Why Her Will Dominate UI Design Even More Than Minority Report

Posted: 1/14/2014

As seen on WIRED.com

By: Kyle Vanhemert

A few weeks into the making of Her, Spike Jonze's new flick about romance in the age of artificial intelligence, the director had something of a breakthrough. After poring over the work of Ray Kurzweil and other futurists trying to figure out how, exactly, his artificially intelligent female lead should operate, Jonze arrived at a critical insight: Her, he realized, isn't a movie about technology. It's a movie about people. With that, the film took shape. Sure, it takes place in the future, but what it's really concerned with are human relationships, as fragile and complicated as they've been from the start.

Of course on another level Her is very much a movie about technology. One of the two main characters is, after all, a consciousness built entirely from code. That aspect posed a unique challenge for Jonze and his production team: They had to think like designers. Assuming the technology for AI was there, how would it operate? What would the relationship with its "user" be like? How do you dumb down an omniscient interlocutor for the human on the other end of the earpiece?

For production designer KK Barrett, the man responsible for styling the world in which the story takes place, Her represented another sort of design challenge. Barrett's previously brought films like Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and Where the Wild Things Are to life, but the problem here was a new one, requiring more than a little crystal ball-gazing. The big question: In a world where you can buy AI off the shelf, what does all the other technology look like?

Technology Shouldn't Feel Like Technology

One of the first things you notice about the "slight future" of Her, as Jonze has described it, is that there isn't all that much technology at all. The main character Theo Twombly, a writer for the bespoke love letter service BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, still sits at a desktop computer when he's at work, but otherwise he rarely has his face in a screen. Instead, he and his fellow future denizens are usually just talking, either to each other or to their operating systems via a discrete earpiece, itself more like a fancy earplug anything resembling today's cyborgian Bluetooth headsets.

In this "slight future" world, things are low-tech everywhere you look. The skyscrapers in this futuristic Los Angeles haven't turned into towering video billboards a la Blade Runner; they're just buildings. Instead of a flat screen TV, Theo's living room just has nice furniture.

This is, no doubt, partly an aesthetic concern; a world mediated through screens doesn't make for very rewarding mise en scene. But as Barrett explains it, there's a logic to this technological sparseness. "We decided that the movie wasn't about technology, or if it was, that the technology should be invisible," he says. "And not invisible like a piece of glass." Technology hasn't disappeared, in other words. It's dissolved into everyday life.

Here's another way of putting it. It's not just that Her, the movie, is focused on people. It also shows us a future where technology is more people-centric. The world Her shows us is one where the technology has receded, or one where we've let it recede. It's a world where the pendulum has swung back the other direction, where a new generation of designers and consumers have accepted that technology isn't an end in itself-that it's the real world we're supposed to be connecting to. (Of course, that's the ideal; as we see in the film, in reality, making meaningful connections is as difficult as ever.)

Jonze had help in finding the contours of this slight future, including conversations with designers from New York-based studio Sagmeister & Walsh and an early meeting with Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, principals at architecture firm DS+R. As the film's production designer, Barrett was responsible for making it a reality.

Throughout that process, he drew inspiration from one of his favorite books, a visual compendium of futuristic predictions from various points in history. Basically, the book reminded Barrett what not to do. "It shows a lot of things and it makes you laugh instantly, because you say, ‘those things never came to pass!'" he explains. "But often times, it's just because they over-thought it. The future is much simpler than you think."

That's easy to say in retrospect, looking at images of Rube Goldbergian kitchens and scenes of commute by jet pack. But Jonze and Barrett had the difficult task of extrapolating that simplification forward from today's technological moment.

 Image Credit: IMDb

Theo's home gives us one concise example. You could call it a "smart house," but there's little outward evidence of it. What makes it intelligent isn't the whizbang technology but rather simple, understated utility. Lights, for example, turn off and on as Theo moves from room to room. There's no app for controlling them from the couch; no control panel on the wall. It's all automatic. Why? "It's just a smart and efficient way to live in a house," says Barrett.

Today's smartphones were another object of Barrett's scrutiny. "They're advanced, but in some ways they're not advanced whatsoever," he says. "They need too much attention. You don't really want to be stuck engaging them. You want to be free." In Barrett's estimation, the smartphones just around the corner aren't much better. "Everyone says we're supposed to have a curved piece of flexible glass. Why do we need that? Let's make it more substantial. Let's make it something that feels nice in the hand."

Theo's phone in the film is just that-a handsome hinged device that looks more like an art deco cigarette case than an iPhone. He uses it far less frequently than we use our smartphones today; it's functional, but it's not ubiquitous. As an object, it's more like a nice wallet or watch. In terms of industrial design, it's an artifact from a future where gadgets don't need to scream their sophistication-a future where technology has progressed to the point that it doesn't need to look like technology.

All of these things contribute to a compelling, cohesive vision of the future-one that's dramatically different from what we usually see in these types of movies. You could say that Her is, in fact, a counterpoint to that prevailing vision of the future-the anti-Minority Report. Imagining its world wasn't about heaping new technology on society as we know it today. It was looking at those places where technology could fade into the background, integrate more seamlessly. It was about envisioning a future, perhaps, that looked more like the past. "In a way," says Barrett, "my job was to undesign the design."

The Holy Grail: A Discrete User Interface

The greatest act of undesigning in Her, technologically speaking, comes with the interface used throughout the film. Theo doesn't touch his computer-in fact, while he has a desktop display at home and at work, neither have a keyboard. Instead, he talks to it. "We decided we didn't want to have physical contact," Barrett says. "We wanted it to be natural. Hence the elimination of software keyboards as we know them."

Again, voice control had benefits simply on the level of moviemaking. A conversation between Theo and Sam, his artificially intelligent OS, is obviously easier for the audience to follow than anything involving taps, gestures, swipes or screens. But the voice-based UI was also a perfect fit for a film trying to explore what a less intrusive, less demanding variety of technology might look like.

Indeed, if you're trying to imagine a future where we've managed to liberate ourselves from screens, systems based around talking are hard to avoid. As Barrett puts it, the computers we see in Her "don't ask us to sit down and pay attention" like the ones we have today. He compares it to the fundamental way music beats out movies in so many situations. Music is something you can listen to anywhere. It's complementary. It lets you operate in 360 degrees. Movies require you to be locked into one place, looking in one direction. As we see in the film, no matter what Theo's up to in real life, all it takes to bring his OS into the fold is to pop in his ear plug.

Looking at it that way, you can see the audio-based interface in Her as a novel form of augmented reality computing. Instead of overlaying our vision with a feed, as we've typically seen it, Theo gets a one piped into his ear. At the same time, the other ear is left free to take in the world around him.

Barrett sees this sort of arrangement as an elegant end point to the trajectory we're already on. Think about what happens today when we're bored at the dinner table. We check our phones. At the same time, we realize that's a bit rude, and as Barrett sees it, that's one of the great promises of the smartwatch: discretion.

"They're a little more invisible. A little sneakier," he says. Still, they're screens that require eyeballs. Instead, Barrett says, "imagine if you had an ear plug in and you were getting your feed from everywhere." Your attention would still be divided, but not nearly as flagrantly.

Of course, a truly capable voice-based UI comes with other benefits. Conversational interfaces make everything easier to use. When every different type of device runs an OS that can understand natural language, it means that every menu, every tool, every function is accessible simply by requesting it.

That, too, is a trend that's very much alive right now. Consider how today's mobile operating systems, like iOS and ChromeOS, hide the messy business of file systems out of sight. Theo, with his voice-based valet as intermediary, is burdened with even less under-the-hood stuff than we are today. As Barrett puts it: "We didn't want him fiddling with things and fussing with things." In other words, Theo lives in a future where everything, not just his iPad, "just works."

AI: the ultimate UX challenge

The central piece of invisible design in Her, however, is that of Sam, the artificially intelligent operating system and Theo's eventual romantic partner. Their relationship is so natural that it's easy to forget she's a piece of software. But Jonze and company didn't just write a girlfriend character, label it AI, and call it a day. Indeed, much of the film's dramatic tension ultimately hinges not just on the ways artificial intelligence can be like us but the ways it cannot.

Much of Sam's unique flavor of AI was written into the script by Jonze himself. But her inclusion led to all sorts of conversations among the production team about the nature of such a technology. "Anytime you're dealing with trying to interact with a human, you have to think of humans as operating systems. Very advanced operating systems. Your highest goal is to try to emulate them," Barrett says. Superficially, that might mean considering things like voice pattern and sensitivity and changing them based on the setting or situation.

Even more quesitons swirled when they considered how an artificially intelligent OS should behave. Are they a good listener? Are they intuitive? Do they adjust to your taste and line of questioning? Do they allow time for you to think? As Barrett puts it, "you don't want a machine that's always telling you the answer. You want one that approaches you like, ‘let's solve this together.'"

In essence, it means that AI has to be programmed to dumb itself down. "I think it's very important for OSes in the future to have a good bedside manner." Barrett says. "As politicians have learned, you can't talk at someone all the time. You have to act like you're listening."

As we see in the film, though, the greatest asset of AI might be that it doesn't have one fixed personality. Instead, its ability to figure out what a person needs at a given moment emerges as the killer app.

Theo, emotionally desolate in the midst of a hard divorce, is having a hard time meeting people, so Sam goads him into going on a blind date. When Theo's friend Amy splits up with her husband, her own artificially intelligent OS acts as a sort of therapist. "She's helping me work through some things," Amy says of her virtual friend at one point.

In our own world, we may be a long way from computers that are able to sense when we're blue and help raise our spirits in one way or another. But we're already making progress down this path. In something as simple as a responsive web layout or iOS 7′s "Do Not Disturb" feature, we're starting to see designs that are more perceptive about the real world context surrounding them-where or how or when they're being used. Google Now and other types of predictive software are ushering in a new era of more personalized, more intelligent apps. And while Apple updating Siri with a few canned jokes about her Hollywood counterpart might not amount to a true sense of humor, it does serve as another example of how we're making technology more human-a preoccupation that's very much alive today.