Science Fiction Turned Science Fact

Published: April 2, 2024
Category: Essays | News
Mana Marashi, Administrative Assistant, ICT

By Mana Marashi, Administrative Assistant, CFO’s office and Business Office, USC Institute for Creative Technologies.

Mana Marashi, Administrative Assistant, CFO’s office and Business Office, traces the trajectory of science- fiction-turned-science-fact through the hallways of our Silicon Beach campus.

It was my very first day at ICT and I was getting the Orientation Tour. I watched overview videos featuring virtual humans named after Ada Lovelace and General Grace Hopper, and noticed that the fourth-floor conference rooms were called Asimov, Lucas, and Roddenberry, after the science fiction creators behind the Foundation trilogy; Star Wars; and Star Trek fame, respectively.

I knew this was the right place for me. 

After graduating from Berkeley, with a BA in English Literature, I found myself in finance, where I learned some useful stuff, but it wasn’t exactly where I’d pictured myself for the long haul.  

While I’d entertained applying to grad school for some time, a lack of pedagogical ambition and an aversion to crippling debt held me back. When I saw the job at USC Institute for Creative Technologies, I figured working in an academic setting, surrounded by fellow nerds, and getting paychecks rather than debt repayment demands, was an excellent compromise. 

My Trekkie father instilled geekdom into me at a young age, placing his vintage copies Dune and 2001: A Space Odyssey into my hands as soon as my temporal lobe had developed sufficiently to understand them. 

During my first few months here, I realized that ICT is where science-fiction is made science-fact. This is where the technologies dreamed up by the likes of LeGuin, Butler, Asimov, Lucas, and Roddenberry are transformed from predictions into prototypes.

ICT Research 

Established in 1999, ICT stands at the nexus of science and academia, military, and the entertainment industry, advancing technology in fields like artificial intelligence, virtual/augmented reality, computer graphics, learning sciences, and much more. 

The Mixed Reality Lab (MxR) is taking current virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies and ushering them from the novel and into the mainstream. 

As MxR lead David Nelson says: “Spatial computing has the potential to be revolutionary in the same way that personal computers, mobile computing and the world wide web change how we do practically everything.” 

While current VR headsets have a way to go, so too did the giant brick mobile phones and snail-paced dial-up internet of my childhood. Witnessing this cycle occur in a new wave of technology just emerging from its infancy is quite the privilege, as is working with the brilliant minds working with advanced HMDs and cool XR concepts, in collaboration with Generative AI.

Other projects at ICT utilize VR to great benefit. ICT’s Dr. Skip Rizzo takes the long-running debate about violence in video games and subverts its concerns: rather than arguing if it’s detrimental to children, what if virtual depictions of violence were made beneficial to adults? As Project Leader on BRAVEMIND (along with Sharon Mozgai and Arno Hartholt), his research allows veterans with PTSD to be treated with virtual exposure therapy, enabling them to process their traumas and triggers in a safe, controlled environment that recreates combat zones in astonishing detail, but without putting them in any danger.

ICT Ecosystem 

How do I fit into this future-forward environment? Well, while the researchers provide ICT with its “creative technologies,” our business office and its staff do all the quotidian tasks that allow us to function as an institution. 

My position is that of administrative assistant, a vague title with responsibilities depending largely on the company one finds oneself in. Like a cog in a wheel, I feel we are a small but necessary part of the ICT ecosystem, catching details that fall through the cracks, facilitating the flow of information, becoming firm when someone is tardy with that receipt or this time-sensitive signature. The role is varied, constantly evolving, and requires top organization skills along with an ability to multi-task to the nth degree.

Because this is ICT, scheduling meetings and calendaring are only part of what I do on a daily basis.

Oscar Nights (and Tech Talks) for Nerds

For example, as the Academy Awards approached, I helped organize Oscar movie screenings, complete with freshly-popped popcorn, and culminating in an Oscar Night viewing. 

Not only was this a seasonal morale-booster for staff, but also a nod to the fact ICT has not one, but two, Academy Awards for our Light Stage technology

Another aspect of my role I take pride in, and  which ties in with my own philomathic leanings, includes supporting ICT’s new Tech Talks, where researchers at all levels are invited to present their work to their colleagues in a casual setting, followed by a Q&A. 

Back in 1999

Looking back at ICT’s 25-year history has me looking back at my own, particularly in relation to technology.

25 years ago, I was 8 (sorry for the jump scare) and computers were just entering the home: beige behemoths that smelled like ozone when they ran too hot, overworked fans droning like a distant helicopter.

My elementary school library-cum-computer lab was lined with rows of Macintosh IIs, the first Macintosh to support color graphics. Words like “cursor” and “google” had yet to enter the public lexicon, clickable buttons were just replacing text commands, and the only time I used my email address back then was to talk to my extended family, back in Iran. 

Math teachers told us we needed to memorize multiplication tables, since we wouldn’t be carrying calculators around with us when we went out. We learned cursive, never to be used again, as the indecipherable scribble of children was transmuted into Times New Roman, 12-point font. 

Like many of my generation, I grew up playing video games. That first batch of first-person perspective 3D games could only be played for short intervals, as prolonged exposure caused a sort of virtual motion-sickness. This feeling lessened as graphics improved, but also with exposure to the medium. 

Interestingly, I felt this same nausea recently, during a VR goggles-based test study (I told you being an admin at ICT isn’t like at other workplaces). Dr. Deniz Marti was presiding over the research, while I was trying to focus (and not puke), as I experienced the strange sensation of movement while sitting absolutely still. 

25 years later

Rather than turn me off spatial computing altogether, I felt somewhat nostalgic. I know that this nausea is a response to the strange and the new. It will soon become obsolete as the tech form factor improves – and yet will probably reemerge in the next 25 years with the next wave of immersive style tech. 

I am sure the next generation of science-fiction storytellers are dreaming it up now, putting it into words, pictures and whatever comes next, to inspire us all. 

In fact I know that our ICT researchers, sitting in their labs right now, examining the data, finding new patterns in the swirl, are on the verge of discovering something brand new, inspired by the science fiction authors and creators of their youth, the ones with their names on our conference rooms. Because here, we make science-fiction into reality.



Mana Marashi graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a BA in English Literature and joined ICT in June 2023, as Administrative Assistant, after holding similar positions in both capital management and transportation firms. Her role is varied in nature, from the quotidian tasks of ordering supplies, doing expenses, and wrangling schedules, to organizing Oscar Movie Nights and Tech Talks in ICT’s very own theater.