For technologists, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is the white whale of conferences.
Fittingly, USC students opened the 2014 CES keynote speech on Jan. 6 with a literal whale of a presentation: a stunning, 3-D projection of a flying leviathan that swam over the heads of attendees.
It was just a teaser of work on display by the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ World Building Media Lab. Director Alex McDowell said students worked alongside a team of professional coders, designers and other creators to pull off the demo. It was the first public display of about a year of work by a dozen students, McDowell said.
“We had a lot of people in tech saying, ‘How did you do that?’ ” he said, estimating that about 5,000 people attended the keynote. “It’s really great for the students to see themselves on the bleeding edge.”
Impressive — but that was just the start. Later, attendees engaged with the whale through an augmented reality experience that let them follow its movements through tablets provided by Intel. They also got to play hide-and-seek with Huxleys, odd, jellyfish-like creatures that responded to hands swiping and bumping the floating critters.
McDowell, a Hollywood production designer by trade, is known for the lushly detailed worlds he’s created for films such as Minority Report, Man of Steel and Watchmen. “World building” is exactly what the media lab emphasizes — developing narrative through place and asking questions about what characters would do there.
The flying whale is part of a project called Leviathan. It’s based on a young adult novel by author Scott Westerfeld in which genetically engineered “fabricants” are harnessed for fantastical purposes — whales used in place of airships, for example.
McDowell’s team has been working with virtual reality environments to experience these fabricants in a more immersive way. Wearing head-mounted displays, you can walk the three-story, 300-foot gondola they designed which hangs under the flying creature.
Creating these kinds of environments, or story spaces, presents new challenges and opportunities for storytellers. There’s the question of time: How does it change the experience if you can stroll through a fictional place at your own leisure, without the benefit of a movie “cut” changing to another scene? There’s also the possibility of participants becoming creators. What happens when visitors to these environments improvise a situation forcing changes in the story or characters?
“You have to think about how you evolve content for this,” McDowell said. “There’s a massive space opening up, a massive need for story with all these new platforms. So how do we prepare the students to go into that world?”
The show’s demos gave McDowell’s students great feedback on how these immersive environments could affect participants. After all, these aren’t stories that are meant to be read, but to be interacted with. One area of interest for McDowell is how they can transcend language barriers.
When a group of Japanese businessmen played with the Huxleys, they were able to experiment and discover the experience for themselves without instruction.
McDowell pointed out that it may be years before standardized approaches for this technology are fully developed. The World Building Media Lab is just beginning to explore these futuristic new tools — no telling just what uses they’ll find for them.