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Extreme Graphical Representation
aka: Extreme Visual Representation
That's not a laptop skin. It's a WINDOW into Cyber Space!

Computer: Since I'm such an advanced computer, I can make Pegasus's computer systems look like a really boring video game!

The opposite of Our Graphics Will Suck in the Future is Extreme Graphical Representation, where every operation that takes place in the computer is represented by flashy, often "futuristic" animations on the screen. These fantastic light shows have no connection to whatever might be taking place, and real computer professionals invariably find them impractical and implausible. Does anyone seriously think that a computer has to flash a picture of each fingerprint in the database on its screen while it's searching for a match?

This is due to the Rule of Perception: To humans, movement means activity. Lack of movement means it's inactive - dead. So if it doesn't look like the piece of gee-whiz technology is doing something, we don't believe it is doing anything. Thus, an Extreme Graphical Representation will almost always involve some kind of visible activity — whether it's obvious or subtle. And since it's just a prop, the activity usually isn't related to anything at all.

This is Truth in Television as many home computers have blinking lights on it, mostly around the 'on' switch. And verbose modes and system monitors are bound to be used more than it's really necessary. That way if neither disk light blinks nor progress bar moves, the user can confirm the growing suspicion that the program quietly hung five minutes ago and he's just sitting there, waiting for nothing. Modern user interface design explicitly states humans need these kinds of cues. Also, routers and such have tons of blinking lights on them, usually corresponding to a code for what the device is doing and any errors that might pop up. The same goes for the system beeps when you start up your pc, which tell the user that the pc is indeed starting up correctly without any circuitry problems when you turn it on.

See also: Viewer-Friendly Interface, The Aesthetics of Technology, Beeping Computers, Billions of Buttons

Examples

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     Anime and Manga  

  • Serial Experiments Lain. In fact, you can find on Sourceforge.net the LainOS Project, a (apparently abandoned) project to create an operating system with as much pizzazz as the computers from Serial Experiments Lain.
  • An extreme example of this is Chisame's artifact in Mahou Sensei Negima!. She's a hacker to begin with, so her artifact lets her actually enter the computer system, Tron style, for super-hacking. Some of the extreme graphics include viruses that look like jellyfish, Magical Girl anti-virus programs (actually two of her classmates, dragged into the computer with her), and Clothing Damage to represent data being destroyed. This is based on the computer representations in Akamatsu's earlier A.I. Love You.
  • Ed, of Cowboy Bebop fame utilizes some rather trippy fish decor on whatever terabyte, terahertz-chugging OS she uses. But she's just like that.
  • While the original series had some flashy displays, Rebuild of Evangelion has super orgasmovision 5d parallax screens for everything, even the monitors that more or less say: "Power Switch: On" or the ones that show where the Evas and Angels are in relation to each other.
  • In the Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann movie Lagann-hen, Lordgenome does some HAAKIIIIING into the Anti-Spiral-controlled Cathedral Lazengann to find its blueprints. This is represented onscreen by him running through and annihilating a long series of brick walls in a corridor connecting the two ships, finding the space it was stored on, breaking a box holding it with his head and eating what was inside. Yes.
    • Apparently this was not just for the benefit and amusement of the audience either, as the other characters are also looking on with the same confused face as the viewers themselves.
  • On Yu-Gi-Oh!, when Kaiba hacks into Pegasus' domain, a firewall shows a toon rabbit saying "Hey, Kaiba. Hey, Kaiba." Yes, Pegasus is obsessed with cartoons.

    Film 

  • Jurassic Park showed a 3D interface to all the park's systems. It's actually a real program — a proof-of-concept file-system manager included with every SGI. Not much use as an industrial control UI.
    • The program is called FSN (for File System Navigator). It's no longer available on SGI's site, but someone has made a similar program called FSV.
  • In The Matrix, real world computers use the flashy scrolling green characters of the "Matrix code", but in the virtual world, to the glee of many - shall we say - security analysts, a real hacking program was used.
    • This trope is averted in the first film, when Cypher explains "The image translators work for the construct program, but there's way too much information to decode the Matrix." Meaning that they can view what's happening inside their Construct program (their mini-Matrix) graphically, via the "image translators"; but there's too much information in the Matrix to render a graphical view of what's happening there, so they have to view it in the raining code, which is something like a debugger or a system monitor.
  • Various spaceship displays in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Usually these alternated between animated vector graphics and readouts of math equations.
    • Bonus points because the screens were actually projected onto Bowman's face when he was in the pod, so that the audience could see what the computer was doing, as if it were just reflected in the faceplate of his helmet when he was wearing one.
  • In Minority Report, the gestural interface reacted instantaneously to a variety of hand motions; had several layers of transparency, and actually appears relatively easy to use. Also justified as the only work we saw it heavily used for was sorting through the precogs visions.
    • The interface was actually based on one in development. You can find videos of it working in real life.
  • Every computer screen seen in Enemy of the State has blatantly unnecessary bits of video, animated images, and scrolling text visible.
  • The Angelina Jolie vehicle Hackers was filled to the brim with this trope.
    • The best part is when one of the hackers is browsing the corporate database by flying through whizzing algorithms and through a grid of giant reflective monoliths that represented different sectors of data. Then when he saves the junk file to his floppy disc, it is later viewed on a home computer in exactly the same browsing manner.
    • Seeing how whenever a non- POV character used a computer, they used a plain- looking OS (it's a bit hard to catch on your first watch), it might even be Handwaved as some sort of hybrid between Rule of Cool, The Rashomon and Rule of Perception, as that's probably how the OS looked to the experienced hackers.
    • Additionally interesting example as this takes place when the 14.4 kbps modem was standard, although one computer is said to have a 28.8 kbps modem. This means all these cool graphics were streamed across a 14.4 kbps connection on computers with processors slower than 100 MHz and with less than four MB of RAM.
  • Used quite noticeably in the 2007 Transformers film—apparently, if you take a sound file of a signal broadcast by a Transformer, open in in Audacity, and zoom in really close to the waveform, you can see Cybertronian glyphs.
    • Funnily, an episode of Beast Wars plays this straight. Tigatron hacks Megatron's ship, by connecting himself to the computer. The interface turns into a Virtual reality not unlike that seen in Hackers (complete with Tigatron doing the movements in needs to do in the simulation with his real hands), with a rubix cube of Megatron's head as the password. Now, this raises questions as Transformers are robots to begin with, couldn't they come up with more efficient interfaces than virtual reality for their own ships?
  • District 9 features alien vehicles controlled via a holographic panel, as demonstrated towards the end of the movie. But then, it's alien technology; you shouldn't expect them to be using any kind of real-world OS.
    • The lead alien uses a bunch of human computer components to build a temporary diagnostic system for his ship, but it also seems emulate the alien OS. With little apparent success, since it's actually supposed run its display as a hologram. But hey, he makes it work somehow.
  • Hugh Jackman building his worm in Swordfish. Watching 9 monitors worth of text in a C compiler (or more probably an assembler, seeing as how the data was supposed to be stored on a tape drive kept in a basement. See Everything Is Online and Computer Equals Tape Drive) while he compiles the various components would be boring, but autocad? Really?! AUTO-FREAKING-CAD?! Yes, autocad technically has applications in programming languages like LISP and C++, but unless he's making a pretty, user-friendly interface for his CASH GRABBING SUPER VIRUS, there doesn't seem much point.
  • Quantum of Solace has the MI6 facility equipped with gigantic multitouch screens on every surface, thus enabling it to completely replicate the functionality of... folders, noticeboards and sheets of paper.
  • Star Wars got more into this trope the further it got into the franchise (as real-world technology and budgets improved). In A New Hope, the schematic of the bombing run on the Death Star, shown to the rebel fleet, is barely Atari-quality; amazingly, the Special Edition didn't update this. By the time Return of the Jedi rolled around, the rebels were watching fully animated 3D renderings of the new Death Star orbiting Endor. And of course, there's the fancy CGI that the prequel trilogy had to work with.
    • Some interesting footage of the work process behind creating the animated trench run effect can be seen here. It's amazing what a 70s-era computer, some dials and a graphics tablet can achieve.
    • The prequel series is supposed to be much better technologically than the Original series so having that kind of stuff might be Fridge Brilliance
  • Lampshaded in Date Night.
  • S1m0ne: The interface for the S1m0ne program, which features floating menus, Simone's head forming out of a spiral on every boot-up and a matrix of actress headshots from whom Viktor samples vocal affectations. When Viktor infects the program with a virus, Simone's face erodes away into tiny pixels that blow away like wind in the sand.
  • Iron Man shows Tony Stark designing and constructing his Iron Man armour using a high-tech and very cool-looking holographic interface/simulation system. Mind you, this is for a program that Stark fully intends to be inaccessible and unusable by anyone else on Earth.
  • The Avengers continues the tradition, with mostly Stark using holographic interfaces to read information. Bruce uses a bit, as well. It's justified, since the SHIELD computers (while high-security) are intended to be useful to a group with varying degrees of system familiarity, not just to the original programmer.
  • In the 1985 movie Weird Science, Wyatt uses a computer program, "Crypto Smasher v3.10", that provides a very detailed (for that time) graphical representation of the hacking he is doing to break into a military computer system. The connections are all rendered as tunnels, with the mainframe itself appearing as a vast space with CGI versions of images from the opening sequence of The Twilight Zone.
  • Tron, all of it.

     Literature 
  • Very unusual example on the written page in The Algebraist: "A wild blur of holos and glowing fields filled the volume in front of the creature as it checked through the Voehn ship's systems, blistering quickly."

     Live Action TV  

  • In the new V series, the Visitor holographic computers are like this.
  • No computer on 24 operates without flashy, explanatory graphics.
  • Computer screens on Andromeda are filled with scrolling text and rotating graphics, none of which appear to mean anything, and would seem to make it difficult or impossible to see what's really going on. There is also a 3D "virtual universe" humans can use VR goggles to tap into and AI's can visit by touching a screen that resembles a city made out of computer code, holographic circuit diagrams, and 1010110's.
  • Max Headroom, in which the System (i.e. what in Real Life would come to be the Internet) generally looked either like a crude wireframe mockup of the real world, or alternatively, like a series of tubes.
  • Star Trek loves this trope.
    • TOS had equipment covered with lights that blinked and cycled, but no apparent labels or other way for the crew to identify which light meant what.
      • This was parodied on Voyager when The Doctor played with a golf ball that was covered in blinking lights.
      • Also delightfully parodied in William Shatner's scenes in Airplane II: The Sequel where crew members on the lunar base explain how they've been investigating equipment which has lots of blinking lights and nothing else, and they have not been able to figure out what it actually does.
    • The newer shows have smooth black panels, backlit with meaningless blinking lights. They do have labels, but close shots reveal most of them are just random numbers and letters. Some of the panels contain in-jokes or even easter eggs (e.g. the Enterprise-D Master Systems Display in engineering.)
      • Wil Wheaton says that he assigned meanings and functions to the buttons on his LCARS touchscreen. (He is One of Us.) Years later, when the Enterprise-D set was on tour and open to the public, he was able to sit down at his (character's) console and remember most of the commands he'd invented.
      • The LCARS is an actual interface standard, and people have even written DOS frontends that use it. And also an entire separate distribution of Linux (for the non-Linux-users, that's like a whole different version of Windows), which is not going to just be a "skin" for a Windows-like interface, but will actually implement the real LCARS interface (with touch-screens!). The fake TV future is here!
      • LCARS Reader for iPad is available. Seriously, why else would you want an iPad, other than to have a fully functional 24th century PADD?
      • How about a fully functional LCARS tricorder app for Android? The one concession to Rule of Cool is a somewhat useless mode displaying pictures of the sun and proton/electron output over the past 64 days.
  • "Information: In the second episode of Blake's 7, the computer Zen initially does not have any sort of display. When he realizes that "your species requires a visual reference point," he begins flashing lights on one wall in time to his speech."
  • Parodied in this Something Awful article about "MoFOS" (Movie Fake Operating System).
  • Generally any crime drama on TV will show computers with a ludicrous unnecessary graphic interface. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation especially seems to love it.
    • Ditto Torchwood to some extent, where the idea appears to be to take a screensaver and run it as the desktop wallpaper.
    • Various supplimentary media (like the website) have stated that Torchwood's computer is some sort of alien being hooked into their system instead of having any kind of CPU. The spiralling tentacle-like screen saver running in the background is meant to represent the creature's new virtual body as it manipulates a VR environment. When they access the server outside the hub in Children of Earth, the desktop appears. Still fits the trope though as there is no reason the characters would have to see what the creature sees.
  • Profit has an overblown 3D/avatar system to navigate its corporate network, although it's unclear if this is the actual interface or just represents what the users are doing with it.
  • Justified in an episode of NUMB3RS, where a computer scientist hid the fact that his artificial intelligence computer is a fraud by creating a very elaborate and impressive looking computer room and interface.
  • In CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Miami, the team now has really awesome touch-screen and almost-holographic interface, straight out of the above-mentioned Minority Report.
  • Battlestar Galactica (Reimagined): Cylon Baseships have holographic screens that constantly flow and display pseudo-Chinese characters on their natural state. When a ship is heavily damaged, the screens begin to flicker rapidly. Guess humanoid Cylons are immune to epilepsy. Possibly justified based on the fact that all serious interaction between the crew and the ship occurs via a direct brain link to the ship's systems. Therefore the screens would only be useful for at-a-glance status reports for those members not currently mindlinked to the data stream.
  • Bones, with every computer that will be used to aid the investigation. Especially the holographic display. Averted for product placement (every smartphone is a Windows smartphone, every PC is a Windows PC.)
    • At least partly justified in that Angela programmed and designed most of the systems herself (meaning they are one of a kind) - and being an artist, would be likely to make them fancy.
  • Diagnosis: Murder had an episode where someone was cyberhacking Amanda for some reason. Jesse called in his nerd squad to help. They used a search program, represented onscreen as a weasel or possibly a ferret, to find the home computer. When the search program was neutralised, the weasel was electrocuted and fell down dead. Amusing, but pointless.
  • ALL OVER THE PLACE in Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. Sometimes the crazy graphics are actually the language of an alien species, which someone is always able to translate with minimal difficulty.
    • On the other hand, frequently averted, particularly in Atlantis and later seasons of SG-1: many of the computers worked on perfectly ordinary Windows.
    • They would frequently use tablet laptops even when it didn't make sense, such as when reprogramming an alien system. Imagine trying to type code with one hand on a virtual keyboard while holding the same screen (much heavier than an iPad with the other hand. Then there's the issue of battery life for the same tablets.

     Video games  

  • Many modern videogames have all sorts of flashing, rotating icons, blinking window popups, scrolling transitions, and all that sort of graphical pizzazz. These are real, actual user interfaces, the effects are somewhat moderate, but are still flashy.
  • A slightly more low-key (but still flashy) interface is found in the computer game Uplink. Of course, the game is a simulation of the Hollywood version of hacking, so something would be amiss if it had a realistic interface.
    • It does take place in the year 2010, letting it off some of its crimes. It also notes—in a hidden computer you can hack into—that the really extreme graphical representation of Johnny Mnemonic, while being "hilariously inaccurate", would be fantastic for Uplink 2: TERMINAL (not in development).
    • Uplink's semi-sequal Subversion looks to be all over this.
  • Mass Effect, both in-game and its user interfaces. Starting a new game uses the in-game fiction of sending your name and a photo over a secure tunnel connections has a flashy loading screen.
  • The cutscenes in Syndicate and Syndicate Wars show you sitting before a futuristic holographic interface at your desk in an airship, so the menus depict this interface with much beeping and whooshing.
  • Averted in Grand Theft Auto IV as computer and mobile phone interfaces for most parts look pretty lifeless, like in real life. The PDA interface in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is closer to playing the trope straight, but is still rather modest against other examples of this trope.
  • The fake TV you get to watch at the beginning of Metal Gear Solid 4 is obscenely decorative. Markers with unreadable text pop up to accompany every little action.
  • Ripper`s vision of the 2040s has everyone have to go into a virtual reality world in order to access the internet, and access websites via huge floating icons.
  • Inverted in Portal. The computer banks seen during the game appear to run a form of DOS that occasionally displays images by ASCII art.
    • Lampshaded in the accompanying Aperture Science site; one of the workers complains about having to run an obsolete OS from the early 80s when the guys in charge get state-of-the-art graphics. (Note: said OS is GLaDOS.)
  • Very frequent in the entire Command & Conquer series, both in cinematics and during gameplay.
  • Dwarf Fortress, of all things, has Extreme Graphical Representation when you create a new world. Rather than having you go grab a drink while the game silently goes through the lengthy worldgen process, you get to watch as rivers and lakes form, mountains erode, and civilizations rise and fall, and yes, you see the failed world generations too. Though you'll probably go and grab a drink anyway, because it's only really impressive the first time.
  • .hack is an interesting example. There is quite a bit of standard fare in the game within the game, what with inactive virus data looking like crystals and the game's code being visible behind "cracks" in the graphics of glitched areas, but the main characters' desktops (which you visit whenever you log off) look believable enough, if more limited than an actual desktop.
  • The entirety of Ray Crisis is a hacker's attempt to subdue an evil AI, done in shmup form.
  • The whole point of Rez.
  • Virus Busting in the series Megaman Battle Network could be seen as a graphical representation of Operators contantly inputting new code in order to delete the viruses, which could be constantly evolving, thus requiring the new code.
  • The Sharp X68000 version of Fantastic Night Dreams Cotton made LEDs on the keyboard light up in time to the music.
  • Soul Hackers features this in some cutscenes. Especially visible here (contains spoilers), where a mouse cursor is shown moving in three dimensions and poking at a prism in order to access a file. After the file is hacked, the view flies through a bunch of purple lights and machine parts before reaching a big tower with SYSTEM written on it, in which a group of more prisms arranged in yet another large prism shape is found. The top prism unfolds, and one of the faces extends into a green line from which an old Macintosh-style drop-down menu appears.

     Western Animation  

  • In Futurama, some of the characters use a virtual reality version of the internet. They decide to do a search, so they all shade their eyes, squint, and look around in the distance. This particular episode had many more examples.
  • One episode of Beast Wars features Tigatron hacking the Predacon computer, which looks more like him playing a virtual reality game. It even has him using those motion sensing gloves.

     Truth in television  

  • This predates most fictional computers. For a public demonstration, the seminal ENIAC (built circa 1945) had light bulbs wired up to internal circuits, so people could actually see it do arithmetic. Otherwise, it would have meant starting at featureless equipment for minutes, just to have it print out a column of numbers. Due to The Coconut Effect, subsequent fiction featured computers that used giant banks of light bulbs flashing on and off, for no particular reason. Hackers dubbed this "blinkenlights".
  • The Connection Machines, a line of supercomputers from the eighties, had a significant portions of their cases covered in huge grids of tiny red activity lights, put there for diagnostic use but also for dramatic effect.
    • The front panel of a real CM was used as the backdrop of the "control room" in Jurassic Park.
  • The menu screen of the Excel♥Saga Volume 4 DVD is a confusing cacophony of multicolored flashing lights, glowing circles, and Excel's screaming, spinning head. It actually requires practice to navigate (hint: the glowing green circle is your cursor).
  • Modern computers are filled with things which don't actually indicate progress, but instead are just there to give users something to watch while they wait for the machine:
    • The "animated hourglass", "spinning beachball", "ticking watch", "running dog", and similar cursors on both Mac and Windows.
    • Throbbers of all sorts.
    • Those animated sequences that play in a Microsoft Windows loading box whenever you do a simple file operation. They will keep going even if the disk drive stalls.
      • The funny thing is, you'll find out the that this is really an AVI video file.
    • The "progress bar" at the bottom of internet browser windows. For most operations, it just advances at programmed time intervals. This is especially egregious since a progress bar is supposed to indicate progress.
      • This is necessary, because predicting the actual time to load a page has been impossible since embedded pictures came along, and modern web pages can involve dozens of files which arenít known in advance. Safari 4 replaced the progress bar with a simpler waiting/loading/done indicator, party for this reason, but Safari 5 reintroduced it after people complained.
    • Most progress bars are pretty awful. Either they advance quickly and then freeze at 99% where they do all the work, or they seem to work fine but reset themselves at the end and go on to another operation (for example, MSI packages for Windows tend to work this way. Also it's ruthlessly parodied in Office Space), raising the question of what exactly the designers thought they were supposed to be there for.
    • For the matter, the hard drive activity light. While useful back when computers really only did one thing at a time and unreliable, modern computers and their software tend to always be doing something - usually completely unrelated to what the user is doing.
      • They are now again quite useful for solid state disk, due to the lack of auditory feedback. Otherwise, you just wouldn't know when it's the disk that slows your system to a crawl.
      • Not that you need to worry much about that anyway when you have a solid-state disk.
    • The Compiz window manager, available for most Linux distributions, allows the user to install plugins to alter the appearance and behavior of most everything on their desktop. Some of these plugins are very trippy.
    • One third-party program for managing a proprietary archive formatnote  demonstrated why this is so common: when told to create a new file, it would not display anything. Not even a little window saying "Creating file". It would only display a message upon completing the file. Some users of the software thought it was broken or had stalled, when in fact the file was large enough that the operation wasn't done instantly. In other words, the program worked perfectly, but some thought it was broken, because of lack of feedback, meaningless or otherwise.
  • Parodied by Stephen Colbert, who described defragmenting your hard drive: "A program where your computer moves a bunch of rectangles around to make you feel better." Tragically, Vista's defragger has lost the colored rectangles, and 7's didn't bring them back.
  • It's been said on a recent Frontline special that the computers in one of Bernie Madoff's accounting offices relied on this in order to make clients and SEC officials believe that stuff was going on, and that the computers were actually doing what they were supposed to be doing. All the while, a much smaller office just below that one did the real "accounting" work.
  • There was a brief fad for creating Extreme Graphical Representation user interfaces in the mid-Nineties to replace Windows 95 for new computer users, as it was thought this would be easier to get used to. They typically took the form of representing the computer as a house, with different rooms holding work/productivity programmes, games, kids' stuff and so on. Two examples are Microsoft Bob (one of Microsoft's most embarrassing failures) and Packard Bell's Navigator.
  • Most routers have an activity light to indicate that they are transmitting or receiving something. Many older ones did this simply by wiring an LED into the transmit circuit. The actual 1s and 0s of the bitstream were far too fast to be seen by humans, but were decodable by pointing a high-speed camera at the light, giving a way to tap the wire without being near the wire, and avoiding most of the security systems in existence. Modern routers generally don't have the LED on the actual circuit anymore, but some home models might still do this.
    • It was even worse than that. At low data rates, the signal can be decoded by a photocell. Decent equipment can read it from over. Attempts to mask the signal put out by the light by stretching the highs still have recovery rates of up to 80%, more then enough to decode plain text. Of course, there is a simple fix with some tape. Modern equipment, with transmission rates of 10 billion bytes/sec is not capable of this, as the light would only be a dull blur to humans, so the activity light is faked.
  • The animated UI we see in fiction might be becoming more common - have you used an iPhone lately?
  • The trope zig-zags itself in real life. More tech-savvy users know that these additions typically decrease performance, and the ideal digital workstation has little clutter and animation. There are large numbers of third-party fixes that take these off for most operating systems. Thus, the simpler ones are seen among that group as more advanced. Yet, most only know enough about computers to judge by what the screen tells them, so the larger market prefers the flashier ones.
    • Of course, some people fail to do the research and choose the ugliest option available regardless of whether it's actually faster that way or not.
    • The ideal working environment getting described as this: "One background pic and twelve xterms".
    • The Unity desktop environment, as used by Ubuntu, is a notorious example that has developed a considerable Hatedom among techies. The embedded keyword advertising didn't help either.
      • Gnome 3.0 adopted a similar interface to Unity. No need to guess how well that turned out.
      • Also, a sheer amount of vitriol aimed at Windows 8 targets the "Metro" UI.
  • Computers controlling critical systems will often avert this since fancy animations often take up critical computer resources, and you do not want critical systems for, say, space missions or nuclear reactors slowing or worse freezing during an emergency.


Expositron 9000Magical ComputerFacial Recognition Software
Exact Progress BarRule of PerceptionFlash of Pain
Extreme DoormatImageSource/PhotographyFake Boobs

alternative title(s): Extreme Visual Representation
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