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Meet the RCA: Dr Dylan Yamada-Rice

Dylan Yamada-Rice is Senior Tutor for our MA Information Experience Design (IED) and an artist/researcher whose work pushes at the intersection between experimental design and the social sciences. Her multi-disciplinary background in academia and her boundary pushing work in industry complement her teaching for a programme which is all about finding new ways of presenting information using a combination of digital and physical which increase user engagement, often collapsing binary notions of the human and the digital.
We talked about her interdisciplinary background, how she moves between academia and industry and where she thinks the future of digital storytelling lies.
Graphic narrative drawn as part of the analysis phase of the UK-Japan Location-based VR Network
Graphic narrative drawn as part of the analysis phase of the UK-Japan Location-based VR Network., Dylan Yamada-Rice

Your PhD was on children’s understanding of the visual mode in Japanese environments, what led you to this subject?

I became really interested in Japan after my first degree at SOAS where I studied Art, Archaeology and Geography which involved quite a lot of Japanese art history. After graduation I undertook postgraduate research in Japanese Art History at Kyoto University, and when that ended I decided to stay on to teach English to children.

As a teacher, I started to realise that the whole way of making sense of the world in Japanese was different to English. In English, we learn through sounds that represent meaning, whereas Japanese is largely pictorial – you're making sense of the world through your eyes rather than your ears. 

This interest in children’s learning prompted me to study for Master’s degrees in social sciences first in Early Childhood Education and then Research Methods. My PhD – which involved working with a group of kids in Japan for a year and trying to understand how they comprehended the world around them through images – brought together all these different threads that I thought were quite separate parts of me; my love of drawing and Japanese semiotics, and also an interest in children, which I always felt like I’d better not admit to because somehow children were seen as lesser. 

Within Invisibility (Overall view), Jiayu Liu, MA Information Experience Design
ESRC & AHRC funded UK Japan Location-Based VR Network Research
Does your multi-disciplinary background inform your approach to teaching as Acting Head of IED?

Definitely. MA Information Experience Design is all about finding innovative new ways to present data in ways that make users want to engage with it. That’s why we take people from a wide range of backgrounds. So we’ll have someone from architecture, someone from philosophy and a fine artist working on the same brief. Staff backgrounds are just as wide-ranging. We encourage students to capitalise on these diverse disciplines to present data in ways that resonate with people.

A good example is of a student I had once who was looking at collected data in bell graphs. In the end, they cast them as actual bells and played them. So you’re taking something that is usually on a page and turning it into something physical that can be interacted with – you’re engaging with data in a new way. 

In my work, this is where drawing comes in. Kids don’t do A, B, C – they’re tangential. To get to what you want to know, you have to do something more physical like making or drawing to engage them. When you have the data you have to decide how to make it interesting and accessible with a mix of analogue and digital mediums. 

VR & Mixed Realities Play Kit to prepare Under 10s for an MRI
VR & Mixed-Realities Play Kit to prepare Under 10s for an MRI, Dylan Yamada-Rice

As well as being Acting Head of MA IED, you also work part-time for digital games company Dubit. Can you tell us about your work there? 

I’m Senior Research Manager at Dubit. My role there has allowed me to link up the two worlds of industry and academia to do a different type of research and produce a different kind of product. In academia you research an idea in depth that isn’t attached to an end product, while at Dubit, I can look at what children actually do with an app. 

You’re currently working with Dubit to produce a Virtual Reality (VR) ‘Play Kit’ to prepare children for MRI scans. Can you tell us about it?

Yes, the project is funded by Innovate UK and is in partnership with Dubit. We’re using Dubit’s data on kid’s entertainment and applying it to a health setting. MRI machines are stressful experiences for children – they’re very noisy and require children to stay still for a long time. So, we’re producing an app and a physical play kit that will help alleviate these stresses and prepare children for their scan. We were about to take it to test in hospitals when Covid-19 hit, so now we’re seeking new ways to do the research at a distance.

What do you feel VR can contribute the experience of play and/or storytelling? Is this kind of technology going to be the future of storytelling?

I think the future of storytelling is mixed realities. VR on it’s own is not as exciting as VR on a really well designed set or if you have elements of Augmented Reality (AR) that reveal something in the actual world. If you asked kids about Pokémon Go, they might say that adults made an app that revealed Pokémon that were always there in the actual world. The future of storytelling is how you do that for adults as well as for kids.

Find out more about MA Information Experience Design and how to apply.