The Fermi Paradox and Sci-fi

In the prior post we introduced the Fermi paradox—or Fermi question—before an overview of the many hypotheses that try to answer the question, and ended noting that we must consider what we are to do, given the possibilities. In this post I’m going to share which of those hypotheses sci-fi has chosen to tell stories about.

First we should note that screen sci-fi (this is, recall, a blog that concerns itself with sci-fi in movies and television), since the very, very beginning, has embraced questionably imperialist thrills. In Le Voyage dans la Lune, George Melies’ professor-astronomers encounter a “primitive” alien culture on Earth’s moon when they land there, replete with costumes, dances, and violent responses to accidental manslaughter. Hey, we get it, aliens are part of why audiences and writers are in it: As a thin metaphor for speculative human cultures that bring our own into relief. So, many properties are unconcerned with the *yawn* boring question of the Fermi paradox, instead imagining a diegesis with a whole smorgasbord of alien civilizations that are explicitly engaged with humans, at times killing, trading, or kissing us, depending on which story you ask.


But some screen sci-fi does occasionally concern itself with the Fermi question.

Which are we telling stories about?

Screen sci-fi is a vast library, and more is being produced all the time, so it’s hard to give an exact breakdown, but if Drake can do it for Fermi’s question, we can at least ballpark it, too. To do this, I took a look at every sci-fi in the survey that produced Make It So and has been extended here on, and I tallied the breakdown between aliens, no aliens, and silent aliens. Here’s the Google Sheet with the data. And here’s what we see. Continue reading

Iron Man HUD: 2nd-person view

The HUD itself displays a number of core capabilities across the Iron Man movies prior to its appearance in The Avengers. Cataloguing these capabilities lets us understand (or backworld) how he interacts with the HUD, equipping us to look for its common patterns and possible conflicts. In the first-person view, we saw it looked almost entirely like a rich agentive display, but with little interaction. Now, let’s look at that gorgeous 2nd-person view.

When in the first film Tony first puts the faceplate on and says to JARVIS, “Engage heads-up display”… IronMan1_HUD00 …we see things from a narrative-conceit, 2nd-person perspective, as if the helmet were huge and we are inside the cavernous space with him, seeing only Tony’s face and the augmented reality interface elements. IronMan1_HUD07 You might be thinking, “Of course it’s a narrative conceit. It’s not real. It’s in a movie.” But what I mean by that is that even in the diegesis, the Marvel Cinematic World, this is not something that could be seen. Let’s move through the reasons why. Continue reading

Brain interfaces as wearables

There are lots of brain devices, and the book has a whole chapter dedicated to them. Most of these brain devices are passive, merely needing to be near the brain to have whatever effect they are meant to have (the chapter discusses in turn: reading from the brain, writing to the brain, telexperience, telepresence, manifesting thought, virtual sex, piloting a spaceship, and playing an addictive game. It’s a good chapter that never got that much love. Check it out.)

This is a composite SketchUp rendering of the shapes of all wearable brain control devices in the survey.

This is a composite rendering of the shapes of most of the wearable brain control devices in the survey. Who can name the “tophat”?

Since the vast majority of these devices are activated by, well, you know, invisible brain waves, the most that can be pulled from them are sartorial– and social-ness of their industrial design. But there are two with genuine state-change interactions of note for interaction designers.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

The eponymous Game of S05E06 is delivered through a wearable headset. It is a thin band that arcs over the head from ear to ear, with two extensions out in front of the face that project visuals into the wearer’s eyes.

STTNG The Game-02

The only physical interaction with the device is activation, which is accomplished by depressing a momentary button located at the top of one of the temples. It’s a nice placement since the temple affords placing a thumb beneath it to provide a brace against which a forefinger can push the button. And even if you didn’t want to brace with the thumb, the friction of the arc across the head provides enough resistance on its own to keep the thing in place against the pressure. Simple, but notable. Contrast this with the buttons on the wearable control panels that are sometimes quite awkward to press into skin.

Minority Report (2002)

The second is the Halo coercion device from Minority Report. This is barely worth mentioning, since the interaction is by the PreCrime cop, and it is only to extend it from a compact shape to one suitable for placing on a PreCriminal’s head. Push the button and pop! it opens. While it’s actually being worn there is no interacting with it…or much of anything, really.



Head: Y U No house interactions?

There is a solid physiological reason why the head isn’t a common place for interactions, and that’s that raising the hands above the heart requires a small bit of cardiac effort, and wouldn’t be suitable for frequent interactions simply because over time it would add up to work. Google Glass faced similar challenges, and my guess is that’s why it uses a blended interface of voice, head gestures, and a few manual gestures. Relying on purely manual interactions would violate the wearable principle of apposite I/O.

At least as far as sci-fi is telling us, the head is not often a fitting place for manual interactions.

Wearable Control Panels

As I said in the first post of this topic, exosuits and environmental suits are out of the definition of wearable computers. But there is one item commonly found on them that can count as wearable, and that’s the forearm control panels. In the survey these appear in three flavors.

Just Buttons

Fairly late in sci-fi they acknowledged the need for environmental suits, and acknowledged the need for controls on them. The first wearable control panel belongs to the original series of Star Trek, “The Naked Time” S01E04. The sparkly orange suits have a white cuff with a red and a black button. In the opening scene we see Mr. Spock press the red button to communicate with the Enterprise.

This control panel is crap. The buttons are huge momentary buttons that exist without a billet, and would be extremely easy to press accidentally. The cuff is quite loose, meaning Spock or the redshirt have to fumble around to locate it each time. Weeeeaak.

Star Trek (1966)


Some of these problems were solved when another WCP appeared 3 decades later in the the Next Generation movie First Contact.

Star Trek First Contact (1996)


This panel is at least anchored, and located in places that could be located fairly easily via proprioception. It seems to have a facing that acts as a billet, and so might be tough to accidentally activate. It’s counter to its wearer’s social goals, though, since it glows. The colored buttons help to distinguish it when you’re looking at it, but it sure makes it tough to sneak around in darkness. Also, no labels? No labels seems to be a thing with WCPs since even Pixar thought it wasn’t necessary.

The Incredibles (2004)

Admittedly, this WCP belonged to a villain who had no interest in others’ use of it. So that’s at least diegetically excusable.


Hey, Labels, that’d be greeeeeat

Zipping back to the late 1960s, Kubrick’s 2001 nailed most everything. Sartorial, easy to access and use (look, labels! color differentiation! clustering!), social enough for an environmental suit, billeted, and the inputs are nice and discrete, even though as momentary buttons they don’t announce their state. Better would have been toggle buttons.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)


Also, what the heck does the “IBM” button do, call a customer service representative from space? Embarrassing. What’s next, a huge Mercedez-Benz logo on the chest plate? Actually, no, it’s a Compaq logo.

A monitor on the forearm

The last category of WCP in the survey is seen in Mission to Mars, and it’s a full-color monitor on the forearm.

Mission to Mars


This is problematic for general use and fine for this particular application. These are scientists conducting a near-future trip to Mars, and so having access to rich data is quite important. They’re not facing dangerous Borg-like things, so they don’t need to worry about the light. I’d be a bit worried about the giant buttons that stick out on every edge that seem to be begging to be bumped. Also I question whether those particular buttons and that particular screen layout are wise choices, but that’s for the formal M2M review. A touchscreen might be possible. You might think that would be easy to accidentally activate, but not if it could only be activated by the fingertips in the exosuit’s gloves.


This isn’t an exhaustive list of every wearable control panel from the survey, but a fair enough recounting to point out some things about them as wearable objects.

  • The forearm is a fitting place for controls and information. Wristwatches have taken advantage of this for…some time. 😛
  • Socially, it’s kind of awkward to have an array of buttons on your clothing. Unless it’s an exosuit, in which case knock yourself out.
  • If you’re meant to be sneaking around, lit buttons are counterindicated. As are extruded switch surfaces that can be glancingly activated.
  • The fitness of the inputs and outputs depend on the particular application, but don’t drop the understandability (read: labels) simply for the sake of fashion. (I’m looking at you, Roddenberry.)

The combadge & ideal wearables

There’s one wearable technology that, for sheer amount of time on screen and number of uses, eclipses all others, so let’s start with that. Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced a technology called a combadge. This communication device is a badge designed with the Starfleet insignia, roughly 10cm wide and tall, that affixes to the left breast of Starfleet uniforms. It grants its wearer a voice communication channel to other personnel as well as the ship’s computer. (And as Memory Alpha details, the device can also do so much more.)

Chapter 10 of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction covers the combadge as a communication device. But in this writeup we’ll consider it as a wearable technology.

Enterprise-This-is-Riker Continue reading