Security and Control’s control

The mission is world-critical, so like a cockpit, the two who are ultimately in control are kept secure. The control room is accessible (to mere humans, anyway) only through a vault door with an armed guard. Hadley and Sitterson must present IDs to the guard before he grants them access.

Sitterson and Hadley pass security.

Truman, the guard, takes and swipes their cards through a groove in a hand-held device. We are not shown what is on the tiny screen, but we do hear the device’s quick chirps to confirm the positive identity. That sound means that Truman’s eyes aren’t tied to the screen. He can listen for confirmation and monitor the people in front of him for any sign of nervousness or subterfuge.

Hadley boots up the control room screens.

The room itself tells a rich story through its interfaces alone. The wooden panels at the back access Bronze Age technology with its wooden-handled gears, glass bowls, and mechanical devices that smash vials of blood. The massive panel at which they sit is full of Space Age pushbuttons, rheostats, and levers. On the walls behind them are banks of CRT screens. These are augmented with Digital Age, massive, flat panel displays and touch panel screens within easy reach on the console. This is a system that has grown and evolved for eons, with layers of technology that add up to a tangled but functional means of surveillance and control.

The interfaces hint at the great age of the operation.

Utter surveillance

In order for Control to do their job, they have to keep tabs on the victims at all times, even long before the event: Are the sacrifices conforming to archetype? Do they have a reason to head to the cabin?

The nest empties.

To these ends, there are field agents in the world reporting back by earpiece, and everything about the cabin is wired for video and audio: The rooms, the surrounding woods, even the nearby lake.

Once the ritual sacrifice begins, they have to keep an even tighter surveillance: Are they behaving according to trope? Do they realize the dark truth? Is the Virgin suffering but safe? A lot of the technology seen in the control room is dedicated to this core function of monitoring.

The stage managers monitor the victims.

There are huge screens at the front of the room. There are manual controls for these screens on the big panel. There is an array of CRTs on the far right.

The small digital screens can display anything, but a mode we often see is a split in quarters, showing four cameras in the area of the stage. For example, all the cameras fixed on the rooms are on one screen. This provides a very useful peripheral signal in Sitterson and Hadley’s visual field. As they monitor the scenario, motion will catch their eyes. If that motion is not on a monitor they expect it to be, they can check what’s happening quickly by turning their head and fixating. This helps keep them tightly attuned to what’s happening in the different areas on “stage.”

For internal security, the entire complex is also wired for video, including the holding cages for the nightmare monsters.

Sitterson looks for the escapees amongst the cubes.

The control room watches the bloody chaos spread.

One screen that kind of confuses us appears to be biometrics of the victims. Are the victims implanted with devices for measuring such things, or are sophisticated non-invasive environmental sensors involved? Regardless of the mechanisms, if Control has access to vital signs, how are they mistaken about Marty’s death? We only get a short glance at the screen, so maybe it’s not vital signs, but simple, static biometrics like height, and weight, even though the radiograph diagram suggests more.

Sitterson tries to avoid talking to Mordecai.

Communications

Sitterson and Hadley are managing a huge production. It involves departments as broad ranging as chemistry, maintenance, and demolitions. To coordinate and troubleshoot during the ritual, two other communications options are available beyond the monitors; land phone lines and direct-connection, push-to-talk microphones.

Hadley receives some bad news.

Make It So on Jared Spool’s SpoolCast

Science fiction films often take liberties with the technology that they display. After all, it is fiction. Though they can make up essentially whatever they want, technologies still need to be somewhat realistic to the audience. This influences the way that sci-fi technology is presented in film, but in turn, it’s how sci-fi influences technological advances in the real world.

Nathan Shedroff, Chair of the MBA in Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts, and Chris Noessel, Managing Director at Cooper, took it upon themselves to study the lessons that can be learned from science fiction. They analyzed a variety of interfaces from all different time periods of film and television. They discovered that when new technologies are developed and released to the market, people already have expectations of how it should work. This is based upon having already seen a similar, fictional technology.

Of course, there are instances where the technology in film is all but an impossibility, or at least impractical in real life. This changes as gestural and voice recognition technologies become more advanced, but a lot of interfaces in sci-fi are developed simply for the “cool” factor. Even then, looking to these interfaces as a reference point can help focus a design.

Nathan and Chris join Jared Spool to discuss their Rosenfeld Media book, Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction in this podcast.

Give it a listen (and/or read the full transcript) at http://www.uie.com/brainsparks/2012/10/24/make-it-so-interaction-design-lessons-from-science-fiction-with-nathan-shedroff-chris-noessel/

A disaster-avoidance service

The key system in The Cabin in the Woods is a public service, and all technological components can be understood as part of this service. It is, of course, not a typical consumer service for several reasons. Like the CIA, FBI, and CDC, the people who most benefit from this service—humanity at large—are aware of it barely, if at all. These protective services only work by forestalling a negative event like a terrorist action or plague. Unlike these real-world threats, if Control fails in their duties, there is no crisis management as a next step. There’s only the world ending. Additionally, it is not typical in that it is an ancient service that has built itself up over ages around a mystical core.

So who are the users of the service? The victims are not. They are intentionally kept in the dark, and it is seen as a crisis when Marty learns the truth.

Given that interaction design requires awareness of the service in question, as well as inputs and outputs to steer variables towards a goal, it stands that the organization in the complex are the primary users. Even more particularly it is Sitterson and Hadley, the two “stage managers” in charge of the control room for the event, who are the real users. Understanding their goals we can begin an analysis. Fittingly, it’s complex:

  • Forestall the end of the world…
  • by causing the (non-Virgin) victims to suffer and die before Dana (who represents the Virgin archetype)…
  • at the hand of a Horrible Monster selected by the victims themselves…
  • marking each successful sacrifice with a blood ritual…
  • while keeping the victims unaware of the behind-the-scenes truth.

Sitterson and Hadley dance in the control room.

Part of a larger network with similar goals

This operation is not the only one operating at the same time. There are at least six other operations, working with their particular archetypes and rituals around the world: Berlin, Kyoto, Rangoon, Stockholm, Buenos Aires, and Madrid.

To monitor these other scenarios, there are two banks of CRT monitors high up on the back wall, each monitor dedicated to a different scenario. Notably, these are out of the stage manager’s line of attention when their focus is on their own.

The CRT monitors display other scenarios around the world.

The digital screens on the main console are much more malleable, however, and can be switched to display any of the analog video feeds if any special attention needs to be paid to it.

The amount of information that the stage managers need about any particular scenario is simple: What’s the current state of an ongoing scenario, and whether it has succeeded or failed for a concluded one. We don’t see any scenario succeed in this movie, so we can’t evaluate that output signal. Instead, they all fail. When they fail, a final image is displayed on the CRT with a blinking red legend “FAIL” superimposed across it, so it’s clear when you look at the screen (and catch it in the “on” part of the blink) what it’s status is.

Sitterson watches the Kyoto scenario fail.

Hadley sees that other scenarios have all failed.

One critique of this simple pass-fail signal is that it is an important signal that might be entirely missed, if the stage managers’ attentions were riveted forward, to problems in their own scenario. Another design option would be to alert Sitterson and Hadley to the moment of change with a signal in their peripheral attention, like a flash or a brief buzz. But signaling a change of state might not be enough. The new state, i.e. 4 of 7 failed, ought to be persistent in their field of vision as they continue their work, if the signal is considered an important motivator.

The design of alternate, persistent signals depend on rules we do not have access to. Are more successful scenarios somehow better? Or is it a simple OR-chain, with just one success meaning success overall? Presuming it’s the latter, strips of lighting around the big screens could become increasingly bright red, for instance, or a seven-sided figure mounted around the control room could have wedges turn red when those scenarios failed. Such environmental signals would allow the information to be glanceable, and remind the stage managers of the increasing importance of their own scenario. These signals could turn green at the first success as well, letting them know that the pressure is off and that what remains of their own scenario is to be run as a drill.

There is a Prisoner’s Dilemma argument to be made that stage managers should not have the information about the other scenarios at all, in order to keep each operation running at peak efficiency, but this would not have served the narrative as well.

The Cabin in the Woods: Overview

Release Date: 15 April 2012, USA

Five teenagers take a road trip on a long weekend to spend time at a cabin in the woods, only to stumble upon creepy and mysterious objects in the basement. Reading Latin found in an old diary, they unwittingly reanimate a family of pain-worshipping zombies, who immediately begin to assault and kill the teens one by one. Marty, one of the teens, escapes death and leads the only other survivor, Dana, into a hidden underground complex he has found. There they learn that their road trip experience has been engineered behind the scenes—and that they have been constantly and subtly manipulated—by an unnamed organization that annually perform this rite, causing archetypal victims to suffer and act as sacrifices that keep ancient evil beings, called the Old Ones, asleep. By releasing containment mechanisms that cage nightmarish monsters, Dana and Marty create gory chaos, allowing them to make their way to the heart of the complex, where they must choose to die for the world, or with it.

Report Card: Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet is an influential film not just because of its positive audience reaction and later cult success, but also because Gene Roddenberry has stated that it deeply influenced his massive science fiction property Star Trek, in look, general plot structure, and even some of the same effects.

The film is also notable for the introduction of Robbie the Robot, an anthropomorphic robot who was such a hit (and so expensive for MGM to create) that he warranted a follow-up movie all to himself, and inspired the creator Robert Kinoshita to make a similar robot for the long-running family-friendly serial Lost in Space.

But as much as we adore the nostalgic themes and effects, and as much as we recognize the influence of the film, our review must be of its interfaces, and for that it does not ultimately fare well.

Sci: B+ (3 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?

The Krell technology is meant to be advanced beyond our understanding of physics and technology, so the film shouldn’t be dinged for that. Robbie is somewhat problematic (how, again, does he hold and fire the gun?) but as a result of Krell enhancements, we can forgive a bit of that, too. The Terran technology in contrast scores higher, even with the invisible “force field” version of an electric fence.

Fi: B (3 of 4)
How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

For a reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the interfaces could have easily been tacked on, unrelated to the central plot. But for the most part the interfaces are deeply integrated in the story, telling a tale of a man’s toying with technology that is terrifyingly advanced and ultimately uncontrollable. The film’s indulgence in some extraneous (and ultimately poorly thought out) “gee-whiz, what’ll they think of next?” moments are the main reason it does not warrant full marks.

Interfaces: F (0 of 4)

How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Between demure self-destruct mechanisms, death-prone trash bins, and critically unhelpful astrogator tools, the interfaces in Forbidden Planet are gory distaster scenes waiting to happen. There’s little that a designer would want to pull from these for their own work in the real world. Unless, perhaps, you’re Krell.

Final Grade C (6 of 12), MATINEE

Related lessons from the book

  • The astrogrator’s armillary would have worked in more circumstances with a dynamic, volumetric display (and some attention to visual hierarchy.) (Page 75)
  • Commander Adam’s Public Address system balances ease and control in activation (page 202) while also signaling state (page 202.) It also is an example of a Fixed Connection system (page 203).
  • With his language use (page 187), mobility, and ability to manipulate human objects, Robbie the Robot might have fallen into the Uncanny Valley (page 184). Fortunately his strange manner of speech and inhuman appearance clearly signals his inhuman-ness, as recommended on p185.
  • The handwave switches in Morbius house illustrate the first of Hollywood’s Gestural Pidgin (page 98): Wave to Activate.
  • Though the Krell technology has many usability problems, the Plastic Educator shaped the look of Volumetric Projections from this point to the present day in sci-fi (page 78), and will likely shape it for decades to come.

Suggested new lessons

Worst. Self-destruction mechanism. Ever.

When Morbius has taken a mortal wound from his monster and destroyed his “evil self,” he realizes that mankind is not ready for the power available to him through the Krell technology. Without explaining what he’’s doing, Morbius instructs Adams to “turn “that disc”.” Adams mindlessly obeys, and a plunger emerges from the floor near him.

Adams initiates the irreversible Krell self destruct mechanism.

Morbius commands Adams, ““The switch, throw it.”” Again, Adams does as he’’s told, and the plunger clicks into place as a red ring (the same red ring below the educator lever) illuminates. Then, and only then, Morbius explains that, ““In 24 hours you must be 100 million miles out in space. The Krell furnaces’ …chain reaction……they cannot be reversed.”” You think that with that kind of finality, he might have bothered to explain what was going to happen, or inquire whether the crew could make it out that far in that amount of time, but you know, science knows best.

The krell self-destruct warning signal is a silent, blinking red ring around the plunger.

Adding insult to injury, the complete warning system for this massive, solar-system-sized explosion consists of, in total, a silently pulsing red ring around the base of a plunger located in the heart of a hidden underground city behind a series of impenetrable doors sealed with combination locks. There is no klaxon, no lights seen elsewhere to indicate that your star system is about to go boom. I guess if you didn’’t know, you didn’’t really need to know.

UX Podcast #25: @axbom and @beantin make it so

UX Podcast #25: @axbom and @beantin make it so

In this show we joined James and Per, interaction designers in Stockholm, Sweden. We talk to them about the background to Make It So, how the book came about, the influence that Sci-fi has on real world interfaces (and vice versa), and we nerd it up on a few occasions with some specific sci-fi examples.

All this whilst spanning three time zones (Stockholm, New York and San Franciso).