Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Future interfaces

World Builder, a lovely short by visual effects specialist Bruce Branit, takes on a substantial and heady topic: it basically imagines the future of imagining itself. (Branit is a highly accomplished digital artist -- you might recognise his handiwork on recent episodes of TV's Lost, for example, as featured in his current showreel.)

This ten-minute video, which apparently took a day to shoot, followed by two years in post, set me to thinking back to Michael Schrage's 02000 book Serious Play, which is about the importance and development of prototyping practices:

As prototypes become ever more powerful and persuasive, they will compel new intensities of introspection. To paraphrase philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, they will become conceptual machine tools for postindustrial innovation -- not because we are now gifted with finer imaginations but because we have better instruments for imagining and rehearsing the future. [p. 36]

I would go further than Schrage does here, by suggesting that "prototypes" do serve as prosthetic extensions of imagination: if the net effect is improvement in our imaginative capabilities, what does it matter whether this is traced to external rather than internal changes? Either way, though, the point is the intense consideration, whether introspective or collective, enabled by thinking aloud through various media. Schrage also says:

[T]he value of prototypes resides less in the models themselves than in the interactions -- the conversations, arguments, consultations, collaborations -- they invite. [p. 20]

Seen from that angle, the interesting thing about this kind of video lies in the conversations it seeds, or helps grow. What sorts of new design approach (World Building applications, gestural interfaces, and so on) will this vision, however indirectly, enable? While Schrage's interest lies in prototyping and innovation as practised within commercial organisations, we can see how the principles of its value extends beyond that limited setting when the "prototypes" are, so to speak, Open Source, or accessible to the public.

In this case, we have a sort of stand-alone concept video for a holographic interface; but sometimes similar prototypes are embedded in popular films or television shows. Kevin Kelly, who blogged about the video earlier this month, noted:

Like the famous Apple Navigator film from decades ago, or ATT's You Will series of ads, or the Minority Report's scene of transparent gesture interface, this fictional depiction is convincing and inspiring. I want one now.

Indeed, some interaction designers have recently been paying attention to the connections between interfaces portrayed in science-fiction on the one hand, and real-life technological innovation on the other. And, while I can't say I know a great deal about that topic, these seem to be important transreality sites, places where (what are originally created as) explicitly fictional images of the future bleed into the present. Future interfaces, in more ways than one.

The only thing is -- and it's not a complaint, just a curious aspect of watching this film -- I couldn't shake the feeling that someone was advertising at me. Was this an extended commercial for flowers? A plug for a service of some sort, say, UPS? Or perhaps something broader and slightly more self-referential, like a graphics card or microchip? After a while it hit me: of course, it is an ad; a ten-minute ad, for the considerable talents of the fellow who made it.

As we've seen before here, self-promotion and public service can find a synergy when it comes to elaborating and disseminating well-wrought images of preferred futures for general consumption.

Related posts:
> Object-oriented futuring
> Public service and self-promotion meet on the adaptive path
> Reality prototyping
> Design fiction is a fact
> Neill Blomkamp, visual futurist

(via The Long Now Blog and Kevin Kelly)


Nick Ernst said...

I just saw this today, what a beautiful and technologically inspiring short! It exists larger in high quality on youtube here by the way.

Also, besides selling the creator of the short, it's selling the idea of this interface, and one possible application. The story was a (very good) vehicle for that pitch.

stuart candy said...

Quite right, Nick. Thanks for stopping by.

So, how are the plans for Time Colony 2.0 coming along?

Nick Ernst said...

We should have a solid plan in a few weeks, after I get an approximate head count (and a website up). I'll let you know when that happens!