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Bran Ferren

Bran Ferren
Born Bran Ferren
(1953-01-16) January 16, 1953 [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] architectural designer,[7][8] vehicle designer,[9][10][11] engineer,[9][10][11] lighting and sound designer,[12][13] visual effects artist,[14] scientist,[15] lecturer,[16][17] photographer,[18] entrepreneur,[19] and inventor.[20] Ferren is the former President of Research and Development of Walt Disney Imagineering[21] as well as founder of Associates & Ferren, a multidisciplinary engineering and design firm acquired in 1993 by Disney.[22] 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.[23][24]

Early life

Ferren was the only child of artists John Ferren and Rae Ferren.[7] 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[25] before becoming an integral member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists.[26] His father was also personal friends with Alfred Hitchcock and created paintings for The Trouble with Harry and designed the nightmare sequence in Vertigo.[27] Bran's uncles came from the worlds of engineering and technology: Roy Ferren served as director of flight test for North American Aviation[28] (later North American Rockwell), and Stanley Tonkel, a noted senior recording engineer for Columbia Records, engineered recordings for artists such as Miles Davis.[29]

Bran started his first design company, Synchronetics while in high school.[30] He left high school at age 16 to attend MIT, but departed in 1970 to continue entrepreneurial pursuits. 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 using pyrotechnics, audio, and novel lighting techniques.[30][31]


Associates & Ferren

Bran founded Associates & Ferren at the age of 25[1][3][4] to do work at the "crossroads of design and science and entertainment."[31] 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.[32] The production featured a “shattering display of thunder and lightning”,[33] which got the attention of director Ken Russell, leading to Ferren’s first prominent assignment on a major film, Altered States.[30]

For his work in theatre, Bran received the New York Drama Desk Award, the Maharam Foundation Award, and was the recipient of the Wally Russell Lifetime Achievement Award for lighting design.[34]

As principal designer of Associates & Ferren, Bran went on to lead many high-profile projects, such as special effects for the Paul McCartney World Tour,[15] Pink Floyd,[1][35] and visual effects for Little Shop of Horrors. He also produced, directed, and did cinematography for the movie “Funny”, which received a Nomination for a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.[36] “Funny” features over 100 individuals, from Dick Cavett to Frank Zappa, telling their favorite jokes on camera.[37]

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.[11][38] 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, the company had won an Academy Award for Science and Engineering as well as two Academy Awards for Technical Achievement.[39][40] Ferren was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for “Little Shop of Horrors”.[41]

His entertainment industry projects at Associates & Ferren include:

The Walt Disney Company

Bran 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.[21] According to his former boss, CEO Michael Eisner, Bran’s mission was “to dream about the future and show us new and innovative ways to tell stories”.[48] Bran supported Disney’s Strategic Planning Group and had direct involvement in a wide variety of 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.[49] His team was responsible for engineering the ABC Times Square Studios curved LED ticker display.[50][51]

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.[52] The first Disney fellow was parallel-computing pioneer Danny Hillis[53] with whom Bran went on to found technology innovation and design firm Applied Minds in 2000. Applied Minds is still headquartered in Glendale, California, around the block from Imagineering headquarters.

Applied Minds

Bran's company Applied Minds (AMI) has been described as a “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” for geeks.[19] AMI invents, designs, prototypes, and creates high-technology products, vehicles, architectural designs, and services for government institutions and Fortune 100 companies.[54][55] 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.[56] AMI also spins off technology companies. Notable spinouts include Metaweb, purchased by Google in 2010[57][58] and cancer diagnostics firm Advanced Proteomics.[59] 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.

Bran has been named inventor on over 100 current and pending US patents.[20][60] His 2005 patent with Danny 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.[23][24] Another of his patents is for Metaweb, a contextual database technology that Google acquired in 2010 and which now underlies Knowledge Graph.[61] 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.[62]

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

  • KiraVan, the next-generation of the Maximog, also based on a Mercedes Unimog chassis.[63] The vehicle is currently under construction.
  • 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.[9][10]
  • SmarTruck II, an Army concept vehicle for defense and emergency response, featured at the 2003 Detroit Auto show.[64]

His architectural and interior design projects include Lockheed Martin's Center for Innovation, known as "The Lighthouse".[65][66]

Public Speaking

Bran has an extensive public speaking career that has spanned a wide range of professional, government, and academic audiences. His over 150 speaking engagements include Harvard's Center for Public Leadership,[67] MIT Media Lab,[68][69] Wharton,[70] NASA,[17] Air Force,[71] National Academy of Engineering,[72] Intel Corporation,[73] the Smithsonian,[74] and TED.[75][76]

Advisory Board Memberships

Ferren's advisory work has included board memberships at the FCC,[77] Securities and Exchange Commission,[78] International Design Conference in Aspen,[79][80] PBS Kids[81] and the science magazine Nautilus.[82] He has also served as a member of the Army Science Board for 5 years,[83] the Defense Science Board,[84] the Naval Historical Foundation Advisory Council,[85] and the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel.[86]

Fine Art Photography

Two of his photographs have been accepted into the Smithsonian Museum for American Art.[87] He has presented and exhibited his artwork at 2008 the Entertainment Gathering (e.g.) Conference.[88]

Creative Collaborations

In 2009, Bran collaborated with Laurie Anderson on the “The Third Mind” exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.[89] In 2004, he helped to develop a gigapixel image system and 360 degree cyclorama with artist/photographer Clifford Ross.[90] He had creative meetings with Jim Henson in 1988 about a Muppets theme park prior to Henson selling his company to Disney.[91]

Honours and Awards

  • 2011 Fast Company, “The 100 Most Creative People in Business”
  • 2000 Kilby International Awards recipient for significant contributions to society
  • 1998 Wally Lifetime Achievement Award for lighting design
  • 1989 Sundance Film Festival Nomination for Grand Jury Prize, Documentary: Funny
  • 1987 Oscar Nomination, Best Visual Effects: Little Shop of Horrors
  • 1987 Scientific & Engineering Award: Advanced optical printer concept and design
  • 1987 Technical Achievement Award: Development of laser synchro-cue system
  • 1984 New York Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Special Effects
  • 1983 Technical Achievement Award: Computerized lighting effect system design and development
  • 1980 LA Drama Critics Circle Award for Special Video and Sound Effects


  • "Technology is stuff that doesn’t work yet.", quoted by Douglas Adams in the Sunday Times[92]
  • "In 250 years, reading and writing will have turned out to be a fad."[93][94]
  • "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[95]
  • "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."[96][97]
  • 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."[98]
  • "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[99]
  • 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[100][101]

In Popular Culture

The final scene in the 1980s music video "Take on Me" by A-ha was inspired by the similar scene designed by Bran in Altered States.[102][103]

External links

  • KiraVan
  • Applied Minds
  • MaxiMog


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