SCI-FI UI AND THE PRODUCT AVATAR
by Tom Acland
Many people, as well as many 3DEXCITERs, share my fascination for sci-fi. Watching The Expanse triggers some deeply ingrained memories of the old-school version of Twitch I grew up with. Picture a group of friends, huddled around someone’s Compaq 486 in a dorm-room, playing the space game Elite.
That’s really the point of sci-fi: the idea that human experience and our technology are inseparable.
Sci-fi is where relatable storytelling, and often deeply researched futurology, come together. So, it’s not uncommon for concepts on paper, or in film, to make the leap back to the reality that spawned them. A famous example is g-speak and Minority Report.
Invented by John Underkoffler while at MIT, g-speak is a pattern language for controlling computers with gestures, which led to some of the film’s most memorable scenes. A couple of years later, he demoed the concept for real in a TED talk now almost as legendary as Jeff Han’s unveiling of Multitouch.
The sci-fi meme we’re working on already exists, it’s just not distributed evenly yet. If you compare the UI appearing in AdAstra, with what you’ll find in YouTube videos from SpaceX, it’s clear that science fiction is not that far ahead of the art of the possible.
The concept we’re working on is the Product Avatar, an idea exposed in a million different ways with an infinite variation of presentational treatments in sci-fi (though the semi-transparent mesh look does seem particularly popular). At the core, the Product Avatar is a simple, consistent idea: a representation of a system, which a user wants to control, exposed in exactly the right way for the visual interface they are using.
Product avatars are everywhere
As with all things geek, Sci-Fi UI is its own sub-genre. Check out this comprehensive tour of the back-catalog, created by a Japanese graphic designer in 2015. I also really like this interview-driven blog by Kirill Grouchnikov, who works on the Android team.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting we make it our business to compete with people like Territory Studio, who have specialized in producing the screen graphics used in sci-fi movies. I’m suggesting their work can inspire us to imagine how interaction between things and people will evolve and understand how we can best contribute.
Back to Reality
You might ask, “Why we should care?” or perhaps even object, “UI has nothing to do with sales and marketing!” I am certain that we should care, that UI has everything to do with marketing in 2021 (a year that even sounds sci-fi). Most car buyers say they value infotainment on the vehicle but hate advertising in their newsfeed. At the same time, vehicle connectivity and automation are causing a scramble among manufacturers and media companies to monetize passenger experience. That paradox points to a hidden truth: products themselves are becoming media channels, or the means and opportunity to talk to customers.
We’ve got to move the conversation about product content into a zone where it really matters to experience – the Product Avatar is the way to do this. It’s close to engineering but scales elegantly beyond those constraints. What do you need to populate your new sales training application? Product Avatars! What do you need to show off your product in your new sales demo? Product Avatars! What are instructive visuals for the field service system? Product Avatars! How do we know this is the future?
Watch more Sci-Fi!