What Went Down At Steven Spielberg's "Idea Summit" To Create A Realistic Future For 'Minority Report'

When a director puts a lot of thought into the details that fill out their cinematic world it shows, even if you don't explicitly notice each little thing while you're watching. It's the difference between the generic sci-fi universes we've seen in a million aspiring films and truly memorable worlds like Avatar's Pandora and Blade Runner's neo-noir Los Angeles.

But part of what made Steven Spielberg's Minority Report so interesting was that its setting — Washington, D.C. in the year 2054 — wasn't just striking, but impressively realistic. Spielberg had purposely set out to create a world that looked like the one we live in, only decades later. And with the help of the science and tech thinkers he brought together for an "idea summit," he succeeded.

On the occasion of Minority Report's 10th birthday, several of the visionaries who helped build the movie's familiar future recalled their experiences at the "ad hoc think tank." Read on after the jump.

  • The summit took place in 1999, over two days at the Shutters Hotel in Santa Monica. The group dreamed up ideas across a variety of industries, and Microserfs author Douglas Coupland even put together Year 2050 "style book" that included notes on "domesticated zebras, an eye wash that changes eye color, bamboo bred to grow hexagonally for more structural support..."
  • However, "ninety-nine percent ended up on the idea room floor," said MIT Media Lab alum John Underkoffler. One of the discarded ideas: "paparazzi 'bots with cameras that would fly to crime scenes and jostle for access."
  • Among the things that did make the cut were gesture-controlled computers, and indeed we use such technology today. Wired also ran a piece comparing Minority Report's predictions with the technology that's actually emerged in the past decade — you'd be surprised to remember what you saw in Spielberg's movie first.
  • Spielberg's commitment to (relative) realism even extended to the movie's most far-out conceit, the the pre-cogs. "I described EPR correlation — Einstein Podolsky Rosen," said MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms head Neil Gershenfeld. "This is, at heart, the weirdest thing in quantum mechanics: dealing with entanglement. What I suggested was that you would entangle the pre-cogs with the city — that there's an EPR source and you emit correlated photons and they entangle the brains of the precogs with the city around them as a way to get the perception."
  • Still, despite Spielberg's desire for a more grounded vision, the demands of moviemaking (understandably) came first. Recalls automotive designer Harald Belker: "We showed a car to Spielberg and he said, 'There are no buttons!' Well, of course not — it's supposed to be voice activated. 'OK, so what will the actor do in the car?' We had to add buttons. You think of everything, but you forget that you're making a movie."
  • Similarly, futurist Peter Schwartz cites jet packs as an unrealistic idea that nevertheless made it in. "But the director gets what he wants," he said.
  • Although the group was simply helping Spielberg create a setting for his movie, they hope their ideas have had a lasting impact beyond it. "When entertainment frames the future, it becomes a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy," mused urban planner Peter Calthorpe.