Interview: Karen X Cheng on her LNY metaverse and how AI can benefit artists everywhere
A collaboration between award-winning digital creator Karen X Cheng and McDonald's rung in the Lunar New Year with an immersive metaverse experience.
The innovative campaign includes an experiential augmented reality (AR) filter, one of the first commercials to use NeRF (neural radiance fields) technology to create a 3D scene, and Cheng’s creative designs inspired by her own upbringing.
Cheng created a celebration melding both her past and present for the new metaverse space. It features a solar, punk-inspired gallery showcasing a 3D sculpture that Cheng designed, as well as art created by emerging Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) artists to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit.
“Growing up I always loved spending Lunar New Year with my family,” Cheng says in a commercial for the project. “I’d draw and imagine the zodiac animals coming to life. As technology got better, my imagination grew bigger.”
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In an interview with NextShark that took place in the metaverse space, Cheng discussed her upbringing in an Asian household and what compelled her to explore virtual and digital spaces.
“I never considered myself an artist when I was a kid,” Cheng tells NextShark. “When I drew, it was only for a hobby. It was never something I could do professionally, and I think that’s really like a cultural Asian thing. A career in arts is not exactly encouraged.”
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Before Cheng fully committed to a career in AR, she worked a technical job for Microsoft on their Excel program. It was only when her art videos, which she created as a hobby, went viral that she thought about turning her hobby into a career.
Due to the negative stigma surrounding art as a career, Cheng labeled herself as a marketer. However, as she dove deeper into the art industry, she better understood her calling: to spread art digitally. Today, she proudly claims her status as a director and an artist.
The fact that we can create [AR] filters and then other people can experience it in their own living rooms is really compelling to me because you might have seen these sorts of illusions before, but the only way you can see them is if you go to a museum.
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And so I want people to be able to actually experience it in their own living rooms. I think that's what is so interesting about augmented reality filters. Millions of people can experience it, whereas they can remix their own creativity into it. With an AR filter, I feel like it’s really just bringing the art to life more.
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In her immersive Lunar New Year metaverse experience, the San Francisco-based artist decided to include her childhood drawings as a way to welcome visitors into her past while experiencing her present artwork.
When McDonald's approached me for this project, I asked my mom if she had saved any of my childhood drawings. And it turns out not only did she, but she just so happened to save my drawings of a tiger and a rabbit, the two zodiac animals featured in the art. I drew both when I was 10 years old! The tiger I drew because it was my elementary school mascot, and the rabbit I drew because it’s my zodiac sign.
When asked about what new AAPI artists and creatives can take away from her work, Cheng emphasized the power of personally defining success.
I just want people to see that there are many paths to success and that success doesn't have to be narrowly defined by having a career in math or science.
I do see that that’s changing a lot now. I see that there’s so many inspiring Asians in the media, whereas when I was a kid, there were very, very few. Whether you want to be an artist or not, the profession doesn't matter. I think it's just learning to define success on your own terms rather than what society or what your culture defines success as.
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While Cheng acknowledges the ethical downsides that come along with the rise of AI-generated art, such as how AI datasets use the work of artists without proper accreditation, she believes its upsides will prove beneficial to creators everywhere.
AI is incredibly advanced. I think what it does is it changes the process of art somewhat and it changes what people value. So, you know, humans we always value what is scarce, that’s just how we’re wired. And so, AI art is very cheap and it's very abundant, right? So what we see is we actually see people value human art more. I think it's going to make physical art and handmade art by humans become more appreciated and more valued. At the same time, what AI does is it empowers people in so many different ways.
According to Cheng, the storyboards for her Lunar New Year metaverse space were all generated by AI. Instead of rendering each idea in the early process of the metaverse design, AI helped the artists get on the same page faster.
Moving forward, the digital creator hopes for AI art that is trained on more ethical datasets.
When asked about the potentials of virtual spaces replacing the utilities of the real world, Cheng stressed the importance of balance.
The digital content creator hopes that the metaverse space does not replace in-person activities, but rather is treated as a supplement. Humans need to learn to coexist and use technology without becoming dependent on it, she asserts.
It started with the phone. Now when we go to the doctor's office, we have to wait like two minutes for the doctor. We're literally just like, 'OK, let's fill those two minutes with our phone.' The compulsion to reach for your phone is so strong.
I think the [drawback] of that is we're not alone with our thoughts as much and we're not bored as much, and humans need to be bored. The boredom makes us motivated to do things, to play, to be creative, to be sad, to be uncomfortable in our sadness and to do something about it.
And then social media is a whole other thing, which has a lot of problems when it's used too much. But I've benefited a lot from social media. I've been thinking about how important it is to basically be able to both use technology because there's so many benefits to it but also be able to disconnect.
As Cheng plans to work with more AI this year, she highlights the importance of developing a healthier relationship with technology.
The digital artist will be releasing more augmented reality filters in the coming months.