Tech school kicks off a multimedia Halloween

University of California venture Calit2 to premiere scary real-time movie featuring "West Wing" star Allison Janney. Photo: Scary movie? A tech school kick-off

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
Forget the Monster Mash. This Halloween, there's a multimedia mashup at one California college that includes an interactive film depicting a scary future of technology.

Never fear, it's only an art experiment. But think of it as the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" meets Orwell's "1984."

Adventurous filmgoers are encouraged to dress up in Halloween costumes and bring cell phones and laptops to play a part in the movie, which will take place at the University of California at San Diego and celebrate the opening of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) on Oct. 28.

Calit2 outside

The film, named Specflic after the science fiction genre known as speculative fiction, will be acted live by several people located inside the new Calit2 building, a joint project of UCSD and UC Irvine. The actors will play the roles of scientists controlling "Inside," a fictional university in 2030 that educates students for free in exchange for labor and their being guinea pigs in lab experiments.

As it's filmed, the video will be streamed onto five external walls of the institute, including Calit2's main elevator tower and brushed-steel facade. Audience members will watch from the courtyard, where interactive "modules" also let them play a role in the movie through cell phones or laptops.

The film is ultimately designed to illustrate the possibilities within the intersection of technology and art.

"This is a public research institute, and the goal is to open up a discussion with the public about what kind of future we want," said Adriene Jenik, an associate professor of computer and media arts at UCSD and an affiliate researcher at Calit2.

"It addresses the themes and actual technologies being developed here and pulls that together to visualize what the future might look like."

For example, a technology designed for emergency disaster response will be used in the performance. Called "RealityFlythrough," the technology links the mobile streaming video of the performers in the audience and attaches the files to Global Positioning System and pan-and-tilt data, in order to display them in a visual path related to space and time. The technology was developed by UCSD computer science Ph.D. candidate Neil McCurdy.

"It locates you in space and creates contextual cinematography," Jenik said.

In another example of audience interaction, people can take a cell phone photo, hook the device up to a module and project it onto a "Sousveillance" grid (a pun on surveillance from under rather than above), which is displayed on one wall. The grid includes simulations of motion and facial tracking technology, and will have live poetry captions for each photo that are written by English students at UCSD.

Actors performing "Outside," or the fictional and contaminated world outside that threatens the status quo, will also be recorded and beamed onto the walls.

Specflic depicts a radically re-envisioned UCSD on Halloween night 2030; the school is sponsored by BioNeuroNanoComm, a fictional high-tech lab offering tuition for free in order to test its drugs and devices. Students are required to stay inside and out of the contaminated, dangerous landscape, where a group of self-exiled people live. Students communicate largely through mediating gadgets and devices.

Allison Janney, who won an Emmy for her performance on the TV series "West Wing," will play the role of the 2030 Chancellor of "Inside." Sci-fi writer and UCSD alumnus Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars Trilogy, wrote some text. The narrative will unfold in real time and play out over almost two hours.

In keeping with the offbeat ambience, a group of caterers will serve food gathered from garbage bins. Now that's scary.