Willow Bay, director of the School of Journalism and incoming dean of the USC Annenberg School, interviewed Robert Iger, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, during SCALE: The Future of Tech and Entertainment, an inaugural event held March 23 in Santa Monica.
Photo by William Vasta.

USC Annenberg and USC Marshall co-host summit on the future of tech and entertainment

Robots. Holograms. Augmented reality. A crowd of enthusiasts, and even Robert Iger.

Disneyland? No, although for the more than 400 people in attendance, it might as well have been. These and other topics were the theme of SCALE: The Future of Tech and Entertainment, an inaugural event held March 23 at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica.

SCALE was created and hosted by USC Marshall’s Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. It convened leaders from industries anchored in and vital to Southern California, such as, augmented and virtual reality, artificial intelligence, digital media, gaming, and e-sports. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, often referred to as “L.A.’s first tech mayor,” stopped by to talk about the importance of innovation and technology to the future of Los Angeles.

"If you aren’t embracing technology, you will suffer as a city," said Garcetti. "I’ve tried to embrace technology quickly – we were the first city to go on the Cloud -- and not be future phobic or future passive."

Tech and Entertainment, Disney-style

One of the highlights of the daylong event was Willow Bay, director of the School of Journalism and incoming dean of the USC Annenberg School, interviewing Robert Iger, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, and also Bay’s husband.

In an engaging and wide-ranging discussion, Iger spoke of how technology has enhanced the Disney brand — and how he has leveraged it to keep consumers focused in a greatly fragmented market.

Disney has embraced many of the new and emerging technologies that were on display at SCALE, including augmented reality. As an example, he pointed to the newest Disney theme park in Shanghai, where designers were careful to augment the user-experience, not supplant it altogether.

“Many of our businesses are traditional,” Iger said. “But in our marketplace, you’ve got to have a foot in the future. You have to be a strategist and an operator.” Technologies, he continued, have both enhanced the storytelling that is core to every Disney property and increased the power of distribution. As an example, Iger pointed to the newly released live action version of "Beauty and the Beast."

“In one weekend, "Beauty and the Beast" made more box office than the original film’s entire run,” he said. What a difference a new generation of technology makes!

Bay successfully teased out a few new details about the upcoming "Star Wars" sequels, including a future movie on young Han Solo. The Internet and "Star Wars" fans devoured the revelations.

Iger also announced at SCALE that he is extending his term as CEO of Disney for another year, through July 2019, to help smooth the transition to a new, yet-to-be-identified chief executive. “Succession is serious business,” he said.

The New York TimesThe Washington Post, Los Angeles Times (second story here), and Time were among the numerous outlets that reported on the interview.

The Future is Now

SCALE featured a number of technologists who offered up their bleeding-edge viewpoints on the future of everything from robots to holograms.

Adam Cheyer, co-founder and architect of Siri (acquired by Apple) and Viv Labs (acquired by Samsung), opened the conference by presenting the next frontier of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Cheyer eased fears about “singularity,” when computers will meet and pass human intelligence and sentience and foreshadowed the near future when our personal preferences for content and information will interact seamlessly with us from the time we wake up, through our commute, and throughout the day.

Other high-powered speakers included USC alumnus Brandon Beck, chairman, CEO and co-founder of Riot Games; Sarah Harden, CEO of Otter Media; and Guy Primus and academy-award winner, Robert Stormberg, co-founders of the Virtual Reality Company, in which Steven Spielberg is an adviser.

The Demo Lounge, curated by UploadVR and NextArt, featured interactive tech demos by Meta, Hanson Robotics, Hear 360, Positron, and Future Lighthouse. USC parent, Michael Williams of Digiworld Touring, previewed technology to re-create Michael Jackson in holographic form for an upcoming tour.

The invitation-only audience was comprised of a “Who’s Who” of technology companies, social media platforms, studios, content creators, and venture funds.

“SCALE is essentially a startup,” said David Belasco, executive director of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and the conference’s master of ceremonies. “Like any startup, it needed people to believe in it and nurture it to make it happen. When Bob Iger signed on, we knew we were in business. Then everyone joined in.” He said SCALE will become a yearly event.

SCALE was sponsored by Latham & Watkins, Seagate, Twitter, Hersh Interactive, Valo Ventures, Renew Group, Silicon Valley Bank, and the USC Stevens Center for Innovation.