The Silver Computer Screen

If you can’t tell already I’m a fan of the movies, pretty much all kinds of movies. From art house fare to popcorn flicks, I’m pretty confident I can find something interesting in just about every film I watch, and so I try to watch as much as I can of as many different genres as I can. This requires a well-practiced suspension of disbelief, of course, which is not hard to muster if you are passionate about films in general.

But one thing that almost always breaks me out of any movie’s spell is the on-screen appearance of any kind of computing technology — specifically the appearance of interfaces for computing technology. The reason is obvious: they’re almost always completely phony, designed not so much to reflect what the movie’s characters are supposed to be doing with a computer as to reflect what the movie’s producers want us to understand about what the character is doing with a computer.

Blip Bleep Bloop

As a user interface professional you might think that I find these interfaces offensive, but in actuality I find them quite riveting, even if they do jolt me out of whatever world the movie is trying to immerse me into. These almost universally poorly designed interfaces are groan-inducing, to be sure, and I certainly wish they were better on the whole. But at the same time, they offer fascinating insights into common misconceptions of how digital technology works.

You can see what I mean at Access Main Computer File, a Tumblr collection of graphical user interfaces culled from dozens and dozens of films. This is a real treasure trove of interfaces that we’d otherwise never be able to assess as a whole, so I’m totally obsessed with it. Looking at them all together, it becomes evident that each one is like a snapshot of the general public’s understanding of computing magic, one that was taken whenever the movie was made. The older the movie, of course, the more naïve the interface appears; to riff on the old saw that tragedy plus time equals comedy, you could say that a movie U.I. plus time equals kitsch. Which offers its own kind of entertainment value.

Here’s one of my favorites, taken from “Total Recall.” I can’t even remember what role this particular interface played in the script, but it does seem obvious to me that the director’s vision of the way computers work was that they would essentially dehumanize people, especially women, in this case by reducing a human body to a mathematical wireframe representation of slimness, athleticism and/or voluptuousness.

Total Recall

Ridiculous and getting funnier every year.

Compare what you see at Access Main Computer File to software artist J.T. Nimoy’s work on last year’s “Tron Legacy”. I didn’t see the movie (from the reviews, I kind of dread the day I do) but the work shown here looks very careful and thoughtful and gorgeous. But it also doesn’t really look that different from “Total Recall” or any number of other examples you can find over at Access Main Computer File.

Tron Legacy

That suggests there’s always likely to be a gap between the reality of computing technology and what the movies understand about them. Which is okay, I think; you never really want reality catching up to your dreams.

  1. John Underkoffler, the designer of one of the most prescient movie interfaces of recent years — Minority Report — actually brings those concepts over into the real world. Fascinating guy.


    I have a little bit of experience of creating imaginary UIs myself Ё quite possibly the smallest one possible. It basically involved looping an animation of some green squiggly lines and numbers (set in OCR-A, naturally) over a black screen (why is green-on-black still the standard?). See the last pic here:

  2. I’ve always been fascinated with futuristic interfaces in movies.

    Take a look at the portfolio of Mark Coleran at His work looks futuristic, but at the same time has a lot of thought into how someone would use the interface.

    If we could only get more real word UI designers to create interfaces that are both practical and beautiful.

  3. Khoi, you’ve hit on a gripe I’ve had for years.

    One discussion I’ve had with folks centers around the fact that people are more intelligent / savvy than movie producers give them credit for.

    In films (or shows like CSI, etc) where the computing activity is supposed to be loosely based on today’s cutting edge technologies, the interfaces are usually cartoony, overly simplistic and, when the rubber hits the road, unusable. They are more artful display piece than they are functional tools for everyday work. Frankly, I think people are capable of recognizing “cool” new technology, without hyper-stylizing the resulting display.

    True, Minority Report, and a few others are pushing a different envelope of interactivity than the average crime drama based in today’s reality, and in those situations an interface that fits the tone of the movie is essential to the immersion in that world — think of Brazil’s stylistic dependence on its archaic systems as a storytelling device.

    However, in such films as The Net, Untraceable, or any film that utilizes technology as a plot driver in today’s context, the creation of interfaces that do “magical things” (S. Jobs’ “magical” device notwithstanding), seemingly without user input, are an insult to people’s ability to separate presentation from functionality. (Perhaps we have Bladerunner’s photo enhancement functionality to blame.)

    Humans are especially good at picking out visual inconsistency, as our biology is particularly well-tuned for such activity. So, it only follows that we are probably jarred from our immersive cocoon, when watching a film, if there is an element that stands out as incongruous because of the very inconsistency producers designed to stand out in the first place.

    I believe (and want to continue to believe) that users and viewers are capable of more complex critique of what they see, perhaps especially when it comes to technology.

  4. Ha! Great post. Most of the UI visuals today are a mild extension of what Syd Mead or Stanley Kubrick were doing in the ’60s and ’70s. The thing that cracks me up the most is how computers SOUND in movies … just like your headline—blip, bleep, bloop. Today’s real computers hardly make any noise—especially one with an SSD. I guess the directors think it’s an awkward silence; just staring at a computer displaying the fruits of its labor isn’t good enough. Those 20th century “computer sounds” crack me up every the time.

  5. My favorite talk at SXSW this year was a panel about movie interfaces. It had the guy who made Hal and interfaces in War Games, Back to the Future, Blade Runner. Plus two guys who worked on newer movies, including Tron.

    They focused more on how these interfaces predated future technologies, and how off they were sometimes. Like the vid-phon in Bladerunner (a wall-mounted video calling device) vs the iPhone (they didn’t anticipate people being able to carry phones in their pockets). And see-thru/glass interfaces (which are hard to read in real life, but are great for movies like Avatar because you can see the actors through them).

    Some of the people from the panel are working on this book that will be released soon called Make It So (the talk was called “Made It So”).

  6. Nerd Moment

    Speaking of Star Trek: TNG, you will recall that Captain Picard had to train the ship’s computer upon his arrival to respond to precisely what he meant when he said “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” In order for the computer to produce the right temperature for “hot”, a lot of back and forth was required.

    I think that it is interesting to note that, with all the advances we’ve experienced, it is still a far distant machine that will be able to comprehend and respond to human interaction in a way that is both natural and infinitely malleable.

    Consider how difficult a task it would be, for example, to create a ubiquitous system that controlled the temperature of a shower. How hot do you like it normally? On a cold day? What is a cold day? After a workout? How strong should the water pour out? Do you change temperature at different points during your shower? Different moods? What about settings for your spouse? Your children? Bathing your pets? …

  7. This points to a greater phenomenon in movies that not only are the interfaces fictional, but nearly everything else is as well (I exaggerate a bit). Try watching movies with people in a variety of professions. If the movie is about the military, for example, watch it with someone in that branch and they will spend half the film telling you all of the things that would never happen. A part of me wishes I knew nothing about anything so the magic of movies were never ruined. This is part of why I love to watch in theaters, that way at least no one can tell you until AFTER the fact what was wrong with it.

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