Episode 224: He Has Two Levers

The Overthinkers tackle the user interfaces in Science Fiction and New York Comic-Con 2012.

Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather are joined by Chris Noessel, co-author of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction, to talk about fictitious user interfaces; they also cover Lee’s visit to New York Comic-Con 2012.


→ Download Episode 224 (MP3)

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Further Reading

Make It So

16 Comments on “Episode 224: He Has Two Levers”

  1. Dimwit #

    I’m shocked that you guys didn’t get into Minority Report for the UI. It’s probably the most modern take in Hollywood SciFi and was extensively studied by Spielberg before he shot it.

    As for the usurpification of NerdCulture by the great unwashed in TV land; it’s a recognition. Post ‘Net it’s obvious where the money is going and pop culture is always about the money. Yeah, it’s patronizing and even worse, will start to dund down as it gets old and they try to broaden the appeal, but at least somebody is paying attention. The geeks and nerds have always been here, will always be here and it’s nice not to be invisible.

    Ok, so let’s use it. Money = power. You want change, speak up. Don’t like it, change it. Don’t want to raise your head out of the foxhole? Don’t complain.


  2. Nick Nutter #

    As it happens, the last thing I heard before I went to sleep was the end of this podcast, and the first thing I heard when I woke up was a song with a Latin beat. Then I heard another severely latin song on the other independent station in town when I was on my way home from classes. Man, Picard knew what he was talkin’ about.


  3. fenzel OTI Staff #

    Minority Report is tricky, because the user interfaces are all really good in intuitive ways that are very current and influential. If you’re talking about user interfaces in general in an intellectual capacity, I feel like you don’t start there — you start with just the basic building blocks — or the stuff that demonstrates principles really clearly and obviously, and in a simplified way.

    But let’s keep the conversation going here — what is there to say about the Minority Report user interfaces, other than that they have influenced Apple and Microsoft and seem to be the way user interfaces are headed over the next 5-10 years?


    • Ben Adams OTI Staff #

      An often overlooked part of the Minority Report “interface” is the decidedly non-digital, non-flashy-hand part of the interface – the engraved wooden balls used to verify the name of the accused.

      Digital technology still feels very ephemeral – we still want something we can hold in our hands. The texture and grain of the wood is the reason they use the substance they use. This might signal a feeling that although the bulk of our technology is getting increasingly digital, there’s a countervailing desire to want “authentic” and “real” things that we can work with.

      Consider the appeal of Ron Swanson and his wood working ways – he’s extremely famous on the internet, precisely because he is so anti-digital in his appeal.


      • Dimwit #

        I think that’s one reason Steampunk has such an appeal, high tactile facades with high tech innards.
        In MR the one piece of tech that tickled me quite pink was the cereal boxes. I can see that, more sooner than later, with games being played on the shelf to attract attention.
        The eyeball scan as he enters a store is well done too. Both of these are not UI’s in themselves but certainly frontends to some pretty powerful backends that are there to market to you to buy. Yep, frivolous high tech just to make you spend money. So obvious.


    • The Eye Collector #

      I also immediately thought of Minority Report when UIs were being discussed. Apart from the mechanics (like the finger motions that must have inspired Apple), when Matt brought up this idea that sci-fi UIs reflect the dominant paradigm of the times I thought of the retina-recognition software. It keeps identifying him throughout the film (unbidden) in a way that’s quite sinister (and unhelpful given that he’s trying to hide) – it gives you the feeling he’s being constantly monitored. To me that seems a modern concern, that idea of being watched by non-human eyes, and that you leave a digital trail that can be used to track uou. The other creepy thing is in the same vein as the face recognition on Facebook; the idea that technology has this power to engage with you even if you don’t want to. There’s no option to opt out when we rely on this technology to run our worlds.


  4. Chris #

    It makes sense that TBS would try thing nerd based show, because I am pretty sure reruns of The Big Bang Theory are their most popular programs. I mean this truly. I read an article a while ago that said reruns of BBT were getting significant ratings, certainly better than Conan, which is why they show it all the time now. It reminds me of an old Simpsons joke, off the top of my head I am going to say it is from “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet.” Homer is hosting the Cable ACE Awards and he hands out the award for Most Promising New Cable Show to old reruns of Starsky and Hutch.

    Also, this year’s Treehouse of Horror episode was the best one in a good long while. Well over a decade probably.

    You know, in addition to picking up John Perich’s new book via Overthinking It’s Amazon.com link, I know another gentleman who has a novel available for Kindle…


  5. dtphoto #

    I’d like to see whether anyone else can name instances of volume controls in movies. “Contact” and “Back to the Future” were mentioned. I remember “Sneakers” also having a blind guy with better auditory sensitivity than the others.

    I think the limitation mentioned in the show was Sci-Fi…but we can go beyond that to include Spinal Tap’s “It goes to eleven”.


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      Volume controls are pretty common in time- or dimension-travel movies — or robot/cyborg fish-out-of-water stories — but it’s usually a case where the interface has deliberately not been updated, and a volume control is used to make a joke about the strange beings developing a fondness for “rock? and roll?”

      In particular, I can recall volume controls playing a part in _Masters of the Universe_, _Beastmaster II: Through the Portal of Time_, and I think _Batteries Not Included_ as well, though I might be off on that last one.


  6. Tim V #

    I’m surprised no one brought up Demolition Man when the topic of sex interfaces was broached.


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      It was on my shortlist of things to ask about when we ran out of time — but I couldn’t quite figure out whether the three seashells count as an interface.


  7. Ed #

    Not sure if this counts but one interface idea that always bothered me was the Borg using keyboards. As cybernetic beings that are linked together why do they bother with manual inputs? They are living wi-fi but in several episodes you see them typing at computer interfaces on their own ships! Yet in the series finale you see the Borg Queen control a Borg ship with her mind.


    • fenzel #

      They just really like playing QWOP.


  8. Rob #

    When you talked about “geekface”, did you mean the equivalent of “blackface” or “yellowface”, when a non-black actor plays a black role, or when The Last Airbender casts whites in Asian roles? I kept thinking of movies where a perfectly proportioned actress who could be a model (or has done modelling) is cast as a nerd or social deviant, and given a make-over which includes taking off her glasses, unfurling her hair from a bun or ponytail, and applying conventional make-up. See Brittany Murphy in Clueless, Anne Hathaway in Princess Diaries, Ally Sheedy in Breakfast Club, the hideous Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That, etc.

    I’d argue 30 Rock and the entire body of work of Tina Fey is geekface. She plays characters who claim to be ugly or mannish, but she didn’t get on the covers of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar based on her wit. It’s not in the same category as miscasting race, but it’s annoying for those of us who have been outcasts based on physical appearance, to be misrepresented by beautiful people.

    Which reminds me: screw you, Harry Potter.


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