certainly plausable, though i can't say for sure that it's correct.
How Star Trek artists imagined the iPad... 23 years ago
By Chris Foresman | Last updated August 9, 2010 11:30 PM
One interesting characteristic of Star Trek: The Next Generation-one that separated it from the original series and most of the early films-was its widespread use of smooth, flat, touch-based control panels throughout the Enterprise-D. This touch interface was also used for numerous portable devices known as PADDs, or Personal Access Display Devices. These mobile computing terminals bear a striking resemblance to Apple's iPad-a mobile computing device largely defined by its smooth, flat touchscreen interface.
To understand the thinking that led to the design of the Star Trek PADD, we spoke to some of the people involved in production of ST:TNG (as well as other Star Trek TV series and films), including Michael Okuda, Denise Okuda, and Doug Drexler. All three were involved in various aspects of production art for Star Trek properties, including graphic design, set design, prop design, visual effects, art direction, and more. We also discussed their impressions of the iPad and how eerily similar it is to their vision of 24th century technology, how science fiction often influences technology, and what they believe is the future of human-machine interaction.
From "electronic clipboard" to PADD
The Star Trek films, beginning with 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, had sizable budgets for set design, props, and special effects. However, the original Star Trek series from the 1960s didn't have the resources to fill starships with buttons, knobs, and video displays.
According to Michael Okuda, original Star Trek art director Matt Jefferies had practically no budget. "He had to invent an inexpensive, but believable solution," he told Ars. "The spacecraft of the day, such as the Gemini capsules, were jammed full of toggle switches and gauges. If he had had the money to buy those things, the Enterprise would have looked a lot like that."
Because Jefferies was forced by budget restraints to be creative, however, the original Enterprise bridge was relatively sparse and simplistic. "Because he did such a brilliant job visualizing it, I think the original Star Trek still holds up today reasonably well," Okuda said.
Similar budget constraints meant creative solutions were required for ST:TNG as well. "We had a much lower budget than the feature films did," Okuda told Ars. "So, for example, I looked at the production process of making a control panel, and I said, 'How can I make this as inexpensive as possible?' Having made those decisions, 'now what can I do to make it as futuristic as possible?'"
ST:TNG control panels
Example control panels designed by Michael Okuda.
What could be simpler to make than a flat surface with no knobs, buttons, switches, or other details? Okuda designed a user interface dominated large type and sweeping, curved rectangles. The style was first employed in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home for the Enterprise-A, and came to be referred to as "okudagrams." The graphics could be created on transparent colored sheets very cheaply, though as ST:TNG progressed, control panels increasingly used video panels or added post-production animations.
"The initial motivation for that was in fact cost," Okuda explained. "Doing it purely as a graphic was considerably less expensive than buying electronic components. But very quickly we began to realize-as we figured out how these things would work and how someone would operate them, people would come to me and say, 'What happens if I need to do this?' Perhaps it was some action I hadn't thought of, and we didn't have a specific control for that. And I realized the proper answer to that was, 'It's in the software.' All the things we needed could be software-definable."
What Okuda realized is that with physical hardware interfaces, each function has to be designed into the interface from the beginning. But by imagining that software could re-configure the interface as needed, the writers were able to imagine any function that needed to advance the plot, and the production artists could create a "software" interface to perform the specific action.
Since the props weren't real functioning devices, no real code needed to be written. "We were considerably freer to imagine, 'What if you do this? Or what if you just touched that and it changed into a helm panel?'" Okuda said.
Still, the design of the user interface on the various control panels was influenced by user experience considerations. "What I tried to do was create something that, at a distance, looked like it had a macro-level organization," Okuda told Ars, "and when you got closer, there appeared to be an additional overlay of organization on top of that. The viewer would imagine, looking at it, 'If I study this close enough, I could figure out how to fly a starship.'"
Lt Uhura using an electronic clipboard
Lt. Uhura using an electronic clipboard on Star Trek.
Avid viewers may remember that officers on the original Star Trek took notes or signed off on orders using what were referred to as "electronic clipboards." These rather bulky-looking (by today's standards) boxes had a sloped top with a large area for writing with an attached stylus, as well as a few light-up buttons. Lt. Uhura often used one in her role as communications officer.
For ST:TNG and beyond, Starfleet used touchscreen PADDs. The thin, handheld devices used the same interface as the control panels and computers on the Enterprise-D. "The idea was that we wanted to make them sleeker, slimmer, and way more advanced than the electronic clipboards were on the original series," Okuda said.
But PADDs were much more powerful than electronic note pads. "We realized that with the networking capabilities we had postulated for the ship, and given the [hypothetical] flexibility of the software, you should be able to fly the ship from the PADD," Okuda said.
Star Trek dreams
Star Trek PADD
An early PADD from ST:TNG.
Like the PADD, Apple's iPad and other iOS devices are designed largely around the idea that the software defines how the device can be used. "Nothing compares to the almost alive interface of the iPad," Doug Drexler told Ars. An ardent reader of science fiction from the age of 10, the iPad's touch interface was something he had long expected. "I think my attitude was, 'It's about time!'," he said.
"I think that anything that has no apparent mechanism yet delivers a big punch is either futuristic or, if you are from the Middle Ages, magic," Drexler explained. "Advanced alien devices on the original Trek series often had no discernible mechanism. So touch interfaces seem like magic. It's also slightly eerie, as you have the sensation that this thing is aware of you."
Even Okuda was impressed with how natural and fluid the interface of the iPad feels in use. Actions that involved complex post-production effects on a PADD actually seem easy on an iPad, he said. "There are a lot of things that are very easy to do in a prop, but actually very difficult to do in reality," he told Ars. "For example, pinch to zoom-that was relatively difficult to do even as a visual effect. It's implemented brilliantly on the iPad and the iPhone."
Drexler said that to him, the iPad is "eerily similar" to the PADDs used in Star Trek. "We always felt that the classic Okuda T-bar graphic was malleable, and that you could stretch and rearrange it to suit your task, just like the iPad," he said. "The PADD never had a keyboard as part of its casing, just like the iPad. Its geometry is almost exactly the same-the corner radius, the thickness, and overall rectangular shape."
"It's uncanny to have a PADD that really works," Drexler said, unlike the non-functional props made for the TV series and later films. "The iPad is the true Star Trek dream," Drexler told Ars.
Okuda identified ease of use as a driving factor behind technology that the production team envisioned for the future-a driving factor that Roddenberry himself considered essential.
"One thing that informed not just the PADD, but the overall technology, was that Gene Roddenberry wanted the new Enterprise to be visibly more advanced then the original Enterprise," Okuda said. "Roddenberry had the wisdom to realize that 'advanced' didn't mean 'more complicated.' He actually wanted things to be much simpler. So we took that to mean that it was cleaner, better user interfaces, fewer buttons, fewer things to learn how to operate," he told Ars.
PADD used for image manipulation
Captain Sisko manipulates digital images using a PADD on ST:DS9.
Touch is a natural interaction for users, and lends itself to greater ease of use. Executed well, it can make devices more accessible, in a shorter period of time, to a wider user base. "The average user can pick up an iPhone or an iPad, and with 30 seconds of instruction, they can use it," Okuda said. "Maybe not in great detail, but for them it's still a functional device."
Early personal computers weren't known for ease of use. "I remember growing up with IBM PCs, using them, and being comfortable with the DOS operating system," Okuda said. "But at the same time, I was frustrated with the fact that I had to think the same way the designers and programmers did."
The Mac changed all that, Okuda told Ars. "The very first time I saw the Apple Macintosh, it was an astonishing quantum breakthrough. Here was someone beating their brains into guacamole in order to make this machine easy for me to use," he said.
Sorting photos on an iPad.
Denise Okuda, Michael's wife, didn't come from an art or technology background before working on Star Trek. Her original vocation was nursing, but she later became more involved in design and art direction with Michael's help and her comfort using a Mac. "When I first sat down at a DOS-based computer, I wanted nothing to do with them," she explained. "But that changed when I used a Macintosh for the first time. Within a few minutes I could learn how to use it; that was my 'ah-ha moment.'"
Both Michael and Denise felt the same "ah-ha moment" when using an iPad. "The iPad, that kind of interface, represents another quantum leap over the interface in the original Macintosh," Michael told Ars.
Okuda expressed frustration that so many other devices had been designed for the technology and not the user. By way of example, he described how easily his parents would typically give up after trying out some new technology. "Yet, you hand them something simple-relatively simple-like an iPad, and the learning curve is very short and the payoff is almost immediate," he said.
Today: science fiction, tomorrow: reality
The same general concepts behind the PADD doubtless had some influence in the eventual development of the iPad. But science fiction often inspires new technology, and many devices that we now take for granted appeared in Star Trek.
"Going back to the original series, when you look at 45 years ago, look at the communicator they used," Denise Okuda said. "Then fast forward and look at what we are using today: flip phones." Likewise, interchangeable data chips were used on the original Enterprise well before the introduction of solid-state memory cards or USB flash drives. "It's really mind-blowing when you look at things today, like the iPad-we were using those things on Star Trek," she told Ars.
Drexler sees examples of real-life technology that were likely influenced by technology used on Star Trek practically everywhere. "Swiss army knife-like cell phones, wall-sized TV screens a quarter of an inch thick, GPS devices that nag you with voice, body scanners at airports, voice recognition, remotely operated fighter planes, surgical robots," he said.
But all three are convinced that more advanced user interaction is just around the corner. Drexler mentioned voice recognition, something used extensively in Star Trek to communicate with a ship's computer. The iPhone has the somewhat limited Voice Control feature, and Android-powered smartphones can use voice to input text anywhere in the system. Voice will be an important input method, especially for those aren't able to type or otherwise use their hand, but neither Denise nor Michael Okuda think natural language will be the evolution of human-machine interaction.
Denise noted that in public, giving voice commands to a device would in many cases be considered rude. "I don't want to hear people's phone conversations, let alone them talking to their devices," she said. While voice may very well be one possible input method, she believes there will still be some kind of silent input method that won't disrupt the environment. Otherwise, she said, "you can get into problems when you put technology above people."
Michael also noted that voice input is generally inefficient. "Imagine I'm looking at some photos, and I want to say, 'Up, up, left, down one, photo number 3362, no, the one on the left.'-that's much slower than just clicking or tapping," he said. "Natural language is, I think, going to have some significant limitations."
Minority Report UI
The user interface used in Minority Report relied on spacial gestures.
Still, what new frontiers are out there for interacting with computing devices? Michael Okuda believes that removing the touch requirement will bring new advances in gesture-based control. "Once you don't have to physically touch the screen," he told Ars, "I think yet another window is going to open up."
Something similar to the 3D gestures used to manipulate video and other data in the film Minority Report could become commonplace, though perhaps not while standing in front of a huge translucent display. "That looks good on camera," Okuda said, "but I think when the technology is available, there will be a way to put it in a desk or something to make it workable."
Drexler referenced another sci-fi film, The Terminator, for his more succinct prognostication: "interactive ocular HUD."
Whatever the advances, though, focusing on the end user will be the driving force behind the true innovations. "As devices get more powerful, hopefully we will continue to see things being considered in terms of the user's time and learning curve, rather than the power of the machine," Okuda said. "The complexity should be abstracted, synthesized down to the simplest possible interface for instant gratification, with the shortest possible learning curve-that is the wave of the future."
"At least, it should be," Okuda told Ars.