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.

Otto’s Manual Control

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When it refused to give up authority, the Captain wrested control of the Axiom from the artificial intelligence autopilot, Otto. Otto’s body is the helm wheel of the ship and fights back against the Captain. Otto wants to fulfil BNL’s orders to keep the ship in space. As they fight, the Captain dislodges a cover panel for Otto’s off-switch. When the captain sees the switch, he immediately realizes that he can regain control of the ship by deactivating Otto. After fighting his way to the switch and flipping it, Otto deactivates and reverts to a manual control interface for the ship.

The panel of buttons showing Otto’s current status next to the on/off switch deactivates half its lights when the Captain switches over to manual. The dimmed icons are indicating which systems are now offline. Effortlessly, the captain then returns the ship to its proper flight path with a quick turn of the controls.

One interesting note is the similarity between Otto’s stalk control keypad, and the keypad on the Eve Pod. Both have the circular button in the middle, with blue buttons in a semi-radial pattern around it. Given the Eve Pod’s interface, this should also be a series of start-up buttons or option commands. The main difference here is that they are all lit, where the Eve Pod’s buttons were dim until hit. Since every other interface on the Axiom glows when in use, it looks like all of Otto’s commands and autopilot options are active when the Captain deactivates him.

A hint of practicality…

The panel is in a place that is accessible and would be easily located by service crew or trained operators. Given that the Axiom is a spaceship, the systems on board are probably heavily regulated and redundant. However, the panel isn’t easily visible thanks to specific decisions by BNL. This system makes sense for a company that doesn’t think people need or want to deal with this kind of thing on their own.

Once the panel is open, the operator has a clear view of which systems are on, and which are off. The major downside to this keypad (like the Eve Pod) is that the coding of the information is obscure. These cryptic buttons would only be understandable for a highly trained operator/programmer/setup technician for the system. Given the current state of the Axiom, unless the crew were to check the autopilot manual, it is likely that no one on board the ship knows what those buttons mean anymore.

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Thankfully, the most important button is in clear English. We know English is important to BNL because it is the language of the ship and the language seen being taught to the new children on board. Anyone who had an issue with the autopilot system and could locate the button, would know which button press would turn Otto off (as we then see the Captain immediately do).

Considering that Buy-N-Large’s mission is to create robots to fill humans’ every need, saving them from every tedious or unenjoyable job (garbage collecting, long-distance transportation, complex integrated systems, sports), it was both interesting and reassuring to see that there are manual over-rides on their mission-critical equipment.

…But hidden

The opposite situation could get a little tricky though. If the ship was in manual mode, with the door closed, and no qualified or trained personnel on the bridge, it would be incredibly difficult for them to figure out how to physically turn the ship back to auto-pilot. A hidden emergency control is useless in an emergency.

Hopefully, considering the heavy use of voice recognition on the ship, there is a way for the ship to recognize an emergency situation and quickly take control. We know this is possible because we see the ship completely take over and run through a Code Green procedure to analyze whether Eve had actually returned a plant from Earth. In that instance, the ship only required a short, confused grunt from the Captain to initiate a very complex procedure.

Security isn’t an issue here because we already know that the Axiom screens visitors to the bridge (the Gatekeeper). By tracking who is entering the bridge using the Axiom’s current systems, the ship would know who is and isn’t allowed to activate certain commands. The Gatekeeper would either already have this information coded in, or be able to activate it when he allowed people into the bridge.

For very critical emergencies, a system that could recognize a spoken ‘off’ command from senior staff or trained technicians on the Axiom would be ideal.

Anti-interaction as Standard Operating Procedure

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The hidden door, and the obscure hard-wired off button continue the mission of Buy-N-Large: to encourage citizens to give up control for comfort, and make it difficult to undo that decision. Seeing as how the citizens are more than happy to give up that control at first, it looks like profitable assumption for Buy-N-Large, at least in the short term. In the long term we can take comfort that the human spirit–aided by an adorable little robot–will prevail.

So for BNL’s goals, this interface is fairly well designed. But for the real world, you would want some sort of graceful degradation that would enable qualified people to easily take control in an emergency. Even the most highly trained technicians appreciate clearly labeled controls and overrides so that they can deal directly with the problem at hand rather than fighting with the interface.

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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Alien Stasis Chambers

The alien stasis chambers have recessed, backlit touch controls. The shape of each looks like a letterform. (Perhaps in Proto-Indo-European language that David was studying at the start of the film?) David is able to run his fingers along and tap these character shapes in particular sequences to awaken the alien sleeping within.

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The writing/controls take up quite a bit of room, on both the left and right sides of the chamber near the occupant’s head. It might seem a strange decision to have controls placed this way, since a single user might have to walk around the chamber to perform tasks. But a comparison of the left and right side shows that the controls are identical, and so are actually purposefully redundant. This way it doesn’t matter which side of the chamber a caretaker was on, he could still operate the controls. Two caretakers might have challenges “walking over” each other’s commands, especially with the missing feedback (see below).

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Having the writing/controls spread over such a large area does seem error prone. In fact in the image above, you can see that David’s left hand is resting with two fingers “accidentally” in the controls. (His other hand was doing the button pressing.) Of course this could be written off as “the technology is not made for us, it’s made for an alien race,” but the movie insists these aliens and humans share matching DNA, so apart from being larger in stature, they’re not all that different.

Two things seem missing in the interface. The first is simple feedback. When David touches the buttons, they do not provide any signal that his touch has been received. If he didn’t apply enough pressure to register his touch, he wouldn’t have any feedback to know that until an error occurred. The touch walls had this feedback, so it seems oddly missing here.

The second thing missing is some status indicator for the occupant. Unless that information is available on wearable displays, having it hidden forces a caretaker to go elsewhere for the information or rely solely on observation, which seems far beneath the technological capabilities seen so far in the complex. See the Monitoring section in Chapter 12 of Make it So for other examples of medical monitoring.

Remote Monitoring

The Prometheus spacesuits feature an outward-facing camera on the chest, which broadcasts its feed back to the ship, where the video it overlaid with the current wearer’s name, and inscrutable iconographic and numerical data along the periphery. The suit also has biometric sensors, continuously sending it’s wearer’s vital signs back to the ship. On the monitoring screen, a waveform in the lower left appears is similar to a EKG, but is far too smooth and regular to be an actual one. It is more like an EKG icon. We only see it change shape or position along its bounding box once, to register that Weyland has died, when it turns to a flat line. This supports its being iconic rather than literal.

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In addition to the iconic EKG, a red selection rectangle regularly changes across a list in the upper left hand corner of the monitor screens. One of three cyan numbers near the top occasionally changes. Otherwise the peripheral data on these monitoring screens does not change throughout the movie, making it difficult to evaluate its suitability.

The monitoring panel on Prometheus features five of the monitoring feeds gathered on a single translucent screen. One of these feeds has the main focus, being placed in the center and scaled to double the size of the other monitors. How the monitoring crewperson selects which feed to act as the main focus is not apparent.

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Vickers has a large, curved, wall-sized display on which she’s able to view David’s feed at one point, so these video feeds can be piped to anyone with authority.

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David is able to turn off the suit camera at one point, which Vickers back on the Prometheus is unable to override. This does not make sense for a standard-issue suit supplied by Weyland, but it is conceivable that David has a special suit or has modified the one provided to him during transit to LV-223.

The breach

The breach is not well-handled by the systems around the control room. Not only do the lights not have a local backup power source, but the screens on the background display Big Labels saying unhelpful things like, “ESCAPE ALERT – UNKNOWN SECURITY BREACH.” If you were designing a system specifically to control nightmare monsters to sacrifice helpless victims, I think the first thing your risk officer should work out is a system that can recognize and withstand when one of those two things (monsters or victims) was out of place. The least you could do is provide users with extremely clear status messages about them.

Sitterson and Truman scan the video monitors for Dana and Marty.

Escape hatch

After the breach, we see one more interface for the stage managers: an old escape route. Even though Control is world-critical, its designers imagined that things could go haywire. Presuming that other scenarios are going fine, if all hope is lost in this one, the stage managers have a way out of the control room. We only get a few glimpses of this interface, but it looks to be a computer-controlled security access lock whose 8-bit graphics imply that it was implemented in the early 1990s, around the time when Microsoft Windows 3.1 was the dominant computing paradigm.

Sitterson desperately enters his PID.

After working desperately a bit, Sitterson is able to get the system to a screen that asks for his PID. He uses a rubber-key keypad below the screen to enter it, and is told “SECURITY OVERRIDE GRANTED.” In this way he is able to open the trap door and escape the monsters swarming the control room.

Especially given the amount of stress that a user is likely to be under while using this interface, and the infrequency with which it must be used, it seems absolutely cruel to secure the door by a memorized identification number. Unless that PID is used frequently enough to become habit, it’s unlikely to be remembered when the user is trying to escape death. Better is to use the ID cards already seen in the film in combination with some biometric scan like retina or finger print.

The “Resources”

There is a system in place to manage the “resources,” the nightmare creatures available to be chosen by the victims for their sacrifice. This management includes letting them out to the surface, putting them back in place safely, and containment throughout the intervening year between sacrifices.

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The one interface element that we do see in use is the one that Dana and Marty use to release the imprisoned nightmare monsters throughout the complex. It is a single kill-switch button labeled “SYSTEM PURGE”, located on a panel in the security booth that overlooks the main elevator bank. While hiding from approaching security forces, Dana notices the switch beneath the monitoring screens. She flips a protective switch cover to enable it, sees a confirming amber light, and then slams down on the kill switch. Moments later, the first of several waves of nightmare monsters are released through the elevator doors into the complex.

Dana slams the System Purge kill switch.

From a story viewpoint, this is an awesome moment where the story becomes utter chaos and the workforce of jaded sacrificers get their horrible, horrible come-uppance. But from a design standpoint, it’s utter nonsense. Imagine a nuclear power plant where the kill switch, which is accessible through an unlocked door and labeled clearly for any saboteur to read, dumps live fuel rods and heavy water onto the heads of the plant operators. Or a zoo where the animals-are-furious-and-hungry switch dumps the animals right onto the grounds. A system like Control, with global reach and resources, would find some other space into which this murderous tsunami can be vented, and ensure proper security around the activation mechanism. Still, this makes for hilarious chaos and the “happy” ending, so as audience members we’re glad Control messed up on its design strategy.

Marty had already been shown to be able to hack Control’s electronics upstairs, so I suspect the narrative decision about the purge switch was made to give Dana some additional agency in this part of the story, and add some punch to the onset of the final act, so we’ll count that as a minor quibble, too.

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.

Tools of the aristocracy

Joh is the civil and capital leader of Metropolis, and his large office reflects it in the amount of technology it has. To the left of the door is Josaphat’’s work interface (see Middle Class Oppression for more detail). To the right are two other pieces of technology: a large video screen hangs high, and a video phone rests on the wall below.

Joh Frederson paces in his office.

His desk also features some impressive technology. He has a bell jar ticker machine for receiving information. A large output panel on the right side of his desk allows people to request his attention. It features a huge array of thin bulbs labeled with particular codes. In one scene, Joh hears a sound and lifts his head to see a blinking light next to one of the labels. In response he touches a button on a control panel on the left of his desk to close the curtains, and then another to open the door to his office and receive Josephat.

Joh notices that Josephat wishes to speak to him.

Joh closes the curtains from his desk.

Later he uses another button on this same panel to summon his agent, called the Thin Man.

Joh closes the curtains from his desk.

These interfaces are particular to Joh, conveniences only available to one in a position of wealth and power.