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2001: A UI Odyssey




2001: A UI Odyssey

Every day, most of us interact with a plethora of devices for a number of different reasons. We use our phones, tablets, and computers for everything from getting work done and reading the news to talking to our friends and families. We use them for exercising and for all kinds of entertainment. But seldom do we stop to ponder how or why certain inventions, such as the tablet, have become so important in our lives. These were all once cutting-edge technologies. They’ve been introduced to the public over a number of years, slowly enough that adapting to their daily use hasn’t usually been a shock. They have become as common as toasters and automobiles were before them. But not that long ago, any of these devices would appear as though they had been taken directly out of science fiction. It’s not surprising, then, to find out that science fiction is the inspiration for so many of them. When looking at user interfaces, in particular, perhaps the greatest such source of inspiration for technology has been the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In 1945, a young writer and futurist named Arthur C. Clarke proposed an idea for a communications network using three geostationary “artificial satellites” that would transmit television and microwaves to the entire world^1. Clarke predicted it would be 50 years before this could be made a reality, but the first communications satellite placed in geosynchronous orbit, Intelsat I, was launched in 1965, only 20 years later. This invention, paving the way for GPS among other technologies, changed the way we communicate and even our view of the world.

Less than twenty years later, Clarke, along with director Stanley Kubrick, went on to write the screenplay for the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film (and the concurrently written novel of the same name) deals with the subjects of human evolution and extraterrestrial life and suggests a near future where commercial space travel is almost commonplace and artificial intelligence has been born, coinciding with another step in human evolution.

The film’s visual effects broke new ground, having been the most realistic portrayal of space travel thus far, and certainly became the inspiration for many films and television shows that would follow, two notable recent examples being Gravity (2013) and Interstellar (2014). It was ahead of its time in many ways. Standing apart from the typical space opera, one of the brilliantly realistic points of the film was to show that lacking an atmosphere, there would be no sound heard in space or on the moon. 

Movie Posters - Space Odyssey | Gravity | Interstellar
As he did with the communications satellite, Clarke, this time along with Kubrick and numerous technical advisors, made more than one prediction about near-future technology. As one of the more incidental examples of this in the film, onboard the spacecraft Discovery One, astronauts Bowman and Poole are both shown casually watching a news report on a device that closely resembles an iPad, called the “Newspad”. This scene even became evidence in a lawsuit posed by Apple, which claimed that Samsung’s Galaxy tablet was infringing on their patent for a tablet device (the basic design of the iPad). Samsung’s attorney’s defense was that this type of device was invented during the production of the film between 1964 and 1968, and not by Apple in the 1990s. The Newspad, which could show video as well as text, bears a striking resemblance to the iPad in appearance, as well as how it is used:

“In the book version of ‘2001’ [Clarke] described how a user ‘would conjure up the world's major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad.’ He went on: punch in the code for a story and ‘the postage-stamp-size rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it in comfort.’^2

ipad - Space OdysseydThis 2001-style tablet made appearances in other movies, shows, and books both before and after, and certainly before anyone held an iPad, which was released in 2010. In the many iterations of Star Trek, for example, the captain could be seen reading a report or signing off on some important space paperwork on such a device before handing it back to a crewmember. Often in these depictions of the future, it was implied that while printing on paper or watching TV might become obsolete, sources of portable and up-to-date information would become all the more important and easy to access.

2001 also showed the flat-screen monitor (or television), well before its invention. These are used at security checkpoints as well as for video phone calls, computer readouts, and even in-flight entertainment.

Perhaps the film’s most subtle and inventive user interface is one that isn’t visual. The artificially intelligent computer HAL 9000 is integrated into all of the Discovery One's functions, including engines, navigation, communication, lighting and other environmental controls, and most important to the plot, life support. It sees with its ubiquitous red camera "eye" panel, and it can show information on any of the ship's screens, but it isn't tied to any specific point of interface. Instead, the astronauts communicate with HAL simply by speaking with it, wherever they happen to be. Their challenge actually becomes finding a way to speak to each other without HAL hearing them.

The computer is addressed by name when one needs it to perform a function or answer a question. It speaks and is spoken to in a conversational manner, and it plays chess. Although its purpose seems to be a subordinate to humans, we quickly realize that it can’t serve them without a certain level of autonomy. Through personification, such an interface can be made to seem not only intelligent but to have consciousness. This is underscored by the remarks that the astronauts make while being interviewed during their voyage:

BBC Interviewer: Dr. Poole, what's it like living for the better part of a year in such close proximity with Hal?

Frank Poole: Well it's pretty close to what you said about him earlier, he is just like a sixth member of the crew. [You] very quickly get adjusted to the idea that he talks, and you think of him ... really just as another person.

BBC Interviewer: In talking to the computer, one gets the sense that he is capable of emotional responses, for example, when I asked him about his abilities, I sensed a certain pride in his answer about his accuracy and perfection. Do you believe that Hal has genuine emotions?

Dave Bowman: Well, he acts like he has genuine emotions. Um, of course, he's programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him, but as to whether or not he has real feelings is something I don't think anyone can truthfully answer.

This captures the goal of a voice-based interface: for the speaker to communicate with a computer naturally as if it were another person, to believe that they are speaking to a conscious entity (even if it isn’t a true AI). As the first mainstream attempts at a realization of this, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Google Assistant, and Amazon Alexa all take on the role of “intelligent personal assistant”, beginning the era of UI that doesn’t necessarily need its users to type, use a mouse, or even a touch-based interface. This frees up the eyes and hands for less mundane tasks. Moreover, this type of voice interface can be used completely without vision or touch, making it accessible to those who are blind or disabled. 

Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Curtana, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa

Controlling the home is one of the purposes of a voice-based UI. Products like Nest facilitate a “connected home” where a device (most easily with Google Assistant) can be told to change the temperature, dim the lights, turn appliances on or off, or secure your home using its voice interface.

While the film has a lot of esoteric points, and much of its meaning is perhaps open to interpretation, there is no doubt about its insight and influence. Right now, you are almost certainly reading this on a device that was in some way inspired by 2001 or another work of science fiction. Just hope that you won’t need to ask it to “open the pod bay doors”.

By Adam Piken
Creative Director, Redstage

2001: A Space Odyssey. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick.Signet Books, 1968.

2001: A Space Odyssey. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. MGM, 1968. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062622/?ref_=nv_sr_1)

^1 The 1945 Proposal by Arthur C. Clarke for Geostationary Satellite Communications. via http://lakdiva.org/clarke/1945ww/. Date unknown. and Wireless World Magazine. Feb., 1945.

^2 Stanley Kubrick Envisioned the iPad in '2001,' Says Samsung. Ned Potter. Aug. 26, 2011. (http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/apple-ipad-samsung-galaxy-stanley-kubrick-showed-tablet/story?id=14387499)

A number of the interfaces mentioned here can be seen in detail on the blog INTERFACE LOVE. https://ilikeinterfaces.com/tag/2001-a-space-odyssey/

xSince the time of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, readers have been captivated by fantastic visions of the future that would eventually become reality.