Even though interfaces, devices, and controls in movies and TV shows are often visible just long enough to drive the story forward, many have achieved pop culture immortality, ranging from Star Trek's communicator and the WarGames WOPR computer to the Terminator HUD, and of course, HAL. Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel argue that we can draw practical design lessons from these interfaces.
Last year the pair published Make It So: Interface Design Lessons From Sci-Fi, and followed it up with a design blog, regularly cataloging sci-fi design concepts in everything from The Fifth Element and Metropolis to classics like Forbidden Planet and Barbarella. They took some time to talk about their background, what makes a great sci-fi interface, and the relationship between what we use everyday and the concepts we see on screen.
What makes a great sci-fi interface?
Christopher Noessel: There are a couple of ways to answer this. For the characters it's an interface that lets them accomplish their goals as effectively as possible. For the audience it's an interface that is engaging, inspiring, and makes them want to say, "That was awesome!" And many times, "I wish I could play with that!" For the sci-fi makers it's something that elegantly tells the story without burdening the narrative, and sometimes, that makes us think about the directions technology is taking, and what we can do about it. For me personally it's either the rare elegant and just-a-little-futuristic solution or the giant, campy mistake.
Why spend so much time thinking about these on-screen interfaces? What kind of lessons can we take back to "real world" design?
CN: The speculative technologies we see on screens influence us as consumers and designers. We shouldn't let that just happen without some serious analysis, some reasonable response to the next client who asks us to make their chat client look like Tron: Legacy. But we can do more than that. In our analysis we can find things that are relevant to our real world design. It might be reminders of things we already know, but the sci-fi context gives us a shared example to discuss and reference. It might be things that we can abstract from the fantastic technologies on screen, but that have relevance for our more day-to-day work. And of course there are lessons for actual future technologies when they arrive.
Nathan Shedroff: In addition, sci-fi (and all fiction) has an effect on culture. It exerts influence on our expectations and our aspirations and, as such, has an impact on what we think is appropriate and what we desire. We can't ignore this influence as it's sometimes responsible for the failure of one product (like the Motorola MicroTAC phone) and the success of another (like Motorola's next phone, the StarTAC). Sci-fi is made for humans and satisfies us (or not) based on many of the same human criteria that our interfaces do. It can be a great medium to prototype and explore human issues before they become critical in real products.
It’s interesting that you’re not critiquing whether these interfaces are realistic or even possible, but instead teasing apart how characters interact with them within the context of a movie. What got you hooked on watching movies this way?
NS: If we had tried to critique the technology, it wouldn't be useful until it was available and, let's face it, some of what we see is simply not going to happen — in our lifetimes or not. But, that isn't the point. Any author will tell you, sci-fi isn't really about the future, it's about the present. It just uses the future as a mechanism to make clear what authors, directors, and production designers want to comment on about our current lives. In essence, that's what Chris and I are doing, too, commenting on the present opportunities of interface design by using objects and contexts "from the future."
What background do you bring into this sort of critique? Is this something you’d like to see more of in design / film / computer science schools?
CN: We're both sci-fi fans from way back. (I'm more a Star Wars fan, Nathan's more of a Trekkie — Trekker?) So, part of what we bring is a lifelong love for the genre. And professionally, we're both designers who work with and think about technology and humans regularly. This book sits right in the Venn overlap between those interests.
NS: There are a lot of parallels between sci-fi design and "real" design, mostly because the majority of what we design on projects is fictional, too. Personas are characters, Scenarios and use cases are narratives, prototypes are scenes (of films themselves), etc. In sci-fi, the goal is inspiration and commentary, in design it's usability, accessibility, desirability, effectiveness, and meaning — that's where they overlap. Sci-fi, as a design technique, makes it much easier to break the conventions of our everyday requirements and explore new possibilities in the interface...
"Imagine the drudgery of trying to write a book using a gestural interface. Misery."
What movie interface stands out to you as just the most fully thought through? Not just something that functionally pulls you into a scene, but that’s elegantly practical?
NS: I love the surgery interface in Chrysalis, the emoticons in Moon, the holodeck (particularly when it's used for simulations and problem-solving), and the Star Trek: Next Generation-type communicators (to name just a few). They're all different but all successful in different ways. Another one we see only for a split second, that we could use today, is the voice-locked guns in Lost in Space (the movie, not the television series). When John Robinson picks up the gun, during the initial battle with the out-of-control robot, he says “Deactivate safety!” to unlock it. Instantly, his voiceprint is checked and the command carried out as he begins to fire the weapon. That's elegant, practical, and effective.
Are there modern gadgets you see that have superfluous / impractical design or functionality that’s borrowed from sci-fi?
CN: Minority Report made a lot of people want gesture for everything. But as anyone with a Wii or Kinect knows, gesture is inelegant and can be exhausting, even when it's fun. Imagine the drudgery of trying to write a book using a gestural interface. Misery.
NS: Or trying to create a spreadsheet! Most voice interfaces fall into the same trap. They work on screen because we only ever hear them for the characters who need to be in control at the moment. That's convenient for the narrative. But we're all the main character in our own lives. Imagine an open-plan office where everyone is talking to their computers. Aside from the privacy concerns (are you really working or are you tweeting or checking Facebook at work?), there is the problem of the level of noise from all of your co-workers. Voice interfaces work well in a few contexts: in the car, on your phone (if it's close to your mouth and you're not in a noisy place or one where you're interrupting others), and maybe at home (if you live alone). Most other applications are just not appropriate. But, we keep seeing them in sci-fi, even on a crowded busy spaceship bridge.
We’re seeing a lot of modern design ideas, especially touchscreens and gestures, bleeding into our sci-fi (Prometheus, Oblivion, etc...) instead of the other way around (thinking Star Trek’s communicator, or for better or worse, the arm flailing of Minority Report). Is it getting harder to envision possible futures?
CN: (In due nerd diligence, I should note that gestural interfaces have been in sci-fi since the 1950s — go watch the original The Day The Earth Stood Still — and touchscreens since the 1980s. But I know what you mean.) I wouldn't say it's getting harder to envision possible futures. But it's certainly easier, narratively and in response to studio pressures, to simply tweak existing tropes. Occasionally you'll see something really new. I saw Iron Man 3 recently, and I was deeply impressed with how it thought of technology as a smart, fluid skin operating with a flock-like intelligence.
NS: It's more a matter of care. Many interfaces’ elements that make them successful aren't "new" or "exciting" enough for sci-fi makers. A few directors, like those who created 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Minority Report, Oblivion, etc. make a point to bring in futurists, scientists, designers, etc. to help them create a believable and wondrous world. But it’s most just that it’s the shortcut and default to what they've seen before — it's cheaper, easier, and faster, though not as interesting or influential.
"Networks are so helpful that they short-circuit the narrative."
Everything from Oblivion to Prometheus increasingly relies on touchscreens. Twists, knobs, and clicks are being replaced by swipes and gestures. Are we losing anything in the process?
CN: Of course! Gestural interfaces give no haptic data, which is a rich information channel. But touch and gesture are “cinemagenic” (they look good on screen) and still mostly feel new. Haptics is very difficult to convey on screen, so it's tough to make it exciting to someone observing it. Until we're feeling movies, what looks and sounds good will have the catbird's seat.
NS: Actually, I disagree, somewhat, with the premise that we're losing physical controls. They're certainly not the majority of controls or displays (and were never great solutions anyway at conveying a lot of controls). It's a phenomenon that's happening in real airplane cockpits because it's a better solution. However, if you look at the physical controls in Star Trek (the reboot film) and other new films and television shows, you're seeing physical and virtual controls mixed together. Ideally, this is a better solution, using each for what it's strong at.
Brian Phillips made an interesting point at Grantland last year that Star Trek: The Next Generation almost entirely avoided communication and networking. Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica basically wrote around it. Only now are we seeing series like Sherlock and House of Cards, mostly set in the present day, creatively dealing with the reality of texting, mobile devices, and living awash in data. Are there any standout examples that get it right? And why is it so hard to solve?
CN: It will take young writers, who are native to these technologies, to shed the "skeuomorphic" metaphors and be able to think about new technology on its own terms. Admittedly you cut off a lot of narrative interest when everyone in the story knows everything all the time. I actually think the Moore Battlestar handled it well, by pointing out the most obvious flaw in the technology. I honestly can't think of an example that handled it perfectly.
NS: This is a problem of all narratives — television and film alike. Networks are so helpful that they short-circuit the narrative. It's difficult to write suspense into a story, for example, if people can just call each other when they know the other is in danger (instead of jumping in a car for a mad dash to the heroine's home / office / boat / etc. before the killer / rapist / zombie / evil clown attacks). It's not as fun, interesting, or scary. Writers often have to perform backflips in order to make suspense possible (the phone line is cut, the network service is "down," she's in the shower, etc.). It's no different with sci-fi.
Aside from exceptions like John Underkoffler, the people behind so much of what we see on screen live in relative obscurity — though they are easier to find than ever with the internet. Who are your favorite interface designers?
CN: That's a tough one. There's lots of brilliant folks in the business, and favorite designers may not line up well with favorite designs. Can I rattle off a few? David Lewandowski (dlew, Tron: Legacy), Ash Thorp / Prologue (Prometheus), GMunk (Oblivion), Mark Coleran (The Island, who's made the shift over to the dark side that is real-world interface design). I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Christopher Kieffer and Coplin LeBleu, whose work on The Cabin in the Woods earned it our top review on scifiinterfaces.com to date.
"Everything breaks from effectiveness when you need tension."
What are the most shameless / favorite ways that an on-screen interface “breaks” in order to drive a scene in a movie forward?
NS: There are so many — everything breaks from effectiveness when you need tension. The little girl operating the UNIX workstation with the spatial finder in Jurassic Park can see the box for the lab controls but must wait until it images "closer" before she can actually click on it. In Minority Report, we see Anderton pointing at data all over his workroom and sending it from surface to surface but when they need tension, they suddenly have to get information from one screen to another — quickly — but use optical discs that must be physically run between the systems!
NS: And, my favorite: in Star Trek: Insurrection we hear Commander Riker call to the computer to "access manual steering column," and a joystick pops up in the middle of a console (looking very 1990s) when, in the entire rest of the film, they've managed to run the ship, navigate, and do battle without the need for a joystick. It's laughable.
Many film and TV interfaces say more about their present time than they do about the future. How much of what you do is commentary about computing “today” as compared to the future?
CN: It's always about some point just beyond not the present, but our present concepts. No one is flying around in Iron Man suits, but the third movie can afford to build on what the other two have established. Sci-fi can't afford to waste too much narrative time explaining new technologies. The bigger the movie, the more quickly the audience will zone out. Sci-fi can typically afford to extend modern paradigms just a bit. I call the pattern "What You Know Plus One," and it's held true from Fritz Lang's Metropolis all the way to today.
Interview has been condensed and edited.