The Influence of Science Fiction on User Interfaces

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The Influence of Science Fiction on User Interfaces

Before you label me a science fiction nerd, let me say that I probably couldn’t tell you the difference between jawas, borgs, vulcans, or cylons. It’s not that I don’t want to know — after reading Make It So – Interaction Lessons from Science Fiction, the list of movies I want to watch is just way too long.

My day job is to plan and craft usable and interactive interfaces for a wide range of topics and audiences. Lately, I’ve been looking deeper into what influences different decisions on the look and feel of interfaces, and the user experience design of physical spaces, too. What’s seen in sci-fi can have a big impact on how we design solutions in real life and what users might expect. There’s a deep rabbit hole to fall into, as I’ve found myself evaluating gesture controls, volumetric projection, and augmented reality — and what’s been done to make those things look interesting, realistic and useful on the silver screen.

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Volumetric projection. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,  1977.

So, I’ve started analyzing how sci-fi has influenced my work in the past and present. My design choices have been certainly influenced by techy and futuristic interfaces at times. When it fits the goals of a project, I feel it’s a validated approach to bring in elements of sci-fi to bring a certain familiarity or high-tech feel, but this must be done carefully.

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Vancouver Airport real-time  gate map application – designed by NGX to feel high-tech and fun to interact with, while working within brand guidelines.

To get a sci-fi look and feel, the popular choices are to make it blue and make it glow. There are exceptions of course, but one can’t deny these two guidelines still drive what a sci-fi interface is expected to look like. Why is this? Reflecting the glowing screens of real-world technology, this has largely been carried over to film sets. Blue is commonly used as it’s easier to keep its vibrancy in post-production, and it doesn’t hurt to be the world’s most popular colour. The use of red factors in as well, but usually in the case of danger or error.

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Head-Up Display view. Terminator 2: Judgement Day, 1991.

If you look around enough, you might be inspired by something set in the future that you could bring to life right now. What else can we learn from sci-fi interfaces? After all, they are created without the constraints of real users. Are they just eye candy instead of real solutions to create new and effective user interfaces and interactions? Or, should we build upon what people feel they already know from sci-fi?

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Blue and glowing. Jurassic World, 2015.

There is no black or white answer to that question of course. Actually, the answer is usually blue and glowing. I’m certainly going to be looking at interfaces in movies and TV shows a little differently now, whether they’re being used by characters or they’re purely inserted to look high-tech and futuristic. I’d better go make some popcorn.

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Watching TV. Moon, 2009 (the subject of one of a few great movie UI studies on ilikeinterfaces.com).

-Justin Williams, Senior Interactive Designer

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