Notes: Nathan Shedroff on learning from Sci-Fi

I recently attended the monthly  BayCHI event held at PARC, featuring a couple of talks around “the future of user interfaces”. I was only able to see the first one, done by Nathan Shedroff, currently chair of CCA dMBA strategy program and acclaimed author of Experience Design, amongst other titles. A wonderful presenter and all-around great guy, Nathan previewed his upcoming book “Make It So“, which looks at science fiction films & TV shows as inspirations for user interfaces and their enabling technologies. Very fun, inspiring talk and definitely a book I’d recommend picking up to add to your design inspiration arsenal. Below are some of the key themes Nathan emphasized…

– Mixed modalities & multiple paradigms can shape one’s perception of how interfaces fit within one’s lives, taking on humanized and cultural qualities suitable (or not) for interaction (touch + voice, device vs surroundings, visual or tactile, avatar vs tool vs activity, etc.)

– Sci-fi stories have shaped popular conceptions and more importantly, expectations, for what technology can offer us, enabling a “better life”. We all expected jetpacks and flying cars. But the force of real cultural, technical, and human factor constraints have led us to experience that which is appropriate (ex: flying cars would be a massive nightmare to deal with! or jetpacks burning people, awkward social conventions like flying away, etc.) Budgets and laws are a good constraining factor for tech advancement in some ways!

– Specific references:

Motorola StarTAC was almost literal embodiment of Star Trek communicator device, even the name hints at its inspirational source. Physical truth to the notion that it takes about 50 years for sci-fi tech to become real and popular.

— in 1987 PADD, used by Starfleet within the Stark Trek universe…just like iPad! Sort of.

— Tablet PCs were largely driven by movie fantasies with the slate form factor and stylus interaction. Even some featured without pen but just touch-based.

— The “Knowledge Navigator” concept video by Apple in 1987 was ultimate fantasy sci-fi tech film, anticipated much of what we have now, like smartphones, wireless, Siri, etc. Inspiring and useful tool for looking backwards, reverse reflection of current and future possibilities.

–Personality within devices and tech, makes for anthropomorphic approach to tech, suitable for human interaction. Truly and literally social interaction, not just social media. For example, R2-D2 with minimal cues (just sounds and slight movements) felt very “human” and real. We empathized despite R2-D2 not having a literal face, arms, in typical quadruped fashion. Also Knight Rider with the voice and automotive behavior.

— Nathan suggested that even the infamous Amazon “one-click” is an example of anthropomorphic design: like a concierge with recommendations and also super easy, simple, trusting, with confidence of the results. Hmm!

— The Pixar short “Lifted” shows the madness of complex interfaces, afflicting the hapless alien junior pilot undergoing some training exam. Too many buttons without any labels! So films can be a satirical reference for criticism of our current situation.

— Finally, a great example of how holography in Star Wars conveys social hierarchy. Notice when Palpatine or Yoda and others are projected large versus small in different contexts. Consider the implication for remote web conferencing with video, or telepresence or chat. Hmm!

Some fun examples and interesting ways to re-consider existing and future user interfaces per sci-fi. As Nathan concluded, as designers we create fictions, and we are telling stories that enable our cultural expectations and imaginations. Science fiction is just one great resource to tap into!



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