Sci fi and UX (Part 1)

by Daria Lanz on 2 March 2016

While they may not know it, film makers have been engaging with the concept of user experience for quite some time now. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that user experience is the secret ingredient for science fiction stories to stand the test of time. In this 3-part blog, I'll be looking at sci fi films and how they depict their characters as users of future technology. 

Why connect Sci fi and UX?

Sci fi is a unique genre: while it pushes forward through imaginative concepts such as futuristic science and technology, it is defined by its grounding within our current reality. The ideas it explores have to be relatively believable and plausible to us as an audience.

Part of that involves making sure new ideas and technologies make sense within the story's world, and that's where I feel user experience starts to be a factor. User experience is the overall experience a person has when using a product. It's how a person feels when interfacing with a system.

Science fiction, whether set in the past or future, shapes a world where technology has advanced beyond today. The problem is, in the real world now technology is advancing at an exponential rate. It is impossible to predict where technology will be in 10, 20, 100+ years, and it is impossible to guess how quickly the new tech today or tomorrow will become dated.

This leaves a large margin of risk for a science fiction story to quickly become dated. However, if a story focuses on the user's experiences with the technology, rather than the technology itself, there is a better chance the story will continue to be relevant for years to come.

The ideas sci fi explores have to be relatively believable and plausible to us as an audience.

Movies that put the protagonist, or 'user' first

Let's start with a basic example: "Blade Runner". More specifically, the scene where Deckard interacts with an interface to examine old photographs. The computer looks dated, the way the computer 'enhances' is dated, and the print the computer produces at the end is dated. But the simple experience of Deckard vocally commanding the computer is still timeless. The technology itself is old, but the ease and convenience of telling it what to do is what's interesting.

Let's jump 20 years to the "Minority Report" – an obvious movie to examine. The world is full of technological advances: transportation defies gravity crawling up and down buildings. 'Smart' cars drive themselves and interpret destinations without any human interaction.

Minority Report 1.png

Advertisements break free from the screen, and tailor their messages based on the person walking by.

Minority Report 4.png

"Eye-dentification" detection runs through the city, keeping track of everyone at all times.

Home made videos even play back in holographic 3D. The only error is in their name: 'holo-tapes'. Tapes are a thing of the past, and pull the audience out of the futuristic setting into a present, realistic one.

Minority report 2.png

This aside, the movie does a pretty good job of demonstrating these themes without diving into the technical specifications of how they actually function. The focus is on how the characters, or 'users', interact with them rather than proving how they actually work. What's more, all these futuristic experiences are fundamental components within the plot. They haven't added 'flash' to pad the storyline; they've really created a futuristic world through and through (nice one, Spielberg).

When technology is only there to look fancy

As a comparison, let's look at "The Island". "The Island" is full of fancy futuristic experiences: Humans are cloned and toilets instantaneously test and report your immune levels.

Image 1.pngRobotic devices are inserted into your eye sockets to read and monitor your data, trains and motorcycles even fly.

The Island 2.png

However, when it comes to the actual plot, the human cloning is the only thing ultimately fundamental to the story.

When Ewan McGregor's Lincoln Six Echo and Scarlett Johansson's Jordan Delta Two are on the run, Sean Bean's character Dr. Merrick's hired hitmen are still flying around in helicopters to try and find them. They're still using security cameras to track them, credit cards to interact with money, they're communicating on mobile flip phones, and their computers are still basic screens with keyboards and mice.

The Island 3.png

There was no thought or creativity put into how the characters interact with these objects. Ultimately, the user's experience was ignored.

On the other hand, "Minority Report" has put the time and effort into really flushing out a futuristic world – it feels believable. It also feels less dated than The Island, even though it was released 3 years earlier.

UI taking centre stage

Let's not forget the infamous pre-crime lab tech. It is arguably one of the most talked about film UIs, and one of the first things that came to mind when I began thinking about sci fi and user experience.

Tom Cruise's character dances around the room manipulating data by hand gesture. He wears special gloves to achieve this, rather than using a mouse (or stylus or anything of that sort). This type of gestural interface allows him much more freedom to move across the huge multi-panel screen.

While the UI still requires a screen – it doesn't go as far as holography – the screens themselves look like thin glass, and the data can seamlessly move from one screen to the next. This breaks the current boundary and confinement of the contemporary monitor screen.

Considering this was designed in 2002, this is a huge leap in creatively reshaping how users interact with a computer interface. They've broken down the space around the screen – where we currently sit, confined to a chair and screen, Tom's character can stand, sit or dance around the room, spreading the information across a wall of screen space.

This is a much more natural and intuitive (and delightful) experience for the user. Again, they haven't wasted any time trying to explain how the tech actually works. The only indication of this are the gloves Tom's character wears.

I found it interesting that the little glass chips they use to store data are basically glorified USB sticks. However they look slicker, and perform with much more ease for the user. They still managed to enhance the user's experience by removing all the finicky on-screen copy/paste/drag-and-drop of files from one hard drive to the next. Instead they simply slide the moving pictures onto the chip, and then away they go.

Minority report 3.png

What's available today?

So where are we today with all this tech? Amazingly, "Minority Report" got a lot of it right.

The big building-side advertisements aren't unlike the direction augmented reality is taking today. The 'eye-dentification' schemes the government uses to track and manage all citizens is similar to the use of data tracking organisations and governments are using today to target, track and manipulate people.

Even though their success is questionable, gestural interfaces are being explored with products like Leap Motion. And finally, the gloves Tom wears are remarkably similar to Imogen Heap's mimu gloves, which utilise wearable technology to manipulate and control music and visuals with intuitive human movement. And while we still don't have gravity-defying cars, IDEO has begun designing transportation of the future, where the car becomes part of the space you work in.

By focusing on the interaction and user experience of the technology and world around the characters, "Minority Report" was able to successfully create an exciting futuristic landscape which still feels very relevant today. If they'd focused on explaining or demonstrating or showcasing how the technology worked, they likely wouldn't have been as successful.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this trilogy, where I'll be exploring holograms and voice-commanded interfaces. I'll compare a few more sci fi stories, and contrast with where we're at in today's technology.

Jonathan says 10:11am 03 Mar 2016

Developing a gesture based computer interface was my initial masters of industrial engineering thesis proposal. While I was successful at developing the technology to recognize hand gestures in real-time to control mouse functions (using Vicon Motion Capture technology), there are fundamental issues with this type of technology... efficiency and fatigue. Since I was working in a Biomechanics Research Lab at the time, I had serious concerns that anyone who used this interface for long periods of time would end up having significant fatigue and an increased risk of injury. After much deliberation, I decided to throw out this proposal. The rational was that I created a very cool interface but it reduced the efficiency of the controls by making them hand and arm gesture based instead of small movements and clicks with a mouse. Not a good strategy. As an alternative, I explored opportunities where this technology would either improve or maintain the efficiency of the intended work. I ended up finding an application where this technology was a perfect fit. Happy to discuss in more detail. J

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