Red Phone

After the gravitic distortion is discovered, Barcalow flips a toggle switch upwards with his thumb. As Ibanez confirms that “Gravity is 225 and rising,” the light on the bridge turns red, and Barcalow turns to a monitor.

The monitor (seen above) features a video window in the top center. Along the left side of the screen 11 random numbers report the COMM STATS INTERSHIP. Along the right side of the screen 11 other random numbers report the COMM STATS INTRASHIP. Beneath the video some purple bars slide in and out from a central column of red rectangles. One of these rectangles is bright yellow. Beneath that a section reports SCANNING FREQUENCIES as 21 three-character strings, some of which are highlighted as red. At the bottom of the screen blue and yellow-green smears race back and forth across a rectangle. Everything is in Starship Troopers‘ signature saturated colors and a block font like Microgramma or Eurostile.

These details are almost immediately obscured, as Deladier looks up from her laptop (looking presciently like a modern Macbook Air with its aluminum casing) to look at the video monitor to demand a “Report,” and the video grows larger to fill the screen.

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Here the snarky description must pause for some analysis.

Analysis

The red alert mechanism is actually pretty good. Both the placement of its switch at shoulder level and the fact that it must be flipped up help prevent against accidental activation. The fact that it’s a toggle switch means it can be undone with ease if necessary. The red light immediately provides feedback to everyone on the bridge (and throughout the ship?) that the system has gone into a red alert. No other action is necessary to alert the person who needs to be informed, i.e. the Captain. The only other improvement might be a klaxon warning to alert others who are sleeping, but it’s entirely possible that very thing is happening elsewhere on the ship, and the bridge is spared that distraction. So full marks.

The user interface on the monitor seems pretty crappy though. If someone is meant to monitor COMM STATS—intership or intraship—I cannot imagine how a column of undifferentiated numbers helps. A waveform would be more useful to track activity across a spectrum. Something. Anything other than a stack of numbers that are hard to read and interpret.

The SCANNING FREQUENCIES is similarly useless. Sure, it’s clear that the ship’s systems are scanning those frequencies, but the three-character strings require crew to memorize what those mean. If those frequencies are defined—as you imagine they must be to be at all useful as static variables—then you can remove the cognitive weight of having to memorize the differences between JL5 and LQ7 by giving them actual names, and only displaying the ones that have activity on them, and what that activity means. Does someone need to listen in? Shouldn’t that task be apparent? And why would that need to be shown generally to the bridge, rather than to a communications officer? And I’m not sure what those purple squiggles mean. It’s nice that they’re animated I guess, but if they’re meant to help the user monitor some variable, they’re too limited. Like the sickbay display on the original Star Trek, knowing the current state is likely not as useful as knowing how the information is trending over time. (See page 261 for more details on this.) So trendlines would be better here. The little sweeping candy colored smears are actually okay, though, presuming that it’s showing that the system is successfully sweeping all frequencies for additional signal. Perhaps a bit distracting, but easy to habituate.

It’s nice that the video screen fills the screen to match the needs of the communicators. But as with so many other sci-fi video calls, no effort is made to explain where the camera is on this thing. Somehow they can just look at the eyes of the other person on the monitor, and it works. This feels natural to the actors, looks natural to the audience, and would be natural in real life, but until we can figure out how to embed a camera within a screen, this can’t work this way, and we’re stuck with the gaze monitoring problem raised in the Volumetric Projection chapter of the book with the Darth Vader example.

So, all in all, this interface is mostly terrible until it becomes just a videophone. And even then there are questions.

Snarky description continues

Picking up the description where I left off, after the Captain demands a report, Barcalow tells her quickly “Captain, we’re in the path of an unidentified object heading toward us at high speed.” Ibanez then looks down at her monitor at the gravity well animation, to remark that the “Profile suggests an asteroid, ma’am.” You know, just before looking out the window.

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Honestly, that’s one of the funniest two-second sequences in the whole movie.

Her interface components

Depending on how you slice things, the OS1 interface consists of five components and three (and a half) capabilities.

Her-earpiece

1. An Earpiece

The earpiece is small and wireless, just large enough to fit snugly in the ear and provide an easy handle for pulling out again. It has two modes. When the earpiece is in Theodore’s ear, it’s in private mode, hearable only by him. When the earpiece is out, the speaker is as loud as a human speaking at room volume. It can produce both voice and other sounds, offering a few beeps and boops to signal needing attention and changes in the mode.

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2. Cameo phone

I think I have to make up a name for this device, and “cameo phone” seems to fit. This small, hand-sized, bi-fold device has one camera on the outside an one on the inside of the recto, and a display screen on the inside of the verso. It folds along its long edge, unlike the old clamshell phones. The has smartphone capabilities. It wirelessly communicates with the internet. Theodore occasionally slides his finger left to right across the wood, so it has some touch-gesture sensitivity. A stripe around the outside-edge of the cameo can glow red to act as a visual signal to get its user’s attention. This is quite useful when the cameo is folded up and sitting on a nightstand, for instance.

Theodore uses Samantha almost exclusively through the earpiece and cameo phone, and it is this that makes OS1 a wearable system.

3. A beauty-mark camera

Only present for the surrogate sex scene, this small wireless (are we at the point when we can stop specifying that?) camera affixes to the skin and has the appearance of a beauty mark.

4. (Unseen) microphones

Whether in the cameo phone, the desktop screen, or ubiquitously throughout the environment, OS1 can hear Theodore speak wherever he is over the course of the film.

5. Desktop screen

Theodore only uses a large monitor for OS1 on his desktop a few times. It is simply another access point as far as OS1 is concerned. Really, there’s nothing remarkable about this screen. It is notable that there’s no keyboard. All input is provided by either voice, camera, or a touch gesture on the cameo.

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If those are components to the interface, they provide the medium for her 3.5 capabilities.

Her capabilities

1. Voice interface

Users can speak to OS1 in fully-natural language, as if speaking to another person. OS1 speaks back with fully-human spoken articulation. Theodore’s older OS had a voice interface, but because of its lack of artificial intelligence driving it, the interactions were limited to constrained commands like, “Read email.”

2. Computer vision

Samantha can process what she sees through the camera lens of the cameo perfectly. She recognizes distinct objects, people, and gestures at the physical and pragmatic level. I don’t think we ever see things from Samatha’s perspective, but we do have a few quick close ups of the camera lens.

3. Artificial Intelligence

The most salient aspect of the interface is that OS1 is a fully realized “Strong” artificial intelligence.

It would like me to try and get to some painfully-crafted definition of what counts as either an artificial intelligence or sentience, but in this case we don’t really need a tight definition to help suss out whether or not Samantha is one. That’s the central conceit of the film, and the evidence is just overwhelming.

  • She has a human command of language.
  • She’s fully versed in the nuances of human emotion (and Theodore has a glut of them to engage).
  • She has emotions and can fairly be described as emotional. She has a sexual drive.
  • She has existential crises and a rich theory of mind. At one point she dreamily asks Theodore “What’s it like to be alive in that room right now?” as if she was a philosophical teen idly chatting with her boyfriend over the phone.
  • She commits lies of omission in hiding uncomfortable truths.
  • She changes over time. She solves problems. She learns. She creates.
  • She has a sense of humor. When Theodore tells her early on to “read email” in the weird toComputerese (my name for that 1970s dialect of English spoken only between humans and machines) grammar he had been using with his old operating system, Samantha jokingly adopts a robotic voice and replies, “OK. I will read the email for Theodore Twombly” and gets a good laugh out of him before he apologizes.

Pedants will have some fun discussing whether this is apt but I’m moving forward with it as a given. She’s sentient.

3.5 An “operating system”

This item only counts as half a thing because Theodore uses it as an operating system maaaybe twice in the film. Really, this categorization is a MacGuffin to explain why he gets it in the first place, but it has little to no other bearing on the film.

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What’s missing?

Notably missing in OS1 is a face or any other visual anthropomorphic aspect. There’s no Samantha-faced Clippy. Notice that she’s very carefully disembodied. Jonze does not spend screen time close up on her camera lens, like Kubrick did with HAL’s unblinking eye. Had he done so, it would have given us the impression that she’s somewhere behind that eye. But she’s not. Even in the prop design, he makes sure the camera lens itself looks unremarkable, neutral, and unexpressive, and never gets a lingering focus.

Her “organs,” like the cameo and earpiece, don’t even connect together physically at all. Speaking as she does through the earpiece means she doesn’t exist as a voice from some speaker mounted to the wall. She exists across various displays and devices, in some psychological ether between them. For us, she’s a voiceover existing everywhere at once. For Theodore, she’s just a delightful voice in his head. An angel—or possibly a ghost—borne unto him.

This disembodiment (both the design and the cinematic treatment) frees Theodore and the audience from the negative associations of many other sci-fi intelligences, robots, and unfortunate experiments in commercial artificial intelligence that got trapped in the muck of the uncanny valley. One of the main reasons designers have to be careful about invoking the anthropomorphic sense in users is because it will raise expectations of human capabilities that modern technology just can’t match. But OS1 can match and exceed those expectations, since it’s an AI in a work of fiction, so Jonze is free of that constraint.

And having no visual to accompany a human-like voice allows users to imagine our own “perfect” embodiment to the voice. Relying on the imagination to provide the visuals makes the emotional engagement greater, as it does with our crushes on radio personalities, or the unseen monster in a horror movie. Movies can never create as fulfilling an image for an individual audience member as their imagination can. Theodore could picture whatever he wanted to–even if he wanted to–to accompany Samantha’s computer-generated voice. Unfortunately for the audience, Jonze cast Scarlett Johansen, a popular actress whose image we are instantly able to recall upon hearing her husky, sultry voice, so the imagined-perfection is more difficult for us.

This is just the components and capabilities. Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the key interactions with OS1.

The HoverChair Social Network

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The other major benefit to the users of the chair (besides the ease of travel and lifestyle) is the total integration of the occupant’s virtual social life, personal life, fashion (or lack-thereof), and basic needs in one device. Passengers are seen talking with friends remotely, not-so-remotely, playing games, getting updated on news, and receiving basic status updates. The device also serves as a source of advertising (try blue! it’s the new red!).

A slight digression: What are the ads there for? Considering that the Axiom appears to be an all-inclusive permanent resort model, the ads could be an attempt to steer passengers to using resources that the ship knows it has a lot of. This would allow a reprieve for heavily used activities/supplies to be replenished for the next wave of guests, instead of an upsell maneuver to draw more money from them. We see no evidence of exchange of money or other economic activity while on-board the Axiom

OK, back to the social network.

Security?

It isn’t obvious what the form of authentication is for the chairs. We know that the chairs have information about who the passenger prefers to talk to, what they like to eat, where they like to be aboard the ship, and what their hobbies are. With that much information, if there was no constant authentication, an unscrupulous passenger could easily hop in another person’s chair, “impersonate” them on their social network, and play havoc with their network. That’s not right.

It’s possible that the chair only works for the person using it, or only accesses the current passenger’s information from a central computer in the Axiom, but it’s never shown. What we do know is that the chair activates when a person is sitting on it and paying attention to the display, and that it deactivates as soon as that display is cut or the passenger leaves the chair.

We aren’t shown what happens when the passenger’s attention is drawn away from the screen, since they are constantly focused on it while the chair is functioning properly.

If it doesn’t already exist, the hologram should have an easy to push button or gesture that can dismiss the picture. This would allow the passenger to quickly interact with the environment when needed, then switch back to the social network afterwards.

And, for added security in case it doesn’t already exist, biometrics would be easy for the Axiom. Tracking the chair user’s voice, near-field chip, fingerprint on the control arm, or retina scan would provide strong security for what is a very personal activity and device. This system should also have strong protection on the back end to prevent personal information from getting out through the Axiom itself.

Social networks hold a lot of very personal information, and the network should have protections against the wrong person manipulating that data. Strong authentication can prevent both identity theft and social humiliation.

Taking the occupant’s complete attention

While the total immersion of social network and advertising seems dystopian to us (and that’s without mentioning the creepy way the chair removes a passenger’s need for most physical activity), the chair looks genuinely pleasing to its users.

They enjoy it.

But like a drug, their enjoyment comes at the detriment of almost everything else in their lives. There seem to be plenty of outlets on the ship for active people to participate in their favorite activities: Tennis courts, golf tees, pools, and large expanses for running or biking are available but unused by the passengers of the Axiom.

Work with the human need

In an ideal world a citizen is happy, has a mixture of leisure activities, and produces something of benefit to the civilization. In the case of this social network, the design has ignored every aspect of a person’s life except moment-to-moment happiness.

This has parallels in goal driven design, where distinct goals (BNL wants to keep people occupied on the ship, keep them focused on the network, and collect as much information as possible about what everyone is doing) direct the design of an interface. When goal-driven means data driven, then the data being collected instantly becomes the determining factor of whether a design will succeed or fail. The right data goals means the right design. Wrong data goals mean the wrong design.

Instead of just occupying a person’s attention, this interface could have instead been used to draw people out and introduce them to new activities at intervals driven by user testing and data. The Axiom has the information and power, perhaps even the responsibility, to direct people to activities that they might find interesting. Even though the person wouldn’t be looking at the screen constantly, it would still be a continuous element of their day. The social network could have been their assistant instead of their jailer.

One of the characters even exclaims that she “didn’t even know they had a pool!”. Indicating that she would have loved to try it, but the closed nature of the chair’s social network kept her from learning about it and enjoying it. By directing people to ‘test’ new experiences aboard the Axiom and releasing them from its grip occasionally, the social network could have acted as an assistant instead of an attention sink.

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Moment-to-moment happiness might have declined, but overall happiness would have gone way up.

The best way for designers to affect the outcome of these situations is to help shape the business goals and metrics of a project. In a situation like this, after the project had launched a designer could step in and point out those moments were a passenger was pleasantly surprised, or clearly in need of something to do, and help build a business case around serving those needs.

The obvious moments of happiness (that this system solves for so well) could then be augmented by serendipitous moments of pleasure and reward-driven workouts.

We must build products for more than just fleeting pleasure

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As soon as the Axiom lands back on Earth, the entire passenger complement leaves the ship (and the social network) behind.

It was such a superficial pleasure that people abandoned it without hesitation when they realized that there was something more rewarding to do. That’s a parallel that we can draw to many current products. The product can keep attention for now, but something better will come along and then their users will abandon them.

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A company can produce a product or piece of software that fills a quick need and initially looks successful. But, that success falls apart as soon as people realize that they have larger and tougher problems that need solving.

Ideally, a team of designers at BNL would have watched after the initial launch and continued improving the social network. By helping people continue to grow and learn new skills, the social network could have kept the people aboard the Axiom it top condition both mentally and physically. By the time Wall-E came around, and life finally began to return to Earth, the passengers would have been ready to return and rebuild civilization on their own.

To the designers of a real Axiom Social Network: You have the chance to build a tool that can save the world.

We know you like blue! Now it looks great in Red!

The Hover Chair

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The Hover Chair is a ubiquitous, utilitarian, all-purpose assisting device. Each passenger aboard the Axiom has one. It is a mix of a beach-side deck chair, fashion accessory, and central connective device for the passenger’s social life. It hovers about knee height above the deck, providing a low surface to climb into, and a stable platform for travel, which the chair does a lot of.

A Universal Wheelchair

We see that these chairs are used by everyone by the time that Wall-E arrives on the Axiom. From BNL’s advertising though, this does not appear to be the original. One of the billboards on Earth advertising the Axiom-class ships shows an elderly family member using the chair, allowing them to interact with the rest of the family on the ship without issue. In other scenes, the chairs are used by a small number of people relaxing around other more active passengers.

At some point between the initial advertising campaign and the current day, use went from the elderly and physically challenged, to a device used 24/7 by all humans on-board the Axiom. This extends all the way down to the youngest children seen in the nursery, though they are given modified versions to more suited to their age and disposition. BNL shows here that their technology is excellent at providing comfort as an easy choice, but that it is extremely difficult to undo that choice and regain personal control.

But not a perfect interaction

We see failure from the passengers’ total reliance on the chairs when one of them (John) falls out of his chair trying to hand an empty drink cup to Wall-E. The chair shuts down, and John loses his entire connection to the ship. Because of his reliance on the chair, he’s not even able to pull himself back up and desperately reaches for the kiosk-bots for assistance.

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This reveals the main flaw of the chair: Buy-N-Large’s model of distinct and complete specialization in robot roles has left the chair unable to help its passenger after the passenger leaves the chair’s seat. The first responders—the kiosk bots—can’t assist either (though this is due to programming, not capability…we see them use stasis/tractor beams in another part of the ship). Who or what robot the kiosk-bots are waiting for is never revealed, but we assume that there is some kind of specialized medical assistance robot specifically designed to help passengers who have fallen out of their chairs.

If these chairs were initially designed for infirm passengers, this would make sense; but the unintended conscription of the chair technology by the rest of the passengers was unforeseen by its original designers. Since BNL focused on specialization and fixed purpose, the ship was unable to change its programming to assist the less disabled members of the population without invoking the rest of the chair’s emergency workflow.

John reaching for help from the Kiosk-bots makes it appear that he either has seen the kiosk-bot use its beams before (so he knows it has the capability to help, if not the desire), or he pays so little attention to the technology that he assumes that any piece of the ship should be able to assist with anything he needs.

Whether he’s tech literate or tech insensitive and just wants things to work like magic as they do on the rest of the ship. The system is failing him and his mental model of the Axiom.

Make it ergonomic in every situation

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Considering that the chairs already hover, and we know Buy-N-Large can integrate active tractor beams in robot design, it would have been better to have a chair variant that allowed the passenger to be in a standing position inside the chair while it moved throughout the ship. It would then look like a chariot or a full-body exo-skeleton.

This would allow people who may not be able to stand (either due to disability or medical condition) to still participate in active sports like tennis or holo-golf. It would also allow more maneuverability in the chair, allowing it to easily rotate to pick up a fallen passenger and reposition them in a more comfortable spot, even if they needed medical attention.

This would allow immobilization in the case of a serious accident, giving the medical-bot more time to arrive and preventing the passenger from injuring themselves attempting to rescue themselves.

The chair has been designed to be as appealing to a low-activity user as possible. But when technology exists, and is shown to be relatively ubiquitous across different robot types, it should be integrated at the front line where people will need it. Waiting for a medical bot when the situation doesn’t demand a medical response is overly tedious and painful for the user. By using technology already seen in wide use, the chair could be improved to assist people in living an active lifestyle even in the face of physical disabilities.

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.

Security and Control’s control

The mission is world-critical, so like a cockpit, the two who are ultimately in control are kept secure. The control room is accessible (to mere humans, anyway) only through a vault door with an armed guard. Hadley and Sitterson must present IDs to the guard before he grants them access.

Sitterson and Hadley pass security.

Truman, the guard, takes and swipes their cards through a groove in a hand-held device. We are not shown what is on the tiny screen, but we do hear the device’s quick chirps to confirm the positive identity. That sound means that Truman’s eyes aren’t tied to the screen. He can listen for confirmation and monitor the people in front of him for any sign of nervousness or subterfuge.

Hadley boots up the control room screens.

The room itself tells a rich story through its interfaces alone. The wooden panels at the back access Bronze Age technology with its wooden-handled gears, glass bowls, and mechanical devices that smash vials of blood. The massive panel at which they sit is full of Space Age pushbuttons, rheostats, and levers. On the walls behind them are banks of CRT screens. These are augmented with Digital Age, massive, flat panel displays and touch panel screens within easy reach on the console. This is a system that has grown and evolved for eons, with layers of technology that add up to a tangled but functional means of surveillance and control.

The interfaces hint at the great age of the operation.

Utter surveillance

In order for Control to do their job, they have to keep tabs on the victims at all times, even long before the event: Are the sacrifices conforming to archetype? Do they have a reason to head to the cabin?

The nest empties.

To these ends, there are field agents in the world reporting back by earpiece, and everything about the cabin is wired for video and audio: The rooms, the surrounding woods, even the nearby lake.

Once the ritual sacrifice begins, they have to keep an even tighter surveillance: Are they behaving according to trope? Do they realize the dark truth? Is the Virgin suffering but safe? A lot of the technology seen in the control room is dedicated to this core function of monitoring.

The stage managers monitor the victims.

There are huge screens at the front of the room. There are manual controls for these screens on the big panel. There is an array of CRTs on the far right.

The small digital screens can display anything, but a mode we often see is a split in quarters, showing four cameras in the area of the stage. For example, all the cameras fixed on the rooms are on one screen. This provides a very useful peripheral signal in Sitterson and Hadley’s visual field. As they monitor the scenario, motion will catch their eyes. If that motion is not on a monitor they expect it to be, they can check what’s happening quickly by turning their head and fixating. This helps keep them tightly attuned to what’s happening in the different areas on “stage.”

For internal security, the entire complex is also wired for video, including the holding cages for the nightmare monsters.

Sitterson looks for the escapees amongst the cubes.

The control room watches the bloody chaos spread.

One screen that kind of confuses us appears to be biometrics of the victims. Are the victims implanted with devices for measuring such things, or are sophisticated non-invasive environmental sensors involved? Regardless of the mechanisms, if Control has access to vital signs, how are they mistaken about Marty’s death? We only get a short glance at the screen, so maybe it’s not vital signs, but simple, static biometrics like height, and weight, even though the radiograph diagram suggests more.

Sitterson tries to avoid talking to Mordecai.

Communications

Sitterson and Hadley are managing a huge production. It involves departments as broad ranging as chemistry, maintenance, and demolitions. To coordinate and troubleshoot during the ritual, two other communications options are available beyond the monitors; land phone lines and direct-connection, push-to-talk microphones.

Hadley receives some bad news.

A disaster-avoidance service

The key system in The Cabin in the Woods is a public service, and all technological components can be understood as part of this service. It is, of course, not a typical consumer service for several reasons. Like the CIA, FBI, and CDC, the people who most benefit from this service—humanity at large—are aware of it barely, if at all. These protective services only work by forestalling a negative event like a terrorist action or plague. Unlike these real-world threats, if Control fails in their duties, there is no crisis management as a next step. There’s only the world ending. Additionally, it is not typical in that it is an ancient service that has built itself up over ages around a mystical core.

So who are the users of the service? The victims are not. They are intentionally kept in the dark, and it is seen as a crisis when Marty learns the truth.

Given that interaction design requires awareness of the service in question, as well as inputs and outputs to steer variables towards a goal, it stands that the organization in the complex are the primary users. Even more particularly it is Sitterson and Hadley, the two “stage managers” in charge of the control room for the event, who are the real users. Understanding their goals we can begin an analysis. Fittingly, it’s complex:

  • Forestall the end of the world…
  • by causing the (non-Virgin) victims to suffer and die before Dana (who represents the Virgin archetype)…
  • at the hand of a Horrible Monster selected by the victims themselves…
  • marking each successful sacrifice with a blood ritual…
  • while keeping the victims unaware of the behind-the-scenes truth.

Sitterson and Hadley dance in the control room.

Part of a larger network with similar goals

This operation is not the only one operating at the same time. There are at least six other operations, working with their particular archetypes and rituals around the world: Berlin, Kyoto, Rangoon, Stockholm, Buenos Aires, and Madrid.

To monitor these other scenarios, there are two banks of CRT monitors high up on the back wall, each monitor dedicated to a different scenario. Notably, these are out of the stage manager’s line of attention when their focus is on their own.

The CRT monitors display other scenarios around the world.

The digital screens on the main console are much more malleable, however, and can be switched to display any of the analog video feeds if any special attention needs to be paid to it.

The amount of information that the stage managers need about any particular scenario is simple: What’s the current state of an ongoing scenario, and whether it has succeeded or failed for a concluded one. We don’t see any scenario succeed in this movie, so we can’t evaluate that output signal. Instead, they all fail. When they fail, a final image is displayed on the CRT with a blinking red legend “FAIL” superimposed across it, so it’s clear when you look at the screen (and catch it in the “on” part of the blink) what it’s status is.

Sitterson watches the Kyoto scenario fail.

Hadley sees that other scenarios have all failed.

One critique of this simple pass-fail signal is that it is an important signal that might be entirely missed, if the stage managers’ attentions were riveted forward, to problems in their own scenario. Another design option would be to alert Sitterson and Hadley to the moment of change with a signal in their peripheral attention, like a flash or a brief buzz. But signaling a change of state might not be enough. The new state, i.e. 4 of 7 failed, ought to be persistent in their field of vision as they continue their work, if the signal is considered an important motivator.

The design of alternate, persistent signals depend on rules we do not have access to. Are more successful scenarios somehow better? Or is it a simple OR-chain, with just one success meaning success overall? Presuming it’s the latter, strips of lighting around the big screens could become increasingly bright red, for instance, or a seven-sided figure mounted around the control room could have wedges turn red when those scenarios failed. Such environmental signals would allow the information to be glanceable, and remind the stage managers of the increasing importance of their own scenario. These signals could turn green at the first success as well, letting them know that the pressure is off and that what remains of their own scenario is to be run as a drill.

There is a Prisoner’s Dilemma argument to be made that stage managers should not have the information about the other scenarios at all, in order to keep each operation running at peak efficiency, but this would not have served the narrative as well.