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The Way of Dr. Tae 

This disillusioned physics professor couldn't fix the education system—so he fixed a Tony Hawk video game instead.

Yung Tae Kim ollied, kick-flipped, and grinded on the plastic skateboard packaged with the Tony Hawk: Ride video game last fall and reached a conclusion shared by critics and gamers alike: it wasn't very good.

As the world's most prominent (and possibly only) skateboarding physicist, Kim had been excited by the prospect of Ride, which he'd done a little consulting for. The game's makers hoped that it would do for skating what Guitar Hero has done for rock music—provide a fun, if simplistic, simulation using a peripheral that reminded people just enough of the real thing.

But Kim stepped off the board disappointed.

"It just didn't feel like real skating to me. The way the board handled, it didn't feel quite right," he says. "My honest reaction was that there was a lot of criticism of Ride and the critics were mostly right."

But while most of those critics shrugged and moved on in the months that followed, Kim would soon leave his classroom at Northwestern and find his way to Robomodo, the Chicago company that created the game. His mission: fix the board.

With his slightly shaggy short hair, his black T-shirt half tucked into khaki pants, Kim—better known as "Dr. Tae"—looks too prim to be a skateboarder but a shade rough-and-ready to be a professor.

It's a dichotomy he's embraced since his teenage years. When he first picked up a board as a 14-year-old in Atlanta, he didn't fit in with the freaks or the geeks.

"In middle school, it was weird that here was this guy who was good at math hanging out with the skate kids," said Kim, now 35. "I was the nerdy straight-A student that never really fit into the skater image."

His skateboarding obsession also caused tension between him and his strict Korean immigrant parents, who Kim says believed skateboard ownership would put him on the fast track to becoming a drug addict. "My parents fell into the trap of, 'all skaters are no good, punk-ass hooligans who are not to be trusted and we don't want you to fall into that bad crowd,'" he says.

But Kim's father, an electronics technician, and his mother, a department-store clerk, were at least partially appeased by his academic success. Despite a professed hatred of school, he was good at it, making high grades, especially in math and science.

He says there wasn't much choice: "There was a lot of pressure from my family not really to have a career path in mind, just to get good grades. Getting something less than an A wasn't a disappointment, it was an outright failure. I didn't consider that a very nurturing environment."

With no other path in mind, he let academic achievement, and an inspiring physics course he took in college, lead him to a career in academia, where he says he never exactly fit in either.

After earning his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he got a job as a visiting physics professor at Lake Forest College for two semesters in 2005-'06. After that he moved to DePaul for two years, and then to Northwestern for the 2008-'09 school year. But his time behind the lectern only confirmed what he'd felt since childhood—which, in his words, was that "school sucks," especially when it comes to teaching math and science.

Kim thinks professors and teachers should take a page from skateboarding. Learning how to skate isn't an easy process, and it's often not a lot of fun, he says. Behind every successful trick is a period of near-constant failure.

"If I wanted to learn, say, a front-side flip in skateboarding, I'd have to go to a parking lot and the only certainty would be that I'd have to keep going out there and work on it until I figured it out," says Kim. "I'd change my technique, shuffle my feet or change my balance, until I got it. Once I got it once, I'd practice it over and over until I'd get it consistently."

For Kim, this model stands in stark contrast to the academic model of learning, where the rigid pace is set by teachers and administrators.

"Real-life research is more like skateboarding than something manufactured in a school curriculum. The school is the thing that's artificial and pathological," he says. "The persistence and the dedication needed in skateboarding—that's what we need to be teaching. No one says to a toddler, 'You have ten weeks to walk, and if you can't, you get an F and you're not allowed to try to walk anymore.' It's absurd, right? But the same thing is true with math and science education. If you want to learn trig or calculus, it's set at such a pace in schools that it guarantees that only the absolutely best students will learn it."

Kim tried to make his classroom a respite from that system by setting up smaller classes as "problem solving workshops," where students worked together in groups to solve physics problems. He says he acted less as an instructor and more as a troubleshooter, helping students if and when they got stuck.

"He taught me two quarters of classical mechanics, which could, if you teach it wrong, be the most boring subject in the world," remarks Northwestern class of '11 student Ian Lizarraga by e-mail. "But he spiced it up: he turned three one-hour sessions of lecture into two two-hour problem solving sessions, where we worked with each other (which never happens in a higher-level class) to tackle difficult problems. He also skateboarded down the hall juggling balls, giving us a sense of moving frames of reference—but more accurately giving us an idea of how far removed he was from the silverbacks in the physics department."

click to enlarge The skateboard controller for Tony Hawk: Shred
  • The skateboard controller for Tony Hawk: Shred

"Tae was a resource for us and we would ask for his help about concepts we didn't understand or applying tools we had but didn't know how to us. But for the most part, he just let us do our thing," says another class of '11 student, Michael Medford. "He's absolutely right that science education is broken and pushes people away who otherwise could be great for the field. The problem was that he was still mandated to fit the class into a ten-week schedule and to give out grades. It's really hard to change a system that you are forced into operating within.

"He's also just a really cool guy. He's looking to be your friend and your peer instead of a dictator throwing knowledge down from on high. I really enjoyed his classes and looked forward to going to them."

"There's a big advantage to doing things that way," says Kim. "I got to see how my students were thinking in real time, and I could give them immediate feedback based on what they already understood and what they were struggling with. It's a much more targeted and cooperative approach to teaching and learning. Some people call it 'active learning,' but it's nothing new. It's just that most people don't use it."

"I don't know that I always agreed with him on all of his philosophies of teaching," says Andrew Morrison, now a visiting professor of physics at DePaul who shared an office with Kim at Northwestern, "but he was a rare example of someone who was willing to engage in a discussion of what was wrong with how science is taught and what could be done to improve science education."

Ultimately, though, Kim decided that he didn't care to fight the system, at least not from within. "I made a decision, and it was like, I knew what teaching and learning was, and I knew I couldn't do it at a university, and that blew my mind," he says. "But once I understood that, I had to stop."

Maybe it was the skateboarder in him, but he couldn't resist leaving Northwestern with a little bit of a piss take. His final lecture, at the end of spring semester 2009, was called "Building a New Culture of Teaching and Learning" and was basically a summary of his skateboarding-as-education model. Some of the students in attendance insisted that he should post the lecture online. Last July he recorded a refined version of it, which can be seen at his website DrTae.org.

Kim didn't really know what he was going to do next. "I sort thought I'd wander the earth like Caine from Kung Fu for awhile," he says. A friend convinced him to take a summer gig teaching science at a space camp in South Korea; after that he visited friends (and skate parks) in New York, Portland, Austin, and Denver.

Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Robomodo president Josh Tsui was trying to figure out how to recover from Ride.

Tsui had stumbled upon Kim in the process of making Ride in 2008. He was looking for an accurate description of an ollie so that his team of programmers could translate the trick.

"I had skateboarded as a youth, but it'd been a long time since then, so it was hard try to figure out simple tricks," said Tsui. "We'd pick up skateboarding tutorial DVDs that were just horrible. No one could actually explain how to do these things."

He typed physics and skateboarding into Google and found DrTae.org, where Kim bills himself as "your favorite skateboarding physics professor," and his still nascent PhysicsofSkateboarding.com, where he's posted a few previews of longer videos he intends to make, drawing parallels between skateboarding and science and breaking down tricks in terms of "rotational kinetics."

"I started posting skate videos because my students really didn't believe that I could actually ride a skateboard, so I needed to give them some evidence," Kim says.

Tsui and Robomodo head designer Patrick Dwyer watched a few of the videos.

"He was a teacher and a good communicator, and not only that, he was actually a really good skater," says Tsui. "He wasn't just a hippie on a longboard. He's just really damned good."

He sent a message to Kim through his YouTube account, the entire text of which was: "hi would you be interested in consulting work for a video game?"

The idea intrigued Kim, but he quickly dismissed the note. "My instinct was, oh, it's all written in lowercase, and it was anonymous," he says. "I was about to delete it."

The next day, he found a similar message in his Vimeo account, this one signed "Josh Tsui." After googling Tsui, he wrote back.

Tsui brought Kim on in a small consulting role that amounted to a couple of meetings over a course of a year. For one of them, in August 2008, the Robomodo team took a field trip to Wilson Skate Park, where they videotaped Kim breaking down the steps for specific tricks.

"He'd just be like, 'You just pop up the board here,' and just be able to communicate the right steps," said Tsui. "Having someone who knows that much about skateboarding and can communicate well—for us, it was gold."

But in the end, Tony Hawk: Ride, released in November 2009, was less than gold.

The new skateboard controller and stripped down, arcade-like game built around it was a drastic change for the Tony Hawk franchise, first introduced to gamers on PlayStation in 1999. The previous games were played by learning a series of complex button presses and control-stick movements. For Ride, the player stands on the board peripheral, shifting his weight to move and using hand gestures to simulate tricks.

It sounded good in theory but played out poorly in practice, says Russ Pitts, editor in chief of online video game magazine The Escapist.

"I don't think there's any criteria that exists that says Ride could be considered a success," he says. "It was not a huge seller and not critically successful."

At $120, Ride also cost twice as much as most retail console games. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions together sold fewer than 900,000 copies, according to VGChartz.com; by contrast, Modern Warfare 2, released the same month, sold almost 20 million. And according to review aggregator Metacritic, the PlayStation 3 version of Ride was one of the top ten worst-rated games in 2009.

Reviewer after reviewer had the same complaint: "The peripheral just wasn't very responsive," says Pitts. "It felt more frustrating than anything. It just didn't work like it was supposed to."

Hawk still defends the game, saying that while he understands the criticisms of Ride he thinks critics "already had their mind up to hate the game" before it was released.

Despite the so-so sales and bad press, Tony Hawk publisher Activision gave Robomodo the go-ahead on a sequel, Tony Hawk: Shred.

Early into its development at the beginning of this year, Tsui approached Kim with the idea of coming on as a camera engineer, to help set up angles and design special effects. He had to do some work to persuade both Kim and the staff at Robomodo that it was a good idea.

For his part, Kim last owned a video-game system in the 1980s. "It's funny because I don't own a TV, much less an Xbox," he says.

And at Robomodo, "it was like, 'Oh hey, this cat has no game-design experience, what are you going to do with him?' says Tsui. "So I was like, 'Let's just start you on cameras and see what happens.' I mean, if he sucks, we can fire him, right? It's like, why not?"

Kim started at Robomodo in March, but he didn't stay in the camera department for long. He still had his eye on that janky skateboard peripheral.

"I went to Josh and was like, 'Hey, let me take a crack at the controls,'" he says.

With Tsui's blessing, he began hanging out with Robomodo controls engineer Richard "Pip" Potter in his downtime, on lunch breaks and after hours. "Pip was like my computer science professor for a couple of weeks, bringing me up to speed on how the system worked," says Kim. "It was like, 'Here's the board, it's got two accelerometers in it and it's basically spitting out like six strings of information.' We tried to work out what we could you do with this thing. What's possible with what we've got here?"

Kim's goal was to coax the board into 1:1 rotation—a more realistic synchronization between the peripheral and the software. If a player stood on Shred's board and used his body to spin it a full 360 degrees, for instance, 1:1 rotation would mean his onscreen avatar could imitate the move almost simultaneously. But he says other Robomodo engineers didn't think 1:1 rotation could be implemented with the existing board peripheral, and designing a new one wasn't an option because Activision didn't want to leave gamers who'd spent $120 on Ride with an obsolete controller.

Kim's cross-departmental efforts caused some friction. He says Potter called his ideas for fixes "disruptive technology," because Robomodo's engineering and programming team would be required to go back and alter the rest of the game to reflect the changes in controls—a new mountain of work on a game that was nearly finished. (Potter hadn't returned calls for this story at press time.)

"It's not like there were fistfights," says Kim, "but there were words exchanged. If you're a designer and you build things a certain way, you don't like someone coming in late in the development stage and changing things around."

Undaunted, he attacked the problem like he would a new skateboard trick. "I had this high-level design concept I wanted to accomplish, you know, I want this to really feel like skateboarding, but I also was grinding away at the code like the engineers do to make it happen," said Kim. "It was sort of a ego thing, because it was like if I didn't work on it, I didn't know if anyone else would do it."

He says he was able to design a working prototype in a couple days. But to get a finished product that acted with complete consistency took a lot more work. Kim went downtown to the Robomodo office on weekends and tweaked and adjusted and tested until he got it right.

"What I did was invent a software solution to get around the hardware problems, and that's what we needed to get controls back on track," says Kim.

Even after demonstrating the improvement, Kim had to convince some of his colleagues it was worth keeping. "I give Josh credit for going to bat for me," said Kim.

Tsui says he changed their minds by demonstrating the improved performance of the board for Activision execs.

"It helps when you have the higher-ups saying 'Holy shit,'" says Tsui. The execs' "jaws dropped. They didn't think it was possible."

"When you skate, you fail a lot, but you keep learning more and more until you get it right," says head designer Dwyer. "With physics, it's same thing. You try to solve a problem so many different ways until you find a solution. He really brought that to the design of the controls. When we were working together, he wasn't like, 'OK, we got something working 95 percent consistent, let's stop.' It was constant: 'Let's keep attacking this problem until it's perfect and we know for sure.'"

"Tae's a really smart guy and he's a perfect fit for us," Tony Hawk himself told me in September. "The fact that there's 1:1 board rotation in the game, that's all him and that's huge."

In early summer Kim was moved to controls engineering full-time. Shred wrapped up in mid-September, and Kim and Robomodo expected it to outperform and outsell Ride. They're looking forward to working on a third Tony Hawk project.

But Activision doesn't seem to be sending many review copies of the game to the press, which in video-game land is like a movie studio opting not to screen a film for critics before opening weekend. No sales figures had been released as of the first week of November.

"It's a really tough market now," says Pitts. "I think it's like a 50/50 chance for them to be successful."

On October 12, less than two weeks before Shred's release date, Activision halted production of a third Tony Hawk game at Robomodo. Shortly thereafter the company laid off about half of its 90 employees—including Kim. Contacted for comment, Activision's PR department sent me to Robomodo, who sent me back to Activision's PR department. But Tsui released a statement:

"It is always difficult to let hard-working and valued employees go. Robomodo has retained all of the company's directors and leads, along with other staff members. All are busy working on future projects and ideas, which will become the innovative games of tomorrow. We hope to bring back some of our team as we ramp up on our next projects."

Kim was on the first day of a vacation. Upon landing in Denver, he got a text from Tsui asking him to call the office. And then another text when he still hadn't called.

Kim googled Robomodo first and found an article announcing the layoffs.

"I'm like, 'Oh, OK, that's what that was about," said Kim. "I wasn't really surprised about it. I think it's sort of par for the course for the industry, but it's pretty terrible."

Kim isn't sure exactly what his next job will be, but his short career at Robomodo has led him to consider, among other things, in industrial design.

"I didn't plan this, but I think it's more interesting this way," said Kim. "In my professor days, I'd see kids going to college thinking they already had their lives and careers all lined up already. In my experience, it doesn't work out that way."   

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