Fed Communication Service

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When they are in basic training, Carmen and Johnny exchange video messages to stay in touch. Videos are recorded locally to small discs and sent to the other through the Fed post. Carmen has her own computer station in her berth for playing Johnny’’s messages. Johnny uses the single player available on the wall in the barracks. Things are different in the roughnecks than on the Rodger Young.

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To play her message, he inserts the small compact disk she sent him into a vertical holder, closes the hinged cover, and presses the rightmost of five similar metal buttons below the screen to play it. After the (sad breakup) message is done, the player displays an “END OF MESSAGE” screen that includes the message ID. Three lights sit in the lower left hand part of the interface. An amber light glows in the lower right near text reading, “P3.” There is a large dial on the left (a frustum of a cone, to be all geometric about it) with some debossed shapes on it that is likely a dial, but we never see these controls in use. In fact, there’s not a lot of interaction there at all for us to evaluate.

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Usually you’d expect a dial to operate volume (useful in the noisy narracks), with controls for play, pause, and some controls for either fast forward / reverse, or non-linear access of chapters in the message. The number of controls certainly could accommodate either of those structures, even if it was an old two-button model of play and stop rather than the more modern toggle. Certainly these could use better affordance, as they do not convey their behavior at this distance. Even at Rico’s distance, it’s faster for him to be able to see than to read the controls.

We could also ask what good the message ID is since it’s on screen and not very human-readable or human-memorable, but it does help remind Rico that his messages are being monitored by the fascism that is the Federation. So that’s a helpful reminder, if not useful data.

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For the larger interaction, most of the complexities in sending a message—initiating a recording, editing, encoding, specifying a recipient, and sending it—are bypassed offscreen by the physical medium, so it’s not worth speculating on how well this is from a larger standpoint. Of course we could ding them for not thinking that video could be sent faster and cheaper digitally via interstellar transmission than a fragile little disc, but that’s a question for which we just don’t have enough information. (And in which the filmmakers would have had a little trouble explaining how it wasn’t an instant video call.)

Compartment 21

After the Communications Tower is knocked off, Barcalow, looking out the viewport, somehow knows exactly where the damage to the ship has occured. This is a little like Captain Edward Smith looking out over the bow of the RMS Titanic and smelling which compartment was ripped open by the iceburg, but we must accept the givens of the scene. Barcalow turns to Ibanez and tells her to “Close compartment 21!” She turns to her left, reaches out, and presses a green maintained-contact button labeled ENABLE. This button is right next to a similar-but-black button also labeled ENABLE. As she presses the button, a nearby green LED flashes for a total of 4 frames, or 0.16 second.

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She looks up at some unseen interface, and, pleased with what she sees there, begins to relax, the crisis passed.

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A weary analysis

Let’s presume he is looking at some useful but out-of-character-for-this-bridge display, and that it does help him identify that yes, out of all the compartments that might have been the one they heard damaged, it is the 21st that needs closing.

  1. Why does he have the information but she have the control? Time is wasted (and air—not to mention lives, people—is lost) in the time it takes him to instruct and her to react.
  2. How did she find the right button when it’s labeled exactly the same way as adjacent button? Did she have to memorize the positions of all of them? Or the color? (How many compartments and therefore colors would that mean she would need to memorize?) Wouldn’t a label reading, say, “21” have been more useful in this regard?
  3. What good does an LED do to flash so quickly? Certainly, she would want to know that the instruction was received, but it’s a very fast signal. It’s easy to miss. Shouldn’t it have stayed on to indicate not the moment of contact, but the state?
  4. Why was this a maintained-contact button? Those look very similar when pressed or depressed. A toggle switch would display its state immediately, and would permit flipping a lot of them quickly, in case a lot of compartments need sealing.
  5. Why is there some second place she must look to verify the results of her action, that is a completely separate place from Barcalow (remember he looks forward, she looks up). Sure, maybe redundancy. Sure, maybe he’s looking at data and she’s looking at video feeds, but wouldn’t it be better if they were looking at the same thing?

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I know it’s a very quick interaction. And props to the scriptwriters for thinking about leaking air in space. But this entire interaction needs rethinking.

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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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.

NucleoLab Display

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The scientist Mactilburgh reconstructs Leeloo from a bit of her remains in his “nucleolab.” We see a few interfaces here.

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We never see Mactilburgh interact with the controls on this display: Potentiometers, dials with circular LED readout rings, glowing toggle buttons, and unlit buttons labeled “OFF” and “ESC.” There’s not much to grasp onto for analysis. These are just “sciencey” set of physical controls. The display is a bit of similar scienciness, meant to vaguely convey that Leeloo is a higher-order being, but beyond that, incomprehensible. Interestingly, the Mondoshawan DNA shows not just a more detailed graphic, but adds color to convey an additional level of complexity.

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An odd bit: In the lower right hand corner of the screen you can see the words “FAMILIAL HYPERCHOL TEROLEMIA.” Looking up this term reveals the genetic condition Familial Hypercholesterolemia. It’s only missing the “ES.” What’s this label doing here? This could be the area on the DNA chain where the markers appear for this predisposition to high cholesterol, but wouldn’t you expect that to take up 5000 times less room on a DNA strand of a perfect being, not the same percentage? Also it kind of takes the winds out of the sails of Mactilburgh’s breathless claim that she’s perfect. Anyway it’s a warning lesson for sci-fi interface designers: Watch where you pull your sciencey words from. If it’s a real thing, ask whether the meaning runs counter to your purposes or not.

The Door

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The door to unit 281-53 has security and control features that make it Not Like Our Doors.

Sweetie’s Door

Korben’s white cat is named Sweetie. After a long night of carousing the 5000 block, she wants to be let back in, so she meows at the door as soon as she hears Korben’s alarm go off. He presses the lowest on the 5-button panel and a little cat-sized door opens up to let her in. After she passes through, it immediately closes behind her.

The kitty door could be improved by lessening the work it requires of Korben to zero, by automatically opening and closing for Sweetie. Even if Korben wanted her outside for certain hours of the night, we’ve seen that the apartment knows about schedules, so could accomodate another few bytes of scheduling information. To provide automatic access, though, would require some kind of identification. Low-level tokens like an RFID on her collar could work (such systems are sold today) but Korben lives in a crime-ridden area and any criminal could swipe the collar and use it to open the kitty door to “case the joint” or use some trickery to open the big door. An implanted RFID chip would be worse since it would put Sweetie’s life at risk as a “key.” More passive systems like kitty-biometrics would be much more expensive, and all the other evidence in the film tells us that this is not a wealthy man’s apartment. Ultimately, though there are other solutions for the problem, none fit the circumstances as well.

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Four out of five of the panel’s icons are clearer than those seen on the apartment’s other panels.

  • A moon (the mysterious one. Night mode?)
  • A high star (for shining a light from above the door, downward?)
  • An ajar door, for opening or closing it
  • A low star (for shining a light below on Sweetie
  • A a cat face (and cat butt?) for opening Sweetie’s door

In addition to being readable, they’re also well-mapped. The button for the human is in the middle. The cat door is lower on the panel. Let’s presume the lights are similarly well mapped.

The only difficulty this system might have is accidental activation of the wrong thing since the buttons are so similar and close together. It might not be so bad to accidentally turn on a light when you meant to open the door, but if you’d intended to turn on the light to check who’s outside and then accidentally opened the door, it could mean a home invasion. This is a Fitts’ Law problem for a doorknob. Better would be for the “knob” to be a hand’s width distant from any of the other buttons. This would also save him from having to look to target it precisely to do something as common as shutting the door.

Video peephole

Unlike adorable kittens, humans on the other side of the door may pose a threat. Korben can see who has come calling via a video monitor, located above the panel. The feed is always on. The video camera sits above the lintel and aims straight down, so Korben can see all the way to where Sweetie would be. Three buttons below the monitor are not seen in use. For most cases, the monitor would work well. Korben can glance at it from anywhere in the room and have a good idea who is there. And, since it’s a one-way system, he has time to get quick things done before answering without seeming too rude.

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That said, the camera is not foolproof. Early in the film Korben checks it and though it looks as if the hallway was empty, upon opening it finds a would-be robber who has donned a “hat” with a picture of the empty hallway from the perspective of the camera. Though he’s ultimately unsuccessful in robbing Korben his ruse to appear invisible to the door monitor worked perfectly. Multiple cameras might make it harder for this trick to be effective, but some other sensors, like a weight sensor under the floor outside or heat sensor would be harder to fool.

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As if that weren’t bad enough, the fact that the camera has a very limited field of view allows anyone to hide just off to the side. Cornelius uses this tactic when he uses Leeloo as a sort of video bait to get him to open the door.

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This latter problem could be solved with a fisheye lens on the camera (y’know, like real peepholes), which would show him more of the hallway and reduce the places where an assailant could easily hide.

Gravity controls

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In what may be the only mid-title interface use seen in sci-fi to date, after Barbarella completely strip-teases her space suit off, she restores artificial gravity to her space rocket. To do this, she floats to a panel and depresses one of a set of four transparent, underlit buttons. The row of buttons dim as she depresses one of them, and she drops to the fur-lined floor.

This moment quickly sets the tone for the design of the film, which is more whimsy than utility.

Wouldn’t push buttons be easy to accidentally bump while floating around in zero-g?

Why are they a hard material shaped kind of like bullets? Wouldn’t a softer material and gentler shape reduce the risk of injury?

Why are there four buttons? Are there four levels of artificial gravity that she can induce? Wouldn’t that work better as a dial? Or four different speeds of transitioning gravity? Shouldn’t the controls look a bit different to indicate their different functions?

Why does the gravity shift so suddenly? That could prove dangerous if she was precariously positioned in the air, especially with the bullet shapes protruding from the floor. Best would be a more gradual transition from zero- to one-g.

In zero-g, pushing the button would simultaneously push her away from the wall, increasing the height of her fall. Shouldn’t she have a handle to grip and keep herself anchored?

Then again, why does she need a physical control at all? Once she has her helmet off, why not just speak to Alphy (the conversational computer that we’ll meet in a later post) and have him turn it on slowly?

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Despite these questions, there are three things I really like about the design of this control.

  1. The floor is covered in fake fur, which cushions her fall a bit. Hopefully there is padding beneath the fur lining as well, though this is less necessary if the transition is made more gradual.
  2. The control is placed on the floor, which means—since she has to be near it to activate it—her fall is minimized. Of course this raises questions about accidental deactivation later by a foot or a sexy space pillow fight, but let’s presume that’s a different control entirely for safety reasons. Then a design improvement might be to have the buttons recess into the floor after activation.
  3. The buttons are dim when the gravity is turned on. Ordinarily buttons should be illuminated when a system is on, but humans are best adapted to working with gravity, so the on switch should draw attention.

Pilot seat

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The reawakened alien places his hand in the green display and holds it there for a few seconds. This summons a massive pilot seat. If the small green sphere is meant to be a map to the large cyan astrometric sphere, the mapping is questionable. Better perhaps would be to touch where the seat would appear and lift upwards through the sphere.

He climbs into the seat and presses some of the “egg buttons” arrayed on the armrests and on an oval panel above his head. The buttons illuminate in response, blinking individually from within. The blink pattern for each is regular, so it’s difficult to understand what information this visual noise conveys. A few more egg presses re-illuminate the cyan astrometric display.

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A few more presses on the overhead panel revs up the spaceship’s engines and seals him in an organic spacesuit. The overhead panel slowly advances towards his face. The purpose for this seems inexplicable. If it was meant to hold the alien in place, why would it do so with controls? Even if they’re just navigation controls that no longer matter since he is on autopilot, he wouldn’t be able to take back sudden navigation control in a crisis. If the armrest panels also let him navigate, why are the controls split between the two parts?

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On automatic at this point, the VP traces a thin green arc from the chair to the VP earth and adds highlight graphics around it. Then the ceiling opens and the spaceships lifts up into the air.

Alien head stem line

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Using a tool that looks suspiciously identical to the Injection Carbon Reader, the stem line provides electrical current to nerve endings. It is inserted directly into the alien head and then controlled wirelessly via unseen controls on a nearby touch-sensitive slate pad.

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The output on the stem line device animates with changes, but it seems the numbers appear near the middle and then slide to fixed positions on the top and bottom. If the point of the display was output, and it is meant to be seen from a distance, wouldn’t a simpler large-number display make more sense? If motion is meant to convey the meaning, like a digital gauge on a multimeter, then the text should be fixed on the graduated background and slide with it.

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By stimulating the locus coeruleus of the alien, the Prometheus scientists seek to “trick it into thinking it’s still alive,” even though they have not confirmed the physiology of this 2000 year old alien specimen, or even that (in a quick Googling, the author learned that) this is the panic area of the nervous system. Were the results really that surprising?