The bug VP

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In biology class, the (unnamed) professor points her walking stick (she’s blind) at a volumetric projector. The tip flashes for a second, and a volumetric display comes to life. It illustrates for the class what one of the bugs looks like. The projection device is a cylinder with a large lens atop a rolling base. A large black plug connects it to the wall.

The display of the arachnid appears floating in midair, a highly saturated screen-green wireframe that spins. It has very slight projection rays at the cylinder and a "waver" of a scan line that slowly rises up the display. When it initially illuminates, the channels are offset and only unify after a second.

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The top and bottom of the projection are ringed with tick lines, and several tick lines runs vertically along the height of the bug for scale. A large, lavender label at the bottom identifies this as an ARACHNID WARRIOR CLASS. There is another lavendar key too small for us to read.The arachnid in the display is still, though the display slowly rotates around its y-axis clockwise from above. The instructor uses this as a backdrop for discussing arachnid evolution and "virtues."

After the display continues for 14 seconds, it shuts down automatically.

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Interaction

It’s nice that it can be activated with her walking stick, an item we can presume isn’t common, since she’s the only apparently blind character in the movie. It’s essentially gestural, though what a blind user needs with a flash for feedback is questionable. Maybe that signal is somehow for the students? What happens for sighted teachers? Do they need a walking stick? Or would a hand do? What’s the point of the flash then?

That it ends automatically seems pointlessly limited. Why wouldn’t it continue to spin until it’s dismissed? Maybe the way she activated it indicated it should only play for a short while, but it didn’t seem like that precise a gesture.

Of course it’s only one example of interaction, but there are so many other questions to answer. Are there different models that can be displayed? How would she select a different one? How would she zoom in and out? Can it display aimations? How would she control playback? There are quite a lot of unaddressed details for an imaginative designer to ponder.

Display

The display itself is more questionable.

Scale is tough to tell on it. How big is that thing? Students would have seen video of it for years, so maybe it’s not such an issue. But a human for scale in the display would have been more immediately recognizable. Or better yet, no scale: Show the thing at 1:1 in the space so its scale is immediately apparent to all the students. And more appropriately, terrifying.

And why the green wireframe? The bugs don’t look like that. If it was showing some important detail, like carapice density, maybe, but this looks pretty even. How about some realistic color instead? Do they think it would scare kids? (More than the “gee-whiz!” girl already is?)

And lastly there’s the title. Yes, having it rotate accomodates viewers in 360 degrees, but it only reads right for half the time. Copy it, flip it 180º on the y-axis, and stack it, and you’ve got the most important textual information readable at most any time from the display.

Better of course is more personal interaction, individual displays or augmented reality where a student can turn it to examine the arachnid themselves, control the zoom, or follow up on more information. (Wnat to know more?) But the school budget in the world of Starship Troopers was undoubtedly stripped to increase military budget (what a crappy world that would be amirite?), and this single mass display might be more cost effective.

Section No6′s crappy sniper tech

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Section 6 sends helicopters to assassinate Kunasagi and her team before they can learn the truth about Project 2501. We get a brief glimpse of the snipers, who wear full-immersion helmets with a large lens to the front of one side, connected by thick cables to ports in the roof of the helicopter. The snipers have their hands on long barrel rifles mounted to posts. In these helmets they have full audio access to a command and control center that gives orders and recieves confirmations.

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The helmets feature fully immersive displays that can show abstract data, such as the profiles and portraits of their targets.

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These helmets also provide the snipers an augmented reality display that grants high powered magnification views overlaid with complex reticles for targeting. The reticles feature a spiraling indicator of "gyroscopic stabilization" and a red dot that appears in the crosshairs when the target has been held for a full second. The reticles do not provide any "layman" information in text, but rely solely on simple shapes that a well-trained sniper can see rather than read. The whole system has the ability to suppress the cardiovascular interference of the snipers, though no details are given as to how.

These features seem provocative, and a pretty sweet setup for a sniper: heightened vision, supression of interference, aiming guides, and signals indicating a key status. But then, we see a camera on the bottom of the helicopter, mounted with actuators that allow it to move with a high (though not full) freedom of movement and precision. What’s this there for? It wouldn’t make sense for the snipers to be using it to aim. Their eyes are in the direction of their weapons.

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This could be used for general surveillance of course, but the collection of technologies that we see here raise the question: If Section 9 has the technology to precisely-control a camera, why doesn’t it apply that to the barrel of the weapon? And if it has the technology to know when the weapon is aimed at its target (showing a red dot) why does it let humans do the targeting?

Of course you want a human to make the choice to pull a trigger/activate a weapon, because we should not leave such a terrible, ethical, and deadly decision to an algorithm, but the other activities of targeting could clearly be handled, and handled better, by technology.

This again illustrates a problem that sci-fi has had with tech, one we saw in Section 6′s security details: How are heroes heroic if the machines can do the hard work? This interface retreats to simple augmentation rather than an agentive solution to bypass the conflict. Real-world designers will have to answer it more directly.

Brain VP

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When trying to understand the Puppet Master, Kusanagi’s team consults with their staff Cyberneticist, who displays for them in his office a volumetric projection of the cyborg’s brain. The brain floats free of any surrounding tissue, underlit in a screen-green translucent monochrome. The edge of the projection is a sphere that extends a few centimeters out from the edge of the brain. A pattern of concentric lines routinely passes along the surface of this sphere. Otherwise, the "content" of the VP, that is, the brain itself, does not appear to move or change.

The Cyberneticist explains, while the team looks at the VP, "It isn’t unlike the virtual ghost-line you get when a real ghost is dubbed off. But it shows none of the data degradation dubbing would produce. Well, until we map the barrier perimeter and dive in there, we won’t know anyting for sure."

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The VP does not appear to be interactive, it’s just an output. In fact, it’s just an output of the surface features of a brain. There’s no other information called out, no measurements, or augmenting data. Just a brain. Which raises the question of what purpose does this projection serve? Narratively, of course, it tells us that the Cyberneticist is getting deep into neurobiology of the cyborg. But he doesn’t need that information. Kunasagi’s team doesn’t even need that information. Is this some sort of screen saver?

And what’s up with the little ripples? It’s possible that these little waves are more than just an artifact of the speculative technology’s refresh. Perhaps they’re helping to convey that a process is currently underway, perhaps "mapping the barrier perimeter." But if that was the case, the Cyberneticist would want to see some sense of progress against a goal. At the very least there should be some basic sense of progress: How much time is estimated before the mapping is complete, and how much time has elapsed?

Of course any trained brain specialist would gain more information from looking at the surface features of a brain than us laypersons could understand. But if he’s really using this to do such an examination, the translucency and peaked, saturated color makes that task prohibitively harder than just looking at the real thing an office away or a photograph, not to mention the routine rippling occlusion of the material being studied.

Unless there’s something I’m not seeing, this VP seems as useless as an electric paperweight.

R-3000 “Spider tank” vision

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Section 6 stations a spider tank, hidden under thermoptic camouflage, to guard Project 2501. When Kunasagi confronts the tank, we see a glimpse of the video feed from its creepy, metal, recessed eye. This view is a screen green image, overlaid with two reticles. The larger one with radial ticks shows where the weapon is pointing while the smaller one tracks the target.

I have often used the discrepancy between a weapon- and target-reticle to point out how far behind Hollywood is on the notion of agentive systems in the real world, but for the spider tank it’s very appropriate.The image processing is likely to be much faster than the actuators controlling the tank’s position and orientation. The two reticles illustrate what the tank’s AI is working on. This said, I cannot work out why there is only one weapon reticle when the tank has two barrels that move independently.

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When the spider tank expends all of its ammunition, Kunasagi activates her thermoptic camouflage, and the tank begins to search for her. It switches from its protected white camera to a big-lens blue camera. On its processing screen, the targeting reticle disappears, and a smaller reticle appears with concentric, blinking white arcs. As Kunasagi strains to wrench open plating on the tank, her camouflage is compromised, allowing the tank to focus on her (though curiously, not to do anything like try and shake her off or slam her into the wall or something). As its confidence grows, more arcs appear, become thicker, and circle the center, indicating its confidence.

The amount of information on the augmentation layer is arbitrary, since it’s a machine using it and there are certainly other processes going on than what is visualized. If this was for a human user, there might be more or less augmentation necessary, depending on the amount of training they have and the goal awareness of the system. Certainly an actual crosshairs in the weapon reticle would help aim it very precisely.

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Section No9′s crappy security

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The heavily-mulleted Togusa is heading to a company car when he sees two suspicious cars in the parking basement. After sizing them up for a moment, he gets into his car and without doing anything else, says,

"Security, whose official vehicles are parked in the basement garage?"

It seems the cabin of the car is equipped to continuously monitor for sound, and either an agent from security is always waiting, listening at the other end, or by addressing a particular department by name, a voice recognition system instantly routs him to an operator in that department, who is able to immediately respond:

"They belong to Chief Nakamura of the treaties bureau and a Dr. Willis."

"Give me the video record of their entering the building."

In response, a panel automatically flips out of the dashboard to reveal a monitor, where he can watch the the security footage. He watches it, and says,

"Replay, infrared view"

After watching the replay, he says,

"Send me the pressure sensor records for basement garage spaces B-7 and 8."

The screen then does several things at once. It shows a login screen, for which his username is already supplied. He mentally supplies his password. Next a menu appears on a green background with five options: NET-WORK [sic], OPTICAL, PRESSURE, THERMO, and SOUND. "PRESSURE" highlights twice with two beeps. Then after a screen-green 3D rendering of Section 9 headquarters builds, the camera zooms around the building and through floorplans to the parking lot to focus on the spaces, labeled appropriately. Togusa watches as pea green bars on radial dials bounce clockwise, twice, with a few seconds between.

The login

Sci-fi logins often fail for basic multifactor authentication, and at first it appears that this screen only has two parts: a username and password. But given that Togusa connects to the system first vocally and then mentally, it’s likely that one of these other channels supplies a third level of authentication. Also it seems odd to have him supply a set of characters as the mental input. Requiring Togusa to think a certain concept might make more sense, like a mental captcha.

The zoom

Given that seconds can make a life-or-death difference and that the stakes at Section 9 are so high, the time that the system spends zooming a camera around the building all the way to the locations is a waste. It should be faster. It does provide context to the information, but it doesn’t have to be distributed in time. Remove the meaningless and unlabeled dial in the lower right to gain real estate, and replace it with a small version of the map that highlights the area of detail. Since Togusa requested this information, the system should jump here immediately and let him zoom out for more detail only if he wants it or if the system wants him to see suspect information.

The radial graphs

The radial graphs imply some maximum to the data, and that Nakamura’s contingent hits some 75% of it. What happens if the pressure exceeds 37 ticks? Does the floor break? (If so, it should have sent off structural warning alarms at the gate independently of the security question.) But presumably Section 9 is made of stronger stuff than this, and so a different style of diagram is called for. Perhaps remove the dial entirely and just leave the parking spot labels and the weight. Admittedly, the radial dial is unusual and might be there for consistency with other, unseen parts of the system.

Moreover, Togusa is interested in several things: how the data has changed over time, when it surpassed an expected maximum, and by how much. This diagram only addresses one of them, and requires Togusa to notice and remember it himself. A better diagram would trace this pressure reading across time, highlighting the moments when it passed a threshold. (This parallels the issues of medical monitoring highlighted in the book, Chapter 12, Medicine.)

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Even better would be to show this data over time alongside or overlaid with any of the other feeds, like a video feed, such that Togusa doesn’t have to make correlations between different feeds in his head. (I’d have added it to the comp but didn’t have source video from the movie.)

The ultimately crappy Section No9 security system

Aside from all these details of the interface and interaction design, I have to marvel at the broader failings of the system. This is meant to be the same bleeding-edge bureau that creates cyborgs and transfers consciousnesses between them? If the security system is recording all of this information, why is it not being analyzed continuously, automatically? We can presume that object recognition is common in the world from a later scene in which a spider tank is able to track Kunasagi. So as the security system was humming along, recording everything, it should have also been analyzing that data, noting the discrepancy between of the number of people it counted in any of the video feeds, the number of people it counted passing through the door, and the unusual weight of these "two" people. It should have sent a warning to security at the gate of the garage, not relied on the happenstance of Togusa’s hunch and good timing.

This points to a larger problem that Hollywood has with technology being part of its stories. It needs heroes to be smart and heroic, and having them simply respond to warnings passed along by smart system can seem pointedly unheroic. But as technology gets smarter and more agentive, these kinds of discrepancies are going to break believability and get embarassing.

Roach Cam

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To learn the plans of the President, Zorg’s flunky named Right Arm infiltrates the briefing room via a remote-controlled cockroach. This adorable insect has a small parabolic receiver antenna on its back. Right Arm can watch what it sees with its eyes and listen to what it can hear through its… cerci?

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The screen he uses is mostly full of the roachcam video. But it is unfortunately surrounded by some screen-green sciencey nonsense. A row across the top is headed “001″ with rectangles labeled “MOVE”, “METHOD”, “CHECK”, and “SYSTEM.” A row just below is headed “A-B” with rectangles labeled “SPEED”, “TIMER”, “EXIT”, and “FILTERS.” A column of screen-green nonsense shapes fills the left side. A small butterfly-shaped graph at the bottom-left is labeled “CHECK.” A small box labeled “CALCULATING” is in the lower middle, which occasionally fills with scrolling nonsense. The right side of the screen is full of a circular graph showing a seizure-inducing flashing pair of green concentric circles. A green 8×8 grid on the right stays empty the whole time, though it is arguably the most likely useful thing, i.e. an overhead view of threats, say, like presidents brandishing cockroach-smashing shoes. Below the unused grid is a diagram of the roach itself, probably useful for understanding the health of the vehicle. Below that is a bit of unintelligible text reversed out of a gray background. When the roach nears the President, a bit of green nonsense text appears overlaid on the video feed, though it never changes.

I think this screen would have been less distracting and more helpful for Right Arm if you stripped away all the gunk at the top, the nonsensical overlay, trashed the column of hastily-drawn icons, saved him the constant distraction of the seizure circle by removing it, and leaving him with the two things that would actually be useful: the map (populated of course with some useful information), and the roach health diagram. Even though this screen is seen only for a few seconds at most, it reads as if it was hastily put together, unlike most other things seen in the film.

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He is able to control the roach’s movement by means of a joystick with a rotating head. In contrast to the screen, this provides exactly what Right Arm needs to control the roach, and no more. He can move it forward and back by pushing the joystick forward and back. He can have it strafe right or left by moving the joystick appropriately. And when he wants to have it turn right or left, he can twist the joystick head in that direction. Pushing or twisting farther results in more motion. All told, a perfect input control for the task at hand. At least until you ask the roach.

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Profiling “CAT” scan

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After her escape from the nucleolab, Leeloo ends up on a thin ledge of a building, unsure where to go or what to do. As a police car hovers nearby, the officers use an onboard computer to try and match her identity against their database. One officer taps a few keys into an unseen keyboard, her photograph is taken, and the results displays in about 8 seconds. Not surprisingly, it fails to find a match, and the user is told so with an unambiguous, red “NO FILE” banner across the screen.

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This interface flies by very quickly, so it’s not meant to be read screen by screen. Still, the wireframes present a clear illustration of what the system doing, and what the results are.

The system shouldn’t just provide dead ends like this, though. Any such system has to account for human faces changing over the time since the last capture: aging, plastic surgery, makeup, and disfiguring accidents, to name a few. Since Leeloo isn’t inhuman, it could provide some results of “closest matches,” perhaps with a confidence percentage alongside individual results. Even if the confidence number was very low, that output would help the officers understand it was an issue with the subject, and not an issue of an incomplete database or weak algorithm.

One subtle element is that we don’t see or hear the officer telling the system where the perp is, or pointing a camera. He doesn’t even have to identify her face. It automatically finds her in the camera few, identifies her face, and starts scanning. The sliding green lines tell the officer what it’s finding, giving him confidence in its process, and offering an opportunity to intervene if it’s getting things wrong.

Bridge VP: Mapping

The main interface on the bridge is the volumetric projection display. This device takes up the center of the bridge and is the size of a long billiards table. It serves multiple purposes for the crew. Its later use is to display the real-time map of the alien complex.

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The redshirt geologist named Chance in the landing party uses some nifty tools to initiate mapping of the alien complex. The information is sent from these floating sensors back to the ship, which displays the results in real time.

The display of this information is rich with a saturated-color, color-coded, edge-opacity style, leaving outer surfaces rendered in a gossamer cyan, and internal features rendered in an edge-lit green wireframe. In the area above the VP surface, other arbitrary rectangles of data can be summoned for particular tasks, including in-air volumetric keyboards. The flat base of the bridge VP is mirrored, which given the complex 3D nature of the information, causes a bit of visual confusion. (Am I seeing two diamonds reflected or four on two levels?)

Later in the film, Janek tells Ravel to modify the display; specifically, to “strip away the dome” and “isolate that area, bring it up.” He is even to enlarge and rotate the alien spaceship when they find it. Ravel does these modifications this through a touch screen panel at his station, though he routes the results to the “table.” We don’t see the controls in use so can’t evaluate them. But being able to modify displays are one of the ways that people look for patterns and make sense of such information.

A major question about this interface is why this information is not routed back to the people who can use it the most, i.e. the landing party. Chance has to speak to Janek over their intercom and figure out his cardinal directions in one scene. I know they’re redshirts, but they’re already wearing high tech spacesuits. And in the image below we see that this diegesis has handheld volumetric projections. They couldn’t integrate one of those to a sleeve to help life-critical wayfinding?