Every month, Take 5 sees a PRD resident answer five questions on whatever our editors feel like asking.
In case you hadn’t heard, Naomi Wu is kind of internet-famous. Forbes and Newsweek have profiled this eye-catching Shenzhen hacker, who uses 3D printers, LED tiles and more to construct flickering bikini tops and sky-high platform heels with secret compartments. We chatted with Ms. Wu about gadgets, women in tech and her newfound fame.
Many of your projects, like the ‘blinkini,’ have been closely intertwined with fashion. Why the focus on wearables?
I describe myself as a ‘Maker’… The idea behind the Maker movement is aside from being a fun hobby you are cultivating an attribute – creativity and problem-solving skills...
There are spaces in Shenzhen that give tours and presentations about Making, but that's not really going out and reaching the community. It's not showing them that regular, locally educated Chinese can be creative too – that we have this ability the same as any foreigner if we cultivate it. So the target of almost all my builds is the final presentation: how I show it off…
Street performance has a strong history here in China. I can go to any public place in Shenzhen – Huaqiangbei, Seaworld, etc. – wearing my Blinkini, Infinity Skirt or Wearable 3D Printer and instantly get a polite circle of people with a nice three meters of space waiting for the ‘show’ to begin. I think public performance makes for better builds because it needs to work reliably for hours, and it makes for better advocacy because average people on the street, they really enjoy this kind of thing so much more because it's outside their usual experience.
The 'infinity skirt'
All those people take pictures and videos, take selfies with me, ask me questions, go on WeChat and tell all their friends. They are always very proud that it's a regular local Chinese doing it and that means a lot to me.
You put a lot of emphasis on publishing videos and blueprints so that others can follow in your footsteps.
As a Maker, open source is a powerful tool for quickly improving your skills. How many people download and make their own version of my designs gives me amazing feedback [on] how good it is and how I could have done it better. If 5,000 people download and use your design, you are doing something right – maybe it's even good enough to be a product.
The other thing is the modifications they make, [teaching] you to be a better designer. I made a 3D printed choker out of a soft plastic. I designed it in a program called OpenSCAD where you write the shapes as code. Since the code was open source, someone improved it within days and I was able to see how code could be added to automatically include text written on the choker. This kind of thing happens all the time.
Your appearance is a big part of your online persona. Did a lot of conscious effort go into shaping the public image of Sexy Cyborg?
Oh no, I dressed and looked like this long before I started posting technical projects online. In China we have boyish girls and much more girly-girls, it's just different ends of a spectrum of gender expression. I'm way at one end.
In nearly every country an eccentric appearance is normal for creative professionals. Clothing is one of the easiest things to start experimenting with so I guess a lot of us start there. My appearance helps in some ways, hurts in others. People are more used to women dressing a bit more boyish in tech – sort of protective camouflage to blend in. I don't want to blend in, I want to represent.
There can be a crowd of 1,000 tech guys at an event and no one will miss me or mistake me for one of the guys. Of course, as a woman looking the way I do people will try and test my knowledge, which is fine. I'm used to it. I have basic skills but I know what I know and am confident.
I also have a lot of online support from the Women in Tech community online because I've been able to use my visibility to boost more qualified women and get our message out, but from the point of view of earning a living any extra traffic you get from people who like a bit of skin is offset by the much larger loss of any sort of corporate sponsorship, government grants, etc.
You can be the best-known Maker in China with the largest portfolio of open source builds, they still won't want you on stage if you don't fit their image of what that person should look like – a quiet, geeky person from a good engineering school. Still, my appearance is important to me as a form of personal expression so I have no plans to adjust it.
When did you first realize you were getting internet-famous?
Haha, I still don't know that I am. It's fun to be recognized, though. I'm just a local girl – one of 12 million, so someone stopping to say "Hey you're Naomi Wu!" is still quite flattering. I earned a living coding in the past, now I'm able to do it vlogging – well I hope I can. Even though I have one of the largest English-language YouTube channels in China, finding sponsors is tough. Most Chinese companies think foreigners only want to see other foreigners review products.
What's the biggest positive trend you see in the Shenzhen tech scene right now? The biggest thing holding the local scene back?
Hardware development is very accessible, you can get off the plane with a good working idea and there are dozens of design houses and contract manufacturers that can walk you through the entire process. It easier than ever to get high-quality hardware made here, at almost any scale.
I produced the first Open Source Hardware Association-certified board in China in less than three months, it's a good product and sells well. Its success and the relationship established with the manufacturer could easily be used to launch other products. Anyone can do this.
Holding the scene back? Hustle and hype. The ecosystem of people actually doing things has almost no overlap with the ecosystem of people playing make-believe, tours of fake ‘Makerspaces’ and ‘Innovation Centers,’ long-winded speeches and PowerPoints at endless networking events for social media photo-ops – that all amounts to nothing.
Shenzhen's specialty is bringing ideas to life as commercially viable, physical objects; if you are not building, you are failing. It's fine to just socialize without claiming it's business – and most Chinese are just there for the English practice anyway. But a fair number of people waste a lot of time in the Shenzhen startup networking scene before they realize it's not where things are actually getting done.
One of the reasons my motto became "Less Yammering, More Hammering" is frustration with the general time-wasting and lack of willingness to do actual work by self-proclaimed ‘idea people.’ Anyone can make a prototype good enough for a small run on Kickstarter – even on an English teacher’s salary. Be prolific: design, build, test, crowdfund, manufacture. That is the power of Shenzhen, use it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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