The HoverChair Social Network

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The other major benefit to the users of the chair (besides the ease of travel and lifestyle) is the total integration of the occupant’s virtual social life, personal life, fashion (or lack-thereof), and basic needs in one device. Passengers are seen talking with friends remotely, not-so-remotely, playing games, getting updated on news, and receiving basic status updates. The device also serves as a source of advertising (try blue! it’s the new red!).

A slight digression: What are the ads there for? Considering that the Axiom appears to be an all-inclusive permanent resort model, the ads could be an attempt to steer passengers to using resources that the ship knows it has a lot of. This would allow a reprieve for heavily used activities/supplies to be replenished for the next wave of guests, instead of an upsell maneuver to draw more money from them. We see no evidence of exchange of money or other economic activity while on-board the Axiom

OK, back to the social network.

Security?

It isn’t obvious what the form of authentication is for the chairs. We know that the chairs have information about who the passenger prefers to talk to, what they like to eat, where they like to be aboard the ship, and what their hobbies are. With that much information, if there was no constant authentication, an unscrupulous passenger could easily hop in another person’s chair, “impersonate” them on their social network, and play havoc with their network. That’s not right.

It’s possible that the chair only works for the person using it, or only accesses the current passenger’s information from a central computer in the Axiom, but it’s never shown. What we do know is that the chair activates when a person is sitting on it and paying attention to the display, and that it deactivates as soon as that display is cut or the passenger leaves the chair.

We aren’t shown what happens when the passenger’s attention is drawn away from the screen, since they are constantly focused on it while the chair is functioning properly.

If it doesn’t already exist, the hologram should have an easy to push button or gesture that can dismiss the picture. This would allow the passenger to quickly interact with the environment when needed, then switch back to the social network afterwards.

And, for added security in case it doesn’t already exist, biometrics would be easy for the Axiom. Tracking the chair user’s voice, near-field chip, fingerprint on the control arm, or retina scan would provide strong security for what is a very personal activity and device. This system should also have strong protection on the back end to prevent personal information from getting out through the Axiom itself.

Social networks hold a lot of very personal information, and the network should have protections against the wrong person manipulating that data. Strong authentication can prevent both identity theft and social humiliation.

Taking the occupant’s complete attention

While the total immersion of social network and advertising seems dystopian to us (and that’s without mentioning the creepy way the chair removes a passenger’s need for most physical activity), the chair looks genuinely pleasing to its users.

They enjoy it.

But like a drug, their enjoyment comes at the detriment of almost everything else in their lives. There seem to be plenty of outlets on the ship for active people to participate in their favorite activities: Tennis courts, golf tees, pools, and large expanses for running or biking are available but unused by the passengers of the Axiom.

Work with the human need

In an ideal world a citizen is happy, has a mixture of leisure activities, and produces something of benefit to the civilization. In the case of this social network, the design has ignored every aspect of a person’s life except moment-to-moment happiness.

This has parallels in goal driven design, where distinct goals (BNL wants to keep people occupied on the ship, keep them focused on the network, and collect as much information as possible about what everyone is doing) direct the design of an interface. When goal-driven means data driven, then the data being collected instantly becomes the determining factor of whether a design will succeed or fail. The right data goals means the right design. Wrong data goals mean the wrong design.

Instead of just occupying a person’s attention, this interface could have instead been used to draw people out and introduce them to new activities at intervals driven by user testing and data. The Axiom has the information and power, perhaps even the responsibility, to direct people to activities that they might find interesting. Even though the person wouldn’t be looking at the screen constantly, it would still be a continuous element of their day. The social network could have been their assistant instead of their jailer.

One of the characters even exclaims that she “didn’t even know they had a pool!”. Indicating that she would have loved to try it, but the closed nature of the chair’s social network kept her from learning about it and enjoying it. By directing people to ‘test’ new experiences aboard the Axiom and releasing them from its grip occasionally, the social network could have acted as an assistant instead of an attention sink.

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Moment-to-moment happiness might have declined, but overall happiness would have gone way up.

The best way for designers to affect the outcome of these situations is to help shape the business goals and metrics of a project. In a situation like this, after the project had launched a designer could step in and point out those moments were a passenger was pleasantly surprised, or clearly in need of something to do, and help build a business case around serving those needs.

The obvious moments of happiness (that this system solves for so well) could then be augmented by serendipitous moments of pleasure and reward-driven workouts.

We must build products for more than just fleeting pleasure

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As soon as the Axiom lands back on Earth, the entire passenger complement leaves the ship (and the social network) behind.

It was such a superficial pleasure that people abandoned it without hesitation when they realized that there was something more rewarding to do. That’s a parallel that we can draw to many current products. The product can keep attention for now, but something better will come along and then their users will abandon them.

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A company can produce a product or piece of software that fills a quick need and initially looks successful. But, that success falls apart as soon as people realize that they have larger and tougher problems that need solving.

Ideally, a team of designers at BNL would have watched after the initial launch and continued improving the social network. By helping people continue to grow and learn new skills, the social network could have kept the people aboard the Axiom it top condition both mentally and physically. By the time Wall-E came around, and life finally began to return to Earth, the passengers would have been ready to return and rebuild civilization on their own.

To the designers of a real Axiom Social Network: You have the chance to build a tool that can save the world.

We know you like blue! Now it looks great in Red!

The Hover Chair

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The Hover Chair is a ubiquitous, utilitarian, all-purpose assisting device. Each passenger aboard the Axiom has one. It is a mix of a beach-side deck chair, fashion accessory, and central connective device for the passenger’s social life. It hovers about knee height above the deck, providing a low surface to climb into, and a stable platform for travel, which the chair does a lot of.

A Universal Wheelchair

We see that these chairs are used by everyone by the time that Wall-E arrives on the Axiom. From BNL’s advertising though, this does not appear to be the original. One of the billboards on Earth advertising the Axiom-class ships shows an elderly family member using the chair, allowing them to interact with the rest of the family on the ship without issue. In other scenes, the chairs are used by a small number of people relaxing around other more active passengers.

At some point between the initial advertising campaign and the current day, use went from the elderly and physically challenged, to a device used 24/7 by all humans on-board the Axiom. This extends all the way down to the youngest children seen in the nursery, though they are given modified versions to more suited to their age and disposition. BNL shows here that their technology is excellent at providing comfort as an easy choice, but that it is extremely difficult to undo that choice and regain personal control.

But not a perfect interaction

We see failure from the passengers’ total reliance on the chairs when one of them (John) falls out of his chair trying to hand an empty drink cup to Wall-E. The chair shuts down, and John loses his entire connection to the ship. Because of his reliance on the chair, he’s not even able to pull himself back up and desperately reaches for the kiosk-bots for assistance.

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This reveals the main flaw of the chair: Buy-N-Large’s model of distinct and complete specialization in robot roles has left the chair unable to help its passenger after the passenger leaves the chair’s seat. The first responders—the kiosk bots—can’t assist either (though this is due to programming, not capability…we see them use stasis/tractor beams in another part of the ship). Who or what robot the kiosk-bots are waiting for is never revealed, but we assume that there is some kind of specialized medical assistance robot specifically designed to help passengers who have fallen out of their chairs.

If these chairs were initially designed for infirm passengers, this would make sense; but the unintended conscription of the chair technology by the rest of the passengers was unforeseen by its original designers. Since BNL focused on specialization and fixed purpose, the ship was unable to change its programming to assist the less disabled members of the population without invoking the rest of the chair’s emergency workflow.

John reaching for help from the Kiosk-bots makes it appear that he either has seen the kiosk-bot use its beams before (so he knows it has the capability to help, if not the desire), or he pays so little attention to the technology that he assumes that any piece of the ship should be able to assist with anything he needs.

Whether he’s tech literate or tech insensitive and just wants things to work like magic as they do on the rest of the ship. The system is failing him and his mental model of the Axiom.

Make it ergonomic in every situation

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Considering that the chairs already hover, and we know Buy-N-Large can integrate active tractor beams in robot design, it would have been better to have a chair variant that allowed the passenger to be in a standing position inside the chair while it moved throughout the ship. It would then look like a chariot or a full-body exo-skeleton.

This would allow people who may not be able to stand (either due to disability or medical condition) to still participate in active sports like tennis or holo-golf. It would also allow more maneuverability in the chair, allowing it to easily rotate to pick up a fallen passenger and reposition them in a more comfortable spot, even if they needed medical attention.

This would allow immobilization in the case of a serious accident, giving the medical-bot more time to arrive and preventing the passenger from injuring themselves attempting to rescue themselves.

The chair has been designed to be as appealing to a low-activity user as possible. But when technology exists, and is shown to be relatively ubiquitous across different robot types, it should be integrated at the front line where people will need it. Waiting for a medical bot when the situation doesn’t demand a medical response is overly tedious and painful for the user. By using technology already seen in wide use, the chair could be improved to assist people in living an active lifestyle even in the face of physical disabilities.

Otto’s Manual Control

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When it refused to give up authority, the Captain wrested control of the Axiom from the artificial intelligence autopilot, Otto. Otto’s body is the helm wheel of the ship and fights back against the Captain. Otto wants to fulfil BNL’s orders to keep the ship in space. As they fight, the Captain dislodges a cover panel for Otto’s off-switch. When the captain sees the switch, he immediately realizes that he can regain control of the ship by deactivating Otto. After fighting his way to the switch and flipping it, Otto deactivates and reverts to a manual control interface for the ship.

The panel of buttons showing Otto’s current status next to the on/off switch deactivates half its lights when the Captain switches over to manual. The dimmed icons are indicating which systems are now offline. Effortlessly, the captain then returns the ship to its proper flight path with a quick turn of the controls.

One interesting note is the similarity between Otto’s stalk control keypad, and the keypad on the Eve Pod. Both have the circular button in the middle, with blue buttons in a semi-radial pattern around it. Given the Eve Pod’s interface, this should also be a series of start-up buttons or option commands. The main difference here is that they are all lit, where the Eve Pod’s buttons were dim until hit. Since every other interface on the Axiom glows when in use, it looks like all of Otto’s commands and autopilot options are active when the Captain deactivates him.

A hint of practicality…

The panel is in a place that is accessible and would be easily located by service crew or trained operators. Given that the Axiom is a spaceship, the systems on board are probably heavily regulated and redundant. However, the panel isn’t easily visible thanks to specific decisions by BNL. This system makes sense for a company that doesn’t think people need or want to deal with this kind of thing on their own.

Once the panel is open, the operator has a clear view of which systems are on, and which are off. The major downside to this keypad (like the Eve Pod) is that the coding of the information is obscure. These cryptic buttons would only be understandable for a highly trained operator/programmer/setup technician for the system. Given the current state of the Axiom, unless the crew were to check the autopilot manual, it is likely that no one on board the ship knows what those buttons mean anymore.

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Thankfully, the most important button is in clear English. We know English is important to BNL because it is the language of the ship and the language seen being taught to the new children on board. Anyone who had an issue with the autopilot system and could locate the button, would know which button press would turn Otto off (as we then see the Captain immediately do).

Considering that Buy-N-Large’s mission is to create robots to fill humans’ every need, saving them from every tedious or unenjoyable job (garbage collecting, long-distance transportation, complex integrated systems, sports), it was both interesting and reassuring to see that there are manual over-rides on their mission-critical equipment.

…But hidden

The opposite situation could get a little tricky though. If the ship was in manual mode, with the door closed, and no qualified or trained personnel on the bridge, it would be incredibly difficult for them to figure out how to physically turn the ship back to auto-pilot. A hidden emergency control is useless in an emergency.

Hopefully, considering the heavy use of voice recognition on the ship, there is a way for the ship to recognize an emergency situation and quickly take control. We know this is possible because we see the ship completely take over and run through a Code Green procedure to analyze whether Eve had actually returned a plant from Earth. In that instance, the ship only required a short, confused grunt from the Captain to initiate a very complex procedure.

Security isn’t an issue here because we already know that the Axiom screens visitors to the bridge (the Gatekeeper). By tracking who is entering the bridge using the Axiom’s current systems, the ship would know who is and isn’t allowed to activate certain commands. The Gatekeeper would either already have this information coded in, or be able to activate it when he allowed people into the bridge.

For very critical emergencies, a system that could recognize a spoken ‘off’ command from senior staff or trained technicians on the Axiom would be ideal.

Anti-interaction as Standard Operating Procedure

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The hidden door, and the obscure hard-wired off button continue the mission of Buy-N-Large: to encourage citizens to give up control for comfort, and make it difficult to undo that decision. Seeing as how the citizens are more than happy to give up that control at first, it looks like profitable assumption for Buy-N-Large, at least in the short term. In the long term we can take comfort that the human spirit–aided by an adorable little robot–will prevail.

So for BNL’s goals, this interface is fairly well designed. But for the real world, you would want some sort of graceful degradation that would enable qualified people to easily take control in an emergency. Even the most highly trained technicians appreciate clearly labeled controls and overrides so that they can deal directly with the problem at hand rather than fighting with the interface.

The Lifeboat Controls

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After Wall-E and Eve return to the Axiom, Otto steals the Earth plant and has his security bot place it on a lifeboat for removal from the ship. Wall-E follows the plant onboard the pod, and is launched from the Axiom when the security bot remotely activates the pod. The Pod has an autopilot function (labeled an auto-lock, and not obviously sentient), and a Self-Destruct function, both of which the security bot activates at launch. Wall-E first tries to turn the auto-pilot off by pushing the large red button on the control panel. This doesn’t work.

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Wall-E then desperately tries to turn off the auto-destruct by randomly pushing buttons on the pod’s control panel. He quickly gives up as the destruct continues counting down and he makes no progress on turning it off. In desperation, Wall-E grabs a fire extinguisher and pulls the emergency exit handle on the main door of the pod to escape.

The Auto-Destruct

There are two phases of display on the controls for the Auto-Destruct system: off and countdown. In its off mode, the area of the display dedicated to the destruct countdown is plain and blue, with no label or number. The large physical button in the center is unlit and hidden, flush with the console. There is no indication of which sequence of keypresses activates the auto-destruct.

When it’s on, the area turns bright red, with a pulsing countdown in large numbers, a large ‘Auto-Destruct’ label on the left. The giant red pushbutton in the center is elevated above the console, surrounded by hazard striping, and lit from within.

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The odd part is that when the button in the center gets pushed down, nothing happens. This is the first thing Wall-E does to turn the system off, and it’s has every affordance for being a button to stop the auto-destruct panel in which it sits. It’s possible that this center button is really just a pop-up alert light to add immediacy to the audible and other visual cues of impending destruction.

If so, the pod’s controls are seriously inadequate.

Wall-E wants to shut the system off, and the button is the most obvious choice for that action. Self-destruction is an irreversible process (even more so than the typical ‘ejector seat’ controls that Alan Cooper likes to talk about). If accidentally activated, it is something that needs to be immediately shut off. It is also something that would cause panicked decision making in the escape pod’s users.

The blinking button in the center of the control area is the best and most obvious target to “SHUT IT OFF NOW!”

Of course this is just part of the fish-out-of-water humor of the scene, but is there a real reason it’s not responding like it obviously should? One possibility is that the pod is running an authority scan of all the occupants (much like the Gatekeeper for the bridge or what I suggested for Eve’s gun), and is deciding that Wall-E isn’t cleared to use that control. If so, that kind of biometric scanning should be disabled for a control like the Anti-Auto-Destruct. None of the other controls (up to and including the airlock door exit) are disabled in the same way, which causes serious cognitive dissonance for Wall-E.

The Axiom is able to defend itself from anyone interested in taking advantage of this system through the use of weapons like Eve’s gun and the Security robots’ force fields.

Anything that causes such a serious effect should have an undo or an off switch. The duration of the countdown gives Wall-E plenty of time to react, but the pod should accept that panicked response as a request to turn the destruct off, especially as a fail-safe in case its biometric scan isn’t functioning properly, and there might be lives in the balance.

The Other Controls

No Labels.

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Seriously?

This escape pod is meant to be used in an emergency, and so the automatic systems should degrade as gracefully as possible.

While beautiful, extremely well grouped by apparent function, and incredibly responsive to touch inputs, labels would have made the control panel usable for even a moderately skilled crewmember in the pilot seat. Labels would also provide reinforcement of a crew member’s training in a panic-driven situation.

Buy-N-Large: Beautifully Designed Dystopia

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A design should empower the people using it, and provide reinforcement to expert training in a situation where memory can be strained because of panic. The escape-pod has many benefits: clear seating positions, several emergency launch controls, and an effective auto-pilot. Adding extra backups to provide context for a panicked human pilot would add to the pod’s safety and help crew and passengers understand their options in an emergency.

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Dust Storm Alert

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While preparing for his night cycle, Wall-E is standing at the back of his transport/home. On the back drop door of the transport, he is cleaning out his collection cooler. In the middle of this ritual, an alert sounds from his external speakers. Concerned by the sound, Wall-E looks up to see a dust storm approaching. After seeing this, he hurries to finish cleaning his cooler and seal the door of the transport.

A Well Practiced Design

The Dust Storm Alert appears to override Wall-E’s main window into the world: his eyes. This is done to warn him of a very serious event that could damage him or permanently shut him down. What is interesting is that he doesn’t appear to register a visual response first. Instead, we first hear the audio alert, then Wall-E’s eye-view shows the visual alert afterward.

Given the order of the two parts of the alert, the audible part was considered the most important piece of information by Wall-E’s designers. It comes first, is unidirectional as well as loud enough for everyone to hear, and is followed by more explicit information.

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Equal Opportunity Alerts

By having the audible alert first, all Wall-E units, other robots, and people in the area would be alerted of a major event. Then, the Wall-E units would be given the additional information like range and direction that they need to act. Either because of training or pre-programmed instructions, Wall-E’s vision does not actually tell him what the alert is for, or what action he should take to be safe. This could also be similar to tornado sirens, where each individual is expected to know where they are and what the safest nearby location is.

For humans interacting alongside Wall-E units each person should have their own heads-up display, likely similar to a Google-glass device. When a Wall-E unit gets a dust storm alert, the human could then receive a sympathetic alert and guidance to the nearest safe area. Combined with regular training and storm drills, people in the wastelands of Earth would then know exactly what to do.

Why Not Network It?

Whether by luck or proper programming, the alert is triggered with just enough time for Wall-E to get back to his shelter before the worst of the storm hits. Given that the alert didn’t trigger until Wall-E was able to see the dust cloud for himself, this feels like very short notice. Too short notice. A good improvement to the system would be a connection up to a weather satellite in orbit, or a weather broadcast in the city. This would allow him to be pre-warned and take shelter well before any of the storm hits, protecting him and his solar collectors.

Other than this, the alert system is effective. It warns Wall-E of the approaching storm in time to act, and it also warns everyone in the local vicinity of the same issue. While the alert doesn’t inform everyone of what is happening, at least one actor (Wall-E) knows what it means and knows how to react. As with any storm warning system, having a connection that can provide forecasts of potentially dangerous weather would be a huge plus.

The Dropship

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The Axiom Return Vehicle’s (ARV’s) first job is to drop off Eve and activate her for her mission on Earth. The ARV acts as the transport from the Axiom, landing on the surface of Earth to drop off Eve pods, then returning after an allotted time to retrieve the pods and return them to the Axiom.

The ARV drops Eve at the landing site by Wall-E’s home, then pushes a series of buttons on her front chest. The buttons light up as they’re pushed, showing up blue just after the arm clicks them. At the end of the button sequence, Eve wakes up and immediately begins scanning the ground directly in front of her. She then continues scanning the environment, leaving the ARV to drop off more Eve Pods elsewhere.

If It Ain’t Broke…

There’s an oddity in ARV’s use of such a crude input device to activate Eve. On first appearance, it seems like it’s a system that is able to provide a backup interface for a human user, allowing Eve to be activated by a person on the ground in the event of an AI failure, or a human-led research mission. But this seems awkward in use because Eve’s front contains no indication of what the buttons each do, or what sequence is required.

A human user of the system would be required to memorize the proper sequence as a physical set of relationships. Without more visual cues, it would be incredibly easy for the person in that situation to push the wrong button to start with, then continue pushing wrong buttons without realizing it (unless they remembered what sound the first button was supposed to make, but then they have one /more/ piece of information to memorize. It just spirals out of control from there).

What was originally for people is now best used by robots.

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So if it’s not for humans, what’s going on? Looking at it, the minimal interface has strong hints of originally being designed for legacy support: large physical buttons, coded interface, and tilted upward for a person standing above it. BNL shows a strong desire to design out people, but leave interactions (see The Gatekeeper). This style of button interface looks like a legacy control kept by BNL because by the time people weren’t needed in the system anymore, the automated technology had already been adapted for the same situation.

Large hints to this come from the labels. Each label is an abstract symbol, with the keys grouped into two major areas (the radial selector on the top, and the line of large squares on the bottom). For highly trained technicians meant to interact only rarely with an Eve pod, these cryptic labels would either be memorized or referenced in a maintenance manual. For BNL, the problem would only appear after both the technicians and the manual are gone.

It’s an interface that sticks around because it’s more expensive to completely redo a piece of technology than simply iterate it.

Despite the information hurdles, the physical parts of this interface look usable. By angling the panel they make it easier to see the keypad from a standing position, and the keys are large enough to easily press without accidentally landing on the wrong one. The feedback is also excellent, with a physical depression, a tactile click, and a backlight that trails slightly to show the last key hit for confirmation.

If I were redesigning this I would bring in the ability for a basic- or intermediate-skill technician to use this keypad quickly. An immediate win would be labeling the keys on the panel with their functions, or at least their position in the correct activation sequence. Small hints would make a big difference for a technician’s memory.

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To improve it even more, I would bring in the holographic technology BNL has shown elsewhere. With an overlay hologram, the pod itself could display real-time assistance, of the right sequence of keypresses for whatever function the technician needed.

This small keypad continues to build on the movie’s themes of systems that evolve: Wall-E is still controllable and serviceable by a human, but Eve from the very start has probably never even seen a human being. BNL has automated science to make it easier on their customers.

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.

The Shagpile Cockpit

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Barbarella’‘s rocket ship has a single main room, which is covered wall-to-wall with shagpile carpet. The visual panel of her voice-interface computer, called Alphy, is built into the wall near the back. On the right side of Alphy sits the video phone statue. To the left a a large reproduction of Seurat’’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte masks a door to exit the ship.

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A recessed, circular seating space near the front acts as the cockpit. From this position Barbarella can see through a large angled viewport. One nice aspect of the design of the cockpit is that when things are going poorly for the rocket ship, and Barbarella is being buffeted about, the pile keeps the damage to a minimum and, the recessed cockpit is likely to “catch” her and hold her there, in a place where she can try and remedy the situation. (This is exactly what happens when they encounter “magnetic disturbances” on their approach to Tau Ceti.)

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Magnetic Disturbances

The control panel for the ship is a wide band of roughly 60 unlabeled black, white, and gray keys, curving around the pilot like amphitheater seating. The keys themselves are random lengths, stacking in some places two and three to a column. Barbarella presses these keys when she must manually pilot the ship, at one point pressing a particular one several times in quick succession. That action suggests not controls for building up commands like a computer keyboard, but rather direct-effect controls, like an automobile dashboard, where each key has a different, direct effect.

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This keyboard panel lacks any clues as to the functions of the keys for first-time users, but the high-contrast and cluster patterns make it easy for expert users like Barbarella (being as she is a 5-star double-rated Astro-Navigatrix) to visually locate a particular key amongst them. But there’s a lot that could be improved. First and most obvious is that the extents of the keyboard are quite spread out from her immediate reach. Bringing them within easy reach would mean less physical work. We also know that like an automotive dashboard, unless these keys are all controlling things with direct, obvious consequences, some status indicators in the periphery of her vision would be damned handy. And even with the unique key configuration, Barbarella would have an even easier time of it with physically differentiated controls, ideally with carefully designed affordances.

The other features of the cockpit, including a concave panel in the wall to her left with large, round, colored lights, and a set of large, reflective black domes on the right hand side of the cockpit, are not seen in use.

Alien Astrometrics

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.