When backlit screens hit the scene as the next frontier of user interfaces for technology, the question quickly became clear: from where would designers draw ideas? As luck would have it, there was no need for them to reinvent the wheel. Science fiction TV shows and movies had already done the vast majority of the imagery and UX design to prep a generation of fans for how personal computing devices would function once they became a reality.
In a 2013 episode of 99 Percent Invisible, producer Roman Mars discussed how real-life technology was heavily shaped by the way science fiction writers and TV shows portrayed it. For example, the very first cellular phones produced by Motorola flipped down — that is, the phone was a rectangular device with a mouthpiece that swung downwards from hinges at the bottom. The first round of users immediately noted that the phone, called the MicroTAC, was all wrong — the phone needed to flip up from hinges on the top, not down. How did they know that this was wrong? Star Trek. In the show, all the small communication devices all flipped up, not down.
Star Trek design directly influenced the design of healthcare tech in a contest that awarded six million US Dollars to the team that could build a device that could non-invasively diagnose certain health issues. In the show series, a small device called a Qualcomm Tricorder was able to hover over the patient’s body and determine what was wrong without even touching the skin of the person (or being of another species). Although the winners’ device wasn’t quite that advanced, it was able to easily and intuitively collect blood or urine from a patient from the comfort of their home and return results.
Even still today, much of the UX around is is shaped by what has come first in films, and certain design geeks take great pride in comparing the predicted against the actualized and weighing the pros and cons of a designer’s choice to stray from movies’ hints. Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel keep up a website called Sci-Fi Interfaces, where they document the technology that screenwriters imagine for their characters. Although the context of the technology can vary from a reasonable future on Earth to a galaxy far, far away, the idea holds that viewers’ ideas of how technology will look influences the way it’s designed today.
The analysis of sci-fi interfaces has led to a spin-off field of apologetics — that is, individuals have to find ways to “explain away” seeming inconsistencies in sci fi films to make sense within the universe of the film. Perhaps the most classic example comes from Star Wars. Technically, guns fired in space would make no sound, since outer space is a vacuum, but in the movies, laser weaponry makes the classic “pew pew” noise. Some wishing to explain this apparent oversight in the physics of outer space is that the sound the viewers hear is an interface. Whereas vision gives viewers 120-degrees of data input, sound provides 360-degrees of coverage. Sci-fi apologetics says that the Millennium Falcon and the other ships in the series emit sound to help pilots fight more effectively.
As technology continues to move forward, sci-fi aficionados will continue to inform on how our day-to-day lives and devices have been shaped by the shows and movies we’ve all come to know and love.