Fritzes 2024 | Sci-fi interfaces


Fritzes 2024 | Sci-fi interfaces

So I missed synchronizing the Fritzes with the Oscars. By like, a lot. A lot a lot. That hype curve has come and gone. (In my defense, it’s been an intensely busy year.) I don’t think providing nominees and then waiting to reveal winners makes sense now, so I’ll just talk about them. It was another year where there weren’t a lot of noteworthy speculative interfaces, from an interaction design point of view. This is true enough that I didn’t have enough candidates to fill out my usual three categories of Believable, Narrative, and Overall. So, I’m just going to do a round-up of some of the best interfaces as I saw them, and at the end, name an absolute favorite.

The Kitchen

In a dystopian London, the rich have eliminated all public housing but one last block known as The Kitchen. Izi and Benji live there and are drawn together by the death of Benji’s mother, who turns out to be one of Izi’s romantic partners from the past. The film is full of technology, but the one part that really struck me was the Life After Life service where Izi works and where Benji’s mom’s funeral happens. It’s reminiscent of the Soylent Green suicide service, but much better done, better conceived. The film has a sci-fi setting, but don’t expect easy answers and Marvel-esque plot here. This film about relationships amid struggle and ends quite ambiguously.

The funerary interfaces are mostly translucent cyans with pinstripe dividing lines to organize everything. In the non-funerary the cyan is replaced with bits of saturated red. Everything funerary and non- feels as if it has the same art direction, which lends to reading the interfaces extradiegetically, but maybe that’s part of the point?

Pod Generation

This dark movie considers what happens if we gestated babies in technological wombs called pods.  The interactions with the pod are all some corporate version of intuitive, as if Apple had designed them. (Though the swipe-down to reveal is exactly backwards. Wouldn’t an eyelid or window shade metaphor be more natural? Maybe they were going for an oven metaphor, like bun in the oven? But cooking a child implications? No, it’s just wrong.)

The design is largely an exaggeration of Apple’s understated aesthetic, except for the insane, giant floral eyeball that is the AI therapist. I love how much it reads like a weirdcore titan and the characters are nonplussed, telegraphing how much the citizens of this world have normalized to inhumanity. I have to give a major ding to the iPad interface by which parents take care of their fetuses, as its art direction is a mismatch to everything else in the film and seems quite rudimentary, like a Flash app circa 1998.

Before I get to the best interfaces of the year, let’s take a moment to appreciate two trends I saw emerging in 2023. That of hyperminimalist interfaces and of interface-related comedy.

Hyperminimalist interfaces

This year I noticed that many movies are telling stories with very minimal interfaces. As in, you can barely call them designed since they’re so very minimalist. This feels like a deliberate contrast to the overwhelming spectacle that permeates, say, the MCU. They certainly reduce the thing down to just the cause and effect that are important to the story. Following are some examples that illustrate this hyperminimalism.

This could be a cost-saving tactic, but per the default New Criticism stance of this blog, we’ll take it as a design choice and note it’s trending.

Shout-out: Interface Comedy

I want to give a special shout-out to interface-related comedy over the past year.

Smoking Causes Coughing

The first comes from the French gonzo horror sci-fi Smoking Causes Coughing. In a nested story told by a barracuda that is on a grill being cooked, Tony is the harried manager of a log-processing plant whose day is ruined by her nephew’s somehow becoming stuck in an industrial wood shredder. Over the scene she attempts to reverse the motor, failing each time, partly owing to the unlabeled interface and bad documentation. It’s admittedly not sci-fi, just in a sci-fi film, and a very gory, very hilarious bit of interface humor in an schizoid film.

Guardians of the Galaxy 3

The second is Guardians of the Galaxy 3. About a fifth of the way into the movie, the team spacewalks from the Milano to the surface of Orgocorp to infiltrate it. Once on the surface, Peter, who still pines for alternate-timeline Gamora, tries to strike up a private conversation with her. The suits have a forearm interface featuring a single row of colored stay-state buttons that roughly match the colors of the spacesuits they’re wearing. Quill presses the blue one and tries in vain to rekindle the spark between him and Gamora in a private conversation. But then a minute into the conversation, Mantis cuts in…

  • Mantis
  • Peter you know this is an open line, right?
  • Peter
  • What?
  • Mantis
  • We’re listening to everything you’re saying.
  • Drax
  • And it is painful.
  • Quill
  • And you’re just telling me now‽
  • Nebula
  • We were hoping it would stop on its own.
  • Peter
  • But I switched it over to private!
  • Mantis
  • What color button did you push?
  • Peter
  • Blue! For the blue suit!
  • Drax
  • Oh no.
  • Nebula
  • Blue is the open line for everyone.
  • Mantis
  • Orange is for blue.
  • Peter
  • What‽
  • Mantis
  • Black is for orange. Yellow is for green. Green is for red. And red is for yellow.
  • Drax
  • No, yellow is for yellow. Green is for red. Red is for green.
  • Mantis
  • I don’t think so.
  • Drax
  • Try it then.
  • Mantis (screaming)
  • HELLO!
  • Peter writhes in pain
  • Mantis
  • You were right.
  • Peter
  • How the hell and I supposed to know all of that?
  • Drax
  • Seems intuitive.

The Marvels

A third comedy bit happens in The Marvels, when Kamala Khan is nerding out over Monica Rambeau’s translucent S.H.I.E.L.D. tablet. She says…

  • Khan
  • Is this the new iPad? I haven’t seen it yet.
  • Rambeau
  • I wish.
  • Khan
  • Wait, if this is all top secret information, why is it on a clear case?

Rambeau has no answer, but there are, in fact, some answers.

Anyway, I want to give a shout-out to the writers for demonstrating with these comedy bits some self-awareness and good-natured self-owning of tropes. I see you and appreciate you. You are so valid.

But my favorite interfaces of 2023 come from Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. The interfaces throughout are highly stylized (so might be tough to perform the detailed analysis, which is this site’s bread-and-butter) but play the plot points perfectly.

In Across the Spider-Verse, while dealing difficulties with his home life and chasing down a new supervillain called The Spot, Miles Morales learns about The Society. The Society is a group of (thousands? Tens of thousands? of) Spider-people of every stripe and sort from across the Multiverse, whose overriding mission is to protect “canon” events in each universe that, no matter how painful, they believe are necessary to the fabric of reality from unraveling. It’s full of awesome interfaces.

Lyla is the general artificial intelligence that has a persistent volumetric avatar. She’s sassy and disagreeable and stylish and never runs, just teleports.

The wrist interfaces—called the Multiversal Gizmo—worn by members of The Society all present highly-contextual information with most-likely actions presented as buttons, and, as needed, volumetric alerts. Also note that Miguel’s Gizmo is longer, signaling his higher status within The Society.

Of special note is volumetric display that Spider Gwen uses to reconstruct the events at the Alchemax laboratory. The interface is so smart, telegraphs its complex functioning quickly and effectively, and describes a use that builds on conceivable but far-future applications of inference. The little dial that pops up allowing her to control time of the playback reminds me of Eye of Agamatto (though sadly I didn’t see evidence of the important speculative time-control details I’d provided in that analysis). The in-situ volumetric reconstruction reminds me of some of the speculative interfaces I’d proposed in the review of Deckard’s photo inspector from Blade Runner, and so was a big thrill to see.

All of the interfaces have style, are believable for the diegesis, and contribute to the narrative with efficiency. Congratulations to the team crafting these interfaces, and if you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for? Go see it. It’s in a lot of places and the interfaces are awesome. (For full disclosure, I get no kickback from these referral links.)

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