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Designers In Space: UX Takes On 'The Martian' And More

NASA's Mission Control as depicted in Ridley Scott's recent film "The Martian."

NASA's Mission Control as depicted in Ridley Scott's recent film "The Martian."

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Films


Directors like Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg go out of their way to consider real technology in their production design. But how practical — or at least how true to life — are the futuristic visions we see onscreen in films like “The Martian,” “Minority Report” and others?

This week user-experience designers Elena Moon and Jos Vaught, who have consulted on interface projects for NASA and SpaceX, help us evaluate Hollywood’s takes on the future. 

On what you might actually see in traditional spacecraft

Elena Moon: “Old [space] shuttle interfaces were just a ceiling of buttons, buttons everywhere — half the battle was memorizing all buttons through the launch sequence. Some of those you only need for ten seconds, then never again for rest of the mission. If you have a screen, suddenly you can have them only come up when it matters and go away when it doesn’t matter.”

On the visual impossibility of the bridge of The Enterprise 

Jos Vaught: “All the interface screens have bright lights surrounding them. It draws the eyes but would be utterly infuriating in real life. Across all these films, the visual noise that happens in all of these interfaces is just off the charts; you have so many things blinking and flashing at you. That it highly problematic in reality. Being in space is scary and can be really tedious, so having design that takes into account the emotional needs and the state of mind that astronauts are in is helpful.”

On the gestural interface Tom Cruise uses in “Minority Report”

Jos Vaught: “I love to watch Tom Cruise use this interface, but the gestures are so wildly complicated or over the top, it breaks the illusion. If I have to take both my hands, point them forward and mime throwing the image off the side of the screen — it’s a workout!”

Elena Moon: “Having seen some of that — those gestural interfaces — when they were emerging from the lab, I think this was pretty damn close to what was happening in the lab at the time.” 

Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney in "The Martian."

Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney in "The Martian."

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Films


On the cues about what’s happening on-board spacecraft in “The Martian”

Jos Vaught: “Currently you have to have 20/20 color-perfect vision to be an astronaut, but if we assume that space travel will open to a more mainstream community, leveraging color as a key indicator of ‘a-ok’ versus ‘you’re going to die’ is highly problematic.

Jos Vaught: “This whole film screamed to me of Nest, the thermostat. Everything is circular and every time we are going from ‘not ok’ to ‘ok,’ the little circle fills up in a clockwise fashion. From a design standpoint: beautiful, totally works.”

Elena Moon: “We have what looks to me like almost an embedded iPad into the wall there. What’s really interesting is, we are seeing astronauts actually take iPads and talk about ‘Hey, don’t worry about embedding movies or reading material when I have to be bored circling the Earth. I’ll just take my iPad up.’” 

On the level of realistic detail in “The Martian”

Jos Vaught: “A lot of the tools and infrastructure they have on Mars is just grossly oversized. Those rovers are absolute monster trucks, they’re beasts and they look like all of the weight that was permissioned for that journey was spent on this really rad vehicle.”

Elena Moon: “Classic NASA is to put as much information [on screens] as you possibly can. It’s like, ‘Where am I supposed to look first?’”

Elena Moon: “I think they nailed the astronaut persona. It could have easily been glossed over, but I think Ridley Scott did his homework and obviously spent a lot of time with astronauts and got their personality down.”

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