This week's Design Blog assignment was to watch and comment on a video entitled "How Do Fictional UIs Influence Today’s Motion Controls?", posted by the team responsible for the Leap Motion hand-sensing peripheral.
I've read or watched a number of essays and videos on a similar theme, but this one offered an insight that I hadn't thoughtfully considered by now: gestural and immersive interfaces in fiction are presented as symbols of their users' power and control. The contemporary vision of futuristic computer interfaces is almost identical to the portrayal of magic in fiction and myth throughout history. Wizards, magicians, and sorcerors do their most impressive work by combining gestures with spoken words, manipulating the world around them with a minimum of physical effort (I have never heard an explanation for the relatively low rates of obesity in wizards, despite their sedentary lifestyles). Stage magicians use elaborate devices and tricks to create the illusion of controlling objects with mere gestures.
As Arthur C. Clarke famously stated, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The types of computer interfaces shown in fiction are not indistinguishable from magic because we are meant to believe -- or at least suspend our belief enough to accept -- that they are possible. When we watch Luke Skywalker using the Force, we don't believe what we are seeing. We might spend a few minutes straining with our minds as we try to pick up the remote control from across the room, but even that is a lark. If it worked, we would likely faint from the shock of it. On the other hand, when we watch Tony Stark build, toss, slide, and otherwise manipulate holographic objects in his lab, we are much more likely to think "that could be me!" The notion that the real world is just this close to turning us all into wizards is exciting and empowering.