Technically advanced

As the Otago Daily Times prepares to celebrate this year's Class Act awards next week, Kim Dungey catches up with some former recipients and finds their lives are seamlessly integrated with the digital universe. 

Tim Tait tests code he developed for a dating website. The Dunedin man works for a UK company...
Tim Tait tests code he developed for a dating website. The Dunedin man works for a UK company using video chats and social networking apps to stay in touch with colleagues in London and Windsor. Photo by Linda Robertson
As his colleagues are hard at work, Tim Tait is hitting the sack.

The Dunedin man is not lazy. Or unwell. It's 2am and he needs to sleep.

''I'm off to bed. See you tomorrow,'' he types into the MacBook air laptop that keeps him connected with his fellow developers 19,000km away in the United Kingdom.

As he sits at his kitchen table discussing programming languages and hosting services and dropping in obscure names like ruby, sublime and github, Tait's fingers fly over his keyboard, bringing up apps he has coded.

Bright, articulate and serious, he epitomises the Generation Y adult with an interest in technology and computers.

But the 28-year-old is only one of many former high school achievers making the most of a digital world offering new and intriguing possibilities.

Along with about 50 other developers, Tait works for the Venntro media group and its White Label Dating brand that provides the backing for more than 25,000 dating websites worldwide.

Every morning at 10 o'clock UK time (9pm here at present), his 10-member team has a ''stand-up'', a brief, fast-paced meeting which resembles a Skype call but is conducted over Google Hangouts.

Throughout the day they talk about their progress and see company-wide announcements via social networking apps Slack and Yammer.

To ensure he has at least four hours' ''cross-over time'' with his UK colleagues, Tait starts work at 5.30pm and finishes about 1.30am.

The other developers, designers and managers are in offices in London and Windsor.

He is at his kitchen table, often with his dog at his feet, but says the tools he uses to stay connected make him feel almost like he is working alongside them.

White Label provides the hosting infrastructure, payment processing and customer support for dating websites that together have more than 20 million active members.

The first developer to work for the company outside the UK, Tait has helped develop a service which deals with multiple payment providers in different countries and a tool to plot members on to a map so they can scroll around and see roughly where all the people close to them are.

He also created a tool which allows those checking new websites in a ''test environment'' to copy over only a subset of the database, not the entire thing, to avoid the system being slowed to a crawl.

On the subject of speed, Tait says his internet connection was ''flaky'' when he first moved into his Musselburgh home but Gigatown has made a ''huge'' difference.

Working at night allows him to work on other contracts during the day but in the two and a-half years since he returned from the UK, none of them has been for a Dunedin company.

He's helped develop an in-store sales app for the Caci Clinic, coded a Tinder-style app to help first-time voters choose which party to vote for and is working on a new touchscreen interactive for a Treaty of Waitangi exhibition.

But technology is not all about work.

Tait has used the 3-D modelling computer program Sketchup to design a pizza oven, used a Raspberry Pi, credit-card-sized computer board to turn his television into a smart TV and written a script to automate tasks, among them the downloading of results from the TAB website.

''I'm always mucking around, making little games and playing with new technologies,'' he says.

''I'm a bit of a hacker. But not in the sense that I'm about to break into a bank or something. I just take things and get into the guts of them. Figure out how they work.''

 


Tim Tait
Tokomairio High School, 2004

• Gained a bachelor of computing science degree at the University of Otago, then worked as a web developer in Dunedin and as an interactive developer at Te Papa. After moving to the UK, Tait worked for Lovefilm, a leading online DVD rental and streaming outlet, and became a developer for White Label Dating. He has continued to work on contract for the latter since moving back to Dunedin.

 


Tech-using teacher Konrad Hanson puts lesson plans, including film clips and other resources, on...
Tech-using teacher Konrad Hanson puts lesson plans, including film clips and other resources, on to Microsoft OneNote and says with tools such as Google Docs, Doctopus and email, it is possible to give live feedback to pupils 24/7. Photo by Linda Robertson
When Konrad Hanson was a pupil at Otago Boys' High School, the roll was checked by hand and a VCR player was occasionally wheeled out so pupils could watch a movie.

Now an English teacher at his former school, Hanson is one of many educators using technology to ensure his teaching is organised and engaging.

His pupils use their tablets and smartphones for all sorts of classroom activities, from research to recording their speeches.

Drafts are handwritten in class, then photographed on his iPad to check against the finished documents for authenticity.

The 28-year-old takes the roll on his tablet and has Facebook pages to communicate with the hockey and cricket teams he coaches.

Pupils are even allowed to study computer games for some assignments.

The document creation and management tool Doctopus is used to set up a class view folder and upload all the resources his pupils need.

When the boys start work, he can go to Google Drive, monitor their progress and offer instant feedback.

Without such tools, he would have to print off dozens of assignments, carry them home, write comments on them and hand them back.

Now, as pupils type their documents, he can add comments in the margins, circle things they need to fix up or suggest what they need to explore next.

Providing feedback that previously they would have received only once or only after handing in their final assignment encourages them to revise and edit their work.

That can turn an achieved into a merit or a merit into an excellence, which he says is important because very rarely does anyone ''write an excellence'' on their first attempt.

Material is more secure and can be worked on almost anywhere.

And technology helps with planning.

''The cool thing is [devices] sync up so easily now,'' he says.

''I do my organisation on Microsoft OneNote, which I have on my phone, my tablet and my computer. So if I add something to a lesson plan on my phone, when I get to school and open my laptop, it's all there as well.''

Hanson says while there are ''heaps of pragmatic advantages'' to technology, there are also benefits in terms of engagement.

One aspect he wants to explore is ''gamification'', the process of adding game-like elements to other activities to encourage participation and increase success.

Experience at a boys' school has shown him many pupils enjoy the instant gratification and feedback that come from computer games and that many are motivated by reaching the next level or being ahead of their peers.

Programs like Quizlet create the opportunity for class competition in the ''potentially mundane'' learning of definitions of language features or parts of speech, while popular apps such as Heads Up allow pupils to test themselves in an exciting and interesting way.

Some games even work well as texts to study, he says.

Series such as Final Fantasy are effectively novels that require a lot of reading and share the same themes and techniques as other mediums.

So in an assignment that requires pupils to analyse connections across four different texts, some might write about a computer game as well as the usual books and films.

As an extracurricular activity, e-sports such as League of Legends and Dota 2 teach leadership, communication skills, teamwork and problem-solving.

And boys learn that when they first play a game, they might be terrible at it but with practice they will get better, knowledge they can apply to other areas.

''Obviously the big thing is moderation. You see some people who just go on autopilot and it almost becomes an addiction.''

Hanson is keen to achieve balance at school, too.

Facebook and computer games are banned during class.

Pupils are expected to think for themselves and not rely on constant feedback.

Novels and films are still studied; pen-and-paper skills practised regularly.

Though it is important not to use technology ''just for the sake of it'', he looks forward to exploring the latest innovations: ''Technology makes many things easily accessible and potentially more interesting and entertaining.''

 


Konrad Hanson
Otago Boys' High School, 2004

• Spent a year in England after high school, then returned to Otago to complete bachelor of music (hons) and bachelor of arts in media studies and English degrees. He is now back at his old school, where he teaches English at most levels and coaches hockey and cricket. Played B grade basketball this season.

 


Tom Davie works for a Dunedin gym that uses electromyology to measure the electrical activity of...
Tom Davie works for a Dunedin gym that uses electromyology to measure the electrical activity of muscles. Photo by Gregor Richardson
Technology helped Tom Davie recover from injury and now he is using it to aid others with injuries and chronic pain.

A corrective exercise specialist at a Dunedin gym, Davie employs electromyography (EMG) to measure the electrical activity of muscles and test people's ability to contract their muscles correctly.

The equipment, which is more commonly used to identify neurological disorders, has helped him set his own training programmes after a 2004 accident that cut short his promising athletics career.

A member of Otago Boys' High School's first XV rugby team, first basketball team and first XI cricket side, Davie left school planning to focus full-time on his other love, athletics.

He won the New Zealand triple jump title when he was 18, qualified for the world junior track and field champs in long jump and triple jump and was on target to represent New Zealand at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

However, in September 2004, a ruptured nerve in his left knee ended his dreams.

The 29-year-old recalls he was training at the Caledonian Ground when a bounding drill near the longjump pit went horribly wrong.

''I pulled out of it because I didn't think I was doing very good and had just started jogging off when my knee must have given way. I ended up on my back on the ground, screaming in pain. I knew it was serious.''

Later he had nine operations, including a procedure to reattach his lateral collateral ligament to the head of his fibula.

However, being left with peroneal nerve palsy means he has no feeling in the top of his left foot and had to retrain his brain to learn to walk normally.

''Most people can't even tell I've got a disability but if they were to see both my legs side by side, they'd be able to,'' he says.

''I'm missing quite a bit of muscle on the left side and I've got lots of scars too.''

Determined to continue in sport, Davie had two seasons with the New Zealand bobsled team and played premier rugby until breaking a foot three months ago.

''It was really tough at the time [of the 2004 injury] because I was only 18. I was so set on being an athlete and making a living out of it that I felt a bit lost. But I always knew there was going to be something else to do.''

In 2007, he completed a diploma in personal training and exercise prescription and began working for Rowan Ellis at Body Synergy, which he describes as more of a rehabilitation clinic than a gym.

The wireless EMG machine used there measures the neurological signals from a person's brain to their muscles.

The electrical activity is picked up by electrodes attached to the surface of the skin and displayed on a screen in the form of waves.

Davie looks for differences between the left and right sides of the body, for muscles that have stopped working or for muscles that are hyperactive.

Many people suffer pain as a result of the way they move, so the aim is for them to learn how to use their muscles correctly during everyday activities.

The technology takes the guesswork out of what is causing problems and which exercises people will most benefit from, speeding up their rehabilitation, he says. And the visual results are a powerful motivator.

''People put in more effort when they can see it on a screen.''

 


Tom Davie
Otago Boys High School, 2003

Davie's promising athletics career ended with injury in 2004 but he later made the New Zealand bobsled team and he still plays premier rugby. In 2007, he completed a diploma in personal training and exercise prescription and he is now head trainer (corrective exercise) at Body Synergy in Dunedin.

 


At work, Shelley Adamson helps design motion gesture games and virtual reality experiences. At...
At work, Shelley Adamson helps design motion gesture games and virtual reality experiences. At home, she enjoys using a laptop, a drawing tablet and her ''newest toy'', a Samsung smartwatch. Photo supplied
Giving people the chance to go up against a professional goalie or to immerse themselves in a post-apocalyptic Chicago is all in a day's work for Shelley Adamson.

The former Dunedin woman works for digital production studio Thinkingbox and is based at its head office in Vancouver.

As user experience (UX) designer, Adamson is responsible for planning experiences in a way that makes them intuitive and engaging for people to use.

She works with a variety of clients, from movie studios to communications companies.

One project her team worked on was creating a 4-D virtual reality experience to promote science fiction adventure film The Divergent Series: Insurgent, she says.

Housed in a large touring truck, the four-minute experience featured Kate Winslet and other stars from the movie and plunged fans into the role of a captured Divergent society member subjected to a series of challenges.

Adamson says participants used Samsung VR headsets and headphones and were immersed in the on-screen world with the help of real-world responses: a gust of wind blasted from a fan as they fell from a Chicago skyscraper and their chair vibrated as they sat in front of a fast-approaching train.

In another project, a big hardware store wanting to show its support for the world junior ice hockey championships asked them to create a booth that would enable anyone, young or old alike, to experience the thrill of going up against a professional goalie.

The ''Big Play'' armed players with a real hockey stick and positioned them in front of an HD display that was housed in a playing area simulating half of a hockey rink.

As the shooter wound up to take their best shot using a tethered puck, their movements were tracked using a Kinect 2, which triggered the goalie's reactions and delivered a real-time response on the screen in front of them.

To build the most realistic virtual goalie possible, a real goalie was brought in and motion capture technology used to record his reactions.

''It was a fun project and was injected with humour, such as the goalie's over-the-top celebrations after making a successful save.''

Always on the lookout for new technology it can use, Thinkingbox has created virtual reality projects using the Oculus Rift and Samsung VR headsets, dabbled with Google Cardboard and used technologies such as WebGL, which makes it possible to interact with 3-D graphics in a browser without the use of additional plug-ins or software.

Some technologies still need ''a bit of figuring out'', she adds.

Although gesture motion control has been around a while - most notably in Nintendo Wii and Kinect - the percentage of people who have used it is relatively low and the very deliberate movements needed can initially feel strange.

''I've found that part of the challenge when creating a motion-based experience is actually teaching a user how to use the controls as they go through.''

The 27-year-old is unsure if motion control will be replaced by voice in a few years' time but says for it to become widely successful, the body-tracking needs to become much more sophisticated.

New technology uses radar waves to detect precise finger movements and could play an important role in virtual reality.

''Google did an interesting project called `Soli' that investigated minute motion and it could be interesting to see if anything comes of it in the future.

''I think it's an exciting time to be a designer, and potentially play a part in how these new technologies might be shaped for generations to come.''

 


Shelley Adamson
Maniototo Area School, 2004

• After completing a bachelor of fine arts (majoring in sculpture) degree at the Otago Polytechnic School of Art, Adamson had an art studio in Dunedin and worked as a barista and restaurant manager while saving money to travel. Spent two years as a UI/UX designer at mobile application company Pocket App in London, and now works at Thinkingbox, a digital studio in Vancouver. Plans to move to Singapore when her Canadian visa ends next month. Will graduate with a postgraduate certificate in digital media (through the University of Newcastle, Australia) in October.

 


An internet connection is all Naomi Johnstone needs to 
...
An internet connection is all Naomi Johnstone needs to combine study and travel. Photo by Gregor Richardson
Naomi Johnstone is not particularly savvy when it comes to technology but the flexibility it offers has enabled her to work and study while living in 10 countries and four continents.

Johnstone, who is doing her PhD while working in the fields of conflict resolution and access to justice, says even as recently as 15 years ago such an arrangement would not have been possible.

Traditionally PhD students might have travelled in their last year when they were writing up their research but for the rest of the time, they would have had to be near a university library to access hard materials.

Back in New Zealand until the end of the year, the 30-year-old says e-books and journal articles can all be accessed online, through the University of Otago's website.

In fact, only once during her doctorate has she taken out a hard copy of a book from the library.

She also does the majority of her leisure reading the same way, buying or borrowing e-books and reading them on her phone.

Johnstone has met face-to-face with her supervisors, who are based in Dunedin and Sweden, but also uses Skype to keep in touch with them.

Technology also allowed her to continue working from New Zealand when she returned early (for family reasons) from a six-month job with the West Asia-North Africa (Wana) Institute, a regional think-tank chaired by Prince Hassan bin Talal in Jordan.

The job's research component, looking at access to justice in the Middle East, needed to be done there but the rest was completed from where she is now living near Cromwell.

Her Austrian husband has also been studying while travelling, taking a counselling course through a New Zealand institution.

While doing her PhD on the move means she does not have a community of scholars around her for information-sharing and encouragement, that is the only drawback she can think of.

''I only have a fairly limited knowledge of technology but I can use the web and I can use Skype and that's all I need. I don't use Facebook very much, for example. Perhaps ironically, I value face-to-face or one-on-one contact rather than saying something [online], then everyone seeing it. I'd rather Skype someone individually or meet up for a coffee.''

 


Naomi Johnstone
Gore High School, 2002

Graduated from the University of Otago (LLB hons and BA in linguistics) in 2009, after taking a year out from her studies to work with the United Nations in Indonesia on legal and conflict resolution issues. In 2010, she received a grant from the International Development Law Organisation to study legal empowerment in Bougainville (Papua New Guinea), later presenting a paper at the first UN conference on access to justice through non-state justice systems. Has also been a research counsel for the Chief Judge of the Waitangi Tribunal and the Maori Land Court, done short-term consultancy work for the Swedish-based organisation International Democracy and Electoral Assistance, on the inclusion of women in customary justice systems, and has been a law and policy adviser for the West Asia-North Africa Institute, based in Jordan. Her PhD is on access to justice after civil conflict.

 


Erin Caswell uses technology constantly in her job at Christie's in London. The model of a...
Erin Caswell uses technology constantly in her job at Christie's in London. The model of a unicorn is one of the lots in the auction house's upcoming ''Out of the Ordinary'' sale. Photo supplied
Christie's auction house was founded in 1766 but it is embracing new technologies, former Dunedin woman Erin Caswell says.

Part of her role at Christie's is to support colleagues adopting a new global system to manage the items in its care.

Some of that support is done in person but she also uses technology, including a telepresence room, to speak to colleagues overseas.

''Basically, it's a semi-circular conference table with a set of large screens in front of it,'' she says.

''In New York, there is a matching conference table so that once everything is switched on, you are speaking to life-sized projections of your colleagues in front of you with the illusion of sitting around a table together, rather than all speaking over each other on a conference call.''

Technology also allows clients to bid via the internet in live auctions and to buy and sell a wider range of art and objects in online-only auctions.

Caswell works in London but Christie's operates globally, with sale rooms in 11 countries and representatives in many others.

The 31-year-old is the business support manager for Europe, the Middle East, Russia and India, overseeing a supervisor and eight administrators.

The team supports art departments by centralising many processes such as setting up contracts with sellers, creating shipment orders and sending out paperwork to clients before and after auctions.

All requests are managed centrally and when she is away from her desk, she can view emails and HR requests and get travel assistance remotely.

One challenge has been learning how to engage with clients in innovative ways, while not alienating a core of loyal customers, she says.

There is also a learning curve with any technology and with the pace of change, it can seem there is something new to master every few months.

''The flip side, however, is that these new technologies have allowed us to keep up with the ways our clients interact with their other preferred brands, and allow us to keep in touch with each other in a multitude of different ways.

''The global IT system we have been working on means that we will soon work the same way in Milan as we do in Mumbai, and that I can be at my desk in London checking live sale results for something taking place in Hong Kong.''

A telepresence room, which can bring together objects and people, also has the potential for businesses to more effectively manage their carbon footprint.

''There will always be a certain magic to seeing an object in the flesh or being in a room while an auction is taking place. But it's not always possible to jump in a plane so a future where we would be able to show virtual objects to clients using new technologies sounds pretty good to me.''

 


Erin Caswell
Queen's High School, 2001

• After completing BA (hons) in history (2005) and French (2006) degrees, Caswell taught English in South Korea for 18 months. In 2008, she took up an HSP Huygens scholarship to study at the Reinwardt Academy at the Amsterdam School of the Arts. She later had an internship at the Museum of Wellington City and Sea, then returned to Dunedin to write her thesis. After completing her master of museology degree, she moved to London where she got a job temping in the shipping department at Christie's. She now works in the firm's business support team.


 

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