“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.” To a science fiction fan or film buff, that nugget of dialogue evokes big, sweeping conversations about the more ominous aspects of machine sentience. However, when the ensuing exchange is viewed through the lens of interaction design, a different conversation altogether takes place. A design-minded analyst would ignore HAL’s bad attitude and read that interaction as an example of a failed voice interface. Welcome to the universe of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction, an ambitious book by veteran designers Nathan Shedroff and Chrisopher Noessel that meticulously analyzes various types of interfaces across the film and television science fiction canon in search of rules of thumb for designers.
Make It So begins with a close reading of the archaic ‘levers and saddles’ of the time travel device in H.G. Wells’s 1895 proto-science fiction novel The Time Machine. Shedroff and Noessel use the crudeness of this literary reference to illustrate how far our expectations of imaginary interactions have come. Furthermore, the duo opines that there has always been an interplay between fictional interfaces and our expectations of consumer electronics and software – one need only look to the enduring cultural currency of Oblong’s oft-referenced g-speak platform from Minority Report (2002) and the proliferation of gestural interfaces over the last decade to illustrate that point. Make It So takes Tom Cruise’s determined gesticulations, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s badass heads-up display in The Terminator (1984) and the impressive volumetric displays of Avatar (2009) really seriously and unpacks each of these instances of production design as a case study, rife with embedded wisdom and/or oversights. Organized as an array of typologies the book systematically scans mechanical, visual, sonic and augmented reality interfaces across all science fiction film and television. I’m not kidding when I say all, this book is delightfully comprehensive and the hundreds of supporting stills were clearly collected and arranged with care and attention. While Shedroff and Noessel dissect seminal sequences from Star Wars, Star Trek: The Next Generation, RoboCop, etc. quite distinctly, they also put less renowned precedents (navigating social networks in Gamer, the ‘weirding module’ in Dune, bioengineered game controllers in eXistenZ, etc.) under the microscope as well and give them equal attention. In addition to the countless case studies, there are also a number of surveys that pragmatically analyze the design language of varying typologies (e.g. OCR A is used in 7% of visual interfaces while it’s sibling OCR B only appears in 4% of the material considered, a 3D model compositing various brain interface devices, colour analysis of visual interfaces… the list goes on).
While working through this book, a quip I heard Jared Ficklin make a few weeks ago, where he described smartphones as “sophisticated tricorders” kept echoing in my mind. Science fiction has had an undeniable influence on all facets of interface design and this is the book that goes through the genre with a fine tooth comb to catalogue this extensive lineage. Whether parsing the emotional repertoire of GERTY in Moon, speculating about the ‘sonic enhancements’ of the combat system in the Millennium Falcon or outlining best practices for voice interface systems, Make It So dutifully scrutinizes design fiction to provide invaluable commentary on the design of interactions. Designers and sci-fi enthusiasts alike rejoice, this text is both idiosyncratic and definitive.