Is serial presentation a problem in The Circuit?

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In the prior post I described the wonky sex teleporter known as The Circuit and began a critique. Today I go deep into a particular issue to finish the critque.

We only see Logan encounter two riders when using The Circuit, but we can presume that there are a lot of people on there. Why does it only show Logan a single choice at a time? If he actually has, say, 12 candidates that are a match, a serial presentation like this puts a significant burden on his memory. Once he gets to #12 and thinks he’s seen enough candidates, was it #3 or #5 he liked best?

The serial presentation also looks like it might make extra work. If he gets to #12 and decides he was most fond of #2, does he have to jump back through 10 people to get there? What does he say to each of them in turn? Does he have to reject them each again? How awkward is that? If not, and he can jump back to #2, what’s the control for that? Does he have to remember what station they were on and retune them in again?

The face-to-face nature of the system also puts a strange social pressure on both the rider and the tuner. In trying to maximize pleasure for the populace, the Übercomputer doesn’t want anyone settling out of politeness, especially if there’s a better combination for each party somewhere. Sure he’s probably practiced at this, but how is Carl supposed to feel after the rejection? Ideally we’d save him from rejection in the first place, but if we can’t do that is there a way to minimize having to look at the guy in the face as he’s twisting the knob to the next channel? Because ouch.

Tableau

Would tableau be better?

These arguments would seem to argue for a tableau layout of available riders, where Logan can pick favorites from among them, select some to get a closer look at, and initiate contact with his favorite candidates in parallel to see the best or first deal he could get. And if you were designing to optimize for individual users, this might be the best design choice.

Maximizing for everyone

But in Dome City, the Übercomputer has a goal to not just maximize pleasure for only the most beautiful. It’s not just a hedonist-dystopia or Battle of the Beauties. It’s more of a socialist-hedonist-dystopia. It wants to maximize pleasure for everyone. How can it systemically encourage that?

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Of course it encourages everyone to try and be as fit and attractive as they can be. Gyms and saunas are everywhere. (Interesting digression: Would a fetish arise for less-fit people?) Citizens even have access to fast and painless cosmetic surgery to try out new appearances. Over and above these tools available to individual citizens, the Übercomputer has a design tool it can use to maximize matches, and it has to do with a weird little social experiment called the 11th Person Game.

The 11th person game

In this admittedly objectifying game, ask a friend to select a doorway and a point in time. From that starting point, they much watch for the next person to pass through the doorway, and decide in a moment whether they would like to marry them or not. (There is a more lascivious version of the game where marriage is not the decision, but I’ll let your imagination fill in that blank.)

When playing, you can’t undo a decision. If you decide yes, you can’t change your mind for someone better who comes along later. Once you say “no,” you’re stuck with that no even if they turned out be your favorite. If another person passes through the doorway while you’re still making up your mind about the prior person, tough luck. The prior person automatically becomes a “no.” The kicker is that if you don’t select someone by the 10th person, you “have” to marry the 11th and others watching you play the game will almost certainly rib you for the forced marriage, especially it’s a terrible match (like a homosexual having to “marry” someone of the opposite sex.)

When people begin to play the 11th person game, they most often have a strategy of finding flaws in people and holding out for a better looking candidate (since that’s pretty much all the information they have to go on in this toy experiment) until time’s up and they find that as of the 11th, they would have been much happier with one of the prior 10.

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Over time, to start “winning” this game, players shift strategies from this flaw-finding and holding out to one of in-the-moment appreciation, of looking for what’s right about a given person and caring much less about the “opportunity” cost of subsequent choices.

Notably, to get the effect, the game depends on, you guessed it, serial presentation of candidates and irrevocable decisions. This is what’s happening in The Circuit. A Green will hop on The Circuit with a mindset of looking to maximize, and after a few nights of winding up alone, feeling like they’re settling, and/or frustrated at lost opportunities, they will slowly shift to one of appreciation. That makes them genuinely happier and moreover, increases the number of matches in the total system. It’s not perfect of course. Logan did reject Carl for whatever reason. But this presentation technique would help maximize pleasure and happiness, which is what the Übercomputer is tasked to do.

Even all the other little unusabilities that go along with it like memory burden, the delay between candidates, and maybe even the social awkwardness, help create a design friction that additionally discourages best-of-all strategies and encourages a shift to appreciation strategies. More people win.

So, serial presentation is not a bug but a feature. Let’s see if we can keep it. Still, given the other massive and unresolvable problems in the design of The Circuit like lousy controls, unilateral control, and a complete lack of preferences, we need a complete rethink of those other parts to make this thing better. In the next post I’ll get into the principles involved and walk through the thinking of a better design. You know, for that coming reboot. (They’re reading and taking notes, right?)

The Circuit

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One of my favorite interfaces in Logan’s Run is one of the worst in the survey. It’s called The Circuit, and it’s a system for teleporting partners for casual sex right into your living room. ZOMGEVERYBODYSIGNUP.

Credit where it’s due: I first explored this interface in Issue 04 of Raymond Cha’s awesome print zine FAQNP in 2012. I’m going to go into even more nerdly depth on some of the topics here, but it was in that publication that I first got riled up about it. If you want to read those thoughts, you’ll need to go find a back issue and you totally should because the whole zine rocks.

Anyway, this interface is such a hot, hot mess that I have to break it up into a couple of posts. This first one is a description and the first part of a critique.

Description

Early in the film, after a hard day of liquefying runners, Logan-6 comes home to his apartment and wants to add a little sex to his evening. He slips into a robe, grabs a remote control, and begins to twist dials on its surface. In response, we hear frequencies swooping to and fro like someone is tuning an AM radio but never quite finding a station. Meanwhile an alcove on one side of his living room displays a blinking, wispy texture of multicolored light. (It bears a passing resemblance to Star Trek TOS teleporters, for those interested in tracing SFX similarities.)

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It takes about 10 seconds of Logan’s tuning, but eventually a figure appears in the lights. It coalesces into a man wearing

  • A lot of gold swag
  • Red velour hip huggers
  • A gold belt buckle that would do the WWE proud
  • A tan worthy of Jersey Shore
  • Nothing else

This fellow is never named in the movie or the credits or the internet, so I’ll just call him Carl-4. Carl likes what he sees in Logan, and so gives him a showy pose and a winsome smile.

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Logan smiles and shakes his head “no,” looks down, and resumes fiddling with his remote control. Carl vanishes quickly in the texture of light. A few seconds of tuning later and Jessica-5 coalesces in the alcove. She looks around a little doe-eyed and dumbfounded, almost as if she stumbled onto the Circuit by accident and is now a little perplexed about how she got here. Nonetheless, she accepts Logan’s extended hand and steps out of the alcove into his apartment where hijinks might have ensued, if it weren’t for her learning he was a Sandman.

Problems

It’s a quick, 50-second scene, meant to wow the audience with futuristic technology, shock and titillate with how casual the sex is in Dome City, and, for purposes of the plot, get the sandman Logan and the revolutionary Jessica in contact for the first time so he can meet her and see her ankh necklace.

I have the distinct impression that this device was first conceived between a pair of roommate movie producers sitting around in their apartment one Saturday in bathrobes, high off their asses, with one of them thumbing through a copy of Penthouse while the other one practiced feathering his hair or whatever they did while they were high in the 70s. The one with the magazine takes a huge hit off his bong and says to the other while blowing out smoke, “Dude. Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could just reach in to this magazine, and pull one of these girls out of here?” The other of course agrees, pauses with his hairbrush midair to think, and then says, “Dude. We’re movie producers. We can make. That. Shit. Happen.” Because really, that’s the only way something this goofball could have come about.

Mismatched Controls

What the hell is Logan tuning? The 1970s were certainly operating with radio metaphors, but it just doesn’t make sense in this context. Is Jessica being broadcast on a channel? Can two tuners tune her in at the same time? Are there multiple copies of Jessica? That makes no sense unless she’s virtual, which we know she’s not, or instantly/infinitely replicable, which isn’t part of this diegesis.

Why would he have to tune at all? Is he actually trying to get something “right” in the system in order to summon the next candidate? What if he gets it wrong? What if he only tunes a partner in 95%? Can he leave her there indefinitely? What if she steps off at 99.5%? Where does that extra mass go? Instant weight loss, sure, but also the possibility of a teleporter lobotomy.

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Is he dialing the preferences for what he’s interested in at that moment? If so, why does he keep tuning even as someone is appearing? If it’s some kind of live results, like Google’s live search, why are the “travelers” of the circuit summoned before he’s done? It’s premature, and premature is bad in casual sex.

As you can tell, I’ve tried to come up with some apologetic answer, and I just can’t think of any way this control makes sense. It’s a sci-fi interface fail.

Lopsided control

For purposes of the description, let’s call Logan a “tuner,” and Carl and Jessica “travelers.” These terms are derived from the scene, not meant to describe some ideal. Note that Logan gets a remote control, but the travelers don’t. They don’t have any controls. It’s tempting to want to imagine that the interior walls of the alcove have some interface that we can’t see, but really the space is too shallow and they are too far away from its walls for that to make any sense. No, this system privileges the tuners with control, and the travelers are just passive participants.

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Think about this from the traveler’s perspective. Once Jessica hops on, she gets zapped away from the start location, only to appear in stranger-after-strangers homes, where her choices are to

  • Accept an offer from a tuner.
  • Express disinterest in a tuner and get zapped to the next location.
  • Or…what? What if she gets tired of riding the circuit? Is she stuck? Does she have to just walk into the stranger’s apartment and make awkward small talk, explaining that she’s tired, find the front door as the tuner frustratedly keeps tuning to find someone new, and then step out into a hallway in a random point in Dome City and then find her way home? It would be a terrible experience. She’d never do it.

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I spoke with an attendee to the BoingBoing conference about the possibility that this privilege of control might be part of Logan’s job as a Sandman, but we reasoned our way out of that. It’s not mentioned anywhere in the movie, and if riders were simply on a conveyor belt for selection by Sandmen, why is Jessica surprised and flustered to wind up in the apartment of one?

If you’ve studied film theory, you’re probably familiar with a criticism called the male gaze, developed by Laura Mulvey. This interface is lousy with it. If you’re not familar, realize that this was created just to satisfy things from Logan’s perspective, of what would be pleasing for him. No thought at all has been given any of the other participants except as objects to be considered in his whim of instant sex.

When rethinking this, we should consciously redesign the system with less “stoner Penthouse” and more Chatroulette, where at least both participants have control: options to keep going, skip to the next candidate, or bow out at any time.

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It’s entirely possible of course that this is just a power exchange, with subs as riders and doms as tuners. After all, they don’t have to ride The Circuit for sex. They have places in Dome City like the Love Shop and the gym where they can go to find a partner in other ways. While this dom-sub possibility might propose some interesting challenges, there’s not a lot of corroborating evidence in the film that this is the case.

Preferences

Finally there’s the notion of preferences. Logan rejects Carl, and his expression as he does so is really bothersome. The smile and head shake say less “Thanks, but not a match,” and more of an offensive “Oh, those silly, silly fags.” (I’m ಠ_ಠ at you, Michael York.) I’m sure in the 1970s, the ambiguity of what Logan was thinking was quite useful. It let both the uptight and queer members in the audience imagine the most palatable reason for the rejection. For our purposes, the rejection of Carl raises the question of preferences.

From the vantage of the 2010s, anyone who’s tried their hand at a matchmaking system knows that preferences are a pretty big deal. There are simply too many candidates out there to consider them one by one, and so expressing preferences helps focus your efforts on a smaller set of more-likely hits. These can either be simple, like the one-time Japanese key fob experiment LoveGety, to systems that let the numbers speak for themselves, like OKCupid, to those that profess the ability to do deep psychological profiling that in turn require hours of your time to answer a battery of questions. Knowing how crucial they are, it’s odd that preferences don’t appear to be part of The Circuit. Why not?

No preferences

One possible reason is that the system didn’t have any preferences. In the 1970s, not even “video (tape) dating” had been invented yet, so preferences may not have been on anyone’s mind in a computational sense. Had the designers given it a bit of thought, they would realize that even then people were expressing some preferences by the choice of party or bar they went to, as they could count on a certain type of person being there. Even the way they dressed and carried themselves was expressing something about who they wanted to be and even do that night. But it’s more likely (if less instructive) that preferences were just not a part of the Circuit.

Logan ain’t feeling it

Another interpretation is that Logan’s rejection of Carl is circumstantial. In this interpretation, Logan is omnisexual, and just happens to be not in the mood for a heaping helping of dude that night. Or maybe Logan would have been fine with a guy, just rejecting this particular one, unwilling to face the challenge of unbuckling all that bling amidst the slipperiness of still-drying tanning butter. That only raises the question of scope: Why can’t Logan capture categorical preferences well in advance, and express circumstantial exceptions or additional preferences in the moment? It’s not a requirement, but it sure would help Logan find what he’s looking for with less of the awkwardness and wasted time of face-to-face rejection.

The system pretends it’s a bit janky to influence him

A final interpretation is that the computer knows Logan’s preferences, but ignores them, on purpose, from time to time. It could be a simple attempt to open his mind to new experiences. It could also be an attempt at persuasion. Similar to how accountants for a publically traded company will make a kind-of bad quarter seem really bad so that the next quarter, even if it’s just a little bit good feel great by comparison, presenting Logan with one choice that’s totally wrong (Carl) may increase his appreciation of the next choice (Jessica). This presumes that the computer has an agenda, is smart about making it happen, is in the business of persuasion, and the system has a serial presentation of candidates, and that’s not all a given in this case. But let’s keep that possibility in mind.

Not a problem: Casualness

Just so it’s clear, I’m not getting on any high horse about casual sex. They’ve cured sexually transmitted infections and birth control is the default. Casual sex a given in this diegesis, and as long as it’s between consenting adults, get over it.

Not a problem: Teleportation

Similarly I’m not going to get into the scientific possibility of teleportation. As far as Logan’s Run is concerned, that’s just a part of his world and the science of it just happens. I’m concerned about the interface that allows use of the tech.

There’s one more potential problem, but it’s extensive enough to warrant it’s own post, so come back tomorrow when I’ll talk about presentation strategies for hooking up in Dome City.

Mangalore Bomb

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Sadly for Zorg, just after he deactivates his bomb, a fallen Mangalore warrior remotely activates his own bomb in Plavalaguna’s suite. The remote control is made from a combination lock. The Mangalore twists the dial to the right numbers, and on reaching the last number, a red LED lights in the center. In the diva’s suite, the box that secretly housed the bomb opens, and the bomb rises like a small metallic ziggurat, accentuated in places with red LEDs. A red, 7-segment countdown timer begins ticking down its final 5 seconds.

Aggression

Mangalores are warlike, as in they really like war. They breathe war. They sleep war. They eat war for breakfast, then poop war, then root around in their couches for war scraps and snack on that. The detonation device isn’t very sophisticated, and that’s just fine by Mangalores. If a Mangalore declared a Design major instead of War in college, they’d have been killed on the spot. This device is perfect for a species that just wants to grab something cheap and convenient, make a few modifications, and get to the boom.

We don’t see a deactivation mechanism. And while you can imagine that a nice safety would be to deactivate if the dial drifted more than, say, 5 clicks from the final activation number, Mangalores wouldn’t have it. They’d “liberate” your mother’s homeland merely for having suggesting it.

If I had to improve it in any way, it’s that it places a burden on memory, and there’s not a lot of indication that Mangalores excel in the thinking skills department, c.f. warlike. Do they have the capacity to memorize a series of numbers in order? And it is easy to recall the series in the middle of a war zone? If not, what would be better? They have their weapons with them nearly at all times, so how about a little glowing, red button on the forestock?

Ha. Joke’s on you, Mangalores. As we know from earlier in the movie, you couldn’t resist pressing it, long before you made it to ocean liners. I think if you’re that warlike and stupid, this would be best for everyone.

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The Positronic Ray

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To combat the Resistance uprising, Durand-Durand unleashes his dread Positronic Ray. To control it, he approaches a high backed chair and touches a spot on the back. The curved tip of the chair extends upwards a bit allowing him to sit down. As soon as he sits, the tip retracts to rest just above his head and the video panel slides close to him. The ray itself is mounted on a two-axis swivel just behind him, with the barrel pointing out of a horizontal window.

The interface consists of a complex array of transparent knobs mounted on a glowing flat panel, set beneath a large rectangular video screen. While he is using the weapon, we see his hands twiddling some of the shapes clockwise and counterclockwise.

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The chair interface seems fine, if technically unnecessary, giving the gunner a small ritual feeling of power. The weapons interface, on the other hand, is a disaster. It has around 50 visible controls, none labeled for what they control or their extents, none have the slightest ergonomic consideration, and few are differentiated from the others in shape or placement. Also they’re all transparent, so add a lot of visual noise to the difficultly of use.

From his video screen we can tell that there are only a number of things to control: target (coupled to the camera), beam size (coupled to the camera zoom), and a trigger. Control for these simple variables could be accomplished with a joystick for targeting, a thumb button for triggering, and a slider at his left hand for zoom/beam size. Three controls which Durand-Durand could really think of as two.

Additionally, the screen only shows him what he’s currently focused on, failing to grant any of the field awareness that he’d need to keep the enemy at bay. Ultimately it’s a weapons interface that only a pacifist could love. Admittedly, he’s a mad engineer, and not a mad interaction designer, so maybe it’s just his insanity that explains this fiddly spread of extraneous controls with poor mapping and myopic feedback.

I’d love to credit this bad interface with saving the people of the city of SoGo, but unfortunately if its destruction hadn’t come from the Positronic Ray, it would have come from being swallowed by the Mathmos. Ultimately, they were doomed.

SoGo, destroyed

The Queen’s TV

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As soon as the Black Queen hears of Durand-Durand’’s betrayal, she reveals a panel that is hidden by furs. It is vertical with a handful of transparent, organically-shaped knobs. She clicks the top one out of its off position and rotates it back and forth a few times, and the panel begins to glow as a video image appears on the high walls of the chamber, showing the events happening inside the throne room.

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Later the Queen turns the top knob counterclockwise to click it back into its stop position to stop the video feed. Then she turns another one the same direction to reveal a different video feed of the labyrinth, indicating that each knob is connected to a particular view. There’s indirect evidence that the degree of rotation controls the volume of audio.

Typically remotes have separate controls for power, channel selection, and volume. Coupling them like this adds extra work to the task of switching channels. The Dark Queen has to turn one off before turning the next one on, and readjust the volume each time. If switching channels is something she does regularly, that’s going to be a pain. But if the large screen can display more than one video feed at a time, automatically diving the screen real estate equally to accomodate the multiple views, these controls make a lot of sense, even allowing her to set the volume per feed to a sensible level.

Multiple-feeds

The only thing that might improve the interface is some label to know which control displays which video feed. Seeing as how they’re translucent, I’d suggest coating them with a rear projection film and piping the video feed directly onto the button from beneath. That provides a direct mapping from the control to the display, and a glanceable preview to let the Dark Queen what might be interesting to watch in the first place.

Control

Piranha dolls

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After landing on Tau Ceti, Barbarella is captured by feral children who tie Barbarella to a set of poles and turn a set of robot dolls on her.

The dolls exhibit some crude intelligence. They walk on their own toward Barbarella. Stomoxys (or is it Glossina? It’s tough to tell with these two.) twists a knob on a control panel of four similar, unlabeled knobs, and the dolls’ piranha-toothed mouths begin to crank open and slam shut. They then attack Barbarella, clinging and biting her legs and arms.

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At first the dials seem a strange choice for a killing device, but then you realize that this isn’t mean to be efficient. Rather, the choice of dials for controls fits the childrens’ awful goal. Stop dials are best for setting variables within a range of values. The dolls must have a few variables, like walking speed, biting force, and biting speed, that the horrible children will want to play with as they entertain themselves with this torture.

And of course to “improve” this interface you might want to label the dials so a new user would know what does what, but who would really want to make torture toys more usable?

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Course-correction

The stage managers’ main raison d’être is to course-correct if and when victims begin to deviate from the path required of the ritual.

This begins with the Prep team, long before the victims enter the stage. For example, Jules’ hair dye and Marty’s laced pot. These corrections become more necessary and intense once the victims go on stage.

Making sure there are sexy times

The ritual requires that a sexy young couple have sexy times on stage before they suffer and die. “The mood” can be ruined by many things, but control has mechanisms to cope with most of them. We see three in the movie.

Temperature

The temperature can’t be too hot or too cold, but this isn’t something that can be set and forgot. What counts as the right temperature is a subjective call for the people involved and their circumstances, such as being drunk, or amount and type of clothes worn. Fortunately, the video-audio panopticon lets the stage managers know when a victim speaks about this directly, and do something about it. The moment Jules complains, for instance, Sitterson is able to reach over to a touch-screen display and tap the temperature a few degrees warmer.

Sitterson heats things up.

The gauge is an interesting study. It implies a range possible between 48 and 92 degrees Fahrenheit, each of which is uncomfortable enough to encourage different behaviors in the victims, without the temperature itself being life-threatening.

Moreover, we see that it’s a “blind” control. Before Sitterson taps it, he is only shown the current temperature as a blue rectangle that fills up four bars and that it is exactly 64 degrees. But if he knew he wanted it to be 76 degrees, what, other than experience or training, tells him where he should touch to get to that desired new temperature? Though the gauge provides immediate feedback, it still places a burden on his long-term memory. And for novice users, such unlabeled controls require a trial-and-error method that isn’t ideal. Even the slim area of white coloring at the top, which helpfully indicates temperatures warmer than cooler, appears too late to be useful.

Better would be to have the color alongside or under the gauge with smaller numbers indicated along its length such that Sitterson could identify and target the right temperature on the first try.

Libido

The next thing that can risk the mood is a lack of a victim’s amorous feelings. Should someone not be “feeling it,” Control can pipe sex pheromones to areas on stage. We see Hadley doing this by operating a throttle lever on the electronic-era control panel. After Hadley raises this lever, we see small plumes of mist erupt from the mossy forest floor that Jules and Curt are walking across.

Hadley introduces pheromones to the forest air.

This control, too, is questionable. Let’s first presume it’s not a direct control, like a light switch, but more of a set-point control, like a thermostat. Similar to the temperature gauge above, this control misses some vital information for Hadley to know where to set the lever to have the desired amount of pheromone in the air, like a parts-per-million labeling along the side. Perhaps this readout occurs on a 7-segment readout nearby or a digital reading on some other screen, but we don’t see it.

There is also no indication about how Hadley has specified the location for the pheromone release. It’s unlikely that he’s releasing this everywhere on stage, lest this become a different sort of ritual altogether. There must be some way for him to indicate where, but we don’t see it in use. Perhaps it is one of the lit square buttons to his right.

An interesting question is why the temperature gauge and pheromone controls, which are similar set-point systems, use not just different mechanisms, but mechanisms from different eras. Certainly such differentiation would help the stage managers’ avoid mistaking one for the other, and inadvertently turn a cold room into an orgy, so perhaps it is a deliberate attempt to avoid this kind of mistake.

Lights

The final variable that stands in the way of Jules’ receptiveness (the authors here must acknowledge their own discomfort in having to write about this mechanistic rape in our standard detached and observational tone) is the level of light. After she complains that it is too dark, Hadley turns a simple potentiometer and the “moonlight” on a soft bed of moss behind them grows brighter.

Control responds to Jules’ objection to the darkness.

This, too, is a different control than the others; though it controls what is essentially a floating-point variable. But since it is more of a direct control than the other two, its design as a hard-stop dial makes sense, and keeps it nicely differentiated from the others.

Marty’s Subliminal Messages

Over the course of the movie, several times we hear subliminal messages spoken to directly control Marty. We never see the inputs used by Control, but they do, at least on one occasion, actually influence him, and is one of the ways the victims are nudged into place.

Marty breaks the fourth wall

In addition to Dana & Curt’s almost not getting it on, another control-room panic moment comes when Marty accidentally breaks a lamp and finds one of the tiny spy cameras embedded throughout the cabin. Knowing that this level of awareness or suspicion could seriously jeopardize the scenario, Hadley bolts to a microphone where he says, “Chem department, I need 500 ccs of Thorazine pumped into room 3!”

Marty finds a spy camera

Hadley speaks a command to the Chem department

Careful observers will note while watching the scene that a menu appears on a screen behind him as he’s stating this. The menu lists the following four drugs.

  • Cortisol (a stress hormone)
  • Pheromones (a category of hormonal social signals, most likely sex pheromones)
  • Thorazine (interestingly, an antipsychotic known to cause drowsiness and agitation)
  • Rhohyptase (aka Rhohypnol, the date rape drug)

Given that content, the timing of the menu is curious. It appears, overlaid on the victim monitoring screen, the moment that Hadley says “500.” (Before he can even specify “Thorazine.”) How does it appear so quickly? Either there’s a team in the Chem department also monitoring the scene, and who had already been building a best-guess menu for what Hadley might want in the situation and they just happened to push it to Hadley’s screen at that moment; Or there’s an algorithmic voice- and goal-awareness system that can respond quickly to the phrase “500 ccs” and provide the top four most likely options. That last one is unlikely, since…

  • We don’t see evidence of it anywhere else in the movie
  • Hadley addresses the Chem department explicitly
  • We’d expect him to have his eyes on the display, ready to make a selection on its touch surface, if this was something that happened routinely

But, if we were designing the system today with integrated voice recognition capabilities, it’s what we’d do.

Curt suggests they stick together

After the attack begins on the cabin itself, Curt wisely tells the others, “Look, we’ve got to lock this place down…We’ll go room by room, barricade every window and every door. We’ve got to play it safe. No matter what happens, we have to stay together.” Turns out this is a little too wise for Hadley’s tastes. Sitterson presses two yellow, back-lit buttons on his control panel to open vents in the hallway, that emit a mist. As Curt passes by the vents and inhales, he pauses, turns to the others and says, “This isn’t right…This isn’t right, we should split up. We can cover more ground that way.”

Sitterson knocks some sense out of Curt.

This two-button control seems to indicate drug (single dose) and location, which is sensible. But if you are asking users to select from different variables, it’s a better idea to differentiate them by clustering and color, to avoid mistakes and enable faster targeting.

Locking the doors

Once the victims are in their rooms, Hadley acknowledges it’s time to, “Lock ‘em in.” Sitterson flips a safety cover and presses a back-lit rocker switch, which emits a short beep and bolts the doors to all the victims’ rooms at the same time.

Sitterson bolts the victims’ doors.

Marty in particular notices the loud “clunk” as the bolts slide into place. He tests the door and is confounded when he finds it is, in fact, locked tight. Control’s earlier concern about tipping their hand seems to matter less and less, since this is a pretty obvious manipulation.

The edge of the world

Bolted doors pale in comparison to the moment when Curt, Dana, and Holden violently encounter the limits of the stage. After the demolition team seals the tunnel to prevent escape that way, Curt tries to jump the ravine to the other side so he can fetch help. Unfortunately for him, the ravine is actually an electrified display screen, showing a trompe-l’œil illusion of the far side. By trying to jump the ravine, Curt unwittingly commits suicide by slamming into it.

Curt slams into the edges of the “world” of the cabin.

The effect of the screen is spectacular, full of arcs zipping along hexagonal lines and sparks flying everywhere. Dana and Holden rush to the edge of the cliff to watch him tumble down its vast, concave surface. It seems that if you’ve come this far, Control isn’t as concerned about tipping its hand as it is finishing the job.

Krell technology

Morbius is the inheritor of a massive underground complex of technology once belonging to a race known as the Krell. As Morbius explains, ““In times long past, this planet was the home of a mighty and noble race of beings which called themselves the Krell….”

Morbius tours Adams and Doc through the Krell technopolis.

“Ethically as well as technologically, they were a million years ahead of humankind; for in unlocking the mysteries of nature they had conquered even their baser selves… “…seemingly on the threshold of some supreme accomplishment which was to have crowned their entire history, this all but divine race perished in a single night.

““In the centuries since that unexplained catastrophe even their cloud-piercing towers of glass and porcelain and adamantine steel have crumbled back into the soil of Altair, and nothing——absolutely nothing——remains above ground.””

Despite this advancement, unless we ascribe to the Krell some sort of extra sensory perception and control, much of the technology we see has serious design flaws.

Morbius plays half-a-million-year-old Krell music.

The first piece of technology is a Krell recorded-music player, which Morbius keeps on the desk in his study. The small cylindrical device stands upright, bulging slighty around its middle. It is made of a gray metal, with a translucent pink band just below the middle. A hollow button sits on top.

The cylinder rests in a clear plastic base, with small, identical metal slugs sitting upright in recessions evenly spaced around it. To initiate music playback, Morbius picks one of the slugs and inserts it into the hollow of the button. He then depresses the momentary button once. The pink translucent band illuminates, and music begins to flow from unseen speakers around the office.

Modern audiences have a good deal of experience with music players, and so the device raises a great many questions. How does a user know which slug relates to what music? The slugs all look the same so this seems difficult at best. How does a user eject the slug? If by upending the device, one hopes that the cylinder comes free from the base easily, or the other slugs will all fall out as well. It must have impressed audiences to see music contained in such small containers, but otherwise the device is more attractive than usable.

Morbius inputs the combination to open the door.

Many Krell doors are protected by a combination lock. The mechanism stands high enough that Morbius can easily reach out and operate it. Its large circular face has four white triangles printed on its surface at the cardinal points, and other geometric red and yellow markings around the remainder. A four-spoke handle is anchored to a swivel joint at the center of the face. To unlock the door, a user twists the handle such that one of its spokes lines up with the north point, and then angles the handle to touch the spoke to the triangle there, before returning the handle to a neutral angle and twisting to the next position in the combination. When the sequence is complete, the triangles, the tips of the spokes, and a large ring around the face all light up and blink as the two-plane aperture doors slide open.

Even Walter Pigeon has trouble making sense of this awkward device. There appear to be no snap-to affordances for the neutral angle of the handle or the cardinal orientations, leaving the user unsure if each step in the sequence has been received correctly. Additionally, if the combination consists of particular spokes at this one point, why are the spokes undifferentiated? If the combination consists of pointing to different triangles, why are there four spokes instead of one? Is familiarity with some subtle cue part of the security measures?

Morbius shares operation of the Krell encyclopedia.

All of Krell wisdom and knowledge is contained in a device that Morbius shows to Adams and Doc. It consists of an underlit scroll of material sliding beneath a rectangular hole cut in the surface of a table. To illuminate it, Morbius turns one of the two ridged green dials located to the left of the “screen” about 45 degrees clockwise. To move the scroll, Morbius turns the other green dial clockwise as well.

Why is the least frequently used dial, i.e. the power button, closer than the more frequently used button, i.e. the scroll wheel? This requires the reader to be stretched awkwardly. Why is the on-off dial free spinning? There appear to be only two states: lit and unlit. The dial should have two states as well. If the content of the pages is discretely chunked into pages, it would also argue for a click-stop rather than free-spinning dial as well, but we do not get a good look at the scroll contents. One might also question the value of a scroll as the organizing method for a vast body of information, since related bits of information may be distractingly far apart.

Military communication

All telecommunications in the film are based on either a public address or a two-way radio metaphor.

Commander Adams addresses the crew.

To address the crew from inside the ship, Commander Adams grabs the microphone from its holder on the wall. Its long handle makes it easy to grab. By speaking into the lit, transparent circle mounted to one end, his voice is automatically broadcast across the ship.

Commander Adams lets Chief Quinn know he’s in command of the ship.

Quinn listens for incoming signals.

The two-way radio on his belt is routed through the communications officer back at the ship. To use it, he unclips the small cylindrical microphone from its clip, flips a small switch at the base of the box, and pulls the microphone on its tether close to his mouth to speak. When the device is active, a small array of lights on the box illuminates.

Confirming their safety by camera, Chief Quinn gets an eyeful of Alta.

The microphone also has a video camera within it. When Chief Quinn asks Commander Adams to “activate the viewer,” he does so by turning the device such that its small end faces outwards, at which time it acts as a camera, sending a video signal back to the ship, to be viewed on the “view plate.”

The Viewplate is used frequently to see outside the ship.

Altair IV looms within view.

The Viewplate is a large video screen with rounded edges that is mounted to a wall off the bridge. To the left of it three analog gauges are arranged in a column, above two lights and a stack of sliders. These are not used during the film.

Commander Adams engages the Viewplate to look for Altair IV.

The Viewplate is controlled by a wall mounted panel with a very curious placement. When Commander Adams rushes to adjust it, he steps to the panel and adjusts a few horizontal sliders, while craning around a cowling station to see if his tweaks are having the desired effect. When he’’s fairly sure it’’s correct, he has to step away from the panel to get a better view and make sure. There is no excuse for this poor placement.

Rotwang’’s Maschinenmensch (Machine-Man)

Rotwang’s Machine-Man is the most magical technology seen in the film. This is understandable since there the only common precedent available to the audience were stories of golems and imps, soulless and wicked servants out to wreck havoc at their master’s bidding. Despite this imp paradigm, many of the interfaces around the Machine-Man are worthy of note.

Rotwang reveals the Machine-Man.

When Rotwang first reveals the Machine-Man to Joh, he does so with a dramatic yank of a curtain to the side. There sits the automaton, in a throne before a catwalk. In response to the curtain’s opening, the catwalk gradually illuminates. Did the Man-Machine turn the lights on? Was it a “curtain switch?” The movie gives no clues, but the lesson is clear. Light signals power, and the Machine-Man is imbued with a lot of it.

The Machine-Woman awaits Rotwang’s instructions.

The Machine-Man as Joh meets it is entirely machine in appearance. (Beautifully designed by Walter Schulze-Mittendorff. This piece of sci-fi is so iconic and seminal that it warrants its own Wikipedia page.) At Joh’’s instruction, Rotwang gives the Machine-Man the outward likeness of Maria. How he is actually able to accomplishing this is vague, but note that as he twists up the power, more and more bars illuminate at the foot of the table. An early establishment that, as power increases, so does light.

Rotwang powers the transformation table.

This “light = power” theme is reinforced a number of times throughout this sequence.

Some machine glows as Rotwang turns it on.

With a switch the transformation begins.

Rotwang increases the power to the transformation table.

What does the tall tank, the arcing sphere, or the large wafer switch do? We don’’t know. But with the flick of a switch, something glows, and even without any sound to tell us, we know that he’’s summoning a great deal of power for what he’s about to do next.

Machine-Maria devises her saboteur’’s scheme.

Machine-Maria looks nearly identical to the real Maria. But in seeking to make the differences clear to the audience, actress Brigitte Helm needed to supply some kind of uncanny valley a century before the term was invented. Her response, which underscores the “evil twin” nature of Machine-Maria, was to adopt sharp, precise movements, an under-the-brow stare, and asymmetry. These simple cues let us know in a few seconds that she is not human and not to be trusted.

On the pyre, Machine-Maria reverts to her original form.

Machine-Maria’s death also underscores its deeply magical roots. When burning on the pillar, Machine-Maria transforms back to her original, machine-like form for little given reason other than her spell has been somehow broken.