Bran Ferren

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Bran Ferren
Action portrait of a man in his fifties with a bushy, strawberry-blond beard seated while speaking wearing a safari jacket and gold watch
Born (1953-01-16) January 16, 1953 (age 64)[1]
New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality American
Alma mater MIT[2]
Occupation Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Applied Minds[3]
Relatives John Ferren (father)

Bran Ferren (born January 16, 1953), is an American technologist,[4][5] artist,[6][7] architectural designer,[8][9] vehicle designer,[10][11][12] engineer,[10][11][12] lighting and sound designer,[13][14] visual effects artist,[15] scientist,[16] lecturer,[17][18] photographer,[19] entrepreneur,[20] and a prolific inventor.[21][22] Ferren is the former President of Research and Development of Walt Disney Imagineering[23] as well as founder of Associates & Ferren, a multidisciplinary engineering and design firm acquired in 1993 by Disney.[24] He is Chief Creative Officer of Applied Minds, which he co-founded in 2000 with Danny Hillis. Apple's "pinch-to-zoom" patent, which features prominently in its legal battle with Samsung, was invalidated by the US Patent and Trademark Office in 2013 based on a 2005 patent by Ferren and Hillis for multi-touch gestures.[25][26]

Early life[edit]

Bran Ferren was the only child of artists John Ferren and Rae Ferren.[8] He grew up surrounded by art, artists, and technology. His father, whose work is part of the permanent collections of many American art museums, mixed with luminaries such as Picasso, Miró, and Mondrian[27] before becoming an integral member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists.[28] His father was also personal friends with Alfred Hitchcock and created paintings for The Trouble with Harry and designed the nightmare sequence in Vertigo.[29] Ferren's uncles came from the worlds of engineering and technology: Roy Ferren served as director of flight test for North American Aviation[30] (later North American Rockwell), and Stanley Tonkel, a noted senior recording engineer for Columbia Records, engineered recordings for artists such as Miles Davis.[31]

He first attended Hunter College Elementary School for gifted students in New York City, followed by a year at the American Community School, in Beirut Lebanon (1963-1964) while his father served as the first artist-in-residence for a U.S. Department of State cultural exchange program to introduce American abstract art to the Middle East. After returning from overseas, he spent three years at the McBurney School in New York City, and then the last three years of high school at East Hampton High School, in East Hampton, New York.

Ferren started his first design and engineering company, Synchronetics while in high school.[32] He left high school at age 16 to attend MIT, but departed in 1970 to continue entrepreneurial pursuits. Despite his short stay at MIT, he was invited back by then school president Charles M. Vest to be a keynote speaker for MIT Technology Day 1996.[33] Before his 21st birthday, Ferren had worked on TV commercials, films, and regional theater. He had also pioneered visual effects for arena concerts for groups such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, and Foreigner, using pyrotechnics, audio, projection, and novel lighting techniques.[32][34]


Associates & Ferren[edit]

Ferren founded Associates & Ferren at the age of 25[1][3][4] to do work at the "crossroads of design and science and entertainment."[34] One of the first projects was for Broadway play The Crucifer of Blood, a Sherlock Holmes mystery that starred Glenn Close and won Ferren a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award.[35] The production featured a "shattering display of thunder and lightning",[36] which got the attention of director Ken Russell, leading to Ferren's first prominent assignment as Special Visual Effects director on a major Hollywood science-fiction film, Altered States.[32]

For his work in theater, Ferren also received the New York Drama Desk Award,[37] the Maharam Foundation Award,[38] and the American Theater Wing, Hewes Design Award.[39] He has designed the Special Effects and Sound for several Broadway shows,[40] and is a long-term member of the Broadway stagehands union, IATSE Local #1.[41] His theatrical special effects design work for the Broadway productions of Frankenstein, Cats, and Sunday in the Park with George, were widely acknowledged for their groundbreaking special effects. Frank Rich said in his New York Times review of Sunday in the Park with George: "What Mr. Lapine, his designers and the special-effects wizard Bran Ferren have arranged is simply gorgeous."[42]

As principal designer of Associates & Ferren, Ferren went on to lead many high-profile projects, such as special effects for the Paul McCartney World Tour,[16] R.E.M, Depeche Mode, Pink Floyd,[1][43] and visual effects for Little Shop of Horrors.[44] He was a technical consultant for the films Impostor and Fat Man and Little Boy, and designed the titles for Simon, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Guilty as Sin, and Little Shop of Horrors.[44]

He also produced, directed, and was the cinematographer for the movie "Funny", which received a Nomination for a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival,[45] and nomination for Best Documentary at the Chicago International Film Festival,[46] Gold Jury price at the Houston International Film Festival (now called WorldFest Houston),[47] and was featured in the Toronto International Film Festival Midnight Madness program.

"Funny" features over 100 individuals, from Dick Cavett to Frank Zappa, telling their favorite jokes on camera.[48]

Ferren served as lead designer, engineer, and producer of the 50-state, 16-month tour of the Bill of Rights, which celebrated the document's bicentennial.[12][49] For the tour, he designed and built the Bill of Rights Secure Transit Vehicle, which transported the fragile parchment document, as well as a 15,000-square-foot travelling exhibit equipped with state-of-the-art lighting, A/V, security, and safety systems.

By the time Disney acquired Associates & Ferren in 1993, Ferren and the company had won an Academy Award for Science and Engineering as well as two Academy Awards for Technical Achievement.[50][51] Ferren was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for "Little Shop of Horrors".[52]

His entertainment industry projects at Associates & Ferren include:

The Walt Disney Company[edit]

Ferren led the Disney Imagineering R&D group as Senior Vice President, then Executive Vice President, before eventually becoming President of R&D and Creative Technology for Disney,[23] and head of technology for the company for 10 years.[59] According to his former boss, CEO Michael Eisner, Ferren's mission was "to dream about the future and show us new and innovative ways to tell stories".[60] Starting in 1993, he was the first corporate executive to receive the now-common, job title of "Creative Technology",[61] indicating responsibility for both creative and technical domains. Ferren supported Disney's Strategic Planning Group and had direct involvement in a wide variety of design and technology projects for Disney Theme Parks, such as the Tower of Terror ride, the Test Track by General Motors, the Virtual Reality Animation Studio, and ABC Television projects.[62] His team was responsible for engineering the ABC Times Square Studios armored electronic-dimming soundproof window systems, and curved LED ticker display.[63][64]

In 1996, Ferren created the Disney Fellows Program which attracted some of the brightest minds in Computer Science, including Alan Kay, Marvin Minsky, and Seymour Papert, as well as astronaut Story Musgrave.[65] The first Disney fellow was parallel-computing pioneer Hillis[66] with whom Ferren went on to found technology innovation and design firm Applied Minds in 2000. Applied Minds is now headquartered in Burbank, California, a few miles from Imagineering headquarters. In 1997 Ferren and the Disney fellows were profiled in a major article in the The New Yorker magazine, by David Remnick.[67]

Applied Minds[edit]

Ferren's company Applied Minds L.L.C. (AMI) has been described as a "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" for geeks.[20] AMI invents, designs, prototypes, and creates high-technology products, vehicles, architectural designs, and services for government institutions and Fortune 100 companies.[68][69] For example, the Smithsonian American Art Museum selected Applied Minds as winner of an international design competition for the renovation of the Renwick Gallery's Grand Salon.[70] AMI also spins off technology companies. Notable spinouts include Metaweb, purchased by Google in 2010[71][72] and cancer diagnostics firm Advanced Proteomics.[73]

In his role as Chief Creative Officer and Co-Chairman, Ferren serves as lead technical consultant, management consultant, systems engineer, engineer, and designer across multiple disciplines. He has headed projects for General Motors,[74] Northrop Grumman,[74] Lockheed Martin,[74] Herman Miller,[74] Intel Corporation,[75] Sony Corporation,[75] ESRI, the Smithsonian Institution,[76] Genworth Financial,[77] the Library of Congress, and several US Government agencies.[75]

Ferren has been named inventor on over 500 current and pending US patents.[21][78] His 2005 patent with Hillis for multi-touch gestures led to the invalidation of Apple's "pinch-to-zoom" patent, which Apple cited in its billion-dollar lawsuit against Samsung.[25][26] Another of his patents is for Metaweb, a contextual database technology that Google acquired in 2010 and which now underlies Knowledge Graph.[79] Google claims Knowledge Graph is "a critical first step towards building the next generation of search". Its output appears on a panel to the right in Google search results or in a carousel at the top of the screen. In addition, Knowledge Graph technology drives Google's autocomplete feature in the search box.[80]

At Applied Minds, Ferren has also been lead designer and engineer on a number of advanced Research & Development vehicle projects:

  • KiraVan, the next-generation of the Maximog, also based on a Mercedes Unimog chassis.[81] The vehicle is currently still in final construction and testing, but was recently the subject of an hour long Extreme RV's special on the Travel Channel.[82]
  • MaxiMog, designed to support scientific explorations, research, and location photography anywhere in the world. In 2001, the Maximog was on exhibit for three months at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.[10][11]
  • SmarTruck II, an Army concept vehicle for defense and emergency response, featured at the 2003 Detroit Auto show.[83]

His architectural and interior design projects include Lockheed Martin's Center for Innovation, known as "The Lighthouse",[84][85] and numerous projects for Northrop Grumman,[86] and the U.S. Government, including inside the Pentagon.

Public speaking[edit]

Ferren has an extensive public speaking career that has spanned a wide range of professional, government, and academic audiences. His over 250 speaking engagements include Harvard's Center for Public Leadership,[87] MIT,[88][89] MIT Media Lab,[90][91] Wharton,[92] The Smithsonian Institution,[93] The Art Center College of Design,[94] The International Design Conference at Aspen,[95] NASA,[18] The U.S. Army,[96] The US Air Force,[97] The U.S. Navy,[98] UCLA,[99][100] USC,[101] National Academy of Engineering,[102][103] Intel Corporation,[104] Infosys,[105] The AUVSI Driverless Car Summit,[106] The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers,[107] The Engineers Council,[108] The Smithsonian American Art Museum,[109] RealComm2016,[110] The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics(AIAA),[111] The Aspen Ideas Festival,[112] The 2017 National Competitiveness Forum,[113] several E.G. Conferences,[114][115] and has given multiple TED talks.[116][117][118]

He has delivered the commencement speeches to the California State University, Northridge - College of Arts, Media and Communication (2002)[119] The University of Redlands - College of Arts and Sciences (2014),[120] and the University of Irvine - Claire Trevor School of the Arts, the School of Education, and the School of Physical Sciences (2015).[121]

He was one of the first lecturers and writers to discuss controversial internet-related topics such as the concept of networked human implants,[122] and the idea that reading & writing could turn out to be a fad, to be replaced within 250 years by better and more compelling technology (enabled by what would then-be ubiquitous networked personal electronic technology).[123] His ideas and work are often cited by publications such as The New York Times,[124][125] Discover Magazine,[126] Fast Company,[127] and Newsweek.[128]

Advisory board memberships[edit]

Ferren's advisory work has included board memberships at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission,[129] Securities and Exchange Commission,[130] International Design Conference in Aspen,[131][132] PBS Kids[133] and the science magazine Nautilus.[134] He has also served as a member of the Army Science Board for 5 years,[135] the Defense Science Board,[136] the Naval Historical Foundation Advisory Council,[137] The USO Digital Advisory Council,[138] The Department of Homeland Security,[139] and the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel.[140][141] Bran Ferren is a member of the CuriosityStream Advisory Board.[142] He has also been a senior science and technology adviseradvisor for several US Government agencies and the US Senate.[143] In 2016, he was appointed to Toyota Research Institute (TRI) senior advisory board for driving autonomy, artificial intelligence, and robotics.[144][145]

Fine art photography[edit]

Two of his photographs have been accepted into the Smithsonian Museum for American Art permanent collection.[146] He has presented and exhibited his artwork at 2008 the Entertainment Gathering (e.g.) Conference,[147] and exhibited his photography and multimedia work at the Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton. His photographs are part of several private collections, and he is completing the editorial work for a large format photo book project called Eleven Seconds.[148]

Creative collaborations[edit]

In 2009, Ferren collaborated with Laurie Anderson on the "The Third Mind" exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.[149][150] In 2004, he helped to develop a gigapixel image system and 360 degree cyclorama with artist/photographer Clifford Ross.[151] He worked with Patrice Regnier and Carter Burwell on his film project TESLA.[152] He had creative meetings with Jim Henson in 1988 about a Muppets theme park prior to Henson selling his company to Disney.[153] Prior to the Disney acquisition, Ferren had been in discussions with Steve Ross, CEO of Warner Communications about his acquiring Associates & Ferren and collaborating with Alan Kay on advanced entertainment and gaming technology.[154]

Other Awards[edit]

• In 1998, Bran Ferren received the Wally Russel Lifetime Achievement Award in Lighting Design.[155]
• In 2000, Bran Ferren received The Kilby International Award for significant contributions to society.[156]
• In 2011, Fast Company added Bran Ferren to the list of "100 Most Creative People in Business."[157]
• In 2014, Bran Ferren was presented with the US Intelligence Community Seal Medallion.[158]
• In 2016, Bran Ferren received the Sir Arthur Clarke Award for Imagination in Service to Society.[159]


  • "Technology is stuff that doesn’t work yet.", quoted by Douglas Adams in the Sunday Times[160]
  • "In 250 years, reading and writing will have turned out to be a fad."[161][162]
  • "The idea of connecting all people to knowledge and to each other is enduring,"[163]
  • "The Internet represents the greatest story telling technology since the development of language. It will be far more important than reading and writing as a purposeful tool. Everything that is enabled by story telling will be enabled by the Internet.", quoted by Peter Guber[164]
  • "Most products are ugly. The harsh reality is that in many of these markets, form follows funding. And that products go where the market takes them."[165][166]
  • "One of the great enemies of design is when systems or objects become more complex than a person - or even a team of people - can keep in their heads. This is why software is generally beneath contempt."[163]
  • In 1998: "The technology needed for an early Internet-connection implant is no more than 25 years off. Imagine that you could understand any language, remember every joke, solve any equation, get the latest news, balance your checkbook, communicate with others, and have near-instant access to any book ever published, without ever having to leave the privacy of yourself."[167]
  • "The ‘good 10 percent’ of American products comes out of big-idea organizations that don’t believe in talking to the customer. They’re run by passionate maniacs who make everybody's life miserable until they get what they want.", quoted by Tom Peters[168]
  • In 1999: "Trying to assess the true importance and function of the Internet now is like asking the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk if they were aware of the potential of American Airlines Advantage miles.", quoted by Kevin Roberts (CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi) ,[169][170] and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger (publisher of the New York Times), in 2007.[171]
  • WIRED magazine 2001, design panel moderated by Chee Pearlman: "Most products are ugly. The harsh reality is that in many of these markets, form follows funding. And that products go where the market takes them."[172]
  • "It's disgraceful and embarrassing that the highest technology in a typical inner city high school in this country is the metal detector the students pass through at the front door." [173]
  • At his TED talk in 2014: "Visionaries not only believed that the impossible can be done, but that it must be done!" [174]
  • At his TED talk in 2014, referring to our kids: "We need to love them and help them discover their passions. We need to encourage them to work hard and help them understand that failure is a necessary ingredient for success, as is perseverance."[174]
  • At his TED talk in 2014: "Failure is a necessary ingredient to success."[174]
  • At his TED talk in 2014: "Art and design are not luxuries, nor somehow incompatible with science and engineering."[174]

In popular culture[edit]

The final scene in the 1980s music video "Take on Me" by A-ha was inspired by the similar scene designed by Ferren in Altered States.[175][176]


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