From "WarGames" to Alien Zoos
Hollywood veteran Walter F. Parkes has used his industry experience to help create immersive VR experiences—first at the nation’s malls and, now, Arizona State University’s biology department
Can Hollywood-style storytelling improve the way college students learn?
Arizona State University has invested in just that idea. Dreamscape Learn, a partnership between ASU and VR entertainment and technology company Dreamscape Immersive, gives biology students a new kind of classroom—virtual reality pods—to explore concepts in virtual education environments.
Dreamscape Learn is still in its infancy at ASU, but it reflects a lifetime of experience of one of its creators, Walter F. Parkes. The screenwriter (WarGames, Sneakers) and producer (Twister, Gladiator) has spent decades in Hollywood, with a particular knack for making science fiction a reality. Among his more than 50 producing credits are some of the biggest sci-fi films of the last 20-plus years, including Men in Black, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and Minority Report.
Parkes, the former head of DreamWorks Motion Pictures, drew on his work with big-budget big-screen spectacle in 2016 to help cofound Dreamscape Immersive. The company combines “the emotional power of Hollywood storytelling, the visceral excitement of great theme-park rides,” and the potential of virtual reality “to create stories and worlds that push the limits of virtual reality.”
Dreamscape Immersive experiences, which began coming online in December 2018, can be found in shopping malls across the country. That’s how the experiences—and Parkes—caught ASU’s attention, which ultimately resulted in the creation, in 2020, of Dreamscape Learn.
The Elective recently spoke with Parkes to learn more about this partnership, why it made sense to bring Dreamscape Immersive (DI) into a college classroom, and the future of Dreamscape Learn (DL).
Walter Parkes (center) and Arizona State University's Michael Angilletta (right) discuss Dreamscape Learn.
Did you and your cofounders see Dreamscape Immersive as a purely entertainment-driven initiative, or did you think it could evolve into something more educational?
I always thought it had the potential to go beyond entertainment, and that the techniques and level of engagement we could achieve in entertainment could platform it in education solutions. But the means of distributing it were not as ubiquitous as they are now, with the proliferation of [VR] headsets. I come out of the picture business, so the initial focus was most definitely on entertainment. But we always felt there was that possibility. It really took [ASU president] Michael Crow walking into Dreamscape to sort of crystallize it.
Alien Zoo is one of Dreamscape Learn’s experiences, but it predates the creation of DL. What was behind the choice to make Alien Zoo the first educational DI offering?
Just as an entertainment experience, we made the decision to build out Alien Zoo as a sort of world-building exercise. In other words, we designed the creatures and their ecosystems with a sort of scientific logic in mind. It wasn't deeply thought out. But if you were to walk into a Dreamscape entertainment center and look at the materials, we treated all of our creatures as if there were actual natural histories backing them up, that they would actually have been studied by scientists. It wasn't with an eye toward education, per se. But we sort of live in a time—whether it’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe or, in my case, Men in Black—where a lot of franchise entertainment deals have deep world building beyond just the immediate requirements of any given narrative. So we definitely took that as an approach, and it provided an easy sidestep into more specific educational application of the world.
How did experiencing Alien Zoo convince Michael Crow to initiate a relationship between ASU and DI?
Michael came to visit us through a mutual friend. We have these display cases with fictional artifacts that are on loan from the Intergalactic Wildlife Federation. He looked at them, then came out of Alien Zoo and proclaimed, “There's a new way to teach here.” As it turns out, in his own pedagogical framework, he had been looking for a platform and a partnership to sort of explore and realize what he calls Realm 4 of the five realms of teaching and learning, which is "Education Through Exploration,” where the student can be transformed from being a passive recipient of the pedagogy to an active participant in uncovering it. He saw Alien Zoo right away as an opportunity, and it was an instant ignition because he had been looking for this kind of platform in the past.
How much debate was there among DI cofounders and leaders about jumping into the education space?
This is before the pandemic. I wouldn't say there was resistance. But there was a little bit of a shrug. I wouldn't say there was a whole-hearted initial enthusiasm. But while my business has been motion pictures, most of my nonprofit work has been in education, my daughter's an educator, and I've been involved in certain ways on boards at education institutions. So I was sort of attuned to the possibilities.
My team really came on board when they visted ASU and saw the total transformation that Michael Crow has achieved there. I mean, there's no more exciting educational or intellectual environment on the planet, as far as I'm concerned. But there was a little bit of a wait-and-see moment. Of course, with the pandemic and the closing of our stores—which are now reopened—it turned out to be exactly the area that could ignite as a result of the pandemic, as opposed to being challenged by it.
What were you impressions of Michael Angilletta as he launched DL at ASU?
It was an extraordinarily pleasant surprise to find in Mike a gifted biologist, a gifted teacher, a great communicator, and someone who had an instinct for narrative. Part of what we try to do with Dreamscape Learn is not just engage through the specific immersive technologies but also to use aspects of emotional cinematic narrative as the basis of problems that are to be solved. I wasn't in any way prepared for a chief biologist to be attuned to all of those values, and Mike and his partner John VandenBrooks have really shown themselves to be.
My daughter teaches at the Lab School at UCLA. She's very trained and went to Bank Street School. I've seen the amount of knowledge and training and best practices that goes into teaching elementary school, whereas at universities, so many professors really are not there because of teaching skills, but rather because they're great scientists or researchers and they go and teach. But I've seen a weird gap where, the higher you go up in education, the less emphasis there is on the understanding of what teaching and learning are as concepts in their own right. I've really been pleased to see how attuned Mike is to that. I mean, this is also about figuring out new ways to teach and new ways to learn. He's been both open to that, and quite exploratory in that as well. So it's been a great surprise.
Walter Parkes talks with students after experiencing their Dreamscape Learn project "Theta Labs."
Alien Zoo was DI doing education pre-DL. Do you foresee content created that will be DL-specific?
Those are sort of distinctions without differences. Dreamscape Learn has now been spun off to be its own company. So now, all of the educational activity that would have been a part of Dreamscape Immersive has been moved over to this new company. We're in the midst of hiring management, real leaders in the world of education, to run that company. The Dreamscape Immersive team will stay as the content-producing team. But we're building a capability at Dreamscape Learn.
By the way, ASU continues to build its capability, which will all be expressed through Dreamscape Learn, in terms of assessment and content creation. For example, we've already identified what we feel will be our next course, which will be in conjunction with ASU Global Futures Lab. It’s a new $400 million Institute focused on the planet and climate. This is going to be a general education course on the planet and climate. It strikes us that understanding all that is sort of a requirement of an educated person in this century. There are very few things that could be served better in VR than an understanding of the planet and the climate crisis, in that we can bring our students through time and space to really experience certain things that are otherwise very abstract.
Can you speak more about the role you hope not just DL but DI as a broader experience can have in the coming decades of addressing climate change and the climate crisis?
Let me first speak about it more generally. I recently got a slide from ASU that had to do with UNESCO approximating that there's something like about 180 million higher education students on the planet right now, and that it had estimated the demand for higher education in the next 10 years would grow to about 410 million. Someone worked out that that meant, I think, you'd have to build four universities for 80,000 people every week for 15 years to meet that demand. So one might say that if we're going to have an educated planet, we literally can't build enough schools given what the potential need is out there. In general, certainly we would hope to be leaders in that, particularly given the emerging technologies, given the leadership of ASU, and frankly given what we at Dreamscape bring to the table in terms of emotional engagement.
Talking to Mike as he set about working on this version of introductory biology, there seems to be a shift from a concentration on knowledge to a concentration on skills. A lot of what we're trying to do in our approach to biology in the labs is to help teach students how to think like scientists, and how to develop in them skills that are transferable beyond becoming biologists or working in the biosciences. You know, quantitative reasoning, or metacognition, or all sorts of things that, given the technological basis of the world in which we live, are invaluable skills students can bring into anything.
Finally, the issues surrounding the climate crisis seem so enormous that the biggest concern we have is people become resigned to it, that there's nothing we can do. We’ve found that people don't have a direct understanding really of what climate scientists do. You certainly know what medical doctors do, and you sort of know what biologists do. But climate science is a very, very broad and fascinating field that goes from a micro level of how a carbon atom works to very macro levels about how the planet works. So taking those big concepts and allowing them to become concrete and accessible and, hopefully, exciting, we think is half of the battle.
So it has to do with educating people through engagement, and turning otherwise complex fields of study into something that is much more readily experienced firsthand.
Ally Sheedy watches Matthew Broderick work at a computer in a scene for the 1983 MGM/UA movie "WarGames," written by Walter F. Parkes.
Within the films that you have either produced or been a screenwriter on, like WarGames and Sneakers, it seems you have maintained an interest not just in technology but on the darker possibilities of how that technology can be used.
You bring up something that someone brought up to me maybe five or six weeks ago. If you were to go back to WarGames and look at the one sheet, the poster, the ad line is “Is it a game or is it real?” Which is very odd, because all of these choices one makes in life only make sense in retrospect. But as it turns out, I have been sort of interested in the intersection of technology or science and popular culture for a while. My first produced movie was Awakenings, based on the Oliver Sacks book, all the way through something like Minority Report.
In terms of the darker side of it, I've never really thought of it that way. The ‘80s were the period of many movies that were about technology that humans can't control. I mean, Terminator is exactly that. Robocop, one of my favorites, is exactly that. We will put it in the hands of the robot cop, and then you can't control that anymore. And in a way, WarGames was that. Let's take the humans out of the loop. So more than thinking about it in terms of dark, light, optimistic, pessimistic, I think I've probably been more interested in just how humans and technology interact. Whether it was David Lightman in WarGames, a kid up in his bedroom with a computer, or the “Sneakers” [in the film of the same name], you notice they're not stories about Ma Bell. They're not stories about the computer scientist at IBM at the time. They're very individualist characters who had at that time the handle on emerging technologies.
We were right. The world did change more by kids in their garages, more like rock ’n’ roll, than by big companies, whether it's Google or Apple or whatever. So I think where the through line is is: how to create robust relationships between human actors and technology that serve the greater good. That's sort of what we're trying to do right now. Whether or not that's ever been specifically noted in any of the previous work, it seems to be something that I was sniffing around at from the get-go.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.