Mining Movies: Part 1

Electronic-age prophet Marshall McLuhan claimed we should be listening to artists if we want to know where we're headed, that it's the job of the artist to use the technology of the day to paint pictures of tomorrow.

In this Viewpoint series, "Mining Movies," I look for hints of what is to come in technology and learning by examining one of the most common and popular forms of modern artistry: futuristic movies. From Star Wars to Minority Report to I Robot, movie artists — or "movicians" — have been spinning fantastic, inspirational, and sometimes frightening tales that can nevertheless serve as excellent sources of information about what lies ahead for us as citizens, workers, and, above all, learners. I turn to them for guidance.

If there is a touchstone for the beginning of modern futurism in the movies, it is probably Star Wars. In the first episode, we find a technology that will no doubt end up in our schools, homes, and businesses as a primary teaching tool: the projected holographic image.

The youthful Luke Skywalker meets with seasoned rebel Obi-Wan Kenobi to retrieve a message sent from the endangered Princess Leia. The message, delivered by the dutiful droid R2-D2, is in the form of a hologram set up atop a table. The holographic image is viewable from any angle, effectively with them in the room in much the same way another person might be. The need to make the intellectual leap from a flat picture to what something might actually look like in three dimensions is completely erased. By comparison, our two-dimensional screens seem archaic.

Imagine a holographic projection unit in a high school auto shop. Future Porche mechanics could learn about a new engine in full dimension, from every angle. Imagine a dissected frog, or a chemical experiment, or a play presented as a hologram in an English class. Our two-dimensional Internet is a baby step toward the coming tele-presence in schools. Distributed education, as well as on-site education, will take advantage of the impact and detail that holography offers as a learning tool. And when holography in K-12 fully arrives, may the force be with educators already reeling from cell phones and PDAs in the classroom.

Jason Ohler ( has been a digital humanist, pioneer, and keynote speaker in the field of digital age living, learning, and leadership for two decades.