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USC Brings Together Filmmakers, Engineers, Doctors for Its New Body Computing Center

How can the goofy computer-generated gait of Jar Jar Binks and a smartphone that measures air pollution help the future of health care? The three concepts are more closely related than you think. So close, in fact, that a new cross-disciplinary school established at the University of Southern California hopes to combine technological wizardry of filmmaking with the product-design capabilities of an engineering school to help patients and physicians better understand health and wellness.

The new Center for Body Computing will reside in the school's Keck School of Medicine and collaborate extensively with USC's School of Cinematic Arts (which just got fancy new digs thanks to alumnus George Lucas) and the Viterbi School of Engineering. The filmmaking and engineering schools already work closely together on projects for the Institute of Creative Technologies, which is best known for developing products to help train or treat soldiers exposed to extreme situations in combat. We wrote about one of their collaborations, the IED Battle Drill, where theme park engineers and Hollywood producers created a simulated experience of a roadside bomb attack.

The implications for this unique collaboration are truly endless, Dr. Leslie Saxon, executive director of the Center for Body Computing, tells Fast Company, ranging from creating realistic virtual reality environments to help treat post-traumatic stress, to creating minuscule implanted devices which can be placed in the body to provide ongoing, accurate health data for patients and their providers. Thanks to the filmmaking aspect, patients will be able to understand this information through data visualization, motion graphics and a dedication to storytelling that helps them engage emotionally with their own wellness — in an experience that's not unlike going to see a sci-fi film, says Saxon.

"People think about their own health as an ongoing narrative," says Saxon. "As they interact with increasingly sophisticated devices for medical information they will best understand that information if it's delivered via engaging visual storytelling."

Although some of the other projects that will be undertaken by the center seem more fitting for a future Star Wars trilogy — smart pills, body tattoos that act as RFID sensors — Saxon believes that these advances are closer than we think. She points especially to wireless health monitoring which has made incredible advances in the last few years, with products like the tiny pedometer and sleep monitor FitBit and an iPhone accessory that helps diabetics monitor their blood sugar. So something like Luke Sky Walker's incredible bionic arm after it was unwillingly amputated by Darth Vader? Not so far, far away.