Firuz Daud on The Fantasy of Reality: an Evening with Mark Coleran

My name is Firuz Daud and it’s my pleasure today to be guest blogging on behalf of Art Engine about the Mark Coleran talk they graciously hosted. Just to recap, Mark is a designer of user interfaces for real software and also for Hollywood movies. He refers to his film work as FUIs, fantasy user interfaces.

I was genuinely intrigued by this subject. I think about the future a lot. Not in the useful way, like, “in three years I’m going to achieve such and such goal.”; no, I think about the future like, “Why can’t a robot get me a coffee yet?”. You see, as someone who enjoys sci-fi, I feel human computer interaction is the only future thing that’s come true. I can’t move faster than the speed of light; I can’t teleport anywhere; I can’t have sex with a robot; and worst of all, my car does not hover. But when I interact with computer crap, I’m like, “damn, I’m in the future!”. When I look at some of the Android and i-phone interfaces ,I really think it looks like something Captain Picard would maybe use and, “X-box, pause”, is just a few steps away from, “Computer, tea, earl grey, hot”. I try to do some human computer interaction first thing in the morning just so I can appreciate the world getting a little bit better every day.

I’m the kind of person that actually takes the time to choose in-points for video thumbnails just so that when I’m in the Xmb looking for stuff I’m actually seeing the coolest part of the clip. When I see all my little animated icons, it’s so worth it. I don’t know if you’re like me, but it seems like all my problems now are compatibility issues that will be resolved in the next firmware update.

Firuz in the past had real problems, human problems people throughout history could relate to. I was poor. Girls didn’t like me. If I were to pull me from ten years ago into the present, he would take a look around at my giant piles of money and women and be like, “what’s your problem, Future Firuz?”, and I would be on hold with Rogers in one hand and I would be like, “well when I updated my PVR to an HD PVR, there is no option to wake from LAN so I can no longer stream media on DNLA protocol to my Android using the TVersity app, but I know it’s just because I have the beta of the new firmware and I’m trying to get them to rollback to the last stable one. They are blaming it on the TVersity app, but it’s at a 3.0 release and I know they can rollback because the in store model was identical except that it didn’t do HDMI passthrough, which I need because I want to use my PS3 as a redundant PVR and if it didn’t have HDMI passthrough I would have to send the sound to my hi-fi using optical cable, which sucks because it would only be in 5.1 so why did I spend all this money on 7.1? So really the best option would be a rollback which they should be able to do because they are my isp and everything in my house is connected to the god damn internet!”. Then he would be like, “whoa, I’ve travelled way too far into the future! I have no idea what the fuck this guy’s problem is”.

Anyway, I was happy the BIT Program and Art Engine were on board with Mark Coleran’s talk because user interfaces are culturally relevant to me. You know what? I had never been to Algonquin before. When I got to Algonquin I had to call a friend to come find me because I was lost and scared. I’m a bit biased because I hate the west end. It just seems like an endless desert of box stores to me. I had this idea that the talk would be this cool downtown thing I could walk to. I think making the venue a school in the west end made it more scholarly. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing per se, it was just different than I expected. I would be curious to see something similar in another venue just to compare.

I sat with some people I knew from work. There were a lot of motion graphics and animation people I recognized from around in the audience. This made me wonder about weather or not this stuff is actually interesting or if it’s just interesting to me and people who are more or less exactly like me. It’s really hard for me to imagine what a normal person would think of this talk. My fear is that the whole thing is too inside to appeal to a general audience.

Mark began his talk by explaining what he does. His first slide? A big access denied screen using bold red letters. He outlined the different purposes screens have in films, such as connecting disparate locations, fill out background props, and give the audience vital information that does not come across well in dialogue. He broke down the different categories of screens he does. Those are: realistic, semi-realistic, good looking nonsense, and HUD or vision systems. He gave a quick view of how he creates the UIs, and why they are so ludicrous in films.

His argument is that FUIs are a story telling device much like art direction, wardrobe, or cinematography. They have their own grammar which allows audiences to visually key into aspects of the story which would otherwise require excessive amounts of exposition. For them to be functional would deter from the story telling. It’s not a matter of style over substance insomuch as it’s style being the substance. As an example he showed us some screens from the film Deja Vu. There is a chase scene and we see FBI agents using very realistic looking UIs that are not that different from real software, whereas their adversaries are using screens that are very animated and slick looking, and completely ridiculous. Without really knowing anything about the story we can tell the antagonists are well funded and technologically advanced.

Compare that to the work he did on Children of Men. The creative brief in this film was very specific in that there was some kind of cataclysmic event that froze technology somewhere around 2010. Furthermore, in the universe of this film, an authoritative government is constantly collecting personal information. When we look at these screens it is the little details, the fonts and colour palettes, the little background applications that appear to be watching the characters and noting their every keystroke that inform us the world of the movie is different than our own.

What I thought was kind of interesting was being at an Art Engine event where people were discussing films such as XXX2 and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. I thought it was neat that everything was getting so poppy. I’m fairly new to Art Engine, but I’ve been to many events around Art’s Court and many film talks can end up being about highly conceptual very obscure work, so there was something novel about people giving a serious look at the artistry that goes into what Mark called, “larger films”: movies you drink to. I may sound like an idiot, but honestly I would definitely rather watch Ice Cube and Xzibit fight terrorists using extreme sports than watch Bruce Elder lament the dead world for literally 8 hours.

Mark either knew his audience or was very confident in being able to engage people solely on his work because he approached the subject differently than I would. He spoke almost exclusively about the screens he’s done for movies. I enjoy graphics; it is what I do professionally, and from looking around the room I could tell that people were hanging on to his every word, but I have to admit to being slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more of a dialogue about real life trends in machine interaction. You see, there are some trends right now in UI design that I find controversial and I know Mark is well informed and has much to say on the subject.

When I first met Mark we were chatting about how our moms suck at computers. He was telling me about watching his mom struggle with a simple concept such as putting a folder in a folder. Now I’m old enough to remember having to learn how to use a mouse (there was a little program with a fishy and you had to drag the food over and then click on the food to feed the fish), but the desktop metaphor is just something I’ve grown up with. I never really thought about it. In fact, I’ve never had an actual desk with a top that isn’t just a thing that I put my computer on.

When he asked his mom why she was having difficulty understanding a folder structure to keep her documents organized, she replied simply that in real life you would never put a folder in a folder. Let’s think about this for a second. In real life there are these things called folders and you stick bits of paper in them. Because of the physicality of these things you wouldn’t be able to stick a folder with all these files into another folder. It just wouldn’t fit. I actually find this very hard to wrap my head around, but it’s only because I’m used to the way computers do things even if they make no sense.

Mark was telling me that in his research, every human society understands information a certain way. I forget what this way is called, but the metaphor isn’t a desktop, it’s a bookcase. He told me that if he were to design an OS, he would design it this way and it would be called Mother.

There has been a lot of talk lately about how the desktop metaphor is making less and less sense with people migrating away from desktop computers onto smaller portable devices. Smart phones have nearly done away with it altogether, but even in the desktop computer environment we’re seeing movement away from the paper paradigm with programs such as i-tunes, i-photo, and the Libraries in Windows 7. Truth be told, this scares the shit out of me. If the alternative to the desktop metaphor is the database thingy, keep it the hell away from me.

I’ll give you an example because people might not follow this as closely to understand or care about the difference. Using the desktop metaphor, pictures I move to the computer show up as little files, .jpgs or what have you, and I can stick them in folders and organize them the way I see fit. Or you can be like my mom and there is just a million icons all over her desktop and she has to get my sister to find the picture of the parrot on my head. The point being that using this metaphor, it is the user’s responsibility to decide where the files live. This is different than in i-photo. In i-photo all your pictures live in i-photo. There are no files. In order to look at your pictures, you just open up i-photo. To help you look for a specific picture there is a multitude of metadata i-photo collects to help you sort your pictures.

To my mom, i-photo seems like a better way, and that’s great for her and all, but my mom can go fuck herself because that’s not the way I want computers to work. There should always be files. What people don’t see is that i-photo works by creating this database that only i-photo understands. Your pictures are locked inside this program. While it’s true that you simply have to export a picture from i-photo as a file that can be used in other programs, the same way we always have been, I’m terrified for this prospect that my precious memories are on a proprietary list that some company controls.

I don’t want to get too sensationalist, but I have a friend who used i-photo and then somehow corrupted the database and lost all of the pictures of her son from when he was born to when he was three years old. Now that’s really sad. I don’t blame i-photo. It’s a wonderful way of streamlining access to digital pictures. I actually blame my friend for being an incompetent user who made the error of not backing up her photos, but I do believe that the database thingy is teaching people bad practices for data management by making it more abstract to understand the virtual environment.

But I digress. Little digressions like this were my favourite parts of the talk as well as just chatting with everyone a bit after the talk was over. The question came up about how Mark does many of these future designs. Mark argued that our interaction doesn’t actually change that much, it’s just little details. He told us to picture using a computer from the mid-eighties. We’re still controlling it with a mouse and keyboard, we still have icons and windows and information bars. While the look of everything has changed, what people are actually doing has been the same for 30 years. He points out a couple of facts. The mouse was invented in 1952. It was originally used for radar. The fax machine was invented in 1846. I can’t even begin to imagine what people were faxing each other in 1846. This predates the invention of the telephone by almost 2 decades. Our precious little desktop metaphor? It was first demonstrated in 1968. His point is that machine interaction is well established and his job is to make it look nice.

I just really enjoy trivia like this; I find it interesting. My favourite little factoid had to do with the movie Jurassic Park. In terms of ridiculous hollywood UIs, the example most people cite is the scene where the little girl has to reengage the security system, and she exclaims, “I know this, it’s a unix system”, and we view her screen which looks like a 3D flat shaded view of Jurassic Park which then proceeds to do a slow dolly from showing the whole park to the building the main characters are in which somehow turns the security back on. My friends and I were actually just talking about that scene earlier that morning. We actually talk about Jurassic Park a bit too much. Anyway, Mark pointed out that while that is the example of how hollywood doesn’t get computers, the irony is it’s a real program called File System Navigator, a 3D file browser for Irix file systems. It’s use in Jurassic Park came about as a nod to the Silicon Graphics workstations they used to do the computer generated imagery in that movie. It was a nod to this to have the little girl sit down at at real SGI machine.

Mark ended his talk by imploring us motion graphic artists to find inspiration in everything but other motion graphics. He talked about this cycle occurs where he’ll be asked to do something for a movie, and he hearing about real research happening in world will incorporate some of those ideas into his FUIs. Real software developers will then be inspired by the movie to create practical products based on these ideas.

His example for this came from a movie he worked on called the Island. There is a very famous sequence where one of the characters operates this fancy computer table. Mark had seen some work being done at the university level with furniture integrated computing and he thought it would be cool in the movie. After the Island came out, Microsoft came out with their Surface, a fancy computer table.

I don’t know if any conclusions came out of the talk, but I appreciate the dialogue. Having never been involved in an Art Engine or BIT Program event, I didn’t know what to expect, but everything went smoothly and a delightful time was had by all. As a member of the computer graphics and animation community in Ottawa, I would like to thank Art Engine and the Bit Program for giving us an opportunity to come together and have a discussion on issues that matter to us. I would ask anyone who is passionate about how technology, culture, and art intertwine to give Art Engine a look. I know I will be.

Here is your fearless leader with Mark at the event

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