Interfaces in Sci-Fi Films: a study in user experience

by | Feb 1, 2012 | Blog, We Make...

When we talk about style in film, it’s not just wardrobe and set. An important part of production, especially in sci-fi films, is interface design. For the technologically impaired, an interface is what allows a user to interact with a system or a machine — your internet browser, the buttons on your tv or computer, even the drive-thru window at a fast food restaurant are all examples of interfaces. The tone and style of a sci-fi film are reinforced or even defined by the visual means through which the characters interact with technology.

Voigt-Kampff Machine, Blade Runner

For example, the gritty future-noir tone of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is reflected in the grimy screen of the video-phone and the minimalist, hard edges of the Voigt-Kampff machine. Contrast this with the sexy, ethereal gestural apparatus of the PreCrime headquarters in Minority Report (2002), set in a world so smoothly organized that every crime is prevented before it can happen.

PreCrime interface, Minority Report

The meaning that interface design brings to a film can go very deep. A major theme of The Matrix (1999) is the blurring of boundaries between user, program and interface: at the beginning of the film, Neo is unaware that he is actually interacting with a system through the huge, complex interface of the world around him, or that he himself is simply a small part of another system being used by the machines. Throughout the film, he cuts across these divisions, from watching the Matrix on the operator’s multi-screen interface, to plugging into the Matrix through the Construct interface, to actually being able to see the code flowing while still inside the Matrix.

But the significance of sci-fi film interface design doesn’t end there: user interface designers regularly take lessons from sci-fi on how to improve — and how to screw up — user interaction and experience. A panel at 2011’s SxSW conference discussed both the role interface has with film narrative and how on-screen interfaces might translate that into real life (listen to audio here.) One of the panelists, Chris Noessel, has collaborated with renowned user experience designer Nathan Shedroff on a book called “Make It So: Interaction Lessons from Science Fiction.” In the book, which is slated to come out this year, Shedroff and Noessel examine interface design from the past 100 years of sci-fi film and explain how film interfaces have been inspired and developed, and how designers learn from on-screen examples to develop real-world user interfaces. Their presentation at MacWorld 2011 is engrossing and fascinating — it can be watched here.

And for those of you interested in the pure visuals of film interfaces, check out for screenshots of screen-based interfaces from tons of sci-fi films you’ve seen and plenty that you’ve never heard of. (Also, is that a Netscape favicon they’re using? Holy timewarp, Batman!) Also interesting — and spot-on — is Jakob Nielsen’s Top 10 Film UI Usability Bloopers.

Video and computer game interfaces are a related topic and a study thereupon may lead to some startling insights (like how websites for the military/armed forces tend to mirror the visual tropes of military games like Call of Duty). Perhaps my husband, who is a game UI customization junkie, will be interested in writing more about this!

For now, I’ll leave you with some screenshots of my favourite sci-fi interfaces:

Esper photo, Blade Runner

Since the age of 12, I have seen Blade Runner about 50 times. The gritty, dirty, clunky, subtley Rube-Goldberg nature of the technology onscreen reflects the cultural mish-mash and environmental decay of dystopian Los Angeles in the year 2019 (only seven years from now!). The interfaces in the film are harsh, minimalist and utilitarian.

Bridge of Battlestar Galactica

What I love about the production design of Battlestar Galactica is that they didn’t take for granted any of those “space ship” tropes. There are actual telephones attached to cords in the walls. Buttons aren’t simply lights on an LCD screen; they’re knobs and switches. And even though there are display screens on the bridge, they’re not necessarily interactive — Adama and his crew actually carry around folders and clipboards and paper (all hexagonal, of course).

LCARS (Library Computer Access/Retrieval System), Star Trek TNG

PADD (Person Access Display Device), Star Trek TNG

We watched Star Trek: The Next Generation as a family when I was young, so part of my love for it is nostalgic in origin. The LCARS (Library Computer Access/Retrieval System) is beautiful, though — colourful, functional, responsive to the lightest touch of a finger. And I tell you, if I ever have $500 lying around, I will totally get an iPad just so I can sit back with a cup of Earl Grey and pretend I’m Captain Picard in my ready-room. Nerd fantasy, engage!

Got any favourite film user interfaces? Share them in the comments!

Hey, I’m Christel

Aquarius rising / Aries sun / Libra moon

Continually transforming under Pluto’s mysterious tutelage. Uncovering long-lost gifts of divination. Exploring the unknown, unconscious and unacknowledged.

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