Chris Noessel: lessons of science fiction computer interfaces


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See, there are good silver persons too!

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This applies more to program user interfaces, but I once had an interesting conversation with a developer who said that, for a long time, he’d put a lot of work into the background coding of a program. Then, when it was time to put the interface together, he was usually rushed, tired of the whole thing, and would throw something together that, based on his intimate knowledge of the background, seemed logical. Finally it occurred to him that the reason people complained about the interfaces of his programs was because he was going at the process backward.

It seems stupid to have to say this, but it seems that an important thing to keep in mind in any interface design is the end user.

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I can’t imagine using that Minority Report interface full time.

I can barely take holding and iPad up to read for long, a full day of waving your hands around would be exhausting as fuck.
Plus I would be constantly knocking my coffee over.


I was told there would be Shrek.

I vote for LCARS, from TNG and beyond. While it’s not entirely consistent over the seasons (and series), it’s always portrayed as intuitive, easy to use, essentially fool-proof - and it still looks pretty cool to this day, almost 30 years after Denise and Michael Okuda designed it (seriously: Say what you will about all the beiges and browns - it’s simply astonishing how little the set and art design of the Enterprise D has aged.)

If TOS’ communicator anticipated cellphones, LCARS anticipated 21st-century touch screen interfaces.


I always assumed that user interfaces in movies and on tv shows weren’t designed to be practical but rather to communicate to the audience what it is the characters were doing. We can laugh about the silly UI in ‘Hackers’ when they’re hacking the Gipson but making Unix command lines interesting is a tall order. Tron: Legacy did an ok job with this early in the movie but mainly because the narrative made what appeared on the computer screen irrelevant.

My best worst would be the animated tiny metal cubes display from the first X-Men movie.

I always liked the spaceship controls from “Silent Running” – they had bog-standard keyboards bolted to desks, with CRT displays. Not good for rapid-response, but if you want to key in a maneuver sequence, you at least have a chance.

Aren’t there whole websites cataloging movie computer UIs?

I wasn’t sure why Lowell had to rewire the drone though.

“Best-Worst” isn’t the most accessible interface. Which axis does “Best” refer to, and which axis does “Worst” refer to? Perhaps “Flashy, Inconsistent” would be a better way of describing “Best Worst”. Or is that “Mundane-Consistent”? That’s not terrible elegant.

But if you’re taking about the 3 dimensional map in Xmen, Make it so informs us that 3d map generators based on pin grid screens have been sold to the military, and other users who need to understand local terrain.

In an interesting twist on the bad UI theme, the graph displayed isn’t actually a graph. There are no axes plural, just a progression from worst to best, which he describes out of order. “Best-Worst” is actually “the best of the worst”, and “Worst-Best” is actually “the worst of the best”.

I continue to be irrationally annoyed by the sheer physical impossibility of those damn “hologram” images floating in mid-air, as projected by R2-D2 in Star Wars, manipulated by Tom Cruise in Minority Report and popping up in just about every sci-fi movie since ( and even erstwhile police procedurals on TV, such as CSI and Bones).

If you’re waiting for that particular UI to show up in real life, you’ll be waiting until the laws of optics are repealed – that’s just not how light works.

Just sayin’, y’know.

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