Hand waving

One part of Minority Report that many people remember very vividly is when Tom Cruise, wearing those cool black gloves, waves his hands around, arms outstretched in front of him, to move virtual objects on what appears to be a holographic screen. There is something iconic about this image, and I am sure it has influenced how many people think of the future of computer interfaces.

There has also been quite a bit of grumbling about this vision of interfacing with a computer. There is something awkward about needing to hold your arms out in front of you for extended periods of time. Even John Underkoffler, the real-life MIT researcher who designed this interface paradigm, has given up on it. Tom Cruise may look great doing all those arm movements, but they sure seem tiring.

But I think it all starts to make sense once we deconstruct Steven Spielberg’s probable intention in creating such an image. The fact that this is exactly the wrong vision for the future is precisely why it works so well.

In reality — as opposed to science fiction fantasies — the human body is supremely lazy, and that is a good thing. Our minds are incredibly good at moving our bodies, in performance of any given task, in a way that uses the smallest amount of energy.

You see this in just about every sort of human movement, from walking, to sitting down or standing up, to reaching for or throwing an object. No matter what the task, we have an uncanny ability to perform that task in an extremely energy conserving way.

This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. Food can be a scarce resource, and in day to day life there is no survival value in wasting energy on unnecessary movement.

The only situations in which such wasteful movements might be of use are where they carry a social message. Typically those situations come down to social dominance and sexual display. We deliberately move in an energy wasteful way to show that we can. By demonstrating our fitness, we prove a point to potential rivals or potential mates.

And this is precisely what Tom Cruise’s character is doing, on a level of storytelling. By having him perform these power gestures — gestures that nobody else in the film seems to be able to perform as well — Spielberg is telling us that John Anderton is the alpha male in our story. By doing that, he is usefully cluing in the audience to much that will happen later on in the film.

Ever the master visual storyteller, Steven Spielberg is not really interested in predicting what the technological future will look like. Rather, he is interested in guiding our emotions, via cinematic art, through a compelling character driven narrative.

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