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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: Make It So (Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction), by Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel

Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons From Science Fiction - Nathan Shedroff, Christopher Noessel

I heard about this book from the 99% Invisible episode "Future Screens Are Mostly Blue", which I highly recommend giving a listen.  It covers some of the more fascinating topics in the book - not only why computer interfaces in science fiction tend to be blue (the most futuristic color!), but also why the first flip cell phone was a commercial failure (it flipped down, while Star Trek had primed us for decades to expect communicators to flip up), and why that super-cool gestural interface in Minority Report is actually a terrible design (turns out, waving your arms around in the air for any length of time is exhausting).


Given my interest in both real-world tech and science fiction, I definitely had to track down the book.  And it turned out to be well worth the cost ($35 for a paperback, Amazon??).  Thick, glossy paper; gorgeous, full-color screencaps on virtually every page; and you know a book written by designers is going to be beautifully laid-out.  Divided into fourteen chapters, it looks at how, over the past hundred years or so, science fiction has defined and inspired how we design technological interfaces in the real world.  It covers everything from mechanical controls (the levers and switches and blinky lights so common in 50's and 60's SF) to holograms and anthropomorphic robots and telepathic interfaces, to systems specially designed to teach, diagnose, and get you laid.  If we ever do develop the technology to build a sexbot, this book tells us, science fiction has already mapped out the interface (it should look like Jude Law, for one thing).


Though most of the examples are iconic (Star Trek is heavily overrepresented, as well as The Matrix and Star Wars), there are lesser-known gems that it made me want to track down (Chrysalis, and why haven't I seen District 9 yet??)  And it was always fun to see some favorites pop up here and there (the Ariel brain imager from Firefly!  GERTY's happyface-based emotional indicator in Moon!  That memory-sucker dome thing from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind!)


I think the most interesting sections were on apologetics - explaining apparent mistakes in a way that may actually reveal good design.  For instance, in the video-phone scene in 2001, the character's young daughter is seen mashing the keypad with her hand - but it has no effect on the call.  Production oversight?  Or maybe the system is advanced enough to realize when input is meaningless and likely coming from a child (or a cat!), and thus disregards it.  Very cool!


My main disappointment here is the book's focus on American film and television science fiction almost exclusively.  Though I understand their reasons for avoiding literary SF, there are so many fascinating ideas that could be examined there.  Also, their total lack of Doctor Who is inexcusable.  Come on, I want to see some deconstruction of the TARDIS navigation interface, or at the very least the sonic screwdriver!  Twist, twist, it's a soldering iron -- twist, twist, now it levitates shit!  Talk about user-friendly!


Ah well.


Overall, this is a fun and fascinating book, though I suppose it's not for everyone.  I spent ten minutes gushing about how awesome it was to a coworker, only to have her look at me skeptically and say, "I literally cannot see any appeal in reading something like that."  Different strokes for different nerds, I suppose.


(2014 #9)