|For Immediate Release ||Beth G. Shery |
Engineering Today's-and Tomorrow's-Entertainment
NEW YORK-- Looking for some entertainment? Get over to your local arcade and "moonwalk" on a faraway planet, research a subject on an encyclopedia that fits in your palm, or choose any video any time of day without going to the rental store. And, while you're munching on that popcorn, think of the people responsible for bringing you these and other innovations in the field of entertainment-today's engineers.
From advanced animation to audio cassettes to television as you like it, engineers are creating new and exciting ways for us to spend our leisure time. Engineering achievements in everyday life-and entertainment-are celebrated during National Engineers Week.
Fabulous Film Effects
Computer engineers and animators are creating effects that can amuse and amaze even the most jaded audiences. Jurassic Park in 1993, and Forrest Gump and Interview with the Vampire in 1994, advanced computer graphics imagery (CGI) far beyond what audiences could imagine just a few years ago. The field has grown enormously since Disney's TRON, which was set inside a video game, first explored the technique in 1982. The CGI dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were engineered to be photo-realistic in every detail, from muscles moving when they breathed, to their eyes looking wet.
But, the CGI technique most talked about is "morphing," which debuted in Willow in 1988, transforming a tiger into a woman. Other examples include an Exxon ad in which a car changes into a running tiger, face melding in Godley & Creme's Cry, the first music video to use morphing, and the shape-shifting liquid-metal cyborg in Terminator 2.
Many scenes in Forrest Gump used morphing technology. For example, the character of Lieutenant Dan, after losing the lower portion of both legs, is seen being lifted out of bed and dangling off the side of a shrimp boat. While the actor has full use of his legs, his stumps were digitally mastered to appear realistic. Gump interacts with many historical figures, including Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Special effects artists matched the grainy textures of archival film footage and morphed the lip movements of the presidents to match the new words being spoken by actors.
More and more television commercials are also using elaborate CGI, such as the polar bears in Coca- Cola¨ ads, the Listerine¨ bottle swinging through the air on a vine, and the Pillsbury Doughboy¨.
(Virtual) Reality Bytes
Virtual reality (VR) may already be at a mall near you-in games where players control battle simulators, explore distant planets, dodge dinosaurs, and play virtual sports like racquetball, tennis, and golf. The Vivid Group in Toronto, Canada, developed a VR game called FutureSport, and in one volleyball match, opponents from Canada and Italy played simultaneously, with the game data transmitted from computer to computer by satellite.
Using a sensor-lined glove, joystick, or mouse and special headset, VR users can visit, move around in, and touch objects that exist only in computer- generated worlds. Images surrounding the viewer are seen in 3-D through view screens built into the headset. The core of every VR application is a high-power computer database that builds and displays graphic images, senses the user's head and body movements, and adjusts what the user sees. But, VR has applications far beyond the latest arcade game.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Defense developed the first VR systems for flight simulation. Space crews training at Johnson Space Center in Houston use a virtual reality system programmed with the physics of orbit. Astronauts take virtual space walks and are able to practice making repairs to their crafts before attempting them in space.
Biomedical engineers are using virtual reality techniques to help surgeons reconstruct facial birth defects. Engineers and physicists at General Electric's Corporate Research and Development Center convert hundreds of CT scans into digital information that's programmed to produce near photographic 3-D reproductions of a patient's head- both inside and outside. This allows surgeons to use an "electronic scalpel" to explore nerves and underlying structures prior to performing reconstructive surgery.
VPL Research, Inc., in Redwood City, California, with assistance from NASA, developed the DataGlove, a microprocessor-based Lycra glove that converts hand gestures and positions into data that's transmitted from the glove to the host computer. Greenleaf Medical Systems of Palo Alto, California, has used the glove to determine how much the different joints of a human hand can bend, and are developing technologies that allow doctors to accurately measure hand injuries.
Architectural firms are using the technology to design "virtual offices" and homes to improve traffic flow, design more efficient layouts, and create open spaces. Home owners, wearing VR helmets and gloves, can design living spaces, lay out furniture, and customize their kitchens, reaching out to open cabinets and deciding where to place appliances. When they are satisfied, the computer will draft detailed drawings for the actual job. Recognizing the influence of computers on architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology began a three-year, multi-million dollar program to rebuild its design studio.
Many European companies, including Rolls Royce, Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering, and ICI Chemicals and Polymers have pooled their engineering talents to form the Virtual Reality and Simulation initiative to apply computer simulation and visualization to industrial design and 3-D modeling projects.
Virtual reality provides a window into other worlds. We are only just beginning to discover what's on the other side of the looking glass.
Hollywood Meets Silicon Valley
Interactive television-the ability to pick and choose whatever programs, films, or games you want from over 500 channels-is coming to a TV near you. Features will include interactive news and educational programs, along with the ability to access videos on demand. And, interactive feature films will allow audiences to choose a film's outcome. Engineers are involved in all aspects of this technology, from designing new cables to creating new film emulsions to engineering better sound quality.
Up until now, television's video signals have been transmitted through an analog signal, which is a continuous wave with peaks and valleys. The new technology features a digital signal-a broken-up code of ones and zeros-which can be compressed to access more channels. Fiber optic cables will replace cable television's coaxial cables, allowing for quicker transmission of large amounts of data.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, Viacom, Walt Disney Pictures, 20th Century Fox, and Time Warner are all getting involved in interactive multimedia. For example, Sony's first interactive feature film, Mr. Payback, runs on a laserdisc-based interactive system which allows the audience to influence the outcome of the story. Featuring Christopher Lloyd, premiered in February 1996 at specially-equipped theatres. The filmmakers included a prologue explaining the technology and demonstrating how the audience's input affects the characters onscreen. The total material runs two hours, but every time the audience "plays" it, it's a different 20- to 25-minute experience.
Fox Interactive plans to produce video games mostly based on in-house (20th Century Fox) material, including The Pagemaster and Die Hard 3. Time Warner Interactive is releasing a Peter and the Wolf CD-ROM featuring the Chuck Jones animated version of the classic tale. Warner Books is adapting the material to a hardcover coffee-table book, and a read-along kids' version. Warner also plans to incorporate the material into a network television show and, probably, a home video, too.
Recording to Disc-Oh!
The development of magnetic tape recording by electrical engineer Marvin Camras made the electronic communications industry possible. It's the technology behind audio cassettes, videotape, computer floppy disks, and even credit card magnetic strips. His patent on magnetic tape recording was licensed to General Electric in the mid-1930s. While still used extensively, it's now being challenged by compact disc technology.
Engineered for extraordinary sound quality, compact discs (CDs) have revolutionized the music, computer, and photography markets. Made of hardy polycarbonate plastics and coated with protective layers of aluminum and resin, they're nearly indestructible. The same CD that holds a recording of Cole Porter or Billy Joel can also hold the equivalent of 250,000 pages worth of print information with moving action sequences, including entire encyclopedias, filmed travel adventures with music including undersea scuba diving, or interactive games.
Kodak makes a photo CD player that lets even amateur photographers manipulate their photos to professional quality. Advanced interactive laserdiscs give the viewer the ability to choose the outcome of movies, play video games with arcade-like realism, and even sing along with laser karaoke.
Recently, the MiniDisc entered the market. It is a re-writable, smaller CD- type device, which uses a laser to optically read and write to a 2-1/2-inch disc. Currently, MiniDiscs can record up to 74 minutes, but plans are in place to extend that recording time up to about two hours.
In the future when you rent a movie, you may rent a CD instead of a videotape. Recently, Matsushita Electric Corporation of America, Philips Electronics, Sony Electronics, Inc., and Victor Company of America (JVC) agreed on a compact disc format for high-quality video and audio. They established the basic specs of the "Video CD" so that movies, music videos, educational programs, and karaoke can be stored on standard CDs. These CDs can be played on a variety of existing and future products, including special Video CD players, computers equipped with CD-ROM drives and average CD players with a special Video CD adapter.
From television and films to compact disks to virtual reality, engineers are helping to make our lives more animated, educated, and entertained. And, that's something worth celebrating.