Science fiction in HCI – a nuanced view

Authors: Philipp Jordan
Posted: Wed, March 28, 2018 - 3:09:16

Note: This blog post is a critical response and extension to the March/April Interactions Special Topic article on science fiction for innovation in HCI, written by Daniel M. Russell and Svetlana Yaros. 

I was pleased to read the most recent Interactions Special Topic on science fiction and HCI—the motivation for my first IX blog post. In the following, I provide a broader view of the complex symbiosis of science fiction and HCI research. 

Science fiction literature, cinema, and games 

To begin with, the authors conflate science fiction literature, cinema, and interactive media throughout the article. While the amalgamation of the different artistic expressions of science fiction is an object of continuous debate, it warrants more precision if we are to derive heuristics and recommendations for the utility of science fiction in HCI. 

Though there are exceptions to the rule, it is safe to assume that science fiction visualizations, such as movies, shows, or product visions can mostly be traced back to a science fiction novel, short story, or simply a written idea. On this subject, Shelley Ward’s “The History of Science Fiction” helps in visualizing both the contemporary complexity and original roots of the genre. 

Technovelgy, a science fiction web repository, lists more than 2500 ideas initially formulated in written visions. For example, the videophone is described in Jules Verne's 1889 novel In the Year 2889 as a phonotelephote

The first thing that Mr. Smith does is to connect his phonotelephote, the wires of which communicate with his Paris mansion. The telephote! Here is another of the great triumphs of science in our time. The transmission of speech is an old story; the transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires is a thing but of yesterday.

Three decades later, in 1927, the German science fiction dystopia Metropolis visualized a videophone (Figure 1). Metropolis depicts the videophone in a plausible manner through an interface, interaction, and a visual context, whereas Jules Verne’s elusive, literary expression of the phonotelephote leaves more room for our imagination. 

Figure 1. Screencaps from Metropolis (1927) showing the videophone. Copyright held by UFA GmbH, Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, and Gottfried Huppertz.

We can also conduct a philosophical inquiry into robot ethics, such as Noel Sharkey’s killer robots from the future, or watch RoboCop’s ED-209 malfunction, or play Horizon Zero Dawn, a video game set in a world overrun by machines. Media differences are very important. Accordingly, we must observe in each case the trade-offs between affordances and constraints amid the different media formats for HCI design, inspiration, and innovation. 

The fundamental distinction between science fiction writing and cinema was recognized in film studies almost 50 years ago by William Johnson in his 1972 book Focus on the Science Fiction Film (page 98): “The filmmaker is less fortunate: he must show the invention, and he must show it working.” 

On one hand, science fiction cinema might limit or mislead the imagination of the viewer due to the constraints of the media format as well as the depicted technological and metaphysical assumptions within the movie narrative, or diegesis. On the other hand, the made-up, explicit visualizations of these elements can serve as powerful showcases of future devices, interactions, and information and communication technologies to not only the general public, but researchers as well. 

David Kirby has written extensively on collaboration schemes between researchers and moviemakers. His diegetic prototypes can not only demonstrate design ideas as design fictions, but also demonstrate to a larger public audience the benevolence, need, or threat of a future technology. Film theory and the concepts of dramatic and veritable truth, or the notion of hard and soft science fiction, can help both to identify “serious” science fiction and to broaden our understanding of the different expressions of the genre. 

My research on science fiction and HCI 

In lieu of repeatedly linking well-known science fiction movies and shows to HCI research, such as Minority Report, Star Trek, or Blade Runner, I analyze the evolutionary uses of science fiction in HCI and computer science. Specifically, I investigate science communication to find out when, how, and why scientists use science fiction in HCI research and computer science. 

Last year, I conducted a three-hour interview at the Science and Entertainment Exchange in Los Angeles, a National Academy of Sciences–endorsed program to connect researchers with film-industry professionals. I learned that “the exchange” has facilitated more than 2000 consultations—or matches—of scientists and filmmakers with the goal of presenting science more accurately on screen.

My research on Star Trek referrals in the ACM Digital Library found that the franchise was associated with the proliferation of the BASIC programming language [1] and early notions of hacking. My co-authors and I proposed a science-fiction-inspired HCI research agenda, extending beyond diegetic prototypes and design fictions toward computer science education, human-robot interaction, and AI ethics. 

Later this year, I will present my research on the evolutionary uses of science fiction in the CHI conference at the HCI International conference in Las Vegas. In that study, I identify five themes where science fiction and HCI research interact; in addition, I highlight a focus on seminal popular Western science fiction in CHI research. 

In another forthcoming article, my co-authors and I review how 20 science fiction robots have been used and characterized in computer science literature. We found in this study that science fiction robots are inspirational for researchers in the field of human-robot interaction. For example, the robot Baymax from the movie Big Hero 6 has inspired scientists to create Puffy.

At present, I am analyzing science fiction referrals in 1500 peer-reviewed computer science papers, among those an IEEE paper by Hereford (page 133):

Practically speaking, literary artists could be employed as consultants and given the task of imagining as concretely as possible the lives of individual people in various social situations that are defined in terms of a given system design. Ultimately, the test of whether the system is coherent will be whether one can feel the system to be working out for concrete individuals as imagined in the drama of their particular lives. 

The required level of quality of such scenarios will vary in accordance with clients' and engineers' tastes. A quality comparable to that found in most science fiction will satisfy most engineers and probably most others too. Would-be artists with sane literary training would probably be able to produce suitable scenarios.

If you ask me, that sounds like pragmatic design fiction from 1975. What do you think? 

Non-trivializing science fiction 

There is nothing wrong with envisioning “future user interfaces” that are “all walk-up-and-use.” However, there is more to science fiction and HCI than John Underkoffler’s gestural interfaces from Minority Report, the utopian interfaces from Star Trek, and the dystopian visions of society and technology seen in Black Mirror and Westworld. Science fiction in HCI research encompasses more than pragmatic and speculative design research. 

As soon as we are mindful of our own cultural preconceptions, science fiction does not constrain inspiration, nor limit imagination; we simply cultivate a consciousness of the larger potentials of science fiction for core HCI research. I think that we have long underestimated the important, invisible relationship between science fiction and HCI and computer science research, industry, education, and, to some extent, ourselves. 


1. In fact, my dissertation chair, Scott Robertson, ACM Senior Member, told me he picked up programming due to the Star Trek BASIC game four decades ago.

Posted in: on Wed, March 28, 2018 - 3:09:16

Philipp Jordan

Post Comment

No Comments Found