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Science Fiction or Future Reality? GLIMPSE: A Star-Studded Digital Technology Showcase at USC

By Newton Lee, Ashley Yeo

Science Fiction or Future Reality? GLIMPSE: A Star-Studded Digital Technology Showcase at USC

Image credit: USC. Photo by Gus Ruelas

Last month, GLIMPSE, a digital technology showcase, was held at the University of Southern California (USC). GLIMPSE focused on shaping the future, enhancing the present, and preserving the past with five informative presentations. The invite-only media event was an eye-opener on advanced interactive and digital media (IDM). The speakers included Stephen Smith from USC’s Shoah Foundation; Paul Debevec from the Institute for Creative Technologies; Cyrus Shahabi from the Viterbi School of Engineering; Richard Lemarchand, Elizabeth Swensen, Sean Bouchard, Jeff Watson, and Peter Brinton from the School of Cinematic Arts; and Jonathan Taplin from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The diversity of R&D encompassed holographic displays, photorealistic digital characters, big data analysis, game design, and their applications in Hollywood, businesses, consumers, and the military.

In his opening remarks, Randolph Hall, Vice President of Research at USC, shared with the audience USC’s deep involvement with digital technology. The USC School of Cinematic Arts (along with Prof. Tomlinson Holman) is known for co-inventing the THX sound system, while the USC Institute for Creative Technologies has been involved in the production of Hollywood blockbuster films like “Avatar,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Avengers,” and more specifically, in digitalizing “The Incredible Hulk.”

USC also creates new technologies that are able to preserve history to its very core; the visual history testimony of Holocaust survivors is an ongoing project at USC. The USC Shoah Foundation is in the midst of creating a technology so advanced, that it is able to record video testimonies in 3-D and allow future students to engage with the holograms of these survivors for years to come. Headed by Stephen Smith, the new technology combines interview content with advanced filming, voice recognition-processing, and display technologies. You could ask the 3D image in front of you, “Do you believe in God?” Give it a second or two, and the pre-recorded holocaust survivor would give you an answer with elaboration. Even though the prototype at the presentation was in 2D, the 3D dream is within reach with USC’s light-stage capture studio and pico-projectors 3D display.

If you remember watching “The Avengers” movie, and witnessing Bruce Banner morph into the Incredible Hulk, well, that was not actor, Mark Ruffalo. It was rather, a -D image of his face, morphed into the Hulk. Paul Debevec from the USC Institute for Creative Technologies presented the USC Light Stage systems, which captures how an actor’s face appears when lit from every possible lighting direction using five hi-def cameras at 240 frames per second. USC has developed proprietary algorithms to create realistic visual renditions of the actor in the illumination of any location or set, perfectly reproducing the actor’s appearance digitally. Using the USC Light Stage systems, they are able to create an identical digital double down to every single detail. The technique was used in “Avatar”: When we saw Jack Sully’s human body in the world of Pandora, it was actually a digital double of Sam Worthington. Similarly, one of the twins rowing the boat in “The Social Network” is completely digital, and so was the old Brad Pitt in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”. Paul Debevec revealed that it is much harder to create a younger digital clone than an older digital clone. Although we can’t yet have physical clones (due to ethical issues), we can absolutely get a digital clone double. Your clone can even be equipped with convincing displays of emotion—each frown, wrinkle, and lip-twitch can be recreated so well that even you will not be able to tell the difference. Alas, for now this technology stays within the film and gaming industry.

Cyrus Shahabi from the Integrated Media Systems Center (IMSC) at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering presented the growing field of geo-crowdsourcing and painted a picture of a future where location data from mobile phones is used in new and innovative ways. One such mobile apps is ClearPath, which takes into account real-time traffic information in order to provide the driver a better route to get to their destination. USC IMSC works with the Regional Integration of Intelligent Transportation Systems (RIITS) in Los Angeles to collect real-time traffic data including videos and Sig Alerts. This sort of big data is very helpful in traffic simulation because they are more realistic than the artificially created simulation models. USC will be launching a company to market ClearPath.

Richard Lemarchand, Elizabeth Swensen, Sean Bouchard, Jeff Watson, and Peter Brinton from the Game Innovation Lab of the School of Cinematic Arts presented on their work in the area of serious games including “Collegeology,” which helps high school seniors select colleges, and “The Cat and the Coup,” which helps players understand history. The presenters regard their serious games as transmedia spectacle and a “productive chaos.” We saw a demo of Wide Skies —a Project Holodeck that brings 360-degree full-body virtual reality out of the research lab and into a fun, accessible consumer gaming platform. In Wide Skies, two players work together to pilot a nuclear-powered airship through an exotic world of floating islands and dangerous adversaries.

Ashley Yeo with two pilots testing out “Wide Skies.” Ashley Yeo with two pilots testing out “Wide Skies.”

With technology come hoards of data; and social networking platforms, such as Twitter’s database valued at $9 billion, prove that data is indeed worth a whole lot. What becomes more fascinating is the use of data-mining technologies to create valuable information and knowledge about a certain phenomenon. Jonathan Taplin of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism presented the Twitter Sentiment Analysis project. They developed a program to help analyze tweets automatically, through a series of rules and keywords. This technology is said to have helped marketers better understand how their advertising is impacting the changing trends in social media. For example, billions of dollars of advertising would place “The Twilight Saga” movie at the top of the chart, when it comes to discussions on Twitter. With an accuracy of 65 percent in determining the tone of tweets, as to whether they are positive or negative, the data-mining program has an edge over conventional market research. A trial research experiment on the 2012 Presidential Election illustrated the effectiveness of the technology, with more negative tweets than positive after Obama’s reelection victory. Researchers deduced Obama’s supporters probably got off Twitter to celebrate, while Romney’s fans gushed out negative comments on Twitter. Indeed, this technology by the Annenberg Lab could tell a lot more about engagement than a conventional Nielson rating. Jonathan Taplin also spoke of the famous Oscar Senti-meter, which was so popular that Twitter has now implemented a version of its own. (In Facebook Nation: Total Information Awareness, Newton Lee discussed the creative uses of Twitter and the Oscar Senti-meter in the 2012 Academy Awards race.)

In the closing remarks by Alex McDowell from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, McDowell showed us a clip of the upcoming movie “Upside Down.” Having worked on “The Minority Report,” “Fight Club,” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” he demonstrated the importance of urban planning and architecture in Hollywood movies. He quoted Steven Spielberg that he did not want to make “science fiction” but he wanted to make “future reality.” The vision of a “World Building Media Lab” exists in the intersection of art and science, design and engineering. McDowell said, “Design is a knife that cuts across the silos of media and industry.” 

Last but not least, Elizabeth Daley, Dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, told the audience that USC Games is the No. 1 game design school in North America three years in a row according to The Princeton Review. She also invited us back to visit USC School of Cinematic Arts in Spring 2013 to tour the new building (codenamed Phase 3) with 5,000 built-in sensors dedicated to mobile research and development. We can’t wait to go for a tour of the new R&D building at USC.

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