The One Thing Hollywood Gets Wrong in Futuristic Science Fiction

Candice eetimesEvery technologist seems to love science fiction, or so it seems.  Yet many of us cringe when we watch science fiction movies and television shows that attempt to depict the future showing advanced technology.  I’m no exception, though in my case, it seems like EVERY futuristic vision uses the same hackneyed visual trope, their vision of what an advanced electronic display will look like, the “transparent display”.

Before I get too far on this rant, let me explain that transparent displays already exist.  They have existed for several decades.  So, no, they are NOT “futuristic”.  In fact, some of the very first flat panel displays were transparent.  For example, PLATO, an early educational system used a transparent monochrome plasma screen on top of a microfiche viewer screen back in the ’70s.  So, showing a transparent flatpanel display is not only NOT futuristic, it’s downright retro, a blast from the past.

Did you know that your LCD screen that you are probably reading this from is in fact, transparent?  The LCD is transparent but has a flat white backlight behind it.  When you see black text on a white screen, the black is on the LCD, the white is actually the backlight itself.  To turn it into a transparent screen, just disassemble the display, remove the backlight and – voila, a transparent display.  Not very futuristic now is it?

As a display technologist with a strong background in designing and optimizing displays for the human vision system I have another serious pet peeve to share.  Using transparent displays for everyday tasks is DUMB !  Just plain DUMB!

avatartransparentscreenWhy?  First, the user has to look at one information plane while ignoring the image past the display plane.  This causes two problems, first it reduces the contrast of the display making it hard to use; second, it creates a high cognitive load on your vision processing centers in your brain, leading to fatigue.  You think working on a computer screen now is tiring… just try to use a transparent display !

But it’s even dumber than that.  Consider the lack of privacy.  Everyone on the other side of you is seeing a mirrored image of everything you are working on.  Imagine the loss of security!  This is as dumb as having high level strategy meetings in a conference room with large glass windows to the outside… and instead of using a white board, one uses the markers on the windows! Hard to read… and your competitors are watching what you are working on.

Hollywood, stop.  Just STOP.  You are embarrassing yourself.

One Response to The One Thing Hollywood Gets Wrong in Futuristic Science Fiction

  1. Robert Carnegie says:

    You were cited in

    I’d give it artistic licence first; the see-thru screen lets us see the actors’ faces plus some of the screen they’re looking at, in one shot. It doesn’t have to be sci fi either. You can be looking at actors in an ordinary drama looking at a computer screen, a normal physical screen from their point of view, but we are behind the screen looking at them and also their graphics. And most modern displays are in a flat case but we seem to be looking from about where the back end of a cathode ray tube is. (I still use my large CRT wide screen TV. It’s a pretty good room heater.) The flat screen monitor is probably backed against a wall so there’s no logical place for us to be viewing from. But it isn’t realism, it’s storytelling. Back in sci fi, there’s Iron Man. He has displays which logically must be inside his helmet face mask. Which we can see along with his face. From where?

    Having said that… sci fi displays like we’re discussing are not just see-thru, they are not there at all. The image hangs in the air. Or in space. That is mind blowingly cool. And ridiculous, but never mind. Iron Man can be surrounded by a squadron of hologram Iron Mans as decoys against an enemy. The bad guy fights the holograms and the real Iron Man walks up and punches him.

    Oh, yes, holograms. 3-D.

    Credible physical implementations I suppose use dry ice gas that light can be projected into, or a wand containing LEDs that sweeps through the space and paints the image, or tiny drones which swarm up to hang in the air flashing LEDs to create the image. Or, whatever.

    Sure you can put a back on the display to hide it, but a microscopic bad guy drone can fly in and read over your shoulder anyway. And maybe you want to see through in case your boss for some reason wants to talk at you through your display, or you’re simultaneously looking after the kids because the nanobots have the day off. Or, you want it to look good in the movie.

    You might ask why (as far as I know) no one except Harry Potter has a display that folds up.

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