If you loved reading Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books as a kid but have outgrown their puerile plots and dog-eared, unrepentantly analog format, take heart: A newly launched system called Myndplay is a next-gen video version of the genre for adults. “The viewer chooses who lives or dies, whether the good guy or the bad guy wins or whether the hero makes that all-important save,” Mohammed Azam, Myndplay’s managing director, told New Scientist. Instead of relying on old-fashioned reading, MyndPlay lets you guide the story using mind-reading, via a special headset that records and analyzes your brainwaves. Now you can sit back in your armchair, slap on the headset, and use your mind to direct the action on the screen in front of you. (No word yet if there’s a mind-powered equivalent of keeping a finger on the page you came from, so you can flip back to it if you don’t like how things turn out.)
Source Code, a sci-fi thriller released last week, is based on the premise that science will let people really get into each other’s heads. The eponymous technology, the trailer tells us, is a computer program that “enables you to cross over into another man’s identity.” What results is a scenario that’s part Matrix, part Groundhog Day: lugged into the Source Code program, Jake Gyllenhaal—er, Captain Colter Stevens—lives through the last eight minutes of another man’s consciousness, just before the man’s train was blown up in a terrorist attack, in an effort to identify the bomber. (Stevens’s body, like Neo’s, stays in one place while his mind is elsewhere.) When the first run-through fails to turn up a culprit, Stevens relives those eight minutes again and again, having a different experience—new conversations, new sensations—each time.
Could something like that ever happen? While much of the technology in Source Code will remain purely fiction, says University of Arizona neuroscientist and electrical engineer Charles Higgins, modern science may eventually let us take a peek at, and even play around with, someone else’s consciousness. Among the movie’s technological inventions, Higgins says, “the idea of monitoring and influencing consciousness with a physical neural interface is the most plausible.”
Here’s the extended version of our interview with director Joe Kosinski from the December issue of DISCOVER, in which the first-time feature film director talks about reinventing the light cycle, building suits with on-board power, and how time passes in Tron compared to the real world.
Why return to Tron, and why now?
The original Tron was conceptually so far ahead of its time with this notion of a digital version of yourself in cyberspace. I think people had a hard time relating to in the early 1980s. We’ve caught up to that idea—today it’s kind of second nature.
Visually, Tron it was like nothing else I’d ever seen before: Completely unique. Nothing else looked like it before, and nothing else has looked like it since—you know, hopefully until our movie comes out.
How did you think about representing digital space as a physical place?
Where the first movie tried to use real-world materials to look at digital as possible, my approach has been the opposite: to create a world that felt real and visceral. The world of Tron has evolved [since it's been] sitting isolated, disconnected from the Internet for the last 28 years. And in that time, it had evolved into a world where the simulation has become so realistic that it feels like we took motion picture cameras into this world and shot the thing for real. It has the style and the look of Tron, but it’s executed in a way that you can’t tell what’s real and what’s virtual. I built as many sets as I could. We built physically illuminated suits. The thing I’m most proud of is actually creating a fully digital character, who’s one of the main characters in our movie.
What did you keep from Tron, and what evolved?
On the Popular Mechanics Web site, Eric Sofge complained a couple months ago that big, lumbering comic-book movies are sucking the life from the already shaky genre of intelligent Hollywood science fiction movies. His concern is not just artistic: He worries that the rise of the Iron Men and Spider-Men and the vanishing of think-oriented movies like Blade Runner is taking away the one piece of Tinseltown culture that inspires viewers to think, and maybe even act, like scientists.
It’s a clever, well-intentioned argument. I just don’t buy it for a minute. The line between smart scifi and dumb superhero scifi is not as clear as Erik tries to make it. Where would you put RoboCop and Total Recall, for instance? Lord of the Rings nurtured many a science nerd, even though there’s not a speck of realism in it; on the other side, Star Trek (original and all other flavors) has plenty of mumbo jumbo moments in it to rival Iron Man’s suit or Bruce Banner’s irradiated cells.
To my mind, the most effective scifi stories depend on two key factors: dealing with imaginary science & technology in a logically consistent manner, and being sensitive to its human implications. That’s what made Blade Runner and Terminator so great. At their best, the Iron Man and Spider-Man comics worked because they weren’t about the science at all; they were, like Batman, about life-transforming events that caused their heroes to deal with issues we all deal with, but on a wildly magnified scale. In short, they were almost all about the human side. Sure, their attention to realism was abysmal, but they were quite appealingly attentive to the idea of having to rely on your wits to succeed.
Is it so bad to tell kids to look up to a brilliant but socially awkward kid who used his smarts to fight crime and social injustice? And does Erik Sofge really want to argue that Outland and Saturn 3 were a big help in furthering the cause of science education in this country? If so…well, good luck with that, Erik.