DuoMento, improved

Forgive me, as I am but a humble interaction designer (i.e., neither a professional visual designer nor video editor) but here’s my shot at a redesigned DuoMento, taking into account everything I’d noted in the review.

  • There’s only one click for Carl to initiate this test.
  • To decrease the risk of a false positive, this interface draws from a large category of concrete, visual and visceral concepts to be sent telepathically, and displays them visually.
  • It contrasts Carl’s brainwave frequencies (smooth and controlled) with Johnny’s (spiky and chaotic).
  • It reads both the brain of the sender and the receiver for some crude images from their visual cortex. (It would be better at this stage to have the actors wear some glowing attachment near a crown to show how this information was being read.)

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These changes are the sort that even in passing would help tell a more convincing narrative by being more believable, and even illustrating how not-psychic Johnny really is.

The combadge

There’s one wearable technology that, for sheer amount of time on screen and number of uses, eclipses all others, so let’s start with that. Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced a technology called a combadge. This communication device is a badge designed with the Starfleet insignia, roughly 10cm wide and tall, that affixes to the left breast of Starfleet uniforms. It grants its wearer a voice communication channel to other personnel as well as the ship’s computer. (And as Memory Alpha details, the device can also do so much more.)

Chapter 10 of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction covers the combadge as a communication device. But in this writeup we’ll consider it as a wearable technology.

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How do you use it?

To activate it, the crewman reaches up with his right hand and taps the badge once. A small noise confirms that the channel has been opened and the crewman is free to speak. A small but powerful speaker provides output that can be heard against reasonable background noise, and even to announce an incoming call. To close the channel, the crewman reaches back up to the combadge and double-taps its surface. Alternately, the other party can just “hang up.”

This one device illustrates of the primary issues germane to wearable technology. It’s perfectly wearable, social, easy to access, prevents accidental activation, and utilizes apposite inputs and outputs.

Wearable

Sartorial

The combadge is light, thin, appropriately sized, and durable. It stays in place but is casually removable. There might be some question about its hard, pointy edges, but given its standard location on the left breast, this never presents a poking hazard.

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Social

Wearable tech exists in our social space, and so has to fit into our social selves. The combadge is styled appropriately to work on a military uniform. It is sleek, sober, and dynamic. It could work as is, even without the functional aspects. That it is distributed to personnel and part of the uniform means it doesn’t suffer the vagaries of fashion, but it helps that it looks pretty cool.

As noted in the book, since it is a wireless microphone, it really should have some noticeable visual signal for others to know when it’s on, so they know that there might be an eavesdropper or when they might be recorded. Other than breaking this rule of politeness, the combadge suits Starfleet’s social requirements quite well.

When Riker encounters "Rice" in The Arsenal Of Freedom (S1E21), "Rice" isn't aware that the combadge is recording. Sure, he was really a self-iterating hyper-intelligent weapon (decades before the Omnidroid) but it's still the polite thing to do.

When Riker encounters “Rice” in The Arsenal Of Freedom (S1E21), “Rice” isn’t aware that the combadge is recording. Sure, he was really a self-iterating hyper-intelligent weapon (decades before the Omnidroid) but it’s still the polite thing to do.

I don’t recall ever seeing scenes where multiple personnel try to use their combadges near each other at the same time and having trouble as a result. I don’t recall this from the show (and Memory-Alpha doesn’t mention it) but I presume the combadges are keyed to the voice of the user to help solve this sort of problem, so it can be used socially.

Technology

Easy to access and use

Being worn on the left breast of the uniform means that it’s in an ideal position to activate with a touch from the right hand (and only a little more difficult for lefties). The wearer almost doesn’t need to even move his shoulder. This low-resistance activation makes sense since it is likely to be accessed often, and often in urgent situations.

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Tough to accidentally activate

In this location it’s also difficult to accidentally activate. It’s rare that other people’s hands are near there, and when they are, its close enough to the wearers face that they know it and can avoid it if they need to.

Apposite I/O

The surface of the body is a pretty crappy place to try and implement WIMP models of interface design. Using touch for activation/deactivation and voice for commands fit most common uses of the device. It’s easy to imagine scenarios where silence might be crucial. In these cases it would be awesome if the combadge could read the musculature of its wearer to register subvocalized commands and communication.

The fact that the combadge announces an incoming call with audio could prove problematic if the wearer is in a very noisy environment, is in the middle of a conversation, or in a situation where silence is critical. Rather than use an “ring” with an audio announcement, a better approach might build in intensity: a haptic vibration for the initial or first several “rings,” and adding the announcement only later. This gives the wearer an opportunity to notice it amidst noise, silence it if noise would be unwelcome, and still provide an audible signal that told others engaged with the wearer what’s happening and that he may need to excuse himself.

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So, as far as wearable tech goes, not only is it the most familiar, but it’s pretty good, and pretty illustrative of the categories of analysis applicable to all wearable interfaces. Next we’ll take a look at other wearable communications technologies in the survey, using them to illustrate these concepts, and see what new things they add.

Eve’s Gun

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For personal security during her expeditions on Earth, Eve is equipped with a powerful energy weapon in her right arm. Her gun has a variable power setting, and is shown firing blasts between “Melt that small rock” and “Mushroom Cloud visible from several miles away”

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After each shot, the weapon is shown charging up before it is ready to fire again. This status is displayed by three small yellow lights on the exterior, as well as a low-audible charging whine. Smaller blasts appear to use less energy than large blasts, since the recharge cycle is shorter or longer depending on the damage caused.

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On the Axiom, Eve’s weapon is removed during her service check-up and tested separately from her other systems. It is shown recharging without firing, implying an internal safety or energy shunt in case the weapon needs to be discharged without firing.

While detached, Wall-E manages to grab the gun away from the maintenance equipment. Through an unseen switch, Wall-E then accidentally fires the charged weapon. This shot destroys the systems keeping the broken robots in the Axiom’s repair ward secured and restrained.

Awesome but Irresponsible

I am assuming here that BNL has a serious need for a weapon of Eve’s strength. Good reasons for this are:

  • They have no idea what possible threats may still lurk on Earth (a possible radioactive wasteland), or
  • They are worried about looters, or
  • They are protecting their investment in Eve from any residual civilization that may see a giant dropship (See the ARV) as a threat.

In any of those cases, Eve would have to defend herself until more Eve units or the ARV could arrive as backup.

Given that the need exists, the weapon should protect Eve and the Axiom. It fails to do this because of its flawed activation (firing when it wasn’t intended). The accidental firing scheme is an anti-pattern that shouldn’t be allowed into the design.

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The only lucky part about Wall-E’s mistake is that he doesn’t manage to completely destroy the entire repair ward. Eve’s gun is shown having the power to do just that, but Wall-E fires the weapon on a lower power setting than full blast. Whatever the reason for the accidental shot, Wall-E should never have been able to fire the weapon in that situation.

First, Wall-E was holding the gun awkwardly. It was designed to be attached at Eve’s shoulder and float via a technology we haven’t invented yet. From other screens shown, there were no physical buttons or connection points. This means that the button Wall-E hits to fire the gun is either pressure sensitive or location sensitive. Either way, Wall-E was handling the weapon unsafely, and it should not have fired.

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Second, the gun is nowhere near (relatively speaking) Eve when Wall-E fires. She had no control over it, shown by her very cautious approach and “wait a minute” gestures to Wall-E. Since it was not connected to her or the Axiom, the weapon should not be active.

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Third, they were in the “repair ward”, which implies that the ship knows that anything inside that area may be broken and do something wildly unpredictable. We see broken styling machines going haywire, tennis ball servers firing non-stop, and an umbrella that opens involuntarily. Any robot that could be dangerous to the Axiom was locked in a space where they couldn’t do harm. Everything was safely locked down except Eve’s gun. The repair ward was too sensitive an area to allow the weapon to be active.

In short:

  1. Unsafe handling
  2. Unauthorized user
  3. Extremely sensitive area

Any one of those three should have kept Eve’s gun from firing.

Automatic Safeties

Eve’s gun should have been locked down the moment she arrived on the Axiom through the gun’s location aware internal safeties, and exterior signals broadcast by the Axiom. Barring that, the gun should have locked itself down and discharged safely the moment it was disconnected from either Eve or the maintenance equipment.

A Possible Backup?

There is a rationale for having a free-form weapon like this: as a backup system for human crew accompanying an Eve probe during an expedition. In a situation where the Eve pod was damaged, or when humans had to take control, the gun would be detachable and wielded by a senior officer.

Still, given that it can create mushroom clouds, it feels grossly irresponsible.

In a “fallback” mode, a simple digital totem (such as biometrics or an RFID chip) could tie the human wielder to the weapon, and make sure that the gun was used only by authorized personnel. (Notably Wall-E is not an authorized wielder.) By tying the safety trigger to the person using the weapon, or to a specific action like the physical safeties on today’s firearms, the gun would prevent someone who is untrained in its operation from using it.

If something this powerful is required for exploration and protection, it should protect its user in all reasonable situations. While we can expect Eve to understand the danger and capabilities of her weapon, we cannot assume the same of anyone else who might come into contact with it. Physical safeties, removal of easy to press external buttons, and proper handling would protect everyone involved in the Axiom exploration team.

The answer does not program

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Logan’s life is changed when he surrenders an ankh found on a particular runner. Instead being asked to identify, the central computer merely stays quiet a long while as it scans the objects. Then its lights shut off, and Logan has a discussion with the computer he has never had before.

The computer asks him to “approach and identify.” The computer gives him, by name, explicit instructions to sit facing the screen. Lights below the seat illuminate. He identifies in this chair by positioning his lifeclock in a recess in the chair’s arm, and a light above him illuminates. Then a conversation ensues between Logan and the computer.

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The computer communicates through a combination of voice and screen, on which it shows blue text and occasional illustrative shapes. The computer’s voice is emotionless and soothing. For the most part it speaks in complete sentences. In contrast, Logan’s responses are stilted and constrained, saying “negative” instead of “no,” and prefacing all questions with the word, “Question,” as in, “Question: What is it?”

On the one hand it’s linguistically sophisticated

Speech recognition and generation would not have a commercially released product for four years after the release of Logan’s Run, but there is an odd inconsistency here even for those unfamiliar with the actual constraints of the technology. The computer is sophisticated enough to generate speech with demonstrative pronouns, referring to the picture of the ankh as “this object” and the label as “that is the name of the object.” It can even communicate with pragmatic meaning. When Logan says,

“Question: Nobody reached renewal,”

…and receives nothing but silence, the computer doesn’t object to the fact that his question is not a question. It infers the most reasonable interpretation, as we see when Logan is cut off during his following objection by the computer’s saying,…

“The question has been answered.”

Despite these linguistic sophistications, it cannot parse anything but the most awkwardly structured inputs? Sadly, this is just an introduction to the silliness that is this interface.

Logan undergoes procedure “03-033,” in which his lifeclock is artificially set to blinking. He is then instructed to become a runner himself and discover where “sanctuary” is. After his adventure in the outside performing the assignment he was forced to accept, he is brought in as a prisoner. The computer traps him in a ring of bars demanding to know the location of sanctuary. Logan reports (correctly) that Santuary doesn’t exist.

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On the other hand, it explodes

This freaks the computer out. Seriously. Now, the crazy thing is that the computer actually understands Logan’s answer, because it comments on it. It says, “Unacceptable. The answer does not program [sic].” That means that it’s not a data-type error, as if it got the wrong kind of input. No, the thing heard what Logan was saying. It’s just unsatisfied, and the programmer decided that the best response to dissatisfaction was to engage the heretofore unused red and green pixels in the display, randomly delete letters from the text—and explode.That’s right. He decided that in addition to the Dissatisfaction() subroutine calling the FreakOut(Seriously) subroutine, the FreakOut(Seriously) subroutine in its turn calls Explode(Yourself), Release(The Prisoner), and the WhileYoureAtItRuinAllStructuralIntegrityoftheSurroundingArcitecture() subroutines.

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Frankly, if this is the kind of coding that this entire society was built upon, this whole social collapse thing was less deep commentary and really just a matter of computer Darwinism catching up with them.

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Dispatch

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At dispatch for the central computer, Sandmen monitor a large screen that displays a wireframe plan of the city, including architectural detail and even plants, all color coded using saturated reds, greens, and blues. When a Sandman has accepted the case of a runner, he appears as a yellow dot on the screen. The runner appears as a red dot. Weapons fire can even be seen as a bright flash of blue. The red dots of terminated runners fades from view.

Using the small screens and unlabeled arrays of red and yellow lit buttons situated on an angled panel in front of them, the seated Sandman can send a call out to catch runners, listen to any spoken communications, and respond with text and images.

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*UXsigh* What are we going to do with this thing? With an artificial intelligence literally steps behind them, why rely on a slow bunch of humans at all for answering questions and transmitting data? It might be better to just let the Sandmen do what they’re good at, and let the AI handle what it’s good at.

But OK, if it’s really that limited of an Übercomputer and can only focus on whatever is occupying it at the moment, at least make the controls usable by people. Let’s do the hard work of reducing the total number of controls, so they can be clustered all within easy reach rather than spread out so you have to move around just to operate them all. Or use your feet or whatever. Differentiate the controls so they are easy to tell apart by sight and touch rather than this undifferentiated mess. Let’s take out a paint pen and actually label the buttons. Do…do something.

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This display could use some rethinking as well. It’s nice that it’s overhead, so that dispatch can be thinking about field strategy rather than ground tactics. But if that’s the case, it could use some design help and some strategic information. How about downplaying the saturation on the things that don’t matter that much, like walls and plants? Then the Sandmen can focus more on the interplay of the Runner and his assailants. Next you could augment the display with information about the runner, and perhaps a best-guess prediction of where they’re likely to run, maybe the health of individuals, or the amount of ammunitition they have.

Which makes me realize that more than anything, this screen could use the hand of a real-time strategy game user interface designer, because that’s what they’re doing. The Sandmen are playing a deadly, deadly video game right here in this room, and they’re using a crappy interface to try and win it.

New You Selector

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In addition to easy sex and drugs, citizens of Dome City who are either unhappy or even just bored with the way they look can stop by one of the New You salons for a fast, easy cosmetic alternation.

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At the salon we get a glimpse of an interface a woman is using to select new facial features. She sits glancing down at a small screen on which she sees an image of her own face. A row of five unlabeled, gray buttons are mounted on the lower bevel of the screen. A black circle to the right of the screen seems to be a camera. She hears a soft male voice advising, “I recommend a more detailed study of our projections. There are new suggestions for your consideration.

She presses the fourth button, and the strip of image that includes her chin slides to the right, replaced with another strip of image with the chin changed. Immediately afterwards, the middle strip of the image slides left, replaced with different cheekbones.

In another scene, she considers a different shape of cheekbones by pressing the second button.

So. Yeah. Terrible.

  • The first is poor mapping of buttons to the areas of the face. It would make much more sense, if the design was constrained to such buttons, to place them vertically along the side of the screen such that each button was near to the facial feature it will change.
  • Labels would help as well, so she wouldn’t have to try buttons out to know what they do (though mapping would help that.)
  • Another problem is mapping of controls to functions. In one scene, one button press changes two options. Why aren’t these individual controls?
  • Additionally, if the patron is comparing options, having the serial presentation places a burden on her short term memory. Did she like the apple cheeks or the modest ones better? If she is making her decision based on her current face, it would be better to compare the options in questions side-by-side.
  • A frontal view isn’t the only way her new face would be seen. Why does she have to infer the 3D shape of the new face from the front view? She should be able to turn it to any arbitrary angle, or major viewing angles at once, or watch videos of her moving through life in shifting light and angle conditions, all with her new face on.
  • How many options for each component are there? A quick internet search showed, for noses, types show anything between 6 and 70. It’s not clear, and this might change how she makes her decision. If it’s 70, wouldn’t some subcategories or a wizard help her narrow down options?
  • Recovery. If she accidentally presses the wrong button, how does she go back? With no labeling and an odd number of buttons to consider, it’s unclear in the best case and she’s forced to cycle through them all in the worst.
  • The reason for the transition is unclear. Why not a jump cut? (Other than making sure the audience notices it.) Or a fade? Or some other transition.
  • Why isn’t it more goal-focused? What is her goal in changing her face? Like, can she elect to look more like a perticular person? Or what she thinks her current object of affection will like? (Psychologically quite dystopian.) Or have her face follow current face fashion trends? Or point out the parts of herself that she doesn’t like? Or randomize it, and just "try something new?"

OK I guess for both showing how easy cosmetic surgery is in the future, and how surface Dome City’s residents’ concepts of beauty are, this is OK. But for actual usability, a useless mess.

Lifeclock: The central conceit

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The central technological conceit of the movie is the lifeclock, a rosette crystal that is implanted in each citizen’s left palm at birth. This clock changes color in stages over the course of the individual’s lifetime.

Though the information in the movie is somewhat contradictory as to the actual stages, the DVD has an easter egg that explains the stages as follows.

White white Birth to 8 years
Yellow yellow 9 to 15 years
Green green 16 to 23 years
Red red 24 years to 10 days before Lastday (30 years)
Blinking Red red_blink from 10 days before Lastday to Lastday
Black black End of Lastday (Carousel/death)

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Lifeclocks derive their signal and possibly power from a local-area broadcast in the city. When Logan and Jessica leave the city their lifeclocks turn clear.

The signal of the lifeclock is so central to life that most citizens dress exclusively in colors that match their lifeclock color. Only certain professions, such as Sandmen and the New You doctor, are seen to wear clothing that lacks clear reference to a lifeclock color, even though the individuals in these professions have lifeclocks and are still subject to carousel at Lastday. We can presume, though are not shown explicitly, that certain rights and responsibilities are conferred on citizens in different stages, such as legal age of sexual consent and access to intoxicants, so the clothing acts as a social signal of status.

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As an interface the lifeclock is largely passive, and can be discussed for its usability in two main ways.

Color

The first is the color. Are the stages easily discernable by people? The main problem would be between the red and green stages since the forms of red-green color blindness affects around 4% of the population. To accommodate for this, reds are made more discernable with a brighter glow than the green. As a wavelength, red carries the farthest, and blinking is of course a highly visible and attention-getting signal, which makes it difficult for an individual to socially hide that his or her time for carousel has come.

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Black is a questionable signal since this indicates actual violation of the law but does not draw any attention to itself. Casual observation of a relaxed hand with a black lifeclock might even be mistaken for a colored lifeclock in shadow, but as the citizenry has complete faith in the system and a number of countermeasures in place to ensure that everyone either attends carousel or is terminated, perhaps this is not a concern.

But if we’re just going on human signal processing, the red should be reserved for LastWeek, and a blinking red for after LastDay. That leaves a color gap between 24 and 30. I’d make this phase blue, since it looks so clearly different from red. The new colors would be as follows.

White white Birth to 8 years
Yellow yellow 9 to 15 years
Green green 16 to 23 years
Blue blue 24 years to 10 days before Lastday (30 years)
Red red from 10 days before Lastday to Lastday
Blinking Red red_blink End of Lastday (Carousel/death)

Location on the body

The second question is the location of the lifeclock. Where should it be placed? It is a social signal, and as such needs to be visible. The parts of the body that are most often seen uncovered in the film are the hand, the neck, and the head. The neck and head are problematic since these are not visible to the citizen himself, useful for reinforcing compliance with the system. This leaves the hand.

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Given the hand, the palm seems an odd choice since in a relaxed position or when the hand is in use, the palm is often hidden from view of other people. The colored clothing seen in the film show that a citizen’s life stage is not really considered a private matter, so a location on the back of the hand would have made more sense. To keep it in view of its owner, a location on the fleshy pad between the thumb and the forefinger would have made a better, if less cinematic, choice.