ZF-1

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Amongst its many holdings (including taxi cab companies) Zorg industries manufactures weapons, including their flagship weapon, the ZF-1. It has a great many features. It stores as a sealed pod, and can be activated by a remote control. With a press of a button, shielding retracts and parts extend so it can be handled like a traditional small arms weapon.

Zorg makes a pitch to the Mangalores for the ZF-1, so we’ll just let his own words sell it.

It’s light. The handle is adjustable for easy carrying. Good for righties and lefties. Breaks down into four parts. Undetectable by x-ray. Ideal for quick, discreet interventions. A word on firepower: Titanium recharger. 3,000 round clip with liquid bursts of 3-to-300.”

Next he pitches something quite unique to the weapon.

“With the Replay™ button—another Zorg invention—it’s even easier. One shot…and Replay™ sends every following shot to the same location…”

As he turns and points the weapons at the Mangalores, the ammunition arcs around to home in on the first shot.

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But wait, don’t answer. The ZF-1 has other features as well.

…And to finish the job, all the Zorg oldies but goldies: Rocket launcher, arrow launcher with explosive, poisonous gas heads (very practical), our famous net launcher, the always-efficient flamethrower (my favorite), and for the grand finale, the all-new Ice Cube™ System.

After the Magalores fail to uphold their end of the bargain, Zorg leaves them to play with the weapons. As they do, one discovers that the glowing red button on the side is actually an explosive self-destruct.

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Analysis

I know Mangaglores are not meant to be shining examples of intellect, but if I was considering a purchase, I would yes, compliment the incredibly nifty technology of Replay, but follow it up with four more important questions about the design of the thing.

First, Mr. Zorg, what good is the remote control? Doesn’t this make the weapon hackable remotely? Isn’t that device easy to misplace? What on-weapon means do we have to unlock it?

Second, how are you selecting from among the six different types of ammunition?

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On the exterior, we only see that red button. There might be some other subtle switches somewhere on the exterior, but you had to support the weight of the device with your left hand, so it’s fairly immobilized and I didn’t see you moving it. Unless it can only fire in exactly the order we saw, there’s got to be some other control. With your right hand hidden up inside the weapon, there must be other activation switches there. What switches are tucked up in there that are easy to differentiate by touch and easy to activate with your palm remaining against the grip?

Third, there’s that red button. Sure, who wouldn’t want to carry around a device that could erupt as an all-consuming fireball, but I notice that it doesn’t have a safety cover on it, gives no pause or warning during which the command can be retracted, and draws attention to itself by its glow. Isn’t that going to be increadibly easy to, you know, accidentally kill all my troops?

Fourth, during the demonstration we got a good glimpse at the front of the weapon. It’s got animated, blinking red LEDs whose pattern merges together to form a bright red diamond shape near the top of the weapon before looping over again.

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I’m not a militarily-minded person, but isn’t it counter to a soldier’s goals to have anything blinking, glowing, or pinpointing the soldier’s exact midline to enemies, much less something that does all three at once, and in red, the color that travels the farthest in atmosphere?

What was that about “discreet” interventions?

Gestural disguise

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When the Mangalores meet with Zorg to deliver (what they think are) the stones, their leader Aknar is wearing a human disguise. The exact nature of the speculative technology is difficult to determine. (In fact, it’s entirely arguable that this is a biological ability, but it’s more useful to presume it’s not.)

Zorg tells Aknar, “What is that you? What an ugly face. It doesn’t suit you. Take it off.” Aknar strains his chin upward and shakes his head rapidly. As he does so, the disguise fades to reveal his true face.

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Presuming it’s a technology, the gesture is a nice design choice for the interaction. It’s not a gesture that’s likely to be done accidentally, and has a nice physical metaphor—that of shaking off water. The physicality makes it easy to remember. Plus, being a head gesture, it can be deployed in the field even when carrying a weapon. This makes it possible to dismiss and show your identity to comrades without the risk of lowering your guard. It does temporarily limit the wearer’s ability to sense danger, but I suspect Mangalores care more about keeping their finger on the trigger.

Of course it raises the question of whether what results from the shake is just another disguise, but that would depend on some external system of multifactor authentication that’s separate from the gesture.

Roach Cam

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To learn the plans of the President, Zorg’s flunky named Right Arm infiltrates the briefing room via a remote-controlled cockroach. This adorable insect has a small parabolic receiver antenna on its back. Right Arm can watch what it sees with its eyes and listen to what it can hear through its… cerci?

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The screen he uses is mostly full of the roachcam video. But it is unfortunately surrounded by some screen-green sciencey nonsense. A row across the top is headed “001” with rectangles labeled “MOVE”, “METHOD”, “CHECK”, and “SYSTEM.” A row just below is headed “A-B” with rectangles labeled “SPEED”, “TIMER”, “EXIT”, and “FILTERS.” A column of screen-green nonsense shapes fills the left side. A small butterfly-shaped graph at the bottom-left is labeled “CHECK.” A small box labeled “CALCULATING” is in the lower middle, which occasionally fills with scrolling nonsense. The right side of the screen is full of a circular graph showing a seizure-inducing flashing pair of green concentric circles. A green 8×8 grid on the right stays empty the whole time, though it is arguably the most likely useful thing, i.e. an overhead view of threats, say, like presidents brandishing cockroach-smashing shoes. Below the unused grid is a diagram of the roach itself, probably useful for understanding the health of the vehicle. Below that is a bit of unintelligible text reversed out of a gray background. When the roach nears the President, a bit of green nonsense text appears overlaid on the video feed, though it never changes.

I think this screen would have been less distracting and more helpful for Right Arm if you stripped away all the gunk at the top, the nonsensical overlay, trashed the column of hastily-drawn icons, saved him the constant distraction of the seizure circle by removing it, and leaving him with the two things that would actually be useful: the map (populated of course with some useful information), and the roach health diagram. Even though this screen is seen only for a few seconds at most, it reads as if it was hastily put together, unlike most other things seen in the film.

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He is able to control the roach’s movement by means of a joystick with a rotating head. In contrast to the screen, this provides exactly what Right Arm needs to control the roach, and no more. He can move it forward and back by pushing the joystick forward and back. He can have it strafe right or left by moving the joystick appropriately. And when he wants to have it turn right or left, he can twist the joystick head in that direction. Pushing or twisting farther results in more motion. All told, a perfect input control for the task at hand. At least until you ask the roach.

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Zorg’s desk

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When Zorg begins to choke on a cherry pit, in his panic he pounds a numeric keypad on his desk, clearly hoping that this will contact someone or help him in some way. His clumsy mashing instead causes a number of bizarre things to happen around his office; i.e. the doors lock, a lifejacket inflates (bearing the charming label “HEAD THROUGH HOLE”), a cactus raises and lowers, a Rolodex of photographs appears and spins wildly, a rack begins to shoot plastic wrapped tuxedo shirts into the air, cards spit out of a slot, and a strange piglet-sized, hairless pet with a trunk is roused from its napping place as it raises to the surface of the desk and stares at Zorg helplessly.

In the talk I give about the lines of influence between interfaces in sci-fi and the real world, I cite this as a negative example of affective computing.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, affective computing largely deals with giving computers a sense of emotion or empathy for their users. In this case, of course Zorg doesn’t want to summon his elephantito from its adorable genetically modified slumber. He’s panicking. He wants help. The joke in the scene is largely about how the unfeeling technology on which Zorg relies is of little practical value in a crisis, but we know that a smarter design would have accounted for this case of panicked mashing.

If (a bunch of key chords are pressed rapidly in succession) {summon help}.

Interaction designers should take care to learn from this fictional example that though some scenarios may be rare, they may be dire enough to demand design attention.

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For a general analysis, I find the number pad to be the worst choice of input for this system. On the plus side it’s useful for arbitrarily-long combinatorial and chorded input. It’s for this reason the telephone network system adopted this strategy to provide access to any one of its 10,000,000,000 nodes. (And that’s only with a ten digit number.) Fine. If Zorg needs a phone pad for dialing numbers than give him a phone. But for this desk interface, it burdens his long-term memory, forcing him to remember the codes for the things he wants. If he really has only around a dozen or so things to control, give him individual controls that are well grouped, distinguished, labeled, and mapped. Also in taking this tack, someone in his service might have thought to give the vengeful, psychopathic industrialist an actual panic button.

Other floor cleaning robots

Yesterday I offered extra credit if a reader could name the first floor sweeping robot in a film in the Make It So survery. Pixel I/O smartly noted that The Jetsons (debut 1962) had one—its autovac. (Thanks to Matt Houghton of TechVert.com for posting the image.)

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This is a great catch, but Pixel I/O rightly acknowledged that The Jetsons was not a film, so off by a technicality. Shouts out anyway, as this example was a full three or four years before the film I did have in mind, which was the only-nominally sci-fi comedy The Glass Bottom Boat (1966). Still, I happened to come across it in research and captured it.

In the film, the inventor Rod (Bruce Templeton) tries to impress Jennifer (Doris Day) with this floor-cleaning robot. It only manages to pop out of its door to arc towards a dropped banana peel and through reversed footage, arc right back into its home under the kitchen island.

What’s interesting about these two examples are their similarity. They’re each the size of a small dog. Each has an antenna and two eyes. The antennae speak of the radio-controlled paradigm of the era. Audiences needed to know how they are being controlled, and this shortcut answered the question at a glance. The eyes hint at a need for anthropomorphism, or possibly zoomorphism, for users to understand the thing’s capabilities. We know it can see us and the things around it because of this simple visual affordance.

Floor sweeping robots

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To illustrate his capitalist ideology, (a high-tech version of the parable of the broken window) Zorg activates his automatic cleaning robots. To do this, he deliberately crashes a glass to the floor, where a set of robots come scuttling out from beneath his desk and begin cleaning up.

Three of them serve to demarcate the space as a “”robots working”” zone, with tall masts from which red beacon lights warn anyone nearby. In the middle of these three, a sweeper robot gathers the large pieces of glass with broom and dustbin actuators.

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Then, a vacuum robot spins above the location to remove the fine pieces of glass.

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Finally, a hemispheric robot also comes to sterilize the area, or possibly to just spray a pleasing scent in the air. After they are done, they retreat automatically to the desk, and a new drinking glass rises from a hidden compartment to Zorg’s desktop, filling with water to the accompaniment of a small voice that announces ““water”” and, as a bowl of the stuff also raises, ““fruit.””

As Zorg pulls a cherry from the bowl, the same voice announces somewhat pointlessly, ““a cherry.”” (Perhaps useful if the eater is unfamiliar with basic types of fruit.)

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Analysis

The robots are meant to do their job safely and efficiently, and then put themselves away as quickly as possible. The main “interface” task they have is to keep nearby humans informed and safe. (Did Asimov write a law for vacuum cleaners?) A minor secondary goal might be to distinguish the function of each by their shape. The robots inform observers explicitly with the stanchion robots’ beacon lights and bright red patterns. In addition, the whirring sounds of each robot’s motors and actuators help to reinforce the fact that they are working. If they were completely silent they would be more problematic for people not looking or unable to see. The beacon might be a bit of overkill and distracting to someone at a distance, but since the robots are small enough to be a trip hazard, and Cornelius is in fact less than a meter away at the time of sweeping, I can see why it might be needed in this particular case. That they are each readily distinguishable means it might be easier to intervene or select a particular one for maintenance. So, aside from the faulty logic they’re meant to embody, mostly really well designed.

The main improvement I can imagine is that the system might reduce the trip hazard by unifying these disparate functions in a single device, and then either keeping them stanchion-high or flattening its top out like a step. But then we’d just have invented Roomba five years early.

Extra credit

This isn’t the first floor cleaning robot seen on the silver screen. There was another movie over three decades before that included one, even though it wasn’t what most people would consider sci-fi. Can any of the Make It So readers identify that film in the comments? (I’ll post pics of the answer once someone guesses it.)

The Chanel eye-makeup-erator

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After David offers Leeloo some clothes, he also offers her a device for applying eye makeup. Leeloo only has the most rudamentary grasp of English at this point, so to demonstrate its use he holds it up to his eyes.

This is a clear enough signal for Leeloo, who puts the device up to her eyes like a large pair of sunglasses. She can feel the momentary button near her left fingertip and presses it. In response a white ring around a Chanel logo illuminates for a second. Leeloo feels an unfamiliar sensation and pulls her face away, and we see that the device has applied complete eye makeup for her.

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Analysis

The industrial design of the device is brilliant. It’s sized to be slightly larger than the eye area and it has the right shape for someone to know where to place it. The activation button sits exactly where the user needs it, and with enough of a button-like affordance that even without looking she can find it and press it. The device is just heavy enough to encourage supporting it with palms, which provides a firm base to resist too much movement on activation (and thereby risking eyeshadow right on the eye). The shiny black plastic reads like a cosmetic object, and professional enough that you can presume it’s safe to use near delicate eye parts. The white ring is a simple cue for those nearby that it’s in progress and not to interrupt the user.

A minor improvement would be to improve that simple light on/off to a progress ring that swept around. This would gave a sense of how much time it will take and how much time is left, even if it’s only a second.

The main question of the device is of course how does Leeloo specify the details of the makeup. A quick Google image search shows that the number of parameters is…um…vast.

Of course, if the device had some kind of low-level artificial intelligence, that agentive algorithm could handle a lot of the complexity for her, deciding on the best match for her schedule, fashion trends, current outfit, and her preferred position in the fashion-aggression spectrum. (Would there be a device that went up to 11 for drag queens?) But, when the agentive algorithm got it wrong, and Leeloo wanted to override those settings, she’s back to needing to tell the device how she’d like to override its suggestions. How does she do that?

Which raises the question of those three buttons across the bridge of the device.

Those three buttons

Of course three momentary buttons aren’t enough to control all the variables in eye makeup. Even if these are dials that control three variables, three variables aren’t enough. (Even if they were dials, why would they look identical to the momentary buttons? Things that behave differently should look different.)

Even if these buttons are not controls for variables but rather presets for sets of variables (Such as: “Work,” “Formal wear,” or “Defeating ultimate evil”), they’re not signaling their state well. Looking at that screen grab, can you tell which one is currently selected? I can’t. It should be apparent at a glance, so no one accidentally applies “clubbing” makeup when they mean “funeral.” So there should be some indication of what’s currently selected. Note that a lit button is not enough. Some descriptive text is needed. Such text would ideally be on both the “inside” and the “outside” so no matter how it was lying on a dresser, its state could be read.

Anyway, since those buttons aren’t sufficient for setting up the eye makeup, let’s hope that it’s networked to some other device with a richer interface, like a voice interface or Cornelius’ WIMP computer, where she can have a rich interaction for setting up those buttons.

With all that in mind, here’s another comp to illustrate these ideas. Admittedly, Chanel’s brand police wouldn’t be comfortable with an LED font, but it would clearly communicate that the text represents a variable and not a product name.

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Special shouts out to You Yeti! who corrected our tweet that the two Fingernail-o-matics were not the only cosmetic interfaces in the survey. I love writing for a sharp, eagle-eyed audience.

Fingernail-o-matics

The Fifth Element

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When in The Fifth Element the Mangalore Aknot calls Zorg to report that the “mission is accomplished,” we get a few seconds of screen time with Zorg’s secretary who receives the call. During this moment, she’s a bit bored, and idly shoves a finger into a small, lipstick-case sized device. When she removes it, the device has colored her fingernail a lovely shade of #81002c.

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The small device is finger-sized, the industrial design feels very much like cosmetics, and its simple design clearly affords inserting a finger. There’s also a little icon on the side that indicates its color. This one device speaks well of what the entire line of products might look like. All told, a simple and lovely interaction in a domain, i.e. cosmetics, that typically doesn’t get a lot of attention in sci-fi.

But what is even more remarkable is that this isn’t the only fingernail interface in the Make It So survey. There is one other, 7 years earlier, and it happens to be used by someone with the exact same job. This other interface comes from the 1990 movie Total Recall.

Total Recall (1990)

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As you can see, this receptionist has an interface for coloring her nails as well, but the interaction is entirely different. This device has something like a a tablet with a connected stylus. It displays 16 color options in a full screen grid. She selects a particular color with the tap of the stylus. Then when she taps the stylus to a nail, the nail wipe-transitions to the new color from the tip to the cuticle.

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This device is cumbersome. It’s not something that could fit into a purse. Does she just leave it on her desk? Doesn’t her supervisor have opinions about that? My sense is that this is something better suited to a salon than an office space.

As a selection and application mechanism, the stylus is a bad choice. It requires quite a bit of precision to tap the tip of the nail. Our old friend Paul Fitts certainly would use something different for his nails. Since the secretary has to have to have some kind of high-tech coating, perhaps similar to electrophoretic ink, why is the stylus necessary at all? Can’t she just tap her fingernails to the color square of her choice? That would disintermediate the interaction and save her the hassle of targeting her nails with that stylus, especially when she has to switch to her off-hand.

The color display poses some other interesting problems as well. It needs to show colors, but why just 16? We don’t see any means of selecting others. Are these just this season’s most popular? Why not offer her any color she likes? Or some means of capturing her current outfit and suggesting colors based on that? Even the layout is problematic. Because of the effect of simultaneous contrast, the perception of a color alters when seen directly adjacent to other colors. These squares should have some sort of neutral border around them to make perception of them more “true.” But why should we burden her with having to imagine what the color will look like? Show her an image of her hand and let her see in advance what the new color will look like on her fingers. Any sort of low-level augmented reality would help her feel less like she’s picking paint for her living room wall.

And the winner is…

Comparing the two, I’d say that The Fifth Element fingernail-o-matic wins out. It’s more personal, more ergonomic, fits into the user’s lifestyle more, feels more fashionable than techy (which that receptionist clearly cares about). Yes, it’s more restricted in choices, but I’d much rather figure out how to augment that little device with a color selector than try to make a stylus and tablet fingernail-o-matic actually work.

Profiling “CAT” scan

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After her escape from the nucleolab, Leeloo ends up on a thin ledge of a building, unsure where to go or what to do. As a police car hovers nearby, the officers use an onboard computer to try and match her identity against their database. One officer taps a few keys into an unseen keyboard, her photograph is taken, and the results displays in about 8 seconds. Not surprisingly, it fails to find a match, and the user is told so with an unambiguous, red “NO FILE” banner across the screen.

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This interface flies by very quickly, so it’s not meant to be read screen by screen. Still, the wireframes present a clear illustration of what the system doing, and what the results are.

The system shouldn’t just provide dead ends like this, though. Any such system has to account for human faces changing over the time since the last capture: aging, plastic surgery, makeup, and disfiguring accidents, to name a few. Since Leeloo isn’t inhuman, it could provide some results of “closest matches,” perhaps with a confidence percentage alongside individual results. Even if the confidence number was very low, that output would help the officers understand it was an issue with the subject, and not an issue of an incomplete database or weak algorithm.

One subtle element is that we don’t see or hear the officer telling the system where the perp is, or pointing a camera. He doesn’t even have to identify her face. It automatically finds her in the camera few, identifies her face, and starts scanning. The sliding green lines tell the officer what it’s finding, giving him confidence in its process, and offering an opportunity to intervene if it’s getting things wrong.

Nucleolab Progress Indicator

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As the nucleolab is reconstructing Leeloo, the screen on the control panel provides update, detailing the process. For the most part this update is a wireframe version of what everyone can see with their eyes.

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The only time it describes something we can’t see with our own eyes is when Leeloo’s skin is being “baked” by an ultraviolet light under a metal cover. Of course we know this is a narrative device to heighten the power of the big reveal, but it’s also an opportunity for the interface to actually do something useful. It has a green countdown clock, and visualizes something that’s hidden from view.

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As far as a progress indicator goes, it’s mostly useful. Mactilburgh presumably knows roughly how long things take and even the order of operations. All he needs is confirmation that his system is doing what it’s supposed to be, and the absence of an error is enough for him. The timer helps, too, since he’s like a kid waiting for an Easy Bake Oven…of science.

But Munro doesn’t know what the heck is going on. Sure he knows some of the basics of biology. There’s going to be a skeleton, some muscle, some nerves. But beyond that, he’s got a job to do, and that’s to take this thing out the minute it goes pear-shaped. So he needs to know: Is everything going OK? Should I pop the top on a tall boy of Big Red Button? It might be that the interface has some kind of Dire Warning mode for when things go off the rails, but that doesn’t help during the good times. Giving Munro some small indicator that things are going well would remove any ambiguity and set him at ease.

An argument could be made that you don’t want Munro at ease, but a false positive might kill Leeloo and risk the world. A false negative (or a late negative) just risks her escape. Which happens anyway. Fortunately for us.

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