Gallery of computer interfaces from science fiction movies

Originally published at:

Didn’t this come up a week ago? am I time traveling or something across BB time and space?


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@frauenfelder Is this the same fellow who gave the talk at the BB Illuminated event?

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I think there’s been a tear in the boing-time continuum and stuff keeps leaking through. Quick, someone reverse the polarity!


Aye, I’ll do my very best. Can you please hand me the spanner and then press your finger on the little button on the side of this PADD until a green robot appears on screen, lying down with an open hatch?

This button? Oh - that button. OK. Done. But the robot is red.

One thing that may perhaps surprise some people is that despite the ubiquity of digital technology and popular interest in “good looking” UI, there are in fact very few professional interaction designers in the world. This is the reason why most software (and hardware - if you’ve ever been baffled by a microwave oven) is so hard to use.

There are large numbers of software engineers (professional writers of computer code) who wind up designing interfaces because nobody else will. There is also a large number of graphic designers who do the same. But graphic design isn’t the same thing as interaction design. The former exists to elicit an emotional reaction. The latter exists to allow somebody to communicate with a machine in the way they want to. And it requires a very different skillset to be successful in that goal.

I’m an interaction designer by trade, and I find this gallery interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly because it inhabits a sort of nether world of UI which seeks to suggest, rather than actually deliver, control. And secondly because it reveals something about the gap between what people think a “desirable” UI would be for a computer system, as opposed to what is actually created in real life when the designers of such systems have to cope with things like human cognition and biology.

Looking at the gallery, you can make two broad observations which shed light on the aforementioned gap between software fiction and fact: Most of the interfaces are what would be termed “dashboards” for physical telemetry of some sort. As such, they are abstractions and monitors of physical systems (spaceships, the human body, etc.). Most are also visually highly complex and for the most part inscrutable. They employ “mystery meat” navigation and imply a high level of expertise for effective use.

The first observation is interesting in that very few people in reality ever encounter such interfaces beyond perhaps a Nest thermostat or their car. So immediately these future UIs operate in a different realm where there are few preconceptions. Note also that near-future UI (the unix-like windowing GUI of ‘Jurassic Park’, or the one used by Jeff Goldbloom in ‘Independence Day’) are absent, presumably since these are open to ridicule though too much familiarity with the domain in which they exist in real life.

But what’s particularly interesting to me is how there is such an enthusiasm for visual complexity. In the real world, creating such complexity is almost a taboo. But I have always been suspicious of designers who pursue visual simplicity in the name of “usability”. We can in fact make use of high levels of visual complexity if we need to. But when we design interfaces onto complex systems we shy away from that. I think that’s a pity, and see this gallery as at least revealing something about visual complexity in interaction design that I wish was explored more.

If you have an interest in this area, I can highly recommend you read the essay Magic Ink by Brett Victor, one of the world’s few interaction designers.


Thanks for the link. Will read.

Surprised you say there are few UI professionals. I would have guessed Kai Krause kindled some interest years ago in the industry? Vaguely remember him giving a lecture on the importance of UI design I watched, uh, in the mid-'90s?

I think they want to make it into a series… not that I’d mind that in any way.
Can the next installment feature HAL and the Discovery, please?

BTW, personal pet peeve: bad production design. For example: hundreds of blinkenlights and buttons. None of them labelled.

Nothing from 2001 or THHGTTG?

What I find annoying in movies & TV are the transparent displays, where the user not only sees everything on the screen, but everything behind the screen too. I can’t see how that would work.

One of my historical faves, from The Andromeda Strain:

Krause was certainly a pioneer in practical HCI, but his ideas, along with those of Don Norman, Bruce Tognazzini and others such as Victor, have been largely eclipsed by enthusiasm for visual design. A recent joint article voicing complaints about Apple in this regard has not bucked the trend and been similarly ignored I think.

I guess the inspiration is a “heads up display” where both things are equally important.


A common, if rather baffling, phenomenon in real life as well. See mystery meat navigation.

Makes sense! But they’re not used that way in the movies . . .

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This is the thing I was thinking of


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