Tom Cruise in the Minority Report

How to deliver on design aspiration

Does design mimic the movies or is pioneering design an influence to film-makers? The truth lies somewhere in between.

It is an inexorable fact that science fiction has hoodwinked us. Led us down the path of expectation, awaiting the advent of the flying car or transporter, only to leave us frustrated. Harbouring the visions conjured up by science fiction, I imagined eating breakfast prepared by my food replicator that I had admired from my boyhood fascination with 'Star Trek', hopping onto my hover board like Marty McFly from 'Back to the Future', and arriving at a fully automated building that serviced my every need.

But here I am, sitting in my drab office after hastily devouring my bowl of cereal and commuting to work in my unexciting yet functional Ford Focus.

The reality is that the genre has delivered only some of its promises, primarily in the way we interface with technology. The ubiquitous iPad bears an uncanny resemblance to the tablets portrayed in 'Star Trek', while modern touchscreen interfaces owe much to a vision created by Steven Spielberg in 'Minority Report'.

"There is a strange thing where fact feeds off science fiction and science fiction feeds off fact," Geoff McCormick, director of experience-led design at The Alloy Group explains. "They both inspire each other and so are both driven off one another."

McCormick has worked as a business consultant in the design industry for 16 years, teaming up with some of the world's most famous and successful designers to help them maximise the commercial effectiveness of design.

Future gazing

There is a very close association between the ambitions of most industrial designers and science fiction writers; that relationship gets even closer with film producers. "Creativity within all of us, whether we are scientists, engineers or designers, is the same," says Mike Phillips, design development director at Renfrew Group International. "Our brief as industrial designers is frequently to have a future gaze for a very specific purpose to direct and inspire the future of that particular product or brand line."

Generally the designer comes from an art school, which lacks a strong engineering focus. "You have such a mixture of creativity in these places – painters, sculptors and other artists – that produces a close, creative environment that inspires people," Phillips explains. "That mixture, along with the encouragement to future gaze, is an essential tool for industrial designers.

"There is also the notion that an industrial designer's key role is to humanise technology. We are always approaching a design from 'how much does this fit a human need' rather than matters of function and technology. We combine the engineering and component technology design with the human-centred aspects and that leads to the form design.

He continues: "A design isn't as simple as its superficial shell. With the design engineering very much integrated, the role of an industrial designer is very similar to that of an architect to form the product technology to suit the human requirement, but also the larger picture."

'Minority Report' is held up by many industrial designers as a prime example of the collaboration and interchanging of ideas between filmmakers and industrial designers. "'Minority Report' demonstrates the idea that real life and science fiction feed off each other," McCormick says. "It wasn't the production designers who designed the gesture-based interface that Tom Cruse's character uses. The filmmakers went to MIT and Stanford and asked what was at the leading edge of interaction technology; what were the next generations coming after the next one."

At the time, the next generation was touchscreens. One of the prototypes being developed at MIT that they looked at was 'Sixth Sense', a wearable gestural interface that augments the physical world with digital information allowing hand gestures to interact with that information.

"The film guys went to see what was at the cutting edge of research and development and what was possible," McCormick says. "They then re-imagined that into their film. They took the basic premise of gesture interfaces and then made it sexy enough for Tom Cruise to look cool using it in a film.

"Both of them use design in some way. You have design thinking in terms of how people might interact with technology, but then you also have the actual active design, which includes building an interface that can be manipulated in the right way.

"I think this is very often overlooked. In creating the science fiction they reference R&D rather than just dreaming something."

Star Trekking gadgets

'Star Trek' is abound with visual stimuli when it comes to gadgets – from tricorders and transporters to warp drives and replicators. Creator Gene Roddenberry's world has provided the inspiration to many a modern gadget. While some of the technology remains unattainable, some devices are already here.

"It is funny now if you look where Captain Kirk would sit, at what they imagined to be a futuristic control panel. We have actually advanced light-years beyond that, even though our methods of propulsion have remained the same," says McCormick.

The extrapolation of current trends and how that may influence technology in the future is one of the things that science fiction finds challenging. Another interesting issue is how the films themselves reflect how we perceive technology. In very early science-fiction films they were focusing on how amazing space and aliens are. Then the space programmes began to get more real and science fiction began to take on a slightly different feel.

"'The Day the Earth Stood Still' was the first realisation that someone may come and land on our planet, whereas 'Star Wars' gave a strong sense of a reflection of the Cold War," McCormick says. "There is something deeper that doesn't necessarily relate to industrial design, but a broader narrative of how we understand technology.

"We have gone through several phases where technology is welcomed, where it is scary and where it is interesting. What we are finding at the moment is that the stuff that came out of 'The Matrix', for example, was our relationship to data and privacy."

It is often the 'wow, I wish I had that or could do that' factor that makes science-fiction films such compelling viewing and stimulates the innovation thought-chain of industrial designers. "As designers, we have been looking into things such as touch and gesture interfaces anyway," McCormick says. "But the film-makers had a bigger budget to make something look pretty, whereas ours remains as a sketch or simply as a conversation with a client. They can simply push things out there that just aren't workable."

Cars are a constant theme that runs through science fiction from the flying cars in 'Blade Runner' to Dr Emmet Smith's DeLorean in the 'Back to the Future' series. "There are many instances where they use concept cars to express a kind of future," McCormick explains. "If you think of the original 'Total Recall' where he has an automated cab driver and a big widescreen wall as his TV, they were used to convey a certain lifestyle and culture of these people and as tools to convey deeper meanings about these kinds of things."

A used future

'Star Wars' is an interesting concept because one of the briefs that George Lucas gave his set designers was to create a 'used future'. Ships, building or weapons in the films always have burn, scuff or scorch marks on them; nothing is ever new.

"I think there is something warm about the way the 'Star Wars' people use materials in a reusable way rather than the slap-dash moulding way that we do," McCormick says. "There is the argument with the Zippo lighter, where the case is bashed around while in your pocket and actually the value increases as the finish looks nicer because of these warped materials. This is something that we still refer to in terms of our sustainable design, looking at a 'used future' and how you can make these desirable."

Model making still forms an integral part of both industrial design and film-making and it is easy to draw similarities between the two art forms. "Model making is a fundamental way that industrial designers explore their ides along with CAD work and sketching," Phillips says.

"When I was working at Xerox in the 1980s our designers and model makers worked on early forms of personal computers and user interfaces. At the same time the freelancers would be working on productions such as 'Space 1999', which has a very advanced view in terms of design form."

From the Audi driven by Will Smith in 'I, Robot' to mobile phones and flat screen TVs, product placement has been a vital tool for manufacturers to test the attitudes of consumers while associating their products with futuristic scenarios.

"BT have an interesting research facility where they not only realised it would be helpful for them having some current product placements, but also in terms of envisaging future telecommunications," Phillips says. "Future envisaging and prototyping creates the thinkers. It has the same function as the science-fiction writers and filmmakers. It inspires us all whether we are industrial or creative designers.

"I worked on some future visions for Airbus, the next generation of the A380," he adds. "They were not only stretching thinking forward, but trying to link it back to the A380, back to ideas that are closer to home. It is very much a stretching and a contracting back to more realistic futuristic steps forward.

"It is difficult to know what is genuinely far-fetched and what may become a reality. We all have a capacity to dream; both engineers and designers. It inspires a lot of us and I think it probably is exactly the same that inspires creative writers."

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