The science and technology advisor of the film discusses how he helped shape the amazing props in the movie and also on his real-life G-Speak technology
When the Steven Spielberg film Minority Report first came to theaters in 2002, many hailed it as a sci-fi masterpiece, with Spielberg drawing us into a rich, fully-developed world with remarkable technology that seemed light years away, at the time. One of the reasons this fully immersive world came to be was the involvement of science and technology advisor John Underkoffler, who was initially brought in by Spielberg for a three-day "think tank" conference of sorts, with experts in fields of all sorts that came together to pitch in ideas on how this world in the year 2054 might actually look and feel like. After working closely with production designer Alex McDowell, Underkoffler was brought onto the production as the science and technology advisor and the rest is history. I had the chance to speak with Underkoffler over the phone about this remarkable film, which is finally being released on Blu-ray on April 20, and here's what he had to say about his work on the film, and also his work on the G-Speak interface, which was heavily influenced on the Precrime interface used by Tom Cruise in the film.
Your involvement with Minority Report started with this big think tank summit that Spielberg convened, years before shooting. Can you talk about how you were first approached for that and how that lead to your involvement in the film?
John Underkoffler: Yeah. The interesting thing about the summit is that it's like a giant, luminous, landmark event that burns bright in the memory of the film's pre-production and it's really interesting to read the transcripts. You bring together all of these experts and futurists and so forth and just drink the coffee and eat the bagels and talk about their hobby horses and their own likes and concerns about the world. A lot of amazing ideas came out of that. Many of them are still in the film, some of them are obliquely used in the film, some of them didn't fit in the film and many of them, well, mostly the ones from Douglas Coupland, were hilarious and became their own film. I think there was an interesting moment when Alex McDowell, the film's production designer, essentially decided that to really bring the level of verisimilitude that Spielberg wanted, to really have a self-conducive, logically continuous future, that worked no matter where you were looking in the film, or no matter where the camera was. That really spread every day through pre-production and through shooting as well. I just count myself incredibly fortunate to be able to fulfill that whole mythology.
I actually talked with Alex yesterday and he was talking a lot about your work. Can you talk about how closely you had to work with him in designing and realizing these amazing props, and how you worked with Spielberg as well?
John Underkoffler: Yeah. I think the pinnacle of not only mine but a lot of folks' time in film was on this film. It really was an incredible confluence because you had Steven's mandate about how real this thing had to be, but then you had Alex's incredible mind, taking that at face value and saying, 'OK, well if you really want it to be real, then suddenly this is not like a movie pre-production job, but this is like an urban planning job.' So, day to day, we were asking questions like, 'OK, how does the Halo work?' We had to look deeply enough into it to know where you would need to have contact on the head. Would you use the parietal lobe or the temporal lobe? How do you make people fall down? There is that level and there are moments when we used the technology and the architecture of the future designs to solve narrative points, which I thought was really interesting. The silly version of that is there was a scene where the spiders are coming to get Anderton and to scan all of the eyes of the tenement dwellers. He's holed up and he's stuck wet towels under the doors so they can't get in. There was a very reasonable question of how can they get in, then? They're small and wiry and stuff, but they're not strong. We posited this really elaborate, falied National Institute of Health experiment that piped nutrients and aerosol antibodies into people's homes. We cut troughs down each always and had plastic covers with logos, the whole thing. It's a social, political infrastructure that we posited together to solve those story points. Once again, sort of silly, and it's just a blink in the movie, but I think it gets into the creepy depth that we decided we had to access for the movie. I think it kind of screwed up the question though.
No, that's great. I mean, just the fact that he would convene a think tank, I think it was three years before they started filming, really says volumes right there about how dedicated he was to this whole world.
John Underkoffler: Yes, exactly. Let's make it real, so we can forget about it and do the story then.
Even now, looking back eight years later, one of the coolest scenes for me in the movie is with Tom Cruise using your G-Speak interface. It was just really cool to watch, even then and now. Can you talk about your initial concept for G-Speak and how that played into the film and how you actually see this technology evolving throughout the years?
John Underkoffler: I think what the most interesting thing for me about that whole scenario and that period in particular was that it was the middle point. I was building stuff like that, along with a lot of other people, back in the MIT Media Lab in the 80s and 90s, all these new kinds of interfaces. We were all sitting around thinking, 'Well, it can't be that the whole mouse and Windows thing is as good as it ever gets?' How do you get more of human expression through these machines so we can really get stuff done? I had built a series of systems called the Luminous Room. I was just finishing up a bunch of projects when Alex first visited the lab, actually it was Alex and Jerry Moss, the prop master on Minority Report. They were just generally looking around, trying to figure out what pieces of emerging technology could possibly fit in the film, what they could import, essentially. We really hit it off and I think that the some of the notions of alternate interfaces resonated with him, because Steven had said, 'I don't want to see any keyboards.' He also said no voice technology, which is great. I loved that he really wanted to try something new. I think that Alex thought that the Luminous Room fit with Spielberg's mandate, so he got me to come aboard and we refined the idea, simplified it. What had actually worked, in an academic setting, was now imported into a film and clarified in the process of preparing for the film. It's been really interesting to watch people react to that. They did right away and even now there are even all these references to the interfaces that we put in the film, and that's great. For my part, it emerged and it felt like I had to go back building this stuff for real. In the film, it's a very carefully choreographed pantomime. The actors weren't seeing anything on the screen, it was all posited in later, although we had trained them really seriously so they knew exactly what they would be seeing. But back to the real world, we built this stuff and it works for real and it's really, really fun. We think it's the future of how people are going to use computers.
I saw the video demo for that and it just looks like a blast.
John Underkoffler: It is, it is. Best of all, it really works and it's really applicable to the problems in the real world.
When do you see this as being mainstream technology that could be seen in regular, everyday homes?
John Underkoffler: I think within three to five years, you're going to start seeing this stuff emerging into everyday civilian life. By civilian I mean just non-professional. Already, a lot of our systems are installed in a lot of professional locations where people are doing big data problems with them. It really is time for this stuff. The mouse has gone as far as it can go and the machines that are out there today are incredibly capable. We don't have a way of talking to them that's equal to what they're capable of expressing. We've got to move back to the interface. It's an era when most attention is focused on stuff like cloud computing and the web. From our point of view, that's weird. That's like all your stuff has drifted away from you. What about the stuff that happens right there, at the end of your hand? What about the stuff that's in the room with you? There's a lot of room there for a kind of renaissance, a new kind of computing.
I honestly think this is one of Spielberg's best films and all of the amazing technological advances in the film really added to the experience too. All these years after that think tank, with all this new technology emerging in real life, what kinds of things have surprised you that has come out already and what things have surprised you that haven't come out yet?
John Underkoffler: All the stuff that we were positing about ecological solutions that had already happened by the time the film opened, it would be nice if that stuff were happening faster. It's not talked about that much in the film, but there are no internal combustion engines anymore and the world is actually clean, from an ecological sense. We haven't done that fast enough, but on the other hand, we've made strides in a bunch of the other areas way faster than we thought. There was a lot of debate among us and the producers and Scott the writer, about how far in the future this stuff should be. If the future year is too late, then we can't predict that far, and if it's too soon, then you feel like it's not as interesting. The fact is that we are getting to that 2054 way faster than even we thought. Something that the film did a bit of is it connected certain social and moral consequences to the technology that it depicted. I give it huge credit for that because usually the best science fiction is more like social science fiction and that's really where Philip K. Dick was operating all the time. A lot of it made it into the film and it's great to see those questions asked and we need to keep asking them, out here in the real society. The surveillance that arose out of 9/11 is not unlike the surveillance that is shown in the film. In the film, the ideal was that it was all predicated on advertising. Advertisers had decided to scan everybody, to track everybody, use personalized ads and talk to you about Guiness and Rolex watches. We're getting to that same place from a different initial set of preoccupations, but the hard questions about what it means to everybody's privacy are still there.
I just read recently that they're trying the same kinds of retinal scanning advertising things in the U.K. They, of course, mentioned the film, and it was rather interesting. I also read about a program that was being tested here in the States about a program that would automatically send texts to phones with special offers for anyone who was within a mile of one of their stores. When you watch the film, you think it's so far off, and eight years later, it is kind of here already, which is amazing.
John Underkoffler: Yeah, it is. Some of it is good, a lot of it is not great. The one reassuring piece is that even with the most sinister of intents, no one can accurately predict what will get taken up and what won't. Maybe the store-texting thing will fail for some really specific human attention reason that no one was thinking about. That's kind of the cosmic comedy that keeps things somewhat balanced.
Since you were all so ahead of the curve before the film came out, what do you think the next big breakthrough we're poised to see next?
John Underkoffler: I think that we're poised for a combination of an energy and transportation revolution. It's not quite in focus or close enough to talk a whole lot more about it, but we spent a lot of time on the film developing and designing and making use of the Maglev vehicles, in a world where you can regain an ecological balance by getting rid of the suburbs, which are the root of a lot of troubles, and getting people to live in the cities again, which are really efficient human, social, mechanical organisms. You'd need much taller buildings, obviously, and we'd need to know how to drive on the streets and how drive along the buildings. We're not there with the Maglev vehicles yet. We're not driving up the sides of buildings yet, but there are companies like Terrafugia in Massachusetts, building hybrid car-airplanes, which are really fantastically sci-fi, but it's real. Between that and interest in hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles, we're really poised for a major change. Certainly, no one in Detroit could predict the success of the Prius, which here in L.A. has transformed everything.
Just to wrap up, with the new Blu-ray coming out, what would you like to say to the fans of the film about why they should pick up this new Blu-ray?
John Underkoffler: One of the things that fascinated me about the Minority Report process, because it was sort of a prototype for something that could happen a lot more, is that we're seeing a lot more today a tighter feedback loop because science-fiction films and real-world technology. You can expand it beyond that and the fact that ideas flowed back and forth between the fictional domain and the real-world domain so freely is really interesting. Stuff in the real world is changing so fast that it provides inspiration for narrative as well. That feedback loop is something that didn't exist very much and it's a rapidly spinning dynamo now. I think Minority Report was, maybe not the high water mark, but certainly a clarion call to the beginning of that. I can't wait to see what happens, to see who is going to make the next independent film that expresses the ideas that nobody has thought about that could be the template for new future thinking.
Excellent. Well that's about all I have for you, John. Thanks so much for your time and best of luck with your future projects.
John Underkoffler: Thank you for yours. I look forward to reading your site.
You can watch the amazing sci-fi classic Minority Report in high definition when the film is released on Blu-ray on April 20. You can also CLICK HERE to read my full Blu-ray review, which also deals with Underkoffler's G-Speak interface in the Special Features. If you still want to know more about G-Speak, we have a nifty little demo video from Underkoffler's company, Oblong, that developed the interface, which you can watch below.