Ian Taylor (image: Duncan Greive)
Ian Taylor (image: Duncan Greive)

ĀteaMarch 10, 2019

What Cook missed when he landed

Ian Taylor (image: Duncan Greive)
Ian Taylor (image: Duncan Greive)

The current New Zealand innovator of the year, Ian Taylor, is on a mission to sear the real story of New Zealand’s discovery into the minds of a generation of New Zealanders. 

In 1990 a team from the University of Otago’s small computer science department entered the world’s foremost test of computational skill: the ACM collegiate programming contest.

Few will have rated their chances. The powerhouses of the field were all in the US, many in the same Southern California regional bracket which Otago had been arbitrarily placed in, because they’d never had an entry from the southern hemisphere before Otago first turned up the year before. No one from outside America had ever won the tournament, which even then was 20 years old and intensely competitive. Yet the southerners not only took out their regional competition, but they won the whole thing, beating out the likes of Stanford, Harvard and Caltech.

It was an astonishing result, and they were duly feted in the US, where the achievement was such that the kids from Dunedin were invited to the White House. Back here they were greeted by adoring crowds at the airport and driven through town in a limo. In the media though, it barely rated a mention. One News turned it down, and it was buried well into the Otago Daily Times. Yet the team was already on its way to further world-beating successes, thanks to Ian Taylor, a TV presenter from the Hawke’s Bay, now living in Dunedin.

The 1990 contest-winning team. Image: supplied

He’d been introduced to the team a few year’s earlier by Otago’s Dr Geoff Wyvil. “I went down and he showed me what they were doing,” recalls Taylor. “I thought, ‘Jesus, this is a lot.’” It was an encounter which would take the group from the theoretical of their academia to a series of major commercial breakthroughs.

Thirty years later it would land Taylor on a stage in the cavernous ballroom of the Cordis hotel in Auckland, where he accepted the title of New Zealand Innovator of the Year. The award came for a stupendous career involving major breakthroughs in animation, sports presentation, air traffic control and more. He got on stage, tiny and beaming in a black and white print blazer, and claimed to have got there because he surrounded himself “with clever white people.”

Taylor is Māori, and the room scanned as largely wealthy and Pākehā, so a self-effacing joke like that went down a little too well. Yet it was not a cute throwaway line, but the beginning of a challenge. He went on to point out that 2019 marks 250 years since James Cook landed here, an anniversary which will hold a very different meaning to Pākehā than it does to Māori.

He laid down a gauntlet, seeking to claim the award for Polynesian innovation, and to suggest that this should be the year all New Zealand starts properly conceiving of Māori and of their voyage here. That they were not the primitive society Cook saw, but explorers, astronomers, scientists and innovators.

I met up with him a few days later and asked him to expand on those themes, and explain the major project he’s plotting to rectify them. He arrived slightly late, having left a bag in an uber. It wasn’t just any bag – this one contained an Oculus Rift VR device and some very valuable Huawei technology. He paces the pavement outside while tracking it down, somehow ensuring its safe return before launching into the thesis which has become an obsession.

“The way I see it is, Cook came in here. And because there were no books, there were no writings, there was no nothing – [he thought] we must be savages,” Taylor says. “Actually, most people on his boat wouldn’t have been able to read but we ignore that.

“He comes in here, and what he didn’t understand was that Māori did everything using the arts. They were orators. Their stories were passed down by word of mouth, by music. I’ve just been to Te Matatini. If you look at Te Matatini in that context, those are our books. That’s how our stories have always been shared.”

His next mission is to ensure the Māori and Pasifika origin stories be judged by the same rules as those of the European explorers. Yet this is not the way most of Pākehā New Zealand understands its indigenous people.

“When I was being brought up in school, I was taught Captain Cook discovered New Zealand. The only debate about was the Dutchman; did he really discover it? Kupe wasn’t in the mix. And really still isn’t.”

Now, 250 years after Cook, Taylor has an audacious plan to change all that.

Animation still from NZ Wars: The Stories of Ruapekapeka (image: screengrab)

His own self-image contains the questing elements of both Māori and Pākehā history. “Mum was Māori,” he told E-Tangata in 2017. “Mangu Rose Kaimoana. She’s Kahungunu. Dad was Pākehā. Bernie John Taylor. So he was from that Viking ship up north, and Mum was from the Polynesian one down south.”

The dual identities would chase him throughout his childhood and adolescence. “I was brought up in Raupunga in this place with no electricity, but I was the Pākehā kid up there,” he says. “There I was the Pākehā, the white honky, the son of my father who was the teacher. That’s how I was brought up.

“At age 11, in 1961, I was sent off to Catholic boarding school. I didn’t even know I was a Catholic. I go down to boarding school, suddenly I’m this Māori from the backblocks. It’s confusing when you’re 11.”

After school, Taylor journeyed south to Wellington at the height of sixties tumult. He enrolled at Victoria and joined its Māori club where he witnessed the beginnings of the activism which would sweep through te ao Māori in the seventies and eighties. “The fight those people fought was really important,” he says. “Without them we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Yet for Taylor back then it was too much, too soon. “Holy shit. I’ve just come from this place where I was this white, honky Māori, and now I’m in this place where my father’s the enemy,” he recalls thinking at the time, and it was only years later he would understand the purpose of what was brewing there. When a friend’s band lost their singer to Fourmyula (of future ‘Nature’ fame), he was asked to join in his place. It was a way out of both university and the politics of his identity, and he leapt at it. So, at 17, he found himself the singer of one of the most appallingly-named bands in New Zealand music history: Kal-Q-Lated Risk.

They were much better than their name, achieving top 20 singles, signing to Decca in London, and touring with the Beach Boys in 1968 (“Honestly, this wall of beautiful harmonies, I get goose bumps even now.”). Yet Taylor considered himself a merely average singer, and ultimately quit to become a lawyer. He moved to Dunedin to study at Otago, and graduated in the mid-70s, before the entertainment industry derailed his intentions again. A friend knew he’d been a frontman, and asked him to audition for a new kid’s TV show he was starting. So it came to be that Taylor graduated from law school to Play School.

He remained in the industry for over a decade, presenting various shows including New Zealand’s Funniest Home Videos, before tiring of it in the late eighties. It was then that he founded the company which would define his second act, Animation Research, and later its sister Virtual Eye.

Animation Research employed two of the four members of that 1990 programming contest-winning team, and honed in on the realistic 3D rendering pioneered by Wyvill at the University of Otago. Animation Research refined it, and imagined the commercial basis for it. Yet it was months before they got a client of any substance for what was then a technology no one knew existed.

They finally caught a break with just weeks of funding left, says Taylor, when a US advertising client arrived. In 1994 they created the iconic Bluebird potato chips skiing penguin, an ad which featured the kind of advanced 3D graphics which Pixar would shortly use to upend animated film. In fact, both the Bluebird advertisement and early Toy Story footage screened at the same animation festival in the mid-90s.

In parallel they were developing software for sports. The America’s Cup was awash with ultra-competitive billionaires then as now, yet TV coverage inevitably featured two boats way offshore, with the lead and momentum near impossible to discern. It was incredibly boring to watch.

Starting in 1992, Taylor fixed it by tracking the boats, and rendering the distance between them in such a way as to show which was leading, and by how much. Later he’d do the same for cricket and golf, two sports which had elements of their nuance lost in the speed and arc of a ball. Now he’s trying to do the same for baseball.

There was plenty more besides, all, astonishingly, accomplished by a relatively tiny team (“I try to keep it at 30 people. I never go above that because that keeps it as a family.”) all from Dunedin. The audacity of what he has accomplished is all the more impressive due to his being unable to write a line of code.

“He was a powerhouse of ideas,” says Wyvill, the Otago professor who became a business partner. “He had no idea what we could or couldn’t do with our computers but kept finding clients who wanted some or other animation. He would promise something we didn’t know how to do and somehow, we always managed to find a way.”

Great Southern’s Phil Smith, who worked with Taylor on RNZ’s NZ Wars: The Stories of Ruapekapeka series, describes Taylor as a regionalist. “He’s had the brain to merge mathematics, data, graphics and visuals for the America’s Cup, the British Open and the Tour de France. The most elite events in the world – and it was all his tech, from Dunedin.”

What Taylor brings is a vision for a great consumer product, and the ability to convince engineers, commissioners and programmers to break conventional wisdom in the pursuit of something brand new. Even more remarkably, his business has done almost all its work outside of the state-funded network which is the core of New Zealand’s television industry.

A leader, an innovator, a visionary. Roles which since Cook arrived have largely been reserved for Pākehā men. All Black coaches, captains and first fives have largely been of a particular skin tone. New Zealand’s prime ministers and CEOs too. It seems instructive that Taylor had to build his own company, his own products, his own markets. This was likely the only way in that era a Māori man would be able to operate with such freedom.

Now, as he gazes back across his career and out at today’s New Zealand, he sees a new mission rising. It comes from a number of recent events and realisations. There’s work Animation Research has been doing with prisoners at Otago corrections facility, mostly funded by him and facilitated by the methodist mission, which is designing software to improve literacy and numeracy, and teach new skills. There’s the realisation that nearly half the finalists in the various New Zealander of the year category are Māori. There’s his excitement on discovering that Māori enterprises make up the fastest growing segment of crown R&D funder Callaghan Innovation’s work, 115 of them and counting.

He sees a reassertion of the creativity, the scientific knowledge, the Mātauranga Māori which Cook missed when he landed, and generations of Pākehā have continued to look past or actively suppress since. And he wants to tell a story which will reaffirm those qualities for all New Zealanders.

In conversation, you feel the oral storytelling tradition. He builds a picture of his plans out of fragments and diversions, with its scope only properly understood in time. To try and shrink it to a sentence: Taylor plans an epic, months-long interactive retelling of the journey to Aotearoa, as the centrepiece of a counternarrative to the anniversary of Cook’s landing.

Volvo Ocean Race coverage by virtual eye – Taylor plans to recreate the discovery of Aotearoa in a similar style (image: screengrab)

“If I think of multiple screens and TV, this is all of those platforms coming together,” he says. “We’re not making one program. We are here for 24 hours a day, for three and a half months. Then, before they come, we will try and really explain in a really visual way, the fact that this was true.

“If we create this digital platform with proper partners so that everyone can watch this journey like you do with the Volvo Ocean Race, but in here, as they travel from there to there, by the time those things arrive here in New Zealand, you will have gone, ‘Holy shit, they did know what they were doing. They weren’t blown here accidentally. There is another way to look at the universe’.”

It’s not written down. There’s no master document. Like so much else he’s willed into being in his life, for now it’s in his mind and in speeches. He’s not seeking government funding – he wants Māori to own the telling of their own origin story. “If we were taking someone else’s funding, we’d be having to put reports in. There’d be bloody accountants over it. That’s not the Māori way. The way we work is, first of all, we trust each other.”

The concept is like a fusion of America’s Cup coverage with RNZ’s award-winning Stories of Ruapekapeka interactive of 2017, just on a much grander scale. He sees the journey as being something we could follow in real time, then would become an educational resource tamariki could learn from every year. That would still be relevant in 50 years time.

It’s a monumental project, and even once executed getting it into popular usage will be another challenge again, even for someone of as much mana as Taylor. And yet given all he’s accomplished, with his will and his band of southern programmers, surely no one in New Zealand underestimates him anymore.

“Nothing’s ever planned,” he says. “Then off we go.”

Keep going!