Movie stars have it easy. They can hack servers with a few mouse clicks, and their computers always have the coolest interfaces. But Star Trek pads and Minority-report-style desktop interfaces aren’t just science fiction anymore, thanks to the coming wave of tablets and smartphones that offer interactivity possibilities that were previously only available to the imaginations of Hollywood directors.
At the annual Macworld conference in San Francisco, Nathan Shedroff, program chair for the MBA in design strategy at the California College of Arts, and Chris Noessel, interaction designer for interaction design firm Cooper, gave a talk entitled “Make It So: Learning from Science Fiction Interfaces.” The venue was appropriate for such a talk, and the conference is now heavily focused on the iPhone and iPad platforms.
The pair have spent the past three years working on a book that explores the influence of science fiction interfaces on the real world, and vice versa.
Noessel told the story of how the U.S. Army developed a topographical map display system based on the interface seen in a movie. “In the year 2000, a fellow by the name of Douglas Caldwell was petitioned by his son to see a movie about superheroes. In that movie, he saw the solution to a 2,000-year-old problem he’d been working on. The movie was ‘X-Men,’” he said.
In the movie, the X-Men use a table-sized display made up of small metal pins that can rise and fall, thus displaying the terrain where the heroes must perform super deeds. “The reason this interface was of interest to Douglas is that he worked in the U.S. Army topographical mapping group. He has to model the terrain, package it, ship it to a [battleground], and hope he didn’t get it wrong,” said Noessel.
“He saw in the X-Men movie a way to show topographical maps. Within four years, he’d written an RFC and had built the Xenovision. It’s an array of computer-controlled pins that can rise and fall according to any topography, with a thin skin on top that can be vacuum-sealed for a smooth surface they can project a satellite image upon. They can even model terrain on Mars and for historic battlefields. It’s a wonderful device, and it all came about because Douglas watched the X-Men.”
Noessel went on to point out that the Star Trek Personal Access Display Device is an example of another predictive device in science fiction. These ubiquitous tablet computers were introduced in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in 1986, though Noessel pointed out that the original series foretold the existence of the Tablet PC, as Kirk can be seen using a pen-and-tablet device as well.
Shedroff said that user interfaces in movies and television shows sometimes resort to anthropomorphism. He used the example of Knight Rider, the computer on the starship Enterprise, and the Knowledge Navigator industrial film produced by Apple in 1987.
In the Apple film, a user is seen walking around in his study as a small window on his tablet-like computer shows a human head that speaks the information he needs. “There is an agent named Phil who says, ‘You have three messages…'” said Shedroff.
“Phil isn’t exactly a fun loving-guy, but he’s also not annoying. His representation, with so little personality, doesn’t get in the way. This is probably a more successful way of playing this interface game of anthropomorphism.”
Shedroff said that an image isn’t even necessary for an anthropomorphic interface. “We’ve found instances where you can do this without visuals. In Star Trek, the computer on the Enterprise…has a voice. There’s a voice interface with speech recognition and speech synthesis. The voice that is rendered is human-like as opposed to mechanical. The more human the representation, the more capabilities we expect the computer to have,” he said.
“Voice alone isn’t necessary to make this anthropomorphism. Sometimes you can do it with just beeps and buzzes.”
Beeps and buzzes, like the kind made by R2-D2. No word yet on if the Force will be required to understand those computers.