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.

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.

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.

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In addition to the biometric readout at the foot of the hypersleep chamber, David can also check on the humans in hypersleep via direct visual contact. Though the walls of these chambers are ordinarily opaque, by placing his hand on a corner, David can cause the walls become translucent and the top becomes transparent. This allows him to directly view the body to check on a hypersleeper’s appearance, while maintaining some privacy for the hypersleeper from other straying eyes in the area.

The topmost surface of the chamber also has a translucent interface displaying such information as the sleeper’s name, labeled CRYO SLEEP; something called DREAM STATE, which is numerical (Shaw’s is 0560-09797?); and a few other pieces of inscrutable data.

There are a number of problems with this interface. The translucent interface might be a good idea because it would reduce the time between looking at abstractions of data and looking at a subject. But the data shown on the interface is not clearly biometric. (A solid argument can be made that it would be better to swap the data found on this screen and the data seen in the HYP.SL screen at the head of the bed.) In this case, since the data is not biometric, the overlay might actually occlude important outward signs and is therefore a bit misplaced.

Additionally, since the chambers are situated with their feet towards the wall, the orientation of the typography seems to have poor usability as well. For optimal reading in this portrait orientation, a viewer would have to go as far out of his way as possible in the space. This information should have been laid out along the landscape orientation of the pane, and the information moved to the edge such that an unhindered visual scan of the sleeper is possible.

I was at first confused about a feature of the chambers seen later in the movie, when David is surprised to find evidence that Meredith has exited her chamber and walked to her quarters, long ahead of the others. Why was he surprised? If you were designing a system for a caretaker, wouldn’t you want him to know when something as major as that occurs? Then I realized that Meredith outranks and is resentful of David, so it’s entirely likely that if she could, she would enjoy configuring her personal program to wake her ahead of the others and disable any notification that David would ordinarily receive.

Neuro-Visor

The second interface David has to monitor those in hypersleep is the Neuro-Visor, a helmet that lets him perceive their dreams. The helmet is round, solid, and white. The visor itself is yellow and back-lit. The yellow is the same greenish-yellow underneath the hypersleep beds and clearly establishes the connection between the devices to a new user. When we see David’s view from inside the visor, it is a cinematic, fully-immersive 3D projection of events in her dreams, that is presented in the “spot elevations” style that is predominant throughout the film (more on this display technique later).

Later in the movie we see David using this same helmet to communicate with Weyland who is in a hypersleep chamber, but Weyland is somehow conscious enough to have a back-and-forth dialogue with David. We don’t see either David’s for Weyland’s perspective in the scene.

David communicated with Weyland.

As an interface, the helmet seems straightforward. He has one Neuro-Visor for all the hypersleep chambers, and to pair the device to a particular one, he simply touches the surface of the chamber near the hyper sleeper’s head. Cyan interface elements on that translucent interface confirm the touch and presumably allow some degree of control of the visuals. To turn the Neuro-Visor off, he simply removes it from his head. These are simple and intuitive gestures that makes the Neuro-Visor one of the best and most elegantly designed interfaces in the movie.