Hovering hands are the devil’s workshop

There’s a thing I personally have grown hate more and more with science fiction; Holographic displays and controls. Long story short, they’re hammy way to make stuff look futuristic and cool while being absolutely retarded.

Minority Report may have popularised holographic displays in cinema and television like no other (it wasn’t the first of its kind but sure made an impact) but that’s what they are; movie magic. In practice a lot of SF tropes don’t really jive well with reality, ranging from giant robots to particle or beam weaponry, at least in our current tech. However, we can already create a simulacrum of holodisplays and controls thanks to VR setups, which can emulate these in a virtual environment. You’re already seeing where the first point is where they fail, it’s the title after all.

The above vid makes a point how the user interface is gesture based, something that’s become an everyday thing for us on mobile devices, and to some on laptops, but the vid completely ignores how stupid this scene is. Just try acting this scene out yourself flail your hands about like that with those large motions sweeping across the scene. It’s very dramatic and works in the movie itself, but of course you don’t see how tiresome it is. Even if you’re a buff guy like Liam there next to you, waggling and waving your arms at your head’s height, or at times higher, it tires you the fuck out. The ergonomics and the stress this sort of work is terrifying to think and nobody should ever have to work in that kind of position to any extended period. It’s a good workout, but as with any workout, you’ll end up taking breaks between sets and won’t do the same stuff day in, day out. There’s a reason most of the shit in your house and everywhere else sets usable levels below your shoulders, because that’s where stuff is comfortable to work with. Actually, you don’t even need to try to act this scene out like a flailing monkey, just glue your phone or tablet to a well at your face’s height and use for an hour there while listening to Rock Shop.

The ergonomic issue is one major issue and it leads directly to the second, which is the layout of holographic controls. They make little sense when in actual use, as they’re almost always spread across the scene. Any and all user interfaces you have in your life are laid out so that they’re easily accessible and make sense. They’re not there for show, they have a reason and intention. SF holocontrols have jack shit this, especially in movies and television where the actor just has to act whatever shit they have to make the scene work. That’s why the holodisplays and controls are at face height, as its much easier to put the effect there rather than underneath hands where they could work. Sure, there are exceptions, yet those are rare and obscure at best.

Then you have the issue of having no feedback. With holographic displays you’re tapping into empty air and you will never had any feedback at the tip of your fingers what the hell you’re doing without some kind of gloves that give some kind of tactile feeling or are necessary to work the displays in the first place, which kinda defeats the point of holographic shit in your face. You could say that it’s really a hardlight construct, but you could have an anti-grav display or floaty display 0-G environment while you’re at it. This is exponentially worse if the holographics control goes around your hand and a wrist to make it look like you’re holding someone’s joystick to wank around. Again, there is no feedback from light, unless there are additional hardware solutions in the middle, and when the software fails, you wish you had that actual stick in your hand to grasp and yank.

There’s also a technological issue the projection, that it is projection. You need multiple spots where the light comes from to form the hologram, and if one fails, you better have more than one spare that can take over the projection. You can actually disable a ship that uses holographic displays and control just by taping or breaking the projectors’ lenses. Weak argument maybe, but consider how stupidly expensive and complex the projectors need to be. Not only they need to have software and hardware that is able to project and recognise “presses” on buttons, basically where your finger breaks the light’s barrier, but also do this in less time than a physical controls. The software has to make extra jumps to get the same end gain, Future tech may be able to do that, just as future tech needs to be self-cleaning and adjusting. All the dust and other particles will start cover the sensors and projectors eventually, and someone needs to clean them. All the displays also need to be adjusted from time to time to show the screens properly and scale on a whim. Such tech will always be less reliable and more expensive than physical controls and screen that, ultimately, do the same stuff in a more effective manner.

Look at the scene here from different Star Treks, mostly the scene from Picard where Daahjz or whatever the hell her name is uses a holodisplay. Not only her hands are high and uncomfortably positioned, but she’s tapping thin air and everything is spread out. Yet her main working area is in front, or in this case, just above her head where she has to bend back to look at the holodisplay. The layout makes no sense and there’s nothing intuitive there. It’s not like LCARS was any less cumbersome to get, but you could see what it was displaying. Holodisplays like in the vid above look terrible for the audience, especially when you realise that they don’t really cast any light on the actors, which leads to the third point; how the hell you’re supposed see them?

Almost all holodisplays have the issue that they’re transparent. Holograms are made of light, and a well lit environment you shouldn’t be able to see them properly without harsh contrast and brightness settings. Holographic displays make the best of themselves in dim environments, and your Chinese cartoon has taught you when you pirated it, you should watch screens from a distance in a well lit room. Not only they’re a bother to see, they’re always showcased with less than ideal edges and full of bloom. The sheer lack of proper sharp shapes that define the layouts and what you see makes holodisplays a lousy experience (imagine reading a book or your screen you’re staring at this very moment with glasses that fog and distort the text and colours.) We’re just starting to get a point where these modern LCD screens and other thinsplays are slowly matching CRT screens in colour and depth but apparently it is the future to throw all that away for eye ruining bloom filled shitfest that makes your shoulders and neck muscles stiff and are extremely uncomfortable to work with. You could make the holodisplays and controls solid and prevent any light passing through either side, but that’d be like having a real screen in front of your face, which in all honesty, would be a better option.

Holodisplays being transparent also lead into security issues. If you’re able to see the screen from both sides, anyone could snap a high resolution image and just flip it to read what it’s saying. In a military environment or otherwise this would be a high-risk matter and no force would ever think including holodisplays outside entertaining guests or showcasing post-post-modern art. Not only the see-through nature of these displays make them unsafe, but because they have low definition and are bloomy, being able to see everything beyond the screen makes them somewhat hard to focus on, which again translate to the whole straining your eyes. Solid displays don’t have any of these problems, because you can’t see through them.

Holodisplays and controls are there for effect in shows and movies. They look fancy and remove the necessity to design and create physical props when you can do the same nonsense cheaper and easier by slapping a camera tracking overlay of something that looks nice. However, even at a closer glance holopgrahic displays make little sense and how they’re portrayed is often more or less completely off or false for effect. In case of Star Trek Picard, it even breaks the logic in-universe, as holographic technology is at a point where you can have whatever object or person look and feel like the real thing. Picard using stereotypical see-through crap is vehemently against the whole replication/holodeck tech they already have. They could have displays and controls that simply come from the air wherever they need, and would look like real paper and feel like you’re pressing something.

It makes no logical sense why would anyone downgrade their holographic projectors to garbage when in Star Trek you can have projections that are, in all effect, sentient and alive. The only reason holodisplays exist like in the videos above is because they’re a science fiction trope to allow more dramatic effect. Rhyme or reason need not apply, only rule of cool. Even that rule can skip the class, seeing nearly all holodisplay designs, and how they’re used, are low-tier cool factor and a moment’s thinking breaks the immersion they aim to create.

One thought on “Hovering hands are the devil’s workshop

  1. Great Article! It’s funny how the folks dreaming these things up never learn by actually doing it! (Running a simple test, like you said, stick your cell phone against the wall and try to use it for any length of time!)
    And in the Marvel Movie “Iron Man” Tony Stark’s engineering CAD system has the same holographic interface with the same issues.

    I’ve been a programmer and user interface designer for machine control since the mid-1980’s, predominantly for scientific testing equipment and semiconductor manufacturing systems–(yes, pre-Windows.)
    Once we had the touch technology and sufficient pixels, I started developing simulated GUIs with simulated 3D buttons and using a touch screen. (Yes, I drew pixels and faked the feedback–like button presses–optically, just like early Windows did!) Because I spent half the first half the day running the equipment and the afternoons programming it, I had a very good innate knowledge of what worked and what sucked, and what the operators really needed.
    In particular, I simplified operations and minimized the need to lift your hands. LARGE buttons and sliders, forgiving pointers, “snap to…” features, etc. I also, located the screen itself on an incline, a few inches above waist high.
    Well in the late 90’s a large competitor brought out a series of machines with an LCARS (star trek next generation-style) interface. I remember seeing crowds of adoring folks at SemiCon West… The interface was almost pure ICARS, flat-screen based and mounted vertically flat, about shoulder high (but with an adjustable arm; by SEMI standards, it had to be reachable *and* comfortable for mid-height asain females through mid-height american males, so from about 4’8″ to 6’0″.)
    And no visual feedback like fakey buttons, just an occasional menu or window change, and a beep or a boop sound.

    Ooohhhh! How cool it looked the trade show to all the buyer-types. (However, those types don’t operate the machines!) As the software manager the marketing guys came to me wanting a sci-fi interface like that! Demanding it!
    I told them to just wait, they’d soon see it was unusable.

    Some didn’t believe me, so I propped up a screen at shoulder height and had them type a paragraph using an on-screen keyboard. After about two sentences they would give up. Another “unbeliever” would offer to try, because obviously his co-worker/competitor was a total wuss. Same result.
    Within about three-to-six months, the LCARS interface was replaced with something less obnoxious, and the display could be tilted and slid far lower down, just above waist high.

    I agree that these interfaces are great to look at, but without considering the human form and its strengths and limitations, they are doomed to fail.

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