Tapitty Tapitty Tapitty – On Screen Computing

Copyright Mark Coleran - follow the links to his blog for goodness sakes.

I’ve been pondering looking into the role computers play in TV and movies, simply because it’s quite so hilariously silly. From Bones’ 3D hologram-o-machine (best I can find thanks to the joy of Fox) that can instantly conjure any murderous scenario the cast think of, to those peculiar PCs all film stars use that require only rapid keyboard inputs despite their clearly cursor-orientated design. I also find myself peculiarly interested in collecting together the names of all the Google alternatives films and television use. My favourite has to be the ludicrously clumsy “Finder-Spyder” that crops up all over the place, notably Heroes, Hung and Prison Break. Although Dexter’s “NetScope” is impressively wrong too. I mention all this after being pointed toward this fabulous site from the man who is responsible for so many of the more impressive interfaces you see in films, Mark Coleran.

For instance, I remember enjoying Tomb Raider’s Star Trek meets Winamp design rather a lot. That was him.

Tomb Raider

There’s Mission Impossible 3:

Mission Impossible 3

Or how about The Bourne Ultimatum?

Bourne Ultimatum

So he’s the good guy, and I recommend looking through the graphics he’s responsible for.

But what are your favourite and least favourite movie and TV representations of PCs? Not the full-on Minority Report swishy magic computers (I realise I cheated with the Bones reference above, but it’s the most gloriously silly computer in all of TV), but the ones where people sit furiously tapping away as the screen somehow animates a face. Oh, and any other made up search engines you’ve spotted, too. Together we’ll compile something amazing.

Thanks to Martin for the link.


  1. Tei says:

    In the matrix movie the girl use nmap to search for open ports.
    $ nmap youriphere

    so not all movies and tv shows get it all wrong. One get it right.

  2. Thiefsie says:

    I just watched Firewall again… and it was full of Windows XP – so was 100% legit… and didn’t feel like product placement… and the mobile phones were generic pap as well.

    There was Dell all over the server boxes though, and very boring cmd like interfaces for those.

    Funny… the 2 screens you’ve posted above are VERY similar – I wonder how much this guy gets paid to rejig a few screens in photoshop

    • John Walker says:

      Oh crikey, why would you ever REWATCH Firewall?!

      And look at the full range of stuff he’s done, and remember that they’re animated interfaces, not static images.

    • Thiefsie says:

      I know I know… well it was Sunday night and the girl was happy in front of that… haha.

      As for his work… yes I am totally downplaying his job and yes interfaces are ridiculously hard to design… but… world maps, LCD style text (on a screen no less??)

      Not terribly impressive.

      What I would like to know… is does he design a ‘video’ in time with what the actors are doing or is his stuff actually interactive like a flash game or something.

      I bet he gets all the ladies saying he designed the interface for the computer nerds in Tomb Raider. haha.

    • Damien Stark says:

      Actually, I’ll second the (semi) legitimacy (not necessarily quality) of Firewall. I’m a network engineer, and the “boring command line stuff” they were typing actually somewhat resembled real world “access-lists”.

      I wouldn’t vouch for their syntax or anything, but I remember being amazed to see actual IOS-type syntax and access-lists, rather than the Hackers-style “whack-a-mole” game to stop intruders.

  3. Dood says:

    Independence Day

  4. ChampionHyena says:

    In the future, all computers will come equipped with minuscule boxes of quickly-scrolling squinty-ass text standard (to simplify your computing experience).

  5. Mack says:

    I love this… my wife and I always poke fun at the TV when say, they take a really terrible CCTV picture of someone’s arse as they, say, stab their victim with a pencil, only to have the commanding, intelligent lead tell the geek at the keyboard to increase the resolution and make a match, only for seconds later (after much flicking of identities) a face, name, address, and full bio are onscreen. I know the FBI has some pretty terrific image analysis going on… but come on…

    It makes me wonder why they employ humans AT ALL

    OR NO the best is Smallville
    so say, there are these people that have been mutated by kryptonite, and and Clark and Chloe (?) need to find out more about them, so I know, just do a web search! Hey look, there they are, face, address, name, bio WHY DIDN’T WE THINK OF THAT? And wait, we think that Lex Luthor is hiding something. Hmm. A warehouse with something special in it. LETS DO A WEB SEARCH!
    OH YEAH! Look there it is. Can we see it on street view? Hey! I know that pizza place next door! Awesome!!!

    so yes.
    Nothing interesting from me but I appreciate this entry very much. Thank you.

    • John Walker says:

      FlashForward may be a stinking turd of a show, but surprisingly they at least take the video enhancement thing a bit more seriously. It takes them a full month for the top experts in the country to enhance a video enough to see a ring on a guy’s finger, but not his face. It’s still nonsense, obviously, which does have the rather unfortunate counter-effect of making them just look rubbish at it compared to everyone else in TV land.

    • Clovis says:

      Oblig. tv tropes link: Enhance Button.

  6. Norskov says:

    I always found the virus assembly scene in Swordfish hilarious.

    • Matt says:

      As a computer programmer, I always appreciated that scene, even as outrageous as it was. It’s one of the only times in a movie where the workflow of programming was followed even a little bit. Basically, it’s: Think about what you’re writing. Think some more. Write a little bit. Fail. Swear. Think some more. Write some more. Get it part working. Dance. Repeat (usually with fails sprinkled a little more liberally in there).

      As exaggerated as it is, it beats most movie hacking scenes. “It’s off limits – it’s got the best encryption I’ve ever seen!”. “I need you to get me in there” Clickityclick. “Done”.

    • Damien Stark says:

      Seconded. As silly as it is (3 x 3 grid of monitors to “assemble” the worm?) I love that scene. Something about the way that it depicts the process as “one guy in a room by himself for hours, with music on, taking occasional wine breaks” felt far truer to me than the “spinning phone booth” stuff of Hackers, or the “people standing over your shoulder as you tap in two or three lines of code for 30 seconds” of nearly all other movies.

  7. greenB says:

    TV’s “Veronica Mars” mostly made sense computer-wise (let’s not talk about the series finale here). Also, I found V’s favorite search engine Planet Zowie to be realistic (probably because it basically was Google).

    • Blackberries says:

      Veronica Mars is indeed pretty acceptable when it comes to this sort of thing, though it still falls into the omnipresent trap of having applications make “computer bleeps” every time they perform an action.

      Plus the (P.I. exclusive?) persons database that is frequently made use of stretches my credulity somewhat. I know such databases claim to exist, but I’m sceptical as to just how exhaustive the information provided might be/how many people are really listed – especially considering how often case-solving depends on its use.

      That said, still a great show. Coincidentally enough, I was just this moment about to watch an episode..

    • Schmung says:

      Was just about to bring up Veronica Mars as well. The PI database was indeed a fortuitous bit of tech, containing it seemed it seemed information collated from credit card companies, the DMV and social security. But hey, it was otherwise not utterly terrible as far as their depiction of computers and stuff.

  8. Floor says:

    I remember the virus builder from Swordfish- it was 9 screens- the virus was visualised by a cube. to build the virus, the guy had to get all of the smaller cubes onto the main screen, part of the larger cube.

  9. Railick says:

    My favorite fake-o-computer screen is the one in the new James Bond movies Casino Royal and whatever the other one is called. It shows them with a table that is a touchable computer screen and some how turning the pictures and what not makes them get larger and give more info then he moves them off the edge of the table with a flick of his wrist causing the picure to move to the wall so they can see a huge blown up version of it, very cool and I’d love to play some turn based strat games on that thing :P
    I think it was also the newest Bond movie where he took a picture of someones face from behind and some how the camera was able to get a picture of their face from the front O.o

    Shadowcat “It hammers at my retinas like an evil woodpecker of pure energy”

    • CJD says:

      I don’t think that’s fake. Microsoft Surface is capable of doing things much like that.

    • Railick says:

      Have you seen the part I’m talking about? I know microsoft surface allows touch screen ect they never really seemed to type in anything if my memory servers and they had full access to data bases with peoples bios and pictures and all he had to do with turn files to open them like it was some key he was turning and let him flick them all over the walls ect. I’m sure it is possible in real life but I doubt the system itself in this case was something real.

      Regardless I don’t think there are any cameras that can take a picture of your head from behind and somehow capture your face , I could be wrong :P

    • ascagnel says:

      I happened to catch that bit on Friday (it was on “SyFy” here in the US, and more on why that name sucks balls later). I think that was just a mockup, but MS Surface is supposed to have those capabilities. You just need to tie it into something.

  10. Floor says:

    Damn. Beaten.

  11. Jonas says:

    Yeah Swordfish was the one I immediately thought of as well :P

    CSI often does quite poorly as well, especially CSI: Miami – not just the most infamous examples, they really generally do a lot of stupid stuff with computers.

  12. MacBeth says:

    I was also going to go with Swordfish, but for the ‘other’ scene

  13. monchberter says:

    Oh my god, the stupid stupid 3D graphics file control system in Jurassic Park. Why have a quick to use GUI when one that take ten seconds to find a single file through a map type affair?


    Because Sam Neil is trying to hold a door shut behind which there is a Velociraptor and you need dramatic tension to occur before the door locks will work.

  14. LewieP says:

    The voice interface used in the “Short Circuit” films is pretty ace.

  15. Heliosicle says:

    Diehard 4 was full of people using some pretty badass interfaces, I think the hacker guy was using Linux or something though. That swordfish scene was pretty ridiculous ‘CMON CMON YEEESSS’

    • Magrippinho says:

      In Live Free or Die Hard, I especially loved that they could rig a computer to blow up over the net, but for it to actually blow up, the user has to press the escape key.

      To clarify, the bad guys can wirelessly turn your PC into a bomb, but they can’t simulate a keystroke.

  16. Railick says:

    No one is going to mention Hackers? The bad guys key board and computer were freaking awesome, also when they went into 3d goggle cyber space to hack the worm that was pretty awesome :)

  17. monchberter says:

    Let me also draw your attention to this. Warning, a peek will result in full submergence in the trope universe:

    link to tvtropes.org

    • pimorte says:

      Monchberter you are an evil evil (wo)man.

      One day I will write a virus that blocks TVTropes in every Windows hostsfile, and boost world productivity by 10%.

  18. Krondonian says:

    It has to be CSI.

    They did the ENHANCE more barefacedly than anything I’ve seen (parodied wonderfully here: link to img7.imageshack.us, which yes, is very old).

    Seen here: link to youtube.com

    And amusingly by Red Dwarf: link to youtube.com

  19. Stupoider says:

    If I remember correctly, didn’t Small Soldiers have some sort of computer-jiggerypockery?

  20. Railick says:

    I wish I could find it while I’m at work but one of my co-workers sent me something crazy. It is actaully suposed to be “real” but this guy takes photos of ufos and uses CSI like magic to enchance the photos so that you can actaully see aliens heads in the windows of the space ship (when the photo itself is blurry and the ufo in question is about a cm wide if it were to be printed on a normal sized picture)

  21. Spork says:

    Small Soldiers had a great 3 field search iirc: “chips” “lots of chips” “state of the art chips”. And lo! the toymaker gets his hands on half a million military chips.

    Technically the Bones 3D thing isn’t completely out there, there’s a ‘3D’ projector that uses steam as a backdrop, looks quite impressive imo.

    Also Wargames for a good demonstration of wardialling, and giving us the game global thermonuclear warfare (must find my floppy with that on-damn no FDD).

    • monchberter says:

      And DEFCON. Surely the greatest love letter to televised computing

  22. M.P. says:

    I concur, that bit in Swordfish was terrible! :)

  23. Ryx says:

    I watched Eagle Eye recently and I was somewhat impressed by the relatively realistic looking cell phones and computers in it until it got near the end when (SPOILERS) they start talking to a giant (‘orange tech’ as I like to put it ) AI more advanced than anything ever created, with the ability to speak perfectly, created by one man.

    • Damien Stark says:

      I give them some props at least for the plot twist explaining why the AI “went bad” – as opposed to nearly every other AI movie that just generally assumes all AI will turn evil and seek to destroy all humans. An interesting twist that’s actually happened to humans in other conspiracy movies.

  24. Railick says:

    Lawnmower Man 2 ? (hides)

  25. Stu says:

    http://www.search-wise.net is a fake search engine that’s been used on EastEnders and Doctor Who.

  26. Idle Threats & Bad Poetry says:

    If we’re complaining about science in TV shows, let’s talk Heroes. I watched the first season in the spring and wasn’t impressed after the first few episode.

    That Indian scientist dude is able to search the DNA of the whole world to find super mutants and their frigging home phone numbers!

    Of course, that only builds on the even greater abusrdity that the show uses Darwinian evolution, a slow accumulation of gradual changes over time, to explain time travel, flying, and crap. You write a show about super heroes, and by default you’re going to attract comic geeks, and you expect them not to notice that your science is absolute crap. You might as friggin’ well be saying the earth is flipping flat!

    And it had overuse of time travel. What is with the time travel bandwagon?? Lost, Heroes, the new Star Trek movie, why can’t anyone write a decent scii-fi-ish plot without time friggin’ travel!?* It’s worse than the zombie current craze, because you can’t use zombies to retcon the whole friggin course of history!

    *(Disclaimer: I don’t watch much TV or movies, so the scope of my observations is limited, but, blimey, I’m ticked off anyway.)

  27. jonfitt says:

    In the X-Files they would type emails on some white text on blue background version of DOS with a HUGE FONT.
    Clearly both Mulder and Scully were severely short sighted.

  28. jonfitt says:

    Also, some of Mark Coleran’s ideas would make cool game interfaces.

  29. Pantsman says:

    My favorite one so far is in the first Transformers movie, where the audio analyst takes the recording that the Pentagon is trying to decipher and brings it to her young tech wiz friend. He sticks it in his computer, loads up a winamp-esque audio-editing software displaying the audio file as a wave, as you might see in any audio-editor suite. He instantly realizes that it’s encoded, and hits a few buttons, causing the wave to rotate on the screen to show it’s underside, in which one can see the emblem of the Decepticons.

  30. Railick says:

    I know this is kind of out there but

    I loved the pull out paper thing computer screens in Red Planet with Val Kilmer, I’d love to have one of those and on a similiar note there is a comerical out for a certain credit card where the guys credit card is actually a computer in and of itself and allows him to choose when to pay his purchases and ect with a holographic interface that pops up out of the card , I’d LOVE to have that for real :)

    • Jimmy says:

      Damm xtml tags…

      I always recall the flashy, swishy, and downright amusing screens in Seaquest DSV In the previous link, the kid (Brandis) finds a virus in the system with ‘watchdogs’.

      For extreme flashiness and a war of swashbuckling click-clacking, see the next link.

      I know you want the verosimile stuff, but I had to get this one out of my head..

  31. gulag says:

    Hackers – Love that WASD hacking.

    Also, Angelina Jolie boobies.

  32. reginald says:

    its really comforting to know that I can blame 15 years of bad GUI design in films, on one guy. I think games sometimes get it right, because the designers are effectively staring at Maya, 3Dstudio, Photoshop, and similar programs all day long, they know what a wireframe 3d view of a building would look like, particularly how cheap and simple it would look.

  33. St4ud3 says:

    link to youtube.com

    The IRC explanation on this Numb3rs episode was just ridiculously wrong. The show tries to incorporate real math, but unfortunately they don’t have any clue about computers.

  34. Spacewalk says:

    Oh I just love the displays on board the glider that Kurt Russel has to pilot into NYC in Escape From New York because it uses vectors. Vectors!

    • Richard Clayton says:


      From IMDB:

      The wire-frame computer graphics on the display screens in the glider were not actually computer graphics. (Computers capable of 3D wire-frame imaging were way too expensive when this was made.) To generate the “wire-frame” images, they built a model of the city, painted it black, attached bright white tape to the model buildings in an orderly grid, and moved a camera through the model city!

  35. Blue Cheese Rocket says:

    Electric Dreams that’s wot I want to say.

  36. the_magma says:

    containing obvious flaws, but still the ultimate in-film software scene: the esper photo analysis

  37. devlocke says:

    Is it possible the software was able to look at reflections from other surfaces in the picture and piece together what the front of the head looks like? I don’t recall the scene, but if it were a photo of the back of someone’s head in front of a window or in a bathroom with shiny tile all over the place or something, I could sort of kinda see how that could work.

    • devlocke says:

      All this time, I assumed people who had reply-fails were just incompetent and it would never happen to me. That was directed at Railick,

  38. JuJuCam says:

    I doubt anyone else would remember this, but Seaquest DSV made efforts to realistically depict a future undersea research vessel but often fell short in computing contexts.

    My favourite was the underwater hackers episode called Photon Bullet featuring among other things, rerouting money that was being transferred via network pipes (as if it were a train full of gold you could hijack), the main competitive multiplayer game being some sort of 3d spacial awareness related puzzle game, an avatar oriented voicechat (ok, so that’s not so unrealistic, but it’s still amusing), and Seth Green.

  39. Kazy says:

    I believe she also runs an actual OpenSSH exploit to break into a server or something in that scene. Pretty rad.

    • Kazy says:

      OK why is it impossible to reply on this site?

      Also wanted to point out that, while the interface Tony Stark uses in Iron Man to design his suit is hilariously wizzbang and flash, the actual process he goes through is relatively hackerish and true to life. That is, he has to fail his tests a whole bunch of times before he gets anything usable. I personally found the movie kind of inspiring in that regard.

  40. Rufust Firefly says:

    I always loved the command-line driven hacker in Mission: Impossible, where he had to type in JAM SIGNAL and OPEN DOOR and the like.

    In the future of computing, all hackers will program their custom apps like an Infocom parser.

  41. the wiseass says:


  42. wcaypahwat says:

    Las Vegas always had some ridiculously silly computer interaction.

    What really bugs me is how everyone on tv owns a macbook with a conveniently placed sticker over the apple logo.

  43. vagabond says:

    I haven’t watched it in many years, but Sneakers always struck me as having some pretty realistic tech stuff going on, although I don’t know how much you’d classify as “computer” stuff as opposed to “electronics” stuff. It’s also probably getting laughably old as tech goes by now.

    Possibly the worst serial offender for crimes against realistic computing is NCIS.
    I recall one episode in particular where the NCIS computer system is being hacked into and Abby is struggling to stop the hacker, but isn’t typing fast enough to compete, so McGee sits down next to her and starts typing _on the same keyboard as her_ allowing them to type fast enough to win.

    The biggest problem with the depiction of computing in TV/movies is that doing stuff on a computer usually isn’t very interesting and certainly isn’t dramatic or exciting, and can never be made to be dramatic or exciting.

  44. Concept says:

    The one that makes me shriek bloody murder is Spooks.

    They use crappy Flash based stuff, with the default glow themes. And its always a really stupid system, like they’ll have one search box for the entire Mi5 Mainframe.

  45. Blather Blob says:

    I’ve always wondered who did the computer screens for Alias (at least the first season, I stopped watching after that… and realised I’d made the right choice when I was flipping by a couple years later and they were running down a subway tunnel shooting zombies). Those always seemed pretty realistic, like something a programmer would throw together in X11’s Motif or something equally ugly whenever a progress bar was called for.

    I’ve noticed lots of shows and movies using linux’s KDE or other alternative OSes whenever they want a non-windows/non-mac interface shown. Or maybe they just google for desktop screenshots, at least some of the time.

    And since I know replying isn’t going to work:
    @St4ud3: I once saw a bit of an episode of Numbers where they were trying to claim a Van Eck phreaking device is something which eavesdrops on the photons from a computer monitor. So it’s a video camera, then?

  46. malkav11 says:

    I do notice this sort of thing an awful lot. But then, I would, spending all my time on computers. I’m pretty sure I’d have a similar reaction to most other sorts of on-screen activity if I knew enough about the appropriate stuff.

  47. Eschaton says:

    Is it bad that despite being half the age necessary to have played such games in their prime, that I actually know what you are talking about?

    • Eschaton says:

      Bah! That was supposed to be in reply to Rufust Firefly and his Infocom reference.