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Minority Report gestural interface

by Steve Anderson

Rumors and received wisdom about this scene from Minority Report abound and I would welcome subsequent comments that correct any inaccuracies or misapprehensions in evidence here. I had always heard that the gestures Tom Cruise uses in this scene were "real" -- that is to say, Oblong Industries' chief scientist, John Underkoffler was a technical advisor on the film, at a moment when his company was in the process of developing just such an interface, which would be known as G-Speak. So, Cruise's movements were not simply choreographed for visual effect, they were codified by Underkoffler and his team in anticipation of a real system that would operate according to a gestural logic that was not yet technically feasible. The G-speak system that was subsequently created, in fact, bears significant similarities to that seen in Minority Report, though it is obviously a bit less theatrical and dramatic in everyday execution.

Part of what interests me here is the two-way relationship between science and fiction. This was well-documented by Constance Penley in her book NASA/Trek with regard to the impact of sci-fi movies and TV shows on the real-world operation of NASA scientists in the early days of space exploration. But I think this also bears consideration as an example of the ways in which movies about futuristic technologies often create impossibly high expectations, next to which real technologies seem pale and disappointing to consumers. Are movies that do this (see for example, the ultra-immersive portrayals of Virtual Reality in films such as Strange Days or The Matrix) at some level reasserting the hegemony of movies over the threats of emerging entertainment technologies?

Cinematic Interface Design

by slc68

In mainstream feature films such as Johnny Mnemonic and more recently Minority Report, depictions of gestural interfaces have been used to emphasize their science fictional universes and inject a dose of “coolness” to representations of technology. In Johnny Mnemonic for example, the protagonist accessing of critical locative information in a three-dimensional virtual global network involves physically moving hands to unlock a pyramid like virtual lock structure. Similarly, in Minority Report, Cruise performs intricate and elaborate movements to manipulate and discover narratively important information.

On the surface level, these dramatic depictions serve the film's interests by evoking a sense of wonder and magic in their fictional technological worlds. However, these examples also indicates how gestural interfaces are more easily translated into such highly aesthetic cinematic forms because of their emphasis on physical and embodied action in real space. This property of these post-WIMP interfaces fits the filmic conventions of depicting a protagonist performing and having agency in their fictional worlds. Filming someone simply moving a mouse cursor and typing on a keyboard does not create the same level of narrative action because of their more disembodied and more mentally based activities.

Because film requires observers and something to be observed, the often collaborative and external nature of gestural and post-WIMP interfaces also makes it more conducive to filming. When watching the film, we the audience are essentially the non-participating observers who are actively engaged in the process of understanding the context and meaning behind the user's actions. The use of larger wall-sized displays and more externally visible user actions and visual feedback in designs for multiple simultaneous interactions allows the filmmaker to place the camera as a surrogate for a user who can still understand what is going even without being able to directly play with the system. This is also related to an emerging idea in interface design termed “external legibility”. External legibility is “a property of user interfaces that affects the ability of non-participating observers to understand the context of a user's actions” (Zigelbaum). In this case the user is Cruise's character using a system like G-Speak. Because of the collaborative, physical and therefore more visible/visual aspects of these interfaces, their level of external legibility is higher than that of traditional systems. I believe this high external legibility of space makes the job easier for filmmakers to ultimately present them in a more cinematic and dramatic light.

2008, Jamie B Zigelbaum. Mending Fractured Spaces: External Legibility and Seamlessness in Interface Design. Diss. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2008. Dspace@mit. Web. 3 Dec. 2010. .

Minority Report gestural interface

This showcase scene near the beginning of Minority Report introduces viewers to a futuristic gestural interface for accessing a database of premonitory video clips depicting violent crimes.

from Minority Report (2002)
Creator: Steven Spielberg
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Posted by Steve Anderson