Why We Don’t Have UIs Like the ones in Neon Genesis

Zemnmez
7 min readMay 1, 2020

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Every now and then, the incredible aesthetic quality of the UIs in Neon Genesis comes up. And for good reason. They’re incredibly cool.

Everyone who works with interfaces should be looking at these and asking themselves why interfaces don’t look like this. Where did we go so wrong? Where’s the big fuckup where we ended up with like, windows 95 instead of this shit? This is something I have devoted untold and definitely irresponsible brain space to. And honestly, the best answer I have is very simple, but I think also a kind of interesting look at how our tools shape the designs we make.

A neat theme I think to start with is how many of the UIs of neon genesis are graphs that have graduations that look like radar:

I think this becomes even clearer when you look at UIs that do have modern analogues, like this map:

It’s pretty clear that Neon Genesis’s UIs are UIs specifically for CRTs, one of the first uses of which was for the Position Plan Indicator (PPI) displays you see on super old RADAR systems. They often have few colors which glow with that lovely phosphorescent glow — and the basic form here is not pixels, it’s shapes.

An old CRT, like one of those radar scanner things you see in old films is a very different way of thinking about graphics, because unlike a modern LCD display where the image is made of lots of little units, you know, pixels — the image on a CRT is actually literally drawn like with a pencil, except the pencil is a beam of excited electrically charged particles. It might not be obvious why this would be so different, but the basic primitive in such a display is not a pixel, but a line.

That makes a lot of sense given the series’s release in the 1990s, when modern flatscreen LCD displays with individually addressable pixels had not become affordable. But here’s the thing — it’s not so much just about our modern display mediums being pixel-oriented, but that our systems — all the successful ones were pixel oriented. Even if the NES and the BBC micro, the Apple II, whatever, even if they all ultimately pushed data to a cathode ray display, their fundamental drawing unit was still pixel based.

And while, clearly, we have vector based technologies like TrueType and SVG, I mean, even rendered web pages really, their ultimate goal is to produce scaled pixel data to draw to a pixel-oriented display. The displays in neon genesis feel like they draw their design cues from early military display systems, which — since they pre-dated the purpose of pixels, live TV — just draw all their data directly to the phosphor with vector operations.

Marcin Wichary / Flickr

Which isn’t to say there were no consumer devices which used vectors as their fundamental graphics primitive. The original Pong did just this, and so did the massive 1980s flop of the Vectrex, which made great efforts to sell itself on the ‘Arcade’ quality of its vector display:

But, fundamentally the world of raster, “x by y squares” systems won out, and left us with what we have today. OK, but what does this mean for our lost Neon Genesis future?

Well, I put to you this: even if we emulated the pleasant, unmistakable sub-pixel glow of a phosphor CRT screen, what we can’t emulate is the primitives the engineers have in the fictional, now retrofuture of Neon Genesis. It’s clear that the engineers not only have access to super capable multi-colour CRT displays, and HUGE ones, but they have extensive UI systems capable of doing things like rendering really crisp vector fonts with a fidelity vector displays never could in our timeline.

And like, yes, while I can go write a .exe and put whatever pixels I want on the screen, the reality is all our systems are made with primitives that have developed out of our current, raster future. There’s no HTML element for concentric, dot-grid wireframe circles and we don’t live in a world where I can just take a set of vectors and just draw them in a meaningful way over the rest of my content that doesn’t take those lines out of the UI itself.

Take a look at the (very real) Neon Genesis android phone, sold only in Japan. It’s a fascinating attempt to map a future we never had onto the one we did have.

Even just the idea of the UI elements being in square boxes is a forced meme from the pixel era, cause if you have a low-resolution pixel display any windows that aren’t square are going to have weird jaggy edges. The Neon Genesis programmers would have never had to put up with that shit, and I have no doubt would have just drawn a whole bunch of awesome big glowing orange triangles.

The idea these modules could also, too be transparent is us forgetting what these UIs mean. Feel free to search every episode and every original film. I reckon you won’t find a single transparent UI element over another.

The idea of ‘transparency’, or at least having elements in through which backgrounds can be blended is very intuitive in a pixel display, where one can mix the colours of the overlaid elements and send the final colour to the display to be drawn.

But conversely, in a CRT the colour relies on the excitation of the phosphor in the screen itself in almost exactly the same way as one of those tubular fluorescent bulbs — after being hit with the electron beam, the phosphor glows ‘on’ and as a result the whole display is one colour. There’s no room for graduations in colour here. (I’ve spent considerable time googling whether someone managed to make a display that was both orange and green like in Neon Genesis but have found nothing)

Even if the Neon Genesis engineers managed to make a multi-colour phosphor display, mixing those colours in a way that would give the appearance of semi-transparency needs more than mecha technology to produce.

And so that’s it: a graphic design future that was never realized due to the ways our technologies made us think about design, and the design technologies it correspondingly produced. Food for thought, I hope.

Bonus:

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember when UIs that looked like this were the most mid-blowing thing ever:

And you know why that is? Fucking pixels again. It’s weird to young people, I think that this was so cool once, but if you grew up using computers before Windows XP, every single damn window you’d ever interacted with, save a few special demos were square because of the damn pixels, and here’s a window that literally… it’s shaped like a head. How exciting is that? The speakers SLIDE OUT of the sides!!

To give you an idea of how expensive making non-squares were, here’s an excerpt from The Story of The Sun Microsystems PizzaTool about how computationally expensive it was to draw literally just a round clock:

X has had its share of $5,000 toilet seats — like Sun’s Open Look clock tool, which gobbles up 1.4 megabytes of real memory! If you sacrificed all the RAM from 22 Commodore 64s to clock tool, it still wouldn’t have enough to tell you the time. Even the vanilla X11R4 “xclock” utility consumed 656K to run. And X’s memory usage is increasing.

Okay, I mean yeah, it’s probably not all because of the pixels. I mean, there’s compositing and probably the transform on the lines or something. But you’d get those for free if you just said fuck off to pixels and just drew phosphor lines, so it’s probably the pixels fault at least a little bit.

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