write a book and publish it, you and I can make a mini movie and put it on YouTube, you and I can do all these cool things, and you and I are going to be able to share experiences. You wanna share, um, giving birth with your grandma who lives 3000 miles away, you're gonna be able to send them a 360 of your first day of college, or some moment that you really want, and they're gonna feel like they're there with you. Technology is not about technology; it's about human beings connecting. That's what we want technology for. And that's why the internet is so powerful, is it connects people that have similar interests, and it connects families that are separated, you know?

Zenka (11:49):

This is an exciting time where we're gonna become more connected, and we're gonna be able to tell stories, everyday people are gonna be able to tell beautiful, awesome stories in an easy way that's gonna be very powerful.

Emy diGrappa (12:01):

Do you hear, you know, a lot of talk about how our kids are becoming disconnected because all they do is text and they're on their phone and-

Zenka (12:08):

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I-I, so I have a son who's two years old.

Emy diGrappa (12:14):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Zenka (12:14):

And I have a husband who's a gamer and a programmer. So I know what it's like to have him on the computer, disconnected, playing, and me, you know, there, and you kinda wanna be in that world but they're in that world. But then again, he will not play a game unless his friends are there. So he socializes, we have this concept that gaming is you sitting alone on your computer and some of that is, has been how gaming has been up until now, because it's not so advanced. Virtual reality in the newer games are social games, that's what compels people. My husband will not play the game if is friend's not there. 'Cause it's not fun for him. These are friends that he has in real life, but you can play with people that you don't know physically.

Zenka (12:58):

But, so he plays with a guy in Florida and his friend in Chile, and they laugh and they joke, and you're like, "Get over here! No wait, run over here! Oh wait, come! Help me, help me!" You know, so they're problem solving in a world together. And I think that that's going to change the way that we think about being in this virtual world, because we're gonna be with our friends and family.

Zenka (13:20):

And the, the other cool thing about augmented reality is that I see great intersections between being in the real world and being in a-a new world. So, let's say you take your family out to the desert, you got out of the car, it's really hot, you pull out your headsets in the future, and you walk through a beautiful park and you see mirages created by artists that are superimposed in that park. Or you go to a park herein Jackson and you see extinct animals that used to live there peaking behind trees. So you're looking at the park, you're having an experience outside, but you're adding, you know, imaginary animals that have been crated by kids in a school and are playfully playing in the park.

Zenka (14:04):

So kind of like Pokemon Go. Pokemon Go came out, I wanted to write them a letter and than them because my husband wanted to leave the house all weekend long. He's like, "Oh, let's go to the Santa Monica Pier. Oh lets go down to the different areas," because if you go to those different areas you could get little Pokemon. So it was like everybody wanted to run and explore the parks in the world. And so that's a way that we have to stop thinking about a computer being this desktop thing that's right in front of you, because it's gonna be in the world around us. And it's what we make of it.

Emy diGrappa (14:37):

What is your message that you want people to walk away with when they see your artwork?

Zenka (14:44):

Well I always like when my artwork is funny. It's not always funny but I love when people laugh. My street art has to do a lot with where we are in time, and talking about why the world is getting better and why we're so unique in the time that we're living now. And I think my augmented reality work, I want people to have fun and I want it to spark ideas and I want them to be wowed, I want them to see this magic, and be excited about it. Because it's a world, it's a whole world of possibilities, and we're gonna make beautiful experiences with it.

Emy diGrappa (15:21):

And so just the everyday person would be able to create their own augmented reality. They'll be able to create a piece of artwork or-

Zenka (15:30):


Emy diGrappa (15:30):

Yeah, how will they do that?

Zenka (15:32):

Yeah, so this week I went to the high schools in Jackson [inaudible 00:15:36], and I taught a two hour workshop and they all walked away with a piece that they created. Do you remember websites where you needed to have a programmer program your website? It's like a major situation? Now you can log onto WordPress and kinda move things around and create your own pages, right? It's getting easier to do stuff for everyday people.

Zenka (15:57):

And augmented reality's the same way. If you go to aurasma.com they make it easy to-to do something on you phone or do something fun online and share it with someone. So it's just gonna get easier and easier. People are making tools for people to express themselves in new ways, and you don't have to be a genius programmer anymore, and that's what's so exciting.

Emy diGrappa (16:18):

Well describe some of the finish products that kids walked away with.

Zenka (16:23):

Right, so the ex-so the idea was that we were gonna redefine the portrait, the self-portrait. People had a picture of themselves that they took, and then with augmented reality they were gonna reveal something personal about their lives, about who they were, and show us another side of us, of them. And they created the most amazing, well thought out beautiful things.

Zenka (16:48):

Because that's one thing, I mean you can't just throw technology at an idea and have it be good. I mean, 3D movies, I'm not gonna pay for a 3D movie. It's not worth it. So just having technology is not enough. These guys thought about what they wanted to reveal, and they, they did experiences from their childhood where they'd be sitting in a park as a child, a picture that their parents had found that was black and white, and then they took the same picture of them as an adult and they were standing there. Or it was them standing there with a volcano that was exploding, suddenly exploding in the background, you know what I mean? Or they would completely change their, their hair and the way they looked, the way they presented themselves to the world.

Zenka (17:31):

So it showed their hobbies, it showed their ideas, it showed the way that they thought about their image and themselves.

Emy diGrappa (17:37):

Oh my gosh.

Zenka (17:39):

I was blown away. I loved it.

Emy diGrappa (17:40):

I wanna, I wanna take one of your classes.

Zenka (17:42):

(laughs) Excellent, yeah.

Emy diGrappa (17:45):

I don't know if I'll have time, when do you leave?

Zenka (17:47):

I leave on Sunday, but I'll be back next year to, to go in deeper into this technology.

Emy diGrappa (17:53):


Zenka (17:53):

And since we've taught a bunch of people how to use this, and really, I mean, we live in a-a day and age where you have a personal tutor. You go on Google and you say, "How do I do X, Y, Z?" And your personal tutor says, "Okay, do you want a video, do you want a webpage? Come along, I'll show you." You know, that's the world we're living in, and it's really fun. So if you roll up your, you know, sleeves and sit down in front of a computer, you can figure it out. And Aurasma will walk you though it as well.

Emy diGrappa (18:23):

Just in um, my final thoughts about this is, you have to like physically go to a job to make your money every day, you know, whatever, um, how to do you think that's gonna change how we work, how we do real work, how we're productive?

Zenka (18:38):

I think technology is coming in to help us, more people, become their own boss. It's hard to be your own boss, you have to be disciplined, but it-it can be fun as well. So, you look at software, decentralized software, for example Air BnB, I don't know if you're familiar with that-

Emy diGrappa (18:58):

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Zenka (18:59):

But it's, it's a way that you can rent out your room, your couch, your whole house, you know, some people go to stay with their friend, you know, it's a simple system that anybody from anywhere in the world can use to make an income. Same with Uber, I mean Uber's really big in LA, so students who need a second job, they can drive people around in their car and then their kid gets sick, they don't have to call their boss and tell them they can't come in. They just don't show up, it doesn't matter. It's the software enables them to show up when they need to show up, work when they wanna work, and it just plugs them in when they wanna go.

Zenka (19:36):

I mean, we've already seen how tele-commuting is a wonderful thing. I mean, virtual reality will, and augmented reality will make that even better. So my husband works from home, but he's on video chat with five different engineers. And they're all working, collaborating together. This whole idea of location and being somewhere is going to go away. Things change and you say, "Oh well we can't lose jobs if we change this." We're just gonna make new jobs. I mean we've already gone through incredible transformations. Hopefully we'll be working less in the world. I mean, it pains me to see all of us working so many hours a week to pay our bills when life slips away from us. You know?

Zenka (20:23):

In Argentina, I lived in Argentina for 10 years, and they have a lot more federal holidays kinda sprinkled throughout the year, and those were wonderful days where we spent with our families and we like, took a break from the grind of working, and it's important to have that work, work life balance and stuff like that. So, if you save two hours commuting because you can d-that's two hours of your life that you have back.

Emy diGrappa (20:47):

Every day right.

Zenka (20:48):

Every day, that adds up.

Emy diGrappa (20:50):


Zenka (20:50):


Emy diGrappa (20:51):

And sometimes it's two hours each way.

Zenka (20:52):

Right. Sometimes it's like that, yeah, so I mean, I-I work with a guy in Argentina and his team is m-made of three people in the United States, two people in Latin America, and they work every day and they, they build cool stuff together. This is new territory, this is new-

Zenka (21:09):

Yeah, it's only gonna get better, yeah.

Emy diGrappa (21:12):

That's amazing.

Zenka (21:13):


Emy diGrappa (21:13):

It's been such a pleasure talking to you, thank you so much.