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An image from Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), 1902; one of the first concepts of space travel captured on film. Image: AFP

APEX Insight: What can science fiction teach engineers and designers about the future of in-flight entertainment? That reality may be stranger than fiction. 

Lesson One: Everything that can be invented has been invented
The premise, bleak as it sounds, reads either pessimistically or optimistically, depending which way you lean. The edict echoes through a course offered by MIT Media Lab researchers Dan Novy and Sophia Brueckner called “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication,” which seeks to explore the science of imaginary inventions and harness plausible extrapolations. The course and its creators acknowledge that invention doesn’t arise out of thin air; it’s the fire that ignites when two or more great ideas collide.

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A scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, showing props that look similar to today’s airline meal trays and tablets. Image: AFP

The science fiction genre and its implicit ingenuity offers a gold mine of ideas just waiting to spark with a viable reality, especially for those who work in technology. “It is very true in my mind that science fiction influences our latest technologies,” says Brett Bleacher, director of Advanced Technologies, Innovations, and Research and Development at Thales Avionics. Bleacher cites the films Red Planet, Minority Report and Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope as having inspired his inventions – he holds no fewer than 10 patents, nine specific to in-flight entertainment (IFE).

“Narratively speaking, travel is not what’s interesting.” – Chris Noessel

The same holds true for Chris Noessel, designer and coauthor of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons From Science Fiction. For Noessel and his coauthor, Nathan Shedroff, the processes of designing for reality and for fiction are not that different from each other. “Designers for each domain ask similar questions: Is this understandable? What’s the right control for this action? What would be awesome?” Sure, budget, audiences and realms of possibility may be different, but fundamentally, they argue, the work is similar. Plus, fictional tech very often primes consumers for what’s coming next.

Of all possible applications, lessons from futuristic sci-fi are particularly relevant to IFE tech, which faces the added pressure of having to stay relevant for considerably longer than interfaces on the ground. So much so that it raises the question, what can IFE engineers and designers learn from sci-fi?

Lesson Two: The trouble with travel
Starting with the first sci-fi film, Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), Noessel and Shedroff cataloged hundreds of interfaces for their book. Among their more interesting findings, they uncovered that non-rectangular-shaped screens look more advanced, future screens will glow and they will be blue. But when  challenged to find examples of IFE in sci-fi that IFE innovators could draw lessons from, Noessel was stumped.

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Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope has inspired patents in in-flight entertainment. Image: AFP

“Narratively speaking, travel is not what’s interesting … For that reason, sci-fi largely skips over it. People get in a shuttle, the shuttle takes off, then you have a cutaway or a wipe and then they’re landing,” he says. “That means you don’t have a big body of scenes in which IFE tech is imagined, where movie and television makers have actually thought about that sort of stuff.”

The bring-your-own-device trend that’s currently transforming the IFE industry was already a sci-fi reality.

Sci-fi has been good at inventing technologies that bypass the travel experience altogether. In Star Wars, hyperspace makes laser beams out of stars and seconds out of years for travelers on the Millennium Falcon. In Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry’s transporters zap Captain Kirk in a blink rather than the quadrillions of years researchers posit it would take to actually teleport a human into space. Perhaps most wincingly, in The Fifth Element, travelers heading to Fhloston Paradise are unwittingly knocked unconscious for their speed-of-light space flight. Or, in Total Recall, why travel at all when you can go on a virtual Ego Trip?

But there are a few crucial examples – most importantly, Stanley Kubrick’s painstakingly researched 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). “It seems almost mundane today, but it was mind-blowing at the time,” Noessel says of the cinematic undertaking that led Kubrick to consult more than 50 organizations, including NASA, for technical advice.

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A scene from 2001 that inspired headwear worn by Pan Am flight attendants. Image: Getty Images

In the opening of Act 2, a Pan Am spacecraft called Orion III carries Dr. Heywood R. Floyd to a space resort – a Hilton, no less – for the first leg of his trip to the moon. The camera pans up the center aisle and Floyd, alone in the empty cabin, sits slouched in front of an in-seat screen playing a film, pen floating above him. The scene is eerily prophetic, not just because embedded seatback screens wouldn’t be installed on airplanes for another 20 years after the film’s release, but because Floyd is asleep.

Almost 50 years later, Kubrick’s IFE interfaces have held up remarkably well.

“The notion that the same level of convenience and choice that people had at home would be available on a flight, in a seat, was amazing at the time,” Noessel says. “What’s fascinating, of course, is that Dr. Floyd is asleep. He’s not riveted by the experience, he’s not riveted to the seat in front of him.” Flash-forward to 2001 in the film, and the bring-your-own-device trend that’s currently transforming the IFE industry was already a sci-fi reality, as mission pilots aboard Discovery One watch a telecast from Earth on their way to Jupiter.

Almost 50 years later, Kubrick’s IFE interfaces have held up remarkably well – Pan Am, not so much. “When I think about the survey of science fiction, we see a lot more travel prior to 1968 because that was more of the question. But once people began to see it, maybe it was no longer a mystery,” Noessel speculates. “It may have been influenced in part by the fact that Kubrick’s 2001 was so well researched … Filmmakers may have been like, ‘We’re not going to outdo Kubrick, so we’re just going to put that down.’”

Lesson Three: Tell the travel story
As predictive as fantasy user interfaces may seem, they don’t always get it right – and sometimes they’re not even trying to. “My job was to create interfaces in film, but the thing is, they’re not interfaces – they never were,” explains designer Mark Coleran, who popularized the term “FUI,” or “fantasy user interface,” and boasts an impressive portfolio of work on films, including Children of Men, The Bourne Ultimatum and The Island. “An interface is an object or device used to either imply feeling or be a visual shorthand for indicating what characters are capable of.” Ironically, that sometimes leads to FUI design that makes less sense in reality: “If the characters are really sophisticated, then you make really complex and busy interfaces, which implies sophistication,” he says. “But of course, real sophistication is simplicity.”

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Image: AFP

On some level, Coleran concedes, the same narrative devices can be applied in reality as well. “All of our interactions are just stories. They’re not specifically a piece of fiction, but they’re a story about here I am, I want to do this right now,” he says. So, how would Coleran design interfaces for the travel story? “I would go with the virtual reality (VR) approach: Sit down, buckle up and put your VR headset on,” he says. Asked the same question, Noessel concurs: With future IFE, “We’ll fulfill the promise of escape.”

“Sit down, buckle up and put your VR headset on.” – Mark Coleran

Star Trek writers told the travel story in a similar way, as well. “In Star Trek, there were the constraints of budget, which kept a lot of the stories happening on the ship. That meant that writers had to do a lot of thinking about how it is that people would spend their time,” Noessel says. “When people aboard the Enterprise get really bored or have some leisure time, they go into the holodeck in order to have an escapist experience … These guys are onboard this unbelievably cool ship and they still seek escapism.”

Coleran cautions that while providing a space for escape, virtual and augmented reality should still focus on telling and enhancing the travel story. “Let’s not just use it for purely reproducing an existing entertainment system, but for building an experience out of flying itself,” he suggests. “I think that’s one of the interesting areas of immersive technology, rather than just things behind glass … Can I make the windows bigger and see out of the plane? Or can I see down? I want to skydive over the Rockies.”

Perhaps, if IFE designers can take any lessons away from science fiction, it’s that passengers are ready to explore immersive worlds of their own.

This story was originally published in the June/July issue of APEX Experience magazine.

Katie is a writer for APEX Media, based in Toronto, Ontario.