Speculative Technology Design: Transparent Computer Screens

It's shooting at my imaginary cat.
Okay, so sci fi shit’s been on my mind lately.
“dubyateehef you mean by that” you might ask, and the clarified statement would be “speculative technology designed for science fiction films has been a bee in my ass for months now and that’s like totally forever so I’mma gonna blog about it”. All of the spec-tech in films can fit under the chapter titled Really Cool Looking, but most of it falls under the heading Like Hell That’s Good Design. Don’t get me wrong- none of my arguments are against how the supposed design functions within the frame of the greater needs of storytelling and world-building. Those needs come first and foremost and anyone designing for a storytelling medium knows this. But the problem is that this speculative technology design often becomes the blueprint for ACTUAL research that gets done. People still talk about Minority Report with fond sighs, for fuck’s sake. It’s due in large part to the designers on the film doing such a great job at making something SEEM like it’d be a good idea. After all, the actors are all whizzing about and their gesture/voice/dance commands just make the computer solve the mystery/stop the bomb/find the terrorist/win the girl and it’s LIKE MAGIC OMG WE SHOULD TOTALLY BUILD THAT YOU GUYS.
It’s a fact. The storytelling itself affects how we look at what’s designed within the story.
But I’m not here to hate on those designs. They’re fucking badass and the hard, underpaid work of all those VFX and animation teams did some seriously awesome magic that served the stories they were in. I love it and every time I see some sweet new work it makes me catch my breath and go IWANTTHAT right along with everyone else.
But, as a ux designer, I feel obliged to take the design seriously in a different way. I have to think about the ergonomics, the color usage, information/function hierarchy, the gesture conflation- and not in terms of making sure all the right actors get their shot of standing behind a transparent computer screen staring in consternation at the warning red blip signaling the incoming missile/breached security measure. That’s what you have to do for film design, but it’s not real ux design.
So what if we tackled some of these speculative technology problems as real ones? How do we develop a design approach for things right around the corner- transparent computer screens, wearables- as well as for those things that are far into our futures, like spaceships and moon stations?
The answer: in applying the same damn principles we apply in design today.
“But no! It’s the future! Everything can be white and shiny and pretty and no one will want to tear their eyes out!” Barring any robot or monkey or zombie takeovers of our planet, there is still one fact that will be the same in the future as it is today: us. humans. Our fingertips will still be of a size to pick our nostrils, our eyes will still have evolved to pick out a tiger in a jungle, our backs will still have problems if we sit for too long- we will still be human, and every problem we approach in design is based around that fact.
So. Enough disclaimers. Let’s start with something small and fun, shall we?

SPECULATIVE TECHNOLOGY DESIGN ONE: Transparent Computer Screens
yes. yes i am.
So this stuff is already being made and shown off at consumer electronic shows everywhere. I know it’s true, I’ve seen it on youtube.
It’s been around for much longer in science fiction films, though. That’s where we’ve seen it, where we’ve grown used to it. It became not an “if”, but an impatient “when”, and that when is in the next few years. It’s the sexy new thing for computers to be: Thin, thinner, now nonexistent except for the murmur of Siri’s voice asking us what we’d like. (A separate blog post: gender and technology.)
So we’ve seen it coming for forever now- but are we really ready to design for it? Let’s see what questions you and I, designer buddies that we are (or aren’t- hey, s’cool bro), should start with.

1. What are some of the possible physical limitations of this hypothetical technology?
lighting: in a bright room, “what’s that smear on the glass?” needs contrast: not only high contrast color-usage, but a darkening film behind it (aka wide drop shadow) so that it can be distinguished from anything behind it.
"Warning your eyes are exploding"
discoverability: “That can be fixed, right?” AND “where the fuck is the ‘on’ switch?” It needs physical-tangible interface at very least for activation/discoverability.
NOOOOOooooo...
focus confusion: a user’s eyes would have difficulty knowing which to focus on- the screen, or what’s beyond it. A headache after five minutes, I’d wager. needs scaleable darkening or obscuring film behind it.
"Dude I got this weird bird virus the other day..."

2. What are the advantages it offers?
foreground/background interaction: if what’s on the screen relates to the objects behind it, then the switching-focus becomes a natural switch between foreground and background.
unobtrusiveness: anywhere there needs to be information displayed in a way that doesn’t completely block vision. Also the unobtrusiveness could make it hidden in plain sight.
flexible space: a space can appear entirely open, if all of its transparent walls/surfaces are switched off, or it could be visibly partitioned off by obscuring different planes.

3. So given these advantages and limitations, what are some possible ideal contexts?
HUDs, military and otherwise: despite how “used” to this we are in video games, real-life scenarios that include a face mask/goggles have very little space, and it’s difficult for the eyes to focus on something that close to the face anyway, so fancy menus and viz are out of the picture. Fancy is a bad idea anyway because the whole point of a HUD display is to assist in a job where you don’t have the time/mental capacity/hands free to deal with all those buttons and displays on a computer.

in the instance of a scuba HUD, reds would be best to use since there's little red in the surrounding environment. It could go from dull reds to brighter to get user's attention.

in the instance of a scuba HUD, reds would be best to use since there’s little red in the surrounding environment. It could go from dull reds to brighter to get user’s attention.


vehicles: they’re like HUDs in the way that you don’t want to create something that’s distracting. Any design for vehicular glass needs to be caveman simple. But there’s also some fantastic opportunities for that foreground/background interaction. The display itself can appear to guide you through traffic to your destination, or warn you of obstructions, shitheads behind you, to stop fucking texting, etc. But if these got made I think there’d have to be a federal law passed that no video games could tap into it. We don’t need IRL Grand Theft Auto. Which would get made, you know it, even if they only made digital people to hit on the sidewalks… still, seriously. This would have to be regulated.
In the case of vehicular glass, text should be avoided. It takes longer to read "Bike on your left" than it does to see red arrows pointing "LOOK, STUPID"

In the case of vehicular glass, text should be avoided. It takes longer to read “Bike on your left” than it does to see red arrows pointing “LOOK, STUPID”


Instruments, scientific and otherwise: Magnification lenses, astronomy telescopes… I can’t think of anything else. But if you could look through a telescope and around a constellation and see a little pointer saying “ORION, see link for details”, that’d be pretty cool.
Display, storefronts: This is what will come first, we all know it. It’ll take advantage of your expectations of glass and show you your “reflection”- only with their clothes/makeup/cars/sexy ladies/whatever. Or taking advantage of the foreground/background possibilities, you’ll see the store through it, and the glass can point you to items you may be interested in, based on your body type/current clothing. Most people will take it in stride, but for those of us who don’t like facebook personalized ads, it’ll weird us the fuck out.
seriously creep me the fuck out.
architectural internal space: From an aesthetic standpoint, transparent screens are a manipulation of light within a space, as well as another level of interaction between the space and the person, as well as person to person. (Theatre folks know this a shitton better than I). It also, thank god, takes us another step away from the Computer Terminal phenomenon, of having a computer inserted as a sour black square into a wall or table. The possibilities are too numerous to go into, from a restaurant that uses flowing glass planes that can be used as conference video screens, to a subtle way to hide away technology, ala Jeeves in Iron Man with all the little menus tucked away in the windows and tables. Or maybe all of the glassware will display animations of tiny mermaids swimming in your drink. I’d like that. (then I drink them and they DIE yes I said it)
and for halloween you could have floating eyeballs EWGROSSYUM

We all know this technology is coming to market soon, and I’m not the first or second person to come up with any of those ideas above. But I have still seen little about design principles with which to approach it (or maybe I haven’t crawled far enough out from under my rock to see it, a completely possible scenario), and the movies I’ve seen that employ it do so in bullshit-but-badass ways, so let this be my stone thrown in those waters.
Any disagreements or ideas of other spec-techs that you think would be fun to take a closer look at- leave em in the comments!

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About jesspherron

A UX designer, illustrator, and animator residing in the Portland area, documenting the lessons of the highs and lows of being an artist.

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