Way back in the halcyon B*Witched-soundtracked days of 1998, I made a minuscule contribution to the art of of science fiction UI. I'd managed to score a few months of intern work at Revolution Software whilst they were developing their new game In Cold Blood (not, rather disappointingly, a point-and-click based on the work of Truman Capote), and was tasked with creating various incidental graphic elements and background details.
This mostly involved traipsing around York with a clunky digital camera to take pictures of rusty boats and mouldy walls, then return to the studio to fiddle with them in Photoshop. I'd never used it before, but knew my way around Deluxe Paint on the Amiga (good lord, the 90s were a long time ago), so understood the basics. As with any Photoshop newb, I spent an inordinate amount of time getting excited about the filters menu. If I'd had my way, the entire game would've been plastic-wrapped.
I also had to make looping animations for all the little computer displays that appeared in the game. Nothing specific, just basic green text and rotating triangles that looked sufficiently science fictiony. In the final game, these might have only appeared a few pixels wide, but nonetheless I put lots of thought into how they should look.
And how should they look? Not like actual real-world computers with all their colours and boring logic, but like every display I'd seen on every spaceship on the big screen. I was replicating 70s and 80s science fiction: a copy of a copy of an idea of what computer displays are meant to look like in The Future. Basically, if I could picture Sigourney Weaver frowning at it, then it was a goer.
You see, if films have taught us anything, it's that the future will be made of green screens noisily updating text, one character at a time. And that zooming – sorry, *enhancing* – pictures will be accompanied by loud CLACK-CLACK-CLACK noises. HUDs will feature complex strings of numbers all over the place while random objects get highlighted and analysed. All interfaces will eventually be replaced by Virtual Reality headsets and involve more neon than you can shake a Lightcycle at.
Even relatively modern films insist that, in the future, we'll still be reading off green-screen displays. You watch The Matrix (whose design was clearly heavily influenced by my In Cold Blood work – you're welcome), and it's all incomprehensible scrolling columns of green symbols on black screens. The robot uprising appears to be a direct consequence of mankind's reliance on early Amstrad technology.
But sometimes a film comes along that gets the future of UI spot on. Rather than reproducing existing technology in the same old ways, it'll extrapolate contemporary technology and accurately anticipate entirely new devices – sometimes decades in advance. In the recent Apple/Samsung wars, one interesting design precedent was raised: a tablet computer with an uncannily similar form factor to the iPad can be seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And this was 1968.
More recently, Minority Report marked a turning point in how interfaces are shown on the big screen. In preparation for the film, Spielberg gathered a futurist think tank – featuring architects, authors and scientists – to help him create a plausible 2054. With this throbbing brain-trust behind it, the film dropped that lazy old green text for something more forward-thinking, and took into consideration not just computer displays, but computer interaction. No keyboards or mice here: from the hand-jiving of Tom Cruise's iconic gesture-based display to smaller details like motion-sensitive cereal boxes, the film suggested the technology that would appear in the real world over the following years.
But as well as predicting, have these storytelling details, these props, actually informed the technology of today? In a way. There is an osmosis between fact and fiction – by permeating popular culture years in advance, the image of these devices being used on screen helps to sell an otherwise abstract idea to the public. Not that long ago ago, the idea of a pocket telephone would've seemed surreal and pointless, but we kind of understood the concept thanks to decades of bleeping blooping Star Trek communicators and Dick Tracy radio-watches.
So what can we divine from our local fleapit about what's to come? If you can get past the alien gods and jolly green giants for a moment, take a look at the computer displays in The Avengers. Designed by Jayse Hansen – who, in recent years, has become something of a specialist in science fiction UI – they marry candy-coloured and data-heavy HUDs with an array of gestures and swipes on transparent screens. It's all very pretty, but it looks well thought-through too.
Another little-known film franchise might also have already shown us where we're headed, but we might have dismissed it for being too fantastical. Just when you think you've seen every possible reading of Star Wars imaginable, along comes something new to poke you in the brain.
Tor.com's Ryan Britt recently wrote a fascinating article on the apparent (and once it's been pointed out, obvious) illiteracy prevalent in the Star Wars universe. It would appear that intelligence has been delegated to devices. And why not? If your droid/app can do the mental heavy lifting – all the calculating, translating, navigating – why bother doing it yourself? And if voice-recognition is your primary UI, you'll never need to type anything again. Aside from the occasional "Uninstall Planet" icon on a big red button, the ability to read is pretty much redundant.
The troubling side-effect of this complacent machine-dependence is that there don't appear to be any human-readable records. All knowledge and history is stuck inside the hidden library files of the machines, so an entire ruling class of space-wizards can be reduced to mythical status in the span of a single generation. The manner in which we communicate with our shiny gizmos dictates how we communicate with each other, and across generations. Perhaps the iPad knows who our real parents are and has the ability to fly, but it just hasn't bothered to tell us yet.
Maybe this is what we can expect from the increasingly science fictiony future. Or maybe it'll turn out that I hit the nail on the head in 1998, and one day computers will just be screens with rotating plastic-wrapped green triangles on them. We'll see.
Originally published in MacUser (Vol 28 No 23). Interesting aside: this entire piece was written on an iPhone in a hospital coffee shop. That's pretty sci-fi if you ask me.