Why do science fiction tablets have such awful screens?

Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s everyday technology. How many Star Trek fans didn’t spend the 80s and 90s looking at Picard’s data PADDs with envy, only to buy an iPad a couple of decades later and have the emulated PADD software feel like a nostalgic look back at what we used to think the future would be like? Mass Effect 3 released this week, and for those of you who haven’t heard of the game series before, the science fiction universe that it takes places in has been made with such care and detail that I personally think it’s the best game story ever made.

There are however parts of the Mass Effect universe that bugs me, and one of those things is the tablets they use. You’ve seen the type before: transparent screens with color choices for both the glass tint, text, and everything else that has little root in what we use today. Having transparent screens with peculiar UIs has pretty much become a standard for futuristic looks, but I have to wonder if they will ever be a reality. Not because it’s not technically possible, but because, well, what we’re using today looks better.

Having transparent screens at all makes sense in some situations, like seeing where you’re going, having TVs that become windows, or augmented reality applications. Then again, in a tablet it would leave much less room for the battery and tech, be easier to break, and seriously hurt privacy if someone can see the screen from behind. Still, there are uses for that kind of tech, which is why it has been invented. No, I’m not kidding, transparent screens exist. Take a look at this video from CES in January, as an example. The difference here is that while the tablet in Mass Effect – and many other science fiction universes – looks like it’s in the very early stages of making any type of color show up on the screen at all, the technology we have today has a full range of colors, touch input, and so on. Virtual blinds even, for crying out loud. So why does the creators of a game series that prides itself on making everything sound as legit as possible, to the point of integrating a sort of Wikipedia of information on background items in the game itself, imagine a world 200 years from now that has such useless technology?

I guess the answer is simple: it looks futuristic. Somehow we’ve gotten to a point where we can put our incredibly detailed and color rich AMOLED screens down, go play a game that has a transparent screen with awful color representation in it, and perceive that as something from way off in the future. And it isn’t the only such inconsistency in the game, or elsewhere, either. Physical keyboards have been abolished in the Mass Effect universe, replaced with holographic keyboards and gloves or implants that give tactile feedback when the virtual holographic keys are pressed. Touch screens are awkward to type on, this thing isn’t exactly selling like hot fudge, and some of the most expensive, professional keyboards out there are mechanical keyboards that look like they’re from the 80s. And they want us to believe that we’ll get rid of any sort of physical touch completely and instead rely on our fingertips vibrating when we wave through the air? Sorry, BioWare; I’ll buy your story of Element Zero and personal force fields, as that’s something that is at least far enough into the future (or impossible) to be considered futuristic imagination, but if you’re making a futuristic game in 2012 and make part of it look like a 1980s view of the future, then I’m going to end up tilting my head in surprised curiosity worse than a German Shepard in zero gravity.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.