Richard Lindheim, founder of the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, passed away on Jan. 18. The institute’s Cheryl Birch and Dava Casoni wrote this tribute to their friend and colleague.
Story. It engages. It teaches. It is compelling, inviting, immersive — and evolving. We each process it our own way through our unique filter and then retell it through our own lens. The USC Institute for Creative Technologies came to be, in large part, because of Richard Lindheim and his unwavering belief in the power of story.
In 1997, Lindheim was among Hollywood’s most powerful television executives — an executive vice president at Paramount Pictures and founder of Paramount Digital Entertainment. He was an industry heavy-hitter and was endlessly courted with invitations, one of which came from his colleague, director Alex Singer.
Singer was helping Anita Jones, then-director of defense research and engineering for the Department of Defense, to recruit entertainment professionals for a discussion about how industry techniques could enhance training. When she learned that Lindheim was attending an upcoming event, she worked to ensure she would have his ear.
To her dismay, as she reached out to open the conversation, Lindheim announced he was leaving the event. In parting, he shared that his drive was to impact people with story and character because “that is what’s critical. That’s what makes an impression and causes people to remember.”
Richard Lindheim brings his TV skills to military training
His comment certainly made an impression: Jones followed up the next day and asked what he would do if the Army could provide some seedling funding — a drop in the bucket compared to the television budgets he was used to working with in Hollywood.
Unbeknownst to Jones, Lindheim had another special talent — he understood budgets, finance and business at a deep level. After a phenomenal run at Universal Television, where he and longtime colleague Kerry McCluggage had developed more hours of on-air television than any other studio, they brought their award-winning approach to Paramount. There, they developed new ways to afford the ever-increasing costs of production, expanded content availability through the United Paramount Network and fulfilled their vision for the role the digital world would play in our lives through the creation of Paramount Digital Entertainment.
While Lindheim and McCluggage were advancing the state of digital entertainment, the concept of applying entertainment industry expertise to military training was being raised in parallel conversations in academia, the government and the studios. With a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Redlands and having completed graduate coursework in telecommunications and engineering at USC, Lindheim was also well-connected in academia.
So when Jones asked him to apply his TV magic to military training — on a shoestring budget, no less — it was only natural that Lindheim brought in Paramount creatives and artificial intelligence experts from USC, including Paul Rosenbloom and Bill Swartout, to bring to life his vision of converting a pencil and paper-training case study into an immersive, interactive experience.
Lindheim’s legacy includes formation of the USC Institute for Creative Technologies
This led to additional funding and the team creating the Paramount StoryDrive Engine, a robust simulation architecture to develop and automate complex realistic interactive characters and storylines.
StoryDrive Engine proved that entertainment, academia and the military were a magical combination. It wasn’t long after it was demonstrated that discussions were raised to a higher level — including to Cathy Kominos, then-deputy director of U.S. Army research — about ways to continue to bring this triumvirate together.
The team was increasingly excited as they brainstormed how training could be forever changed by implementing a multidisciplinary approach. Over the course of one weekend, Rosenbloom wrote the proposal that resulted in a $45 million contract from the Army. The USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) — a university-affiliated research center devoted to advancing modeling and simulation technologies for military training and education — was launched with a robust group of research programs involving graphics, sound, natural language, emotion and virtual humans.
Lindheim left Paramount to lead the newly formed ICT, bringing business and creative entertainment executives with him to join the team. Some of them, including Cheryl Birch and Richard DiNinni, remain with USC today.
The Army’s initial vision for the institute was to create a holodeck-inspired immersive training environment. True to his nature, Lindheim thought beyond this vision, as did his colleagues.
When Swartout presented an equally futuristic but far more practical immersive virtual reality experience that facilitated training on multiple skills, Lindheim wholeheartedly championed the idea. FlatWorld was born.
A unique feature of this newly formed multidisciplinary institute was its ability to dovetail academia and entertainment, bringing a fresh perspective to traditional training that resulted in well-received computer games such as Full Spectrum Warrior, simulations for crisis and counterterrorism skill training and the interactive crisis simulation Mission Rehearsal Exercise. ICT also used film to help demonstrate future potential capabilities by incorporating this compelling media into serious games with pedagogical goals.
From ICT to entertainment, Lindheim loved to create
Lindheim was never one to rest on his laurels. After seven years at the helm of ICT, he co-founded RL Leaders in 2006 to pursue projects that were a better fit for a commercial entity. He also kept one foot in the entertainment world by serving as an executive producer of the soon-to-be-released reboot of The Equalizer, a show Lindheim co-created. He enjoyed attending creative meetings and watching the dailies as he eagerly awaited the Feb. 7 premiere.
Publicly, he will likely be best remembered for his work developing The Monkees, Miami Vice, Weird Science, B.J. and the Bear, Punky Brewster, Murder She Wrote and many more. While founding and leading multiple successful endeavors, Lindheim also devoted much time to his true loves — his wife, children, grandchildren, film, trains and experiencing new people and cultures through travel and his work with the American Field Service.
He left an indelible mark on all who were lucky enough to have met him and will be deeply missed. His legacy — his own story and the power of story — will live on to inspire, entertain and train generations to come.
Lindheim is survived by his wife, son, daughter and two grandchildren. Because of the pandemic, the family is planning a small private ceremony. In lieu of flowers, those who want to pay their respects may make donations in Lindheim’s name to the Sierra Club or a charity of their choice.