At least according by the hubbub today, c.f. #BacktotheFuture, this movie struck a deep chord in audiences with its tongue-in-cheek futurism and occasional forays into brilliance. And while much of social media has been poring over the film to see what it got right (the pointless interpretation of futurism, imho) let’s instead return to our little corner of nerdery and see how its interfaces fared.
Marty Sr. answers a call from a shady business colleague shortly after coming home. He takes the call in the den on the large video screen there. As he approaches the screen, he sees a crop of a Renoir painting, Dance at La Moulin de la Galette, with a blinking legend INCOMING CALL along the bottom. When he answers it, the Renoir shrinks to a corner of the screen, revealing the live video feed with his correspondent. During the conversation, the Renoir disappears, and text appears near the bottom of the screen providing reminders about the speaker. This appears automatically, with no prompting from Marty Sr.
Needles, Douglas J.
Occupation: Sys Operations
Birthday: August 6, 1968
Address: 88 Oriole Rd, A6t
Wife: Lauren Anne
Children: Roberta, 23 Amy, 20
Food Prefence: Steak, Mex
Food Dislike: Fish, Tuna
Drinks: Scotch, Beer
Hobbies: Avid Basketball Fan
Sports: Jogging, Slamball, Tennis
This is an augmented reality teleconference, as mentioned in Chapter 8 of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction. See more information in that chapter. In short, it’s a particularly good example of one type of augmentation that is very useful for people having to interact with networks of people much larger than Dunbar’s number equips us for. Unfortunately, the information appears in a distracting scroll across the bottom, and is not particularly pertinent to the conversation, so could benefit from a bit of context awareness or static high-resolution display to be really useful. Continue reading
At the dinner table, both Marty Jr. and Marlene have VR goggles. Marty wears his continuously, but Marlene is more polite and rests hers around her neck when with the family. When she receives a call, red LEDs flash the word PHONE on the outside of the goggles as they ring. This would be a useful signal if the volume were turned down or the volume was baffled by ambient sounds.
Marty Jr’s goggles are on, and he announces to Marty Sr. that the phone is for him and that its Needles.
This implies a complete wireless caller ID system (which had only just been released to market in the United States the year before the movie was released) and a single number for the household that is distributed amongst multiple communications devices simultaneously, which was not available at the time (or hey, even now), so it’s quite forward looking. Additionally, it lets the whole social circle help manage communication requests, even if it sacrifices a bit of privacy.
In the center of the kitchen, mounted to the ceiling, is a Garden Center. Out of use, it retracts out of reach, but anyone in the family can say Fruit, please and the Garden Center drops down to allow fresh grapes to be plucked right off the vine. When done, Marty Jr. tells it to retract with a thump on it, and it retracts back up to its resting place near the ceiling.
This is wonderful. Responds to many types of inputs and keeps healthy, fresh fruit available to the family at any time.
Lorraine prepares the family a pizza using a hydrator. She opens a sealed foil package, branded Pizza Hut, and removes a tiny puck of a pizza, placing it in the center of a large pizza tray. She inserts the tray into a hydrator oven and closes the hinged front door. A small green light illuminates on its panel. She puts her mouth close to the device and instructs it to, Hydrate level 4, please. A red light illuminates as a bubbling sound is heard for a few seconds. Then a timer bell rings, and both lights extinguish. Lorraine removes a full-sized and fully-cooked pizza from the oven.
It could be improved by not having her have to remember and enter the level of hydration. There might be an argument that this helps the hydrator feel like they’re doing enough effort, like the legendary Betty Crocker egg story. While snopes tells us that the usual version of this is poppycock, but also references Ernest Dichter’s research in which yes, the first generation of homemakers using instant cake mixes felt that a preparation that was too easy was too indulgent. So, perhaps the hydrator is first generation, and later generations will be able to detect the hydration needed from the packaging.
Hover technology is a thing in 2015(1985) and it appears many places.
When Marty has troubles with Griff Tannan he borrows a young girl’s hover scooter and breaks off its handlebar. Hes able to put his skateboarding skills to use on the resulting hover board.
Griff and his gang chases Marty on their own hover boards. Griffs has a top of the line hover board labeled a Pit Bull. Though Marty clearly has to manually supply forward momentum to his, Griffs has miniature swivel-mount jet engines that (seem to) respond to the way he shifts his weight on the board.
George requires traction for a back problem, but this doesn’t ground him. A hover device clamps his ankles in place and responds to foot motions to move him around.
Hover tech is ideal for leaning control, like what controls a Segway. That’s just what seems to be working in the hoverboard and hovertraction devices. Lean in the direction you wish to travel, just like walking. No modality, just new skills to learn.
When Marty Jr. gets home, he approaches the large video display in the living room, which is displaying a cropped image of “The Gold of Their Bodies (Et l’or de Leur Corps)” by Paul Gauguin. He speaks to the screen, saying Art off. After a bit of static, the screen goes black. He then says, OK, I want channels 18, 24, 63, 109, 87, and the Weather Channel. As he says each, a sixth of the screen displays the live feed. The number for the channel appears in the upper left corner for a short while before fading. Marty Jr. then sits down to watch the six channels simultaneously.
Voice control. Perfect recognition. No modality. Spot on. It might dynamically update the screen in case he only wanted to watch 2 or 3 channels, but perhaps it is a cheaper system apropos to the McFly household.
Jennifer is amazed to find a window-sized video display in the future McFly house. When Lorraine arrives at the home, she picks up a remote to change the display. We don’t see it up close, but it looks like she presses a single button to change the scene from a sculpted garden to one of a beach sunset, a city scape, and a windswept mountaintop. It’s a simple interface, though perhaps more work than necessary.
We don’t know how many scenes are available, but having to click one button to cycle through all of them could get very frustrating if there’s more than say, three. Adding a selection ring around the button would allow the display to go from a selected scene to a menu from which the next one might be selected from amongst options.
Following Dr. Brown’s instructions, Marty heads to Café 80s where the waitstaff consists of television screens mounted on articulated arms which are suspended from the ceiling, allowing them to reach anyplace in the café. Each screen has a shelf on which small items can be delivered to a patron. Each screen features a different celebrity from the 1980s, rendered as a computer talking head and done in a jittery Max Headroom style.