Meet the Real-Life Tony Stark Whose Tech Is Changing the World
In a couple of years, you are going to be like Iron Man. No, really. It's not because you're getting a flying suit and sweet new facial hair — it's because how you use computers is going to completely change.
That's what John Underkoffler hopes, anyway. He's the cofounder and CEO of Oblong Industries, and he's also the guy Marvel consults so they can make Iron Man's alter ego, Tony Stark, as brilliant as he appears in the Avengers movies.
Underkoffler has designed a number of Iron Man's signature inventions, from his personalized keyboard to his homemade nuclear reactor to the gestures Stark uses to command his self-assembling suit. Last month Underkoffler won the Cooper-Hewitt National Design award for interaction design. The CEO believes that user interfaces, how we communicate with machines and with each other, will drive how technology is going to change in the next few years — and how movies can shift our expectations for the future.
Science fiction, as Thor's Jane Foster says, has a way of becoming science fact. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has made billions of dollars in ticket sales, has a global megaphone in our conversations about the future of technology. Not only do the movies inspire present and future innovators, but they can also showcase the ideas that are lighting up the tech scene as we speak.
So long, 20th century: Oblong's New York office sits about a mile from the site of Avengers Tower. From the front door, a closed-out RadioShack is visible on one side, Madison Square Garden on the other. Inside, there's a computer room that's straight out of a sci-fi film: multiple screens, each interconnected and instantly interactive from thousands of miles apart, all controlled with gestures and one simple wand. That room is from a very specific film, though it's not a Marvel property: Minority Report, 2002's future-set thriller starring Tom Cruise.
Characters in Minority Report interact with digital content through gestures. The digital content goes wherever it wants, moving unimpeded between screens on a big monitor, a handheld device or a bank of computers. "It's really easy to start thinking of pixels as a kind of universally interoperable thing," Underkoffler said. "Pixels should be a shared resource." After consulting on Minority Report, "it seemed too timely and too fabulous not to take the momentum from all the excitement about that gestural interface work and build it back into the real world."
The excitement is real and remains so. The TED Talk Underkoffler gave in 2010 describing the technology has more than 1.4 million views. Oblong soon brought in clients to use real-life versions of Minority Report's software, which is called Mezzanine; they include IBM, Boeing, GE, Sonos, Beats Music and the federal government. But Underkoffler has no interest in keeping the client list so rarefied. He wants his technology in everybody's hands.
To accomplish that goal, he designed Mezzanine to be both futuristic and decidedly intuitive — "visceral" and "fun," as Underkoffler called it. You can issue commands by rolling a wand in your hand, or zoom by moving the wand forward and backward in space. To see your data move around an entire room brings to mind a million possibilities. It's meant to be seamless, frictionless, intuitive.
There's a reason he wants Mezzanine to exist outside of the corporate purview. "If there are seven corporations that essentially control all of the digital efficacy in the world, then that's not a healthy society," he said. "A healthy society is an informed society, one in which individuals have a voice, they have the power to create and disseminate new ideas. So let's give people a full vocabulary. Let's give people the broadest set of language within which to play, to try stuff out, to say things and see what happens."
How do we do that? Simple: Make everyone Tony Stark.
Oh yeah, I can fly: "Tony is really fascinating as a character because he designs his own technology and then uses it, so he's kind of the ideal closed-loop designer-engineer and user," Underkoffler said. "Let's do that for people in general. Let's give them a UI that makes them vastly more communicative, more powerful, gives them direct control over pieces of the digital world, then we're a lot closer to being like Tony."
When movie audiences see that technology in action, they start asking what they could do with those options.
Underkoffler's goal for Mezzanine is to bring computing into space. "We're experts at using the physical world," he said. "Space is important because that's where we live." Yet we're still using all the power of contemporary technology with the maximum capabilities of the early age of computers: a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, a single device. Even our smartphones are a limitation — Underkoffler compares it to confining your creativity to a 3-inch-by-5-inch card. Our problems, he says, are room-sized and require collaboration. "We know how to get stuff done with other people when space is the medium," he said.
He's not kidding about user interfaces making us superheroes. "UIs should be like Tony Stark's suit," he said. "It transduces your human intent into a kind of a computational superpower, in the same way that a mechanical exoskeleton would let you run at 50 mph." When movie audiences see that technology in action, they start asking what they could do with those options.
That's exactly what Rick Loverd wants. He's the director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program developed by the National Academy of Sciences to put scientists and their research in touch with TV and movie producers. The Exchange has worked with Marvel on a number of projects, including The Avengers and Agents of SHIELD. "The ability for media to get the next generation of scientists excited about cracking these technologies and bringing them to us and making them real, that's a really powerful force," Loverd told Mic in a phone interview. "That's something you can see throughout the history of storytelling."
The Marvel movies in particular have been the staging ground for a number of cutting-edge technologies. Oblong-style gestural and even holographic interfaces are a common feature of both SHIELD facilities and Stark products.
The Thor franchise, in which technology is so advanced it's basically considered magic, showcases "healing rooms" reminiscent of personalized medicine. Guardians of the Galaxy features instantaneous secure communication across improbable distances. While the genocidal AI of Avengers: Age of Ultron may far off, the beloved JARVIS, a computer designed to replace a human butler from the comics, is one of Tony Stark's closest emotional relationships — just like how we anthropomorphize and form attachments to machines like Siri.
In the films, most of the most powerful toys are either in space or reserved for the genius billionaire playboy philanthropists who build them. However, Loverd thinks the everyday real-life consumer has the most to gain from these developments, and he says history proves him right. "When you look at things like sequencing your own genome, that used to cost tens of thousands of dollars, and now it's something like $1,000," he said. "Even the flat-screen TV, the amount of processing power that people are able to buy, that technology used to cost a fortune. It's now accessible to the average person."
Art imitates life: Cool fictional technology tells us a lot about ourselves too. "We correctly expect more out of our technology," said Underkoffler of these movies, where "you can see technology actually bestowing more agency, efficacy and power on the human side of the human-machine interface."
Yet the picture isn't always so rosy. The Marvel movies want us to ask questions about ourselves too. Is it right to pursue certain technologies? The Incredible Hulk is all about attempts to create super-soldier programs, and how much damage — personal, physical and psychic — that kind of power can cause. Can we trust the owners of technology? Captain America: The Winter Soldier shows us a surveillance state built, its makers claim, to keep us safe — and to weed out those whom the state decides might get in its way. How do we move away from war when it's so profitable? In Iron Man, Tony Stark's mentor and business partner tries to kill him, rather than shift their company away from weapons and into clean energy.
Oblong, for its part, envisions a world where every screen everywhere is accessible and available for interaction to users of Mezzanine. Underkoffler, however, is also working through the privacy considerations of the software, and keeping full control of information with the user. We owe it to the world, he says; a UI should let its users be as present and as private in the digital world as they are in the real one.
"That's the greatest role that Hollywood can play in pushing us forward into the future."
Loverd thinks that ultimately, there's a difference between a great character's moral dilemma and a technology's benefit to society. "I'm a firm believer that the advancement that we are able to make are ultimately worth that potential dark side," he said. "This idea of Tony Stark as this engineer who solves problems and creates great things is, I think, more what's going to have a positive impact on the world."
"To me," Loverd said, "that starting point of the character who inspires you or the technology that gets you thinking, that doesn't exist but maybe it could — I think that's the greatest role that Hollywood can play in pushing us forward into the future."