TED Talk: Why I Built a Time Machine!

I spent the spring at TED this year, working on developing a VR piece about Coney Island’s Luna Park, and writing a talk about how technology has shaped entertainment. Cramming a TED talk into six minutes was no easy feat. The idea was to look back at the past as a lens to consider how technology during the first and second industrial revolutions defined the last century of entertainment, then to speculate how the dawn of today’s natural user interfaces will lead the way to new forms of entertainment that will extend into the next century. So, here it is at last, my TED talk!

The talk centers around a project I have been working on over the last several years- a historic reconstruction of Coney Island’s Luna Park as it appeared a century ago. The work done at TED this year resulted in a prototype VR experience allowing users to virtually walk through Luna Park as it existed in the milestone years of 1903, 1908 and 1914, and jump between these years as they explore. There’s tons more modeling to do to build out the experience, and after the talk I just had to put it aside for a while to reflect on why I am doing this completely obsessive project.

The current state of VR seems like an in-between technology to me. This isn’t where we are going, but rather a stop along the way.  I’m guessing some AR/VR device will eventually come along that mixes with just the right software experience to become the tipping point for mass adoption, but I think we’re still a ways away. In the meantime, it’s my hope to keep working on building out the Time Machine so that when technology finally catches up, it will be ready. There’s lots more work to be done modeling and then the exhaustive texturing that will really make Luna Park look like the glittering and glowing city of fire that it was.

A lot of my thinking about the piece left me thinking about how to turn this into a product that will interest people other than a very small group of Coney Island history buffs. It’s playful, but is it a game? Or maybe the rides get built out as virtual rides and that could justify its existence as a software product? I toyed with the idea of using it as a collection game where we can roam the environment exploring and collecting people from the Scan-A-Rama archive.  Then it dawned on me… this is literally a Time Machine, and there are tons of other places I would travel in time if I could. Where would you go if you could travel anywhere in time and space? That’s when I realized that this is–  the first proof of concept destination for a Time Machine platform.

I have a vision of the Time Machine as a set of camera controller objects that allow anyone who is passionate about a place to build their own time machine that can travel to ancient Egypt or whatever place they are passionate about. That’s my real “big idea” coming out of TED- that the Time Machine platform should be an open source library of template Unity files empowering anyone to create and share their explorations. This could be a great tool for architects, archaeologists, crime scene investigators, history and literary buffs– anyone interested in experiencing places that can no longer be physically visited, and which bear examination as they changed over time.

Time jumping is definitely a feature that is already out there as a software principle. Consider Undo/Redo, the DVR, or Google Street view, which already has about 15 years worth of data. What happens when Street View hits 50 years, or a century? Time travel is coming, it’s just going to be different than what H.G. Wells predicted. The Eye in the Sky episode of RadioLab also talks about another form of time travel that has definite ethical issues. In an increasingly digital world, I predict that temporal travel will become more pervasive, so where would you want to travel? I look forward to hearing from potential collaborators or anyone who is passionate about places they would want to travel to.

If you have a Windows VR setup with an HTC VIVE, try out the Time Machine prototype yourself. Special props to Matt Laverty of Atomic Veggies and developer Daniel Alhadeff for their help on the project!

Download Prototype for 64 bit Windows systems with HTC Vive.
Controls: Use the controller touchpad to move, press the small button above the touchpad to jump between the years of 1903,1908 and 1914 (For example, while looking at the entrance)

Time-Machine

Fred at TED!

It’s been hard to keep my mouth shut the last two months, but I am finally able to announce that I will be spending the next 3 months as a Resident at TED, working on a project to recreate turn of the 20th century Thompson & Dundy’s Luna Park in VR, with an accompanying TED talk in June.


This is the next step in the evolution of a project that I have been working on on and off for over 20 years, since I first went the NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program in the mid 1990’s. Back then, I created a series of Quicktime VR panoramas of Luna Park, and then a few years ago when 3D printing became widely accessible, I rekindled the project to produce a 3D printed model of the park that was exhibited in the Coney Island Museum. This upcoming phase will be focused on recreating the entirety of the park as a VR experience which will allow viewers to explore the park firsthand. It is my hope to share the models under a Creative Commons licence that encourages others to use virtual Luna Park and encourage its use as a virtual meeting place in the future.

There are several themes I am thinking about in regards to the TED talk I will be doing in June, but the general idea I am working with is about the history and legacy of technology as entertainment, specifically Luna Park’s role in defining everything we do for amusemnt today. Luna Park came out of the golden age of world fairs, a time when attractions in the 1897 World Columbian Exposition were effectively the physical manifestation of a memory palace containing all of man’s culture and knowledge. It was the real world embodiment of everything Google is for us today. The park was not only a showcase for fantastical, otherworldly architecture, it transported the melting pot of American immigrants to exotic locales around the world, even to the moon, anticipating what the future of entertainment would be like. Electricity, phonographs, motion pictures, infant incubators, simulation rides, they all began at Luna Park. I cannot wait to virtually resurrect it and share it with the world!

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 6.32.44 PM

A screencap of the Luna Park VR prototype, with cell shaded rendering style