Raphael Mun: translating dreams to Xbox

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‘Softie in question: Raphael Mun

Job title: Software Development Engineer for Xbox Platform

First off, congratulations on the launch of Kinect. Was working in gaming a life-long dream for you?

As a little kid in Korea, I was originally into reading. But everything changed when my dad came back from a work trip to Japan with an Atari system and a vector graphics cowboy game. Next thing I knew, I was playing games until my nose was bleeding-

Nose was bleeding?

You know what I mean: a lot. I was hooked. Then came Super Mario World. After that, I didn’t read so much any more.

Tell me about the jump from playing games to creating games.

My family moved to Virginia and I did the Center for Talented Youth summer program at Johns Hopkins before I started in the 6th grade. It was there that I learned Java and made my first tic-tac-toe game.

KinectThen an idea came to me… I thought, “If I can learn C or C++, I can make a better game with a more complete world.” I bought a book and taught myself C. Next I taught myself DirectX 6 and 7. I really got into the idea of learning more and more languages. I wasn’t necessarily driven by ambition for a career in gaming, but rather a desire to create better virtual worlds. I wanted to make something different and new.

So, then did you go on to study computer science in college?

I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, majoring in Computer Science, but I also majored in International Relations.

Wow, that’s a full plate.

And I minored in both History and Japanese. When else was I going to be able to dive in and learn in-depth history with an instructor?

Do you think that your diverse education helps you to approach work differently?

I’d like to think that it helps me to approach work problems from more angles. Engineering, mathematics and CS teach you how to approach problems systematically and logically. A social science background helps me to trust my intuition. Also, a broader education helps with certain aspects of game development, like thinking up a storyline.

Did you know that you wanted to work at Microsoft after graduation?

I entertained offers from EA and a couple other companies, but I had interned at Microsoft – twice – and had a sense that this was the place for me. I wanted to make an impact on the world and knew that I could do that here.

You see, Microsoft’s like a lot of different companies under the same roof, but there aren’t really walls between the companies. If I want to learn about, say, SQL Servers, I can email people in servers and get an answer right from the source. You can’t do that at any other company.

What did you work on prior to Kinect?

I was at Xbox LIVE, but then I was “loaned out” to the Kinect team back when it was still called Project Natal.

Was there a lot of enthusiasm from the beginning?

Oh, yeah. You could feel the enthusiasm. Everybody was feeding off of everybody else’s energy.

Once you jump in and play Kinect with no controller, it’s hard to go back. It’s immensely different. There was a real sense among the team that we were creating a game changing technology – no pun intended.

What, specifically, did you work on for Kinect?

All sorts of things, but I did focus quite a bit on the cursor and the dashboard. The dashboard’s the starting point to navigate into playing a game, watching a movie, communicating through Kinect etcetera. Kinect maps a person’s arm motions onto the screen as a cursor in order to be able to select.

What was one of the big challenges that you had to overcome to create this new technology?

Since Kinect does so many different things, the dashboard needs to recognize the arm motions of a young kid playing an educational game, but also his parents selecting a movie or the teenage sister playing a dancing game. We had to make sure that it recognized a lot of different body types and sizes.

Do you still play a lot of games in your spare time?

I play casual games now, because I rarely have the free time to invest in longer games as I did in the past. I also like to switch it up with my other interests like tennis and singing. But I am really looking forward to a lot of the Kinect games.

Links:

Raphael’s blog – www.raphaelmun.com

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