Usability in the movies

I find it funny to see how people in the movies use computers, and it’s outright hilarious too see the crazy fake user interfaces movie makers create. Would those computers and their UIs actually be usable in the real world? Probably not. And why don’t people in the movies have to deal with the problems we have to deal with when using computers in the real world, like spam and tiny text?

In Usability in the Movies – Top 10 Bloopers Jakob Nielsen lists the following unrealistic characteristics of computers used in movies, and answers some of those questions:

  1. The Hero Can Immediately Use Any UI
  2. Time Travelers Can Use Current Designs
  3. The 3D UI
  4. Integration is Easy, Data Interoperates
  5. Access Denied / Access Granted
  6. Big Fonts
  7. Star Trek’s Talking Computer
  8. Remote Manipulators (Waldo Controls)
  9. You’ve Got Mail is Always Good News
  10. “This is Unix, It’s Easy”

I’d like to add noisy pixels to that list. Picture a scene where the hero has hacked into a computer looking for clues that will help him or her solve the murder mystery. For every window that opens, every dialog box that appears, every line of text that is displayed, sometimes for absolutely everything that happens on-screen, the computer makes a chirping noise.

It reminds me too much of the faulty, chirping power supply in my PowerMac G5.

Posted on March 12, 2007 in Quicklinks, Usability


  1. that’s perhaps one of the best lists i’ve ever read. quite humorous.

  2. That’s funny. My wife and I were watching television the other night and we remarked how everyone in this movie must be a top level IT person. Nothing posed a challenge for these actors. Hack into anything, operate everything, always instant results. Never a bit of down time, never a glitch, no waiting, no lag, no latency, stunning graphical UIs (like you’ve never seen before — in your life). And of course it’s all wireless and secure. Very unreal. Nice how movie producers can take liberties like that. :)

  3. If you like the “pixel noise” effect, why not check out: Nullsoft Beep.

    Great fun! For all of two minutes.

  4. Two of my favorites:

    1. The 3-D city scape UI and various viruses from Hackers.
    2. The Virtual Reality Interface from Disclosure. Hilarious.

    As for your noisy pixel, back in OS 8 or 9, I believe the user was able to assign a noise to damn near everything. It could even tick when the user scrolls. Maybe its a “homage” to “the good old days”?

    I also like watching what people type in on terminals in movies. It’s fun to see if they are issuing even remotely realistic commands. Sometimes they are semi-real. Others they have no basis in reality at all.

  5. March 12, 2007 by Ryan

    I noticed the noisy pixels in iRobot, why would such a futuristic computer suffer from noise? haha

  6. Ah, many’s the time I’ve captured an extremely blocky photo of a criminal suspect using a three-pixel digital sensor.

    Luckily, yelling “Enhance!” at my proprietary photo-editing software will resolve even the finest details, leading to his inevitable arrest ;).

  7. March 12, 2007 by Ryan

    haha nice one Scott :)

  8. The best movie-computer thing has got to be when computers break down, the monitors display TV noise or signal break-up noise. I remember back in high-school, some friends and I made a small QBASIC program that would display black and white, TV-like noise on the display. This would confuse and upset many incompetent teachers :)

  9. Another one: computer inputs are basicly keyboards, no one uses a trackpad or a mouse, it’s simply useless, why use it when you can hit one thousand key strokes in ten seconds without any mistake?


  10. Hi Roger -

    Great post!

    That G5 power chirping is apparently your processor(s) going to sleep and waking repeated. The apple CHUD download solved it for me. FYI, Cameron

    chirping / squeak on powermac g5

  11. One of my favorites has got to be the Mac OS running on a PC or Windows running on Mac hardware. You’ve Got Mail and Office Space are both guilty of this.

    Good times.

  12. Its a joke watching the hackers/actors blindly punch on their Keyboard

  13. The only time I remember technology going wrong for the user in the movies is ‘Collateral’ with Foxx and Cruise, were the mobile went flat and he could not get reception…

  14. March 13, 2007 by Mikael N

    What about green text on black background? Imagine writing HTML and CSS with that combination for 8 hrs every day (22 hrs if you’re a big screen hacker).

  15. Nice list! A good start into another day of coding :)

    My friends and I also like to “discuss” the movie-OS shown in blockbusters. One of our favourites is defintely the multi-display workstation in “Password: Swordfish”. It had like 5 (or more) displays with an impossible setup (not even one clue of any alignment). And the best part: the host-system knows exactly the position of each display. The screensaver showing a moving… err… light (?) on an oval shaped track. (sorry… don’t know how to describe it better)

    Just great (not to mention the hilarious programming-scene).

  16. there’s always that scene with lex in the first jurassic park movie too… that was a ridiculous example of UI

  17. Perhaps in the next sci-fi/futuristic movie they should have all of the 3D GUI, effects et al and then get the guy to write:

    10 PRINT “Pete is ACE!” 20 GOTO 10

  18. One of the most curious thing in movies is Apple’s product placement (kinda like Dole in the “Curious George”-movie) - since everyone in movies seem to use macs and then they seem to use a custom OS. How often haven’t I seen scenes starting with a big apple-logo then pan and zoom out to the actual person using it.

    Other then macs there not very often any other brands on display. Monitors, for example, always seem to me like thay have been removing the brand name.

    If they don’t use mac, they always use laptops. Or worse mac-laptops.

    One thing i’ve noticed in the last year is that XP is more and more common in movies.

    One last thing that bugs me is that in movies and searching the net, the pages loads instantly, no matter how crappy the machine may be. Ok, you might not want to have too realistic pageloads, you don’t want to waste precious seconds, but at least they could’ve tried to make it look more realistic.

  19. We were talking about this today.

    Ever notice how in movies (and TV drama) when they communicate via video conferencing that the users are always looking straight out of the screen? Like the cameras are actually mounted in the middle pixel of the screen?

    Funny, whenever I use Skype, the people at the other side are looking down. Probably because I am looking at the screen but my camera is on top, and the same for them huh? Not in the movies!

    In the movies they must already have technology that has been discussed, and prototyped, but is not quite here yet. Nice for them.

    Scott, thanks for the Nullsoft Beep software. I think I best go and un-install it now. This was the loudest comment I ever typed!

  20. Ah, technology in the movies and TV Shows!

    It’s one aspect of the show 24 that kind of does my head in, they seem to have a network that can connect to anything, anytime, anywhere! It’s also why I stopped watching CSI as they just pushed the pseudo-technology too far!

    My favourite ‘Intarweb’ movie is The Net with Sandra Bullock, the UI for the web is hilarious.

    P.S. Gotta love that chirping G5 power supply! Some days I want to move that machine off my desk and under the table!

  21. What about green text on black background? Imagine writing HTML and CSS with that combination for 8 hrs every day (22 hrs if you’re a big screen hacker).

    Mikael: if you substitute “Forth and Assembly Language: for “HTML and CSS”, that’s exactly what I was doing 23 years ago :-)

    Not sure why anybody would still be using a VT100 in a modern film though…

  22. haha, very good read. Independance Day comes to mind. Will and Jeff hacking into the core of a far superior race. lol.

  23. March 13, 2007 by Matthew Gruman


    My co-worker’s OSX still beeps and ticks with every action (Word sounds like a typewriter)—and there’s definitely no Nullsoft Beep installed here. Drives me batty, I don’t get get how she stands it.

  24. March 14, 2007 by kaidoh

    Great list. I’d like to add the following truths:

    • the hero can type using only one hand - way cooler than the normal way
    • once hacked into a system (access granted!) one can get virutally any desired information in milliseconds
    • the rotate-picture-to-show-what-was-previously-hidden-trick - has anybody a photoshop tutorial on this?
    • the second you buy “Catcher in the Rye” an alarm goes of in the NSA (no such agency) and a swat team hits the road to reach you even before you leave the store.
    • human computer viruses can infect alien space ships and bring them down in just no time.

    have a nice day!

  25. Anything that remotely resembles a virus; usually tends to have an animated human face or something as ridiculous saying something oh the lines of “you are infected by me [evil laugh]…”.

  26. @shishira - Agreed. I love how everyone in the movies types like they’ve been attending a Mavis Beacon boot camp for a year. You never see anyone hunt and peck or ever use the backspace or delete keys.

  27. Oh, man. Am I the only person who is bugged by the antialiased text on the computer screen on Lost. the one in the Swan hatch [RIP]? Everytime that thing smoothly prints out a letter then glides to the next space… Ugh. It’s a green monitor. That would have to make it what, fifteen years old? The technology to antialias in a non-OS’ed environment still doesn’t seem to exist. Heck, Windows itself has just barely started to antialias by default. [Yeah, we know, Macheads. You’ve been antialiasing for effin’ centuries. ;)]

  28. Reminded me Eddie Izzard piece from his (her) stand-up. here is the link

  29. Great post!

    One of the best movie references of the 3D UI must be Johnny Mnemonic…

  30. And why do advanced supercomputers have to show a message letter by letter as if it is being typed out, and with a little blip or krgz sound with every letter, of course…

    Or, when the hero cracks the system at X Headquarters and starts deleting the secret files, you see file after file dissapear live on the screen in the cubical down the hall.

    Then, the computers that shortcircuit of explode whena system crash occurs…

  31. Not sure if this has been posted yet but I think you’ll like it :)

  32. yeah, great list! And the famous thing: it’s really true what you wrote!

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