VR, burgers and fungus: tomorrow’s techies are being nurtured up north

The EEG which learners built to operate a video game. It's a work in progress. Photo - Michael Botur

If you want to see how the tech workers of tomorrow are being trained, you’ll find it on a Thursday night in little old Whangarei.

As I enter Questionable Research Labs in the expansive ground floor of Manaia House – a partly-vacant building in the sleepy CBD – Dr Kevin Waugh greets me in bare feet, t-shirt and jeans, and guides me into an expanse filled with about a hundred computer screens, dozens of robots, buckets of Lego, plants growing in sealed terraria, and close-on 40 kids working on a multitude of tech projects.

Hopping with contagious enthusiasm, Waugh flits from conversation to conversation. There are many projects going on tonight at the free-for-kids, donation-based laboratory. It’s warm, welcoming, thriving, and full of trust. One boy walks around with a bag of cash, collecting burger orders.

The boy steps over a Raspberry Pi robot with wheels, zipping around the carpet on a track, and chats informally with Waugh, who is showing our reporter a robotic arm that rolls dice for anyone live on the web, thanks to some Python programming and a Twitch stream.

Waugh explains that the tribe of teens recently competed in the Terrible Ideas Hackathon at the University of Auckland – one of many competitions which stretch the abilities of learners, including KiwiJam, 48 Hour Film Competition and GovHack.

In these competitions, the teenagers have created VR games in Unity, made applications such as one that visualised the NZ population’s social media mood/sentiment over time against major public events (storms , COVID etc); built robots; created physical games and more. Many have a ‘questionable’ edge, such as a chess game that shocked the player if they were too slow to make a move.

If many projects sound weird and pointless, they are – in a good way. Questionable Research Labs (QRL) has a culture of “just do it” regardless of expertise “because you learn as you go,” Waugh says. Waugh believes that a resilient, creative and continuously learning mindset will prepare a learner for a career in tech better than traditional training and qualifications on their own.

Dr Kevin Waugh talks to the learners. Photo – Michael Botur

Geeky playground; important project

Waugh tours the “self-directed geeky playground,” making periodic stops to catch up on learners’ projects and talk to parents about their kids’ direction, while the youngsters do a combination of messing around, laughing, and getting their hands on VR, motherboards, coding software, electronics, robots – and, naturally, a ping pong table.

“What we’re fundamentally trying to create is an experimental learning playground. The kids engage and bounce off each other. So our environment is intentionally social. They get leverage off each other. It’s an ideas incubator”

QRL is a place where projects can be safely “Pointless but fun” and “It’s okay to crash and burn and give up.”

“At the same time projects that have an irreverent starting point also become serious,” Waugh says. “A VR horror game where they hacked in a T.E.N.S. muscle stimulation device for haptic feedback has evolved from game-to-body interface, into a brain-to-game interface. The teens have built an EEG headset and they are now in the process [of] calibrating it.”

Operating most nights of the week, QRL responds to teenagers’ demand for learning beyond the restrictive hour-long periods they get at high school, not to mention providing a place that’s cheaper and safer than after-school winter rugby – with a lot less standing out shivering in a field. Learners tell Waugh and fellow tutors Mac Jones, Verena Pschorn and Sheldon White what they want to learn or do, and the tutors help them set out a plan, source the materials and make it happen.

When some kids wanted to zap lighting through a stool, they made it happen. Others wanted to build a head-mesh-net of EEG sensors with which they can control video games thanks to the electrical impulses of the brain – that’s well on its way (called the E Squared G – see photos).

One student has even been creating a memory stick which can simultaneously ‘Rick Roll’ a network of computers.

Having operated since 2015, and moved four locations since that time, including the Tikipunga Rugby Club, QRL now has a track record of shepherding students through to university, first and foremost Waugh’s son Zac Miller-Waugh who – now 21 – already has years of web-based software development behind him and runs Hackathons, “taking the culture of what we do to university and beyond. That’s what we want to see: them go on being creative clever social innovators.”

Waugh’s career has been all about cognitive science (which he holds a doctorate in), and he says his interests are about where psychology meets computing, learning and memory, and artificial intelligence.

Waugh held academic roles in Australia and Canada, came back to NZ when his sons were young, choosing the quality of life over career, and it wasn’t long before Waugh set up a space in 2015 to nurture Zac and his other son Jasper.

The EEG which learners built to operate a video game. It’s a work in progress. Photo – Michael Botur

Tech prep means keeping kids questioning

Waugh says QRL is like an intersection of schools, coding labs, Maker Spaces and Fab Labs. Long evening sessions – up to five hours – enable kids to “stay longer and go deeper” on any project.

A sometime school teacher, Waugh doesn’t criticise typical school curricula, but says his style is “not like a school teacher”, with his outlook being about treating youngsters “as tertiary students, really.”

“We’re not a school environment. We’re looking at the interest of the member and trying to take that further, expand it, distort it, and push on their own areas of interest.”

Waugh wouldn’t be drawn on what’s wrong with the way the upcoming generation is being set up for lives in tech, except to comment that he believes that internationally there is too much churn of game developers treated like “assembly-line workers” and not enough security being taught, from software development to penetration testing.

With this in mind, the kids at QRL get a taste of picking real locks some nights.

“Lockpicking is a physical metaphor for the software world. You’re growing an awareness of how technically insecure the world is.”

It comes back to QRL offering a place at which anyone can learn Scratch, Python, Rust, C#, Javascript – though specific tech knowledge isn’t the point. The point is to build the confidence to attempt to solve any science and tech problem, with failure being as welcome as success.

Waugh says QRL is going to lose its current premises in 2022 and would love a new major sponsor, or several sponsors.

Please contact [email protected] to get the conversation going if you can help, or contact via https://questionable.org.nz/

A typical night at QRL – VR headsets, hoverboards, robots and circuits everywhere. Photo – Michael Botur

Kadin and Hayden: Tomorrow’s Elons and Dysons

Hayden Batchelder (left) with dad Keith. Photo – Michael Botur

Keith Batchelder describes QRL as a ‘safe hangout’ and says “Everything Waugh does here surprises me, in a good way.”

Keith is one of the parent-patrons who keep QRL ticking over. Keith’s 13-year-old son Hayden Batchelder attends weekly, and Keith says the Tuesday science sessions are particularly important. “It’s not mainstream school education. They are learning about funguses, disasters, whatever they ask for… They’re able to do things at a higher level than at school. They’re learning faster and learning it more because they’re learning it earlier which puts them one-step ahead for school.”

“I do bathroom renovations so I don’t understand [tech], but I know fundamentally what they’re trying to do. And I know computers are replacing a lot of processes in my industry.”

Hayden’s friend Kadin Baxter (also 13/Year 9) showed theBit some Python code he’d used to create a turtle race, having earlier used Scratch for coding.  Baxter explained he probably wants to move towards a career in psychology, as does Hayden – so that will be facilitated for the boys when they’re ready.

As for Kadin’s most questionable research? Hanging a tree from the ceiling – which involved learning about screws, power tools, teamwork – and, of course, gravity.

“Why would I hang up a tree?” Baxter laughs. “Because this is Questionable Research Labs and that was very questionable!”

Kadin Baxter with Python code and a Raspberry Pi. Photo – Michael Botur

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