Many interaction and interface designers enjoy the interfaces seen in science-fiction films and television shows. Freed from the rigorous constraints of designing for real users, sci-fi production designers develop blue-sky interfaces that are inspiring, humorous, and even instructive. By carefully studying these “outsider” user interfaces, designers can derive lessons that make their real-world designs more cutting edge and successful.
Every geek’s wet dream: a science fiction and interface design book rolled into one.
Maria Giudice, CEO and Founder, Hot Studio
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Table of Contents
- Chapter 1: Learning Lessons from Science Fiction
Part 1: Elements of Sci-fi Interfaces
- Chapter 2: Mechanical Controls
- Chapter 3: Visual Interfaces
- Chapter 4: Volumetric Projection
- Chapter 5: Gesture
- Chapter 6: Sonic Interfaces
- Chapter 7: Brain Interfaces
- Chapter 8: Augmented Reality
- Chapter 9: Anthropomorphism
Part II: Sci-fi Interfaces and Human Activities
- Chapter 10: Communication
- Chapter 11: Learning
- Chapter 12: Medicine
- Chapter 13: Sex
- Chapter 14: What’s Next?
Appendix: Collected Lessons and Opportunities
These common questions and their short answers are taken from Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel’s book Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction. You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.
- The topic of this book is a fun idea, but how is science fiction relevant to design?
Design and science fiction do much the same thing. Sci-fi uses characters in stories to describe a possible future. Similarly, the design process uses personas in scenarios to describe a possible interface. They’re both fiction. Interfaces only become fact when a product ships. The main differences between the two come from the fact that design mainly proposes what it thinks is best, and sci-fi is mostly meant to entertain. But because sci-fi can envision technology farther out, largely freed from real-world constraints, design can look to it for inspiration and ideas about what can be done today.
See Chapters 1 and 14.
- Do you distinguish between science fiction and sci-fi?
In a 1997 article, Harlan Ellison claimed the term “science fiction” for the genre of story that is concerned with science and “eternal questions,” with an implied focus on literature. We wanted to look at interfaces, and this led us quite often into that other category of story that he characterized as a “debasement” and “a simplistic, pulp-fiction view of the world” called “sci-fi.” We don’t entirely agree with his characterization, and it’s true that we didn’t look at literature for this project, so we don’t make the same distinction. We just use sci-fi as an abbreviation for science fiction to save space. Hopefully Mr. Ellison won’t be too mad.
- Where is [insert an example from sci-fi here]?
To misquote Douglas Adams: Sci-fi is big. Really big. We couldn’t get to everything, and we didn’t have the room to include everything we got to. Fortunately, many sci-fi examples build on very similar ideas. Sometimes we passed over one example in favor of another that might be more well known or, alternatively, we included an unsung one that deserved some credit. Most of what we’ve reviewed is sci-fi from the United States, but we’ve also ventured into sci-fi from other countries. Even given what we’ve managed to achieve, we’ve barely scratched the surface.
You can find additional material on our website: www.scifiinterfaces.com.
- Why didn’t you talk about [insert interaction design principle here]?
The lessons are derived from sci-fi, not the other way around. If no example in the survey pointed us toward, say, Fitts’s Law, then it doesn’t appear, and some principles didn’t make the final cut due to space constraints. Another style of investigation would have been to write a textbook on interaction or interface design using only examples from sci-fi, which would be interesting, but isn’t this project.
- Wouldn’t this have worked better as a movie or an ebook that can play video clips?
Because our lessons and commentary involve moments from movies and television, it’s a little problematic to publish them in a medium that doesn’t allow us to show these interfaces in action. But because our focus was on studying interfaces and deriving lessons, we’ve started with media that would work best for later reference: traditional book, ebook, and website. If you’re eager to see some of these interfaces in action, certainly check out the original movies or TV shows, or come to one of the workshops and lectures we give on the subject, where we share relevant clips. And be assured that we’re exploring alternative media for these lessons and ideas next.
- These interfaces weren’t designed to be studied or for users in the real world. Aren’t you being a little unfair?
Indeed, we are using real-world criteria for interfaces that aren’t in the real world—the vast majority of which aren’t meant to be. But as fans and designers, we can’t help but bring a critical eye to bear on the sci-fi we watch, and with most of the world becoming more technologically savvy as time goes on, audiences will become so, too. But it’s the “outsider” nature of these interfaces that make them fascinating to study, as their creators produce both blunders and inspired visions.
- What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing the book?
We were surprised at how productive it was to investigate the “bad” interfaces. The “good” interfaces often serve as reminders of principles with which we are already familiar. Sometimes they are inspiring. But the “bad” interfaces, because they still worked at a narrative level, revealed the most surprising insights through the process of “apology,” discussed in Chapter 1.
- What was left on the editing room floor?
One of our early ideas for the book was to include interviews with sci-fi makers and science practitioners. The interviews didn’t make it into the final iteration of the book, but these people gave their time and shared much with us, and we’d like to acknowledge them individually with special thanks: Douglas Caldwell, Mark Coleran, Mike Fink, Neil Huxley, Dean Kamen, Joe Kosmo, David Lewindowsky, Jerry Miller, Michael Ryman, Rpin Suwannath, and Lee Weinstein.Additionally, we had early draft chapters on sci-fi doors, chemical interfaces, weapons, and spacesuits/spaceships. Early reviews of the sheer size of the book forced us to make some hard choices. Perhaps in some future work we will be able to develop this content further, but for now it will have to wait.
- Why didn’t you mention [insert title] more?
Several movies and TV shows are incredibly seminal and culturally influential. Star Trek, Minority Report, and 2001: A Space Odyssey are three we can name off of the top of our heads. But we didn’t want to lean too much on a small set of movies and shows. Rather, we wanted to use these examples for their most salient aspects, then branch out into other examples from the survey when the topic warranted.
- What about other speculative technology found in video games, futuristic commercials, or industry films?
The hard-core genre nerds know that conversations about defining science fiction often lead to conversations about speculative fiction instead, which is a much broader topic of interest to us, but isn’t the focus of this project.
Anyone interested in these related media should read Chapter 14.
- Chapter 1 (PDF)
They Made It So
This book has accomplished a feat that’s valuable and rare: it comprehends design and science fiction. Better yet, it’s found specific areas where they are of practical use to one another. This is a design book, and meant for designers. It concerns itself with science fiction cinema. To my delight, it does this in a deft, thoughtful, and sympathetic way.
Make It So never asks science fiction to be “scientific.” More tactfully, it doesn’t even ask that science fiction be “fictional.” Instead, this book comprehends the benefits that science fiction can offer to designers. There aren’t a lot, but there are some. Those benefits are all about making the unthinkable thinkable. “Cognitive estrangement,” as we science fiction people call that in our trade.
Make It So teaches designers to use science fiction as a designer’s mood board. It’s science fiction as an estranging design tool, a conceptual approach, best suited for blue-sky brainstorming, for calling the everyday into question, and for making the exotic seem practical. This approach allows designers to derive all kinds of exciting design benefits that science fiction never intended to bestow on designers.
How do the authors do it? With a classic, people-centered design approach. They look and they listen. They are at ease with the creators of science fiction cinema, because they can enter into their worldview.
Consider Georges Méliès, that silent-film maestro of cinema’s earliest days, that French stage magician turned movie fantasist. For most of us, Méliès is a remote historical figure whose accented French name is hard to properly spell. He’s of real, immediate use to Shedroff and Noessel.
Even us science fiction writers—(I write novels, by the way)—we rarely derive any coherent inspiration from our remote spiritual ancestor, Georges Méliès. But Shedroff and Noessel are able to enter into the Méliès conceptual universe with all the attentive consideration that designers commonly grant to users. So the authors of this book can see that the best-known film of Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune), has no interfaces. That’s the truth, of course—obviously a silent-film spaceship from 1902 has no interfaces, because the very concept of an “interface” didn’t show up until the 1960s. However, it requires a design perspective to see past the frenetic razzle-dazzle on the silver screen and point that out. Méliès was a major media pioneer, and yet he was interfaceless.
Furthermore, this is an exciting and refreshing thing for a science fiction writer to read. Although Shedroff and Noessel don’t intend to write their book for us science fiction creatives, I’d boldly say that they’re every bit as useful to us as we could ever be to them. Méliès had no interfaces. This startling realization blows the dust of the ages off of Méliès and conveys a new sheen to his time-dulled glamour and wonderment. As soon as I read this, I put the text of Make It So aside— (because, to tell the truth, I was reading the book on a screen)—and I sought out and watched the Méliès 1902 film on YouTube (on the same screen). The authors are correct. Try it for yourself! The characters in this Méliès movie are inhabiting an attitude toward technology that’s alien to us. Watch them go through their entirely mechanical design paradigm, all anvils and chalkboards. They have no push buttons, no rheostats, no dials, no screens, no return keys. They have no systematic abstraction of the forces that surround them, other than books and papers. They’re on a sci-fi trip to the Moon to meet space aliens, and they might as well be paddling a steel canoe. How mind-stretching that realization is.
Furthermore, Shedroff and Noessel gently suggest—(this book was written by designers, so they’re very urbane, low key, and eager to be of service)— they suggest that, for an interface designer, the best way to look at a Méliès spaceship is as a potential way forward. Not a historical curiosity, a thing frozen on aging film like a fossil in amber, but a potential future for interface design. What a fascinating thing to say! What if the controls of future spacecraft were so natural, so intuitive, so invisible, that they were Mélièslike in their magical simplicity? Why has no science fiction writer yet written this scene? Where is the science fiction set within a gesture-controlled, augmented, and ubiquitous environment? I’ve often wondered that—but I know that it’s difficult to conceive, it’s hard to sketch out as any workable scenario. It never occurred to me such a high-tech situation might have the look and feel of Méliès’ fantasy movie: ritualized, formal, very gestural, everything tightly framed. It’s a brilliant notion, though. It jolts that prospect from the remote to the immediate. Why, it’s almost tangible.
People commonly expect science fiction to be predictive. Shedroff and Noessel, to their credit, avoid that mistake. I happen to believe that science fiction often is predictive: but so what? If you successfully predicted 1975 while you were writing in 1960, there’s no reason why anyone nowadays would know or care about that. The works of science fiction that last are never accurate forecasts. They’re compelling evocations—they’re visionary grotesques, funhouse mirrors. That funhouse mirror is never accurate, yet it doesn’t merely deceive either—it always bears its human intent to inspire wonderment, its innate need to capture the imagination. Sci-fi, even at its most analytic and mechanical, is always haunted, allusive, and esoteric. Sci-fi is like a Rorschach blot the size of a house. Make It So is like sci-fi film critique, but of a new kind: with kindly instructors equipped with a remote control and a freeze-frame. They deliberately break sci-fi cinema into its atomic design elements. It’s wonderful how they waste no time with any stereotypical sci-fi criticism—the characters, the plot, the so-called political implications. Legions of other critics are eager to get after that stuff, whereas Shedroff and Noessel have created a lucid, well-organized design textbook. I recommend this textbook for class work. I can’t doubt for a moment that contemporary students would be illuminated and grateful.
Science fiction and design have a relationship: it’s generally cordial, yet remote. Design cannot realize the fantasies of science fiction. Science fiction can’t help design with all its many realistic problems. Design and science fiction were born in the same era, but they’re not family: they’re something like classmates. The two of them have different temperaments. Sometimes design is visionary and showy, and in sync with its classmate, sci-fi. At other times, design is properly concerned with its own issues of safety, utility, maintenance, and cost, areas where science fiction always stares moodily out the window. But eras appear when the technological landscape changes quickly and radically, and design and science fiction are dragged along in tandem.
Interface design is one of those areas, and inhabiting one of those times. Science fiction is unlikely to be of great help in the task of giving form to a vase. However, interface design requires a certain mental habit of speculative abstraction. That isn’t science fiction, but it’s not so far as all that. “Interaction design” is quite similar to “interface design”—interaction designers are obsessed with boxes and arrows, not clay or foamcore. When design genuinely needs to be conceptual and abstract, science fiction can put a face on that. Science fiction can embody and literalize that, it can tell that story. Somewhere over the horizon, beckoning at us, is “experience design.”
This is something we associate with computer games and thrill rides and imaginary Star Trek holodecks, but it will likely have something to do with tomorrow’s cloudy, post-cybernetic environments. When it comes to battling those obscure future phantoms, design and sci-fi are in a masked wrestler tag-team match. It’s us—an unlikely duo—against that, a futuristic prospect. We’re gonna pin that phantom to its augmented, ubiquitous mat someday, but it’s gonna take some sweat and bruises first.
It will take sweat, bruises, and also some intense blue-sky thinking. Some of that is already visible within modern big-budget sci-fi movies—Minority Report, Iron Man, they’re full of pricey interface thrills, just as these authors will show you. But, increasingly and interestingly, a great deal of that necessary conceptual work will never appear in big movies, but in small-scale, atelier-like, design-centered videos. It will appear on this screen, not the big silver screen but this interactive, designed screen, the screen where I read this book, and where I saw that public-domain Méliès movie. This is no accident. I like to call this small-scale, speculative work “design fiction.” Design fiction is the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change. There’s a lot of “diegetic prototyping” going on now, and that situation has come to exist, primarily, because of interface design. It is a consequence of interfaces built for the consumption and creation of what used to be called “text” and “film.”
The movies, and television, as analog industries, as 20th-century commercial entities, would never have done that on their own. They would never have imagined the viral creation and global spread of speculative videos about futuristic products and services. This did not fit their business model. It was outside their paradigm.
Even science fiction writers didn’t imagine that. But it’s an area of great ferment: these attempts to employ digital media to convince people to transform conceptual things into real things. I see it every day. Interface design is powerful. It changed my life, and I expect it to transform my future life even more so. People who read this book will be better equipped to undertake that effort. I never imagined that I would be reading a book like this, or that it would be this good.
Turin, Italy, May 2012
Thanks to our editor JoAnn Simony and publisher Lou Rosenfeld for their patience, mighty expertise, and help getting the book in top shape.
We’d also like to acknowledge our technical readers for their helpful suggestions and insights: Giles Colborne, Rohan Dixit, Michelle Katz, Robert Reimann, and Dan Saffer. In addition, Brian David Johnson has been an inspiration and supporter of this project since we met him several years ago.
Thanks to those makers of both sci-fi and real-world designs who gave their time and thoughts in panels and interviews (sorry we weren’t able to include them): Douglas Caldwell, Mark Coleran, Mike Fink, Neil Huxley, Dean Kamen, Joe Kosmo, David Lewindowski, Jerry Miller, Michael Ryman, Rpin Suwannath, and Lee Weinstein.
Thanks also to those fans whose impressive attention to detail and collaborative effort gave us online references that allowed us to check our findings. Wikis like Wookiepedia (http://starwars.wikia.com/) and Memory-Alpha (http://memory-alpha.org/) proved invaluable. And of course thanks to those tens of thousands of people who make scifi movies and television shows and share their visions of the future and future technology.
Lastly, we’d like to thank those who came to our public talks at SXSW, MacWorld, dConstruct, and many other events, and shared their thoughts and examples about this exceptionally fun and nerdy topic. You’ve pointed us in directions we wouldn’t have known to look otherwise, and made us think about our assumptions and conclusions.
I’d like to thank my friends and family who’ve had to suffer with my talking solely about science fiction for five years, and for not making fun of my not having a clue what other media has come out in that time.
Thanks to Ben for the love, support, and patience with my turning almost every movie night into a sci-fi night. Thanks to the folks at Cooper for support and lunchtime conversations about ideas in progress. Thanks also to Mom and Dad, friends and family.
Designers who love science fiction (and don’t we all?) will go bananas over Shedroff and Noessel’s delightful and informative book on how interaction design in sci-fi movies informs interaction design in the real world. Many movie interfaces are remarkably creative, effective, and useful, and the authors analyze and deconstruct more than a century of cinema to find the best. With dozens of familiar examples, they illuminate some of the trickier aspects of designing how complex future systems interface with humans. You will find it as useful as any design textbook, but a whole lot more fun.
Alan Cooper, President of pioneering interaction design company Cooper, “Father of Visual Basic,” and author of The Inmates Are Running the Asylum
Shedroff and Noessel are leaders in their fields. Make It So is well-researched, pragmatic, and entertaining. The authors show us that science fiction can not only give us visions of the future but can help us design a better future as well.
Brian David Johnson, Futurist and Director, Future Casting and Experience Research, Intel Corporation
It has been both revealing and refreshing to see a book that, for the first time, so deeply explores the contrasts, connections, and influences from the realm of fantasy to the real. Shedroff and Noessel have created one of the most thorough and insightful studies ever made of this domain and from a unique angle, not only providing comprehensive coverage of the vast number of examples, but also drawing practical and valuable lessons that inform and can be applied to the problems we think about every day.
Mark Coleran, visual designer of interfaces for movies (credits include The Bourne Identity, The Island, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider)
Part futurist treatise, part design manual, and part cultural analysis, Make It So is a fascinating investigation of an often-overlooked topic: how sci-fi influences the development of tomorrow’s machine interfaces.
Annalee Newitz, Editor, io9 blog
Every geek’s wet dream: a science fiction and interface design book rolled into one.
Maria Giudice, CEO and Founder, Hot Studio