Medical Design Fictions

The promise of devices which heal you or provide a diagnostic function is a mainstay of science fiction narratives on screen, however their range of function isn’t massively varied. They either fall into the category of providing diagnostic scanning or performing some kind of semi or fully autonomous clinical healing function.

With that said there is a good deal of visual and interaction variance in how they achieve all of this. Lets just focus on the first set for now, the scanning interfaces. What interesting is that with a little digging and media archeology we can uncover links between the real interfaces, devices and innovations we use today and their fictional counterparts. But why should we actually care.

A simple argument and perhaps the most compelling one on the importance of being inspired by future visions and well formed design fictions is pointed out in the case of Martin Cooper the eminent engineer and inventor, he was apparently inspired by Captain James T. Kirk’s Communicator on Star Trek to create the first Mobile phone.

“How many things have been denied one day, only to become realities the next!.” —J. Verne, From the Earth to the Moon

I’d like to share a couple of the devices and interfaces which have caught my eye over the past few years on the scanning side, and how I think they are notable in both form and function.

Star Trek’s Medical Tricorder

Star Trek’s Medical Tricorder VI the TR-580

In the TV Series Star Trek and the Star Trek films, the medical officers use a specialised medical tricorder to collect information about a patient’s body and diagnose maladies. The thing that was most significant about this particular device as portrayed on screen was its portability and the fact that civilians could use them.

Detachable Scanner

Another thing that was unique about it, was it’s modular nature, it had a detachable hand-held high-resolution scanner stored in a compartment. If we consider the interface for a moment the screen in itself is smaller than the rest of the device, but that’s okay, it actually did its job pretty well. You’d never see a starfleet officer faffing with their device.

Affecting the state of play today

Although the Star Trek medical Tricorder is merely a prop and we may scoff at its tiny little display and the clunkiness of its buttons. It provided a groundbreaking vision and promise of the future. You could say it was pretty revolutionary as a concept and its impact lives on.

To this day the size of the tricorder is still a far cry from the actual scanning interfaces we have or indeed the experience which can be quite scary when coupled with the context of having a serious health issue. We now have small modular devices which measure things like blood glucose levels accurately, quickly and safely. A multipurpose device however is still some way off.

Qualcomm recently sponsored an XPrize on the theme of coming up with tricorder like devices.

What we can learn from the Medical Tricorder

  1. Devices can be simple to operate
  2. They can be fairly portable and certainly not cumbersome
  3. They can be modular in nature

Pushing user expectations

Star Trek’s medical tricorder also sets a number of user expectations

  1. Getting answers fast, not requiring software updates, massive calibration and initiation ceremonies to get the job done.
  2. Accuracy, a quick diagnosis is offered on the spot.
  3. Personal, you could pretty much use it on yourself.

Total Recall’s Full Body Scanner

Another medical scanning interface which stands out for me is the one in Total Recall. The famous body scanner scene set the wild expectation that you could look inside someones entire body in real-time.

Total Recall’s Realtime Body Scanner

As ridiculous and over top as they made it. There is a perfectly useful application for it, being able to see the inside of a body as the patient performs an action can potentially hint at stress points or abnormalities in a way that a static scan cannot.

This is an example of something that seems far fetched or technically complex being resolved many years later in a device, it is a firm reality in the case of Digital Motion X-Rays.

Digital Motion X-Rays

Digital Motion X-Rays

Glossiness and Believability

Robocop on screen visuals

In Robocop (2014)’s on screen visuals and HUD by John Koltai, the highest emphasis is on glossiness. The viewer needs to believe in a transhumanist future where we are capable of melding flesh with electronics. A lot of the animation artefacts are demonstrating that exceptional computational complexity is at work. They’re lending credibility to the future, this is also the case for the visual interfaces in Iron Man 2.

Iron Man 2 Interfaces

But there’s also an amplified element of diagnosis in the hands of the user for the aesthete self quants.

Seen on screen is collage with multiple representations of Tony Stark’s innards. For the most part these are sleek extra juicy retina magnets. This is where I think the expectation is being set for future scanning interfaces. Realtime, detailed, glossy and full of diagnostic richness.

Concluding Thoughts

With these interfaces, leaving their actual function aside, we’re left with a visual and auditory interface and a set of almost ritualistic interactions that aid the narratives. It’s possible this is the magic of the screen edit, but there is a certain theatricality that binds their user experiences to be as frictionless as possible. As design fictions I’m sure their reach goes beyond the screen and will undoubtedly influence and alter the evolutionary path of actual medical devices as they have done so already.

In the same way in which cataloguing and studying these interfaces and devices is important to media archeology, I also believe they are important to the field of interaction design for medical devices.

Whether we’re scanning for something or trying to fix something.
How we visualise and perceive the scans is paramount

By creating design fictions we’re exercising judgement on what can and can’t be. These fictional user interfaces shape and influence user expectations today. As our medical devices become even more reliant on software based interfaces and personal diagnostic becomes the norm. I believe the real world and real experiences ultimately become infused with elements of these design fictions.

Here are three more compelling reasons why we should pay attention to them.

  1. Existing healthcare solutions suffer from ugly user interfaces and have done for some time. There are opportunities to optimise them and make sure they perform better through a carefully considered application of design.
  2. By glimpsing the future through the lens of these design fictions, we might be looking at functions and interfaces that have new applications. The design fiction or solution may be hinting at them.
  3. In order to seem realistic, or expectedly powerful and capable, we need to adhere to some of the stage dressing as part of the experience for existing designs. There might be a placebo effect at work too!
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