With Star Trek Into Darkness opening in theaters this weekend, it seems like a perfect time to survey some of the technological foreshadowing the franchise has bestowed upon us over the years.

There are few better sources for that kind of info than Make It So (Rosenfeld), a book by Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel that describes in great detail the interaction design lessons we can take from science fiction.

From brain copying in Metropolis (1927) to voluminous projections in Iron Man 2 (2010), the book provides a wide and detailed account of how the tech in SF inspires the glowing things in our pockets today and the glowing things we’ll have embedded under our scalps in a few decades.

Here are some excerpts from the book that show how Star Trek staked its claim in our design imagination. We’ve selected examples primarily from the original television series and J.J. Abram’s 2009 reboot, but fans of Deep Space Nine, The Next Generation, Voyager, and the original movies will find plenty of nourishment throughout Make It So.

Enter the discount code UXMAGMAKEITSO and get 20% off when you buy the book online.

Star Trek Sets the Tone for Mobile

Whether we like it or not, the fictional technology seen in sci-fi sets audience expectations for what exciting things are coming next. A primary example is the Star Trek communicator, which set expectations about mobile telephony in the late 1960s, when the audience’s paradigm was still a combination of walkie-talkie and the Princess phone tethered to a wall by its cord. Though its use is a little more walkie-talkie than telephone, it set the tone for futuristic mobile communications for viewers of prime-time television.

Exactly 30 years later, Motorola released the first phone that consumers could flip open in the same way the Enterprise’s officers did. The connection was made even more apparent by the product’s name: the StarTAC. The phone was a commercial success, arguably aided by the fact that audiences had been seeing it promoted in the form of Star Trek episodes and had been pretrained in its use for three decades. In effect, the market had been presold by sci-fi.

Star Trek Presents Complex VUIs with Thinking Computers

In the “Mirror, Mirror” episode of the original Star Trek TV series, Captain Kirk consults the computer to learn whether a poorly understood accident could have been produced deliberately:

KIRK: Computer.COMPUTER: Ready.KIRK: This is the Captain. Record: Security research, classified under my voiceprint or Mr. Scott’s.COMPUTER: Recording.KIRK: Produce all data relevant to the recent ion storm, correlate following hypothesis. Could a storm of such magnitude cause a power surge in the transporter circuits, creating a momentary inter-dimensional contact to a parallel universe?COMPUTER: Affirmative.KIRK: At such a moment, could persons in each universe in the act of beaming transpose with their counterparts in the other universe?COMPUTER: Affirmative.KIRK: Could conditions necessary to such an event be created artificially, using the ship’s power?COMPUTER: Affirmative.

What’s notable is that during the interchange, Kirk isn’t playing with ideas, he’s just asking yes or no questions. Even though he’s asking about something fairly mind-blowing (which could have changed the nature of the Star Trek franchise into something much more like Quantum Leap), he is essentially using the device as a reference. Still, the scene gives the sense that this is something that has never been done before, with the computer instantly modeling options and testing variables to produce its answers. This makes it a good tool for thinking.

Star Trek Challenges the Future of Medical Diagnosis

The original Star Trek TV series introduced portable and fast diagnosis with its medical tricorder. The ship’s doctor, Leonard “Bones” McCoy, would wave the handheld scanner over a patient and simultaneously look at the handheld screen. Though the series never showed exactly what he was looking at, after a glance at the screen he would describe exactly what was wrong with the patient, even if the problem was obscure or the patient was an alien species. Though McCoy might have been viewing a screen very similar to the sickbay monitoring screens discussed, it is more likely that the device was also able to suggest a diagnosis based on its readings. Other series in the Star Trek franchise evolved the appearance and shrunk the size of the medical tricorder.

Few other sci-fi properties have presumed such portability and speed of medical diagnostic tools. Although the medical tricorder was largely a narrative tool rather than a serious speculative technology for assistive diagnosis, the notion of a portable and near-instantaneous diagnostic tool inspires medical technology inventors to this day. And that’s not by accident. In one deliberate attempt to have sci-fi influence the real world, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry reportedly signed a contract with Desilu/Paramount stipulating that anyone who can create a device that operates like a medical tricorder can use the already-popularized name for their device. In essence, he is offering nearly 50 years of in-show marketing to anyone who can live up to the vision.

Star Trek Posits an Intense Vulcan Testing Interface

Testing is seen in the survey a few times, all within the Star Trek films. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, we see such a system when the recently reanimated Spock is rebuilding his sense of self and knowledge of the world.

In the testing cell, he approaches a bank of three transparent screens. When he says, “Computer, resume testing,” a metallic voice begins to ask him questions on a wide variety of esoteric topics, such as, “Who said ‘Logic is the cement of our civilization with which we descend from chaos using reason as our guide?’”3 and issuing challenges such as “Adjust the sine wave of this magnetic envelope so that anti-neutrons can pass through it but anti-gravitons cannot.” When Spock correctly answers a question, the computer responds with “Correct!” and moves on.

For each question, either the text or an illustration of the posed problem is presented on the screen and remains there until Spock answers it. He answers some of the questions vocally. For others, he places his hands on a set of touch pads. Only his gaze identifies which of the three simultaneous questions he is answering. He answers with increasing rapidity until he comes to a particularly difficult question he does not understand.

Seriously, he’s stumped.

One of the most memorable examples of testing interfaces is in the Star Trek reboot film when a young Spock is attending school on Vulcan. He is standing at the base of a concave hemisphere that surrounds him with a projected expanse of overlapping and moving images, formulae, and illustrations. He responds to a voice asking him factual questions, such as “What is the formula for the volume of a sphere?” As he answers questions correctly, the related figure fades from view and another is asked. We do not see Spock make an error, so we don’t know what would happen in that case.

When the camera pulls back to reveal many similar learning pods with one student at the center of each, we understand that testing on Vulcan is done alone, and we assume that each student progresses through this gauntlet at his or her own pace.

In both cases, the interface fires a barrage of questions at the student, testing recall of facts in rapid succession.

Both of these systems equate intelligence with the simple recall of facts. Memorization is a core skill, but data in the age of the Internet is cheap. Just as or more useful is the ability to apply that knowledge—to take a complicated problem in the real world, identify what information is and isn’t pertinent, and form and execute a plan for solving it. Granting the benefit of the doubt, perhaps these testing interfaces we see are just one part of Spock’s education and there are other systems for learning other skills. It makes sense that a filmmaker would want to pick the most cinemagenic of possible learning components. This testing pod qualifies for its pace, exciting visuals, and an emotional callback to what it felt like for the audience to take difficult tests in their youth.

Star Trek Glows and So Should You

The most prominent visual aspect of speculative technology is that it glows. From lightsabers to blasters, holograms, to teleporters, most sci-fi technology emits light. It is the most common tag in our tag cloud … and any casual overview of the survey shows its ubiquity.

This effect includes on-screen elements as well. Type and other graphic elements, like lines in a map or diagram, are often a bright color on a dark background. Frequently a blur around these elements is added to enhance the glow effect. To push the technological aspects of the interface, diagrams and images are often rendered as wireframes instead of solid or patterned fills, creating more opportunities for high-contrast glowing.

Why does sci-fi glow? We suspect it’s because things of power in the natural world glow: lightning, the sun, and fire. Other heavenly bodies glow as well—stars, planets, and the moon (especially against a black background)—and have been long associated with the otherworldly. Additionally, living things that glow captivate us: fireflies, glowworms, mushrooms, and fish in the deep seas. It’s worth noting that while most of real-world technology glows, a lot of it doesn’t, so its ubiquity in sci-fi tells us that audiences and sci-fi makers consider it a crucial visual aspect.

Regardless of the reasons, designers should be aware of this principle. If you want your interface or new technology to seem futuristic, it’s got to glow.


Back in the later '90's I read, on the basis of the bookjacket, a book called "The Physics of Star Trek" by professor Lawrence M. Kraus, I found it interesting how he made the connections between real physics and those used on the show. Mostly he pointed out the thought that went into considering real science when the show was being written. He also pointed out errors in accuracy probably due to budget constraints or mere ignorance while still praising the show for making a better attempt (like a lot, but not all, written Science Fiction). Typically, the better science fiction authors were often well versed in science if not scientists themselves.

Around 1976 or 1977 I attended one of Issac Asimov's lectures. Asimov was a brilliant scientist, even if not so modest. I do remember one line that he said, "It wasn't called the the 'pocket calculator' when I invented the concept in the early fifties. Now many of you have these, and in the near future they will be far more powerful and capable." Looking at a Samsung Galaxy S4 or iPhone 5S and you realize that the phone aspect is only a small part of it's function. (This was not the subject of the lecture but merely a side point but I vividly remember so much of the lecture.

When one looks at many of the better Sci-Fi films, while there are always certain aspects that are ridiculous (as every one of us nerds in earshot will quietly point out) there are also many trivialities that the general public misses.

Many UI/UX concepts used in Sci-Fi films like the virtual UI's in "Minority Report" were already around if you'd go to SIGGRAPH or other similar conference. Often, as Don Norman said, about 2 weeks ago at a lecture I attended at Stamford U, most all of the future of the UX/UI as it will be in ten years is currently available in labs now to those who follow it. I've even seen TED talks about "amazing" UI developments that are not much different (and some less impressive) than some of the things I saw at SIGGRAPH 2000 in New Orleans. 3D UI's with haptic feedback was the thing I thought was so amazing, amongst so many brilliant demos and concept presentations. To continue Don Norman's comment though was that it typically took 7-10 years for the technology to take hold and become financially feasible. This doesn't even address the issue of time for implementation into everyday appliances/software and the other issue of luck of timing of those implementations. A brilliant design could be doomed by merely being introduced too soon. If the concept is strong enough it will hang around long enough for someone to introduce it at the right time. Many MP3 players were around quite a while before the iPod. Yet the iPod was looked at as brilliant technology when in fact it was more of a marketing issue and luck of timing than brilliant technology that made it so ubiquitous. This isn't meant as slam to Apple, as they were brilliant in that marketing, but for their successes, they, like many of their competitors have had equally powerful failures due to bad luck or timing.

As for Hollywood films, I'm impressed with the small things and less with the big flashy ''glowing things" which are more attention drawing on the big screen than they may have in real life use. Incidentally, making data 'glow' does draw your attention to it, but it also makes it harder to read or interpret. These glowing things are meant to dazzle and not something that is tested for a good user experience. This is why so many products are focused on the dazzle of the sale rather than the satisfaction of the user three weeks later when they realize that much of what impressed them in the demo or at the store is now merely annoying if not actually impeding their effectiveness. The 'free apps' that are available are a good example of this. I'm always amazed at how many apps people download to mobile devices that are used a few times and then left dormant if not deleted because the dazzle wasn't followed by a good minimum viable product with a good user experience.

So if we look at the world around us and see the effects of modern technology, it's pretty far from it's intended initial design. Sometimes that's good, as when we imagine now how we got along without a mobile phone with us 24/7. Sometimes it's bad, as when texting (SMS/IM) has reduced clear communication to acronyms, unclear if not just poor [language] usage and semi-anonymous bullying. These are just examples and aren't meant to be as myopic as they sound but rather simply to make the illustration of the double edged sword.

In my days of developing instructional design (which lead me into UX design a few decades ago) the example of young Spock's training is a fairly simple Socratic approach which we had already built software and simulations for and that was around 1994. We simply hadn't the funding to use voice recognition, which was available at the time, and data projection which was also available but prohibitive for a sell-able product.

I do commend the authors (Shedroff and Noessel) though, for keeping these ideas 'in the light of day'.

Great article Loved it!