Star Trek and the Future of UX

Posted on 8 February, 2010 at 12:08pm

Matt Gemmell asked a very thought-provoking question on Formspring yesterday, and I liked it enough to repost it here. I really think a lot could be said about this topic, and this just scratches the surface.

Q: To what extent has sci-fi (TV, movies, books) influenced your UX work?

A: That’s a great question. I think you can look at science fiction as our collective fantasy about technology. If you want to understand not how people use their computers but how they want to use them, popular sci-fi is the first place you should look.

In the past few years I’ve really moved away from web app design or even traditional desktop app design, favoring touchscreen devices instead. The computers of the future don’t have mice (“Hello computer!”). Rarely do they even have keyboards. We crave ubiquity and personality in our interfaces; something always there, always responsive, controlled as directly and easily as any tangible system. Star Trek predicts all of this, and now more than ever you can see those predictions becoming reality.

Something that I think will be interesting to look for in coming years is the development of the human element in UI. Will we begin to realize our fantasies of the jovial robot butler, or the sweet voice of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry greeting us when we login? Only time will tell!

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The Discussion

3 Comments on “Star Trek and the Future of UX”
  • But is it at all telling that even the most fantastical visions of communication and interface are limited by what’s currently available? Is that just lack of budget, or is it a limitation of imagination?

    Star Trek is a perfect example. I’m a TNG kid, so seeing touchscreen computing, tablets, communicators, and speech translation all finally coming to fruition is really exciting. But then I look back at the original series, with it’s incandescent lights and CRT screens. What so constrained that vision.

    It seems like a common theme in sci-fi. We’ve been waiting for flying cars for how long now? Is it the ubiquity of the automobile that makes other forms of transportation hard to even imagine?

  • As a big SciFi fan (especially Star Trek) I agree. For example, look at Star Trek Voyager. Those pads they’re using all over the place back in 1995 conceptually look and work a lot like todays iPad.

    Technological constraints force us to focus on audiovisual UX design. We’ll see revolutionary new technologies implemented in mass products in the next few years:

    1) Flat volumetric displays. Visual depth will change the way of how we think about tactile design. User interfaces will be 3-dimensional in a subtle way, indicating “touchability” of UI controls.

    2) Eye tracking. Works already pretty well. Look at Tobii. The eye can focus something far more precise and a lot faster. With this, a lot more information can be packed on a smaller screen while still having a great user experience.

    3) Tactile feedback: Flat surfaces will be able to artificially simulate how things feel. I know there’s serious research going on in this field.

    4) Artificial speech dialogue systems: Speech control has always been weird to use because the computer almost never understood you correctly and you had a big chance to just use the wrong interchangeable words. Even worse: You must still press a button or activate it with a few clicks or taps. These things will change dramatically in the next few years. I’ve been talking to a professor who does research in this field, and he told me they can already figure out if someone is talking to the computer, or talking to someone else. The speech synthesis has been a big pain so far, but there are already some really great technologies like AT&T Natural Voices which you almost can’t separate from real humans (if you know Alex from Mac OS X, the AT&T Natural Voices sound far better, although Alex is already pretty good but still too “robotic”).

    5) – 50) … I could talk for hours about this stuff :)

    Best wishes,
    Franz

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