The Email Which Changed My Life

Published: March 20, 2024
Category: News | Essays
Dr. Jacki Ford Morie

Written by Dr. Jacquelyn Ford Morie, Founder & Chief Scientist, All These Worlds, LLC; formerly Senior Research Scientist, ICT (1999 – 2013)

In 1996, I was in my office at Walt Disney Feature Animation in Burbank, CA when an interesting email came across my desk. It was an invitation from Dr. Michael Zyda, from the NPSNET Research Group at the Naval Postgraduate School, asking me to join a two-day workshop (Saturday Oct 19th, 1996 – Sunday Oct 20th, 1996) he was organizing for the National Research Council.

It was called “Modeling & Simulation: Linking Entertainment and Defense” and was to be a meeting of both entertainment and military people to explore their common interests in uses of simulation technology. We didn’t know it then, but this workshop would lead to the establishment of the USC Institute for Creative Technologies in 1999. 

At that point in time, I was the Head of Computer Technical and Artistic Training for Walt Disney Feature Animation (WDFA). Disney had headhunted me from the Institute for Simulation and Training (IST) in Orlando, FL, a military research lab, where I was a Research Scientist, focusing on early Virtual Reality projects. Alongside that job, I had set up a new computer animation track within the University of Central Florida’s burgeoning film program – and that’s how I’d got on Disney’s radar.  

The National Research Council workshop was fascinating and very exciting, mainly because of who was in that room – many of my heroes in entertainment and technology – such as Jack Thorpe who started SIMNET, the first large-scale simulator networking for mission rehearsal military operations, which I had worked on at IST; Ed Catmull, the Co-Founder of Pixar, who was a star in computer animation circles; and Alex Singer, Hollywood Director of Star Trek: Voyager.

Funny enough, I was considered one of the “entertainment people” because of my role at Disney – but my work at IST also made me knowledgeable about military research through numerous projects. I was very comfortable around all the Department of Defense top brass in the room that weekend. My father served in the US Air Force as an aircraft engineer during the Berlin Airlift in Germany after WWII, so I understood the military life of service and sacrifice. In fact, I was probably the only person in the room who saw both sides of the picture and spoke both entertainment and military jargon. 

I was one of just a handful of women too, but in very good company, alongside Dr. Anita Jones, Director of Defense Research and Engineering; Dr. Kirstie Bellman, Chief Engineer, DARPA META Program and Dr. Eugenia Kolasinki, then Research Fellow at Army Research Institute for the Behavioral & Social Sciences.    

Before the workshop we were asked to produce position papers. I wrote two: The Military and Entertainment: Historical Approaches and Common Ground and The Evolution of Entertainment: Who’s in Charge? These ended up in the final publication which came out after the workshop. 

During that weekend there were incredible discussions. Ed Catmull started the talks with recollections of DARPA funding his work at the University of Utah as a graduate student but allowing him to pursue “wild and crazy ideas” that led to the entire new industry of computer animation. After all the panels and discussions, I closed the event by repeating Dr. Catmull’s desire for the military to again fund a place where “wild and crazy ideas” could be explored once more. Many of us hoped that something great along those lines would come out of the workshop – and it did – but not right away. 

Mike Zyda and I wrote one of the first draft proposals for the UARC. Three schools were in contention for this new research institute, USC, UCLA, and UC Berkeley. When USC won the contract, Richard Lindheim became Director of the newly-launched USC Institute for Creative Technologies, and I was brought on as a consultant in 1999, at the request of the Army, to lead discussions around what researchers would need, from the structure of the rooms and facilities to the types of programs they might take on.

I joined ICT full-time in 2000, as a Researcher in Virtual Reality, and later became Senior Research Scientist. I stayed at ICT until 2013. During those thirteen years, I worked on many projects I remain proud of to this day. 

At the beginning, my research was focused on the creation of meaningful multi-sensory, virtual environments (via my Sensory Environments Evaluation Project) including the design and use of an infrasonic floor to produce a subconscious “emotional score” for the virtual experience, and the invention of a scent collar, which was patented in 2004. 

My team then became The FORCE (Future Oriented Research and Creative Endeavors), extending our virtual reality work into virtual worlds and the health domain with “Coming Home,” where we developed several techniques to provide relaxation and stress relief for veterans of recent American conflicts. We introduced this work at the Web 2.0 Summit (2009) and it was covered by the New York Times. Part of this work resulted in porting ICT’s Virtual Human technologies to Active Worlds, OpenSim and Second Life. This research was later featured in the documentaries: Dsknectd: We Need to Talk (Internegative Films) and Paul Harrison’s The Mindfulness Movie

We used virtual worlds to build the Adaptive Training systems (ATS), outfitting participants with physiological monitors to assess attention and inattention during training missions. We also took the ICT’s Army Excellence in Leadership web-based training project, and ported it to mobile via iPods, and then to the first iPhones, in a project called AXLNet Mobile, and tested it with soldiers at Ft Leonard Wood, MO in 2009. 

After this, I renamed my group the “Virtual Worlds and Avatars Research” and started to investigate the blurring of physical presence and the felt presence of our digital avatars, and the profound effect the use of avatars was starting to have on younger generations who were increasingly using such constructs. We looked at how youth would interact with virtual humans through the NSF funded virtual guides project with the Boston Museum of Science. I was excited to be a part of that project and even came up with the names for the two girl guides – Ada (after Ada Lovelace) and Grace (after Admiral Grace Hopper), both legends in technology. 

In 2013, I left ICT to start my own company All These Worlds LLC, serving as both Founder and Chief Scientist, and continuing the research I pioneered at the ICT. In the past decade, we’ve created bespoke immersive environments and experiences within VR worlds, extended my scent technology, and engaged in research around avatars, robotics, haptics and more, for clients including NASA, the ANA Avatar XPRIZE, Lowes, and numerous others. My ANSIBLE research for NASA, built with Smart Information Flow Technologies (SIFT), was featured in the documentary Space: The Longest Goodbye, which was an Official Selection at Sundance, 2023. 

Who knew what an amazing future that simple email from Mike Zyda would bring to my life! It was the beginning of incredible adventures on an exciting path I have enjoyed traveling ever since.



Dr. Jacquelyn Ford Morie is a pioneer in VR and immersive environments and the Founder and Chief Scientist of All These Worlds LLC. which creates bespoke immersive environments and experiences, develops scent technology within VR worlds, and engages in research around avatars, robotics, haptics and more, for clients including NASA, the ANA Avatar XPRIZE, and numerous others. Previously, Dr. Morie held leadership roles in the emerging computer graphics field at Walt Disney Feature Animation (WDFA), and at VIFX, Blue Sky Studios, and Rhythm and Hues Studios. Dr. Morie was one of the original researchers at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, a Department of Defense funded University Affiliated Research Center (UARC), sponsored by the US Army. In 2022, Dr. Morie received the Accenture Lifetime Achievement Award for her pioneering and ongoing VR work.