It showed up again a few weeks ago, out of the blue. The Star Trek: Picard trailer was zipping along with nostalgic references, intrigue, multiple boojes, and action-packed fight scenes. Then it appeared: the floating visual interface.
Designers have a fun habit of noticing the gap between what looks cool on-screen and what would be a lousy experience in real life. These observations are immediately followed by a fear that rubbish UX will force its way into the real world by sheer dint of its popularity.
Trends motivated by media are nothing new, of course, and today’s technology has taken a lot of inspiration from sci-fi in particular – everything from mobile phones to credit cards started out as a writer’s invention. But tech trends have longer-lasting implications than, say, fashion or interior design fads, which can be embraced, rejected, and reset within months (or weeks).
The “floater” has been with us for a while. It looks futuristic, aspirational, and cool – it always glows – which is why it’s tough to admit that it would be a terrible, terrible user experience in real life.
Minority Report’s scenes with a begloved Tom Cruise kickstarted the gestural design and floating interfaces movement in film. Then Iron Man and the Marvel Movies took the gloves off (so to speak), and now it seems like everybody does it.
It’s completely understandable why movies and TV shows have embraced the see-through situation: your biggest assets aren’t blocked. People pay to watch actors’ faces, not the back of their heads looking at a monitor (though directors like Ridley Scott and James Cameron had a talent for those moments).
When CGI got affordable enough to realistically depict the hovering screenless interface, it was a gift from the movie gods. Audiences could still see the actor, the actor had something to do in the shot other than read, and scenes benefited from additional color and movement. A protagonist could be seen as mastering the machine and sci-fi expositional computer stuff could happen without demanding separate screen time and viewer attention.
However, if your real job involved glowing, floating GUIs, you would quickly realize what a terrible mistake you’ve made. Having to move your arms, eyes, and entire body in order to complete relatively simple interactions would be a huge waste of energy and time.
Several people have tested those interactions out and written inspired critiques. It doesn’t take long for the constant movement to strain eyes and tire arms. Not to mention the crick you’d get from turning your head every which way to see different windows and all those tiny pieces of information.
How can he possibly see and interpret all these tiny bits of data, in a skin-tight metal suit, while also trying not to crash into tall buildings?
Readability and retention go out the window. Trying to absorb a really intense data situation ... on a see-through screen, with no background, and people and objects possibly moving behind it ... would be impossible. Can you imagine if your office had this? We’d all be sitting at our desks saying, “Please don’t walk in front of my desk. Stop moving. Yeah, ok, I’ll wait.”
There are profound accessibility issues too. The Iron Man interfaces presume some sort of voice activation, but most characters are depicted as having full motor control as well as optimal vision, hearing, and range of motion. Even contextual accessibility – a broken arm, a stiff neck, feeling sick – means you’re out of luck retrieving that valuable, ever-hovering data, much less doing anything with it.
None of this is super-inclusive, or practical. Are design companies rethinking this kind of accessibility as they create visuals for films currently under production? Doubtful, though we’ll see what happens as inclusivity is finally starting to be embraced (at least, we’re getting to see it more) throughout the industry.
Of course, this is all fiction, so how much of this is affecting our off-screen lives? Is there a general at the Pentagon or VC-backed entrepreneur leading the floater charge? Stock image providers are certainly on board.
It’s possible our collective design sensibilities will assert themselves (or real-world budgets will) and these floating GUIs will be just visual effects relics of the early 2000s, akin to Art Deco spaceship design (astounding and amazing) or 1970s space jumpsuits (please come back).
We’re not against augmented or virtual reality, by the way. There are some seriously cool ideas and implementation ideas out there, and sci-fi has a lot more inspiration for us. The Black Panther virtual car genius-princess-badass Shuri drives for T’Challa while he’s on the other side of the planet is absolute fire, and one of our favorite UI ideas.
Bringing the UX back to something accessible and a bit more practical — in which the movement mimics or controls something operational in nature (versus something data-driven that needs to be read) — makes a lot more sense. Accessible 3D manipulation and prototyping of physical objects would be a genuinely helpful use of floating, luminous technology. It would still feel pretty neat and create a “wow” factor for users. Then we can get on to making the important things, like flying cars and holodecks.
And as for science fiction itself? When you’re not limiting yourself to what you can actually realize here and now, nor relying on overworked visuals, the galaxy is your oyster. Maybe we should start listening to other ideas, and trying out new concepts — just like Shuri.