Celebrating Women in Tech: Meet Diana Hu, Director of Engineering and Head of AR Platform at Niantic, Inc.
There probably isn't anyone in any industrialized country that hasn't heard of Pokémon GO, and a lot of those people probably know that Niantic, Inc. developed that game. Niantic has also made two additional AR-focused games, Ingress Prime and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Niantic is all-in on augmented reality (AR). It's the first company to make AR accessible and understandable to the general public and it's paving the way for AR to become the consumer-focused feature that we've all been hearing about.
Diana Hu is the Director of Engineering and Head of AR Platform at Niantic and has been deeply immersed in AR for much of her career, including founding the AR company, Escher Reality, which was acquired by Niantic in 2018. Hu is now leading the team that is leading the technology for the future of AR and has participated and contributed to what we're going to see in our living rooms in the not-to-distant future.
I was able to sit down with Hu for a chat about her role at Niantic, her career in tech, and her experience being a woman in the industry.
As the head of AR platform at Niantic, what are some of the daily technological advancements that you get to be a part of?
The exciting thing here, with building things for AR, is that this is really new technology that hasn't been created yet. I get to work with a lot of super-smart people and very caring people. And pushing the technology forward is exciting. For some of the innovations that we get to realize, I am one of the first people to see it before anyone else. It's very exciting when that light bulb moment comes on and it is like, "Oh, we can connect these ideas from the past to what's happening in the present to invent the future." An example of this happened about two years ago.
We had this technology for AR multiplayer. We were one of the first to really demonstrate the ability to have multiple people share the same digital reality in the same physical space. We paid attention to the aspects that make interactions feel good for AR. If you're next to someone, you don't want to have any loading bars. When you are solving a puzzle together; If I move a piece and you are next to me, the digital piece that we're both seeing should move in real-time. We connected the tech to foundations in networking, as we recognized that it is important to make things run fast. Traditional networking on the cloud won't work because that gives you hundreds of milliseconds of latency. We needed something in the tens of milliseconds to render without lag. As a result, we brought peer-to-peer networking into mobile devices, which is something that typically hasn't been done to devices. Peer-to-peer became popular in the context of LAN parties in the 90s, and has been used mostly for desktop computers, but not in the context of mobile devices. It was exciting to connect that piece and then apply it now, in the context of AR, to build something new.
You've been a part of computers and technology starting in college. Did you always know that you wanted to be an engineer?
Not really. I grew up in Chile. My parents were Chinese immigrants, so it was a very different environment and I didn't have a traditional influence in tech. I only gained access to computers when I was about 14. My eventual road to tech started with my curiosity as a child. I stayed indoors and read a lot about science and nature because it was too hot to be outside. With books, I was inspired to be a scientist, biologist, or mathematician.
How did that then transfer to you going into engineering?
Oh, yeah, that's kind of a fun journey. I talked about it more in-depth in a YC (Y Combinator) interview, but, long story short is; My parents, when they were escaping China during the Cultural Revolution, applied for visas to a bunch of different countries, and they went to the first country that took them in, which happened to be Chile. They had also applied for a visa in the US, but that didn't materialize until much later — they did all this before I was born. So an opportunity came up at some point, that I could go to the U.S., which is one of those life-changing opportunities. But my parents, at that point, decided it was too hard to immigrate again, to change their whole identity, to drop everything and grow roots again. They said, we're too old for this, but we will support you. So I ended up coming to the US. I've always been good at math and I didn't speak English when I first came. So when I got into college, I was thinking more of a career in math, but then I decided I needed something more practical to help pay the bills because as I was taking all of these student loans and my parents were helping, but that was very difficult. So I had to find something more practical and I decided, "O.K., engineering."
Throughout your career, you've worn a lot of hats, had a lot of jobs across software engineering, machine learning, and now you're all in on AR. I know you started your own AR company that was acquired by Niantic. Talk a little bit about when you realized that AR is where you want to be.
I was doing machine learning and computer vision and that's where the link came into AR. We chose to start that company because of the timing and exciting technology. Building AR systems is a very interdisciplinary field, in fact. AR encompasses fields in computer graphics, computer vision, machine learning, game development, distributed systems, systems engineering, and user experience. Because you can join the AR industry from so many different angles, it is a space that I think is welcoming to many people, so I thought I could join as one of the early explorers to chart the space.
So, you got excited about AR because you could see the writing on the wall that this is going to be a big deal.
Right. In a sense, it's sort of the next computing paradigm renaissance. You had desktop, mobile... what's next? It's something in AR for sure. Information has been mostly presented through a 2D screen. To interact with it in a 3D environment adds a level of richness. It also has been something that a lot of computer scientists have been dreaming about since the beginning of computer science in the 1960s. The first VR system was built by a man named Ivan Sutherland, who created this giant headset called the Sword Of Damocles.
It's still early. I would say that, in terms of technology trends, they're two big phases. In the first phase, you're building a lot of core infrastructure. In the second phase, it's the installation phase. This is where applications proliferate and that's when it explodes. We also had that with mobile devices apps in the last decade. I think right now for AR, we're definitely in the infrastructure phase because there's a lot of foundational pieces to AR that are not there yet. Here at Niantic, and at Escher, we really started with building the backend of AR. You should be able to connect with others to share it. You should be able to remember state and have persistence. These are all things that are not here today. Also, the people that build infrastructure typically are not the same people that built the applications. The analogy I like to give is that today the companies that build infrastructure for telecommunications are not the ones building FB or Snapchat apps.
I think the interesting thing that we have at Niantic is that we have both. We have the application, and we have the deep technology, too.
Let's talk a little bit about your company, Escher Reality, which you started in 2016 and then Niantic acquired in 2018. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to build this company and why you came to the decision to join Ninantic instead of staying on your own? Was that a path that you were hoping to achieve; being an infrastructure team, and joining up with an installation team?
Starting a new company is kind of exciting because everything is new when you're starting it, and there is a lot of energy there. It's full of possibilities. That part was exciting, really building up the team, getting into Y Combinator, doing fundraising, building the vision of the company and really shaping it. Back then, when we raised money from investors, we told them that we wouldn't be making money for some time, because we were building foundational tech. When the opportunity to join Niantic came, it made sense because having Niantic as our customer would have been ideal. We ended up in a win-win situation, where we came in with a lot of technology, and Niantic already has a huge footprint with Pokémon GO, and that made AR part of the common language. When your grandparents or your child can talk about AR, it's really because of Pokémon GO. It made AR tangible and relatable, not something mystical or techy.
You mentioned how exciting it is to start a new company, do you see yourself doing that again?
I think so. I think I've found it to be very rewarding, in a sense, to really have to build something from the beginning and to bring others along on the journey to grow with me.
Are there a lot of women engineers in augmented reality right now?
Not at all. I think we can do a better job. The nice thing is because it's so early in this technology trend, it is a great time to get a seat at the table now.
Do you see a shift from how it was, say, 10 years ago in the tech world with women's presence tech versus how it is now?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. There's been so much visibility brought on with so many movements. But of course, there's a lot more that we can do to build this up, to make a whole industry be more inclusive. As we build products that shape society, we should represent society too. 10 years ago, I don't think people spoke out as publicly. Today there are movements, like Time's Up and Me Too. I don't think, 10 years ago, very powerful individuals in tech would have been brought down like this.
I get what you're saying. The door has been open for us. So what's the next step in that process of moving forward? What can we do now to make it even more equal and more diverse?
Bringing visibility, this article that you're writing right now is one of them. There are a lot more channels to do that than before.
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice when you were starting out in the tech industry, what would that advice be?
I think first, I'd tell myself to be more confident in giving input to the building of products because my point of view is valuable.The other one I'd say is to stay curious. Take the opportunities as they come because you don't know where they will take you. All of these random paths that I took did lead somewhere interesting. Sure, there were some that were planned. But sometimes the power of being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right individuals makes a huge difference.
For the girls and young women that might be wondering whether or not they could be a computer engineer, what do you want to say to them?
It will, for sure, be tough. I'm not going to sugarcoat things. But at the same time, it will be very rewarding. A career in tech is one in which the impact that you could have in society with what you build is tremendous; but also financially, it could be good for everyone. You could write history with others.
Do you have anything else that you want to add, anything that you want to let our readers know about before we say goodbye?
I think it's very important to build tribes and communities and to have a supportive environment. Go out and connect with others. Sometimes there might be some things you're going through in life or work, and you may feel that you're the only one. But, just knowing that there are others who have gone through something similar, and you'd be surprised. You can build that sense of community together and have a lot more connectedness. Know that you're not alone. There is probably someone that has gone through the same thing you've gone through.
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Lory is a renaissance woman, writing news, reviews, and how-to guides for iMore. She also fancies herself a bit of a rock star in her town and spends too much time reading comic books. If she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can probably find her at Disneyland or watching Star Wars (or both).
By Gerald Lynch