Federal Services Communiqué

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Live video in Starship Troopers works a little bit differently than video messages. When he wants to call his parents in Buenos Aires, he somehow sets up the call (it’s offscreen, so we really don’t know how he does it). When the call goes through, a soldier comes in to the barracks to tell Rico that it’s going through, and then tells him to take it. You know, three feet away. At the end of the barracks. That they’re currently in. In a giant wall display. So…short improvement #1: Maybe just let it ring with Rico’s name on it rather than require a communication officer to wander around the barracks just telling soldiers to take five steps in a certain direction.

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News and Information

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When Ibanez and Rico are in Federal Transport Hub 39 set to leave for Basic Training, we see Ibanez use a public kiosk for news and information. To do so she approaches a kiosk that tells her to “LOG IN,” and she slips her paper ticket into a slot just above waist height, and types on an adjacent small keyboard, mounted at a slight angle for easy typing. The kiosk reads the ticket and displays her surname on the screen. Continue reading

Stardrive

First off, let me apologize for the terrible flashing that is this next interface.

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After "designing a course to Jupiter" using STARNAV, Barcalow presses something that initiates the warp drive.

He speaks along with a broadcast voice to countdown, "Star drive in…5…4…ready…steady…GO!"

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The next screen shows a polar grid labeled GENERATING WARP FIELD. Circular rings shrink towards the center of the grid. Text along the right reads TACHYON CAPTURE, FIELD INGH DISTORT, GRAVITIC FEEDBACK, and ENERGY LEVELS. Bits of the fuidgitry from the STARNAV screens are occluded by a progress bar and a string of unchanging numbers: 0045 4535 7752 0659 2958 6456 6469 2934.

The first part of this display makes sense. It’s providing feedback to the navigator that it’s progressing in a task, i.e. generating the warp field. The animated circles provide some glanceable confirmation that things are progressing smoothly, and the implied concentration of power in a single point tells that whatever it’s building to, it’s gonna be big. Of course we can probably do without the numbers and tabs since they don’t change and it’s not really a touch screen. It would also be good to monitor whatever metrics we should be watching to know if things are safe or trending dangerously, maybe with sparklines, like a medical monitoring interface. Perhaps though that’s the sort of screen better suited to engineering. After all, Barcalow and Ibanez are just navigating and piloting here, respectively.

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Then the progress bar suddenly turns purple, then the whole purple grid flashes multiple colors as we hear rapid electronic beeping (amongst a swell of extra-diegetic orchestra brass). Finally, a white circle grows from the center outward to fill the screen as the ship passes into Star Drive.

At first the white screen might seem like a waste, since this is when the navigator’s job really begins, as they go careening through space hurtling towards potentially life-threatening obstacles. But that white background can provide a clear background for a radar view (or Starship Trooper equivalent), a canvas for him to scan for any threats that radar are picking up beyond the field of vision afforded by the viewport. So the "wasted" space isn’t a problem at all.

The flashes are a bit of a problem. What’s it doing that for? Is it trying to put them into an epileptic seizure just before engaging in potentially deadly activity? Or is a seizure the only way to survive the perils of Stardrive? It’s unclear and dubious that there’s any good reason. Interaction designers are rarely in the business of putting users into a grand mal.

The color and values are also problematic. Why the candy colors? Does the orange flash mean something different than the purple flash? Even if you got rid of all the circus themed colors, there’s still a blinding amount of white on the screen once warp is engaged. That canvas would work a lot better as a black background with white blips to avoid eye fatigue, especially over long spans of time.

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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.

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.

Most polite getaway car ever

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When the anonymous Section 6 operatives infiltrate and attack Section 9 to abduct what remains of the cybernetic body housing Project 2501, you’d think the last thing on their mind would be courteous driving. Yet when they are fleeing Togusa’s mighty mullet-fueled pistol rage, we see a surprisingly polite feature of their car.

Speeding along, they come to a cross-alley where they nearly run into a passing garbage truck. They slam on their brakes, and reverse the car to give the truck some room. When they’re reversing, a broad red panel on the back of the vehicle illuminates the English word “BACK.”

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The signal disappears when the brake is pressed and the entire panel glows the bright red.

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We see the rear end of other vehicles throughout the movie, and none even have the display surface to present such a signal. Even Batou’s ride—and he’s a badpass—lacks anything like a large display surface.

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This is unique in the film to this vehicle. It seems that yes, Section 6 is not only trying to cover the tracks that lead to the artificial intelligence that they have created, but are driving the most polite getaway car ever while doing it.

To be clear: This is a bad idea

First of course, driving around in a unique vehicle goes against the whole plan of trying to get away. So, there’s that.

Secondly, why is it in English? We see a lot of signage in the movie, and it’s all Chinese (tip-o-the hat to commenter Don for helping me identify the characters), so this is another conspicuous signal. We do see broken-English labels on the virtual 3D scanner, but this “interface” English in software is not unheard of.

Lastly, it’s unsafe. In traffic accidents, split-seconds of delay can be deadly, and reading is a slower process than just seeing. The more common white (or amber in the antipodes) reversing lamps is a much more arresting, immediate, and safe signal to the drivers behind you, and so would make a much better choice.

Ghost-hacking by public terminal

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The garbage collector who is inadvertently working for Ghost Hacker takes a break during his work to access the network by public terminal. The terminal is a small device, about a third of a meter across, mounted on a pole about a meter high and surrounded by translucent casing to protect it from the elements and keep the screen private. Parts are painted red to make it identifiable in the visual chaos of the alleyway.

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After pressing a series of buttons and hearing corresponding DTMF, or Touch-Tones, he inserts a card into a horizontal slot labeled “DATA” in illuminated green letters. The card is translucent with printed circuitry and a few buttons. The motorized card reader pulls the card in, and then slides it horizontally along a wide slot while an illuminated green label flashes that it is INSPECTING the card. When it is halfway along this horizontal track, a label on the left illuminates COMPRESS.

On a multilayer, high-resolution LCD screen above, graphics announce that it is trying to CONNECT and then providing ACCESS, running a section of the “cracking software” that the garbage collector wishes to run. After he is done with ACCESS, he removes the card and gets back to work.

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From a certain perspective, there’s nothing wrong with this interaction. He’s able to enter some anonymous information up front, and then process the instructions on the card. It’s pretty ergonomic for a public device. It provides him prompts and feedback of process and status. He manages its affordances and though the language is cryptic to us, he seems to have no problem.

Where the terminal fails is that it gives him no idea that it’s doing something more than he realizes, and that something more is quite a bit more illegal than he’s willing to risk. Had it given him some visualization of what was being undertaken, he might have stopped immediately, or at least have returned to his “friend” to ask what was going on. Of course the Ghost Hacker is, as his name says, a powerful hacker, and might have been able to override the visualization. But with no output, even novice hackers could dupe the unknowing because they are uninformed.

Fhloston evacuation

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When Fhloston Paradise’s bomb alarms finally go off (a full 15:06 after Zorg’s bomb actually starts. WTH, Fhloston?) four shipwide systems help evacuate the ship.

First, a klaxon is heard on a public address system across the ship. A recorded female voice calmly announces that…

This is a type A alert. For security reasons the hotel must be evacuated. Please proceed calmly to the lifeboats located in the main hallways.

This voice continues to speak a warning countdown, repeating the remaining time every minute, and then when there’s less than a minute at 15 second intervals, and each of the last 10 seconds.

Second, in the main hallway, small, rows of red beacon lights emerge out of the floor and begin flashing and blinking. They repeatedly flash in order to point the direction of the lifeboats.

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Third, in the main hallway large arrows on the floor and “LIFEBOAT” lettering illuminate green to point travelers towards ingress points for individual lifeboats.

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Fourth, the lifeboats themselves eject from the ship to get the passengers far from danger.

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Awesome

  • The voice warning is a trope, but a trope for a reason. For visually impaired guests and people whose attention is focused on, you know, escape, the audio will still help them keep tabs on the time they have left.
  • The racing lights provide a nice directionality (a similar interface would have helped Prometheus).
  • The arrows and beacons require no language skills to comprehend.

Awful

  • The voice warning and the “LIFEBOAT” signs do require language to comprehend. They couldn’t have used Running Man?
  • You know when’s a crappy time to add trip hazards to the floor? When a herd of panicked humans are going to be running over it. Seriously. There is no excuse for this.
  • The beacons and the arrows should be the same color. Green is the ISO standard for exit, so while we’re moving the beacon lights to the ceiling where they belong, we can swap them out for some #33cc00 beacons.
  • The green arrows at first seem badly placed as it’s difficult to see when there’s a crowd of people, but then you realize that when the room is empty, people will see and follow them. People in a crowd will just follow whatever direction the horde is currently going, and seeing the arrows is unnecessary. But in a light crowd, people will get a glimpse of the arrow and become stressed out over an occluded, potentially life-saving signal or worse, get trampled to death trying to stop and read it to make sure everyone is going the right way, so ultimately awful. Put that up on the ceiling or high on the walls, too. Because people genuinely panic.

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5E-opedia: In-depth topic

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Leeloo learns about the facts of the human race which she is destined to save through an online encyclopedia available to her in many places: in Cornelius’’ home, the spaceship to Fhloston Paradise, and aboard Zorg’’s ship. Three modes are seen for it. Today we discuss the second mode, which is to select an in-depth topic.

In-Depth Topic

Leeloo can understand each item in the topic lists as they fly past. If she sees a topic that interests her in particular, she can press a button to find out more about that topic in more detail. (We don’t see the button, we just hear it.) Given that she’s looking at a screen of at most 66 and at least 4 options, and we don’t see a selection indicator, it’s anyone’s guess as to how she does this. Later we’ll see that she has a QWERTY keyboard to search for a particular word, and we don’t see that same search interface here, so it’s something other than that.

Once she indicates that she’s interested in martial arts, the entry fills the screen. The screen is a mix of a paragraph of text, images zooming around, and subtopics writ in large red majuscule letters scrolling past: KRAV CONTACT, SUMO, WRESTLING, SAVATE, KUNG FU, JU JITSU, NINJITSU, WRANG DO, FULL CONTACT… A still image of Bruce Lee from Enter the Dragon appears. This style of still-image and animated-text continues to play in a watch-and-learn way until it’s done, and then returns to the topic list.

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Here, as before, I am examining things unmeant for examination. Still, I have a job to do. In the diegesis of the film, the text flies by too quick for anyone but a perfect Mondoshawan to read. But here in the real world, I hit pause. There I learned that the paragraph of text in the background has nothing to do with martial arts. We only see snippets, but they read as follows. (Please post your short sci-fi stories that can make sense of these lines in exactly this same order.)

: a hindu thus
talks to hi[s] troops about taking
d takes on a persona of its own.
monster, if it wants to live, have
loved. We then get a news flash
cult (think Waco siege coverage)

This little bit of text reads much more like a script than an encyclopedia entry. Like it was a bit of text just lying around on someone’s computer. In any case it would not help Leeloo learn Jeet Kun Do in the slightest.

On the right side of the screen (see above) we also see a vertical green rectangle. At the top is the number 5, bookended with arrows. Below that is a graph, a set of thumbnail images (whose captions are too small to read) are linked by right-angle connecting lines, like what you might see in a tech-tree for a real-time strategy video game.

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When the display shifts to showing the subtopics, this green area changes. The 5 changes to a dot, and a grid of circular icons appears, each with a green rectangle to its right. The left column of icons is hard to decipher, but the right column of icons looks like control buttons one might expect: More detail, next in sequence, prior in sequence, zoom out, zoom all the way out, fast forward. Missing are common controls for video such as pause and play. A the bottom is a button labeled “EDIT”. This control panel is not seen in use.

It’s still about the learning, stupid

That stuff on the left is pointless. Of course that bit from a script is goofy. The animated stuff might be interesting for getting someone kind of excited about the topic, or maybe to remember how awesome martial arts (that they already knew about) are, but for learning any of it from a computer screen, she would have been better off spending time on youtube. Even the subtopics make no sense. Sure, they’re all martial arts, but what’s the order? Not alphabetical. Not age. Savate (18th century) is between wrestling and Sumo, both far more ancient. It’s not even a list of the same scope of thing. Aren’t Krav and Full Contact different translations for the same thing? Anyway, learning the vocabulary of a domain is only a rudimentary first step to actually learning it, much less performing it. Good thing she’s “perfect.”

The first green area on the right does actually seem useful for learning. It’s an abstract representation of how some things fit together. There’s a relationship implied between parts. It may also provide a map to a bigger picture in which this particular topic fits. That’s actually pretty useful and even Wikipedia adopts it for entries that fit into larger domains of knowledge. So, OK, we’ll cut it some slack there.

The second green area, even though I’m doing a lot of inference there from icons, also seems like it might be pretty useful. It’s too bad we don’t get to see it in action.

Better for Leeloo’s purposes of learning a topic—even if you did it blazingly fast—would be to provide her a definition, a bit about the history, and then some blazingly fast how-tos of modern practice augmented with the principles at work in each of the examples.

The daffy bastard

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When Korben gets in his taxi and sits down, it recognizes this and in a female version of the hazy synthesized voice heard in the 4 a day cigarette dispenser, prompts him to “Please enter your license.” Korben fits his license into a small horizontal slot mounted in the ceiling of the cab, just above the driver’s seat near the windshield. He slams it in. It verifies that he’s authorized and starts the cab, including lighting the taxi light up top. It tells him, “Welcome on board, Mr. Dallas. Fuel level 10.”

Korben steers with an X-shaped control yoke. We never see his feet, so don’t know if he has any foot pedals. He has a throttle that maps like a boat throttle: push forward to increase thrust.

In the central dashboard he has an underlit panel of toggle buttons. Each button has a single function, which is printed on its surface.

Main controls: Docking lock, Automatic, Emergency power, Power. Light controls: Auxiliary lights, Parking lights, Smog lights, Main lights. Alerts: Power level low, Power failure, Light failure, Environment warning

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Two small panels to his left provide him a similar array of “comfort controls”, “taxi controls”, and “main panel one.” A more free-form keyboard sits beneath a vertical grayscale monitor, crammed full of unreadable text and, occasionally, annoyingly, blinking.

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The buttons across these panels are completely labeled, lit for easy reading in the dim cabin light, clustered in meaningful groups, and nicely positioned so that Korben can utilize his spatial memory to map the functions. But they are also labeled in all capital letters and aren’t much differentiated beyond that, which might require Korben to take his eyes off the road to target a particular one, which could increase the odds of an accident. Better inputs using physical controls would have more physical differentiation so he could find them with just one hand, labeling that was easier to read at a glance, and the most common controls right on the yoke near his fingers.

In the scene, Korben reaches to the center panel and presses “power.” The voice confirms that he’s using “Propulsion 2-X-4,” (whatever that means.) Then Korben presses “Docking lock,” which releases the mechanical hold on the taxi.

The voice reminds him sternly that he has five points left on his license, and as the garage door opens, to “Have a nice day.” Lights on either side of the garage door shine green, signaling to him that the skyway is clear. But on pulling out, they turn red just as a car passes and Korben has to slam on the brakes.

Of course the humor comes from how these interfaces aren’t entirely helpful, and the green lights shouldn’t tell him the same information he can see with his own eyes. It should be doing a bit of calculation to signal if it’s clear for the next several seconds so he can safely pull out. But of course doing that right would ruin the joke. Maybe we’re meant to understand that Korben just can’t afford any but the crappiest versions of technology.

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Later, when Leeloo does her daring cliff dive from the side of a building and crashes through the roof of his cab, Korben struggles to maintain control of it and get the hell out of the way of oncoming traffic. During the chaos, the computerized voice tells him, “You’ve just had an accident.” Korben sardonically shouts, “Yes! I know I just had an accident, you daffy bastard.” It continues adding unhelpfully, “You have one point left on your license.” Of course the fun is how annoying the taxi is, but let’s just be explicit: the cab should wait until it senses that Korben has regained control before burdening his attention with this information, and possibly making it worse.

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When Korben risks it all to help Leeloo, the speaker cover near where his license is lodged glows bright red as it says, “One point has been removed from your license…” Korben, furious and with zero points left on his license and nothing to lose, rips the device off his ceiling to shut the daffy bastard up.

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