Escape pod weapons cache

I wish that the last Starship Troopers interface wasn’t this one, but so it goes.

After piloting the escape pod through the atmosphere using the meager interfaces she has to work with, it careens off of a hill to pierce the thin wall of a mountainside and landing Ibanez and Barcalow squarely in the dangerous depths of bug burrows.

After checking on Ibanez, Barcalow exits the pod and struts around to the back of it, where he pulls open a panel to access the weapons within.

So equipped, the pair are able to defend themselves at least a few moments before being overwhelmed by superior bug numbers.

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So. OK. This.

I want to ask why, in the first place, they would get out of a vehicle that can survive space, re-entry, breaking through a frakking mountainside, and crash landing without so much as a scratch. If they’d stayed there, would the bugs have been able to get at them? Couldn’t staying inside of it given them at least a fighting chance until Rico got there? The glass didn’t break when slammed at terminal velocity into stone. I think it can handle bug pincers. But I digress. that’s a question of character logic, not interfaces, so let me put that aside.

Instead, let me ask about the design rationale of putting the weapons in an exterior compartment. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put them inside the pod? If they’d landed with hostiles present outside the vehicle, what was the plan, ask them to hold on while you grabbed something from the trunk?

Additionally, it appears that there are no security features. Barcalow just opens it. Silly seeming, of course, but that’s how it should work, i.e., for the right person it just opens up. So in the spirit of apologetics—and giving it way more credit than it’s earned across this film—let’s presume that the pod has some passive authentication mechanism that biometrically checks him at a distance and unlocks the panel so that he doesn’t even have to think about it, especially in this crisis scenario.

That’s an apologetics gift from me to you, Starship Troopers, since I still have a soft spot in my heart for you.

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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Resistance Chutes

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In order to conduct its subversions, the Resistance has a set of secret pneumatic chutes throughout SoGo. To monitor them, they have a map of the city with the chutes drawn as lines and places within the city illuminated with small lights.

The purpose of the lights is a bit vague, since just before Barbarella leaves Resistance Headquarters, Dildano glances at the map to see a red dot flashing at the very top. Gesturing at the light he remarks, “The time is right. The Queen is in her Chamber of Dreams.” But we know from the end of the film that the Queen’s Dream Chamber is on the lowest level of the city, close to Mathmos. (It would seem the Resistance has some severe information gathering issues.) So is each location able to change color to represent prominent individuals? What if two prominent people are in the same place? How does Dildano indicate which prominent person he wishes to track? We never see these controls, and per the axiom of providing inputs near outputs, we would want them to be somewhere around here.

We do get to see one interface in action, though. The chutes themselves are controlled by a set of rather rickety knife switches with large handles. A Resistance member throws one of the switches to initiate suction in a particular tube. (Fans of Futurama should note some similarities to the public transportation system in New New York.)

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One the switch is thrown, a traveler extends his or her arms upwards, and then the tube handles the rest. The exits is ungraceful, tumbling travelers onto the floor in conspicuous places somewhere in SoGo.

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Piranha dolls

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

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

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

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

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Pilot seat

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The reawakened alien places his hand in the green display and holds it there for a few seconds. This summons a massive pilot seat. If the small green sphere is meant to be a map to the large cyan astrometric sphere, the mapping is questionable. Better perhaps would be to touch where the seat would appear and lift upwards through the sphere.

He climbs into the seat and presses some of the “egg buttons” arrayed on the armrests and on an oval panel above his head. The buttons illuminate in response, blinking individually from within. The blink pattern for each is regular, so it’s difficult to understand what information this visual noise conveys. A few more egg presses re-illuminate the cyan astrometric display.

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A few more presses on the overhead panel revs up the spaceship’s engines and seals him in an organic spacesuit. The overhead panel slowly advances towards his face. The purpose for this seems inexplicable. If it was meant to hold the alien in place, why would it do so with controls? Even if they’re just navigation controls that no longer matter since he is on autopilot, he wouldn’t be able to take back sudden navigation control in a crisis. If the armrest panels also let him navigate, why are the controls split between the two parts?

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On automatic at this point, the VP traces a thin green arc from the chair to the VP earth and adds highlight graphics around it. Then the ceiling opens and the spaceships lifts up into the air.

Interior Doors

Certain doors within Prometheus require the user open them by providing input to a glowing keypad on the door. Reviewing these door panels in detail shows a great deal of variation in their design and interaction.

Descriptions

The first one we see has the panel to the left within arm’s reach of the door’s central seam. To open this door, David touches a black square on the interface, though its details are difficult to see. We do hear a beeping to confirm the touch before the door whooshes open.

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We get a clearer view of the panel that lets him into a hallway. This door is just around a meter wide, and the panel is on the left near the frame at chest level. This vertical panel has white safety stripes at the top, with a yellow row of buttons below that. The middle of the panel has two columns on the left and right edges stacked with buttons, and a 4×3 grid of buttons, labeled with characters that look something like Braille, but that don’t translate readily from English Braille, and with some of the dots in the cells larger or brighter than others. Below that grid of buttons is a white duplication of the yellow buttons above. At the bottom is a red duplication of the safety stripes button at the top.

To gain access to the hallway (where the destination threshold event occurs), David presses two keys at once—what would be the 2 and 4 keys on a telephone keypad—and the door slides open.

Later he touches the same chord of keys to open a door for Shaw and Holloway.

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There is another design for the door panel outside of Meredith’s room. This panel has the white safety stripe button, the Braille-ish panel (but with the left column colored yellow), a new yellow panel of triangles, and the red safety stripe button at the bottom.

The door is slightly open when he approaches it, but unpassable. After Meredith commands, “Robe!” he presses the “5” key on the panel and the door opens fully. This panel is on the right side of the door.

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The panel to exit Weyland’s sickbay is on the door just to the left. When Shaw wants to leave the room after her traumatizing alien-abortion, she slams both hands against the panels, sliding her fingers along it and pressing what sounds like five separate buttons.

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The panel that gives Shaw access back into the escape pod’s sickbay is again different, with many of the same elements from other panels, but a row of five yellow ovals outlined below the safety stripes button at the top.

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This is the only time we also see the panel on the far side of the same door. We only see a corner of it, but it does not have ovals on the other side, and some circular elements below the Braille panel. It is probably the same design as on Meredith’s door.

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Then when the alien breaks into the escape pod and pins her against this door, we see a close up of a panel, but this one appears identical to the one on the inside of the door, rather than the yellow-oval one we saw moments before. It also appears to be identical to the one on the inside of the door (and outside Meredith’s quarters.) A confusing detail in this panel is that while similar “Braille” cells are differentiated in other panels by a variation in the dots, in this one the the “3” and “6” keys seem to be the exact same character, highlights and all. Since we don’t know the meanings of this character, it could be a “shift” or modifier key which bears repeating, we don’t know. To activate this panel, she slams her left hand downward onto it. This opens the door, freeing the massive xenomorph alien within to grapple the architect alien.

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And finally, when we see her escaping the hallway where the aliens are locked in combat, she approaches a door with an oval interface, which she opens by slamming the heel of her palm against it with a grunt.

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Analysis

Passing through doorways is probably one of the most common non-work activities that a crew member can do onboard a spaceship. To have crewmember key in a password every time seems like a pointless waste of everyone’s time. There are so many passive ways to check identity to authorize access that it seems silly to even bother to list them. Why not use any of these alternate technologies?

Add to that that each door panel seems to have a different one of half-dozen different designs, placed randomly on the left or right side of the door, and at least in the escape pod, multiple designs per door at several different heights. What value can there be to this chaos? It would be grossly error prone and frustrating. This level of randomness to the interface even defies the notion of it being a watchclock.

Since David and Shaw each had multiple, different-length passwords for different doors, it might seem that it’s a security measure. But when it can be opened with a punch or a hand bump, is it really security? Giving this aspect of the design the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it has some contextual awareness of Shaw’s heightened stress levels, and responds to the effective command where it might not in normal circumstances. This effective computing apology would be the way you wanted doors to work, but the film gives no evidence that this is what is at play.

Given the apparent randomness of the other panel interfaces, even apology ultimately fails us in making sense of these confusing interfaces.

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.

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