Joh’s Videophone

One of the most impressive interfaces seen in the film is Joh’’s wall-mounted videophone. It is a marvel of special effects for 1927, and an ideal example that no matter how far sci-fi wants to look into the future, it must base its interfaces on the paradigms familiar to the audiences. Note in Joh’’s use of the interface how the videophone is an awkward blend of early 20th century technology metaphors.

The videophone is a large device, easily as tall as Joh himself, mounted to the wall of his office. At its center is a large vertically-oriented video screen that is angled upwards for easy downward viewing. To the right and left of the screen are large tuning dials. A series of knobs and controls sit below the dials.

Joh checks the recent activity of the video phone.

When he first approaches the device, he checks the tickertape dangling from an overhung box on the left. Not seeing anything of interest, he drops the paper and approaches the screen.

Joh tunes in the channel he needs to speak to Grot.

Reaching up to the right dial, he turns its hand counterclockwise from pointing at the number 10 to the number 6. Then he turns the left hand dial to 4, and the screen comes to life. It first displays the legend “HM 2” at the top. Some video appears below this, but rather than a clear feed of a single camera, it is a shifting blend of different cameras. Joh must fiddle with a few controls to clear the reception.

This moment seems quite strange to viewers familiar with modern video technology, since their experience is rooted in VHF broadcast, cable television, or online video. With these technology metaphors, channels are discrete. But it is important to recall that television was not popularized at the time, and the media metaphor most familiar to that audience would be radio, which users do in fact have to “tune” to get a clear signal.

Joh picks up the phone and calls Grot.

Joh verifies that he’s seeing the right channel visually, by seeing Grot’s nervous pacing in camera view. Confident that he’’s calling the right place, Joh picks up a telephone handset from the device, and reaches across to repeatedly press a button on the right. In response, the light bulbs on Grot’’s videophone begin to blink and (presumably) make a sound.

Joh tells Grot to destroy the Heart Machine.

Grot rushes to his device, looks into the screen and lifts his handset. The two have a conversation, each looking directly at the face on the screen.

This moment is another telling one. Lang was familiar with cameras, and could have had his actors talking to a lens. But instead he had them do what felt right and would make sense to the audience, i.e. talking to the other “person,” not the machine. In this way Lang is involved in “bodystorming” the right feel of technology, and in so doing is setting expectations for the way the real technology——should it ever get here—should work.

His command issued, Joh hangs up on an incredulous Grot.

A final note on the interaction is that, to end the call, Joh returns the handset to its resting position, and, much like a telephone, this ends the call for both parties.

This seems to us like an overcomplicated mash-up of technology metaphors: telegraph, film, radio, and telephone. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but it’’s not that Lang lacked the vision. He easily could have made the device more “magic,” by omitting the telephone handset and have Joh speak directly to the image of Grot. But Lang was not a technologist. He was a filmmaker, and needed to take his audience on the journey with him. He spoke to them in their shared language, using understandable cues to the individual components that, when added together add up to the something new that is one of the delights and promises of science fiction.

Middle class oppression

Laborers of the Upper City have their own machines to worry about.

Josaphat feels stress while monitoring figures.

One of Joh’s assistants, Josaphat, has a similarly difficult task. He stands at a tall panel where lit symbols fall quickly and randomly down one of six tall, thin screens. He has to transcribe them (and possibly perform calculations with them) in one of three different books.

Josaphat turns his station off.

The only sensible part of this setup is the mechanism for shutting it down. Given the time pressure its operator is under, it could be disastrous if a single switch was accidentally touched. Instead, to turn it off Josephat must stretch his arms to reach two distant buttons. Touching them both shuts down the station. This seems especially prescient when considering that similar constraints informed the design of the familiar CTRL-ALT-DELETE key sequence for Windows operating systems.