The Perception Guide to FUI: Roundtable Discussion - Designing Futuristic User Interfaces in Film

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The Perception team discusses the background and history of Futuristic User Interfaces in Film and Beyond.

Artists from Perception discuss key concepts around design of FUI (Futuristic / Fantasy / Fictional User Interfaces). They discuss the key requirements of believability and conveying essential information. They discuss their approach to designing Futuristic User Interfaces for films including Ironman, Avengers and Men In Black.

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- [Facilitator] This is the second of two video roundtable discussions that the team here at Perception is doing with our friends at Maxon and Cineversity, talking about the designing of futuristic user interfaces. Make sure you check out Cineversity. There is a tutorial series that the Perception team has put together going through a bunch of great futuristic user interface techniques utilizing our favorite software, Cinema 4D. And today we're going to talk about designing futuristic user interfaces in film. Each of us has had quite a bit of experience working on a number of different films from Iron Man 2 to Avengers, Captain America - Winter Soldier, RoboCop, Europa Report, Men in Black, making these futuristic displays appear on screen and tell the story, move the plot along, create a futuristic context, and also hopefully, look cool while doing it. So what are your basic requirements when you are designing in FUI? - [Participant 1] So, I think, for me one of the basic requirements is that it needs to clearly tell the main bit of information that you're trying to get across. Whether that is some sort of number for a countdown or some map, whatever it is, always have that particular information be the focus of your design and then, work outwards from there. So everything else is sort of helping tell that one main story point. - [Russ] Certainly, storytelling is a big part of that, it's absolutely essential, and it's the reason that a lot of times directors come to shops like ours where they're asking for help solving a visual problem. But, I think, believability is also a big part of that. So certainly, with believability, not only in the way that it's designed and what you're seeing, but also in the way that it's being used. If somebody is interacting with it on the screen, does it feel like they are purposely pushing buttons? Do you see their eye going to a space on the screen where they're like, "I want to hit that button." And they do it or are they just waving their hand? - It also helps to, if they're just doing poking stuff, "Well, now we've got a lot of buttons in this." If they're doing a lot of radio movements, "Okay, now we've got radio elements in here." So that definitely helps drive what we end up designing. - For me, my two main metrics are just making sure that it's, and you mentioned this, crystal clear, it communicates the point, not just to the audience overall, but to the guy sitting in the last row of the movie theater falling asleep while eating a burrito. And then it's also got to work for the person who is a technology savvy skeptic, who's looking for any opportunity to call BS on these systems and say, "Well, that's not the way a real interface would function." Or, "That's totally illogical to present it in that way." So what's your approach to making an FUI special? - For me, it's drawing a lot of inspiration from things that already exist. So looking at current trends in user interface, looking at previous trends in user interface, looking at sort of emerging ideas, and just extrapolating those into the future, asking those big 'what if' questions. What if we took the idea of a gesture interface to an absolutely extreme level, and you end up with something like Minority Report? You know, just taking a look at those existing ideas and really pushing them into the future and I think that gives you almost a nice sounding board for checking the success of your ideas. - I think it also helps get the audience invested in it as well as they have. They have a base level of knowledge of whatever interface you're presenting them, and then you're taking it from there and going into the future as opposed to skipping a few steps and just showing them a crazy future thing that doesn't make any sense. They have no idea what that means to like pulling it back a little bit and like, "All right, let's start at the iPhone. Everyone knows how that works. Now, how can we take that and make that something that's five, ten years in the future that people can still see the heritage of where that came from?" - [Participant 3] That's sort of like, when we talk about what makes something special, yes, you can put a lot of time and effort into some sort of FUI you put out there now, but a lot of what we sit here now and look back on and say, "Wow, that was something special, that was something unique." It's a lot of the things that there might have been one touch or one certain interaction interface and all of a sudden is this massive core of what we understand as like an interaction with UI or FUI now. We may sometimes be difficult to really say, "Oh, I'm going to make this special." It doesn't inherently have that but over time, all of a sudden, you can see these very important mechanics start to rear their heads and then we can kind of look back and really appreciate with some nostalgia some of these things that have been created over time. - So, it's like a blend of things that are maybe surprising or exciting, but also some stuff that's a little bit relatable. You know, for me, the FUI gold is when you've got someone in the audience and they're watching and they're seeing the same thing that everybody else is seeing, there's some sort of message or plot point that's on screen. but then, behind that or around that, there is something that's suggesting more a complex logic that arrived at that conclusion or that message that appears on the screen. And if the audience can understand what that logic is at a glance, and ideally, you want each audience member to think that they're the only person that figured it out or got it, and they feel a little extra clever for having figured it out, that, to me, that's the pinnacle of masterful FUI design. - And just as an extension on that, just like even most recently with West World, where they have this little thing, a bit node structure... - No dialogue...a tree. - That, I think, is one of the better recent little strokes that outlines your comprehension and depth in it. - One that always comes to my mind, it's not so much an interface, but it's a technology-driven system in Mission Impossible 4, I believe it is, where they are sneaking into the Kremlin. - The cameras. - And they set up this elaborate projection mapping scheme in a hallway, and they unfold this screen, and they've got cameras that are tracking the eyes of the guys that are looking at it, so they can simulate the perspective and whatnot. And I remember turning in the theater to my wife, starting to say like, "Oh honey, you won't believe it. This, everything they're doing right now, it actually works, it's totally... What they're doing is they're trying..." And she just turned to me and she was like, "Shh, Yeah, dummy, I get it, everybody gets it, it's clear." Looking at it up on the screen, I was like, "Oh, wow, they've really... Yeah, they've done their part." They've duped me into thinking that I'm a special snowflake for having understood something inherently complex. - So when you are designing or thinking about or conceptualizing an FUI, where do you take inspiration from? - You know, I think I try and take inspiration from everywhere, which I feel like is a kind of a dull answer than I was expecting, but it really is taken from everywhere, and that's going from state-of-the-art fighter jet HUDs to watch faces, to looking at movies that we really like. like the original RoboCop, and Star Wars, and stuff like that. And grabbing inspiration from all of these places that I think makes the UI... It's sort of cyclical, everyone is getting inspired by what came before it and then making something new and then that's inspiring someone else. You know, I try and grab an inspiration from all those things. - Russ, where do you take inspiration from? - Wherever I can get it, really. Just do my best to look at as many real world examples as possible, try and avoid other FUIs. - And I'll say we have unique experience in that we spend a lot of time working on real world user interfaces and that's something that, I think, frequently gives us a leg up when we're talking to directors or we're pitching ideas for a FUI because we've got a lot of context for how these systems work whether it's military grade system or something that's being done at Space-X or whatnot. When you can create those real world analogs, that really resonates with directors and a lot of filmmakers who are... they love having those authentic touches sprinkled throughout their stories. For me, I'm constantly looking for inspiration in the same places everybody else is. It's important, I think, to be aware of the context of what FUI, as it's become its own sort of niche, what's going on in other current films and whatnot, but I also try to, wherever possible, find inspiration from places that are not digital, but still have a sort of informational degree of graphic design, whether that's data visualization, way finding systems, hi-fi stereo designs in the labeling of knobs and dials and switches and EQs and things like that. My latest kick is looking up markings on taxiways or airport runways, where they have all these different labels and guides. It's all so driven by purpose and necessity and helping to keep people from dying, effectively. - And looking at those things and just drawing from them, there's already been a great deal of intent applied to it. There's already been a high degree of analytical design being applied to it where there's many reasons why it ended up that the design and the aesthetic it was, but when you reference those things and draw it and bring those inspirations then, naturally, you're kind of benevolently borrowing from these designs. - And at a glance, we all recognize that intent, and it just reads as authenticity [Inaudible] - Well, I think, going back to the fighter jet HUD, it is stripped down to the point of absolute bare bones, there is nothing in a fighter jet HUD that is decorative, there's nothing there to look cool. It is pure tactical functionality. And in that, it actually makes it look really cool because it's conveying many, many layers of very complex telemetry data. - It looks intimidating, and it looks serious, and it looks like means business. - Exactly. - Cool. So do you guys have any tips for designers who are interested in working in the field of developing, designing, and animating futuristic user interfaces? - I actually think that you should avoid taking a lot of inspiration from current future user interfaces, because I feel like there's a degree to which designers, particularly the younger designers, tend to get locked in this kind of loop, where they're like just emulating what just came out, what the latest, cool trend is, and you get in this cycle where, I think, in order to break that cycle, in order to really make something that looks truly unique to making your particular vision of the future of interfaces unique, you really need to draw on creative inspiration from things that are currently existing and just extrapolate them into future. - So I think that's a really valid point, but I think there's also a valid counter argument to that, which is that this notion of FUIs that we're seeing in film without having to establish every single one as its own technology, there is something where you get a step-up or a cheat in comprehension by just visually fitting the mold of FUI and just saying like, "Oh, that's glowing blue, so it must be an advanced computer." Even though in the real world the most advanced computers have trillions of colors that they can display not four, but that helps to help to identify it as being... - I think part of that too is this cyclical nature of people being inspired by things that came before it, that time frame is a lot shorter now than it was in the past. - Well, you've got to be able to take from a lot of other sources and just kind of consume a lot to get your language and the way you can describe and kind of acknowledge from your client if they say, you know, certain keywords or like, "I like this look, I like that look." And to be able to say, "Okay. I know kind of what paradigm this is in, what area of user interface design." And be able to take that and extrapolate from it, and apply it to their needs. I mean, you mentioned, yeah, there's a lot of current recycling of that, but I guess there needs to just be on your own level, as you're consuming and as you're learning, it's important to be able to compartmentalize and kind of know, "I'm I drawing from this? Am I copying from this?" Or, "Is it inspired from..." And there's a lot of nuance. For me, it was a lot of consume, get the language there and then afterwards, now that you have this vocabulary and this broad range, you can kind of distill it down, and really become more familiar with it and learn how you can apply it. - And I think that sort of the point of not being totally focused on just FUI is you want to establish the vocabulary. You don't want to just be able to talk about this tiny little slice, you want to be able to talk about the broad spectrum of saucible visual design. - I think in any creative medium, inspiration is always a volatile topic for discussion. One thing I will say is, if you're designing an FUI, please, for the love of God, don't use any futuristic fonts or things that just look like inherently futuristic things. The future corner, the square or the rectangle with one corner lopped off of it or fonts that look like they belong on a ray flier. To me, I think that's just always going to be a recipe for something that looks immediately dated even eight years from now when you look back and you say, "Oh, you know what, the future of real-world interface design actually just followed the principles of good, clean, logical design." - And I think part of that too goes to don't let the complexity of your designs affect the legibility of your designs. You want good, clean design. You want the main information to be the most important part. You don't want to create something that is just, "Let's throw a ton of different designs and ideas at this piece of paper and then that's our UI." - Complexity can serve a purpose, right? It can make the person that's operating it seem like they are particularly skilled or something but, ideally, the complexity elements are not just a shotgun full of design elements fired at the canvas, but are things that appear as though they're driving a certain purpose or serving a particular function. So I hope this has been helpful for everybody getting a little insight as to how we, the team at Perception, approach FUIs when we're designing for films. Thanks a lot to the team at Maxon and Cineversity for allowing us to contribute. And if you have a chance, make sure you log on to Cineversity and view our tutorial series, The Perception Guide to FUI.
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