Taxi navigation

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The taxi has a screen on the passenger’s side dashboard that faces the driver. This display does two things. First, it warns the driver when the taxi is about to be attacked. Secondly, it helps him navigate the complexities of New York circa 2163.

Warning system

After Korben decides to help Leeloo escape the police, they send a squadron of cop cars to apprehend them. And by apprehend I mean blow to smithereens. The moment Korben’s taxi is in sights, they don’t try to detain or disable the vehicle, but to blast it to bits with bullets and more bullets. It seems this is a common enough thing to have happen that Korben’s on-board computer can detect it in advance and provide a big, flashing, noisemaking warning to this effect.

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In many cases I object to the Big Label, but not here. In fact, for such a life-threatening issue, more of the taxi’s interface should highlight the seriousness. My life’s in danger? Go full red alert, car. Change the lights to crimson. Dim non-essential things. You’ve got an “automatic” button there. Does that include evasive maneuvering? If so, make that thing opt-out rather than opt-in. Help a brother out.

Navigation aid

At other times during the chase scene, Korben can glance at the screen to see a wireframe of the local surroundings. This interface has a lot of problems.

1. This would work much, much more safely and efficiently for Korben if it was a heads-up display on the windshield. Let’s shrink that feedback loop. Every time a driver glances down he risks a crash and in this case, Korben risks the entire world. If HUD tech isn’t a part of the diegesis, audio cues might be some small help that don’t require him to take his eyes of the “road.”

2. How does the wireframe style help? It’s future-y of course, but it adds a lot of noise to what he’s got to process. He doesn’t need to understand tesselations of surfaces. He needs to understand the shapes and velocities of things around him so he can lose the tail.

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(Exercise for the reader: Provide a solid diegetic explanation for why this screen appeared in the film flipped horizontally.)

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3. There’s some missing information. If the onboard computer can do some real-time calculations and make a recommendation on the best next step, why not do it? We see above that the police have the same information that Korben does. So even better might be information on what the tail is likely to do so Korben can do the opposite. Or maneuvers that Korben can execute that the cop car can’t. If it’s possible to show places he should definitely not go, like dead ends or right into the path, say, of a firing squad of police cars, that would be useful to know, too.

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4. What are those icons in the lower right meant to do? They’re not suggestions as they appear after Korben performs his maneuvers, and sometimes appear along with warnings instead of maneuvers.

Even if they are suggestions, what are they directions to? His original destination? He didn’t have one. Some new destination? When did he provide it? Simple, goal-aware directions to safety? Whatever the information, these icons add a lot cognitive weight and visual work. Surely there’s some more direct way to provide cues, like being superimposed on the 3D so he can see the information rather than read and interpret it.

If they’re something else other than suggestions, they’re just noise. In a pursuit scenario, you’d want to strip that stuff out of the interface.

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5. What is that color gradient on the left meant to tell him? All the walls in this corridor are 350…what? The screen shot above hints that it represents simple height from the ground, but the 2D map has these colors as well, and height cues wouldn’t make sense there. If it is height, this information might help Korben quickly build a 3D mental map of the information he’s seeing. But using arbitrary colors forces him to remember what each color means. Better would be to use something with a natural order to it like the visible spectrum or black-body spectrum. Or, since people already have lots of experience with monocular distance cues and lighting from above, maybe a simple rendering as if the shapes were sunlit would be fastest to process. Taking advantage of any of these perceptual faculties would let him build a 3D model quickly so he can focus on what he’s going to do with the information.

Side note: Density might actually make a great deal more sense to the readout, knowing that Korben has a penchant for ramming his taxi through things. If this was the information being conveyed, varying degrees of transparency might have served him better to know what he can smash through safely, and even what to expect on the other side.

6. Having the 2D map helps a bit to understand the current level of the city from a top-down view. Having it be small in the upper right is a sound placement, since that’s a less-important subset of the information he really needs. It has some color coding but as mentioned above it doesn’t seem to relate to what’s colored in the 3D portion, which could make for an interpretation disaster. In any case, Korben shouldn’t have to read this information in the tiny map. It’s a mode, a distraction. While he’s navigating the alleys and tunnels of the city, he’s thinking in a kind of 3D node-graph. Respect that kind of thinking with a HUD that puts information on the “edges” of the graph, i.e., the holes in the surfaces around him that he’s looking at. That’s his locus of attention. That’s where he’s thinking. Augment that.

So, you know…bad

Fortunately, given that the interface has so many problems, Korben only really glances at this once during the chase, and that’s at the warning sound. But if the younger Korben was meant to use this at all, there’s a lot of work to make this useful rather than dangerous.

Four a day

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After Korben’s alarm clock starts the music and lights the lights, it also drops his daily allotment of cigarettes into place inside vertical glass tubes in a small dispensary mounted on the wall. Each tube has a purple number printed across the top, reinforcing the limit. A robotic voice tells reminds him to only have “four. a. day.”

The dispensary is loaded with warnings to get him to quit. Across the top we read “4™ REFILLS.” Just below that is a white imperative, “QUIT SMOKING.” To the right another legend reinforces the principles spoken aloud, “4™ A DAY.” A legend across the bottom, written in glittery red capitals reminds him that, “TO QUIT IS MY GOAL.” Behind the glass tubes is something like a Surgeon General’s warning about the dangers of smoking.

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On the right is a small LCD panel with a mysterious readout at the top of “1:::1…1..1″, a counter in the middle reading “00:04″ (it looks like just after midnight in military time, but we know from his alarm clock it’s just after 02:00), and a temperature readout that confirms the temperature that the clock displays, “27.5° C.” Below this panel is a small set of four buttons: two horizontal ones that sandwich two triangular ones pointing in opposite directions. Korben presses the lowest button to pick up the first cigarette, and the #1 cylinder of glass slides up. A smaller “vase” of glass holds the cigarette upright for Korben to grab.

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The LCD panel

The top readout is a mystery, and the middle might be a counter of number of cigarettes remaining for the day or in the refill, but why it’s in 24-hour notation is another mystery. The temperature doesn’t make much sense here. Better might be the variable information that the addicted smoker really wants: How soon until I can get my next fix. A clock showing that time would be useful, and give the smoker something to fixate on instead of the cravings. A countdown clock might be information that the smoker wants, but it would focus his attention on the device rather than on his willpower.

To quit is my goal

Really, it’s beyond the scope of this blog post to try and state the authoritative psychology of quitting smoking, but it does seem like this device accomplishes one common strategy well, which is reminding smokers of their goal. There it is, in glittery red, in a first-person voice.

But it doesn’t do everything well. Another strategy to quit is for smokers to have reminders of the negative consequences of continuing to smoke, and the device only kind of does this with the warning label. The fact that it’s behind the glass tubes is nice since to get at the cigarettes the smoker wants, he is faced with that text. But, it’s only text, and easy to simply not read. The fact that the cylindrical glass distorts the text makes willful ignoring even easier, since it hinders readability. Better would be a visceral, instantly-recognizable image, like Australia mandated on their cigarette packaging in 2011. The disturbing nature of these images would be enhanced by the cylinder’s distortions.

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On the other hand, one strategy is to eliminate the triggers that remind a smoker about cigarettes, and this dispensary does exactly the opposite. By being prominently displayed on the wall, being associated with waking up, and having the word “smoking” appear in high-contrast capital letters at eye level, it pretty much acts as a trigger to remind Korben about smoking. Better might be a hideaway dispensary, similar to his bed, refrigerator, or shower in the apartment, which hide themselves away when not in use.

Surgeon General’s Warning

The other problem is habituation. After repeated exposure to this device on a daily basis, Korben will begin to disregard the signal. A more persuasive system would change, such that the conseuqnces and goals are kept fresh on Korben’s mind. To make sure it hits home at the right time, I would get rid of the extraneous buttons and have one “time-release” button, that requires him to press and hold it for a few seconds to get at the cigarette. During this enforced moment of boredom, the device can flash a new message and dissausive image, giving Korben a moment to consider this and whether he really wants to keep pressing the button for his cigarette. The LCD panel would need to display these instructions first, and then switch to showing the time at which the next cigarette will be available.

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Spacesuits

The surface of LV-223, as one imagines with the overwhelming majority of alien planets, is inhospitable to human life. For life support and protection, the crew wears suits complete with large clear “fishbowl” helmets that give a full-range of view. A sensor strip arcs across the forehead of the bowl, with all manner of sensors broadcasting information back to the ship. Crew also wear a soft fabric cap beneath the bowl with their name clearly stitched into a patch that sits above the forehead. (Type nerds: The face is modular, something similar to Eurostile. The name is in all caps. This is par for sci-fi typography, but poor for legibility at distance.)

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Sadly for the crewmembers (and the actors as well) the air inside these bowls are not well filtered and circulated. The inside surface fogs up quite easily from the wearer’s breath.

Audio

Audio is handled intuitively, with all microphones between spacesuits being active all the time, with an individual’s volume relative to his or her proximity to the listener. Janek is at one point able to stand in front of the ship and address everyone inside it, knowing that the helmet microphones are monitored at all times.

Lights, Cameras

There are lights inside the helmet, placed over the forehead and pointing down to make the wearer’s face visible to others nearby, as well as anyone remote-monitoring the wearer with a backward-facing camera. A curious feature of the suits that they also include yellow lights that highlight the wearer’s neck. What is the purpose of these lights? Certainly it shows off Michael Fassbender’s immaculate jawline, but diegetically, it’s unclear what the purpose of these things are. It is after the scientists remove their helmets in the alien environment—against the direct orders of the Captain—it becomes clear that the spacesuits were designed with this in mind. This way the spacesuits can be operated helmetlessly while maintaining identification lights for other crew. The odds of this being a feature that would ever be used on an alien planet are astronomically low, but the designers accommodated the ability to be operated without helmets.

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Sleeve computers

Holloway’s left sleeve has two small screens. The left one of these displays inscrutably small lines of cyan text. The right one has a label of PT011, with a 3×3 array of two-digit hexadecimal numbers beneath it.

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A few of the hexadecimal pairs have highlight boxes around them. Looking at this grid, Holloway is able to report to the others that, “Look at the CO2 levels. Outside it’s completely toxic, and in here there’s nothing. It’s breathable.” It’s inscrutable, but believably shorthand for vital bits of information, understsandable to well-trained wearers. For inputs to the sleeve computer, he has four momentary buttons along the bottom and a rotary side-mounted dial. Using these controls, Holloway is able to disable his safety controls and remove the helmet.