Vol 9. Issue 9 / March 16, 2009
Ready For Prime Time
By Eric Sauter
A combination of good luck and sheer coincidence led CBS's crime drama CSI: NY to feature the touch screen technology developed by the Scripps Florida Proteomics Core as part of the show. The episode will be aired Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at 10 PM ET/PT.
The match between the fictional, albeit realistic, television crime drama and real life Scripps Florida science was a good one, although it took some time to come together.
The story starts in 2008, when Bruce Pascal, software engineer of Scripps Florida's Omics Informatics, was asked to apply multi-touch screen technology (think iPhone) to proteomics analysis, specifically mass spectrometry data, a well established method that allows scientists to precisely identify proteins in biological samples.
Mass spectrometry—which forensic crime specialists have long used to determine the chemical content of evidence—allows scientists to determine the mass or weight of molecules by measuring the ratio of mass-to-charge of molecules that have been converted into ions. The results—mass spectra—are presented as vertical bar graphs; each bar represents an ion with a specific mass-to-charge ratio or signature, while the length of the bar indicates the relative amount of the ion. These signatures resemble flat line drawings of mountain ranges.
When the touch screen prototype was completed, the online publication News&Views of The Scripps Research Institute, of which Scripps Florida is part, ran an article on the project (http://www.scripps.edu/newsandviews/e_20081124/pascal.html). This prototype involved the use of various software programs, some from open source code providers, displaying scientific data in new and exciting ways.
The story was picked up on the Web by a handful of technical sites, and that's where the CSI: NY connection began.
"The article got around to my friends and family," Pascal said. "One of them was an old childhood friend and the current executive producer for CSI: NY. He thought it would be great for the show. I was put in touch with an episode writer, who said they were looking for some technology to make their story line work."
Made for TV
Video shots of the screen in action were sent to the writers and producers of CSI: NY so that they could get a better idea of how the data would look and how the screen worked. The CSI: NY writers and producers loved the "spectra wall," a seemingly endless line of graphs depicting the data for a seemingly endless number of compounds. Using the touch screen technology, your hand can brush across the surface of the screen to move the wall back and forth rapidly, or, with a simple touch, you can actually pluck out a specific graph from the wall and pull it into focus to examine more closely.
Once people on the CSI team saw it, they wrote the technology into a scene in a soon-to-be-shot episode where they needed to search a database of data to find a "perfect match."
"I found out later that CSI: NY had yet to use live interactive touch screens on set for the actors to work with," Pascal said, "so the writers were excited about bringing this technology to the show. What makes CSI: NY successful is the blend of the mystery crime drama with cool science. We were able to bring some really cool science to the show."
The touch screen itself, a 47-inch flat screen LCD television monitor surrounded by a multi-touch frame equipped with infrared optical sensors to capture touch movements, was shipped in late January out to Los Angeles, where the show is filmed. Pascal and Assistant Professor Jennifer Busby, who was the one who made the original request for Pascal to develop the technology, planned to follow.
In the entertainment industry change is the norm. By the time Pascal and Busby arrived in Los Angeles for the filming, the producers wanted to display the Scripps Florida logo on the touch screen and needed to have an uninterrupted shot of the technology in action.
Both Busby and Pascal thought that they would simply affix a label to the monitor frame to display the logo. No, they were told, it had to be integrated into the software. Hard coding the logo into the software turned out to be less difficult than either of them thought, and the Scripps Florida logo now appears in one corner of the monitor screen and looks great, Busby said.
On Friday, Pascal attended a meeting to discuss the use of the touch screen in the Monday shoot. That's when Pascal was told that whatever was up on the screen had to be seen as a single continuous, uninterrupted shot.
"Making one continuous shot was a problem," Busby recalled, "because we have three software programs, not one continuous program. Sunday was spent getting everything ready for the Monday shoot. We wanted to make sure we pulled it off because not to make the final cut after all this work would have been very disappointing."
There was also a question of the mass spectra that would appear to be under the commanding hand of the actors.
Pascal and Busby had to program enough mass spectra to make what was on the screen seem sufficiently random. In addition, the actor would more or less hand walk through the spectra wall to find something specific—and that something had to be easily recognizable.
"We placed the correct spectra in several places along the spectra wall," Pascal said. "On the shoot, the actor would be able to see a little label, very subtle, but if he missed one he could always find another."
Then there was the question of just how "mass spec" the spectra should be.
"We tried to make it look as much like real mass spec as we could, but we had to simplify it," Busby said. "In the story, they were talking about a human prion, so we made sure we had the right crystal structure and the right protein."
After arriving for the Monday morning shoot, Busby and Pascal were assigned a corner of the set and went to work getting the touch screen up and running. A little later, when the director walked on the set, they realized that he had never actually seen the touch screen before. After a demonstration, the director quickly figured out what he wanted to do with it and where the actors would be standing for the scene.
During the actual filming, Busby sat in the back of the set with the director, while Pascal was off-camera attached to the monitor by a long USB cable manipulating the images on the screen.
"We were both pretty anxious because if the technology didn't work well, it would be cut from the scene to maintain the shoot schedule," Busby said. The computer did crash once, which brought filming to a screeching halt; fortunately, the reboot only took about 80 seconds. "They got their takes, about eight in all, and we were relieved. And then they said, 'Get ready for round two.'"
Called "coverage," the next round of shooting is the same scene filmed from another angle to provide additional footage from new vantage points.
"After eight or nine additional takes they were done and we said, 'Okay, we actually pulled it off,'" she said. "Everything worked, we had a great time, and Scripps Florida's technology got some valuable national exposure."
This particular episode co-stars Ashley Simpson-Wentz and her musician husband, Peter Wentz.
Probably not as cool as the touch screen, though.
Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu
SMART teams present posters of their work as part of the San Diego Science Festival.