Bitching about Transparent Screens

I’ve been tagged a number of times on Twitter from people are asking me to weigh in on the following comic by beloved Parisian comic artist Boulet.

Since folks are asking (and it warms my robotic heart that you do), here’s my take on this issue. Boulet, this is for you.

Sci-fi serves different masters

Interaction and interface design answers to one set of masters: User feedback sessions, long-term user loyalty, competition, procurement channels, app reviews, security, regulation, product management tradeoffs of custom-built vs. off-the-shelf, and, ideally, how well it helps the user achieve their goals.

But technology in movies and television shows don’t have to answer to any of these things. The cause-and-effect is scripted. It could be the most unusable piece of junk tech in that universe and it will still do exactly what it is supposed to do. Hell, it’s entirely likely that the actor was “interacting” with a blank screen on set and the interface painted on afterward (in “post”). Sci-fi interfaces answer to the masters of story, worldbuilding, and often, spectacle.

I have even interviewed one of the darlings of the FUI world about their artistic motivations, and was told explicitly that they got into the business because they hated having to deal with the pesky constraints of usability. (Don’t bother looking for it, I have not published that interview because I could not see how to do so without lambasting it.) Most of these things are pointedly baroque where usability is a luxury priority.

So for goodness’ sake, get rid of the notion that the interfaces in sci-fi are a model for usability. They are not.

They are technology in narrative

We can understand how they became a trope by looking at things from the makers’ perspective. (In this case “maker” means the people who make the sci-fi.)


Not this Maker.

Transparent screens provide two major benefits to screen sci-fi makers.

First, they quickly inform the audience that this is a high-tech world, simply because we don’t have transparent screens in our everyday lives. Sci-fi makers have to choose very carefully how many new things they want to introduce and explain to the audience over the course of a show. (A pattern that, in the past, I have called What You Know +1.) No one wants to sit through lengthy exposition about how the world works. We want to get to the action.


With some notable exceptions.

So what mostly gets budgeted-for-reimagining and budgeted-for-explanation in a script are technologies that are a) important to the diegesis or b) pivotal to the plot. The display hardware is rarely, if ever, either. Everything else usually falls to trope, because tropes don’t require pausing the action to explain.

Secondly (and moreover) transparent screens allow a cinematographer to show the on-screen action and the actor’s face simultaneously, giving us both the emotional frame of the shot as well as an advancement of plot. The technology is speculative anyway, why would the cinematographer focus on it? Why cut back and forth from opaque screen to an actor’s face? Better to give audiences a single combined shot that subordinates the interface to the actors’ faces.


We should not get any more bent out of shape for this narrative convention than any of these others.

  • My god, these beings, who, though they lived a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away look identical to humans! What frozen evolution or panspermia resulted in this?
  • They’re speaking languages that are identical to some on modern Earth! How?
  • Hasn’t anyone noticed the insane coincidence that these characters from the future happen to look exactly like certain modern actors?
  • How are there cameras everywhere that capture these events as they unfold? Who is controlling them? Why aren’t the villains smashing them?
  • Where the hell is that orchestra music coming from?
  • This happens in the future, how are we learning about it here in their past?

The Matter of Believability

It could be, that what we are actually complaining about is not usability, but believability. It may be that the problems of eye strain, privacy, and orientation are so obvious that it takes us out of the story. Breaking immersion is a cardinal sin in narrative. But it’s pretty easy (and fun) to write some simple apologetics to explain away these particular concerns.


Why is eye strain not a problem? Maybe the screens actually do go opaque when seen from a human eye, we just never see them that way because we see them from the POV of the camera.


Why is privacy not a problem? Maybe the loss of privacy is a feature, not a bug, for the fascist society being depicted; a way to keep citizens in line. Or maybe there is an opaque mode, we just don’t see any scenes where characters send dick pics, or browse porn, and would thereby need it. Or maybe characters have other, opaque devices at home specifically designed for the private stuff.


Why isn’t orientation a problem? Tech would only require face recognition for such an object to automatically orient itself correctly no matter how it is being picked up or held. The Appel Maman would only present itself downwards to the table if it was broken.

So it’s not a given that transparent screens just won’t work. Admittedly, this is some pretty heavy backworlding. But they could work.

But let’s address the other side of believability. Sci-fi makers are in a continual second-guess dance with their audience’s evolving technological literacy. It may be that Boulet’s cartoon is a bellwether, a signal that non-technological audiences are becoming so familiar with the real-world challenges of this trope that is it time for either some replacement, or some palliative hints as to why the issues he illustrates aren’t actually issues. As audience members—instead of makers—we just have to wait and see.

Sci-fi is not a usability manual.

It never was. If you look to sci-fi for what is “good” design for the real-world, you will cause frustration, maybe suffering, maybe the end of all good in the ’verse. Please see the talk I gave at the Reaktor conference a few years ago for examples, presented in increasing degrees of catastrophe.

I would say—to pointedly use the French—that the “raison d’être” of this site is exactly this. Sci-fi is so pervasive, so spectacular, so “cool,” that designers must build up a skeptical immunity to prevent its undue influence on their work.

I hope you join me on that journey. There’s sci-fi and popcorn in it for everyone.

9 thoughts on “Bitching about Transparent Screens

  1. I’ve always assumed that the idea for transparent displays began with the heads-up displays designed for pilots. HUDs technically aren’t transparent displays, but conventional displays that use an optical combiner to place data in the pilot’s field of view.

    The Valkyrie shuttle from James Cameron’s “Avatar” brings the concept full circle. The flight deck features transparent screens that are used as HUDs. They can even be moved out of the pilot’s way if necessary.

    But I think you’re right. Unless the goal is augmented reality, transparent displays are more of a dramatic device than a practical interface.

  2. Star Trek Discovery makes a lot of use of transparent screens on some sets, and what’s interesting is that they’re all actual functioning displays rather than visual effects. For the show they serve the same purposes as you say, as well as adding extra activity and color into the background. I thin the intended purpose is for in-store displays but in any case someone felt that it was worth developing.

    • Back when we were both at m1, I was working on the Dreamcast-launch-era version of when we ran into a problem. Servers could only handle so many users, so users would have to opt-in to a particular server when they logged on. The project manager at the time said that users would select their server when they signed up, and then they would be locked in to their server choice. I protested. She was unmoveable. I went back to my office and wrote a whole scenario, from the point of view of our personas, why this was, in fact, a terrible idea that would not work in reality. I sent it to her as an open letter. She replied that it was just too difficult to manage server churn on the backend, and so our gamers would just have to get into their big boy undies. Having done more than my due diligence and gone on record, we went forward with this moronic, moronic idea. Sure enough, just after the D3 launch, as I’d predicted; people signed up and instantly began to complain that they wanted to switch servers to where their friends were, or to where this bully wasn’t. When the gamers realized they couldn’t switch servers, they started creating new logins with different, throwaway email addresses for ALL THE SERVERS so they would have access to any server they wanted, with the end result being that most of the time, the server was dedicated to ghost accounts, and game lobbies felt empty. They had to tear the back end up and rebuild it, while pissing away all the momentum from their D3 marketing investments and pissing off their customer base.

      So. Yes. 😀

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  4. For the novel I’m writing I have a new idea for this tech. The Solarians in my novel are considered a level 5 civilization and possess tech far superior to most species in my book. Their “phones” and “tablets” are simple slabs of plexiglass with a few wires running through them. Alone, they don’t do anything, but once picked up, the conductive, touch sensitive glass sends a signal to an implant behind the right eye and then a display can be seen on the glass. Only the user can see what is displayed because the image is created by the implant, not the tablet or phone. A forearm screen implant is also a possibility, though much more expensive due to the production cost of nanotechnology in the universe I crafted. Also, when in arms reach, a Solarian can project his/her “HUD” interface onto a wall or table with a simple thought. Just a creative idea I had.

    I spent years crafting the small details, world building and doing research before even writing the first chapter. It’s a hard Sci-fi exploring the hypothetical reality of what an intergalactic war would be like, yes I know what space does to an exposed human among other things I wish I didn’t know (I’ve used the “I’m an author” excuse many times!)

    As an (unfortunately unpublished) author, I disagree with “the how” or “the why” being irrelevant. I do understand that the movies want to get right to action and therefore skip over that techy stuff because “it works ’cause it’s fiction”, but those details are what makes a fictional universe immersive and believable.

    It’s funny that you mention no cameramen get shot/beat up because that actually happens in my screenplay adaptation of my novel so far (I’m working on both at the same time). A cameraman (a record keeper for story purposes) gets shot and the camera falls but still records (and my story is definitely rated R). It also happens in Starship Troopers when a reporter and camera crew are slaughtered by a bug.

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