An Interview with Mark Coleran

 

In homage to the wrap of Children of Men, this post I’m sharing an interview with Mark Coleran, a sci-fi interface designer who worked on the film. He also coined the term FUI, which is no small feat. He’s had a fascinating trajectory from FUI, to real world design here in the Bay Area, and very soon, back to FUI again. Or maybe games.

I’d interviewed Mark way back in 2011 for a segment of the Make It So book that got edited out of the final book, so it’s great to be able to talk to him again for a forum where I know it will be published, scifiinterfaces.com.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

So obviously my background is in sci-fi interfaces, the movies. I spent around 10 years doing that from 1997 to 2007. Worked on a variety of projects ranging from the first one, which was Tomb Raider, through to finishing off the last Bourne film, Bourne Ultimatum.

The Bourne Ultimatum, from Mark’s online portfolio, see more at coleran.com

My experience of working in films has been coming at it from the angle of loving the technology, loving the way machines work. And trying to expose it, to make it quite genuine. That’s what I got a name for in the industry was to try and create a more realistic side of interfaces.

Why is it hard to create FUI that would also work in the real world?

It’s because most people have no idea what an interface is, or what it’s supposed to be. From the person watching, for the actor using, the person designing, the person writing, the person directing, they don’t really know why it is there. This is the fundamental problem of the idea of sci-fi interfaces, they’re not interfaces. What they are are plot visualizations. They’re there to illustrate, or demonstrate something happening, or something that has happened. Or connect two people together in space.

So the work of the FUI designer is, working quickly, to fulfill the script, the plot point. Secondarily you consider the style of set design, context, story segment, things like that. That’s not the way things get made in the real world. Film UX and film UI are very much two separate things.

Consider this. If we made things that worked for actors to use on set,  the second that actor starts using something, they stop performing, they stop acting. So we can’t make something they actually use during filming. We have to play man behind the curtain, controlling the interface, matching their performance. That allows us to tell the actors, “Do not think about it, just do it. Just do your acting.” So when you see incoherent mashing on the keys and senseless clicking or mouse movement, it’s because we told them to do that.

Imagine how dull it would be to watch a film of a real person trying to figure out real software. There’s a line of realism you can’t cross. You don’t want a genuine database lookup of a police suspect. It’s a user experience problem wrapped in a user experience problem.

Let’s talk specifically about Children of Men. It’s now 10 years old. What do you think of when you look back on that work?

It was a really brief job, I only spent two weeks on the entire thing. It was a subcontract by a company called the Foreign Office. And the lead director was Frederick Norbeck, I think. So their commission was to design all of the advertisements in the film.

They did a lot of the backgrounding and the signage and they brought me in for the technology side of it, and also to create kind of brief world guide. For that I would just draw a timeline. Here’s what it’s like now, here’s where this unknown fertility event happens in five, six years time, and then the story in the film happens 20 years after that. Then I asked, “Okay, what is it like there? What were the systems like?”

As a result of the fertility event, all major technological advancement stops, so half the job was looking at just roughly where we’re gonna be in a couple of years and predicting how that technology will decay.

That’s why the paper has moving images, but they’ve got black lines and those things. It’s decaying.

In addition to the world book, I did a music player for the Forest House. I did all the office computers at the beginning. The signage for the Tate. And the game Kubris.

The step-through security gate & intuitive design

I liked the signage we did just for the step-through security gate. There’s a level of paranoia in that shot. On the side are four icons, like, “Radiation, weapons, explosives, biohazard.” Tiny, hard even to notice, but they tell of the scope of the problems they’re facing. Or expecting to face. 

It gets at a larger issue with a lot of these things. When you and I first spoke [for the book Make It So], I was kind of dismissive about a lot of the background of what we do, and what I do. It’s just like, stuff, I’d said. Make It So made me stop and ask, “What am I doing in my design?” There’s not a lot of time in any of these jobs. You have to work with your intuitive sense of design, with your vision based on your experience. Everything you’ve ever played, everything you’ve ever watched. It all has to go in. You have time to reflect later.

The Kubris Game

There’s a great lack of reflection at the front edge really. With the Kubris game all I got was, “It’s a game in a cube.”

“Okay,” I thought, “It’s space, let’s have him manipulate the space of the cube.” Maybe he’s pulling it, and it’s tumbling. But why is it tumbling? “Okay, let’s have pieces sliding down and if they go too far they’ll slide off the face, so he has to keep all these more and more pieces moving, sliding.” At a certain point you feel, “Oh that could be an interesting little game.” And it would play well in the scene.

It took me two days to go from that idea to having it on screen.

What made that project particularly challenging and unique?

The vast majority of films are just reflections of what we have right now, but Children of Men actually felt like it was trying to step ahead and show how things might really be. The temptation in a lot of technology to do the shiny thing, and this world is anything but shiny. So how does this technology reflect this real environment. But in this film, the interfaces aren’t the focus of any scene. It’s all there, but it’s just low-key texture.

What’s the worst FUI trope?

I want to say translucent screens, but I see why that’s become a trope. Having them transparent makes them feel like they’re part of the scene, rather than an object on a desk. Plus you get to see the actor’s faces. There’s an interesting connection to your crossover concept here [that is, that sci-fi and the real world mutually influence each other, see the talk about it at the O’Reilly recording here, or the post about transparent screens]. About 2–3 years ago I started to see translucent screens on the market, and I suspect the idea to create them came from sci-fi. The problem is, none of them could do true black, so they never really looked right.

No, a true trope vortex are spinning 3D globes and “flying” to information. I remember the original Ghost in the Shell. When Togusa looks at section 9 security, he says, “Show me something.” In response you it takes like three seconds for this building to spin just to show him the thing he just asked for. I’m like, “Uh…WHY?” [laughter] And FUI designers just keep going back to it, building on it, making it worse every time. It’s like it’s faster, and faster, and faster, and it just breaks apart.

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Going from FUI to real-world design and back again

I was called to do motion graphics and some interface work on…I’m not even gonna say which film it was. But I worked with through one of the most brilliant crews you can imagine. And despite all our incredible work, this film just…sucked, really bad. And I recall thinking, “It doesn’t matter who you are and what you do on a movie, you have no control whatsoever as to the outcome.”

So I thought I’d shift to work in the real world. Did some stuff in Canada, some really progressive stuff about file management and projects, how we visualize those things and work on them. Then I came to Silicon Valley, doing more work here, only to learn the lie of Silicon Valley: Designers believe they’re doing something positive and good. Really, you’re just subsuming whatever vision you have to somebody else’s idea of minimum viable product. Which in itself is fundamentally wrong, they should be minimum valuable product.

There’s also the horrible trade off between being an in-house designer, and having your ideas ignored by the higher ups, or being an external consultant, and having a very limited quality assurance in the execution of your ideas.

Hilariously, I once worked in-house on a TV project (again, I won’t mention names) and the team had some beautiful ideas. We presented them, and while we were waiting for the response of the higher ups, one of them decided “We need to get some external company to do this.” So they contacted an external firm, and two days later, I get a phone call from that company asking if I’m available to do the work as a subcontractor. It was very surreal. In reflecting on this I realized that I had a lot more influence on technology trends when I was working in the movies.

So now I’m heading back to that world.

What are your favorite Sci-Fi interfaces? Either that you or somebody else has created.

There’s a couple of them, one was the comlock from Space 1999. I loved the simplicity of that idea. It was a small thing, but it had an actual television screen, two inches wide. The characters pick it up off their belts, and look into it. So it all looks like they’re doing a kind of video karaoke. The best thing was it was all working display technology. They did some fancy camera work to hide the wires to the airstream next door with all the equipment that made these little things work. It was Graham Car’s work, and it was phenomenal.

Secondarily, I’d say the lap gun lasers from Aliens. [Seen in director’s cut, or unedited versions of the movie.] It’s just a laptop with a countdown of remaining ammunition. It was a simple, beautiful way of telling a piece of story. It was so elegantly done, and yet such attention to it. I really, really liked that.

One thing that stood in my mind recently, was Arrival. All the mundane use of technology was really nice. It’s still a background, a way characters are trying to tackle the problem, but it shows how they think. Like on the tablets, you draw or reselect pieces, build a structure from them. Beautifully done.

Then a surprising one is Assassin’s Creed.They changed the interface from the games. Look for the screens in the background, which are beautiful. Really different than a lot of people have done. Black and white. Very subtle in a lot of ways. There were all those little squares, doing things, very busy. It almost feels like it could’ve suddenly made something. It’s elegantly done.

If you could have any Sci-Fi tech made real, what would it be?

I want The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I love the idea of having a guide for everything. A snarky guide for everything. It would probably get you into trouble, but at least make life interesting. Google Maps is just too damn good at what it does, it’s like, you need some variety in life. It’s the idea of an imperfect piece of technology could make your life interesting, or at least fun.

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Report Card: Children of Men

Read all Children of Men reviews in chronological order.

Depending on how you count, there are only 9 interfaces in Children of Men. This makes sense because it’s not one of those Gee-Whiz-Can-You-Believe-the-Future technofests like Forbidden Planet or Minority Report. Children of Men is a social story about the hopelessness of a world without children, so the small number of interfaces—and even the way they are underplayed—is wholly appropriate to the theme. Given such a small number, you would not expect them to be as spectacular as they are. Or maybe you would. I don’t know how you roll.

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Sci: A (4 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

The interfaces are wholly believable, given the diegesis. Technology is focused on security, transportation, and distracting entertainment, which is exactly what you’d expect. Nothing breaks physics or reason.

The only ding is that Quietus could have included some nod to its reimbursement promise, and that’s so minor it only reveals itself as a problem after deep consideration. It doesn’t break the flow of the film.

Fi: A (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

All of the interfaces point back in some way to the world that created them and help move the story along. Security is everywhere. Jasper cobbles together technology to help his resistance. Suicide is a government-sanctioned option.

Interfaces: A- (4 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

  • Luke’s HUD is a little slow, considering that its job is to help avoid collisions.
  • Jasper’s Home Alarm could do more to help its occupants respond effectively to the alarm.
  • The Music Player isn’t very readable at a distance.

These are the main three issues that mar an otherwise very well-considered set of interfaces and technologies.

Final Grade A (12 of 12), Blockbuster.

It’s rare that a film’s interfaces get a full blockbuster rating on this site. The only other one at the time of publication is The Fifth Element. And while I take pains to rate the interfaces as distinct from the movie, I’m pleased when such a brilliant (yet, ironically, dark) film includes brilliant interfaces as well.

Ministry of Art detector gate

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Jumping back in the film a bit, we’re going to visit the Ministry of Art. When Theo goes there to visit his brother, after the car pulls to the front of the secured building, Theo steps out and walks toward a metal-detector gate.

Its quite high, about 3 meters tall. The height helps to reinforce the notion that this is a public space.

  1. This principle, that short ceilings are personal, and high ceilings are public, is I believe a well-established one in architectural design. Read the Alexandrian pattern if you’d like to read more about it.
  2. Is it a public space? It is, since it’s a Ministry. But it isn’t, since he joins his brother in what looks like a rich person’s private dining room. I was always a bit confused by what this place was meant to be. Perhaps owning to The Dark Times, Nigel has cited Minister rights and cordoned off part of the Tate Modern to live in. If anyone can explain this, please speak up.
  3. On the downside, the height makes the text more out of sight and harder to read by the people meant to be reading it.

The distance is balanced by the motion graphics of the translucent sign atop the gate. Animated red graphics point the direction of ingress, show a security stripe pattern, and provide text instructions.

Motion is a very strong attention-getting signal, and combined with the red colors, does all the attention-getting that the height risks. But even that’s not a critical issue, as there is of course a guard standing by to ensure his understanding and compliance.

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Note that there is no interaction here (which is the usual filter for this blog), but since I’m publishing an interview with the designer of this and the Kubris interface soon, I thought I’d give it a quick nod.

Jasper’s Music Player

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After Jasper tells a white lie to Theo, Miriam, and Kee to get them to escape the advancing gang of Fishes, he returns indoors. To set a mood, he picks up a remote control and presses a button on it while pointing it at a display.

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He watches a small transparent square that rests atop some things in a nook. (It’s that decimeter-square, purplish thing on the left of the image, just under the lampshade.) The display initially shows an album queue, with thumbnails of the album covers and two bright words, unreadably small. In response to his button press, the thumbnail for Franco Battiato’s album FLEURs slides from the right to the left. A full song list for the album appears beneath the thumbnail. Then track two, the cover of Ruby Tuesday, begins to play. A small thumbnail to the right of the album cover appears, featuring some white text on a dark background and a cycling, animated border. Theo puts the remote control down, picks up the Quietus box, and walks over to Janice. *sniff*

This small bit of speculative consumer electronics gets around 17 seconds of screen time, but we see enough to consider the design. 

Persistent display

One very nice thing about it is that it is persistently visible. As Marshall McLuhan famously noted, we are simply not equipped with earlids. This means that when music is playing in a space, you can’t really just turn away from it to stop listening. You’ll still hear it. In UX parlance, sound is non-modal.

Yet with digital music players, the visual displays that tell you about what’s being played, or the related interfaces that help you know what you can do with the music are often hidden behind modes. Want to know what that song you can’t stop hearing is? Find your device, wake it up, enter a password, find the app, and even then you may have to root around to find the software to find what you’re looking for.

But a persistent object means that non-modal sound is accompanied by (mostly) non-modal visuals. This little box is always somewhere, glowing, and telling you what’s playing, what just played, and what’s next.

Remote control

Finding the remote is a different problem, of course, and if your household is like my household, it is a thing which seems to want to be lost. To keep that non-modality of sound matched by the controls, it would be better to have the device or the environment know when Jasper is looking at the display, and enable loose gestural or voice controls to control it.

Imagine the scene if he grabs the Quietus box, looks up to the display, and says, “Play…” then pause while he considers his options, and says “…‘Ruby Tuesday’…the Battiato one.” We would have known that his selection has deep personal meaning. If Cuarón wanted to convey that this moment has been planned for a while, Jasper could even have said, “Play her goodbye song.”

Visual layout

The visual design of the display is, like most of the technology, meant to be a peripheral thing, accepting attention but not asking for it. In this sense it works. The text is so small the audience is not tempted to read it. The thumbnails are so small it is only if you already knew the music that it would refresh your memory. But if this was a real product meant to live in the home, I would redesign the display to be usable at the 3–6 meter distance, which would require vastly reducing the number of elements, increasing their size, and perhaps overlaying text on image.

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Jasper’s home alarm

When Theo, Kee, and Miriam flee the murderous Fishes, they take refuge in Jasper’s home for the night. They are awoken in the morning by Jasper’s sentry system.

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A loud cacophonous alarm sounds, made up of what sounds like recorded dog barks, bells clanging, and someone banging a stick on a metal trash can lid. Jasper explains to everyone in the house that “It’s the alarm! Someone’s breaking in!”

They gather around a computer screen with large speakers on either side. The screen shows four video feeds labeled ROAD A, FOREST A, FRONT DOOR, and ROAD B. Labels reading MOTION DETECTED <> blink at the bottom of the ROAD A and ROAD B feeds, where we can see members of the Fishes removing the brush that hides the driveway to Jasper’s house.

The date overlays the upper right hand corner of the screen, 06-DEC-2027, 08:10:58.

Across the bottom is a control panel of white numbers and icons on red backgrounds.

  • A radio button control for the number of video feeds to be displayed. Though we are seeing the 4-up display, the icon does not appear to be different than the rest.
  • 16 enumerated icons, the purpose for which is unclear.
  • Video control icons for reverse, stop, play, and fast forward.
  • Three buttons with gray backgrounds and icons.
  • A wide button blinking MASTER ALARM

The scene cuts to Jasper’s rushing to the car outside the home, where none of the cacophony can be heard.

Similar to his car dashoard, it makes sense that Jasper has made this alarm himself. This might explain the clunky layout and somewhat inscrutable icons. (What do the numbers do? What about that flower on the gray background?)

The three jobs of an intruder alarm

Jasper’s alarm is OK. It certainly does the job of grabbing the household’s attention, which is the first job of an alarm, and does it without alerting the intruders, as we see in the shot outside the house.

It could do a bit better at the second job of an alarm, which is to inform the household of the nature of the problem. That they have to gather around the monitor takes precious time that could be used for making themselves safer. It could be improved by removing this requirement.

  • If Jasper had added more information to the audio alarm, even so basic as a prerecorded “Motion on the road! Motion on the road!” then they might not have needed to gather around the monitor at all.
  • If the relevant video feeds could be piped to wearable devices, phones, or their car, then they can fill in their understanding at the same time that they are taking steps to getting the hell out of there.
  • Having the artificial intelligence that we have in actual-world 2017 (much less speculative 2027), we know that narrow AI can process that video to have many more details in the broadcast message. “Motion on the road! I see three cars and at least a dozen armed men!”

There is arguably a third job of an advanced alarm, and this is to help the household understand the best course of action. This can be problematic when the confidence of the recommendation is low. But if the AI can confidently make a recommendation, it can use whatever actuators it has to help them along their way.

  • It could be informational, such as describing the best option. The audio alarm could encourage them to “Take the back road!” It could even alert the police (though in the world of Children of Men, Jasper would not trust them and they may be disinclined to care.)
  • The alarm could give some parameters and best-practice recommendations like, “You have 10 minutes to be in the car! Save only yourselves, carry nothing!”
  • It could keep updating the situation and the countdown so the household does not have to monitor it.
  • It can physically help as best it can, like remotely starting and positioning cars for them.

This can get conceptually tricky as the best course of action may be conditional, e.g. “If you can get to the car in 5 minutes, then escape is your best option, but if it takes longer or you have defenses, then securing the home and alerting the police is the better bet.” But that may be too much to process in the moment, and for a household that does not rehearse response scenarios, the simpler instruction may be safer.

Kubris

Perhaps the most unusual interface in the film is a game seen when Theo visits his cousin Nigel for a meal and to ask for a favor. Nigel’’s son Alex sits at the table silent and distant, his attention on a strange game that it’s designer, Mark Coleran, tells me is called “Kubris,” a 3D hybrid of Tetris and Rubik’s Cube.

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Alex operates the game by twitching and sliding his fingers in the air. With each twitch a small twang is heard. He suspends his hand a bit above the table to have room. His finger movements are tracked by thin black wires that extend from small plastic discs at his fingertips back to a device worn on his wrist. This device looks like a streamlined digital watch, but where the face of a clock would be are a set of multicolored LEDs arranged in rows.  These LEDs flicker on and off in inscrutable patterns, but clearly showing some state of the game. There is an inset LED block that also displays an increasing score.

The game also features a small, transparent, flat screen that rests on the table in front of him. It displays a computer-generated cube, similar to a 5×5 Rubik’s Cube, made up of smaller transparent cubes that share colors with the LEDs on his wrist. As Alex plays, he changes the orientation of the cube, and positions smaller cubes along the surface of the larger.

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Alex plays this game continually during the course of the scene. He is so engrossed in it that when Nigel asks him twice to take his pills, he doesn’t even register the instruction. Nigel must yell at him to get Alex to comply.

Though the exact workings of the game are a mystery, it serves to illustrate in a technological way how some of the younger people in 2027 disengage from the horror of the world through games that have been designed for addiction and obsession.

Luke’s predictive HUD

When Luke is driving Kee and Theo to a boat on the coast, the car’s heads-up-display shows him the car’s speed with a translucent red number and speed gauge. There are also two broken, blurry gauges showing unknown information.

Suddenly the road becomes blocked by a flaming car rolled onto the road by a then unknown gang. In response, an IMPACT warning triangle zooms in several times to warn the driver of the danger, accompanied by a persistent dinging sound.

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It commands attention effectively

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Syd’s dash display

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If Jasper’s car is aftermarket, Syd’s built-in display seems to be more consumer-savvy. It is a blue electroluminescent flat display built into the dashboard. It has more glanceable information with a cleaner information hierarchy. It has no dangerous keyboard entry. All we see of the display in these few glimpses is the speedometer, but even that’s enough to illustrate these differences.

Jasper’s car dashboard

Jasper is a longtime friend of Theo’s who offers his home as a safe house for a time. Jasper’s civilian vehicle features a device on its dashboard that merits some attention. It is something like a small laptop computer, with a flat-screen in a roughly pill-shaped black plastic frame mounted in the center of the dashboard. The top half of this screen shows a view from a backward-facing camera mounted on the vehicle.

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The lower half shows a number of different mode- and context-aware displays. The first we see is an overhead schematic of the vehicle, showing pulses moving back and forth from the front to the rear of the car, similar to Prius dash displays that display the transfer of power between the brakes and the battery.

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As the vehicle nears Jasper’’s house, the overhead schematic view draws up and is replaced with a column of text, which is in turn replaced by a circular object with animated rays projecting from it. Neither Jasper nor Theo gives the screen any notice during the scene.

Several dings

It’s dangerous to ask drivers to parse columns of text while operating a vehicle. Information must be glanceable.

The monochrome display seems to unnecessarily constrain the color palette. It’s good to give color-blind users modes that optimize the display for monochrome, and if we’re being generous, we can presume Jasper’s done just that.

But on the other hand, the monochrome minimizes the distractions that the mode switching causes. Note that the rapid changes that happen when Jasper is not on open road, but nearing a building. His attention should be on navigating the space ahead of him rather than on the screen. Maybe the monochrome helps ameliorate this.

Lastly note that the dashboard also features a full keyboard beneath the screen, positioned for the driver’s use. Since we never see it in use, let’s hope it’s not actually meant to be used while driving. Better would be a more suitable input mechanism like voice that doesn’t occupy the driver’s hands and eyes to use.

But wait

But those dings make more sense when we consider the interface narratively. The big clue is why would it persistently show a backward-facing camera when he’s driving forward? Can’t he just use the rear-view mirror? It seems to be something a normal driver wouldn’t concern themselves with. But it is something that a member of an underground resistance might be interested in, to use computer vision algorithms to help him know if he or she was being tailed or there was some threat behind him. That clue (along with the contrast to Syd’s car display) hints that this is not an off-the-shelf system, but something that Jasper has hacked together for himself. Maybe the software is shared amongst resistance members.

In any case, a homemade system can’t be expected to have the same level of usability as a professionally designed one. So narratively, this interface earns a pass.