The Gatekeeper

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After the security ‘bot brings Eve across the ship (with Wall-e in tow), he arrives at the gatekeeper to the bridge. The Gatekeeper has the job of entering information about ‘bots, or activating and deactivating systems (labeled with “1″s and “0″s) into a pedestal keyboard with two small manipulator arms. It’s mounted on a large, suspended shaft, and once it sees the security ‘bot and confirms his clearance, it lets the ‘bot and the pallet through by clicking another, specific button on the keyboard.

The Gatekeeper is large. Larger than most of the other robots we see on the Axiom. It’s casing is a white shell around an inner hardware. This casing looks like it’s meant to protect or shield the internal components from light impacts or basic problems like dust. From the looks of the inner housing, the Gatekeeper should be able to move its ‘head’ up and down to point its eye in different directions, but while Wall-e and the security ‘bot are in the room, we only ever see it rotating around its suspension pole and using the glowing pinpoint in its red eye to track the objects its paying attention to.

When it lets the sled through, it sees Wall-e on the back of the sled, who waves to the Gatekeeper. In response, the Gatekeeper waves back with its jointed manipulator arm. After waving, the Gatekeeper looks at its arm. It looks surprised at the arm movement, as if it hadn’t considered the ability to use those actuators before. There is a pause that gives the distinct impression that the Gatekeeper is thinking hard about this new ability, then we see it waving the arm a couple more times to itself to confirm its new abilities.

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The Gatekeeper seems to exist solely to enter information into that pedestal. From what we can see, it doesn’t move and likely (considering the rest of the ship) has been there since the Axiom’s construction. We don’t see any other actions from the pedestal keys, but considering that one of them opens a door temporarily, it’s possible that the other buttons have some other, more permanent functions like deactivating the door security completely, or allowing a non-authorized ‘bot (or even a human) into the space.

An unutilized sentience

The robot is a sentient being, with a tedious and repetitive job, who doesn’t even know he can wave his arm until Wall-e introduces the Gatekeeper to the concept. This fits with the other technology on board the Axiom, with intelligence lacking any correlation to the robot’s function. Thankfully for the robot, he (she?) doesn’t realize their lack of a larger world until that moment.

So what’s the pedestal for?

It still leaves open the question of what the pedestal controls actually do. If they’re all connected to security doors throughout the ship, then the Gatekeeper would have to be tied into the ship’s systems somehow to see who was entering or leaving each secure area.

The pedestal itself acts as a two-stage authentication system. The Gatekeeper has a powerful sentience, and must decide if the people or robots in front of it are allowed to enter the room or rooms it guards. Then, after that decision, it must make a physical action to unlock the door to enter the secure area. This implies a high level of security, which feels appropriate given that the elevator accesses the bridge of the Axiom.

Since we’ve seen the robots have different vision modes, and improvements based on their function, it’s likely that the Gatekeeper can see more into the pedestal interface than the audience can, possibly including which doors each key links to. If not, then as a computer it would have perfect recall on what each button was for. This does not afford a human presence stepping in to take control in case the Gatekeeper has issues (like the robots seen soon after this in the ‘medbay’). But, considering Buy-N-Large’s desire to leave humans out of the loop at each possible point, this seems like a reasonable design direction for the company to take if they wanted to continue that trend.

It’s possible that the pedestal was intended for a human security guard that was replaced after the first generation of spacefarers retired. Another possibility is that Buy-N-Large wanted an obvious sign of security to comfort passengers.

What’s missing?

We learn after this scene that the security ‘bot is Otto’s ‘muscle’ and affords some protection. Given that the Security ‘bot and others might be needed at random times, it feels like he would want a way to gain access to the bridge in an emergency. Something like an integrated biometric scanner on the door that could be manually activated (eye scanner, palm scanner, RFID tags, etc.), or even a physical key device on the door that only someone like the Captain or trusted security officers would be given. Though that assumes there is more than one entrance to the bridge.

This is a great showcase system for tours and commercials of an all-access luxury hotel and lifeboat. It looks impressive, and the Gatekeeper would be an effective way to make sure only people who are really supposed to get into the bridge are allowed past the barriers. But, Buy-N-Large seems to have gone too far in their quest for intelligent robots and has created something that could be easily replaced by a simpler, hard-wired security system.

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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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Slow Police

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Wrapping up our week of The Fifth Element police interfaces…

When the police chase Korben into the permanent fog bank at street level of the city, the exciting car chase must stop. They must slow down and undergo a careful search. The front of the car has an LED scrolling sign between its beacon lights that cuts back and forth between displaying “SLOW” and “POLICE.”

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From a citizen standpoint, having such text can certainly make the police’s circumstances and desires quite clear. Then again, language can be quite ambiguous. What would you do if you saw a police car that read, “CELLAR DOOR” as it passed? How are you meant to comply?

Though we never actually see the sign change to display any other text, the fact that it’s LED implies that it can and does. Sure, I get the movie’s joke of the police calling themselves “slow,” but there are lots of interaction questions left unanswered. Can the officers in the car change the sign? If so, how? Does the passenger have a keyboard? Or is it voice command? If there’s a control available to the driver, how is it made safe, and not as deadly as a driver trying to compose a text message today? And to what degree can the message be changed? Can they create anything, or do they select from a commissioner-approved menu of options? Or can they not control it at all—is the sign completely controlled from dispatch, or from some context-aware algorithm?

The film gives no clues, so it’s left as an exercise for the design viewer. Which, sometimes, is just the way I like it.

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ZF-1

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Amongst its many holdings (including taxi cab companies) Zorg industries manufactures weapons, including their flagship weapon, the ZF-1. It has a great many features. It stores as a sealed pod, and can be activated by a remote control. With a press of a button, shielding retracts and parts extend so it can be handled like a traditional small arms weapon.

Zorg makes a pitch to the Mangalores for the ZF-1, so we’ll just let his own words sell it.

It’s light. The handle is adjustable for easy carrying. Good for righties and lefties. Breaks down into four parts. Undetectable by x-ray. Ideal for quick, discreet interventions. A word on firepower: Titanium recharger. 3,000 round clip with liquid bursts of 3-to-300.”

Next he pitches something quite unique to the weapon.

“With the Replay™ button—another Zorg invention—it’s even easier. One shot…and Replay™ sends every following shot to the same location…”

As he turns and points the weapons at the Mangalores, the ammunition arcs around to home in on the first shot.

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But wait, don’t answer. The ZF-1 has other features as well.

…And to finish the job, all the Zorg oldies but goldies: Rocket launcher, arrow launcher with explosive, poisonous gas heads (very practical), our famous net launcher, the always-efficient flamethrower (my favorite), and for the grand finale, the all-new Ice Cube™ System.

After the Magalores fail to uphold their end of the bargain, Zorg leaves them to play with the weapons. As they do, one discovers that the glowing red button on the side is actually an explosive self-destruct.

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Analysis

I know Mangaglores are not meant to be shining examples of intellect, but if I was considering a purchase, I would yes, compliment the incredibly nifty technology of Replay, but follow it up with four more important questions about the design of the thing.

First, Mr. Zorg, what good is the remote control? Doesn’t this make the weapon hackable remotely? Isn’t that device easy to misplace? What on-weapon means do we have to unlock it?

Second, how are you selecting from among the six different types of ammunition?

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On the exterior, we only see that red button. There might be some other subtle switches somewhere on the exterior, but you had to support the weight of the device with your left hand, so it’s fairly immobilized and I didn’t see you moving it. Unless it can only fire in exactly the order we saw, there’s got to be some other control. With your right hand hidden up inside the weapon, there must be other activation switches there. What switches are tucked up in there that are easy to differentiate by touch and easy to activate with your palm remaining against the grip?

Third, there’s that red button. Sure, who wouldn’t want to carry around a device that could erupt as an all-consuming fireball, but I notice that it doesn’t have a safety cover on it, gives no pause or warning during which the command can be retracted, and draws attention to itself by its glow. Isn’t that going to be increadibly easy to, you know, accidentally kill all my troops?

Fourth, during the demonstration we got a good glimpse at the front of the weapon. It’s got animated, blinking red LEDs whose pattern merges together to form a bright red diamond shape near the top of the weapon before looping over again.

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I’m not a militarily-minded person, but isn’t it counter to a soldier’s goals to have anything blinking, glowing, or pinpointing the soldier’s exact midline to enemies, much less something that does all three at once, and in red, the color that travels the farthest in atmosphere?

What was that about “discreet” interventions?

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.