Gravitic distortion

As Ibanez and Barcalow are juuuuuust about to start a slurpy on-duty make out session, their attention is drawn by the coffee mug whose content is listing in the glass.

coffee

Ibanez explains helpfully, “There’s a gravity field out there.” Barcalow orders her to “Run a scan!” She turns to a screen and does something to run the scan, and Barcalow confirms that “Sensors [are] on” As she watches an amber-colored graticule distort as if weighed down by an increasingly heavy ball while a Big Purple Text Label blinks GRAVITIC DISTORTION. Two numbers increment speedily at the bottom-right edge of the screen and modulus at 1000. “There,” she says.

gravity-field

So many plot questions

  • What kind of coffee cups can withstand enough gravity to tip the contents 45 degrees but remain themselves perfectly still and upright?
  • Why did they need the coffee cup? Wouldn’t their inner ear have told them the same thing faster?
  • Why is the screen in the background of the coffee cup still blinking OPTIMAL COURSE?

Of course we have to put these aside in favor of the interaction design questions.

First the “workflow”

Why on earth would they need to turn on sensors? Aren’t the sensors only useful when they’re sensing? If you have a sense that something is wrong, turning on the sensors only confirms what you already know. This is still more of that pesky stoic guru metaphor. This should have been an active academy that warned them—loudly—the moment nearby gravity started looking weird.

The visualization is not bad…

Let’s pause the criticism for one moment to give credit where credit is due. The grid vortex is a fast and reliable way to illustrate the invisible problem that they’re facing and telegraph increasing danger. Warped graticules have been a staple of depicting spacetime curvature since Disney’s 1979 movie The Black Hole.

The gravity well as depicted in The Black Hole (1979).

The gravity well as depicted in The Black Hole (1979).

This is also the same technique that scientists use to depict the same phenomenon, so it’s got some street cred, too.

gravity5b

The same thing can be shown in 3D, but it’s visually noisier. Moreover, the 2D version builds on our sense of basic physics, as we can easily imagine what would happen to anything nearing the depression. So, it’s mostly the right display.

…But then, the interaction

Despite the immediacy of the display, there’s a major problem. Sure, this interface conveys impending doom, but it doesn’t convey any useful information to help them know where the threat is coming from or what to do about it after they know that doom impends. (Plus, they had to turn it on, and all it tells them is, “Yep, looks pretty bad out there.”) To design this right, they need a sense of the 3D vector of the threat as compared to their own vector, and what the best available options are.

Better: Augmented reality to telegraph the invisible threat

Fortunately, we already have the medium and channel for Ibanez and Barcalow to immediately understand the 3D direction of the threat in the real world and most importantly, in relation to the ship’s trajectory and orientation, since that’s the tool they have on hand to avoid the threat. We’ve already seen that volumetric projection is a thing in this world, so the ship should display the VP just outside the ship’s viewports. The animation can illustrate the threat coming from the outside on the outside, and fade once the threat gets to be in a range of visible light. In this way there’s no 2D to 3D interpretation. It’s direct. Where’s the unexpected gravitic distortion? Look out the window. There. There is the the unexpected gravitic distortion. The HUD display would need to be aimed at the navigator’s seat, but for very distant objects, e.g. out of visible light range, the parallax shift wouldn’t be problematic for other locations on the bridge. You’d also have to manage the scenario where the threat comes from a direction not out the window (like, say, through the floor) but you can just shift the VP interior for that.

Including a screen comp by Deviant artist scrollsofaryavart.

Including a screen comp by Deviant artist scrollsofaryavart.

Next, you could use VP inside the ship to show the two paths and point of collision, as well as best predicted paths (there’s that useful active academy metaphor again.) Then we can let Ibanez trust her own instincts as she presses the manual override to steer the ship clear. I don’t have the time to comp an internal VP up right now, so I’ll rely on your imagination to comp this particular part of a much better solution than what we see on screen.

Sleep regulator

TheFifthElement-redmike-003

To make your flight as short as possible, our flight attendants are switching on the sleep regulator, which will regulate your sleeping during the flight.

First, props to screenwriters Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen for absolutely nailing annoying airline doublespeak. “Regulate your sleeping” means “knock you unconscious,” and even when Korben raises a finger to interject, the flight attendant ignores him and presses a button to begin “regulating his sleep.”

Given that ignoring passenger interruptions is standard operating procedure, it’s a nice design feature that the berths are horizontal and less than a meter tall. Even if a passenger was somehow all the way at the top of the berth, the fall to the cushy flooring would likely do them no harm.

TheFifthElement-sleepregulator-003

The panel has four rounded rectangles: One for each person who might be in the berth? On approach, an amber, underlit toggle button is already on. She presses an adjacent toggle button, which glows yellow, and Korben passes out immediately. Three pairs of steady lights illuminate on the right side of the panel, one pair yellow, the other two red, but it is not clear what these indicate.

On arrival to the planet Fhloston Paradise, the attendants press the yeloow buttons and the passengers awake immediately.

Analysis

Let me be blunt. The panel is a pretty crap interface, with no labeling to indicate what the buttons mean and no security to prevent mischievous passengers from messing with other passengers. (Imagine the poor kid trapped inside and subject to the button flicking of a sibling.) There’s no clear medical monitoring on the outside, which you’d think would be vital with any interface that affects biology like this. Even if a centralized station had the monitoring details elsewhere on the ship, anyone passing by should get some indication of what’s happening.

Admittedly, this is an interface with complex attention-getting needs. The attendants need to know that the regulator is working, and that bears a light. But the attendants also need to know when something is medically trending poorly or just plain failing, and that also bears a light. It would be important to clearly distinguish these signals, since confusing one for the other could be deadly.

Better would have been a well labeled system-is-operating signal facing the attendant when she is standing at the panel, and another well-labeled, blinking, loud, system-needs-attention signal that can be seen down either end of the hallway. Let us pray that they never, ever remake this film, but if there’s a directors cut, this interface could use a makeover.

The breach

The breach is not well-handled by the systems around the control room. Not only do the lights not have a local backup power source, but the screens on the background display Big Labels saying unhelpful things like, “ESCAPE ALERT – UNKNOWN SECURITY BREACH.” If you were designing a system specifically to control nightmare monsters to sacrifice helpless victims, I think the first thing your risk officer should work out is a system that can recognize and withstand when one of those two things (monsters or victims) was out of place. The least you could do is provide users with extremely clear status messages about them.

Sitterson and Truman scan the video monitors for Dana and Marty.

Escape hatch

After the breach, we see one more interface for the stage managers: an old escape route. Even though Control is world-critical, its designers imagined that things could go haywire. Presuming that other scenarios are going fine, if all hope is lost in this one, the stage managers have a way out of the control room. We only get a few glimpses of this interface, but it looks to be a computer-controlled security access lock whose 8-bit graphics imply that it was implemented in the early 1990s, around the time when Microsoft Windows 3.1 was the dominant computing paradigm.

Sitterson desperately enters his PID.

After working desperately a bit, Sitterson is able to get the system to a screen that asks for his PID. He uses a rubber-key keypad below the screen to enter it, and is told “SECURITY OVERRIDE GRANTED.” In this way he is able to open the trap door and escape the monsters swarming the control room.

Especially given the amount of stress that a user is likely to be under while using this interface, and the infrequency with which it must be used, it seems absolutely cruel to secure the door by a memorized identification number. Unless that PID is used frequently enough to become habit, it’s unlikely to be remembered when the user is trying to escape death. Better is to use the ID cards already seen in the film in combination with some biometric scan like retina or finger print.

The “Resources”

There is a system in place to manage the “resources,” the nightmare creatures available to be chosen by the victims for their sacrifice. This management includes letting them out to the surface, putting them back in place safely, and containment throughout the intervening year between sacrifices.

Dana and Marty experience the cages from the perspective of a monster

The one interface element that we do see in use is the one that Dana and Marty use to release the imprisoned nightmare monsters throughout the complex. It is a single kill-switch button labeled “SYSTEM PURGE”, located on a panel in the security booth that overlooks the main elevator bank. While hiding from approaching security forces, Dana notices the switch beneath the monitoring screens. She flips a protective switch cover to enable it, sees a confirming amber light, and then slams down on the kill switch. Moments later, the first of several waves of nightmare monsters are released through the elevator doors into the complex.

Dana slams the System Purge kill switch.

From a story viewpoint, this is an awesome moment where the story becomes utter chaos and the workforce of jaded sacrificers get their horrible, horrible come-uppance. But from a design standpoint, it’s utter nonsense. Imagine a nuclear power plant where the kill switch, which is accessible through an unlocked door and labeled clearly for any saboteur to read, dumps live fuel rods and heavy water onto the heads of the plant operators. Or a zoo where the animals-are-furious-and-hungry switch dumps the animals right onto the grounds. A system like Control, with global reach and resources, would find some other space into which this murderous tsunami can be vented, and ensure proper security around the activation mechanism. Still, this makes for hilarious chaos and the “happy” ending, so as audience members we’re glad Control messed up on its design strategy.

Marty had already been shown to be able to hack Control’s electronics upstairs, so I suspect the narrative decision about the purge switch was made to give Dana some additional agency in this part of the story, and add some punch to the onset of the final act, so we’ll count that as a minor quibble, too.