Evolving Screen Design: Star Trek and the Viewscreen

One of the defining design characteristics of a ship in the Star Trek Universe is the forward viewscreen. And in the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek, the entire concept of the viewscreen has also been reimagined.

By looking at how our vision of the future has evolved, we can often learn more about how we as a society have changed. And I think by looking at how the concept of the viewscreen has changed over the last four decades, I think we can draw some conclusions about how we have changed as culture and where we are going.

The new Enterprise viewscreen display various data, including speed. Image via startrekmovie.com. Copyright Paramount/CBS.

The Original Viewscreen

In Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek TV Show, the view screen was primarily a giant screen showing the outside. Very rarely, the screen would be used to show scientific data.

A rare instance of the original Enterprise using it’s viewscreen to display data from the ship’s computer. Image via Memory Alpha. Copyright Paramount/CBS.

At the time, in the late 60’s, that concept was enough to seem futuristic. TV’s were still a relatively young technology. A screen that size providing live pictures with the ability to show content from the ship’s computer… That was the future. Computers were room-sized devices with limited capabilities. The whole concept would have seemed very advanced.

The expectation was that interaction with a large viewscreen would be passive. It was something to watch, more like a TV than a computer interface.

To the big screen and back to the small screen

When the Star Trek series moved to the big screen in the late 70’s and into the 80’s, the viewscreen concept was only slightly refined. The expectation was still that the viewscreen provided a passive experience. Some odd touches were added, like a digital clock over the screen.

Nothing says the future like a digital alarm clock. Image via Memory Alpha. Copyright Paramount/CBS.

With the success of the movie franchise, Star Trek: The Next Generation launched into syndicated television. Because the series took place even further in the future, they took the established concepts and “enhanced” the technology. The viewscreen evolved, but only from a technical level. The screen was now “holographic.” (Note: I’m assuming this means the images were more realistic.)

The way the crew actually used and interacted with the screen was still passive and static. And through the three series that followed, the viewscreen never really did much more than provide pretty pictures.

Reimagining the Viewscreen

When Abrams and crew started work on the reboot, they faced a challenge of honoring the style of the past and while projecting a modern, futuristic feel:

We had the weird challenge of having to take a 43 year old vision of the future and make it a current vision of the future. I wanted the movie to feel as tactile and tangible and as real as possible, but given what our computer interfaces are like now, its preposterous to assume that hundreds of years from now there won’t be some version of holographic screens and things that seem almost ubiquitous now in science fiction.

Abrams in an interview with Memory Alpha

We as a culture have evolved to expect more from our “viewscreens.” Many of our TV channels have crawls and information graphics. Look at what CNN produced during the elections or what ESPN News does on a daily basis. Our computers provide constant updates. Even our cars and phones have interactive interfaces. We expect modern screens to do more than just show us pictures. We expect them to inform us.

The new Enterprise viewscreen displaying a warning. Image via startrekmovie.com. Copyright Paramount/CBS.

That old concept of a passive viewscreen has been discarded in the new Star Trek movie. The giant viewscreen acts as a heads up display for the ship. Warnings, current speed, the health of the away team, status of the ship and more appear over the top of the screen. And the information that is provided is contextual, only appearing when needed or applicable.

We have become a viewscreen culture

Looking at the new Star Trek viewscreen, it feels futuristic. And what that really means is that it feels like a radically advanced version of where we are now.

I think that we have become a viewscreen culture. We have become comfortable interacting with screens in a way that wasn’t comprehended in the late 60’s and wasn’t fully understood even in the 80’s and 90’s. In fact, we are more than just comfortable. We now expect our screens to provide us information and feedback.

As the web, digital television, phones and computers evolve, our cultural expectations of the screens and surfaces around us with continue to change and evolve. We as designers are already starting to see this. People expect more from their web sites and other digital interfaces. They expect these tools to interact with them. To provide the information they need when they need it.

What designers need to remember is that this is just the beginning. People will continue to become more and more comfortable with screen-based content. And we must continue to push the limits of the medium to provide the interaction and capabilities that our society is beginning to expect.