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'Minority Report' Interface Designer: Future Tech Needs a Better Dictionary

VR, AR and other future-looking tech is still inconsistent compared to the devices we rely on today.

Amblin Entertainment

There’s this game I like to play when I’m out reporting. Whenever I’m doing an interview or attending a presentation about virtual or augmented reality, I count the time until a “Minority Report” reference.

(For a VR panel I attended this past Tuesday night? Twelve minutes.)

It’s not always “Minority Report.” Sometimes it’s a seminal sci-fi book like “Snow Crash” or “Ready Player One.” Other times, it’s a different movie, such as “The Matrix” (early and often at Facebook’s F8).

But a lot of the time, it’s “Minority Report.” It’s a movie that made user interfaces sexy (well, some would argue Tom Cruise did a lot of the work):

These cultural clichés/touchstones are popular for another reason: It’s really, really hard to talk about digital-reality tech otherwise. These fields are full of jargon, inconsistent in practice and difficult to grok if you haven’t seen all the latest demos; pop culture is a shortcut to a common ideal, a shared vision.

John Underkoffler would agree with that sentiment, and he knows better than most: He designed the fake virtual interfaces and other technology seen in “Minority Report,” the first “Iron Man” movie, Ang Lee’s “The Hulk” and “Aeon Flux.”

“There should be a unified grammar and vocabulary for navigating these experiences,” Underkoffler said in an interview with Re/code. “On Linux, OS X, iOS, Android, Windows … you know what’s going to happen when you grab the scroll bar and yank it down.”

When he’s not consulting in Hollywood, Underkoffler is the CEO of Oblong Industries, which makes an extremely high-tech bulletin board for businesses to use in their conference rooms. Oblong’s product, Mezzanine, is not unlike zSpace in that it tries to preserve the social benefits of being in the same room as someone else, but adds virtual productivity tools on top of that.

“In the real world, in a regular space, there’s zero cognitive overhead with me knowing that you’re seeing the same thing I’m seeing,” he said. “In VR and AR, there’s no built-in way to do that, to know that the context is shared.”

But figuring out when and how to show or hide content in a shared virtual space is a “huge opportunity,” he noted, and one that he expects to one day work on (also in the works, though I think he was joking about this one, is Precrime detection). After all, if future businesses are to one day embrace wearable technology for telepresence or other tasks, then their employees will want to be confident that they’re not revealing their private emails to everyone in the company.

Underkoffler said he first took an interest in alternative user interfaces during an “embarrassingly long stint” as a student and researcher at MIT in the mid-’80s. Back then, he expected the desktop interface popularized by the Macintosh to be obsolete by 1995.

“It’s 30 years later now, and we still have essentially the same thing,” he said.

Maybe in 2025.

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