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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

eye-strain

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.

privacy

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.

orientation

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.

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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.

Human VPs

In the volumetric projection chapter of Make It So, we note that sci-fi makers take pains to distinguish the virtual from the real most often with a set of visual treatments derived from the “Pepper’s Ghost” parlor trick, augmented with additional technology cues: translucency, a blue tint, glowing whites, supersaturated colors for wireframed objects, clear pixels and/or flicker, with optional projection rays.

Prometheus has four types of VPs that adhere to this style in varying degrees. Individual displays (with their interactions) are discussed in other posts. This collection of posts compares their styles. This particular post describes the human VPs.

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Blue-box displays

One type of human-technology VPs are the blue-box displays:

  • David’s language program
  • Halloway and Shaw’s mission briefing
  • The display in Shaw’s quarters

These adhere more closely to the Pepper’s Ghost style, being contained in a translucent blue cuboid with saturated surface graphics and a grid pattern on the sides.

Weyland-Yutani VP

The other type of human displays are the Weyland-Yutani VPs. These have translucency and supersaturated wireframes, but they do not have any of the other conventional Pepper’s Ghost cues. Instead they add two new visual cues to signal to the audience their virtualness: scaffolded transitions and edge embers.

When a Weyland-Yutani VP is turned on, it does not simply blink into view. It builds. First, shapes are described in space as a tessellated surface, made of yellow-green lines describing large triangles that roughly describe the forthcoming object or its extents. These triangles have a faint smoky-yellow pattern on their surface. Some of the lines have yellow clouds and bright red segments along their lengths. Additionally, a few new triangles extend to a point space where another piece of the projection is about to appear. Then the triangles disappear, replaced with a fully refined image of the 3D object. The refined image may flicker once or twice before settling into persistence. The whole scaffolding effect is staggered across time, providing an additional sense of flicker to the transition.

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Motion in resolved parts of the VP begins immediately, even as other aspects of the VP are still transitioning on.

When a VP is turned off, this scaffolding happens in reverse, as elements decay into tessellated yellow wireframes before flickering out of existence.

Edge embers

A line of glowing, flickering, sliding, yellow-green points illustrates the extents of the VP area, where a continuous surface like flooring is clipped at the limits of the display. These continue across the duration of the playback.

A growing confidence in audiences

This slightly different strategy to distinguishing VPs from the real world indicates the filmmaker’s confidence that audiences are growing familiar enough with this trope that fewer cues are needed during the display. In this case the translucency and subtle edge embers are the only persistent cues, pushing the major signals of the scaffolding and surface flicker to the transitions.

If this trend continues and sci-fi makers become overconfident, it may confuse some audiences, but at the same time give the designers of the first real-world VPs more freedom with their appearance. They wouldn’t have to look like Star Wars’.

Something new: Projected Reflectance

One interesting detail is that when we see Vickers standing in the projection of Weyland’s office, she casts a slight reflection in the volumetric surface. It implies a technology capable of projecting not just luminance, but reflectivity as well. The ability to project volumetric mirrors hasn’t appeared before in the survey.

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Lesson: Transition by importance

Another interesting detail is that when the introduction to the Mission briefing ends, the environment flickers out first, then the 2D background, then Weyland’s dog, then finally Weyland.

This order isn’t by position, brightness, motion, or even surface area (the dog confounds that.) It is by narrative importance: Foreground, background, tertiary character, primary character. The fact that the surrounding elements fade first keep your eyes glued onto the last motion (kind of like watching the last bit of sun at a sunset), which in this order is the most important thing in the feed, i.e. the human in view. If a staggered-element fade-out becomes a norm in the real world for video conferencing (or eventually VP conferencing), this cinematic order is worth remembering.