Saturday, September 26th, 2009

Why Star Trek’s User-Interfaces Suck

May 4, 2009 by Rico Mossesgeld  
Filed under Ramblings of a Gadget Geek

Has anyone realized that—aside from the apparently unresolved questions of FTL travel and matter transmission—Star Trek is an impossible future? Especially, if you’re talking about user interfaces.

Well, the TNG variant at least. The “Okudagrams” that characterize the controls of the USS Enterprise-D (as well other ships within the same timeframe) actually seem counter-intuitive. Granted, the bright colors and adaptability—similar to how an iPhone changes whats on screen depending on what app is running—make the futuristic interface look cool. But nobody’s ever considered just how easy it is to use (or not).

Hard to Understand

For starters, if fan-made Okudagrams are any indication:

okudagram-1

okudagram-2

…then the learning curve in the Star Trek TNG universe must be very steep indeed. As we unconsciously know, the best interfaces communicate immediately what you can do and how you can do it. And both Okudagrams did a great job of obscuring both.

The examples above were full of rounded shapes that looked like buttons—imagine my surprise when practically none of them worked! And imagine my confusion when I ended up on succeeding pages at lcars.org.uk. Suddenly buttons were everywhere, but I only found this out by moving my mouse over each and every shape. Such a cumbersome way to redirect the plasma flow into the quantum manifold of the navigational deflector, no doubt.

Text Input Without a Keyboard?

Call me a luddite, but after using devices like the iPhone and the LG Cookie, I’m convinced physical key input is still the fastest and most reliable way to enter text. At least until they finally perfect mind-to-machine interfaces.

5-15-08-lcars-screen

Yes, you see our heroes (especially Data) input text furiously by tapping rapidly on the touch panel. That may be easy for an android like Data, but who’s willing to bet that Starfleet’s secretaries prefer actual keys to touch-type on?

Dependency on Power

Remember those scenes where the starship is under heavy fire, and those control panels flicker all over? Wouldn’t that make it harder to change interfaces, much less actually use them? Sorry Captain, I can’t vent the plasma—my buttons keep on disappearing!

Granted, those old-school panels of buttons can fail, if their completely cut off from the rest of the ship. But I’d rather rely on controls that work on minimal power, and not on interfaces that depend on a steady stream of power to function properly.

supertrek_io9mov-19

If the trailer is any indication, the upcoming Star Trek movie will feature physical controls. Self-changing plexiglass panels of virtual buttons may look cool, but nothing beats the real feeling of an actual button or lever. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, let us know what you think through the comments below.

(All images are screenshots)

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Comments

3 Responses to “Why Star Trek’s User-Interfaces Suck”
  1. John says:

    Nice pictures, but the article is very light on any discussion of *why* the Star Trek UIs are unusable. A more in-depth article would be much more interesting.

  2. Rick Zarr says:

    It is obvious that the artists of Star Trek had no intent on creating a usable computer interface. This is true of most sci-fi movies. It takes an amazing amount of concerted effort by engineers, psychologists, human (or otherwise) interface designers and computer systems people to come up with a great interface. As far as re-configurable user interfaces that allow the user to redefine how it works, we have those today – although not a clean looking as the “Star Trek TNG or Voyager” UIs. I study energy consumption of systems and the UI makes a difference. A poor UI will cause delays and slow a person’s ability to interface with a machine (a bad thing during a battle with another star ship). Given real engineers at the task, I’m sure the TNG UI could be amazingly simplified and self explanatory.

    • Rico Mossesgeld says:

      Exactly. And I’m sure there’s a good balance between practicality and the ability to show what’s happening to the audience.

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