POPnology exhibit shows how science fiction inspires science-based reality


Open until Sunday, May 6
Telus World of Science
11211 – 142 St.
Admission: Single ranges from $16.95 to $23.95. Family pass (two adults plus four children/youth) $95.

POPnology is a weird name. Right? But it’s exactly how it reads – a mashup of pop culture and technology.

The POPnology exhibit, now open at Telus World of Science until May 6, shows how science fiction from yesterday became today’s reality – robots, drones, gaming stations and driverless cars to name a few.

Inspired by innovators that imagined futuristic worlds, POPnology’s goal shows technology is influenced and driven by movies, television, books and the arts.

The exhibit features science and technology ranging from Star Wars, Aliens, Back to the Future and virtual reality entertainment to robotics, mini NASA Mars Rovers and the world’s first 3D-printed car.

Essentially this 8,000 square foot interactive exhibit is framed with 30 childproof stations that explore how science fiction has morphed into science fact. The most common example is how the once futuristic Star Trek communicators inspired creative minds into developing today’s smartphone.

“We are seeing the future happen. All you have to do is look at Elon Musk’s Space X rocket booster recovery program. He’s found a way to land rocket boosters safely instead of letting them fall into the sea. They’re reusable and can save millions of dollars,” said Troy Carlson, CEO at Stage Nine Design located in West Sacramento, California.

Stage Nine Design spent two years creating POPnology, and Carlson has championed the project from the get-go. The touring exhibit looks at how we play, connect, live, work and the transportation modes we use.

Carlson guides us to a centrally located “Library” that displays books, magazines and reference materials used to build the exhibit. It also displays past observations and imaginings from a variety of science fiction writers.

An eerily familiar prophesy comes from novelist Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents. In this prescient novel, a zealot fundamentalist is elected president of the United States on a “Make America Great Again” platform. Sound familiar?

The Library also highlights Philip K. Dick, a great science fiction prophet and author of Blade Runner, Minority Report and Total Recall. In his books, he envisioned full body scans at airports, iris recognition for security, gesture based computer interfaces, personally targeted advertising and the use of GPS – now an intrinsic part of the 21st century.

One of the more popular areas is the virtual reality station where visitors choose any one of 10 digital animation experiences. They range from a quiet submarine engine room tour to a terrifying dinosaur battle.

Dan Alfano, Telus’ director of science, mans the VR station. In simple terms, he explains the technology works “using two lenses with a screen behind it to make it look immersive. Otherwise it would be a flat screen.”

Across the VR station is a kid magnet trial-and-error robotic arm controlled through a combination of joysticks and push-buttons.

After watching a frustrated young boy manoeuvre the joystick, Brandon Pedersen, Telus’ marketing coordinator points out, “kids don’t necessarily figure out there’s a challenge. They just like to play with the joystick.”

Visually the most dramatic artifact is a life-size metal sculpture of a reptilian alien from Ridley Scott’s horror movie Alien. H.R. Giger, the sci-fi surrealist designer, visualized and created these  bio-mechanical monsters from automotive parts.

A heavy-duty mechanic standing next to me points out transmission parts, bike sprockets, spark plugs, connecting rods and gears, all intricately fused together to create a mesmerizing creature.

As a whole, the creature is stunning. But by scanning the individual parts, the inventor’s ingenuity and resourcefulness stand out in jaw-dropping wonder.

Just a few steps away is a less intimidating station with an immobile, life-size R2-D2 from Star Wars, and a series of shelf-size robots with owl-shaped eyes, some that were used as tape decks in the 1980s.

Noting the robots’ blank expressions, Carlson said that today’s technology has progressed to near human features.

“Nobody wants a faceless robot. We take in facial expressions and for humans that’s our point of connection.”

The exhibit also features several different vehicles. Looking for ways to build cars more simply and cheaply, Arizona-based Local Motors has built the futuristic Strati, the first 3D-printed car.

The fully functioning sporty two-seater is printed from carbon-fibre reinforced plastic. Strati took 44 hours to print and two days to assemble, and contains a fully electric drive train. If Strati is successful, we could see a revolution in the way cars are built.

Autonomous vehicles of the future are big news. At the front of the convoy is the NIVIDIA Drive PX, an AI platform that functions as a super computer allowing autonomous trucks to deploy and self-drive.

“It basically has the super-computing power of 150 MacBooks. It takes everything in,” said Carlson.

He added that the technology makes long-haul routes feasible. As well, autonomous heavy equipment and dump trucks have already been used in oilfields.

However, brilliant computerized innovations tend to attract malicious hackers. Carlson concedes hacking into a supercomputer to disrupt transports is always a possibility.

“But the automakers did a smart thing. They employed Silicon Valley, and they came up with solutions and safeguards.”

One car that stands apart from the pack is a bright red Autotopia from Disneyland’s Tomorrowland. Carlson explains that Bob Gurr was the mechanical genius behind all of Walt Disney’s futuristic inventions.

“You give him an idea and he could visualize it. Bob was a ‘gearhead’. He invented the PeopleMover, a mag-lift system for transporting people around Tomorrowland. He was an inspiration. He always said, ‘I’m not an engineer, but I was curious about life.”

Carlson once worked at Disneyland. He explains that Walt Disney was a pop culture visionary fascinated with the future and advanced technology.

“He could see large models of transportation in large cities as a priority. Walt didn’t care where you had been. He only cared where you went. If something failed, it was a learning experience. He set parameters, but he also gave people a safe place to try things.”

Tomorrowland was a taste of a futuristic city and POPnology also attempts to inspire and challenge through architecture. Today’s architects and engineers use lighter, stronger materials in erecting taller skyscrapers.

Using this approach, organizers have envisioned and built a space station with domes, towers, bridges and a transport landing constructed from wood blocks. Underneath the city is a table packed with wood blocks challenging all ages to create a model from their imagination.

“We want kids to think of where they will live in the future, whether it is on the moon, on Mars or under the ocean floor. We hope this exhibit inspires a curiosity for technology and a better understanding of how it fits into our lives.”


About Author

Anna Borowiecki

Anna Borowiecki joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2000. She reports on local people and events in the arts, entertainment and food industry. She also writes general news and features.