Thursday, February 16, 2012

Tech and Sensibility

Devices look the way they do for a reason. Maybe tests showed that it was the most ergonomic design for the function, maybe the designer was inspired by old science fiction, or maybe the manufacturer's just taking the opportunity to push as many spare parts as possible out of the warehouse. The point is that in many cases, design and device aesthetics are of paramount importance - I mean, would iPhones be as popular if they were bricks of aluminum with rivets as thick as your thumb? The way a device looks is a common shorthand for how advanced it is - the sleek lines of a modern smartphone just look more advanced than 1980s car phones.

Nevertheless, if you're building a coherent and believable world - no matter what medium you're using - that sensibility should still be there. Sure, the VISOR worn by Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation was modelled off a plastic barrette, but for most people it was likely far enough removed from its original source that it didn't trip people up; that it would cause a reaction of "damn, look at that guy's freaky future glasses" rather than "damn, that guy's wearing a woman's hair clip on his face."

There can be times, though, where this fails - and when it fails spectacularly, that's where it becomes interesting to folks like me, in the same sense that a train derailment can be interesting. I ran across such an example in GURPS Ultra-Tech, a supplement for the GURPS roleplaying system written in 1989 and updated in 1991, which details speculative equipment for future campaigns from a decidedly 1980s lens - not that such a lens is unwelcome, even today. One device in particular never ceased to raise the question of "what the hell were they thinking," both in the context of the book itself and whatever future world that would think it was a good idea.

Newscam: This is a rifle-sized and -shaped camera used by news teams (and surveillance crews). It is identical to the digital camera described above... it looks so much like a rifle that it is dangerous to use around hair-triggered counter-sniper teams; cameramen are advised to wear armor. (GURPS Ultra-Tech, pg. 31.)

There are so many things wrong with this concept, I can't even begin to address them all.

"Don't be ridiculous, of course this isn't a firearm! Now just let me point it at your face for that hostile interview we were talking about."

It seems like a prank, honestly. The idea of taking a professional video camera and making it look enough like a weapon that it can be easily confused for one seems like something the engineers at Panaphonics, Magnetbox, or Sorny would slam together after a few too many joints in the loading dock combined with a healthy disregard for the customer. Sure, a professional camera won't necessarily be as bulky once videotapes stop being used, but it's a fair bet they'll still be fairly bulky - the more mass something has, the easier it is to keep stable without the use of a tripod, and while the whole shakycam aesthetic may have worked on Battlestar Galactica, people don't look for that on the six o'clock news.

Honestly, the only reason I can think of as to why someone would actively design professional video cameras to bear a close resemblance to military rifles is as part of some vast project to eventually allow a "news crew" to infiltrate a normally secure area, sort of like what happened in Air Force One except the attackers wouldn't have to raid the weapons lockers.

When you're dealing with lines on a page, the only limits to the possibilities of design are what will fit on the page. With that sort of wide-open field, it behooves all creators to think things through.

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