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.

Rodger Young Bridge Doors

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I have a special interest in sci-fi doors, so, for completeness in the database, I’m going to document what’s we see with the security doors of the Rodger Young, which is not much.

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To access the bridge, Carmen walks through a short corridor, with large, plate-metal doors at either end. As she approaches each, they slide up over the course of about a second, making a grinding sound as they rise, and a heavy puff of air when they are safely locked open. (If they’re automatic, why don’t they close behind her?) The lower half-meter of each door is emblazoned with safety stripes.

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Carmen appears to do nothing special to authenticate with the doors. That either means that there is no authentication, or that it’s a sophisticated passive authentication that works as she approaches. I suggested just such a passive authentication for the Prometheus escape pod. The main difference in what I recommended there and what we see here is that both Carmen and the audience could use some sort of feedback that this is happening. A simple glowing point with projection rays towards her eyes or something, and even a soft beep upon confirmation.

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The only other time we see the door in action is after Carmen’s newly plotted course "discovers" the asteroid en route to Earth. It’s a Code Red situation, and the door doesn’t seem to behave any differently, even admitting about half a dozen people in at a time, so we have to presume that this is one those "dumb" doors.

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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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The Dropship

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The Axiom Return Vehicle’s (ARV’s) first job is to drop off Eve and activate her for her mission on Earth. The ARV acts as the transport from the Axiom, landing on the surface of Earth to drop off Eve pods, then returning after an allotted time to retrieve the pods and return them to the Axiom.

The ARV drops Eve at the landing site by Wall-E’s home, then pushes a series of buttons on her front chest. The buttons light up as they’re pushed, showing up blue just after the arm clicks them. At the end of the button sequence, Eve wakes up and immediately begins scanning the ground directly in front of her. She then continues scanning the environment, leaving the ARV to drop off more Eve Pods elsewhere.

If It Ain’t Broke…

There’s an oddity in ARV’s use of such a crude input device to activate Eve. On first appearance, it seems like it’s a system that is able to provide a backup interface for a human user, allowing Eve to be activated by a person on the ground in the event of an AI failure, or a human-led research mission. But this seems awkward in use because Eve’s front contains no indication of what the buttons each do, or what sequence is required.

A human user of the system would be required to memorize the proper sequence as a physical set of relationships. Without more visual cues, it would be incredibly easy for the person in that situation to push the wrong button to start with, then continue pushing wrong buttons without realizing it (unless they remembered what sound the first button was supposed to make, but then they have one /more/ piece of information to memorize. It just spirals out of control from there).

What was originally for people is now best used by robots.

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So if it’s not for humans, what’s going on? Looking at it, the minimal interface has strong hints of originally being designed for legacy support: large physical buttons, coded interface, and tilted upward for a person standing above it. BNL shows a strong desire to design out people, but leave interactions (see The Gatekeeper). This style of button interface looks like a legacy control kept by BNL because by the time people weren’t needed in the system anymore, the automated technology had already been adapted for the same situation.

Large hints to this come from the labels. Each label is an abstract symbol, with the keys grouped into two major areas (the radial selector on the top, and the line of large squares on the bottom). For highly trained technicians meant to interact only rarely with an Eve pod, these cryptic labels would either be memorized or referenced in a maintenance manual. For BNL, the problem would only appear after both the technicians and the manual are gone.

It’s an interface that sticks around because it’s more expensive to completely redo a piece of technology than simply iterate it.

Despite the information hurdles, the physical parts of this interface look usable. By angling the panel they make it easier to see the keypad from a standing position, and the keys are large enough to easily press without accidentally landing on the wrong one. The feedback is also excellent, with a physical depression, a tactile click, and a backlight that trails slightly to show the last key hit for confirmation.

If I were redesigning this I would bring in the ability for a basic- or intermediate-skill technician to use this keypad quickly. An immediate win would be labeling the keys on the panel with their functions, or at least their position in the correct activation sequence. Small hints would make a big difference for a technician’s memory.

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To improve it even more, I would bring in the holographic technology BNL has shown elsewhere. With an overlay hologram, the pod itself could display real-time assistance, of the right sequence of keypresses for whatever function the technician needed.

This small keypad continues to build on the movie’s themes of systems that evolve: Wall-E is still controllable and serviceable by a human, but Eve from the very start has probably never even seen a human being. BNL has automated science to make it easier on their customers.

Klaatunian interior

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When the camera first follows Klaatu into the interior of his spaceship, we witness the first gestural interface seen in the survey. To turn on the lights, Klaatu places his hands in the air before a double column of small lights imbedded in the wall to the right of the door. He holds his hand up for a moment, and then smoothly brings it down before these lights. In response the lights on the wall extinguish and an overhead light illuminates. He repeats this gesture on a similar double column of lights to the left of the door.

The nice thing to note about this gesture is that it is simple and easy to execute. The mapping also has a nice physical referent: When the hand goes down like the sun, the lights dim. When the hand goes up like the sun, the lights illuminate.

He then approaches an instrument panel with an array of translucent controls; like a small keyboard with extended, plastic keys. As before, he holds his hand a moment at the top of the controls before swiping his hand in the air toward the bottom of the controls. In response, the panels illuminate. He repeats this on a similar panel nearby.

Having activated all of these elements, he begins to speak in his alien tongue to a circular, strangely lit panel on the wall. (The film gives no indication as to the purpose of his speech, so no conclusions about its interface can be drawn.)

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Gort also operates the translucent panels with a wave of his hand. To her credit, perhaps, Helen does not try to control the panels, but we can presume that, like the spaceship, some security mechanism prevents unauthorized control.

Missing affordances

Who knows how Klaatu perceives this panel. He’s an alien, after all. But for us mere humans, the interface is confounding. There are no labels to help us understand what controls what. The physical affordances of different parts of the panels imply sliding along the surface, touch, or turning, not gesture. Gestural affordances are tricky at best, but these translucent shapes actually signal something different altogether.

Overcomplicated workflow

And you have to wonder why he has to go through this rigmarole at all. Why must he turn on each section of the interface, one by one? Can’t they make just one “on” button? And isn’t he just doing one thing: Transmitting? He doesn’t even seem to select a recipient, so it’s tied to HQ. Seriously, can’t he just turn it on?

Why is this UI even here?

Or better yet, can’t the microphone just detect when he’s nearby, illuminate to let him know it’s ready, and subtly confirm when it’s “hearing” him? That would be the agentive solution.

Maybe it needs some lockdown: Power

OK. Fine. If this transmission consumes a significant amount of power, then an even more deliberate activation is warranted, perhaps the turning of a key. And once on, you would expect to see some indication of the rate of power depletion and remaining power reserves, which we don’t see, so this is pretty doubtful.

Maybe it needs some lockdown: Security

This is the one concern that might warrant all the craziness. That the interface has no affordance means that Joe Human Schmo can’t just walk in and turn it on. (In fact the misleading bits help with a plausible diversion.) The “workflow” then is actually a gestural combination that unlocks the interface and starts it recording. Even if Helen accidentally discovered the gestural aspect, there’s little to no way she could figure out those particular gestures and start intergalactic calls for help. And remembering that Klaatu is, essentially, a space ethics reconn cop, this level of security might make sense.

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.

Mangalore Bomb

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Sadly for Zorg, just after he deactivates his bomb, a fallen Mangalore warrior remotely activates his own bomb in Plavalaguna’s suite. The remote control is made from a combination lock. The Mangalore twists the dial to the right numbers, and on reaching the last number, a red LED lights in the center. In the diva’s suite, the box that secretly housed the bomb opens, and the bomb rises like a small metallic ziggurat, accentuated in places with red LEDs. A red, 7-segment countdown timer begins ticking down its final 5 seconds.

Aggression

Mangalores are warlike, as in they really like war. They breathe war. They sleep war. They eat war for breakfast, then poop war, then root around in their couches for war scraps and snack on that. The detonation device isn’t very sophisticated, and that’s just fine by Mangalores. If a Mangalore declared a Design major instead of War in college, they’d have been killed on the spot. This device is perfect for a species that just wants to grab something cheap and convenient, make a few modifications, and get to the boom.

We don’t see a deactivation mechanism. And while you can imagine that a nice safety would be to deactivate if the dial drifted more than, say, 5 clicks from the final activation number, Mangalores wouldn’t have it. They’d “liberate” your mother’s homeland merely for having suggesting it.

If I had to improve it in any way, it’s that it places a burden on memory, and there’s not a lot of indication that Mangalores excel in the thinking skills department, c.f. warlike. Do they have the capacity to memorize a series of numbers in order? And it is easy to recall the series in the middle of a war zone? If not, what would be better? They have their weapons with them nearly at all times, so how about a little glowing, red button on the forestock?

Ha. Joke’s on you, Mangalores. As we know from earlier in the movie, you couldn’t resist pressing it, long before you made it to ocean liners. I think if you’re that warlike and stupid, this would be best for everyone.

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Multipass

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The multipass is the all-purpose card of 2263. It’s a driver’s license, work authorization record, proof of identity, emergency medical information, phone card, plus all your credit cards in one. There is a white rectangle and yellowish, rounded-bevel shape on the lower left, each of which may be a button, but that we don’t see in use.

Often just showing it is enough for a human’s satisfaction, but sometimes it must be read by a machine. To do this, the holder inserts it into a slot, where the machine verifies its authenticity and registers the user locally. In Korben’s taxi, he has to leave it in as he operates the vehicle. At the Fhloston Paradise check-in booth, travelers dip it in and out of the reader.

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The act of inserting the card to authenticate may seem a bit old-fashioned in the days of RFID and read-at-a-distance technology, but it’s also nice to see that whatever agency was able to get the various corporations and government agencies to cooperate has also got privacy in mind. If it needs to be dipped to be read, maybe it can’t be read at a distance. That means the holder has more control over when and how it’s accessed.

As far as convenience, hot damn. It’s practically a wallet in and of itself. But there are security concerns to having all of this in one place. There are many cards that work like this in the world. Bus passes, skeeball tickets, gift cards. They’re generally low-cost. If you steal or forge Korben Dallas’ multipass, though, do you suddenly have his charge accounts, his taxi, and his phone card all at once? Seems high-cost, especially since the one forgery we see in the movie actually works.

This returns us, as so many things do, to multifactor authentication. This security philosophy requires that the user presents three factors: something they have, something they are, and something they know. The multipass covers only the first two.

  • The multipass itself is the thing they have.
  • The picture is something they are, i.e., what they look like.
  • It could be improved by requiring something they know, like a PIN or a password.

We don’t know what kind of power Cornelius’ order wielded in the world, but since it wasn’t enough to sway the president or purchase tickets to Paradise, let’s presume it wouldn’t have been enough to uncover Korben’s password, and in that case, the PIN would have foiled the attempted forgery.

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