UIs in the Movies


Forbidden Planet

A recent paper by Michael Schmitz, a student at Saarland University (a fascinating institution near the borders of Germany, France, Luxembourg and Belgium), surveys several different user interfaces from science fiction movies throughout film history. Human Computer Interaction in Science Fiction Movies cites several films, including Metropolis, Johnny Mnemonic, The Matrix, Logan’s Run, Forbidden Planet, Gattaca, Minority Report, Total Recall, Star Trek: The Next Generation (one of the movies, I assume), X-Men, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark Star, the 2002 remake of The Time Machine, and even Galaxy Quest.

It is intriguing the way Schmitz has organized the UIs he is taking note of:

The movie clips in the main section of his survey are categorized according to their area of real-life applications and research:
Neuro Technology: Technologies that connect to brains are introduced here.
Identification: Electronical identification of individuals
Displays: Various kinds of displays as an output medium
Speech: Including speech synthesis and recognition as well as intelligent assistants/avatars as special subgroup.
Other I/O technologies: All technologies that are more specialised and that were difficult to categorize according to the fields above, for example gesture recognition or tangible user interfaces

I think these categories arose because of the scenes that he chose to include. There are perhaps some other movies that were not chosen that may have brought in other areas of classification (for instance, Tron, Blade Runner, Serenity, any of the Star Wars films, The Fifth Element, Ghost in the Shell, any of the James Bond films, 12 Monkeys or Contact).

The fact is, the UIs that we often see in the movies are not always accurate because they aren’t necessarily built for good usability, but instead for good dramatic effect. Sure, Tom Cruise could have done some of his research in Minority Report using a mouse and an LCD screen, but it was so much more dramatic for him to don VR gloves, and perform the exhausting 3D manipulation in virtual space in front of him. Even everyday, mundane events like receiving an email get full-screen 3D animations in the movie Disclosure with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore in 1994.

Nevertheless, movies do have a way of placing imagery and expectations in the mind of many movie viewers. In fact, because a surprisingly large number of people can’t tell the difference between movies and reality, some of these UI inventions may be adopted sooner after they are developed for real, everyday use. What James Bond sees on his computer screen may very well be built by some small startup determined to bring just such a tool to market, at whatever price the public wants to pay. They know they want it, though, because they saw it work just fine at the theatre.

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