Nathan Shedroff (from the MBA in Design Strategy program at the California College of the Arts) and Christopher Noessel from the well-known interaction design firm Cooper have recently released a new book analyzing the user interfaces shown in science fiction, as well as an accompanying blog to cover material that wouldn’t fit in the book for space reasons, or came out after the release of the book.
I’ve been following the blog for a few weeks now, and the more material they put up, the more I think that it’s important that these kinds of discussions are put in front of the eyes of as many software development practitioners as possible, for the reasons they put forth themselves:
Being an interaction designer colors how you watch science fiction. Of course you’re enjoying all of the hyperspacey, laser-flinging, computer-hacking action like everyone else, but you can’t help but evaluate the interfaces when they appear. You are curious if they’ll disable the tractor beam in time, but you also find yourself wondering, “Could it really work that way? Should it work that way? How could it work better? And, of course, Can I get the interfaces I design in my own work to be this cool or even cooler?”
We asked ourselves these questions with each new TV show and each new film we watched, and we realized that for every eye-roll-worthy moment of technological stupidity, there are genuine lessons to be learned—practical lessons to be drawn from the very public, almost outsider-art interfaces that appear in the more than 100 years of sci-fi cinema and television. Then we wondered what we would learn from looking at not just one or even a dozen of them but as many as we could.
As developers, it’s important that we both find ways to expand the potential set of problems that we can address with our software, while making sure that those solutions are based in what researchers in the interaction design and HCI fields instead of just aping the ideas created by Hollywood production designers.
When I was a boy, secret codes fascinated me, but eluded my understanding. Oh, the simplest of them were easy enough to grasp, such as the Caesar cipher, where the alphabet is shifted by a set number of letters:
Plain alphabet a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
Cipher alphabet D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z A B C
Plaintext v e n i, v i d i, v i c i
Ciphertext Y H Q L, Y L G L, Y L F L
(excerpted from The Code Book, p. 12)
But it was the theory behind codes, and the practice of breaking them, or cryptanalysis, that was most engaging and mysterious. Though studying Alice, Bob, and Eve and prime number cryptography in college classes helped, it was not until I came across Simon Singh’s The Code Book that I finally thought to myself, "I get it!".
The Code Book
Simon Singh, author of The Code Book
The Code Book is a mixture of storytelling and mathematical elucidation that walks the reader through the history of codes and code-breakers, from early Greek accounts of steganography through the downfall of Mary Queen of Scots, and ending with the frontiers of quantum cryptography. At every stage, tales of historical figures are mixed with clear, detailed, and illustrated examples of the codes used at the time. Almost every code is then followed by an analysis of its flaws and a study of the first exploits of those flaws. The back and forth struggle between the code makers and breakers seems at once inevitable and mind-boggling for the sheer genius required in each evolutionary step.
Singh takes these complex ciphers and cryptanalyses and breaks them down into their simpler component parts with figures and tables, for instance looking at frequencies of letter usage in English versus a cyphertext:
(excerpted from The Code Book, p. 76)
The book covers one-time pads, Minoan Linear B, the German Enigma machine, the RSA algorithm, quantum-signed money, and the Beale treasure, among many other topics, all with the same thorough level of explanation and gripping narration. You’ll finish each chapter of this compelling, fascinating, thrilling, and insightful book feeling satisfied with yourself.