GDC Lecture: Futurist/visionary John Underkoffler

GDC "visionary" highlights the practical intersections of science and film; says film and games should inspire more than the imagination.


SAN FRANCISCO--Before the scheduled speaker began his presentation, GDC Advisory Board member David Perry of Shiny addressed the crowd, to both introduce the presenter and explain the "Future of Vision" track added to GDC only this year.

"We wanted to welcome futurists, big thinkers, researchers, and technologists to come and present ideas that might inspire and add to the overall experience here that GDC offers," Perry said

Inspiration was certainly a theme of the following presentation, provocatively titled "Fluid Loop: The Splendid Tangle of Science Design in Cinema, Games, and Life," addressing the capability of fictional films to engender real-world scientific research.

John Underkoffler, science and technology advisor for Treadle and Loam Provisioners, took to the stage like a motivational speaker--pacing enthusiastically and speaking energetically in front of an enormous dual projection of his presentation.

He began with the basics: Why should scientists be concerned about entertainment? Well, obviously people like to see their material on a big screen and presented well. Secondly, he explained, laypeople need to know some science, and entertainment is a fantastic venue to deliver scientific principles to a mass audience. He said that this was particularly important in light of what he considered to be attacks on science by the incumbent administration in the United States, as well as media portrayals of science as cold or stuffy.

And what do we have to reach these audiences? "We have movies, television, and games: the most potent communications media ever invented."

Conversely, he affirmed that those in the entertainment industry have to be concerned about science. Movies, as a 100-year-old medium, are "getting a little long in the tooth and are looking for new stories to tell." And science, technology, and engineering have a wealth of stories.

The lens through which Underkoffler focused his presentation was primarily his role as science and technology advisor for Steven Spielberg's dystopian science fiction film The Minority Report (2002). He discussed the various devices in the film that were the result of tremendous research on existing technologies and how they spurred further research.

For example, he discussed the pervasive visual surfaces that abound in the film and showed various clips of research done at the M.I.T. Media Lab on the topic, demonstrating the enormous potential of replacing a light bulb with a sophisticated projector/camera combination. Such combinatory innovation in technology, he suggested, attempt to "close the loop on reality."

Regarding pervasive displays, Underkoffler said cryptically, "That genie is out of its Motel Six room, and there's no putting it back."

He also compared The Minority Report's interpretation of holography and its real-world fledgling counterpart.

But most interesting was the research and resulting innovation that occurred from the "gestural" interfaces in the film. (In The Minority Report, characters manipulate audiovisual data by wearing gloves and performing specific movements with their hands and arms.)

His staff did considerable research on all forms of gestural communication to make the characters' performances believable and consistent and demonstrated the real-world attempts made following the film's release. The audience watched in rapt attention as a subject advanced, rewound, and zoomed in on a video clip, using only his hands--just like in the movie!

By designing fictional technologies well in these fictional stories, said Underkoffler, "you give the audience an opportunity to participate."

What's next? Warp drive?

Underkoffler also briefly showed the introductory credit sequence for Hulk (for which he was also science and technology advisor), which he proudly said was the result of heavy research to make the film's scientific premise (a lab accident turning a man into a mindless angry beast) as consistent as possible with scientific principles.

He also mentioned his involvement with a project that wished to reinvent Syracuse as a domed city subscribing to sound environmental principles and the enormous--and incredibly rapid--research thrown into the project to make the concept realistic.

Interestingly enough, Underkoffler barely mentioned games--but he did explicitly acknowledge this. "There was an understanding that I was supposed to be the guy not talking about games," he said before concluding.

Nevertheless, the implications for designers were clear. For example, he discussed the compendium of all the elements that made up the future vision of the world in The Minority Report, which was called the "2080 Bible" (though eventually it was decided that the film would be set in 2054).

This document contained all elements of architecture, urban planning, technologies, clothing, and such that populated Steven Spielberg's vision of a future Washington DC. Though he admitted that the vast majority of these elements ended up on the "writing room floor" (along with detailed dialogue written for all the extras), they served to enhance if not the narrative breadth of the movie, then its depth.

Clearly this was a veiled suggestion to game designers to invest considerable effort building internally consistent virtual worlds. But he also reminded developers of the capacity of their work to inspire imaginative real-world scientific research.

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