Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Why Hollywood should hire Interactions experts

Having watched a number of movies lately, I've found the digital display interactions more and more irritating to watch. I am becoming increasingly concerned that the interactions portrayed in movies shape our expectations for how we expect to interact with computers in the future.

Seriously, I've spoken with many researchers who have complained that their work is constantly being compared to movies such as Minority Report, or The Island. This is a good thing as it means that people are becoming more aware of novel interactions for large displays, but it can also makes it difficult to convince others that the interactions shown in movies are not necessarily the best there is. For example, I've found that Minority Report has made it difficult to convince others about the benefits of direct touch interaction, where you touch directly on a large display instead of working at a distance.

Photo from Yahoo! Movies
Another recent example that I found a bit strange was Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. In this movie Dr. Reed Richards (a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic) uses a portable handheld computer (looks like an Archos 604) to control a large satellite located on the roof of his home. Dr. Reed comments on how wonderful the device is as he types with his two stretchy thumbs on the display. Apparently he is able to type incredibly quickly by stretching his thumbs to all parts of the display (e.g. his left thumb moves to the right side of the screen).

This doesn't seem effective for a number of reasons, I'll briefly describe two: first, the QWERTY layout of most onscreen keyboards will not be faster with longer thumbs. In fact, the opposite will likely be the case since speed is achieved by switching between using your left and right thumbs. This fast switching is not necessary if your thumb can reach the entire screen. Second, anyone with big thumbs can attest that this typically results in less accurate typing. Your thumb covers more area and thus it is hard to accurately point to a particular key. Onscreen keyboards have other issues such occlusion and lack of haptic feedback.

Now, this might seem a bit harsh for such a brief scene but I emphasize that many other movies share the same problem. Which brings me to my point, Hollywood movies would benefit from having an interactions expert on staff to help plan out and design suitable interactions for a movie.

Collaborations between interactions researchers and Hollywood have been successful in movies such as Minority Report when Spielberg and his team visited the the MIT Media Lab to learn about current projects. They took some of these interactions and showed what they would look like in a futuristic setting. The result was an interaction that wowed audiences around the world and set a precedent for future interactions expectations. People were talking about the interactions in this movie long after it had left theaters, it had a lasting impact on people.

I hope that Hollywood will continue to collaborate with interactions researchers in the future, there's a lot of interesting stuff happening in our field that we'd love to see on the big screen.