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From Minority Report to Her, interfaces for Hyper Reality

There’s no barrier between thevirtualand the real: one is the continuation of the other, only in different ways. And this is coming increasingly to the fore as technology seeps into our daily lives.

The recent evolution of consumer electronicsis trying to make our “virtual” experiences feel more “natural”: from Steve Jobs’ multi-touch screens to Kinectgestures(the motion-sensingdevice developed by Microsoft for Xbox), via Google Glasses and virtual-reality headsets (such as Oculus Rift), mechanisms for entering digital environments are more and more “frictionless”. In other words, they are more and more smooth, seamless, quick.

The more we delve into the post-pcworld through the screens and connected devices that surround us everywhere, the more “friction” needs to be reduced by Hyper Reality. So, for a greater “immersive” feeling, we must give the heave-ho to our mouse, joystick and to any other gadget, and go for simpler, more natural control systems, such as voice and body movements. And this is exactly what is being done by two sci-fi films – Minority Reportin 2002 and the recent Her by Spike Jonze – the first to show a future that is becoming reality.

What would it feel like to live in a Hyper-World? Video maker and designer Keiichi Matsuda explores the potential evolutions of our cities and homes towards greater integration with a physical world that is more and more imbued with the virtual. His Hyper Reality is augmentednot because it adds a new level to the real world, but because it gives a better portrait of a reality we are already immersed in, where bitsand atomsare increasingly blending into one.

As in Matsuda’s Hyper Reality, cinema is often used to depict a present that science fiction imagined years ago. And that maybe has never been more popular than in Minority Reportby Steven Spielberg. The 2002 film imagines a future ruled by maxi-screensand multi-touch interfaces, where graphic cards can be manipulated or moved with a simple gesture. A bit like what anyone can do now, with an iPhone or Kinect.

The visionary power of Minority Reportdoesn’t come out of the blue. Before adapting Philip K. Dick’s story into a script, Spielberg convened the greatest high-tech experts to an Idea Summit(such as Alex McDowell, designer of futuristic machines, and Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of virtual reality, who was at the MtMG in 2006 to speak of his thought-provoking book You are Not a Gadget – click here for the full lecture).

As told by the monthly  Wired Usa in an interesting report about the Summit, Spielberg wanted to find out how to show the actors’ interactions with technology with an entirely pragmatic approach. That’s why he goaded the experts: It’s too sci-fi, the audience will never believe it.Spielberg was particularly interested in developing an interface that looked like “conducting an orchestra”. And that’s why his technical-scientific consultant, John Underkoffler of MIT Media Lab, came up with “a sort of sign language to interact with computers”. In other words, a device to control digital interfaces as you do in real life: with your hands and gestures.

Then multi-touch aesthetics eventually became the norm in science fiction. “Orchestra-conducting” interfaces can also be seen in Tron, Total Recalland take centre stage in Iron Man 2,where Stark’s entire secret base turns into an interface for interactive holograms that animate 3D objects or lead deeper into the matter.

In short, thespecial effects we see in movies are no work of imagination. They are actually a way to explore a future that is already turning into reality. Not least because Hollywood‘s consultant are often the same as Silicon Valley’s consultants: Jaron Lanier did not only attend the Idea Summit for Minority Report, he also helped Microsoft Labs develop Kinect. So, now anyone can replicate Tom Cruise’s gestures at home.

In an interesting post on The Awl, designer Christian Brown looks at how the “orchestra-conducting” interface has become so widespread. While he also criticise such model as excessively focussed on “what looks good” instead of what “works well”.

Hopefully one day we’ll reach the point where filmmakers don’t want computers to look like conducting an orchestra, and we’ll be able to back out of this interface cul-de-sac and find our way forward into a genuinely natural way of using our devices. Like porn, techno interfaces are more focused on what looks good than what feels good. And like porn, it’s pretty hard to get people to stop buying.

Director Spike Jonzedid not care at all about making the imagined future “look good” in his film “Her”. In that film that has just been released in our cinemas, we are immersed in a future that looks so much like our real world, maybe even a bit more retrothan that.

Yet, in “Her”, artificial intelligence takes the upper hand. Only, you don’t need any gesture or any orchestra conducting, you just need your voiceto control the devices that are built into the leading character.

A metaphor that aptly explains the idea of a reality so augmented and intelligent that interfaces can be almost completely invisible. Where there’s no juxtaposition, now, then, between the real and the virtual.

We decided that the movie wasn’t about technology, or if it was, that the technology should be invisible. And not invisible like a piece of glass. Technology hasn’t disappeared, in other words. It’s dissolved into everyday life.

It is this view, Wired Usa points out, that could have an even greater impact on the development of user interfacesthan Minority Report.