An Interview with Mark Coleran

In homage to the wrap of Children of Men, this post I’m sharing an interview with Mark Coleran, a sci-fi interface designer who worked on the film. He also coined the term FUI, which is no small feat. He’s had a fascinating trajectory from FUI, to real world design here in the Bay Area, and very soon, back to FUI again.

I’d interviewed Mark way back in 2011 for a segment of the Make It So book that got edited out of the final book, so it’s great to be able to talk to him again for a forum where I know it will be published, scifiinterfaces.com.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

So obviously my background is in sci-fi interfaces, the movies. I spent around 10 years doing that from 1997 to 2007. Worked on a variety of projects ranging from the first one, which was Tomb Raider, through to finishing off the last Bourne film, Bourne Ultimatum.

The Bourne Ultimatum, from Mark’s online portfolio, see more at coleran.com

My experience of working in films has been coming at it from the angle of loving the technology, loving the way machines work. And trying to expose it, to make it quite genuine. That’s what I got a name for in the industry was to try and create a more realistic side of interfaces. Continue reading

Report Card: Children of Men

Read all Children of Men reviews in chronological order.

Depending on how you count, there are only 9 interfaces in Children of Men. This makes sense because it’s not one of those Gee-Whiz-Can-You-Believe-the-Future technofests like Forbidden Planet or Minority Report. Children of Men is a social story about the hopelessness of a world without children, so the small number of interfaces—and even the way they are underplayed—is wholly appropriate to the theme. Given such a small number, you would not expect them to be as spectacular as they are. Or maybe you would. I don’t know how you roll.

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Report Card: Johnny Mnemonic

There are no more interfaces within the film to analyse. But before moving on to the grades, some final (and brief – I promise) discussion about cyberpunk and virtual reality.

Read all Johnny Mnemonic reviews in chronological order.

Cyberpunk Love

As stated at the beginning, Johnny Mnemonic is a cyberpunk film, with the screenplay written by noted cyberpunk author William Gibson, loosely based on one of his short stories of the same name. Why would user interface designers care? Because the cyberpunk authors were the first to write extensively about personal computing technologies, world wide networks, 2D/3D GUIs, and AI. Cyberspace, both the idea and the word itself, comes from cyberpunk fiction. Just as Star Trek inspired NASA engineers and astronauts, the cyberspace depicted by the authors inspired virtual reality programmers and designers. In the first virtual reality wave of the mid to late 1990s, it seemed that everybody working in the field had read Neuromancer.

If you’ve never read any cyberpunk and are now curious, Neuromancer by William Gibson is still the classic work. For a visual interpretation, the most cyberpunk of all films, in style and tone rather than plot, is Blade Runner. Cyberpunk founder Bruce Sterling, who wrote the foreword for “Make It So”, often writes about design; and sometimes cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson has also written interesting and thought provoking non-fiction about computers and user experience. It’s beyond the scope of this post to outline all their ideas for you, but if you are interested start with:

Bruce Sterling on Tumblr

In the Beginning was the Command Line

VR Love

Johnny Mnemonic also includes scenes set in virtual reality, a trend that began with Tron (although that particular film did not use the term). These virtual reality scenes with their colorful graphics  were most likely included to make computer systems less boring and more comprehensible to a general audience. However, these films from Tron onwards have never been successful. (If you work around computer people you’ll hear otherwise from plenty of fans, but computer geeks are not a representative sample.)

In the more recent Iron Man films, Tony Stark in his workshop uses a gestural interface, voice commands, and large volumetric projections. This could easily have been depicted as a VR system, but wasn’t. Could there be a usability problem when virtual reality interfaces are used in film?

The most common reason given for not using VR is that such sequences remind the audience that they’re watching an artificial experience, thus breaking suspension of disbelief. Evidence for this is the one financially successful VR film, The Matrix, which very carefully made its virtual reality identical to the real world. The lesson is that in film, just like most fields, user interfaces should not draw too much attention to themselves.

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Cyberspace: Newark Copyshop

The transition from Beijing to the Newark copyshop is more involved. After he travels around a bit, he realizes he needs to be looking back in Newark. He “rewinds” using a pull gesture and sees the copyshop’s pyramid. First there is a predominantly blue window that unfolds as if it were paper.

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And then the copyshop initial window expands. Like the Beijing hotel, this is a floor plan view, but unlike the hotel it stays two dimensional. It appears that cyberspace works like the current world wide web, with individual servers for each location that can choose what appearance to present to visitors.

Johnny again selects data records, but not with a voice command. The first transition is a window that not only expands but spins as it does so, and makes a strange jump at the end from the centre to the upper left.

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Once again Johnny uses the two-handed expansion gesture to see the table view of the records. Continue reading

Talking to a Puppet

As mentioned, Johnny in the last phone conversation in the van is not talking to the person he thinks he is. The film reveals Takahashi at his desk, using his hand as if he were a sock puppeteer—but there is no puppet. His desk is emitting a grid of green light to track the movement of his hand and arm.

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The Make It So chapter on gestural interfaces suggests Takahashi is using his hand to control the mouth movements of the avatar. I’d clarify this a bit. Lip synching by human animators is difficult even when not done in real time, and while it might be possible to control the upper lip with four fingers, one thumb is not enough to provide realistic motion of the lower lip. Continue reading

Sci-fi Interfaces and Decipher SciFi go to the movies

OMG y’all. We totally got asked on a date and we should totally go.

So I happen to be in NYC for the Interaction17 conference this week, and agreed with the guys from the Decipher SciFi podcast that we should hang out. So it’s late notice, but we have a plan: Join us at 7:25 P.M. to watch The Space Between Us, and then hangout and chat about it afterward? There may even be podcast recording and interface redesigning, it’s hard to say. Providing you’re not into The Big Game.

Here’s a link to the event details.

https://www.facebook.com/events/1302970839741111/1304373202934208/?notif_t=like&notif_id=1486263480732356

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Report Card: The Faithful Wookiee

Read all The Faithful Wookiee reviews in chronological order.

Of course we understand that The Faithful Wookiee was an animation for children and teens, the script of which was thrown together in a short time. We understand that it is meant to be entertainment and not a prediction, building on the somewhat-unexpected success of a sci-fi movie released the year before. We get that the plot is, well, unlikely. We understand that 1978 was not a time when much thought was given to consistent and deeply thought-through worldbuilding with technology. We understand it is hand-drawn animation and all the limitations that come with this.

But, still, to ensure a critique is valuable to us, we must bypass these archaeological excuses and focus instead on the thing as produced. And for that, the short does not fare well.

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Ship Console

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The only flight controls we see are an array of stay-state toggle switches (see the lower right hand of the image above) and banks of lights. It’s a terrifying thought that anyone would have to fly a spaceship with binary controls, but we have some evidence that there’s analog controls, when Luke moves his arms after the Falcon fires shots across his bow.

Unfortunately we never get a clear view of the full breadth of the cockpit, so it’s really hard to do a proper analysis. Ships in the Holiday Special appear to be based on scenes from A New Hope, but we don’t see the inside of a Y-Wing in that movie. It seems to be inspired by the Falcon. Take a look at the upper right hand corner of the image below.

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Introducing Hugh Fisher

Hi there. Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your name, where are you from, how do you spend your time?

I’m Hugh Fisher (or Hugo if you’re French, Spanish, or Italian and rightly appalled by English spelling and pronunciation). I’ve lived most of my life in Canberra, Australia. I’ve been playing around with computer graphics for one purpose or another since the days of the Apple 2, and occasionally manage to get paid for doing so. Outside of that I draw, read a lot, and play tabletop roleplaying games. When I want to be a bit more active, I’m doing casual jogging, archery, or ultimate frisbee.

jm-00-hughpic

What are some of your favorite sci-fi interfaces (Other than in Johnny Mnemonic)? (And why?)

I’m a sucker for old school monochrome text and wireframes, so Alien and Aliens, Star Wars: A New Hope, and classic Battlestar Galactica. And not just the graphics, but also the physical keys, sliders, and joysticks—none of your shiny smooth glass. For color and animation, the BBC Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Strangely, I’m also fond of the very modern full body gestural interfaces seen in Iron Man and Ender’s Game.

Why did you decide to review Johnny Mnemonic in particular?

Because I’m a William Gibson fan and interested in virtual reality. It’s a terrible film, but I’ve always liked the presentation of a futuristic VR Internet. More about this when we get into the film…

What was your biggest surprise when doing the review?

The number of different interfaces and devices was one—I had no idea how much work I’d inadvertently signed up for. I was also surprised to realise that an awful lot of the film makes no sense at all if you haven’t read everything by William Gibson.

What else are you working on?

I’m building up a toolkit of Python code for 3D graphics and the Microsoft Kinect for a couple of artistic/fun interactive projects. I’m also drawing science fictional sheep, and learning about the new edition of the Paranoia RPG.

8 reasons you (yes, you) should study sci-fi interfaces

In a recent email exchange, Olli Sulopuisto of Nonfiktio (trigger warning: Finnish) asked me a damned fine question. I’m a fan of damned fine questions, and occasionally my answers make it out into the world.

His damned fine question(s) follow(s).

…is studying movie UIs, I dunno, useful? As in—does it function as an exercise, the same as breaking down and analyzing any UI would? Have you learned something from sci-fi interfaces that would’ve been more difficult or impossible to gain by other means?

What follows is a slightly edited version of my response to him. If you’re short on time, the short answer is “Yes,” but the fun comes in the form of this longer answer.

1. You build necessary skepticism.

Scifi is so very cool that—if we watch it but don’t study it—our stupid brains want to believe because it’s so cool that it also must be good and desirable. You might want the stuff you design to be like the stuff you’ve seen in the movies, when in fact even the cool stuff (maybe especially the cool stuff) would cause disasters in the real world. So studying it critically is important to build up your design immune system, your critical eye, so you are not led astray.

I speak about this in the Gorgeous+Catastrophic talk.

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