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5 Movies to Help Engineers Explain Simulation

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog do not reflect an official ANSYS stance or any related corporate agreements, incentives or decisions.

Human in a simulated warehouse

This holiday season, I hope everyone has a chance to sit back, relax and enjoy a good film.

Many will opt to watch a classic holiday film like Gremlins, Die Hard or Home Alone. But it’s also a great time to catch up on some movies that focus on science and how the engineering profession makes a difference.

To that end, why not watch a film that can help explain what engineers do on a daily basis?

There aren’t a lot of simulation-based films, and some of the best are quite graphic so they are omitted in the list below. But here are a handful of my favorites that engineers might find suitable to watch in the coming weeks.

5. Ender’s Game — Rated PG

In Ender’s Game, the human race is facing its biggest threat yet — the Insectoids. Though they have been defeated before, Earth’s defenses might not survive another assault.

Person in a simulated virtual reality

Now it’s up to a group of military savants training in simulations, and war games, to figure out the best way to save us all.

Ender’s Game is a fun space romp that has an interesting take on ethics.

In the film, Ender and his colleagues use simulated battles to train themselves to be ready for a final confrontation with the Insectoids.

This isn’t too far from reality. Humans can use simulations to train before setting foot on a job site. Artificial intelligence (AI) systems can also undergo simulation-based training to ensure the safety of various technologies like autonomous vehicles and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).

4. Ready Player One — Rated PG

Satellite in space

In the near distant future of Ready Player One, people enter a virtual reality, called the OASIS, to escape numerous global catastrophes.

When the creator of the OASIS passes, he bequeaths his invention to whomever can find the Eater eggs hidden inside.

Now it’s up to a group of 1980’s-loving youth to take ownership of the virtual reality before an evil corporation does.

This pop-culture treasure trove helps to show the versatility of simulation. In the OASIS people can look however they want, travel wherever they want and be in any era they want. If they wish to be Ellen Ripley piloting an X-Wing around the Romulus supernova — they can do that.

This is similar to how engineers can change a simulation’s frame of reference, boundary conditions and physical properties to mimic locations. These locations could be difficult or impossible to recreate in reality. For instance, engineers can use simulations to test satellite designs without physically testing them in space.

3. The Matrix — Rated R

When Thomas Anderson, aka Neo (Keanu Reeves) was searching for The Matrix, he had no idea the rabbit hole he would fall into.

Person plugged into technology

He soon finds himself in a war between man and machine that takes place on two battlefields: one real and the other simulated. But which is home, and which is the prison?

The Matrix flipped many science fiction tropes by telling a story where a simulated world was familiar, and a reality was surreal.

Though the Wachowski siblings weren’t the first directors to play with this concept (most notable examples are not family friendly) they certainly made it mainstream enough to become a trend.

Engineers can use The Matrix to explain how hardware- and software-in-the-loop testing works. In the film humans are the hardware plugged into the simulation. They are tricked to think that the simulation they perceive is reality. This is similar to how engineers can plug hardware into simulations to validate how they will operate within the real world without risking prototypes, people or property.

2. Iron Man — Rated PG

Engineers using simulation to optimize a product

When weapons inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is visiting the troops, he is critically wounded by terrorists that are using his own creations against him.

Now he must race against time to heal himself and develop a new weapon to shield the world of danger.

Iron Man is a fun action adventure that shows how people can change for the better.

It also demonstrates the product development process. In it, Stark uses simulation to streamline his trial-and-error. Though some of his prototypes still fail, simulations ensure that it isn’t long until he is able to suit up for battle.

This is just how simulation is used in the real world. Engineers model designs to simplify development and ensure physical prototypes are close to a final design.

1. Inception — Rated PG

A person in a simulated dream 

Inception features an all-star cast led by legendary writer/director Christopher Nolan.

In it, a ragtag group of thieves are tasked to enter, alter and simulate the dreams of a CEO to steal his corporate secrets.

However, if they travel too deep into the dreamworlds they design, they could find themselves trapped — or visited by a ghost.

An engineer can also use the concepts of Inception to teach how designs can be moved into simulations and applied to solve a problem.

While simulations in this film follow the physics of an M.C. Escher painting (which is a bit far-fetched), engineers can explain that by using true physics-based simulations they can model real-world problems.

You might be interested to know that simulations can also make films. To learn how, read: Simulations Let You Experience the Surface of Titan.

Or watch the free documentary Last Call for Titan:

Last Call for Titan Documentary.