SAN JOSE, Calif. — At one point during an epic exchange with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak at Silicon Valley Comic Con, actor William Shatner launched into a rant about horse-based therapy and mysticism, followed by a loosely connected and rather poetic expression of his theory of the universe.
Then Shatner offered his take on the difference between science fiction and engineering, remembering a time in the early days of the cell phone when he took out his Motorola phone in the airport.
“I flipped it open, to make a phone call, and 15 people crowded around me and started laughing,” Shatner said. “I had no idea. Because on Star Trek we had this communicator, and the Motorola phone looked exactly like the communicator. Science fiction had preceded science.”
Standing with a microphone in the audience, Wozniak replied, “Except that I, as a young kid, wanted to be the captain of a spaceship, flying. And that, we don’t quite have yet. Sometimes we get them. We can see through walls like Superman, we can put on Jetpacks and fly like Superman.”
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying!” Shatner yelled. “Anything is possible!”
That exchange probably wouldn’t happen between Shatner and any other Comic Con host. But this was Silicon Valley Comic Con, and it seemed to be, as Shatner hinted, trying to connect with and nurture — perhaps inspire — some bigger thread between science and popular culture.
Wozniak inaugurated Silicon Valley Comic Con (SVCC) last weekend, welcoming a crowd that included comic book legend Stan Lee, city officials, Starfleet officers, Jedi knights, assorted guests from various realms of science fiction and fantasy, and many just plain humans, who joyfully flowed through the doors and onto the show floor.
From inception, Wozniak and his team designed SVCC to be a con where science meets fiction. That included a big focus on virtual reality. SVCC CEO Trip Hunter explained, “with all of the choices in the Valley, that got to be a bit overwhelming, so we decided to focus on one technology for our ‘area’ and that was VR.”
But team Woz didn’t stop with virtual reality when it came to panels. They wove science and technology through the con like a dark matter filament coursing through multiple galaxies (I looked that up and it is a thing). On the tech front, for instance, animator Bret Blevins and comic book writer Tim Blevins discussed the impact of social media and the potential rise of the social comic book.
Another session explored how virtual and augmented reality would change storytelling. In the Superbabies vs. AI panel, husband and wife team Astro and Danielle Teller discussed the relative merits and threats of eugenics and intelligent algorithms, and which one would doom humankind first, if either.
The most talked-about science panel included Ant-Man consultant and Caltech researcher Spiros Michalakis, who discussed the laws of physics and how they are adapted to fiction. Michalakis coined the term “quantum realm” for the Ant-Man film. The Martian author, Andy Weir, was joined by MythBuster’s Adam Savage and JPL systems engineer Bobak Ferdowsi to discuss the real world science behind visiting Mars with human beings.
During a VR panel with Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, Wozniak said he was onboard with going to Mars, even if it is a one-way trip. He see VR, however, as his fallback position. If he never lands on Mars, he hopes to watch vicariously through images sent to his VR headset by those who do land on the Red Planet. Both agreed that VR was ready as a good first generation set of products, but that AR was still years away. However, Wozniak argued that Google Glass was a worthy experiment in shifting the human-to-computer relationship.
SVCC was not an announcement show, though Adobe did share their plans for moving more into 3D art as part of a panel called “Engineering for Tomorrow,” and Disney Interactive talked about their upcoming mobile games coming off the success of Star Wars: Commander and Marvel: Avengers Alliance. The biggest announcement was that of Legion M, the first fan-owned entertainment studio, created under new SEC rules that resulted from the JOBS Act, which allows individual, non-accredited investors to buy shares in private companies. Legion M is headed by Paul Scanlan and Jeff Annison, the Emmy winning technologists behind MobiTV.
Some of the panels were pure pop culture, like the delightful reunion of Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson and Christopher Lloyd that took us Back to the Future. Fox had his tech moment when asked if his children would go into acting: “Nope,” he said, “My son is a hipster. He lives in Brooklyn and is working on an app.”
Actor Jeremy Renner suggested attendees avoid the lights of Hollywood, advising them that if they have a real passion for anything other than acting, they should go all-in for that passion.
In the final panel, Wozniak shared, “I’ve lived in Silicon Valley all of my life. We didn’t have a major Comic Con presence here. The tenth largest city in America. Why not bring a Comic Con here, it deserves to be here…This is our first Comic Con, Rev 1.0”
Stan Lee responded to Wozniak with a snide nod to Silicon Valley entrepreneurism: “I’ve been to many first Comic Cons, and they’re OK. You figure later on they’ll get better. This is the kind of Comic Con you figure has been going on for years. It is professionally done, it has more people than you could ever have guessed and everybody is in a great mood. … I congratulate you on hiring the right people.”
SVCC was indeed run by a small team of full-time employees headed by CEO Trip Hunter, along with scores of volunteers. Hunter and his team managed the Con like a software project. It wasn’t without its glitches, mostly to do with lines and logistics, but that’s what happens when you put a 1.0 product in the market. But true to software engineering, when a long line of attendees waiting to pick up tickets formed in the warm exterior of the San Jose Convention Center, Hunter and his team went out, bought water and incrementally improved their code on the fly. Many lessons, big and small, as Wozniak insisted several times during the final panel, would be applied to “SVCC 2.0” to ensure it was even better than this year’s event.
Beside general praise for the Con, Lee commented that Wozniak, unlike himself, “knows how things work” when he engineers something. Lee said he had a propensity to guess at the effects of science. “I would have had more superheroes, but I ran out of rays.” The two leaders of geekdom might not come to science from the same perspective, but they did agree that people should “Have fun and do what you enjoy,” and “that working with your friends is fun.” And that’s a good work lesson for anyone.
All Comic Cons have a certain vibe, and SVCC was no different: A peaceful few days where those who are often ostracized by society — or would be if they actually wore a Starfleet uniform to work everyday — come together with like-minded individuals to share a passion for what-ifs. But SVCC also had its own vibe. It was pretty clear that what-ifs aren’t good enough for Woz and friends. They may eschew the magic thinking that leads to “build it and they will come.” In Wozniak’s world they want science fiction to blossom into reality. Their mantra might hold: “Imagine it, and someone will figure out how to build it, at least some day.”