Report: ‘TRON: Legacy’ and Disney Imagineering at USA Science and Engineering Festival

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This past weekend, tens of thousands of families partook in the inaugural USA Science & Engineering Festival held on the National Mall in Washington, DC as well as satellite events throughout the country. The two-day free festival was created in order to inspire the nation’s youth to pursue careers in maths and sciences by offering various hands-on activities. One of many participants, The Walt Disney Company presented a booth and multiple presentations in conjunction with the National Academy of Engineering featuring TRON: Legacy as well as Walt Disney Imagineer Lanny Smoot.

The concept behind the booth was  ’14 Grand Challenges,’ created by the NAE, which is essentially a list of tasks that the NAE believes will need to be addressed in this and future generations. Inside the booth were a few exhibits that demonstrated some of the challenges in practice as well as items from the Disney film. On display from TRON: Legacy was the life-size demonstration model of the lightcycle as well as the SHIVA laser invented by Kevin Flynn which was actually used during the movie’s production.

Relating to the sci-fi SHIVA laser scanner (which the original TRON featured back in 1982) was an exhibit on 3D scanning which helps scientists understand objects better. By using a scanning in a physical object, the computer can generate a point cloud which then translates into a mesh model and finally a digital representation of the object, which can then be explored further in digital space, modified and even re-printed as a physical object.

The next demonstration made every one into a virtual brain surgeon, even if — especially in my case — they aren’t one. Using the the NeuroTouch VR brain surgery simulator developed by the National Research Council in Canada. The NeuroTouch takes MRI data and generates a virtual copy of the patients’ brain and allows the surgeon to visualize and even practice operating on the brain, even providing physical feedback in the virtual 3D space. The exhibit offered visitors the opportunity to remove a brain tumor while controlling any bleeding that was occurring as a result and scored the visitor’s performance. As I mentioned earlier, I’m no brain surgeon, so we’ll just leave it at that.

The final demonstration in the booth was created by Walt Disney Imagineering specifically as an offering for the festival as well as the film’s premiere and uses a new innovention called ‘light painting.’ A two-step process, the visitor first finds him/herself alone in a room with what essentially amounts to a sawhorse. Reclining on the sawhorse as if one were riding a lightcycle, the system uses stereoscopic imagery to take a 3D photo of the visitor. Following the photo, the visitor is handed a wand whose tip is tracked by the cameras placed all around. This allows the visitor to virtually paint their missing lightcycle in the virtual 3D space. Imagineer Lanny Smoot, who talked about the exhibit during his presentation which I’ll cover next, compared it to using a digital camera at home and leaving the shutter open so that the camera constantly captures every movement, but here it’s in a literal 3D space, not just the 2D space a single camera could capture.

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Smoot held his own presentation on both Saturday and Sunday, titled ‘The Top 10 Reasons You Might Be An Engineer.’ The gist of Smoot’s presentation is that everyone has a bit of engineer inside them and he ran down a list of attributes most engineers tend to share after giving a brief introduction of himself. As a senior research scientist at Disney, Smoot has proven to be a very prolific inventor at both Disney (where we have highlighted a few of his patent applications) and his time at Telcordia where he worked on some incredibly industry important technologies such as asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) and video on demand. For Disney Parks, Smoot has worked on technological feats such as the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure, Innoventions’ ‘Where’s the Fire?’ exhibit, new Haunted Mansion effects including the floating Madame Leota and more.

So what makes an engineer? First, Smoot says it starts in childhood. Although he has proven to be far more successful in his field than most, Smoot notes that neither of his parents attended college. His father, however, did enjoy to tinker with electronics and the like and as a child, Smoot was surrounded by a wealth of scientific materials that he eagerly absorbed. This was key for Smoot and he advises that all parents do their best to surround their children with information and to engage them in various activities during the formative years.

Role models are also important to future engineers. Two in particular stood out for Smoot and they both happened to be television characters: Lt. Uhura from ‘Star Trek’ (mostly because she was communications director for the Enterprise, he noted) and Barney Collier from ‘Mission: Impossible.’ Smoot said it was specifically because of Barney’s specialty as an electrical engineer that encouraged him to become one himself.

Engineers have a natural tendency to take things apart to examine how they work and occasionally re-assemble them, sometimes in a better state. This is what distinguishes an engineer from a scientist, according to Smoot. Engineers don’t practice science per se, but apply what science has learned to existing situations and seek out new, better, more efficient and more simple ways to solve problems. They learn from mistakes, constantly improving on their methods, continuing to do what went right and adapting from what went wrong. In a nutshell, they ‘take science to its practical limit.’

Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, engineers seek to change the world. It’s not all fun and games for the Disney Parks either. Although I won’t be able to recall enough details to do it justice, Smoot’s current passion is developing a cosmetic artificial eye to replace lost eyes. If there’s enough muscle tissue left, the wearer of the eye will be able to move it in sync with the good eye, otherwise its position can be controlled via a special pair of glasses.

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Also changing the world is Vicon, the presenter of the second Disney presentation at the festival, ‘TRON: Legacy:  Captured Live on Stage.’ Vicon not only changes the world, but also creates new ones through the use of its pioneering and innovative uses of motion capture technology. Although the focus of the presentation started out on TRON: Legacy and the many, many films and commercials created using Vicon’s Blade software and camera systems as well as shot at Vicon’s House of Moves studio, when the company began in 1986, its primary concern was life sciences. At one point, presenter Jeffrey Ovadya explained how valuable motion capture can be when it comes to analyzing a person’s gait to fit them for a prosthetic limb or physical rehabilitation. It wasn’t until the late 80s when they were approached by a film studio to test the application of motion capture (mocap) to films and the rest is history.

As the team was setting up the stage for a live demonstration of turning a radio-controlled car into a lightcycle, Ovadya shared some behind-the-scenes footage of mocap filming for TRON: Legacy at House of Moves followed by some of the completed footage of the same sequences from Digital Domain.

Although technical glitches kept us from being able to see the full transformation from toy car to lightcycle in MotionBuilder, Vicon was able to demonstrate its own software, Blade, which is responsible for recording and importing the moving objects into the system to later be animated. The live setup consisted of quite a few cameras placed around the stage in a 360 degree space (in a real-world environment, there’d be many more cameras than the practical limitations of the festival would allow). Ovadya first demonstrated how he calibrated the system using a wand with several reflective markers on them. He explained that the calibration works because the system is already physically aware of the exact placements of the cameras, particularly in relation to each other. Vicon is the only studio that uses 16MP cameras which he claimed are technically accurate to one nanometer (one billionth of a meter) although they advertise an accuracy of only ‘sub-millimeter’ so that clients are guaranteed their expectations. The system is so accurate in fact, that Harvard University is using the system to research the movement of flies which they do by painting markers on the fly as tiny as .3mm in size.

The cameras work because they operate in greyscale mode and use a strobe light to catch the reflection of the markers. Color isn’t recognized by the cameras in order to prevent a form of distraction which would threaten the cameras’ precision. If color footage is needed, Ovadya explained that all of the footage is timecoded so an editor can easily link up footage from multiple sources which would include video from standard video cameras.

Inviting children to join him on stage to drive the car and watch it be tracked on the Blade system, Ovadya pointed out that the car was covered in gaffers tape because of its non-reflective property so the motion capture system wouldn’t get confused. Placed all over the body of the car were the reflective markers, which Ovadya noted were placed asymmetrically on the car so that the system would be able to readily distinguish the front from the back. When using full body suits, he added, they are generally placed all over the body in a symmetrical fashion except for a single additional marker on the left side, again, so the system can distinguish which side is which.

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