How World Building Will Shape The Future Of Media And Business

Acclaimed production designer Alex McDowell and USC have joined forces on an interdisciplinary event and curriculum in world building, designed to inform the next generation of storytelling, urban planning, and business culture.

How World Building Will Shape The Future Of Media And Business
[Photo: Behnaz Farahi, courtesy of USC World Building Media Lab]

On an early Saturday morning, a small group of intrepid travelers introduced a University of Southern California audience to a recently discovered island in the South Pacific, called Rilao.


Isolated for a century and ravaged by disease and civil unrest, the overpopulated archipelago evolved as cultural mix of Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro, with a hacker-based approach to technology.

After running through Rilao’s cultural tics, the travelers then tasked the 300-member audience—an eclectic mix of students, educators, scientists, engineers, architects, gaming designers, programmers, urban planners, linguists, musicians, filmmakers, and artists—with further defining Rilao’s narrative. Thus began a 10-hour world building workshop that focalized USC’s 2nd annual Science of Fiction festival.

Introduction to RilaoPhoto: Susan Karlin

The event and USC’s world building curriculum are the brainchildren of Alex McDowell, the acclaimed production designer of Minority Report and Man of Steel. He is also founder and creative director of the 5D Institute, a world building research division at USC, and the design and storytelling studio 5D Global Studios, a world building practice, housed at Wondros, which explores the concepts of immersive design and human interaction with environment.

Alex McDowellPhoto: Susan Karlin

Science of Fiction–which took place October 24-26 and was co-curated by Jeff Watson, an assistant professor of interactive media and games at USC–also featured an expansive interactive display depicting cultural aspects of Rilao, a society developed by students in McDowell’s spring and summer world building classes; a Sound of Fiction evening concert of interactive music and light; and a closed-door brainstorming session with firms like Boeing, Intel, and Nike applying world building techniques to corporate problem solving.

“USC School of Cinematic Arts has the best games and production divisions in the world, so there’s a real opportunity here to look at the future landscape of media,” says McDowell. “Students are starting to look across at each other’s domains and see the natural mergers happening between different media spaces–from traditional to interactive and immersive. What’s missing is a methodology to approach new kinds of stories for those spaces. I’m a designer, so my focus is on how to design for multiple narrative media platforms and adapt to the speed of technology.”

Sound of Fiction was a live synchromedia concert featuring projection mapping and lighting that responded to audience gestures and dance movements—plus, music by David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick, Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, Stray Cats drummer Slim Jim Phantom, and Name the Machine. “Much like a drum circle, we feel there’s a real metaphor for the way world building works in large-scale collaborations,” says Alex McDowell. “Rhythms start to emerge out of the raw material.”Photo: Susan Karlin

What is world building?

World building is a system for creating rules and behaviors for fictitious worlds arising from the science, technology, social structure, geography, economics, and politics governing them. These parameters can then inform plausible characters, conflicts, and plotlines. While this approach is most apparent for film, TV, gaming, and interactive media, it also has potential applications in urban planning, product design, and business scenarios.


McDowell has used this approach in production design for such films as Man of Steel, Watchmen, Minority Report, and Fight Club. His most famous example is the iconic Minority Report scene in which Tom Cruise directs images on a clear monitor with wireless-enabled gloves. McDowell developed the design from a thesis by MIT graduate John Underkoffler, who developed a real-life gestural computer after the film sparked interest.

McDowell and his world building students made a splash at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show with their augmented reality Leviathan demonstration—a flying whale that appeared to emerge from a screen and fly over the audience.

World building is becoming a new strategy for film studios, particularly as they map out film slates years into the future.


“More studios are going towards franchises that can work across platforms and exist for years; projects that aren’t driven by a single script, but by a coherent logic derived from the work of multiple creators working in a space,” says McDowell. “We developed Minority Report prior to the script, so there was an opportunity to say, `Here’s a world. What do you want to do with it?’ We could just as easily have made a game out of that world as we could have made a film. Another example, Harry Potter, persists very coherently at Universal Studios in Florida with all of the integrity of the world that was developed for film, because exactly the same design impetus that drove the initial world of the movie was applied to the live experience space.”

Laura FentonPhoto: Susan Karlin

The skills developed through world building extend beyond storytelling into real-world problem solving by encouraging collaboration and non-linear thinking.

“A key to world building, that Alex has taught, is how to create a set of premises that are very fruitful in terms of cascading consequences,” says Laura Fenton, a doctoral student in USC’s School of Cinematic Arts’ media arts and practices program and creative director of the Rilao Project.


For example, Rilao’s typography and terrain forced Fenton and her classmates to consider unconventional architecture, urban layout, and transportation. “With a few simple concepts, a lot of complexity can be generated,” she says. “Because it’s collaborative, people are always adding new pieces. They might not be completely coordinated with what other people are building, but that’s okay, because in the real world, you don’t have a unified vision for a city. So the idea is to replicate that level of complexity in how we build the world.”

As a problem-solving tool, she adds, “it’s about connecting the dots between lots of moveable parts. You want to conceive of how things work as a system, as opposed to in a linear way. It’s an interdisciplinary exercise–you’re thinking about how different layers of expertise relate to each other. World building allows people to think in system-based way.”

The Rilao Project exhibit featured virtual reality, video, and interactive sculptural art. (L-R) Pipe sculptures representing Rilaoan Muka trees, and close-up of the “leaves”—notes of Rilaoan thoughts. “Everything in this exhibition is meant to be an artifact from the world of Rilao,” says Laura Fenton. “They’re showing what it’s like to be a Rilaoan and immersed in their society.”
Photos: Susan Karlin

World building as a study

Five years ago, McDowell began developing a curriculum at USC to introduce this approach to students, teaching his first class jointly with Underkoffler, and slowly fleshing out a course of study that incorporated disparate university departments. He held the first Science of Fiction symposium last year, and this summer, opened the World Building Media Lab to help transform project ideas into physical prototypes. The program inspired similar curricula in art colleges in London, Toronto, Rotterdam, Rio de Janeiro, and Melbourne, some of whose students also contributed to the Rilao Project.


“We developed a canon of highlights from some of the mythology of that world, but each one of those schools came at it with their own perspective,” says McDowell. “As those ideas started to be exchanged, healthy tensions started to develop within the different stories in the world.”

An example of Rilaoan wearable technology that enables one to display or hide herself in an overcrowded population. “Do we imagine intelligent clothing that expresses our emotions on the outside?” says McDowell. “Those things are not irrelevant to our real world. But within the world build space, you can really explore them without being bound by real world constraints. What you learn can be applied back to the real world.”Images by Behnaz Farahi/World Building Media Lab

Breaking it down

As exemplified by the structures of both Science of Fiction events, world building is not confined to one form. Last year’s workshop addressed the basics, asking participants to build upon a handful of geographic and population parameters describing a future Los Angeles flooded by global warming. Separated into groups by topic, participants brainstormed the science and technology, political system, economy, culture, transportation, art, etc. this society might have. At the day’s end, the groups combined results for a more comprehensive understanding of that world.

Given that students from USC and elsewhere had spent two semesters fleshing out Rilao, this year’s symposium was considerably more elaborate. With the basic structure already defined, participants were tasked with crafting more nuanced scientific, technological, and cultural expressions.

Map of Rilao separated into districtsImage by World Building Media Lab

In the morning, participants were assigned to one of nine Rilaoan districts, each representing a neighborhood with unique traits and customs. Each district subdivided into smaller groups that used a game to devise character and plot scenarios. Individuals chose random cards from a deck indicating a locale (i.e. catacombs, military base, clubhouse), noun (i.e. person, weapon, jewelry), year (select points from 1930 to 2055), and theme (i.e. education, nature, death) that coincided with preset descriptions of that theme during that time for that district. From there, participants had three minutes to craft a scenario or item description on a card that addressed those elements. Those were called vision cards. The group then picked a favorite vision card for the assigned year.

(L-R) Gaming materials to help brainstorm vision card scenarios; a sampling of completed vision cards.Photos: Susan Karlin

After lunch, each subgroup developed artifacts corresponding to another’s vision cards. Artifacts took the form of newspaper articles, jewelry, classified ads, animal sounds, anthems, and graphics–all defining some aspect of Rilaoan culture. The one exception was District 10–children 9-14 crafting elaborate models at the World Building Lab guided by adults in white lab coats.

At the day’s end, the districts convened to present their findings—from rebel jewelry to mind-controlled organic drones to Rilaoan animal sounds—all uploaded to a collective website (archived here). These, plus the vision card scenarios will be edited into a book, to be published by The Newer York.

The District 10 children’s group create Rilaoan artifacts in the World Building Media Lab.Photo: Susan Karlin

Real-world applications

Although Rilao is fiction, the world building methodology is based on real-world logic, and participants already noticed its potential applications to hypothetical problems in a range of fields. For Christine Schreyer, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, that means a new approach to studying cultures.

“I’m always looking for new ways to get ideas,” says Habib Zargarpour, a creative director at Microsoft Studios in Redmond, WA. “What I took away from this was, setting a few parameters, people, places, and themes together with backstory and a collective work group as a game can create some very compelling ideas. Gamifying this process with props and cards and fast iterations brings these ideas in very quickly and is something I can deploy in my work.”

A District 1 group brainstorms Rilaoan artifacts.Photo: Susan Karlin

Frederick Marks, a Los Angeles architect who co-founded the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture in San Diego, regards it a tool for exploring how environment affects mood. “I was schooled in problem-solving for real needs and constraints. “By entering an imaginary world of infinite variables, I was allowed to broaden my thinking with regard to the near possible and contribute ideas that pushed the limits for technological, environmental, economic and social solutions.”


The following day, Science of Fiction offered a private workshop for some of its sponsors–Boeing, Autodesk, Technicolor, Steelcase, and Nike–to address business-specific scenarios played out 15 to 50 years in the future by treating each corporation as its own world culturally.

Separate from the event, but in keeping with the possible applications of world building, McDowell and his team are applying the process to the Al Bayda Project, a Saudi Arabian initiative to engage a Bedouin tribe in a vision of the future they are currently building, but projected ten years into completion. The game engine-based world uses a day-in-the-life narrative to show the full scope of a sustainable future through architecture and permaculture, and allows for passive and interactive immersion in both the story and educational content. “It’s a real-world situation,” says McDowell. “But, as with Minority Report, we’re functioning as precognitive storytellers, ingesting real-world facts and then extrapolating these forward, enabling the stakeholders to experience as yet unrealized outcomes.”

At the end of the day, the districts presented their findings, beginning with the kids.Photo: Susan Karlin

Training the Future

The advent of an academic approach to world building emphasizes a growing movement away from silo or single discipline-based storytelling and problem solving to those involving more communal, interactive, and interdisciplinary approaches, particularly in entertainment.


“These students expect things to be changing and have no fear, which is very different than being out in industry, where there’s increasing fear,” says McDowell. “The students who leave this space are going to leapfrog over many of the traditional media people, because they’re fearless and already know their way around narrative worlds and spaces that may not yet even have a name.”

About the author

Susan Karlin, based in Los Angeles, is a regular contributor to Fast Company, where she covers space science, autonomous vehicles, and the future of transportation. Karlin has reported for The New York Times, NPR, Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, and Wired, among other outlets, from such locations as the Arctic and Antarctica, Israel and the West Bank, and Southeast Asia