June 25, 2018
As a designer who works with technology, I’ve been recognizing the critical thinking and design work put into making sci-fi media come to life. I’ve always really liked science fiction films, shows, and video games. Over the past few years I’ve gotten much more into the genre and have been steadily ticking things off of my “to-read” and “to-watch” lists. I’m reading the most well known and highly lauded authors like William Gibson and Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m watching the entirety of Star Trek (the Original Series). There are also tons of new authors and creators putting out fresh and inspiring visions of the future today, and I have come to realize that it can be a great source of inspiration for my work with new technologies.
Recent breakthroughs in AI, XR (Extended Reality), and other emerging technologies have turned seemingly far-out ideas into plausible realities. Today we have AI assistants that can help us with daily tasks and VR environments and games with which we can immerse ourselves into alternate digital realms. We’re just beginning and the tech has many limitations, but for some, it feels like the future is here.
As a designer working in digital spaces, one of the big challenges is how. How do we design for these new, groundbreaking technologies – technologies that are still immature and their possibilities unknown? How do you design something that has never been designed before? Or even figure out what kinds of problems these technologies can be used to solve?
Of course, people have already been doing all of these things.
One space where this has been happening is in science fiction media. While there are many ideas explored in sci-fi that still aren’t possible due to real-world limitations or the state of the tech, that doesn’t mean that we can’t get inspired by and learn lessons from these explorations. Many of them are well thought out examples of how people can interact with technology in new ways. The book Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction by Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel is all about this idea. The authors posit that we can use sci-fi as a mood board, a conceptual tool to question and to brainstorm. The book is a collection of mini case studies on various sci-fi interfaces in movies such as the gestural interfaces from Minority Report, the AR sensor interfaces from Iron Man, and the brain interfaces from The Matrix. They derive practical lessons from super futuristic looking interfaces, such as: Don’t distract Tony Stark with complicated sensor data while he’s flying at high speeds and fighting bad guys.
Another example they discuss in the book is the Georges Melies 1902 film A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune). This film explored the idea of no interfaces as a possible path for the future of interface design. This idea has been gaining traction in the last few years with the Voice/Zero UI movement and with practical applications such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa. A real world example of the idea in the movie is Dynamic Land, a prototype of a new way of thinking about computers in which the computer is a physical place that is controlled by natural human movements. In this prototype, the room is outfitted with cameras that watch people move around tagged pieces of paper as they’re “building” software in the physical space. The computer takes what it sees people do and creates real software.
Sci-fi has been credited with inspiring the invention of many technologies we have today. The Internet as we know it was first imagined in William Gibson’s Neuromancer over a decade before the World Wide Web was created. Gibson also dreamed up several other technologies that later came into being, such as virtual reality, which Gibson described as a “consensual hallucination” called cyberspace with its glittering landscape of cities made of data. Another example is the Star Trek communicator, which has been credited by the Director of Research and Development at Motorola as being the inspiration for the design of the first mobile phone.
Professional world builders like Monika Bielskyte from All Future Everything use sci-fi world building to imagine the future for entertainment purposes as well as real world applications for tech companies, cities, and governments. She travels the world and talks to people at the cutting edge of innovation from many different cultures in order to create a vision of the future that inspires people to work towards it. In her own words, Bielskyte says she “dreams out loud”. Her mission is to create positive, warm visions of the future, which she says is severely lacking in mainstream sci-fi entertainment today. Indeed, most of the big budget sci-fi films paint a depressing picture of the future of humanity. I love dystopian stories, but I agree with Bielskyte that sci-fi has the power to inspire, and so designers of these future visions also have a responsibility to paint a different picture.
A recent example of using sci-fi as a positive force for inspiration is the hugely successful Black Panther movie released in February. Intelligent, diverse, and wickedly cool, the movie shows us a world where technological advancement can be used to better human societies instead of destroying them. The film also provides a positive vision of the future for people of color, who are often excluded from this in mainstream entertainment.
I think that we can use these sci-fi worlds as fuel to create a new one. To build the future, we must imagine it first.