This Interaction Designer Thinks Sci-Fi Gadgetry Has Fallen Behind Real World Tech

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As we delve ever further into a summer movie season chock full of sci-fi amazingness, including Edge of Tomorrow, Snowpiercer, and Lucy, we reached out to an interaction designer who maps the intersections between fact and science fiction. 

The typically-imagined image of an inventor resembles a Frankensteinian mad scientist: cackling while lightning flashes about his person, his composite creation lumbering off the operating table (“It’s alive!”) and out of the laboratory to wreak havoc. In reality, this is usually not the case, but it isn't completely insane to suggest that inventors on the cutting edges of technology and innovation draw many of the same mental pictures, and having the same ideas that we do. 

Ideas like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if ___________?”

In a world of movies that explore the future of technology, and technologies that sound ever-more ripped from movies, when it comes to the intersections between fact and fantasy, this open-ended question has foretold many innovations— wouldn’t it be cool if we had a Dick Tracy communicator-watch? Wouldn’t it be cool if we had flip-phone walkie-talkies like on Star Trek? Today, a bevy of “smartwatches” floods the market, and Nextel "Push-to-Talk" chirps are the birdsongs of the '90s.  On the flip side, questions asked by forward-thinking films like Her, about the future of love and intimacy, are answered by our real-world experiences: "Wouldn’t it be cool if you could date your smartphone?" As helpful as Siri is, probably not.

“Does the real world read science fiction or does science-fiction lead the real world?” Chris Noessel, the mind behind blog Sci Fi Interfaces, and co-author of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction, alongside Nathan Shedroff, asks. His answer? “Turns out, it depends on several factors. One of which is the particular technology you’re talking about, and whether or not it's cinematic.”

While science fiction maintains itself as a place of inspiration for future designs and inventions, these determining factors help to explain why, recently, Hollywood sci-fi has fallen behind real-world science fact. While developing his book on the technological "designspiration" that can be gleaned from science fiction, the interaction designer and author spent three years creating a database of 10,000 images from famous sci-fi films. He then compared these resources to the existing design and technology landscape, and on his blog, began compiling the disparities. 

In the growing field of haptics (touch-based signals, to the layperson), for instance, feelings that correspond to our sense of touch compel us to perform certain actions. When you pick up your cellphone because you feel it vibrating in your pocket, that’s haptics. Sound unfamiliar? That's probably because they're difficult to depict in movies. 

“There's no easy way, on film or in a television show, to signal that characters are feeling something. Haptics are way [further] behind in science fiction than they are in the real world,” says Chris Noessel. “In fact, as a result, I think haptics have certain uphill battles to climb in order to get common acceptance, even though the technology is pretty mature. We don’t have that expectation-setting influence of science fiction.” Simply put, it's just not very cinematic to show a character experiencing tactile vibrations.

Haptics are a simple enough problem; because they aren’t easily showable on the big screen, we have a hard time conceptualizing them as part of the world of tomorrow. But what about the opposite issue? Through films like Minority Report and Iron Man, Hollywood has given us a wealth of cultural expectations for pretty-looking interfaces that are hard to translate into real world technologies.

Take this next scene from Minority Report for example. Tom Cruise shuffles through data on a touchscreen-like interface by waving his hands like an orchestra conductor. Data is transferred by moving small clear-glass plates between larger screens. It is, without a doubt, just plain cool:

“I have clients time and again coming back to us and saying, ‘We want this to be the Minority Report of health care; the Minority Report of word processing,’” Noessel said. “Gestural technology in particular--it’s kinda hard for people to keep their hands above their heart for any length of time. It actually puts pretty big strain on the cardiovascular system. People just can't do it. I have spent a lot of time with my clients talking them off the ledge of really any film that shows a brand-new technology with a really strong and unfamiliar paradigm...If it's presented is presented as kind of cool, it puts us in a tough spot because the tech might work perfectly for that character in the scene, but not be useful for the real world."

Though Noessel may believe sci-fi blockbusters may be behind in terms of wearables or haptics, he explained that sometimes Hollywood nails it when it comes to other categories of innovation imagination. An example of the silver screen getting tech practically as well as cinematically correct comes from the original live action X-Men feature film. In it, the X-Men use a map to demonstrate the potential destruction that Magneto could cause were his plan to succeed: “He could wipe out everyone in New York City!” Stakes!

According to Noessel, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers representative Douglas Caldwell saw the film's map as an elegant solution to the ages-old lack of adaptive cartography. In order to provide the military with an interactive, three-dimensional map that adapts to terrain and changing battlefield situations, “He literally took that DVD and gave it to his engineers and said, ‘Let's create a request for proposal based on this device and let's build it.’ Within about four years they had something called the Z-note tran and it is exactly that device: A series of computer control array of pins and move up and down," Noessel explains.

“They did it one better. They covered it with a rubber sheet, that was vacuum sealed under the surface of those pins, and then they project downward on satellite imagery for the particular location so they can model not just landscapes but also fictional landscapes or historical landscapes. They've even done Mars.” 

So will the world start looking more like science fiction, or vice versa? Chris Noessel offers some predictions for the future:

The experience of filmmakers in the world of Google Glass, and being aware that it's out there, is definitely going to spawn the appearance of similar technologies in sci-fi. As moviemakers get a chance to buy it, or you know that their audiences are thinking and wondering about it, all it's going to take is one really brave filmmaker to include [it] as part of one movie or television show, as a central conceit, and people are going to get really excited about it.

It'll be a beautiful example of imagination setting the boundaries, and engineering bringing fantasy to fruition.

For more mind-bending sci-fi deconstruction, check out Chris Noessel's blog, Sci Fi Interfaces.


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