The Door

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The door to unit 281-53 has security and control features that make it Not Like Our Doors.

Sweetie’s Door

Korben’s white cat is named Sweetie. After a long night of carousing the 5000 block, she wants to be let back in, so she meows at the door as soon as she hears Korben’s alarm go off. He presses the lowest on the 5-button panel and a little cat-sized door opens up to let her in. After she passes through, it immediately closes behind her.

The kitty door could be improved by lessening the work it requires of Korben to zero, by automatically opening and closing for Sweetie. Even if Korben wanted her outside for certain hours of the night, we’ve seen that the apartment knows about schedules, so could accomodate another few bytes of scheduling information. To provide automatic access, though, would require some kind of identification. Low-level tokens like an RFID on her collar could work (such systems are sold today) but Korben lives in a crime-ridden area and any criminal could swipe the collar and use it to open the kitty door to “case the joint” or use some trickery to open the big door. An implanted RFID chip would be worse since it would put Sweetie’s life at risk as a “key.” More passive systems like kitty-biometrics would be much more expensive, and all the other evidence in the film tells us that this is not a wealthy man’s apartment. Ultimately, though there are other solutions for the problem, none fit the circumstances as well.

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Four out of five of the panel’s icons are clearer than those seen on the apartment’s other panels.

  • A moon (the mysterious one. Night mode?)
  • A high star (for shining a light from above the door, downward?)
  • An ajar door, for opening or closing it
  • A low star (for shining a light below on Sweetie
  • A a cat face (and cat butt?) for opening Sweetie’s door

In addition to being readable, they’re also well-mapped. The button for the human is in the middle. The cat door is lower on the panel. Let’s presume the lights are similarly well mapped.

The only difficulty this system might have is accidental activation of the wrong thing since the buttons are so similar and close together. It might not be so bad to accidentally turn on a light when you meant to open the door, but if you’d intended to turn on the light to check who’s outside and then accidentally opened the door, it could mean a home invasion. This is a Fitts’ Law problem for a doorknob. Better would be for the “knob” to be a hand’s width distant from any of the other buttons. This would also save him from having to look to target it precisely to do something as common as shutting the door.

Video peephole

Unlike adorable kittens, humans on the other side of the door may pose a threat. Korben can see who has come calling via a video monitor, located above the panel. The feed is always on. The video camera sits above the lintel and aims straight down, so Korben can see all the way to where Sweetie would be. Three buttons below the monitor are not seen in use. For most cases, the monitor would work well. Korben can glance at it from anywhere in the room and have a good idea who is there. And, since it’s a one-way system, he has time to get quick things done before answering without seeming too rude.

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That said, the camera is not foolproof. Early in the film Korben checks it and though it looks as if the hallway was empty, upon opening it finds a would-be robber who has donned a “hat” with a picture of the empty hallway from the perspective of the camera. Though he’s ultimately unsuccessful in robbing Korben his ruse to appear invisible to the door monitor worked perfectly. Multiple cameras might make it harder for this trick to be effective, but some other sensors, like a weight sensor under the floor outside or heat sensor would be harder to fool.

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As if that weren’t bad enough, the fact that the camera has a very limited field of view allows anyone to hide just off to the side. Cornelius uses this tactic when he uses Leeloo as a sort of video bait to get him to open the door.

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This latter problem could be solved with a fisheye lens on the camera (y’know, like real peepholes), which would show him more of the hallway and reduce the places where an assailant could easily hide.

Slideaway bed

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When Korben stands up, his bed recognizes the change. In response it pulls the messy bed and linens away, where they will be “autowashed,” i.e. automatically sanitized, remade, and sealed in plastic (for bedbug protection?) A fresh bed rises up to replace the messy one as the bedframe slides into the wall.

This automated response might be frustrating if it presumed too much. Say, if Korben got up in the night to use the restroom and came back to find his bed missing, so you’d want it to be as context-aware as possible. And there’s evidence that it’s not too smart a system. Later in the film Cornelius hides in the bed and is nearly suffocated as it tries to autowash the bed with him in it, and wraps him in plastic. I get the comedy in the scene, but really, if it had the sensors to know when Korben was laying down in it, it should have a safety that prevents that very thing when a person is there.

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Korben does have manual controls. There are two panels of pushbuttons at waist height, about a meter apart on a sliver of wall above the bed recess. We don’t get great views of these panels, but we do see Korben using one of the buttons to hide General Munro and his cronies in the hideaway refrigerator. In the glimpses we get we can see that there are six buttons on each panel, each button labeled with a high-contrast icon. The leftmost button on each controls the bed. Pressing it when it’s hidden opens it. Pressing it when it’s open closes it and, as we saw before, starts the murderous autowash.

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All told it’s a pretty awesome system. The agentive part of getting up is handled seamlessly. The alarm has gone off, Korben’s up, and having the bed disappear saves space in the room and removes the temptation of Korben’s slinking back to bed and making himself late for work. And to summon the bed or hide it manually at some unusual time, Korben has understandable, accessible controls. The main down side is the lack of a safety or panic button, and the comparatively minor annoyance that Korben has to tear that plastic off every night even if he just wanted to pass out after a long day of saving the world.

Followup: Video games? Anime?

The live chat of the O’Reilly webinar that Christopher delivered on 27 February 2013 had some great questions, but not all of them made it out of the chat room and onto the air. I’m slowly answering those questions as I continue to release the sci-fi interface survey.

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Q: Dario Fuentes asks: You seem to be completely ignoring video games and anime. Some of the best examples of interface both beautiful and innovative come from these spaces. Any reason why you left them out? [later] …not the game interface itself, the interfaces featured in cut scenes…as well as the game UI… (and what about anime…?)

A: Well, writing a book about the life cycle of tigers doesn’t mean you’re ignoring bears, does it? Video game interfaces serve different masters for many reasons, not the least of which is that non-diegetic interfaces must be used by players where sci-fi interfaces are used by actors faking it. Cut scene, or diegetic video game interfaces might be includable, but they’re tied up in looking or feeling like the non-diegetic ones, and so can’t be considered in isolation. Sure, video games probably have a lot of influence for gamers’ expectations. I’m a gamer myself, and am inspired by some of the awesome interfaces I find there. I’d be happy to investigate and write that other book, that’s not what Make It So is about. (Maybe I should call for clever names for the video game book in the comments.)

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As for the second part of the question, anime is indeed awesome. But when choosing how to narrow down the vast scope of science fiction, we wanted to first focus on those things that were…

  • most influential to the broadest public
  • analyzable

Anime is wildly popular with a particular subset of fan, but sources like boxofficemojo tell us that genres like “sci-fi/adventure” and “alien invasion” outrank “anime” by nearly an order of magnitude.

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Additionally, some of our favorite anime is hand-drawn, and that makes it difficult to study. It is harder for the interfaces to stay the same over time, in a way that’s similar to comic books. When you want to talk about an interface that changes from depiction to depiction, you have to then talk about which version you mean, and worry about whether these changes are meant to be diegetic or just a mistake, and then you have to try and suss out which one is the “real” one, and…it’s just risky. We’re aware that much hand-drawn animation tries to minimize the number of screens it redraws and so reuses as much as it can, but even a change in camera angle requires a redrawing, and that’s less reliable than interfaces that are made in the world or that are 3D modeled.

Believe us that we intend to get to some of the most seminal anime. Ghost in the Shell, Redline, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Vexille, Cowboy Bebop, to name a few. But if we wanted to get a book out, we had to prioritize the stack of sci-fi, and anime ended up being lower priority. I’ll get to it in time, but also don’t forget that if you’re really eager to get some anime in there and you think you’re up to it, I accept contributions (though no one has taken me up on it yet.)

Four a day

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After Korben’s alarm clock starts the music and lights the lights, it also drops his daily allotment of cigarettes into place inside vertical glass tubes in a small dispensary mounted on the wall. Each tube has a purple number printed across the top, reinforcing the limit. A robotic voice tells reminds him to only have “four. a. day.”

The dispensary is loaded with warnings to get him to quit. Across the top we read “4™ REFILLS.” Just below that is a white imperative, “QUIT SMOKING.” To the right another legend reinforces the principles spoken aloud, “4™ A DAY.” A legend across the bottom, written in glittery red capitals reminds him that, “TO QUIT IS MY GOAL.” Behind the glass tubes is something like a Surgeon General’s warning about the dangers of smoking.

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On the right is a small LCD panel with a mysterious readout at the top of “1:::1…1..1″, a counter in the middle reading “00:04″ (it looks like just after midnight in military time, but we know from his alarm clock it’s just after 02:00), and a temperature readout that confirms the temperature that the clock displays, “27.5° C.” Below this panel is a small set of four buttons: two horizontal ones that sandwich two triangular ones pointing in opposite directions. Korben presses the lowest button to pick up the first cigarette, and the #1 cylinder of glass slides up. A smaller “vase” of glass holds the cigarette upright for Korben to grab.

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The LCD panel

The top readout is a mystery, and the middle might be a counter of number of cigarettes remaining for the day or in the refill, but why it’s in 24-hour notation is another mystery. The temperature doesn’t make much sense here. Better might be the variable information that the addicted smoker really wants: How soon until I can get my next fix. A clock showing that time would be useful, and give the smoker something to fixate on instead of the cravings. A countdown clock might be information that the smoker wants, but it would focus his attention on the device rather than on his willpower.

To quit is my goal

Really, it’s beyond the scope of this blog post to try and state the authoritative psychology of quitting smoking, but it does seem like this device accomplishes one common strategy well, which is reminding smokers of their goal. There it is, in glittery red, in a first-person voice.

But it doesn’t do everything well. Another strategy to quit is for smokers to have reminders of the negative consequences of continuing to smoke, and the device only kind of does this with the warning label. The fact that it’s behind the glass tubes is nice since to get at the cigarettes the smoker wants, he is faced with that text. But, it’s only text, and easy to simply not read. The fact that the cylindrical glass distorts the text makes willful ignoring even easier, since it hinders readability. Better would be a visceral, instantly-recognizable image, like Australia mandated on their cigarette packaging in 2011. The disturbing nature of these images would be enhanced by the cylinder’s distortions.

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On the other hand, one strategy is to eliminate the triggers that remind a smoker about cigarettes, and this dispensary does exactly the opposite. By being prominently displayed on the wall, being associated with waking up, and having the word “smoking” appear in high-contrast capital letters at eye level, it pretty much acts as a trigger to remind Korben about smoking. Better might be a hideaway dispensary, similar to his bed, refrigerator, or shower in the apartment, which hide themselves away when not in use.

Surgeon General’s Warning

The other problem is habituation. After repeated exposure to this device on a daily basis, Korben will begin to disregard the signal. A more persuasive system would change, such that the conseuqnces and goals are kept fresh on Korben’s mind. To make sure it hits home at the right time, I would get rid of the extraneous buttons and have one “time-release” button, that requires him to press and hold it for a few seconds to get at the cigarette. During this enforced moment of boredom, the device can flash a new message and dissausive image, giving Korben a moment to consider this and whether he really wants to keep pressing the button for his cigarette. The LCD panel would need to display these instructions first, and then switch to showing the time at which the next cigarette will be available.

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Followup: Is voice the future?

The live chat of the O’Reilly webinar that Christopher delivered on 27 February 2013 had some great questions, but not all of them made it out of the chat room and onto the air. I’m slowly answering those questions as I continue to release the sci-fi interface survey.

Q: Paolo Montevecchi asks: Is voice the future media of interaction?

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A: Let me first provide a biiig caveat. Doing a survey and analysis of 100+ years of interfaces in screen sci-fi has granted many insights and a degree of authority on sci-fi interfaces. In contrast, this question is about the future of the real world, for which we haven’t made a case for why either of us would have any special authority. So, take this with a grain of salt. But of course I’m a designer by training and in my day job at Cooper, I’m always thinking about what these imagined futures will mean to the real world, and I do have an opinion.

The short answer to your question is that I think voice is a big part of the future of interaction, along with “big social”, agentive and ubiquitous tech, and “natural” user interactions, which stack up into a neat little acronym SAUNa.

The longer answer is that I’ve been talking about the future of technology since the fall of 2011, near the end of writing the book. Following are links to videos of those talks. In Moscow with game company Innova I gave a presentation called The Interface Parenthesis making the case for “natural” UI, but also forecasting future trends. I later gave a version of that talk at RE:Design UX with Stefan Klocek.

…These thoughts evolved into a talk about “Implicit Interactions” at Kicker Studio‘s Device Design Day also with Stefan…

…which evolved into thinking about SAUNa technology and the generative metaphor of the jinn. I’m currently developing that material into a number of posts for the Cooper blog (and possibly more), but in the meantime you can see this talk that Stefan and I gave at the UXConference in Lugano, Switzerland last year for a preview, and how it relates to the concept of smarter cities, with two nifty illustrated scenarios, to boot.

So the longer answer is also yes, voice is part of the future, but I think it’s going part of something even bigger, and more mythical.

Good morning, Korben

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Korben’s alarm clock is a transparent liquid-crystal display that juts out from a panel at the foot of his bed. When it goes off, it emits a high-pitched repetitive whine. To silence it, Korben must sit up and pinch it between his fingers.

There’’s some subtle, wicked effeciveness to that deactivation. Like a regular alarm clock, the tactic is to emit some annoying sound that persists until the sleeper can rouse themselves enough to turn off the alarm. The usual problem with this tactic is that the sleeper is stupefied in his half-awakeness. If he can sleepily stop the alarm and just go back to sleep, he’ll do it. This clock dissuades sleepy flailing with its sharp-ish corners. After just a few times trying to do that and failing, the scratches on his hand will teach him. Even if the motion is memorized, the sleeper has to wake enough to target it properly and execute the simple but precise input.

The display itself shows the time in astronomical format, i.e. “02:00″, the date (Director Luc Besson‘s birthday), “18 MAR 2263″, and a temperature, 27.5° C.” Since this is quite warm, I presume this is the temperature outside.

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Once Korben cancels the alarm, his apartment comes to life. Heavy-beat music begins to play and lights automatically illuminate near the fake-fish tank above the stove and in his cigarette dispenser.

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All these signals combine to make it difficult for sleepy Korben to stay in bed past when awake Korben knows he should be up and moving.

Headsets

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On duty military personnel—on the ship and attending the President—all wear headsets. For personnel talking to others on the bridge, this appears to be a passive mechanism with no controls, perhaps for having an audio record of conversations or ensuring that everyone on the bridge can hear one another perfectly at all times.

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Personnel communicating with people both on the ship’s bridge and the president have a more interesting headset.

Signaling dual-presence

The headsets have antennas rising from the right ear, and each is tipped with a small glowing red light. This provides a technological signal that the device is powered, but also a social signal that the wearer may be engaged in remote conversations. Voice technologies that are too small and don’t provide the signal risk the speaker seeming crazy. Unfortunately this signal as it’s designed is only visible from certain directions. A few extra centimeters of height would help this be more visible. Additionally, if the light could have a state to indicate when the wearer is listening to audio input that others can’t hear, it would provide a person in the same room a cue to wait a moment before getting his attention.

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Secondary conversants

Each headset has a default open connection, which is always on, sending and receiving to one particular conversant. In this way General Staedert can just keep talking and listening to the President. Secondary parties are available by means of light gray buttons on the earpieces. We see General Munro lift his hand and press (one/both of?) these buttons while learning about the growth rate of the evil planet.

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The strategy of having one default and a few secondary conversants within easy access makes a great deal of sense. Quick question and answer transactions can occur across a broad network of experts this way and get information to a core set of decision makers.

The design tactic of having buttons to access them is OK, but perhaps not optimal. Having to press the buttons means the communicator ends up mashing his ear. The easiest to “press” wouldn’t be a button at all but a proximity switch, that simply detects the placement of the hand. This has some particular affordance challenges, but we can presume military personnel are well trained and expert users.

Missile Scan

Despite its defenses, Staedert continues with the attack against the evil planet, and several screens help the crew monitor the attack with the “120″ missiles.

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First there is an overhead view of the space between the ship and the planet. The ship is represented as a red dot, the planet as a red wireframe, and the path of the missiles magnified as a large white wireframe column. A small legend in the upper right reads “CODIFY” with some confirmation text. Some large text confirms the missiles are “ACTIVE” and an inscrutable “W 6654″ appears in the lower right.

As the missiles launch, their location is tracked along the axis of the column as three white dots. The small paragraph of text in the upper right hand scrolls quickly, displaying tracking information about them. A number in the upper left confirms the number of missiles. A number below tracks some important pair of numeric variables. In the lower right, the label has changed to “SY 6654.” A red vertical line tracks with the missiles across the display, and draws the operator’s attention to another small pair of numeric variables that also follow along.

These missiles have no effect, so he sends a larger group of 9 “240″ missiles. Operators watch its impact through the same display.

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These screens are quite literal in the information they provide, i.e. physical objects in space, but abstract it in a way that helps a tactician keep track of and think about the important parts without the distraction of surface appearance, or, say, first-person perspective. Of all the scanner screens, these function the best, even if General Staedert’s tactics were ultimately futile.

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Surface Scan

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Later in the scene General Staedert orders a “thermonucleatic imaging.” The planet swallows it up. Then Staedert orders an “upfront loading of a 120-ZR missile” and in response to the order, the planet takes a preparatory defensive stance, armoring up like a pillbug. The scanner screens reflect this with a monitoring display.

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In contrast to the prior screen for the Gravity (?) Scan, these screens make some sense. They show:

  • A moving pattern on the surface of a sphere slowing down
  • clear Big Label indications when those variables hit an important threshold, which is in this case 0
  • A summary assessment, “ZERO SURFACE ACTIVITY”
  • A key on the left identifying what the colors and patterns mean
  • Some sciency scatter plots on the right

The majority of these would directly help someone monitoring the planet for its key variables.

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Though these are useful, it would be even more useful if the system would help track these variables not just when they hit a threshold, but how they are trending. Waveforms like the type used in medical monitoring of the “MOVEMENT LOCK,” “DYNAMIC FLOW,” and “DATA S C A T” might help the operator see a bit into the future rather than respond after the fact.

Gravity (?) Scan

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The first bit of human technology we see belongs to the Federation of Territories, as a spaceship engages the planet-sized object that is the Ultimate Evil. The interfaces are the screen-based systems that bridge crew use to scan the object and report back to General Staedert so he can make tactical decisions.

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We see very few input mechanisms and very little interaction with the system. The screen includes a large image on the right hand side of the display and smaller detailed bits of information on the left. Inputs include

  • Rows of backlit modal pushbuttons adjacent to red LEDs
  • A few red 7-segment displays
  • An underlit trackball
  • A keyboard
  • An analog, underlit, grease-pencil plotting board.
    (Nine Inch Nails fans may be pleased to find that initialism written near the top.)

The operator of the first of these screens touches one of the pushbuttons to no results. He then scrolls the trackball downward, which scrolls the green text in the middle-left part of the screen as the graphics in the main section resolve from wireframes to photographic renderings of three stars, three planets, and the evil planet in the foreground, in blue.

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The main challenge with the system is what the heck is being visualized? Professor Pacoli says in the beginning of the film that, “When the three planets are in eclipse, the black hole, like a door, is open.” This must refer to an unusual, trinary star system. But if that’s the case, the perspective is all wrong on screen.

Plus, the main sphere in the foreground is the evil planet, but it is resolved to a blue-tinted circle before the evil planet actually appears. So is it a measure of gravity and event horizons of the “black hole?” Then why are the others photo-real?

Where is the big red gas giant planet that the ship is currently orbiting? And where is the ship? As we know from racing game interfaces and first-person shooters, having an avatar representation of yourself is useful for orientation, and that’s missing.

And finally, why does the operator need to memorize what “Code 487″ is? That places a burden on his memory that would be better used for other, more human-value things. This is something of a throw-away interface, meant only to show the high-tech nature of the Federated Territories and for an alternate view for the movie’s editor to show, but even still it presents a lot of problems.