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.

Retrogram

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The lifeclock is alterable, as we see when the Übercomputer sets Logan’’s lifeclock to blinking red years before he is actually due to Carousel. This procedure must be beyond the capabilities of the populace since it could be used to blackmail citizens, or, if reversible, to allow them to delay carousel.

Procedure

Why this procedure was designed in a way to cause stress and discomfort on the part of the subject is unclear. Since the computer is counting on Logan and needs his cooperation, it should have taken the exact opposite approach. Even if the discomfort is a necessary part of the retrogram, the computer should have handled it like a friendly nurse, explaining that there will be some unavoidable pain, and given Logan some tools to manage it like a number to count to. And c’mon, it should skip the ominous red light.

Industrial design

The other design consideration is the placement of the divot in which Logan must place his lifeclock for retrogramming. All told, it’s pretty good. It’s a natural placement, almost difficult for Logan to avoid putting his hand in the right spot. Even if the Übercomputer is going to just “sneak up” on Logan and retrogram him without warning, it’s the right spot given that the Übercomputer seems to have no complex actuators.

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There’s an interesting issue about the divot that depends on the level of pain that Logan is feeling. If it’s too great, Logan might jerk his hand away and ruin the retrogram. In that case, the arm of the chair should hold Logan’s hand in place, like one of those automated blood pressure cuffs. But the pain we see on Logan’s face in the scene doesn’t look that great. It looks like just enough to force him to concentrate to keep it there, to do his duty and comply. In this case even if the pain isn’t a necessary part of the operation, the Übercomputer might want to add that pain in, just as a test of his continued compliance.

Lifeclock: The central conceit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Color

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

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

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

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

Location on the body

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

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

Barbarella’s energy box

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In addition to the portable brainwave detector, Dianthus also provides Barbarella with a number of weapons from the Museum of Conflict for her mission. All of these weapons are powered by a single energy box.

We only see it in use after she fires a single shot from the smallest of the weapons. She tries a second shot, but when it doesn’’t work, she glances at a device on the cuff of her boot. The device is designed in a taijitu, a yin-yang set of lights: one red, one white. They are blinking in an alternating pattern, and after viewing it she tells Pygar, ““My energy box is completely dead.””

Energy-Box

Though having a visual signal is quite useful to understand the state of an invisible resource like power, the signal would be much more useful if it showed the amount of energy remaining, and gave warnings before the power was completely out. Failing all that, it would be more useful if she just put the device on the glove of her shooting hand so it was in her field of view at all times.

And though Barbarella’s culture doesn’t understand war, even a peaceful person can quickly come to realize the risk in making your available resources—like power for your weapons—wholly visible to your enemies.

Portable brainwave detector

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Through the atom transmitter Dianthus bestows several gifts on Barbarella to help her with her mission. The first of these is the “portable brainwave detector…to test for Durand-Durand’s presence.” To operate it, Barbarella must press “a contact,” (Dianthus is offscreen when he indicates the contact, but later we see her operating the leaf-like button near the wrist) and if Durand-Durand is around, the ball of lights will glow and an alarm will sound.

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The device is wearable, wrapping around Barbarella’s forearm, and held in place by a ring. This aspect of the design is good, since it means the device is ever-present for operation, and the design of it makes it lovely enough to be overlooked as a fashion accessory. In fact many characters see her wearing it and make no mention.

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Manual activation is less than ideal, though, since this might tip off the suspect. This is especially true with the blinking, glowing ball of light and audio feedback. And, in fact, this is what happens later in the film when Durand-Durand trips over the device. The blinking light and audio catch his attention, betray the device for what it is, and blow Barbarella’’s cover in the process.

Portable Brainwave Device

The best feedback would be invisible, like a haptic vibration through the cuff to her skin. Ideally, the device would be constantly on, to detect the subject passively, the moment he came into range. But presuming battery life is the issue, the activation cue should be something much more subtle, like Barbarella’s touching the back of the ring with the thumb of the same hand. Such a gesture would match the existing design of the object, be discreet to an observer, and yet still discrete enough to prevent accidental activation.

“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.

Middle class oppression

Laborers of the Upper City have their own machines to worry about.

Josaphat feels stress while monitoring figures.

One of Joh’s assistants, Josaphat, has a similarly difficult task. He stands at a tall panel where lit symbols fall quickly and randomly down one of six tall, thin screens. He has to transcribe them (and possibly perform calculations with them) in one of three different books.

Josaphat turns his station off.

The only sensible part of this setup is the mechanism for shutting it down. Given the time pressure its operator is under, it could be disastrous if a single switch was accidentally touched. Instead, to turn it off Josephat must stretch his arms to reach two distant buttons. Touching them both shuts down the station. This seems especially prescient when considering that similar constraints informed the design of the familiar CTRL-ALT-DELETE key sequence for Windows operating systems.

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.