On the Edge: Beyond UX in Western Science Fiction

Studies of user experience in science fiction media, especially under the infuence of Hollywood movies like Avatar and Prometheus, set up a bias towards Western media. One should not forget Asian sci-fi films that have been inspired by some of the classic Western novels as well as native literary traditions. These Asican sci-fi films reflect their unique cultural heritages often quite different from Hollywood films.

The study of Chinese, Indian, and Japanese approaches to metaphors, mental models, navigation, interaction, and appearance—where it is not a derivative copy of Western approaches, but more revealing creations based on different cultures—is worth further study. Research may reveal cross-cultural influences of one genre on another, for example Hollywood influences on Indian sci-fi, or Hong Kong action films’ influence on Hollywood sci-fi. With the rise of multiple film production centers, it is possible that influences may run in multiple directions. Already, India has shown a desire to produce comic books featuring Hindu deities as superheroes and heroines, instead of a Western Superman and other characters. As examples of films that show interesting UX interaction and appearance, I cite some films and urge readers to investigate further.

Chinese Science Fiction

Chinese sci-fi filmmaking seems to have started earlier than Indian. Jules Verne stories were imported into China as early as the late nineteenth century. Yueqiu Zhimindi Xiaoshuo (月球殖民地小說) (Lunar Colony), 1904, seems to be the earliest original Chinese sci-fi writing. Zheng Wenguang, father of modern Chinese science fiction literature, wrote in the 1950s through 70s, for example, Flying to the Centaur.

Tong Enzheng authored a textbook about cultural anthropology and specialized in early southwest China. In science fiction, he wrote the short story “Death Ray on a Coral Island,” which won an award for China’s best short story in 1978 and was later adapted to film, becoming China’s first sci-fi movie in 1980. A blogger, Andy Deemer, comments on the film: (http://bit.ly/asia-obscura) “In Death Ray, a good-hearted team of Chinese scientists, based in what appears to be San Francisco, finally succeed in completing their fabulous futuristic invention. That is, until the sinister back-stabbing Americans, played with Bond-villainous glee by Chinese actors in whiteface and prosthetic noses, decide to steal the invention for their evil plots. They use sabotage, death-ray guns, murder, and even cocktails, to get what they want. The head scientist, shortly after being gunned down with a laser and left for dead, hands off the circuit board to his brave son-in-law. ‘Take this, and flee!’ But those lousy Americans don’t give up… they shoot down the kid’s plane over shark-infested, death-ray-filled waters, and he ends up on a mysterious Doctor Moreau type island.” Tong died in the U.S. after fleeing China following the government’s crackdown on protests at Tiananmen Square.

Indian Science Fiction

Beginning in 1952, Indian sci-fi films have been produced in many languages. India itself has about twenty-two national languages, which means production houses must translate films and/or provide subtitles in dozens of languages even for its domestic market. Indian sci-fi filmmakers have even produced several Bollywood-style science fiction movies like Robot (Enthiran), 2010, in Tamil, not Hindi, which feature music and dancing, unlike almost anything else in the West.

Japanese Science Fiction

Japanese filmmakers created many sci-fi films over the past decades. Their relations with Japanese Manga and animé films has yet to be explored in detail. To give you an idea of the content to be examined and published in the West, Wikipedia lists about 110 Japanese science fiction films.

This quick survey provides a place to start looking for cross-cultural similarities and differences and innovative approaches to UX design. What we find there may be quite valuable to UX researchers, designers, analysts, and evaluators. About a decade ago I reviewed a paper from Chinese authors proposing graphical user interfaces based on the concept of Chinese gardens, which seemed, at the time, to be quite unusual. Two years ago, a colleague in China proposed that there might be unique Chinese solutions to user interface design that the West had not yet discovered.

In a multi-polar world of user-experience innovation, one may not be able to predict from where the next big change may arise. Looking at sci-fi media provides a unique perspective to future user personas, use scenarios, and details of context, functionality, and content. We should take a longer look at this largely unexplored territory.

Marcus, A. (2013). On the Edge: Beyond UX in Western Science Fiction. User Experience Magazine, 13(2).
Retrieved from http://www.uxpamagazine.org/beyond-ux-in-western-sci-fi/

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