Floating-pixel displays

In other posts we compared the human and alien VPs of Prometheus. They were visually distinct from each other, with the alien “glowing pollen” displays being unique to this movie.

There is a style of human display in Prometheus that looks similar to the pollen. Since the users of these displays don’t perceive these points in 3D, it’s more precise to call it a floating-pixel style. These floating-pixel displays appear in three places.

  • David’s Neurovisor for peering into the dreams of the hypersleeping Shaw. (Note this may be 3D for him.)
  • The landing-sequence topography displays
  • The science lab scanner, used on the alien head

There is no diegetic reason offered in the movie for the appearance of an alien 3D display technology in human 2D systems. When I started to try and explain it, it quickly drifted away from interaction design and into fan theory, so I have left it as an exercise for the reader. But there remains a question about the utility of this style.

Poor cues for understanding 3D

Floating, glowing points are certainly novel to our survey as a way to describe 3D shapes for users. And in the case of the alien pollen, it makes some sense. Seeing these in the world, our binocular vision would help us understand the relationships of each point as well as the gestalt, like walking around a Christmas tree at night.

But in 2D, simple points are not ideal for understanding 3D surfaces. Especially when the pixels are all the same apparent size. We normally use the small bits of scale to help us understand an object’s relative distance from us. Though the shape can be kind-of inferred through motion, it still creates a great deal of visual noise. It also hurts when the points are too far apart. It doesn’t give us a gestalt sense of surface.

I couldn’t find any scientific studies of the readability of this style, this is my personal take on it. But we also can look to the real world, namely to the history of maps, where cartographers have wrestled with similar problems to show topography. Centuries of their trial-and-error have resulted in four primary techniques for describing 3D shapes on a 2D surface: hachures, contour lines, hypsometric tints, and shaded relief.

(images from http://www.siskiyous.edu/shasta/map/map/)
(images from http://www.siskiyous.edu/shasta/map/map/)

These styles utilize lines, shades, and colors to describe topography, and notably not points. Even modern 3D modeling software uses tessellated wireframes instead of floating points as a lightweight rendering technique. To my knowledge, only geographic information systems display anything similar, and that’s only when the user wants to see actual data points.

These anecdotal bits of evidence combine with my observations of these interfaces in Prometheus to convince me that while it’s stylistically unique (and therefore useful to the filmmakers), it’s seriously suboptimal for real-world adoption.