Edge Innovations provides front seat to history
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
Edge Innovations, operating out of an aging hangar at Alameda Point since 2001, has created more than a dozen whales, a 5,500-pound snake, a 25-foot man-eating shark, a mummy with 46 servo-valves (trust us, it's cool) and a "Lake of Dreams" colored by the movement of two, skipping, gliding orbs.
Founder Walt Conti's 21-year-old engineering-artistic hybrid of a company has been making film, theme park and technological magic ever since the Stanford grad blazed through David Kelley's IDEO product design "apprentice program" in Palo Alto, graduated to Lucasfilm and landed in the creative pool of film directors and industry titans such as James Cameron ("Titanic," "Avatar"). EI is now a world-class maker of animatronics, a cross-blend of animation and electronics, with an elite client list, multimillion dollar projects and a kid-in-a-garage-making-gizmos mentality.
"It's funny how things turn out," Conti says, embarking on a three-hour interview. "I read an article on 'E.T.' and never thought of working on films."
But Conti and Ty Boyce, a principal of EI at the former naval air station and also a Stanford product, thought a great deal about movement.
"We made robotic arms and had them dance," Conti recalls. "We'd choreograph to music. For me, it was the coolness of motion."
Cameron, recognizing coolness and kindred spirits in these science geeks bent toward butting innovation's edge, hired EI to create underwater magic for "The Abyss" (1989) and "Free Willy" (1993).
In May 2011, he hired them to send him to the deepest part of the ocean. Even more terrifying, he hired them to bring him back.
Cameron was secretly working with a hand-picked team of submersion experts to design the Deepsea Challenger, a solo-manned, vertical sub capable of descending 35,756 feet (just less than 7 miles) into the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean. Two U.S. Navy men had reached the remote location in 1960. Their descent took close to six hours and their stay was only 20 minutes long. Cameron intended to go alone, spend hours collecting samples, and shoot a National Geographic Foundation theatrical, 3D documentary film.
Cameron expected to do this in a 43-inch-wide capsule inside a 24-foot submersible vessel bearing about eight tons PSI (pounds of pressure per square inch). He expected to do this with pricey cameras, lights and robotic booms -- each component suspended in salt-protective silicon oil and able to withstand 16,000 PSI. He expected EI to solve the problems confounding his Australian team in the sub's lower pod design and to do it in a record seven months time.
And, Cameron, again, expected to return.
Honed and habituated by the film industry's fast-track timelines, EI's everything-under-one-roof fusion of engineering and fabrication made them perfect for the impossible job with a beastly deadline.
"Jim hired us because we could deliver under pressure and we were outside the box. A submersible company wouldn't jibe with his schedule and his creative ideas," Boyce says.
Still, despite having studied the intimate maneuvers of every underwater sea creature known to man, Conti says 20-second film scenes with animals that go only 100 feet below the water's surface are a far cry from sending a man to what could be his doom.
"The most critical system was the lower third pod and it's integrated system. The mechanical, electrical, hydraulic, and software elements that provide the ballast system were life-or-death. It makes him fall like a rock, but the only way he returns to the surface is by dropping the weights," Conti explains.
On March 26, the steel plates, totaling 1,200 pounds, brought Cameron to the place no lone man has been in record time: two hours, 36 minutes. Tiny, buckshot pellets, dispensed from a hopper under his control, slowed his "landing" and prevented the sub from permanently embedding itself into the ocean floor. Three-and-a-half hours later, Cameron released the weights and rocketed to the surface in a 70-minute ascent.
With Cameron were the makings of the film scheduled to be released this spring. Combined with documentary film of the creation process -- including EI's role in the pioneering achievement -- will be underwater footage of a surreal world.
Lit by Boyce's invention, three pan-shaped fixtures with 700 LED modules casting a five-times-brighter-than-traditional spotlight across a 2-mile wide area, illumination ingenuity made it possible to see a previously invisible land.
Conti is proud that the adventure will cause no environmental harm. The steel plates will release beneficial nutrients as they decay. Offshoot technologies are already leading to future possibilities: improved electromagnetic systems for military vessels, pipelines, oil and gas rigs; enhanced lighting for underwater maintenance and imaging.
"Jim would say, 'The day you decide not to explore, we become a smaller species,' " Conti says. "Pushing technology to open the oceans and space for exploration is grand, with broad implications for the next generation."