That’s nanotainment! ‘Minority’
begins era of cinema small tech

John Underkoffler, a science adviser for Steven Spielberg’s futuristic film, “Minority Report,” has the Hollywood thing down.

An electrical/optical engineer who during his 17 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology delved into MEMS and nanoscience as they relate to photons, holograms and other luminous technology, Underkoffler already has moved to his next film gig.

Underkoffler spoke with Small Times on a recent afternoon from the movie lot office in Los Angeles where he’s helping director Ang Lee get the science and technical stuff right for the upcoming film “The Incredible Hulk.” In addition to “Minority Report,” he’s finished another Spielberg project called “Taken,” a miniseries about alien abductions.

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Since moving to the West Coast two years ago to be near ground zero for his work on “Minority Report,” Underkoffler has helped influence how blockbuster films can capture the public’s imagination for technology — especially the science of assembling atoms and molecules, and microelectromechancial systems (MEMS).

“My personal beef is that science and technology is rarely presented in a believable way,” Underkoffler said, referring to “gadgetry” films like the James Bond series. “Minority Report” is an exception, he said. “People are finally starting to realize that the real stuff can be more interesting than ideas that you make up.”

And the real stuff doesn’t always work perfectly, which is the point of “Minority Report,” a thriller based on a short story author Philip K. Dick published in 1956 in the magazine Fantastic Universe.

“Phil Dick understood that the effect of technology wasn’t always perfect, gleaming and functional. There were unintended consequences,” Underkoffler said.

For instance, in “Minority Report,” star Tom Cruise picks up a noisy interactive cereal box and tosses it across the room. The technology is annoying him. “The cereal box that wouldn’t shut up is a perfect example of how Phil Dick saw the future,” Underkoffler said.

“Minority Report” is set in Washington, D.C. The year is 2054. The U.S. Justice Department’s elite Pre-Crime Unit can see — and stop — crimes before they are committed. Cruise’s character, Pre-Crime’s Chief John Anderton, has reason to doubt the system is so pristine when he becomes a murder suspect.

Cruise takes the audience on a journey through an automated city powered with a bevy of MEMS devices. Cars drive themselves on a magnetic-levitation traffic system. The mouse is history; Cruise wears gloves with light shooting from the fingertips to command the megacrime computer like a conductor leading an orchestra. Meanwhile, robot spiders invade apartment buildings to conduct eye scans on all inhabitants.

In one scene, Cruise bolts into a subway train where passengers read newspapers printed with “digital ink.” The audience can glimpse some of the day’s top headlines: “Mechanical nanodevice triumph” and “Molecular nanotechnology?”

Of course, movies aren’t perfect, either. When asked about the nanotech headlines in the film, Ralph Merkle, a founder of the real-life molecular nanotechnology company, Dallas-based Zyvex Corp., said, “I would be quite surprised if molecular nanotechnology had not been developed by 2054. Trends in computer hardware have been remarkably steady since the 1950s, and extrapolation of those trends suggests we will be able to build molecular computers with logic gates that are molecular in size and precision well before then.”

“There’s very little nanotech on display in the film,” Underkoffler agreed. But in one scene where Cruise is recovering from an eye implant, there’s a nanotech subtext. “Nano reconstructors were used in the eye surgery,” he said.

Underkoffler, who was among a cadre of futurists and scientists Spielberg consulted for the film, also has learned a lesson about the movie business. Some of the best small tech doesn’t always make it to the final cut.

One major MEMS device — a “slidewalk” — was well into the planning stages for “Minority Report” when it was abandoned. “We designed an improved moving walkway that would use MEMS versions of cilia levers that would work in groups of three,” Underkoffler explained.

Sticky balls on the end of the levers, each about half a millimeter long, created a continuous live surface that pulled people along. “The great thing about the walkway, as opposed to a continuous canvas and roller arrangement, is that you could smoothly change speeds.” By moving to different lanes, pedestrians could go from 2 mph to 35 mph.

The MEMS-powered slidewalk was dubbed “OOPS,” short for outside operating pedestrian sidewalk. OOPS didn’t make it into the film, Underkoffler said. “I was sad to see it go.”

But more small tech blockbusters are in the works. Is Hollywood feverish for nanotainment? “From the scripts I’ve been seeing,” Underkoffler replied, “nano is going to be all over the place.”


Century Fox Film Corp. and DreamWorks LLC
(Presumably) MEMS- or nano-enabled spiders check Tom Cruise’s identity in “Minority Report.”


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