Korben receives physical mail to a transparent, flat pneumatic tube in his apartment. When new mail arrives, he hears a whoosh, the envelope drops into place, and the plastic material that the tube is made of becomes edge-lit with the film’s signature orange color.
To retrieve the letter, Korben lifts a hinged side and slides the letter out. The tube hangs at from the ceiling about waist high, to the left of his window desk on the far side of his apartment from the door.
The positioning of the tube is nice as the desk is one place he’s likely to put information received there to use: reading and storing if necessary. Another location might have been near the door, to catch his attention in a physical location that he frequents. But infrequent use is not too much of a problem since the edge lighting should catch his attention.
His attention could be drawn more aggressively to the tube by having the light blink a few times at the arrival of new mail, or when he enters the apartment. Presuming the system knows the importance of a given letters—such as when he is fired from Zorg industries—it could offer an additional audio cue, such as a simple statement of "urgent" using the same voice that announces his allotment of cigarettes in the morning.
Another tiny improvement might be to remove the flap entirely, but adding a grip gap at the edge, on the apartment-facing side of the tube. Presuming this wouldn’t mess with the pneumatic or stability of the letter in place, it would save Korben from having to target and raise the flap. Grabbing mail would just be easier.
Oddly, the edge lighting does not disappear when Korben retrieves letters, which is odd given the slight context-awareness that the rest of the apartment displays. The light should turn off or fade once the letter is removed.
On duty military personnel—on the ship and attending the President—all wear headsets. For personnel talking to others on the bridge, this appears to be a passive mechanism with no controls, perhaps for having an audio record of conversations or ensuring that everyone on the bridge can hear one another perfectly at all times.
Personnel communicating with people both on the ship’s bridge and the president have a more interesting headset.
The headsets have antennas rising from the right ear, and each is tipped with a small glowing red light. This provides a technological signal that the device is powered, but also a social signal that the wearer may be engaged in remote conversations. Voice technologies that are too small and don’t provide the signal risk the speaker seeming crazy. Unfortunately this signal as it’s designed is only visible from certain directions. A few extra centimeters of height would help this be more visible. Additionally, if the light could have a state to indicate when the wearer is listening to audio input that others can’t hear, it would provide a person in the same room a cue to wait a moment before getting his attention.
Each headset has a default open connection, which is always on, sending and receiving to one particular conversant. In this way General Staedert can just keep talking and listening to the President. Secondary parties are available by means of light gray buttons on the earpieces. We see General Munro lift his hand and press (one/both of?) these buttons while learning about the growth rate of the evil planet.
The strategy of having one default and a few secondary conversants within easy access makes a great deal of sense. Quick question and answer transactions can occur across a broad network of experts this way and get information to a core set of decision makers.
The design tactic of having buttons to access them is OK, but perhaps not optimal. Having to press the buttons means the communicator ends up mashing his ear. The easiest to “press” wouldn’t be a button at all but a proximity switch, that simply detects the placement of the hand. This has some particular affordance challenges, but we can presume military personnel are well trained and expert users.
Alphy’s first action in the film is to announce a call from Dianthus, President of Earth and Rotating Premier of the Sun System. During Alphy’s announcement, a free-standing mock-classical sculpture of a woman shifts to enlarge the crescent frame she holds above her shoulder. This becomes the organically-shaped view screen for the videophone conference between Barbarella and the President.
When it is fully extended, the frame fills with the video feed from Dianthus. No camera mechanism is seen. The gaze matching (see Chapter 4, Volumetric Projection) is handled somewhat mysteriously. For an early part of the conversation Dianthus is looking directly at her breasts rather than her eyes. Barbarella was steeped in the sexual freedom utopia tropes of its day, but this actually seems to be an error in presentation, since neither acknowledges it. Also Dianthus appears at several distances and heights during the course of the fall, sometimes sitting and sometimes standing. He must have had a cameraman. This isn’t inconceivable for a President of Earth, but not yet scalable for mass market use.
When during the call Barbarella gets upset at the possibility of “archaic insecurity,” she crosses to the far side of the statue. This reveals that the display surface is two-dimensional, and displays perfectly from both sides. During her movement, Dianthus follows her and turns around to talk with her from the other side of the statue. We do see at the beginning of the conversation that his camera moves, so he has some kind of different setup than hers. This raises some curious questions about what Dianthus is seeing from his side of the exchange, but alas, we are never shown, so it is an exercise left for the designer/fan.
As with the Purple Drank, controls are never seen for this communication. Alphy handles absolutely everything.
The second interface David has to monitor those in hypersleep is the Neuro-Visor, a helmet that lets him perceive their dreams. The helmet is round, solid, and white. The visor itself is yellow and back-lit. The yellow is the same greenish-yellow underneath the hypersleep beds and clearly establishes the connection between the devices to a new user. When we see David’s view from inside the visor, it is a cinematic, fully-immersive 3D projection of events in her dreams, that is presented in the “spot elevations” style that is predominant throughout the film (more on this display technique later).
Later in the movie we see David using this same helmet to communicate with Weyland who is in a hypersleep chamber, but Weyland is somehow conscious enough to have a back-and-forth dialogue with David. We don’t see either David’s for Weyland’s perspective in the scene.
As an interface, the helmet seems straightforward. He has one Neuro-Visor for all the hypersleep chambers, and to pair the device to a particular one, he simply touches the surface of the chamber near the hyper sleeper’s head. Cyan interface elements on that translucent interface confirm the touch and presumably allow some degree of control of the visuals. To turn the Neuro-Visor off, he simply removes it from his head. These are simple and intuitive gestures that makes the Neuro-Visor one of the best and most elegantly designed interfaces in the movie.
There is another set of users of the Global Sacrifice System who bear a bit of consideration, and they are the Old Ones. They are users in the sense that this is an agreement into which they’ve entered with humanity, in order to get a continuing IV drip of (to them) pleasurable abject suffering and death. This isn’t an imposed frame on the story. The ritual spoken by Sitterson are not the words of a zookeeper managing a downed animal’s Ketamine. They’re the words of a supplicant.
As long as the organization keeps the sacrifices coming, providing the tasty intravenous drip of human suffering, the world is allowed to continue as it is for another year. With this in mind, we can analyze how the system works for those users, i.e. the Old Ones.
The outputs that the Old Ones read from the system are unavailable to us, but we can tell it’s kind of precise. There are allusions midway through the film that the titan below the cabin is somehow “watching” the sex scene. (Though that ambiguous line could refer to the ravenous horror-movie audience as well.) It can also somehow sense the suffering of the victims, and whether the details of the ritual are being carried out in the proper order. The way we know this is that when Marty’s “death” vial is inappropriately shattered, the titan causes an earthquake that rocks the complex and the cabin.
This, then, is the input that the Old Ones have: shaking the ground in their displeasure. But as a signal, it’s far too vague. Hadley and Sitterson feel the quake, but disregard it. Hadley shouts, “They must be getting excited downstairs!” and Sitterson replies somewhat jadedly, “Greatest show on earth.” Had they had any inkling that they had actually messed up (even absent of what precisely was messed up) they would have pulled out the stops to find the error and correct it.
So while we as an audience are all in favor of resetting of a world that has accepted annual ritual sacrifice of young people, neither party to the agreement—the Old Ones nor the humans—set in place a system of communication that is precise enough to keep the agreement going. And that’s a failing of the interface.
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 hes seeing the right channel visually, by seeing Grots 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.