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Sci-Fi Movie Interfaces: Why Transparent Screens Are Miserable to Use

Yesterday, we sat in on the excellent 'Made it So (Interface Makers in Movies)' panel at SXSW with Chris Noessel, Mike Fink, Mark Coleran and David Lewandowski, some of the designers behind the on-screen interfaces in movies ranging from '80s classics 'Blade Runner' and 'WarGames' to modern day blockbusters 'Avatar' and 'Tron: Legacy.' The panel followed a simple question and answer format, touching on favorite movie interfaces, the elements that shape on-screen graphics and the connections between real-world gadgets and UIs and sci-fi movies.

Favorite Movie Interfaces

Michael Fink chose Hal, from '2001: A Space Odyssey,' for its elegance; Kubrick efficiently condensed a super intelligent computer into an eye, a lens (i.e. all the shots where Hal watches the crew) and a voice. By giving the computer the power and understanding of speech, Kubrick bypassed the need to create a visual interface for Hal. The ship's color graphics, though, were created on film and rear-projected onto flat displays synced to the cameras -- CRTs didn't exist in 1968. Jumping forward, David Lewandowski, who worked on 'Tron: Legacy,' picked 'Iron Man 2' -- the antithesis to Hal -- for having the "best graphic design" he's seen in film. "It's really dumb, doesn't make sense, but it's gorgeous."

How Narrative Shapes Sci-Fi Interfaces

the netAll four panelists agreed that advancing the narrative is at the core of the computer interfaces we see in film. Mark Coleran explained that it "doesn't matter if it's done genuinely," which is why Sandra Bullock's character in 'The Net' sees flashing alerts for "mainframe access" and "access denied," something you don't even see when you connect to your home Wi-Fi network. 'CSI' characters searching through millions of computer entries will rarely see a progress bar; it's far more effective to see thousands of thumbnail head shots of possible suspects flipping by. These types of interfaces are dubbed "cinemagenic." (As Coleran notes, "What works well for cinema doesn't necessarily work well of users.") For example, transparent screens may look incredible in movies like 'Avatar' and 'Iron Man 2' -- and they let cinematographers shoot the cast from any angle -- but they're miserable to use in real-life because it's difficult for users to discern the depth of different elements. Similarly, the full-body gestural 'Minority Report' interface is still impressive, but it's hardly practical. Those scenes were marked by countless takes because Tom Cruise tired after just a few minutes of swinging his arms around.

Coleran argued the actor's performance is extremely important, especially when they're directly interacting with these interfaces. While UIs in film have evolved from actors typing on command line computers to Tony Stark touching, pinching and swiping a hologram in 3-D space, the challenge remains the same: filmmakers have to ensure that the interaction feels natural. Coleran explained the relatively recent challenge of touchscreen computers: "Touch is a nightmare... There's always going to be a delay on the screen. Most of the stuff you see is actually live. Actors can respond to it, but with touch it's really really tough. They don't know where to touch, how to touch, what speed..."

Real World vs. Movies

Though the 3-D, holographic effects in movies like 'Avatar' initially seem completely fresh on first viewing, Mike Fink said that many filmmakers use the concept of reality +1.Take something that already exists, and push it one step past what cutting edge users know. Simple touch interfaces already existed in the early aughts, but the multi-user touch table seen in 2005's 'The Island' pushed the concept far beyond basic taps and menus -- Microsoft's Surface wasn't unveiled until 2007. It's helpful to look at these sci-fi movies as a "perceived evolution" of technology at the time. Take 'Blade Runner' from 1982. It's supposed to be 2029 Los Angeles, and there aren't any cellphones. Instead, the VID-PHON idea had already been shown off at Monsanto's House of the Future at Disneyland's Tomorrowland in 1957. Similarly, Coloran explained that many interface designers look to the Web and design community for functioning gesture and interaction prototypes (e.g. multi-finger swiping, eye-tracking). They're usually extremely clunky and ragged, but the basic concept is cleaned up to "look like something you could buy at Best Buy." So, for example, the core ideas behind a Twitter visualization tool could be given the hologram treatment, wrapped around a floating globe and used as a communication tool in 'Tron: Legacy.'

Noessel also has a book coming out later this year that explores on-screen computer interfaces in sci-fi movies. Don't miss his hour-long presentation at MacWorld earlier this year:

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