On Science Fiction as Future Innovation.

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Essays

I’ve always been a fan of Minority Report. The technology felt accessible but futuristic. It planted itself into my imagination, and that of many of my peers. When Spielberg wanted to create a cinematic but realistic 2054, he assembled a group of technology experts and futurists to help him design the interfaces on Minority Report. What came out of it were iconic images, indelible in my subconscious: self-driving cars, touchscreens, gesture-controlled devices, personalized, cookie (or retina)- driven advertising. And wow! We have all those things now!

As this article points out, we were misled. All of those concepts were more like 10-15 years out than 50-60 years out. And by aiming low, it actually ended up framing our expectations of future innovation incorrectly. Science fiction frames future innovation. Nathan Shedroff gave a great talk last year at Creative Mornings at Chronicle Books in San Francisco about how the kids who loved sci-fi books and movies when they were young ended up becoming the technology nerds whose imaginations were framed in the context of Philip K. Dick, Orson Scott Card, and Isaac Asimov and Star Trek. While imperfect, the course of future imagination in art and culture has a profound impact on what interfaces technology pioneers end up creating. Technology creators all, on some level, expect to one day remark, “we’re living in the movies.” It’s romantic, really.

But are we doomed to a future of Pictures Under Glass? Bret Victor excoriates us for our conventional wisdom around interaction design in this brilliant article, describing all touchscreen interfaces as “pictures under glass.” We have hands with opposable thumbs, and we use depth perception, weight assessment, gravity, balance, and the sense of touch to manipulate our environments in extraordinary ways. Why don’t we do the same with computing, rather than these 2-dimensional and ultimately limiting interfaces?

I wonder if the word “interface” is the problem, in and of itself. In “The Best Interface Is No Interface”, Golden Krishna describes cars, fridges, thermostats, tables, and lights that are programmed to act on our behalf, and with us seamlessly, through computers, but without UI. In the late 1980s, Mark Weiser proposed “ubiquitous computing”, well before the personal computer was even truly ubiquitous. By 1998, The “Internet of Things” had appeared in articles, and at the most recent CES, it seemed as though every other presentation was about putting brains into all sorts of devices, ideally without a need for a screen. So there’s progress. But if you look at the headlines about the tablet race and listen to the trends about mobile device adoption, it’s clear that the the focus is on touchscreen devices, and innovation in interaction design may be stuck, at least for a while. Perhaps the Minority Report trap will be harder to shake than I had hoped.

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