My Inspiration: The inventor of Minority Report’s iconic virtual interface on how he found inspiration in a curious encyclopedia
John Underkoffler on Codex Seraphinianus
"When I first arrived at college, the university bookstore had a copy of Codex Seraphinianus sitting on the shelf. It’s a legendary book by Luigi Serafini, and it’s a miracle that it was there at all. I absolutely could not afford it, but I had to have it. The Codex, as it’s known, is an invented encyclopedia, the recorded knowledge of a civilisation that just happens to not exist. The pages are heavily illustrated, but it’s written in an entirely made up language, so the book’s precise nature remains a mystery. I’m sure many graduate students have spent years banging their heads against a brick wall trying to decipher it.
"It’s an extraordinary act of creation, and the craft itself is unbelievable. It reminds me of a great quote from a famous French writer, Raymond Roussel. My translation is imperfect, but his rule was “nothing that is not made up”. That’s your permission to step back and start from scratch, to remember that you shouldn’t always start with what’s familiar and adjust it slightly
"Years later, in the 90s, when I was building experimental user interfaces at MIT Media Lab, I was given the chance to help design the gesture-based computer system in Minority Report. It was a unique opportunity to refine those experiments, to make a fictional interface that was instantly legible to an audience. You can’t have a five minute scene explaining the tech; you needed to be able to instantly understand what it is Tom Cruise is doing.
"It was an opportunity to take real ideas about user interface design and put them in front of millions of eyes. There was a great deal of verisimilitude built into those Minority Report scenes. So much so, in fact, that I was getting phone calls from giant international companies asking if they could buy it, or if I could build a real-world version for them. That was the genesis of our immersive, collaborative computer, Mezzanine.
"For me the Codex was an important reminder that wholesale invention is possible. Every year I have a favourite word, and I think my word this year is “permission”. It’s so easy to sit around waiting for permission, but the world never actually gives it to you. You just have to give it to yourself. Serafini thought this book needed to exist, and that every part of it needed to be made up. So he made it up."