The future is Movie OS

by danhon

The tl;dr headline/controversial summary:

Remember Mark Coleran’s (and others) Movie OS motion graphics? Like it or not, I think they’re the real future, and point towards interface and interaction design for the rest of us. Movie OS is right, and everything else we have is wrong.

Thesis:

Normal people ‘don’t understand’ computers. Of course, the position is more nuanced than that, and you can do everything from point to documents like Apple’s HIG (for both the OS X platform for Mac computers and the iPhone and iPad platforms), Microsoft’s Windows User Experience Interaction Guidelines and Windows Phone 7 Series UI Design & Interaction Guide to the trainwreck that was the Read/Write Web Facebook Login Fiasco.

But let me focus on one, small aspect, and see if I can persuade you that there’s a genuine insight into how we design interfaces.

Action and Reaction, Cause and Effect

By an intuitive interface, in some ways what we’re describing is an interface which makes it abundantly clear what the consequences of an action are. Ideally, we’d like those consequences to be communicated in a subtle but understandable manner, and also in a way that requires the minimum amount of high-level cognitive processing in order to get across the meaning of the message.

Some examples:

  • one-way destruction of data with no undo
  • tagging of an image that will propagate through a social graph, publishing information to an audience of hundreds (thousands?)
  • moving, not copying, files

The tools that we have to get across these messages – which, in their own ways, are all incredibly important – are a very limited palette. One that looks like this:

A typical Windows Aero modal warning, from the Microsoft Windows UX Guide

A typical Windows Aero modal warning, from the Microsoft Windows UX Guide

A Risky Action Confirmation from Windows Aero / Windows UX Guidelines

A Windows Aero risky action confirmation, from the Microsoft Windows UX Guide

A Standard Mac OS X Alert

A Standard Alert on Mac OS X, from Apple's Human Interface Guidelines

A well-written alert message on Mac OS X, from Apple's Human Interface Guidelines

A well-written alert message on Mac OS X, from Apple's Human Interface Guidelines

A determinate progress bar from Mac OS X

A determinate progress bar on Mac OS X, from Apple's Human Interface Guidelines

An action sheet, modal view and alert on iPhone OS, from the Apple iPhone Human Interface Guidelines

An action sheet, modal view and alert on iPhone OS, from the Apple iPhone Human Interface Guidelines

A bar-style progress view in a toolbar on iPhone OS, from Apple's iPhone Human Interface Guidelines

A bar-style progress view in a toolbar on iPhone OS, from Apple's iPhone Human Interface Guidelines

A network activity indicator and a toolbar activity indicator in iPhone OS, from Apple's iPhone Human Interface Guidelines

A network activity indicator and a toolbar activity indicator in iPhone OS, from Apple's iPhone Human Interface Guidelines

Why do we have these UI palettes? Well, mainly because of Xerox. And they haven’t changed in over 20 years.

So how do we get across this incredibly critical information more clearly?

Luckily, a whole industry has already done it for us, the problem is that we (the geeks, the professional computer users, the internet commenters) have been laughably dismissive of that work, because it wasn’t “realistic”.

But just because something isn’t realistic doesn’t mean it can’t be better. And I think it is. Substantially.

Movie OS: it makes sense

Think of a situation you’ve probably been in recently. You’re in a darkened room with at least a hundred other people. Someone in front of you is using a computer. Something incredibly tense and relevant is happening, or is about to happen. Something that could potentially dramatically, critically change the course of someone’s life.

Hugh Jackman, or Tom Cruise, or Angelina Jolie, or Brad Pitt, or Daniel Craig is  pretending to use a pretend computer. And it’s all made up. In fact, it’s hilarious. It’s not even a real computer! It’s not even Windows! Or a Mac! Or it looks like a normal computer on the outside, but what’s on the screen bears no resemblance to what you see in your office.

Real computers don’t look anything like that! It’s like a Fisher Price interface! What’s all this stuff whizzing about? Why, when Meg Ryan uses AOL to send an email, does it animate a letter-fold, put itself in an envelope and fly off the screen? Why, when Hugh Jackman is messing around with RSA encryption, is he moving 3D objects around a screen? Why is the encrypted email displayed as gibberish, when it would just be a normal email with, say, a PGP icon next to it?

Because if none of those things happened, if it wasn’t shown that way, you’d miss it. Forget the 10 foot interface. This is the 50 foot interface for brain dead people who like explosions. It has to be abundantly clear. You can’t miss it.

And you can’t afford to miss it, because Meg sending Tom an email is important. Angelina destructively erasing hard drives is important. Wayne Knight (Dennis Nedry) in shutting down Jurassic Park’s security systems and displaying a wagging finger is important. Ariana Richards, playing “Lex” “This is UNIX!” Murphy, navigating a 3D filesystem to do device management and open a door, or turn on a security system, is important. Incrdibly important. And you need to know when, or if, these things have happened.

"Access Granted" by Mark Coleran from Mr & Mrs Smith

"Access Granted" by Mark Coleran from Mr & Mrs Smith

"Lockdown Alert" by Mark Coleran, from xXx: The State of the Union

"Lockdown Alert" by Mark Coleran, from xXx: The State of the Union

"Disc Wipe / Erasure Protocol ZERO", by Mark Coleran from xXx: The State of the Union

"Disc Wipe / Erasure Protocol ZERO" by Mark Coleran from xXx: The State of the Union

OK, so the main problem here is that these are all static screenshots. But.

In Movie OS, visual storytelling is used to make the system’s important, critical reaction to a user’s action abundantly clear. In Movie OS, you know if you’re logging into Facebook.

I’d argue that visual storytelling doesn’t exist – if it does, it hardly exists at all – in computer or consumer eletronics user interfaces. The entire palette of visual storytelling in terms of interface, through accident of history, is purely engineering and control-led.

This is where, I’d say, Apple is grasping when it says that interfaces should sometimes look toward real-life objects. Real-life physical objects have affordances that are used in effective visual storytelling – and animation – that can be used well to make clear the consequences of actions. It’s more complicated than that, though, and it can go horribly wrong as well as right.

I’m a big Pixar fan, and learning more and more every day about animation. Animation, and the kind of animation that Pixar praises, worships and strives for, in terms of conveying weight and emotion and meaning, is what I’d argue our next-generation storytelling interfaces need.

Expert animators know how to visually convey, unambigously, the weight, the heft, the sheer effort (or lack of effort) Mr. Incredible is expending in picking up a car. A car: something that’s heavy. Something that’s heavy like 20GB worth of files, as opposed to something light, like only 20MB worth. But one can see how being instantly shown the heft, the feel, the weight of something in a file operation is helpful and intuitive in a way that text displaying “You are moving 20GB of files” isn’t.

File Copy Progress Indicator from Windows Aero

File Copy Progress Indicator from Windows Aero

I give our industry slack. For most of the last twenty years, we haven’t had the luxury of a stupendously powerful graphics processing unit sitting idle while you’re not running around a gorgeously rendered 60 frames per second photorealistic 3D environment. With ample processing cycles spare for physics modelling. Do you see what I’m getting at? We need storytellers and animators to get across the cause from our effect as a user. Frameworks like Core Animation and Windows Presentation Foundation are the first steps to providing ways in which we can use animation and storytelling to enhance the user experience.

I’m not arguging for a virtual 3D interface where you walk into your 3D office and you pick up a piece of paper in a filing cabinet and it flops around in the air convincingly. I’m arguing for taking the visual storytelling talents, the learnings from evolutionary cognitive psychology in terms of the affordances our brains give us in understanding a phsyical environment, and letting them loose on how we use our WIMPy environment, at the very least.

There’s a reason why Apple has a patent on rubberband scrolling. It is not a coincidence that Steve Jobs is CEO of Apple, as well as having been CEO of Pixar.

I caveat all of this with the note that I’ve had no formal training, and many people more qualified than me have probably thought a lot more about this kind of thing. Some of my best friends are, as they say, interaction designers. But at the very least, I’m pleased that I’ve finally worked out why over the last decade or so I’ve been collecting DVDs of movies for no reason other than their vision of what computing interfaces will look like in the future.

So: am I wrong? Does this make sense? Please comment below.

Update: Everything old is new again. A kind comment from Hacker News points out a paper from 15 years ago entitled Animation: From Cartoons to the User Interface.

Update: From another kind comment at OSNews, a collection of Movie OSs at TV Tropes, entitled the Viewer Friendly Interface. TV Tropes lists Key Tenets of a Movie OS / Viewer Friendly Interface. One of them might sound familiar.

  • All applications must be run full screen – there is no multitasking on television. Windows may show in the background, but they might as well be wallpaper for all anyone uses them.

Remind you of anything?

Update: Edited for spelling and grammar.