A Portal Between Digital and Physical Worlds? It's Close to Reality

Ben Grossmann - Getty - H 2020
Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Development of mirror worlds is accelerating during COVID-19 as Hollywood increases its virtual production, says Magnopus co-founder and CEO Ben Grossmann, one of THR's Top Hollywood Innovators.

Ben Grossmann wants to marry the physical and the digital, exploring what he describes as a mirror world — a "connection between a physical place and a digital copy of that place, so that it becomes accessible to anyone, anywhere."

The VFX vet is one of three Oscar winners who founded L.A.-based Magnopus, which has been innovating in areas like VR, AR and AI. Combining these opens up the potential to create what he calls a "new kind of movie theater" or other immersive environments: "We've been working on creating a digital twin of a very large site that's a few square kilometers, so that it will exist both in a physical world that people can go to and in a digital copy of that world that people can go to," he says of the site whose location is still under wraps. "Then we've been connecting those two worlds, so people in the physical world can look through a lens and see the digital world around them. People in the digital world will also have portals to see what the physical world looks like.

“It’s almost like a telepresence for physical people and digital people. We’ve had hundreds of people working on it for years and we still have a ways to go before it just works.”

He believes such development will only accelerate during COVID-19. “Instead of just looking through a camera’s lens and having a video conference, you can feel like you’re in the same place with another person,” he says. “This has to become a reality because right now people realize they can’t travel, they can’t spend time with other people in physical places. Even when they do come back, people are gonna have to behave differently.

For Grossmann, this state of the world also seems to indicate that Hollywood will increase its use of “virtual production” — processes such as the one that Magnopus helped Jon Favreau develop for the production of The Lion King to simulate a virtual set or location. “Right now we’re working on a movie where it’s a director, it’s a camera person, they’re shooting entire scenes of a film from their homes because they have to work remotely,” he says. “Right now, people go on the internet and they play games with everybody around the world. Well, let’s just do the same concept. Let’s put the movie together and then everybody from their homes can log in and play their part, all in real time, working remotely.”

Grossmann sees progress, but says there’s much more work to be done before these mirror worlds can be fully realized. “One of the biggest blockers that we face for creating a truly comprehensive mirror world is the fact that you can’t have any prerecorded performances, which means that you have to have AI-powered characters. When AI gets sufficiently good enough then we can create characters with it.”

He also warns that the current internet infrastructure isn’t robust enough for these types of experiences. “We need 5G, everybody, everywhere, as quick as possible. Hollywood needs 5G to be able to create and display these new kinds of worlds that are much more interactive than traditional video.”

A version of this story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.