Martin Helmut Fieber

Cassette Futurism

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On the left is a Syd Mead drawing, a warm orange interior with beige colors forms a room with hard lines and technical gear in the background. On the right a closeup of the movie Alien, showing fingers typing on a keyboard.

A technological aesthetic reminiscent of late 1960s to early 1980s tech (regardless of the real time setting of the media) as codified by early microcomputers …

—TV Tropes, Cassette Futurism


Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Alien (1979) are two movies I could watch over and over again, and I do so at least once a year, minimum. In my opinion, two of the greatest movies — slow-paced, grounded, with amazing narratives. Blade Runner being a foundation for the cyberpunk genre, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien paving the way for leading women in sci-fi, and on top of that, the visuals of both movies are striking to say the least.

The left shows a screenshot from Blade Runner, showing a car flying through a dark cityscape. On the right, a picture from Alien shows Sigourney Weaver with the cat Jonesy in her hands.
On the left is a screenshot of Blade Runner, copyrighted by Warner Bros. Pictures. On the right, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley from Alien (1979), copyright by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, LLC.

The distinguished style of their environment, items, vehicles, and people — an interpretation of the future as seen from the (now) past. A retro aesthetic that combines visuals from the late 1960s to the early or mid 1980s, forming general computers, handhelds, cyber-decks, using CRT monitors, blinking lights; a monochromatic feast.

All this is best called Cassette Futurism.

On the left is a screenshot from Alien, showing a red terminal screen reading 'Nostromo, 180924609'. On the right is a screenshot from Blade Runner, showing a TV screen with green scan lines.
On the left is a screenshot from Alien (1979), copyrighted by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, LLC. On the right is a screenshot from Blade Runner, copyrighted by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Imagine futuristic space travel, but data is stored on cassette tapes, locks are secured via punch card, the flight computer is analog, blinking buttons in abundance, and if something is broken, you can open it up, solder it back together, or put some tape on it.

On the left is a Commodore PET 2001, showing a closeup of the cassette compartment. The top right shows an editor's room, with many monitors and control panels. The bottom right shows a rewire panel from the game Alien: Isolation, two monochromatic screens with an array of buttons underneath.
On the left is a Commodore PET 2001; top right is an Editor's Room; bottom right is a rewire console from Alien: Isolation by Creative Assembly, Alien franchise copyright by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, LLC.

Priorities are rescinded

This low-fi tech in a high-tech environment, Cassette Futurism, really caught me, influencing me more than I realized for a long time. I love the style, art, movies, and games influenced by it; not every aspect of my life is, but a few are: a lot of the media I like, my keyboard, even the watch I'm currently wearing is a Casio Vintage A100.

On the left are my personal keyboard, green case and cable, and soft gray and green key caps. On the right is the Casio Vintage A100, a silver watch with a black digital face.
On the left is my personal mechanical keyboard, which I assembled myself. On the right is my Casio Vintage A100, which I'm usually wearing.


Sharing this love, I want to give appreciation to a few movies, series, artists, and things — some more obvious than others, but all great examples of cassette futurism.

Alien (1979)

The Alien movie in the whole Alien franchise, at least for me. I know how people love the second one, Aliens, and I do too, but the first movie, slow-paced, dark and dirty, this is where my heart lies.

Impressions from the Alien movie, showing a corridor, the pilot area, and some members of the crew.
Pictures of the movie Alien (1979), copyrighted by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, LLC.

Some websites going into design details like typography, iconography, and spaceship design:

I'm also working on recreating the Alien Bulkhead door as designed by Ron Cobb in 3D with Blender.

Alien: Isolation (2014)

The game Alien: Isolation by Creative Assembly can easily be called an homage to the original Alien, recreating environments in the same style to the extent that you could confuse one for the other. It is an astonishing-looking game even today, with an intriguing story set between the first Alien and Aliens.

Multiple screenshots from the game Alien: Isolation show a workstation next to a bulkhead door, a glowing red computer terminal, and the movement scanner used to detect the alien.
Alien: Isolation by Creative Assembly; Alien franchise copyright by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, LLC.

I also want to recommend this small but intriguing documentation by Noclip about the difficult development of Alien: Isolation.

Blade Runner (1982)

Same director as Alien, Ridley Scott, Blade Runner hits hard on design. A dark, cyberpunk'esque, sci-fi movie. Based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by the way, a great author of science fiction literature.

Seeing this movie share certain connections with Alien, some would say sharing a universe — it is no wonder it tickles the same spot in my heart. I also absolutely recommend watching the second one, Blade Runner 2049.

On the top left is a picture of a monochromatic monitor reading 'ENVIRON CTR'. On the bottom left is a thick, dark green keyboard. The right side shows multiple monitors, one showing a closeup of a human eye.
Pictures of the movie Blade Runner (1982), copyrighted by Warner Bros. Pictures.

There is a great deep dive into the used typography of Blade Runner at Typeset in the future.

Cowboy Bebop (1998–1999)

A Japanese neo-noir science fiction anime created by Hajime Yatate. Cowboy Bebop does mix a great deal of genres, but I like the description of being a "cyberpunk space western". It's an exceptional intro sequence with the song Tank! by Yoko Kanno has itself burned forever into my memory.

Two pictures from the show, on the left, a computer console with a small gray display, and on the right, a handheld device with a small green screen and a num-pad underneath.
Two examples of cassette-futurism-like devices from Cowboy Bebop, copyright by Bandai Namco Film-works.

Andor (2022–present)

Rather new, Star Wars: Andor is an unexpected intriguing series that does many things right that I liked so much about the original Star Wars trilogy. Having a lot of practical sets, it is visually unique compared to other recent Star Wars entries, leaning closer to a classic, analog, low-fi tech style.

A screenshot from the series Andor shows the back of a man's head with black hair in front of two monochromatic-green computer displays.
A lovingly low-fi-tech environment, on Star Wars: Andor, copyright by DMED.

Ron Cobb

Dark Star (1974), Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Back to the Future (1985), The Abyss (1989), and Total Recall (1990).

There is not much more I will say about Ron Cobb, the artist, cartoonist, and film designer. He was one of the best, who sadly died on his 83rd birthday, September 21, 2020.

Different drawings from Ron Cobb. On the top left is a picture from the set of Alien, showing an open bulkhead door in a white corridor. On the bottom left is a drawing of the back of the spaceship Nostromo, landed on a planet, with an astronaut to the right. The right side shows another drawing of a spaceship in space, with two large white quarter-structures surrounding a blue glowing engine exhaust.
Some of the works of Ron Cobb. Original artwork source.

Syd Mead

Working on Blade Runner, Aliens, and Tron, Sydney Jay Mead aka. Syd Mead, with his neo-futuristic style, was one of the most influential concept and industrial artists of our time.

Image showing an interior design by Syd Mead. Warm orange and beige colors form a room with hard lines and technical gear in the background and cube-formed seating in the foreground.
One of the famous interior designs by Syd Mead.

Ailantd Sikowsky

Ailantd Sikowsky from Spain has a unique style that is, I think, absolutely inspiring. There is not one artwork by Ailantd that does not spark that little something, triggering your imagination.

Two of Ailantd Sikowsky drawings. On the left, a gray spaceship with orange accents is floating high above a planet. On the right, a group of floating dark gray vehicles in an orange environment.
Just two examples of the stunning art by Ailantd Sikowsky. The original artwork source is here for the left picture and here for the right picture.

Edouard Caplain

An amazing artist, Edouard Caplain from France, who created concept art for Alien: Isolation, recreated the look and feel of the first Alien movie for the game.

Concept art from Edouard Caplain for Alien: Isolation, showing a room in a spaceship with a table surrounded by comfortable red chairs. On the table are some technical apparatus.
Concept art by Edouard Caplain for Alien: Isolation, copyright by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, LLC. Original artwork source


A programming language, yes! COBOL ("common business-oriented language") a programming language designed in and partially based on FLOW-MATIC by Grace Hopper.

000600     DISPLAY "All other considerations secondary.".
000700     DISPLAY "Crew expendable".
000800 STOP RUN.
COBOL-85, with the more strict form of using capital letters for keywords.

I cannot fully explain what it is, but looking at COBOL code gives me the feeling this could have been used to run the Nostromo's MU-TH-UR 6000 mainframe from Alien.


This is version 2 of this article, originally published on January 11th, 2022, as I wanted to include more admiration and rewrite the intro. If you want to see what version 1 looked like, you can take a look at the plain HTML through the history on GitHub.

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