The Future Is Now: Crystal Tang Of Hitch Interactive On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up The Tech Scene
The Need for Work-Life Balance:
Story: In my pursuit of success, I often worked incessantly, which led to burnout. A health scare forced me to reevaluate my lifestyle. I learned that maintaining a balance is not only essential for personal well-being, but also enhances productivity and creativity. This realization helped me achieve more by working smarter, not just harder.
As a part of our series about cutting-edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Crystal Tang.
Crystal is passionate about disruptive technologies and applications for education. Previously, she co-founded one of the first adaptive learning platforms called Tutami, and successfully sold the company after three years. She then established an NGO promoting education across the pan-Pacific region, bridging education demand at vocational schools and universities in China with training opportunities at top U.S. universities including Harvard and Princeton. She later established LUCI Global headquarters based in Silicon Valley, a C-round VR hardware startup with a $400M valuation, and she led the global marketing, branding, and R&D teams as executive VP. At the 2018 CES, Crystal led the LUCI team unveiling ALYX, a high-spec VR headset featuring dual Micro-OLED displays, aiming to revolutionize VR experiences by overcoming current hardware limitations. Prior to her entrepreneurial endeavors, Crystal had 10 years of Wall Street experience starting at PwC M&A Services and later she became CFO of another public company. Crystal holds a Master’s in Accountancy Science and is a member of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My previous startup life in the augmented reality (VR) market gave me a deep understanding of the importance of education for the healthy growth of many emerging technologies. The role of education does not automatically mean just traditional educational programs in schools, but those in cross-disciplinary fields as well that are underserved by our school programs.
Case in point: In the recent VR and metaverse markets, one of the crown-jewel innovations is a new methodology to design a 3D user interface and user experience (UI/UX). When my former startup LUCI was preparing its biggest demo for CES 2018, the team exerted considerable effort to recruit seasoned designers to create an immersive 3D UI experience. I started to realize that a new generation of designers were needed who would be intimately familiar with 3D graphics, near-eye optics, and spatial computing. We encountered job candidates who might be experts in one area, but very rarely any candidate who could lead our R&D simultaneously on the three fronts. Part of the problem, which could continue to hinder the adoption of AR/VR products if not solved eventually, has been that most top university graduate programs have emphasized the depth of technology innovation in one area, but students lack opportunities to create applications that explore the breadth of these technologies combined to offer new user experiences.
This experience inspired me to take a deeper look at revolutionary ways to train a new generation of students and innovators, from K — 12 to traditional college programs and the executive training market, to become familiar with emerging technologies and practice with them.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The most exciting story in my career has been our partnership with the University of California, Berkeley, in creating new AI racing programs. Although AI chatbot technologies broadly known as GPT products appear to be the talk of town in 2023, their impact beyond natural language processing is still largely unknown. For instance, GPT could make mistakes while in a conversation with humans, however, mistakes made while controlling vehicles or other real-world robots would be much less forgiving. Therefore, we put a premium on superior solutions that could control cyber-physical systems and push the envelope of machine autonomy to the edge in high-speed racing.
We were fortunate to have found such a program by partnering with Berkeley’s Robot Open Autonomous Racing (ROAR) program, which owns one of the nine racing teams in the Indy Autonomous Challenge and currently is the most decorated U.S. team in the past AI racing competitions. I believe AI racing is part of the future of motorsports where the competitiveness and safety of AI solutions can be fairly evaluated and, more importantly, can be cheered on with a growing fan base.
Can you tell us about the cutting-edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
To advance better education solutions to offer to students and innovators alike, I co-founded my own startup, Hitch Interactive. I believe the key to best serve our learners is not to simply employ cutting-edge technologies such as GPT, alone. At Hitch Interactive we not only teach cutting-edge technologies with curricula offered by leading experts from academia and industry, but more importantly we set learning standards that effectively evaluate the level of aptitude and skills of participating students.
For instance, we created Hitch Play, a section of Hitch Interactive, that can gamify advanced AR/VR functionalities offered by Apple iPhone to turn any radio-controlled (RC) toy vehicle into an autonomous driving platform. Hitch Learn currently offers standardized curriculum modules for learning Python Scientific Programming, Modern AI Technologies, AR/VR and Metaverse, and Blockchain and Smart Contract Technologies. Then we set the standards of learning evaluation via partnership with top-tier universities such as Berkeley ROAR Racing program, through Hitch Compete. Our most talented students can participate in competitions by teaming up with the best college students and other students around the world remotely. We believe this learning ecosystem makes the full learning experience interactive and verifiable. It also creates a tightly connected chain of progression from K — 12 computer science training to college and graduate learning and professional executive training.
How do you think this might change the world?
I am proud of the fact that we are seeing the Hitch Interactive learning platform changing the world one student at a time. While technologies such as GPT and autonomous driving are addressing the average needs of their respective markets, learning such technologies has to be a highly interactive and individualized process. Given the exponential-growth nature of modern innovations, we do not believe traditional education systems such as colleges and graduate programs are adaptive enough to meet the learning challenges. Actively employing such innovations to create new learning curricula and verifiable evaluation standards is the core value of Hitch Interactive.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks of this technology that people should think more deeply about?
What drama productions such as “Black Mirror,” “Equilibrium,” and “Ready Player One” tried to portray is the application of technologies such that their adoption in human society is aligned to a mean value. Any individual that deviates from that mean value, rather than benefiting from such technologies, is severely penalized. After all, the meaning of “dystopian society” implies technologies being used as tools to enforce totalitarian rules.
This concern now goes beyond a portrait imagined by Hollywood screenwriters. It is widely debated among AI scholars, especially amid the recent adoption of GPT products and the real-world drama that has unfolded at OpenAI. In fact, the theoretical foundation of modern AI using neural networks and deep learning is based on establishing statistical means and the law of large numbers. Statistics-based machine learning algorithms are not good at adapting to corner cases and outlier scenarios. Case in point: the back-bone of training neural networks using the technology known as “back propagation” is essentially finding the best model parameters that optimize a mean in the total sample space.
At Hitch Interactive, we are keenly aware of the risk of offering learning programs solely based on existing Internet or AI technologies. As a result, we strive to weave technologies into our interactive and individualized learning and competition curricula that includes Hitch Play, Hitch Learn, and Hitch Compete.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
My startup Hitch Interactive is about teaching exponential-growth technologies. AI, for example, has been actively developed for more than 60 years since the proclamation of the Turing Test; likewise, the first VR prototype was invented by Morton Heilig in 1960. What we can learn from the history of these most successful technologies is that market adoption rarely has a well-defined “tipping point.”
In other words, some may consider labeling the year of 2023 as the tipping point of GPT products, and yet the breakthrough of the technologies has been due to the discovery of foundation models including convolutional neural networks and transformers that could stretch back 10 years. Similarly, many could consider the year 2015 as a breakthrough of AR/VR technologies where multiple “products” were launched to the consumer market. Yet, most people today are still not certain whether the upcoming Apple VisionPro could be a “tipping point” for the AR/VR adoption.
Therefore, it is my view that due to the exponential growth nature of modern technologies, it is very challenging to identify “tipping points” in new markets or consumer adoption towards technologies.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
A meaningful question to consider is whether innovation can create opportunities to make the future education market an exponential-growth market. Innovation must focus on interactive and individualized learning experiences. Specifically, some have estimated that due to the advance of AI, more than half of traditional repetitive human jobs may soon be replaced by computers and machines. Hence, we strongly believe that, instead of debating slowing down the technological advances in the name of safety and equality, society should pay equal attention to accelerating new learning opportunities to educate a new generation of innovators who can lead rather than passively follow in future technology adoption. We have done that during the adoption of personal computers and the adoption of the Internet, and we can do it again in the era of AI.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
Innovation in the education market is notoriously challenging due to the roles of different players in the market, including students, parents, schools, local governments, and new content creators and service platforms such as Hitch Interactive. Therefore, we do not believe traditional marketing strategies that aim to establish product-market fit between one product and one customer category could ever serve us well.
Since the founding of my company, we have established a strategy to develop and market our products with the singular goal: Where Future Innovators Connect. We believe that strong connections between people, no matter if they are in a student-advisor relationship, a competitor relationship in contests, or a business relationship, will lead to a more individualized education ecosystem. Conversely, an innovative marketing strategy should bridge the strength of all players in the market to find more space to innovate.
As a direct result of this product and marketing strategy, earlier this year, Hitch Interactive launched Hitch Salon. Hitch Salon will be a leveled playing field for all our business partners to share their clientele and coordinate on marketing campaigns on traditional media, social networks, and even on Web3.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Absolutely, I firmly believe that success is rarely a solo journey. I am particularly grateful to my co-founder and CTO, Allen Yang. Allen’s contributions go far beyond technological breakthroughs; his approach to problem-solving and strategic thinking, particularly his application of ‘first principles thinking,’ has been invaluable. There’s a saying that resonates with me: “Tactical diligence cannot compensate for strategic laziness.” Allen’s vision and ability to see the bigger picture have been crucial in steering our company in the right direction. His foresight and strategic mindset have not only helped us avoid potential pitfalls, but also guided us towards numerous opportunities. I am deeply thankful for his partnership and the wisdom he brings to our team. Together, we’ve been able to put our company on a path of true innovation and success.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We couldn’t be more proud of our many successful students whose academic journeys have been elevated through the Hitch Learn and Hitch Compete curricula. In the past four years, we have onboarded students with a variety of unique backgrounds. We have had students as young as middle-school age, who had practiced music and art but found the joy of computer programming for the first time with us. We have students who have excelled in other robotics national competitions but, with us, found new challenges to control robots using AI algorithms. We have also sponsored students to observe and learn about the highest level of AI racing at CES with their families. These experiences have helped the students make informed decisions as they create their future career paths and become future innovators in their respective fields.
It is our hope that more partners can join with us to make the adoption of technologies more equitable and accessible, and through this adoption future generations will become more creative and successful
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- The Importance of Building the Right Team:
- Story: When I began my entrepreneurial journey, I was initially focused on recruiting team members with impressive backgrounds and exceptional skills. However, I didn’t place enough emphasis on whether they were truly entrepreneurial at heart. This oversight became apparent when a particularly accomplished team member, who wasn’t cut out for the fast-paced and uncertain nature of a startup, struggled to adapt and ultimately chose to leave. This departure not only caused immediate disruptions but also made me realize the importance of aligning with team members who are not just skilled but also share the entrepreneurial spirit and resilience required in a startup environment. This experience taught me a valuable lesson early on: the right fit goes beyond skills and into the very nature of how one approaches challenges and uncertainty. I often think back and wish I had understood this sooner.
2. Embracing Larger Dreams:
- Story: In the initial phase of our venture, one of our key realizations was the power of holding a grand vision and dream. While we faced challenges and even setbacks, we learned to see them not as failures but as opportunities to align more closely with our grand vision. This mindset shift transformed the way we approached obstacles, turning them into stepping stones towards our larger goal. We discovered that by focusing on a bigger dream, we were able to attract more positive energy and resources from the universe. This approach brought not only resilience but also a magnetic pull that attracted the right opportunities and people, propelling us towards success in a way that was aligned with our expansive vision. It taught us the invaluable lesson that the size of your dream can indeed shape your journey and the energy it attracts.
3. The Need for Work-Life Balance:
- Story: In my pursuit of success, I often worked incessantly, which led to burnout. A health scare forced me to reevaluate my lifestyle. I learned that maintaining a balance is not only essential for personal well-being, but also enhances productivity and creativity. This realization helped me achieve more by working smarter, not just harder.
4. Listening to Your Intuition:
- Example: There was a time when all data pointed towards making a certain business decision, but my gut feeling was against it. Against the advice of many, I followed my intuition, which proved to be the right call and led to a breakthrough for our company. This taught me that while data and advice are critical, sometimes your intuition can be your best guide.
5. The Power of Networking and Mentorship:
- Story: Early in my career, I hesitated to reach out to more experienced entrepreneurs for guidance, thinking it might be seen as a sign of weakness. Eventually, I overcame this hesitation and found a mentor. The insights and support from this mentorship were invaluable and accelerated my growth significantly. This experience underscored the importance of building a network and seeking mentorship.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Our society has debated many options to bring the benefits of technological advancement to the greatest number of people. As a mother of ethnically Asian children, I deeply care about the quality of education for them and for all children, now and in future generations.
I believe major stakeholders who have become key players in technologies should think about sponsoring and significantly expanding robust education programs to close the gap between a few exclusive members in the industry who enjoyed the golden opportunities to have invented fantastic technology and the rest of the population. Whether we are talking about the recent buzz around GPT, autonomous driving, or AR/VR/Metaverse, traditional school systems are significantly underfunded and ill-prepared to provide up-to-date training programs to catch up with the demand from the industry. In its worst scenario, the elite class of innovators will shrink to a small club of exclusive members who would control key technologies, the data, and the market. Quality education is the right counter-force to continue to promote societal mobility that brings the most amount of good to our society.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There is an old Chinese saying: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. In a society of exponential-growth technology, we need the society to focus more on teaching the population “how to fish.”
Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I would say Hitch Interactive builds bridges that advance the education of exponential-growth technologies to be more interactive, accessible, and equitable. Our success is the collection of all the successful stories we’ve helped create and our expansive partner network. We value constructive suggestions from any experienced VCs.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Hitch Interactive is most active on X/Twitter: https://twitter.com/HitchInteractiv
Also professionals can follow us on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/hitchinteractive/
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.