The future will be so cool!
It figures that a place like this would be headquartered in Burbank.
In the best tradition of underground bunkers with super smart, wild, and wonderful inventors rapid-prototyping future technology deep in the lab, you enter Applied Minds in Burbank, California, via an unmarked painted door.
Once inside you pick up a vintage phone and a passageway opens beyond. It’s full of patent notifications for helicopter landing systems, multi-touch gestures (as seen in mobile phones today), and advanced expedition vehicles, alongside marked-up blueprints and CAD drawings for technological innovations. Is that a mission-critical command center with advanced digital console systems for the US Naval Research Laboratory? The person accompanying us cannot say, so off we go to meet Bran Ferren, co-chairman of Applied Minds, Inc.
Ferren is the former president of R&D and creative technology for Walt Disney; he ran the Walt Disney Imagineering R&D Group during the late 90s, and is the recipient of many honors, including an Oscar nomination (and a well-received TED Talk, embedded below). He co-founded Applied Minds in 2000 with Danny Hillis, who recently departed for MIT and a new company called Applied Invention.
An Oscar and a TED talk. Got us there.
Applied douchebags is more like it:
As we walked through the myriad of workspaces that open off a wide atrium with high windows, Ferren points out exquisitely rendered architectural models of futuristic corporations (he can’t say which ones), exoskeletons, and what looks like an in-flight navigation test program (Applied Minds does work for the Air Force Research Lab).
We settle into an air-controlled engineering workshop dominated by a 51,000-pound extreme expedition RV. It’s KiraVan (pictured above), one of Ferren’s personal passions (named for his 7-year-old daughter Kira). Applied Minds has made similar vehicles, which can survive extreme heat/cold conditions (but not at this scale) for its clients (rumored, but certainly not confirmed, to be major oil companies). Ferren is sponsoring this project because he wants to show his daughter the world, as well as have an R&D/demonstration platform for the company.
We climb up into the driver’s massive cab of the KiraVan for a chat.
The design of Applied Minds’ building is extraordinarily pleasing. But where are the high-density cubicles, 80s movie-labeled conference rooms, and rat run corridors with frosted windows and easy-to-swap-out executive name cards on doors?
We don’t believe in cubicles. In Stewart Brand’s terminology we have something of a “Cave and Commons” architecture in all of our buildings so there are private spaces, and re-configurable open community spaces. Most of the conference rooms, of which there are many, are equipped with HD videoconferencing, so we can collaborate remotely with our clients and external teams. We like daylight, plants, natural materials, good food, and fish ponds. We only succeed if I can attract the best and brightest in the world to come here. A lot of our output contains trade secrets, so it’s pretty exciting stuff to work on and I need top talent. So I have to give them an environment where they wish to be, and where I wish to be as well.
It does take a certain kind of commercial talent to sell this ersatz futuristic crap, but it’s not one that we’d ever want to possess.
Final question: Do you think digital technology has heralded a new era in human evolution itself?
Not really. But having said that, we used to create new humans only through sex, but now we can also modify and pass on our DNA through gene editing.
CRISPR-me-up? (holds out arms, veins showing)
All of these modern miracles are still in the early dawn of what will be commonplace within our lifetimes, and barely imaginable now.
A suitably big picture thought to end on. Thanks for your time, Bran.
Yeah. Here’s to the future.
We refrained from showing a picture of this same guy’s prized and supersized RV concept. It was just too much.
Although RV jokes are always overwhelmingly obvious — though not to this clueless crowd, whose vision of the future apparently doesn’t include any concept of “irony” — we can’t help but picture this in its place:
There’s a big difference between art and industry. They’re mostly not compatible, and you either know it or you don’t.