Escape Pod

Prometheus-313

When Vickers realizes Janek is really mutinying and going to ram the alien ship with the Prometheus, she has only 40 seconds to flee to an escape pod. She races to the escape room and slams her hand on a waist-high box mounted on the wall next to one of the pods. The clear, protective door over the pod lifts. She hurriedly dons her environment suit and throws herself into one of the coffin-shaped alcoves. She reaches to her right and on a pad we can’t see, she presses five buttons in sequence, shouting, “Come on!” The pod is sealed and shot away from the ship to land on the planet below.

Prometheus_EscapePod-0003

The transparent cover gives a clear view into the pod. That’s great, since if there were multiple people trying to escape, it would be easier to target an empty one. The the shape inside is unmistakeable. That’s great because at a glance even an untrained passenger could figure out what this is. The bright orange stripes are appropriately intense and attention-getting as well.

Viewers might have questions about the placement of the back-lit button panels inside the pod, seeing as how they’re in a very awkward place for Vickers to see and operate. I presume she has some other interface facing her, and the panels we see in the scene are for operating when the pod is resting on the planet’s surface and its lid opened. From that position, these buttons make more sense.

I think that’s where the greatness ends. The main consideration for an escape pod is that it is used in dire emergencies. Fractions of a second might mean the difference between safety and disintegration, and so though the cinematic tension in the scene is built up by these designed-in delays, an ideal system shouldn’t work the same way. How could it be improved? There are three delays, and each of them could be improved or removed.

Delay 1: Opening a pod

Why should she have to open the pod with a button or handprint reader or whatever that thing is? The pods should be open at all times.

Prometheus_EscapePod-0004

If pods had to be sealed for some biological or mechanical reason, then a pod should open up for her immediately when she enters the room. Simple motion detectors are all that is needed.

If she has to authorize for some dystopian, only-certain-people-can-be-saved corporate reason, then a voice print could work, allowing her to shout in the hallway as she runs for the pod.

Prometheus_EscapePod-0002

Some passive recognition would be even better since it wouldn’t cost her even the time of shouting: Face-recognition or fast retinal scan through cameras mounted in the room or the pod. Run a quick laser line across her face and she’s authorized.

Delay 2: Suiting Up

Can she put on the environment suit in the pod? Yes, the pod is cramped, but that’s the biggest delay she experiences. Increase the size of the pod slightly to allow for that kind of maneuvering, and then she can just grab the suit as she’s running by and put it on in the pod’s relative safety.

Prometheus_EscapePod-0001

Even cooler would be if the pod was the environment suit: All she would have to do is throw herself in the pod, activate it, and the minute she landed on LV223, the capsule transformed, Autobot-style, into an exosuit, giving her more protection and more enhancement for survival on an alien planet. Plus, you can imagine the awesomeness of letting Vickers fight the zombified Weyland Ripley-style.

Delay 3: Activation

This is one delay that I’m pretty sure can’t be either automatic or passive. The cost of making a mistake is too dire. Accidentally pressed a button? Sorry, you’re now being shot away from the mother ship faster than it can travel. Still, why does she have to hit a series of buttons here? Is it a (shudder) password, as a corporate cost-control measure? Yes, that spells dystopia, but it should be faster and more intuitive, and we’ve already authorized her, above.

Fortunately this doesn’t need much rethinking. Since we’ve already seen a great interaction used for an emergency procedure, i.e. the 5-finger touch-twist used for emergency decontamination on the MedPod, I’d suggest using that. Crew would only have to be trained once.

Prometheus-270

The total interaction, then, should be that Vickers:

  1. Runs to the escape room
  2. Is identified passively (and notified of it by voice)
  3. Grabs a suit (this is optional if you go with the awesome exosuit idea)
  4. Throws herself into an open pod
  5. Performs a simple gesture on a touch pad
  6. Is shot away from the soon-to-explode ship

Bam! You have saved massive amounts of time, a crewmember removed from the immediate danger, and you have the setup for an awesome ending where Vickers in her exosuit can just punch the falling alien spaceship out of the the way rather than running from it like a moron.

Mr. Yuk

Prometheus-079

On the side of the valley in which the first complex is found, there is a giant skull carved into the overlooking crag. It’s easy—given the other transgressions in the film—to dismiss this as spookhouse attempt at being scary. But what if (stay with me here) it’s a warning sign, an alien Mr. Yuk, put there for other sentient humanoids to understand that this place is deadly with a capital D? This explains why the outpost hasn’t been disturbed by rescuers of their own race. They were smart enough to see the warning and turn right back around. (Why they didn’t nuke it from orbit is another question.)

The Material

Seeing this as a warning label raises other questions. Why wouldn’t a warning be technological or linguistic, like most of the interfaces inside the complex? The black infection material is still deadly after 2000 years. Who knows how much longer it will be viable? So where the interfaces inside are for immediate use, the warning outside needs to be effective for millennia, outlasting both the power reserves that would drive technology and the persistent semantics that would cement linguistic understanding. Rock, in contrast, lasts a very, very long time. Even during the erosion the shape and its clear meaning will simply lose clarity, not wink out altogether.

The symbol

Similarly, this shape is a clear symbol of death that is tied to biology, which changes on evolutionary timeframes, guaranteeing its readability for—hopefully—longer than the xenomorph liquid would be a danger.

For these reasons, this is labeling that is more than a Castle Grayskull set dressing attempt at scaaaarrrry, but a reasonable choice at providing an effective warning that will last as long as the danger. You know, providing visiting scientists actually pay attention to such things.

Pilot seat

Prometheus_PilotSeat-0006

The reawakened alien places his hand in the green display and holds it there for a few seconds. This summons a massive pilot seat. If the small green sphere is meant to be a map to the large cyan astrometric sphere, the mapping is questionable. Better perhaps would be to touch where the seat would appear and lift upwards through the sphere.

He climbs into the seat and presses some of the “egg buttons” arrayed on the armrests and on an oval panel above his head. The buttons illuminate in response, blinking individually from within. The blink pattern for each is regular, so it’s difficult to understand what information this visual noise conveys. A few more egg presses re-illuminate the cyan astrometric display.

Prometheus_PilotSeat-0010

A few more presses on the overhead panel revs up the spaceship’s engines and seals him in an organic spacesuit. The overhead panel slowly advances towards his face. The purpose for this seems inexplicable. If it was meant to hold the alien in place, why would it do so with controls? Even if they’re just navigation controls that no longer matter since he is on autopilot, he wouldn’t be able to take back sudden navigation control in a crisis. If the armrest panels also let him navigate, why are the controls split between the two parts?

Prometheus_PilotSeat-0012

Prometheus_PilotSeat-0014

On automatic at this point, the VP traces a thin green arc from the chair to the VP earth and adds highlight graphics around it. Then the ceiling opens and the spaceships lifts up into the air.

Alien Stasis Chambers

The alien stasis chambers have recessed, backlit touch controls. The shape of each looks like a letterform. (Perhaps in Proto-Indo-European language that David was studying at the start of the film?) David is able to run his fingers along and tap these character shapes in particular sequences to awaken the alien sleeping within.

vlcsnap-00003

The writing/controls take up quite a bit of room, on both the left and right sides of the chamber near the occupant’s head. It might seem a strange decision to have controls placed this way, since a single user might have to walk around the chamber to perform tasks. But a comparison of the left and right side shows that the controls are identical, and so are actually purposefully redundant. This way it doesn’t matter which side of the chamber a caretaker was on, he could still operate the controls. Two caretakers might have challenges “walking over” each other’s commands, especially with the missing feedback (see below).

Prometheus-295

Having the writing/controls spread over such a large area does seem error prone. In fact in the image above, you can see that David’s left hand is resting with two fingers “accidentally” in the controls. (His other hand was doing the button pressing.) Of course this could be written off as “the technology is not made for us, it’s made for an alien race,” but the movie insists these aliens and humans share matching DNA, so apart from being larger in stature, they’re not all that different.

Two things seem missing in the interface. The first is simple feedback. When David touches the buttons, they do not provide any signal that his touch has been received. If he didn’t apply enough pressure to register his touch, he wouldn’t have any feedback to know that until an error occurred. The touch walls had this feedback, so it seems oddly missing here.

The second thing missing is some status indicator for the occupant. Unless that information is available on wearable displays, having it hidden forces a caretaker to go elsewhere for the information or rely solely on observation, which seems far beneath the technological capabilities seen so far in the complex. See the Monitoring section in Chapter 12 of Make it So for other examples of medical monitoring.

Alien Astrometrics

Prometheus-222

When David is exploring the ancient alien navigation interfaces, he surveys a panel, and presses three buttons whose bulbous tops have the appearance of soft-boiled eggs. As he presses them in order, electronic clucks echo in in the cavern. After a beat, one of the eggs flickers, and glows from an internal light. He presses this one, and a seat glides out for a user to sit in. He does so, and a glowing pollen volumetric projection of several aliens appears. The one before David takes a seat in the chair, which repositions itself in the semicircular indentation of the large circular table.

Prometheus-204

The material selection of the egg buttons could not be a better example of affordance. The part that’s meant to be touched looks soft and pliable, smooth and cool to the touch. The part that’s not meant to be touched looks rough, like immovable stone. At a glance, it’s clear what is interactive and what isn’t. Among the egg buttons there are some variations in orientation, size, and even surface texture. It is the bumpy-surfaced one that draws David’s attention to touch first that ultimately activates the seat.

The VP alien picks up and blows a few notes on a simple flute, which brings that seat’s interface fully to life. The eggs glow green and emit green glowing plasma arcs between certain of them. David is able to place his hand in the path of one of the arcs and change its shape as the plasma steers around him, but it does not appear to affect the display. The arcs themselves appear to be a status display, but not a control.

After the alien manipulates these controls for a bit, a massive, cyan volumetric projection appears and fills the chamber. It depicts a fluid node network mapped to the outside of a sphere. Other node network clouds appear floating everywhere in the room along with objects that look like old Bohr models of atoms, but with galaxies at their center. Within the sphere three-dimensional astronomical charts appear. Additionally huge rings appear and surround the main sphere, rotating slowly. After a few inputs from the VP alien at the interface, the whole display reconfigures, putting one of the small orbiting Bohr models at the center, illuminating emerald green lines that point to it and a faint sphere of emerald green lines that surround it. The total effect of this display is beautiful and spectacular, even for David, who is an unfeeling replicant cyborg.

Prometheus-226

At the center of the display, David observes that the green-highlighted sphere is the planet Earth. He reaches out towards it, and it falls to his hand. When it is within reach, he plucks it from its orbit, at which point the green highlights disappear with an electronic glitch sound. He marvels at it for a bit, turning it in his hands, looking at Africa. Then after he opens his hands, the VP Earth gently returns to its rightful position in the display, where it is once again highlighted with emerald, volumetric graphics.

Prometheus-229

Finally, in a blinding flash, the display suddenly quits, leaving David back in the darkness of the abandoned room, with the exception of the small Earth display, which is floating over a small pyramid-shaped protrusion before flickering away.

After the Earth fades, david notices the stasis chambers around the outside of the room. He realizes that what he has just seen (and interacted with) is a memory from one of the aliens still present.

Prometheus-238

Prometheus-239

Hilarious and insightful Youtube poster CinemaSins asks in the video “Everything Wrong with Prometheus in 4 minutes or Less,” “How the f*ck is he holding the memory of a hologram?” Fair question, but not unanswerable. The critique only stands if you presume that the display must be passive and must play uninterrupted like a television show or movie. But it certainly doesn’t have to be that way.

Imagine if this is less like a YouTube video, and more like a playback through a game engine like a holodeck StarCraft. Of course it’s entirely possible to pause the action in the middle of playback and investigate parts of the display, before pressing play again and letting it resume its course. But that playback is a live system. It would be possible to run it afresh from the paused point with changed parameters as well. This sort of interrupt-and-play model would be a fantastic learning tool for sensemaking of 4D information. Want to pause playback of the signing of the Magna Carta and pick up the document to read it? That’s a “learning moment” and one that a system should take advantage of. I’d be surprised if—once such a display were possible—it wouldn’t be the norm.

Starmetheus

The only thing I see that’s missing in the scene is a clear signal about the different state of the playback:

  1. As it happened
  2. Paused for investigation
  3. Playing with new parameters (if it was actually available)

David moves from 1 to 2, but the only change of state is the appearance and disappearance of the green highlight VP graphics around the Earth. This is a signal that could easily be missed, and wasn’t present at the start of the display. Better would be some global change, like a global shift in color to indicate the different state. A separate signal might compare As it Happened with the results of Playing with new parameters, but that’s a speculative requirement of a speculative technology. Best to put it down for now and return to what this interface is: One of the most rich, lovely, and promising examples of sensemaking interactions seen on screen. (See what I did there?)

For more about how VP might be more than a passive playback, see the lesson in Chapter 4 of Make It So, page 84, VP Systems Should Interpret, Not Just Report.

Touch Walls

Prometheus-134

When exploring the complex, David espies a few cuneiform-like characters high up on a stone wall. He is able to climb a ladder, decipher the language quickly, ascertain that it is an interface rather than an inscription, and figure out how to surreptitiously operate it. To do so, he puts his finger at the top of one of the grooves and drags downward. The groove illuminates briefly in response, and then fades. He does this to another groove, then presses a dot, and presses another dot not near the first one at all. Finally he presses a horizontal triangle firmly, which after a beat plays a 1:1 scale glowing-pollen volumetric projection.

The material and feedback of this interaction are lovely. The grooves provide a nice, tactile, physical affordance for the gesture. A groove is for dragging. A dot or a shape is for pressing. But I cannot imagine what kind of affordances are available to this language such that David can suss out the order of operation on two undifferentiated grooves. Of course presuming that the meaning of the dot and triangle are somehow self-evident to speakers of Architect, David has a 50% chance of getting the order of the grooves right. So we might be able to cut this scene some slack.

Prometheus-139

But a few scenes later, this is stretched beyond credulity. When David encounters a similarly high-up interface, he is able to ascertain on sight that chording—pressing two controls at once—is possible and necessary for operation. For this interface, he presses and drags 14 different chords flawlessly to open the ancient alien door. This is a much longer sequence involving an interaction that has no affordance.

Prometheus-149

Looking at the design of the command, an evaluation depends if it’s just a command or a password. If it’s just a control that means “open the door,” why would it take 14 characters’ worth of a command? Is there that much that this door can do? Otherwise a simple press-to-open seems like a more usable design.

If it’s a door security system then the 14 part input is a security password. This would be the more likely interpretation since the chamber beyond contains the deadly, deadly xenomorph liquid. With this in mind it’s a good design to have a 14-part password that includes a required interaction with no affordance. I’m no statistician, but I think the likelihood of guessing the correct password to be 14 factorial, or around 87,178,291,200 to 1. I have no idea what the odds are for guessing the correct operation of an interaction with zero affordance. We’d have to show some aliens MS-DOS to get some hard numbers, but that seems pretty damned secure. Unfortunately, it also stretches the believability of the scene way past the breaking point, to presume that David can just observe the alien login screen and guess the giant password.

Audio Syringe

Prometheus-247

David uses this device when Shaw begins to double over from the pain of the alien growing in her womb. It is a palm-sized cylinder with a large needle sticking out one end and a yellow button on the other. To administer it, he jams it into her shoulder, depressing the yellow button with his thumb, and holds it there until the spraying sound coming from it ceases.

Prometheus-246

This is not a hypospray (as described in Chapter 12, Medicine, of the book), which would not have a needle, so where is the sound coming from? It might be an audio augmentation to let the administrator know. This would be a reasonable sound, as it gives sense of pressure releasing. But there should be some clear signal—like a soft double-beep—when the doseage is complete, less it be removed too soon for misinterpreting the audio signal.

Gene Sequence Comparison

Genetic tester

Prometheus-178

Shaw sits at this device speaking instructions aloud as she peers through a microscope. We do not see if the instructions are being manually handled by Ford, or whether the system is responding to her voice input. Ford issues the command “compare it to the gene sample,” the nearby screen displays DNA gel electrophoresis results for the exploding alien sample and a human sample. When Ford says, “overlay,” the results slide on top of each other. A few beats after some screen text and a computerized voice informs them that the system is PROCESSING, (repeated twice) it confirms a DNA MATCH with other screen text read by the same computerized voice.


Prometheus-181

Playback box

When Halloway visits Shaw in her quarters, she uses a small, translucent glass cuboid to show him the comparison. To activate it, she drags a finger quickly across the long, wide surface. That surface illuminates with the data from the genetic tester, including the animation. The emerald green colors of the original have been replaced by cyan, the red has been replaced by magenta, and some of the contextualizing GUI has been omitted, but it is otherwise the same graphic. Other than this activation gesture, no other interactivity is seen with this device.

Prometheus-197

There’s a bit of a mismatch between the gesture she uses for input and the output on the screen. She swipes, but the information fades up. It would be a tighter mapping for Shaw if a swipe on its surface resulted in the information’s sliding in at the same speed, or at least faded up as if she was operating a brightness control. If the fade up was the best transition narratively, another gesture such as a tap might be a better fit for input. Still, the iOS standard for unlocking is to swipe right, so this decision might have been made on the basis of the audience’s familiarity with that interaction.

Alien head stem line

Prometheus-166

Using a tool that looks suspiciously identical to the Injection Carbon Reader, the stem line provides electrical current to nerve endings. It is inserted directly into the alien head and then controlled wirelessly via unseen controls on a nearby touch-sensitive slate pad.

Prometheus-168

The output on the stem line device animates with changes, but it seems the numbers appear near the middle and then slide to fixed positions on the top and bottom. If the point of the display was output, and it is meant to be seen from a distance, wouldn’t a simpler large-number display make more sense? If motion is meant to convey the meaning, like a digital gauge on a multimeter, then the text should be fixed on the graduated background and slide with it.

stemline

By stimulating the locus coeruleus of the alien, the Prometheus scientists seek to “trick it into thinking it’s still alive,” even though they have not confirmed the physiology of this 2000 year old alien specimen, or even that (in a quick Googling, the author learned that) this is the panic area of the nervous system. Were the results really that surprising?

Table Scanner

Prometheus-161

After sterilizing the alien head, it is slid out to a table scanner big enough for a crew member to lie upon. Ford brushes the head with some powered material, and says, “Scan.” In response, David presses a button on a nearby illuminated keypad before him, and an arch with sensors slides back and forth over the table on which the head rests. Ford looks at the scan on screen and says, “Dr. Shaw, look at this.”

Prometheus-162

Prometheus-164

The readout screen has a 3D floating pixel display like in the navigation and Neuro-Visor. In this case the scan reveals that the exterior of the object is not an exoskeleton but a suit. On the right side of the screen is a set of curiously organic graphic interface elements seen only on the sterilizer and otherwise unlike anything else in the film.

Prometheus-165

There isn’t a clear reason for this change in visual style, but it stands out, so bears a bit of notice. From a readout of 92% “EF-09/8 CONV.” there are lines that flow, like plant leaves, to other labels reading “PROCESSING DATA” and “SCAN HEADS STABLE.” The organic lines drop from the top of the screen to a circular element. These lines look like delicate filaments, and even overlap one another, before connecting to the circle. To the right of this circle more filaments drift from an arc to the upper third of a pie chart. And to the left of the large circle, more filaments run in organic arcs to a smaller circle reading “RKJ-RSSN RATIO”, with a bar chart augmented with numerical data, before drifting out to another circle reading 8.7, and finally arcing off to the lower right hand side of the screen. Comparing this interconnected set of GUI elements to anything else in the movie is a stark contrast. Other interfaces have horizontal and vertical lines, connected with regular filleted corners. The swoopy shapes are lovely, though a minor criticism might be that it feels a bit decorative for a scientific application.

The main criticism for this display is not its GUI but its placement. It requires the scientist to crane her neck to see the results, turning her field of vision far away from the object she’s examining. If there were sudden changes in its appearance, she’d likely miss them. Better would be to have the screen above the table or attached to its edge so a shift from object to scan can happen with a quick glance, and that would let the object remain in her peripheral vision so she would be more likely to notice any change.

Later this same scanning table is used on Dr. Shaw. No attempt is made to fit her into the de-sterilizer, though the point of the quarantine is to determine possible contagion. After a scan, he sees a VP readout that confirms she is pregnant with Halloway’s posthumous, alien baby.