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 Gatekeeper

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After the security ‘bot brings Eve across the ship (with Wall-e in tow), he arrives at the gatekeeper to the bridge. The Gatekeeper has the job of entering information about ‘bots, or activating and deactivating systems (labeled with “1”s and “0”s) into a pedestal keyboard with two small manipulator arms. It’s mounted on a large, suspended shaft, and once it sees the security ‘bot and confirms his clearance, it lets the ‘bot and the pallet through by clicking another, specific button on the keyboard.

The Gatekeeper is large. Larger than most of the other robots we see on the Axiom. It’s casing is a white shell around an inner hardware. This casing looks like it’s meant to protect or shield the internal components from light impacts or basic problems like dust. From the looks of the inner housing, the Gatekeeper should be able to move its ‘head’ up and down to point its eye in different directions, but while Wall-e and the security ‘bot are in the room, we only ever see it rotating around its suspension pole and using the glowing pinpoint in its red eye to track the objects its paying attention to.

When it lets the sled through, it sees Wall-e on the back of the sled, who waves to the Gatekeeper. In response, the Gatekeeper waves back with its jointed manipulator arm. After waving, the Gatekeeper looks at its arm. It looks surprised at the arm movement, as if it hadn’t considered the ability to use those actuators before. There is a pause that gives the distinct impression that the Gatekeeper is thinking hard about this new ability, then we see it waving the arm a couple more times to itself to confirm its new abilities.

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The Gatekeeper seems to exist solely to enter information into that pedestal. From what we can see, it doesn’t move and likely (considering the rest of the ship) has been there since the Axiom’s construction. We don’t see any other actions from the pedestal keys, but considering that one of them opens a door temporarily, it’s possible that the other buttons have some other, more permanent functions like deactivating the door security completely, or allowing a non-authorized ‘bot (or even a human) into the space.

An unutilized sentience

The robot is a sentient being, with a tedious and repetitive job, who doesn’t even know he can wave his arm until Wall-e introduces the Gatekeeper to the concept. This fits with the other technology on board the Axiom, with intelligence lacking any correlation to the robot’s function. Thankfully for the robot, he (she?) doesn’t realize their lack of a larger world until that moment.

So what’s the pedestal for?

It still leaves open the question of what the pedestal controls actually do. If they’re all connected to security doors throughout the ship, then the Gatekeeper would have to be tied into the ship’s systems somehow to see who was entering or leaving each secure area.

The pedestal itself acts as a two-stage authentication system. The Gatekeeper has a powerful sentience, and must decide if the people or robots in front of it are allowed to enter the room or rooms it guards. Then, after that decision, it must make a physical action to unlock the door to enter the secure area. This implies a high level of security, which feels appropriate given that the elevator accesses the bridge of the Axiom.

Since we’ve seen the robots have different vision modes, and improvements based on their function, it’s likely that the Gatekeeper can see more into the pedestal interface than the audience can, possibly including which doors each key links to. If not, then as a computer it would have perfect recall on what each button was for. This does not afford a human presence stepping in to take control in case the Gatekeeper has issues (like the robots seen soon after this in the ‘medbay’). But, considering Buy-N-Large’s desire to leave humans out of the loop at each possible point, this seems like a reasonable design direction for the company to take if they wanted to continue that trend.

It’s possible that the pedestal was intended for a human security guard that was replaced after the first generation of spacefarers retired. Another possibility is that Buy-N-Large wanted an obvious sign of security to comfort passengers.

What’s missing?

We learn after this scene that the security ‘bot is Otto’s ‘muscle’ and affords some protection. Given that the Security ‘bot and others might be needed at random times, it feels like he would want a way to gain access to the bridge in an emergency. Something like an integrated biometric scanner on the door that could be manually activated (eye scanner, palm scanner, RFID tags, etc.), or even a physical key device on the door that only someone like the Captain or trusted security officers would be given. Though that assumes there is more than one entrance to the bridge.

This is a great showcase system for tours and commercials of an all-access luxury hotel and lifeboat. It looks impressive, and the Gatekeeper would be an effective way to make sure only people who are really supposed to get into the bridge are allowed past the barriers. But, Buy-N-Large seems to have gone too far in their quest for intelligent robots and has created something that could be easily replaced by a simpler, hard-wired security system.

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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.

“Safety” “engineering” in the land of Metropolis

You know, sometimes you get the inkling that the bad guys just want to fail. Joh, the alleged brains of Metropolis, seemed to take a special delight in having his engineers develop machines that would ultimately doom his precious upper class.

A laborer fails to monitor the temperature of the M-machine.

So you’’re one of those engineers, mopping your brow and staring at whatever the Metropolis version of AutoCAD is, and you have this problem. When the machine gets too hot and close to failing, you need to vent some of that deadly, deadly steam somewhere to buy your guys some time to try and fix things before lots of people die and your civilization comes crashing down. OK. So, where to put that vent? Well, you consider putting it somewhere safe. Nonsense. Let’’s instead turn that pipe this other way, and aim it like a cannon directly at the guys who might fix the problem. Be sure and jot a note at the bottom of your drawing that this will piss a lof of the dead guy’s’ friends off so they’’ll revolt against you.

Machine-Maria disables a safety switch.

But OK, I hear you cry, these things are complicated, and perhaps that steam thing was just an oversight. People get busy and maybe it was rushed into production. How then do you explain the presence of a single, large, and easy-to-pull switch, the sole purpose of which is to immediately overheat and explode the one machine that’’s keeping the working class and their children from being crushed under a wave of water? That’s not a slip-up. Somebody had to put that there, and somebody else had to approve it. Not to name dystopian names, but we’’re looking at you, Joh Fredersen. Maybe that’s the great secret under Metropolis: Joh is the unsung good guy of this tale. The one guy who could mastermind the takedown of the terrible, oligarchical mess, all from the inside, and using his goofy do-gooder son as a pawn.

Tools of the aristocracy

Joh is the civil and capital leader of Metropolis, and his large office reflects it in the amount of technology it has. To the left of the door is Josaphat’’s work interface (see Middle Class Oppression for more detail). To the right are two other pieces of technology: a large video screen hangs high, and a video phone rests on the wall below.

Joh Frederson paces in his office.

His desk also features some impressive technology. He has a bell jar ticker machine for receiving information. A large output panel on the right side of his desk allows people to request his attention. It features a huge array of thin bulbs labeled with particular codes. In one scene, Joh hears a sound and lifts his head to see a blinking light next to one of the labels. In response he touches a button on a control panel on the left of his desk to close the curtains, and then another to open the door to his office and receive Josephat.

Joh notices that Josephat wishes to speak to him.

Joh closes the curtains from his desk.

Later he uses another button on this same panel to summon his agent, called the Thin Man.

Joh closes the curtains from his desk.

These interfaces are particular to Joh, conveniences only available to one in a position of wealth and power.

Joh’s Videophone

One of the most impressive interfaces seen in the film is Joh’’s wall-mounted videophone. It is a marvel of special effects for 1927, and an ideal example that no matter how far sci-fi wants to look into the future, it must base its interfaces on the paradigms familiar to the audiences. Note in Joh’’s use of the interface how the videophone is an awkward blend of early 20th century technology metaphors.

The videophone is a large device, easily as tall as Joh himself, mounted to the wall of his office. At its center is a large vertically-oriented video screen that is angled upwards for easy downward viewing. To the right and left of the screen are large tuning dials. A series of knobs and controls sit below the dials.

Joh checks the recent activity of the video phone.

When he first approaches the device, he checks the tickertape dangling from an overhung box on the left. Not seeing anything of interest, he drops the paper and approaches the screen.

Joh tunes in the channel he needs to speak to Grot.

Reaching up to the right dial, he turns its hand counterclockwise from pointing at the number 10 to the number 6. Then he turns the left hand dial to 4, and the screen comes to life. It first displays the legend “HM 2” at the top. Some video appears below this, but rather than a clear feed of a single camera, it is a shifting blend of different cameras. Joh must fiddle with a few controls to clear the reception.

This moment seems quite strange to viewers familiar with modern video technology, since their experience is rooted in VHF broadcast, cable television, or online video. With these technology metaphors, channels are discrete. But it is important to recall that television was not popularized at the time, and the media metaphor most familiar to that audience would be radio, which users do in fact have to “tune” to get a clear signal.

Joh picks up the phone and calls Grot.

Joh verifies that he’s seeing the right channel visually, by seeing Grot’s nervous pacing in camera view. Confident that he’’s calling the right place, Joh picks up a telephone handset from the device, and reaches across to repeatedly press a button on the right. In response, the light bulbs on Grot’’s videophone begin to blink and (presumably) make a sound.

Joh tells Grot to destroy the Heart Machine.

Grot rushes to his device, looks into the screen and lifts his handset. The two have a conversation, each looking directly at the face on the screen.

This moment is another telling one. Lang was familiar with cameras, and could have had his actors talking to a lens. But instead he had them do what felt right and would make sense to the audience, i.e. talking to the other “person,” not the machine. In this way Lang is involved in “bodystorming” the right feel of technology, and in so doing is setting expectations for the way the real technology——should it ever get here—should work.

His command issued, Joh hangs up on an incredulous Grot.

A final note on the interaction is that, to end the call, Joh returns the handset to its resting position, and, much like a telephone, this ends the call for both parties.

This seems to us like an overcomplicated mash-up of technology metaphors: telegraph, film, radio, and telephone. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but it’’s not that Lang lacked the vision. He easily could have made the device more “magic,” by omitting the telephone handset and have Joh speak directly to the image of Grot. But Lang was not a technologist. He was a filmmaker, and needed to take his audience on the journey with him. He spoke to them in their shared language, using understandable cues to the individual components that, when added together add up to the something new that is one of the delights and promises of science fiction.

Lower City oppression

> Metropolis overview

Laborers in the Lower City live lives of horrible dehumanization, tending to and dying in the maw of the machines. Much of the technology in the early part of the film highlights this aspect of the world of Metropolis.

One shift files in as the other files out.

Access to and from the machine halls are carefully controlled. Between shift changes, laborers line up in regimented rows before the gates. A device on the wall adjacent to the gate shines two square lights up top. When that light extinguishes and the circular light illuminates, the laborers know to begin walking through the gates.

They trudge to large elevators, where an operator turns a crank wheel to raise the containing gate and lower the elevator. This elevator operator keeps his eyes on a gauge positioned uncomfortably high on the wall above the crank.

Freder encounters the worker’s city.

A laborer fails to monitor the temperature of the M-machine.

One exhausted laborer has to control the temperature of the machine. He stands before a panel where a thermometer is mounted in the dead center. Its markings tell him the acceptable maximum temperature. A row of flanges and levers line the lower part of the wall. Each has a lightbulb above it. When the lightbulb illuminates, the laborer must activate that flange. The pattern of blinking lights is difficult to keep up with and the work exhausting.

11811 struggles to keep up with his task at the machine.

When Feder returns to the Lower City, he sees a laborer tending a particularly pointless machine. He holds two arms on a human sized, clock-like face. Instead of numbers, the face is ringed by lightbulbs. Every half a second, the two blinking bulbs will dim, and a new completely random pair will begin blinking. The laborer’s task is to turn the hands such that each one points to the blinking lights.11811 struggles to keep up with his task at the machine.

Feeling for his brother, Freder offers to take 11811’s place at the machine.

Though too fast and random to be easily sustainable, the task itself is so apparent that Feder can offer to stand in after only a few seconds of watching.