Not So Strange, These Fictions 
(Book Review)

Book CoverA review of
Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction
By Nathan Shedroff & Christopher Noessel
Rosenfeld Media, 2012

A miniature Darth Vader appears as a cockpit projection. “For the stormtrooper, the miniaturization works well.” However, what is Darth Vader seeing? Does he have to look up at a giant stormtrooper to make eye contact? If so, this will create an unacceptable situation, as it fails to reflect Vader’s status (and ego). And if we adjust the projection to correct for relative scales, how can we manage the problem of gaze-matching (or gaze monitoring)?

While it may be some time before you have to deal with this issue, it’s not inconceivable. And if you work in video conferencing, some of this is relevant right now. Such is the case with much of the content in this book; some of it is relevant to right-now problems; some is likely relevant in the near future; and some of it is just plain interesting.

Early in the book, the authors describe a set of exclusions.
I was initially disappointed to see that they had “decided not to consider interfaces from written science fiction.” They also excluded comic books, graphic novels, and hand-drawn animated interfaces (including anime and the likes of Futurama). So essentially the book presents a survey of interaction design in sci-fi movies, although filmic interfaces that are not sufficiently detailed to deconstruct are also excluded.

The exclusions make sense once one accepts that the book is serious in its intent of learning about interaction design from the world of sci-fi. Throughout, the authors identify “lessons” and “opportunities” derived from the aspect of interaction design being considered.

The authors made a survey of a range of sci-fi movies and shows (many of your favorites make an appearance). Some of these are listed in the accompanying site (www.scifiinterfaces.com), although I could not locate a definitive list.

The first part of the book delves into considerations of different types of interfaces:

  • Mechanical controls, such as joysticks, buttons, and gauges, with examples from Metropolis, Buck Rogers, When Worlds Collide, and Star Trek. Lessons include the use of mechanical controls for fine motor control, and the need to observe gestalt principles.
  • Visual interfaces, with examples from Jurassic Park, Gattaca, Blade Runner, Space 1999, Men in Black, and The Matrix. This is a wide-ranging section, with discussion of color, layers, and transparency, and various presentations of file management systems.
  • Volumetric projection, with examples from Star Wars, Logan’s Run, Total Recall and Forbidden Planet. This is the section identifying the challenge of enabling Darth Vader to maintain his status and relative position.
  • Gesture, with examples from (the original) The Day the Earth Stood Still, Avatar, Iron Man 2 and, of course, Minority Report. The authors identified seven gestures that were common across their database of movies––wave to activate, push to move, turn to rotate, swipe to dismiss, point or touch to select, extend the hand to shoot, and pinch and spread to scale. Examples of each gesture are included and described. This is followed by a discussion of direct manipulation, from which the authors derived the lesson, “Use gesture for simple, physical manipulations, and language for abstractions.”
  • Sonic interfaces, which includes discussion of ambient and directional sound, voice interfaces, and music interfaces (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Barbarella, and Dune).
  • Brain interfaces, with examples from Buck Rogers, The Matrix, and Dollhouse, explores invasive and non-invasive brain interfaces, worn devices, implants. This includes the rather bizarre lesson, “Let the user relax the body for brain procedures.”
  • Augmented reality, with examples from Terminator 2, Robocop, and District 9, discusses the use of heads-up displays (HUDs), and issues associated with location awareness, focus, and the use of peripheral vision for non-essential information.
  • Anthropomorphism, with examples form Battlestar Galactica, Until The End of the World, and Alien, considers the way that we tend to anthropomorphize in any case, how this has been used in various movies, and what factors we need to consider when designing for these effects––for example, “Achieve anthropomorphism through behavior.”

The second part of the book looks at four areas of human activity as treated in the genre: communication, learning, medicine, and sex (Sleeper, Serenity, and Lawnmower Man, from which we learn, “Give users safewords.”).

In all, there are many dozens of lessons. Occasionally these seemed to be rather trivial, traditional, or well established (for example, “Otherwise, avoid all caps.”). But this is a picky complaint, and there is plenty of material that is challenging, fresh, and clearly derived from the interfaces under consideration.

I enjoyed the systematic approach taken by the authors. For example, when considering the typography of GUIs, they reviewed each property in their database and found that sans serif outnumber serif typefaces by 100:1. Similarly, they reviewed the colors of screen interfaces, and found that blue predominated. The range of UI colors is presented in a neat set of histograms.

The book is liberally sprinkled with stills from the chosen movies. This was fascinating in itself (and a ready conversation-starter on the tram). I’d recommend the hard copy over the online versions from the point of view of using the book to wander through the rich pastures of sci-fi. Although not coffee table format, it will live rather comfortably there.

Recently, I watched the original Total Recall. The scene in which Lori (Sharon Stone) plays virtual tennis has aspects that are still in the realms of sci-fi. While we don’t have the volumetric projection shown in the movie, we do have the gestural recognition in the form of the Wii or Xbox. And although many of the interfaces from sci-fi appear quaint or overblown, others bleed into the real world, or remain compellingly convincing––for example, when Klaatu controls his ship computer by waving his hand in the 1952 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still.

We UX geeks don’t really need an excuse to watch, read, or otherwise consume science fiction, but it’s nice to have a book that not only encourages us to do so, but also enables us to consider what we know in a new context, and learn new things from a consideration of the genre.

Gaffney, G. (2012). Not So Strange, These Fictions 
(Book Review). User Experience Magazine, 11(4).
Retrieved from http://www.uxpamagazine.org/not-so-strange-these-fictions/

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