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Sometimes sciFi movies don't do a good job of predicting the future. The majority, for example, had CRT-based displays more or less until flat screen displays became common in the real world (Alien, for example, has lots of displays but they are all CRTs).

The current obsession in futuristic movies does seem to be ahead of reality. Much of what I have seen recently has transparent flat screen displays. See this example from the police station in Altered Carbon:
Altered carbon: ortega in from of her desk .

Transparent displays might sometimes be useful but not as the primary means of showing data (heads-up displays in cars or planes are useful if they show small amounts of information that doesn't distract the driver or pilot from where they are going). But this seems to be the new norm. Transparent displays are prevalent in Star Trek Discovery, Black Mirror as well as Altered Carbon. In fact I'm struggling to think of the last modern Scifi I've seen that didn't have them.

I don't know when they first appeared, though Minority Report would be my first guess.

Why the obsession with such a seemingly useless technology? Or, perhaps more usefully, what was the first example of a movie containing a transparent display?

  • Adding: In Goliath (which is present day), Cooperman has a transparent glass computer monitor. – WakeDemons3 Jun 7 '18 at 22:00
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    Minority Report is definitely a good guess. I feel like it was around that time, at any rate. Also, I feel like it started with just CGI data being "projected" into thin air around the characters, and then later "settled down" to transparent screens. This is just my gut-impulse rememberance of how it all started, though, can't pinpoint a specific movie. – Steve-O Jun 7 '18 at 23:59
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    Transparent displays might be useless in the real world, but I bet cinematographers love them - they can now do close-ups of the actors looking at the display, through the display. – Tetsujin Jun 8 '18 at 5:08
  • @Tetsujin I'm interested in whether there is any possible in-universe justification for them. – matt_black Jun 8 '18 at 8:47
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    Arguably: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/112877/… – BCdotWEB Jun 8 '18 at 9:45
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I remember that the pilot episode of Battlestar Galactica (1978) sort of had a static transparent display of a spatial plot. The characters pointed to various parts to explain their plans. But nothing moved on the display.

And I remember a sort of transparent screen used by the Tomorrow People during an episode of The Tomorrow People (1973-1979). I'm sure they didn't have an actual transparent display screen, so either the image didn't move or they used special effects to project a moving image on the screen.

And I think that point of view shots of what killer robots see have often had targeting grids superimposed over the view, as well as words like "seeking target" or "target acquired". Possibly in The Terminator (1984), for example.

If my memories are correct directors obviously considered transparent display screens to be visually striking and desirable in science fiction decades before Minority Report (2002).

So my guess is that movie makers use transparent screens because they have always desired to use such striking visual effects and CGI now makes it easy. I guess they don't care how annoying it would be in real life to see the background through the screen making it harder to see the images or data you are interested in.

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Transparent screens to display tactical information have been in use at least since WWII in real life, and have since then been featured in sci-fi as well, eventually graduating from static displays to animated and even holographic ones.

This is an image of Battle of Midway (filmed in 1976, but it takes place in 1942):

Midway - Adm. Nimitz and screen

Here you see Adm. Nimitz talk to another character. In the foreground, an attaché is writing down information on a transparent panel. I have no idea how those are called, but they are commonly used.

Those elements then also came into use in science fiction. Look at this picture from Battlestar Galactica (1978):

Battlestar Galactica - transparent screen

Or this picture from Star Wars (1977):

Star Wars - Yavin transparent screen

Obviously, GCI technology was not ready for animated or even holographic screens at the time, but the idea of doing this seems to have been firmly implanted in the minds of sci-fi authors.

I am not sure when CGI technology finally caught up with what directors and authors wanted to do for a long time, but Minority Report (as has already been said) seems to be a fair choice for transparent display that have animated content and/or are can be interacted with.

  • A fair point to show old examples. But two problems: I was thinking specifically about live data displays (like computer monitors) not manual displays (like transparent blackboards); second, why are these old displays transparent? Is there any in-universe explanation? cf The maps used by the RAF during the battle of Britain: they were on tables and had moveable figurines for showing aircraft locations: they were neither transparent not vertical. – matt_black Jun 18 '18 at 12:21
  • @matt_black ... displays like that used in the military or in air-traffic control were transparent so that people could view the information from both sides. You might have people putting information on the screen from one side using a grease-pencil (called a chinagraph pencil in the uk) and a commander would be on the other side using it to make tactical decisions. – iandotkelly Jun 18 '18 at 14:32
  • I guess its an alternative to the table with markers on it ... which takes a lot of space, and may not be that suitable on a ship for example. Takes up a lot of space, has stuff that may be moved around if the ship is in motion. Marks on a glass panel that can be viewed from both sides is perhaps not quite as good, but still practical. – iandotkelly Jun 18 '18 at 14:35
  • @iandotkelly While transparent boards aren't quite what the question was about, I'd be interested to see real examples of their use (ie not in fictional settings) to understand when they work. – matt_black Jun 18 '18 at 15:06
  • @matt_black The first example is from a non-fictional setting, it depicts WWII, more precisely the Battle of Midway in 1942. – Polygnome Jun 18 '18 at 18:12
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It's done because it's the next frontier. We've already got thin screens and large screens so they moved the goal post to transparent ones. In Westworld we see portable devices which unfold to multiple screens. Foldable phone screens are in development by manufacturers so we know this tech will happen soon.

Overall it betrays a lack of imagination.

  • The next frontier of what? Objectively useless ideas (in the real world) done because they enable cool effects in cinematography? – matt_black Jun 18 '18 at 12:22
  • But transparent screen in possible to do right now, and it was possible to do even decade ago. LCD screen is already transparent, the light you see comes from backlight panel emitting white light through semitransparent crystal pane into your eyes. – user28434 Jun 18 '18 at 15:19
  • @matt_black the next frontier of technology. Yes it appears to be useless in this instance – Abdussamad Jun 18 '18 at 17:48
  • @user28434 Yes we can do it (OLEDs make it easy). LCDs are not good as it is hard to see though and make the backlight work. But the question is should we do something just because we can since transparent screens make the content of the screen harder to see. That might work on adverts on shop windows, but for information displays on computers it doesn't. So why are we doing it? – matt_black Aug 19 '18 at 18:04

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