Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Future of the Humanoid-Computer Interface as Seen in 1951

This post will showcase two designs for a future human-computer interface from two different movies, one from 1951 and 1960. I think that they both hold up remarkably well for being over 50 years old. The two films are The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Time Machine (1960). The second film also illustrates the importance of a good voice actor, in this case one of my favorites, Paul Frees.

When you make a film about the future, or about an alien visit to earth, almost by definition you have to show sets, props, costumes and so forth in that future world.   Which means of course you have to design the future, or what the future will look like in the context of the film you are trying to make. Whenever a character has to interface with technology, then you have a man-machine interface or in this case a humanoid-computer interface (HCI).

In other words, you have trapped yourself into a situation in which you are forced to show the entire world how limited your imagination is, and how badly you failed to predict the future, there on the screen for everyone to see.  Your humiliation, inevitable and unstoppable, is assured unless you come up with a solution that convinces the audience that they are seeing the future (or an unknown technology) that lasts the test of time.  And this time around you may not be able to use giant robots to get out of this mess, either.

A notable recent example of a humanoid interface is the multi-touch display in Minority Report (2002), although not enough time has passed to be able to judge how it will hold up.  But for me, the best of the best is still "the button" at work in The Jetsons (1962) from Hanna Barbera.   George got tendinitis of his button pushing finger decades before people in the computer industry started complaining.    Its not perfect, notice the use of a CRT, but the design is so great that it doesn't bother me at all.  

Push the button faster, Jetson!

But most films do a lousy job of this.   They don't have the money, or they just don't care.   So they design something that looks silly, but not silly in a good way.   Its a hard problem and for many reasons including: things (e.g. technologies) move fast, they don't always move the way you think because of issues of style, economics and politics, its hard to estimate how fast things will move from the lab to the real world, and because you are telling a story and the audience has to understand what they see so it has to fit their preconceptions in some way.

It is also used as another excuse to substitute visual effects for design or story in many films.   

But rather than emphasize the negative, here are two examples from films that are quite old now, that I think stand up pretty well, at least to some extent.

The original Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is actually a fairly interesting film hiding inside a black and white science fiction movie. The plot turns on a visitor from another world who brings a message from the local galactic union about Earth's place in the universe, a message he has trouble delivering because he wants to deliver it to all the nations of the world simultaneously. Why doesn't he just broadcast it to the world from space, one wonders. My guess is that the alien humanoid grew up in a nice family of space humanoids in a more courteous civilization and believes that bad news needs to be delivered in person.

Anyway, getting back to our HCI, it turns out that our visitor must arrange for a dramatic demonstration that catches everyone's attention and forces them to listen.   To do this, he must go to his ship and arrange the events that give the film its title.

This is the only time in the movie that we see inside the ship, beyond a tiny glimpse through the open door and one giant robot whose design does not hold up at all well. I expected the worst. But what we see is not incredibly technological at all, it is simple, minimal, and darkly lit.  It suggests more than it shows.  We see that the circular design motif of the ship itself is repeated throughout: a circular access corridor, a circular control room, a circular workstation of some sort where our hero probably sits when navigating, and a control console with circular panels. All controls are activated by gesture and voice. He enters the ship, uses gestures to activate the systems, which respond with light, and issues commands by voice. The feedback is in devices that light as activated and in an abstract display. It is completely understated and minimal.

I met Michael Rennie when he reprised this role of an "understated alien with incredible power" in a two-part episode of Lost in Space (1966).   My father was able to arrange a visit to the set at 20th Century Fox because he knew the head of PR for the show, an old Marine Corps writing buddy (e.g. Combat Correspondent) from the Solomon Islands campaign.   Visiting a set of a TV show is a lot of fun for a little kid.

In The Time Machine (1960), the H.G. Wells and George Pal masterpiece, our hero is trying to figure out what has happened to earth and civilization in the future. The vague and blonde kids who live there can't tell him and couldn't care less, just like teenagers today. After a while, the classically blonde romantic interest tells our hero about "rings that talk". What do they talk about, he asks. Things that no one here understands, she says.

The rings turn out to be encoded audio, and the power for playback is generated from the energy used to spin the rings centrifugally on a table that illuminates when they are spun. As the ring loses energy and slowly decays to the table, the voice slows down with it. The technology appears to be robust, survivable, and works without any power but the power you use to spin it. I am pretty sure this design comes from the Wells book itself, and is realized well and simply here in the movie. The voice is the voice of Paul Frees, one of my favorite voice actors of all time, and noted previously on this blog.

In both of these cases, at least, the "advanced technology" did not look completely stupid a few years later, which is more than we can say for many films.

The moral of the story may be that in predicting the future, showing less and letting the imagination fill in the gaps is a plausible strategy.

Of them all, I still think that George Jetson's button at work is the best.

Day the Earth Stood Still on IMDB

The Time Machine on IMDB

Michael Rennie on IMDB

Paul Frees on Wikipedia

Minority Report on IMDB

The Jetsons on IMDB

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