Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: For those who may be unfamiliar, what can you share with us about The Underground Engine, and what types of services do you offer to your clientele?
Ethan Summers: We are in sort of in a transition right now. Up till now, we have worked mostly creating large-scale CG environments for film and TV, as well as a fair amount of biotech and medical visualization. We have worked for a myriad of studios––including Sony and Paramount––and helped to create work that everyone is familiar with, like the Paramount and Lionsgate cinematic logos (those flashy studio intros you see right before a movie). We were also lucky enough to win an Emmy in 2011 creating a full CG set of Gettysburg in 1863 for the Ridley Scott documentary of the same name. Currently, we are working in a new direction, creating a media platform aimed at communicating scientific and technological ideas as hands-on interactive environments that really put the user inside of the topic to learn by doing. I know this sounds heady, but I'll circle back to this in a moment.
BD: What can you share about the individuals involved with The Underground, and how do their diverse skill sets foster creative learning solutions?
ES: We work as a consortium drawing in and collaborating with people from a wide range of disciplines. In our core group we have people converging from diverse areas such as Complex Systems, Learning Theory, teaching, and Film and Visual Effects. We connect widely in different areas of science from Plant Genetics to Evolutionary Biology. We also are collaborators with a fascinating group out of LA, X-Rez who specialize in VR and Gigapixel photography. In general, our aim is promote a multidisciplinary environment where we can combine skills and invent new ways of engaging people with the important issues of our times.
We are really aiming these days towards classroom education. Our prototype technology for interactive and immersive learning fits hand-in-glove with the Next Generation Science Standards that are being implemented nationwide this year. The NGSS focus on natural systems, like evolution and the formation of complexity, as well as synthetic concepts like relationships between structure and function, and stability and change. Our simulation technology makes it possible to literally be on the inside of complex processes and systems like these and be able to explore them to get a physical sense understanding of otherwise very abstract concepts. Currently, we talking with educators on the best ways of mixing instruction and curricula with our immersive environments.
BD: At Silicon Valley Comic Con earlier this year, you unveiled a prototype for a hands-on artificial life simulation to be installed in airports around the world. What can you tell us about this prototype, and what was the reaction of the convention attendees to the demonstration?
ES: What we had on display at Comic Con was a very first generation prototype of a learning technology we call ISA or Interactive Science and Art. The idea is to create fully immersive environments where people can explore cutting edge ideas in the sciences and technology as interactive exploration. Alex Lamb, our simulation advisor, came up with a great metaphor to describe ISA: that it’s like a touch pool at the aquarium where people can explore and touch and otherwise understand through their senses. In the same way, we want to convey typically abstract ideas like evolution, microbiology, or climate change as hands-on fusions of sensory and informational experience.
Our initial prototype was based on the origins of life. We chose this theme because of our connection with the SETI Institute. (We shared a booth with them at Comic Con.) Our Comic Con prototype was displayed on a 10-foot wide screen and allowed people to check out how life might exist on each of the Trappist exoplanets that NASA recently discovered. People generally loved it, especially the kids, and it was fascinating to see how people interacted with it in really different ways; some were just playing, while others would try to figure out what's going on in a more scientific way. One guy kept coming back with this strange holographic pyramid device and posing in front of our prototype while taking selfies…
The interactivity for the Comic Con prototype was really very simple. We’ve moved on to a much more evolved interface that enables people to really get under the hood of the data and understand at each step what they are doing. The new interface also allows for the exploration of living systems and evolution, and people can create their own customized a-life simulations. Along the way, we’ve developed a VR version that is really a blast - it feels almost like scuba diving at night with all the metamorphizing, evolving A-life creatures swimming by. You can actually use your hands and reach out and manipulate the A-life in different ways. Emitting particles with your hands––that then self-organize into life-like entities and swim away on their own––is particularly fun.
Ultimately, we want to create a host of variously-themed ISA products, all with direct, immersive interaction. These could cover a broad range of topics from climate change to nanotechnology, to the Big Bang, bioecology and the structure of space/time. We see these being offered for classroom use primarily, but could be available to other people, as well - home schoolers, remoter learners, or anyone who wants to learn about these topics. The original idea of creating art/science installations in airports is still where our hearts lie, and we would like to circle back to that, but in the meantime we need to find a way to monetize our technology.
BD: As the Creative Director, what inspires you about the work that you do, and what do you hope that others will take away from your work?
ES: The intersection between art and science has always been really exciting to me. By connecting art and science in a way that allows us to see and feel with our senses as much as we understand with our intellect, we can convey wonder and awe as well as factual details. The search for wonder, enchantment, and mystery in our universe is just a part of being human - everyone searches it out in some way. We believe that part of the rift between much of the public and science (at least in the United States) comes from a perception that science is dry and sterile. This is far from the truth; however, scientific ideas are often presented in uninspiring ways, or are seen as so complex and abstract that no one but an ultra-brain can get it. Consequently, many people feel disconnected and do not really have a clear understanding of the scientific and technological changes that are transforming the world. What I hope is that with the Underground we have the beginnings of a collaboration and educational platform that can speak to all kinds of people in a way that inspires as well as informs. The Underground and its mission are admittedly a bit utopian, but ultimately what we want to do is inspire more people to start thinking about and finding solutions for the future. Education seems a great place to start.
BD: Are there any other projects or activities that you are currently working on that you would like to share with our readers?
ES: We have a few other projects going. With the exception of bread-and-butter visual effects work, pretty much everything we do focuses on education. We have a really interesting project we have been working on in the background for awhile now called the Kids Energy Project, where we do classroom sessions with kids in various concept and art exercises to prepare them, and then have them make art about what the future of energy looks like. Anything goes here: wheels on a car that are powered by mice (but you have to feed the wheels cheese), or a pet electric eel that powers your house. The idea is to get the kids thinking WAY outside the box. Afterwards, we use the kids’ art to create animations that are narrated by one of the kids, about how to create energy in the future. We see this project both as a way to energize kids to think about something big like energy as a problem that they can help to solve, while encouraging a connection with decision-making adults as a powerful message from the younger generation. Our fabulous artist and classroom teacher, Gabby Nataxa Gonzalez, is heading up this project.
We are also starting a really interesting collaboration with Emmy-awarded filmmaker Kelly Kowalski called SETIsodes. In SETIsodes we will make a series of 12 mini-documentaries––each highlighting one of the scientists at SETI. We’re playing with the idea of making side-car VR experiences of some of the science, just for fun. In addition to watching a SETIsode about, say, the rings of Saturn, a viewer could download a VR experience where they could be traveling inside the rings from the probe’s point of view.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell readers who want to learn more about The Underground?
ES: We are actively reaching out to make connections and beneficial partnerships these days. If you have ideas for how we might work together or are just interested, please let us know - we love to brainstorm. Also, keep an eye out for our upcoming Indiegogo campaign, and tell your friends! We can be found on Twitter at @UndergrndEngine, or you can look for us on Facebook. We’re working on updating our website right now, but it should be up and running soon at www.undergroundengine.com.
If you have a volunteer opportunity or an important cause that could use the assistance of a few geeks, please email the details to barbra (at) fanbasepress (dot) com.