The Lifeboat Controls

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After Wall-E and Eve return to the Axiom, Otto steals the Earth plant and has his security bot place it on a lifeboat for removal from the ship. Wall-E follows the plant onboard the pod, and is launched from the Axiom when the security bot remotely activates the pod. The Pod has an autopilot function (labeled an auto-lock, and not obviously sentient), and a Self-Destruct function, both of which the security bot activates at launch. Wall-E first tries to turn the auto-pilot off by pushing the large red button on the control panel. This doesn’t work.

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Wall-E then desperately tries to turn off the auto-destruct by randomly pushing buttons on the pod’s control panel. He quickly gives up as the destruct continues counting down and he makes no progress on turning it off. In desperation, Wall-E grabs a fire extinguisher and pulls the emergency exit handle on the main door of the pod to escape.

The Auto-Destruct

There are two phases of display on the controls for the Auto-Destruct system: off and countdown. In its off mode, the area of the display dedicated to the destruct countdown is plain and blue, with no label or number. The large physical button in the center is unlit and hidden, flush with the console. There is no indication of which sequence of keypresses activates the auto-destruct.

When it’s on, the area turns bright red, with a pulsing countdown in large numbers, a large ‘Auto-Destruct’ label on the left. The giant red pushbutton in the center is elevated above the console, surrounded by hazard striping, and lit from within.

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The odd part is that when the button in the center gets pushed down, nothing happens. This is the first thing Wall-E does to turn the system off, and it’s has every affordance for being a button to stop the auto-destruct panel in which it sits. It’s possible that this center button is really just a pop-up alert light to add immediacy to the audible and other visual cues of impending destruction.

If so, the pod’s controls are seriously inadequate.

Wall-E wants to shut the system off, and the button is the most obvious choice for that action. Self-destruction is an irreversible process (even more so than the typical ‘ejector seat’ controls that Alan Cooper likes to talk about). If accidentally activated, it is something that needs to be immediately shut off. It is also something that would cause panicked decision making in the escape pod’s users.

The blinking button in the center of the control area is the best and most obvious target to “SHUT IT OFF NOW!”

Of course this is just part of the fish-out-of-water humor of the scene, but is there a real reason it’s not responding like it obviously should? One possibility is that the pod is running an authority scan of all the occupants (much like the Gatekeeper for the bridge or what I suggested for Eve’s gun), and is deciding that Wall-E isn’t cleared to use that control. If so, that kind of biometric scanning should be disabled for a control like the Anti-Auto-Destruct. None of the other controls (up to and including the airlock door exit) are disabled in the same way, which causes serious cognitive dissonance for Wall-E.

The Axiom is able to defend itself from anyone interested in taking advantage of this system through the use of weapons like Eve’s gun and the Security robots’ force fields.

Anything that causes such a serious effect should have an undo or an off switch. The duration of the countdown gives Wall-E plenty of time to react, but the pod should accept that panicked response as a request to turn the destruct off, especially as a fail-safe in case its biometric scan isn’t functioning properly, and there might be lives in the balance.

The Other Controls

No Labels.

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Seriously?

This escape pod is meant to be used in an emergency, and so the automatic systems should degrade as gracefully as possible.

While beautiful, extremely well grouped by apparent function, and incredibly responsive to touch inputs, labels would have made the control panel usable for even a moderately skilled crewmember in the pilot seat. Labels would also provide reinforcement of a crew member’s training in a panic-driven situation.

Buy-N-Large: Beautifully Designed Dystopia

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A design should empower the people using it, and provide reinforcement to expert training in a situation where memory can be strained because of panic. The escape-pod has many benefits: clear seating positions, several emergency launch controls, and an effective auto-pilot. Adding extra backups to provide context for a panicked human pilot would add to the pod’s safety and help crew and passengers understand their options in an emergency.

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Dust Storm Alert

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While preparing for his night cycle, Wall-E is standing at the back of his transport/home. On the back drop door of the transport, he is cleaning out his collection cooler. In the middle of this ritual, an alert sounds from his external speakers. Concerned by the sound, Wall-E looks up to see a dust storm approaching. After seeing this, he hurries to finish cleaning his cooler and seal the door of the transport.

A Well Practiced Design

The Dust Storm Alert appears to override Wall-E’s main window into the world: his eyes. This is done to warn him of a very serious event that could damage him or permanently shut him down. What is interesting is that he doesn’t appear to register a visual response first. Instead, we first hear the audio alert, then Wall-E’s eye-view shows the visual alert afterward.

Given the order of the two parts of the alert, the audible part was considered the most important piece of information by Wall-E’s designers. It comes first, is unidirectional as well as loud enough for everyone to hear, and is followed by more explicit information.

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Equal Opportunity Alerts

By having the audible alert first, all Wall-E units, other robots, and people in the area would be alerted of a major event. Then, the Wall-E units would be given the additional information like range and direction that they need to act. Either because of training or pre-programmed instructions, Wall-E’s vision does not actually tell him what the alert is for, or what action he should take to be safe. This could also be similar to tornado sirens, where each individual is expected to know where they are and what the safest nearby location is.

For humans interacting alongside Wall-E units each person should have their own heads-up display, likely similar to a Google-glass device. When a Wall-E unit gets a dust storm alert, the human could then receive a sympathetic alert and guidance to the nearest safe area. Combined with regular training and storm drills, people in the wastelands of Earth would then know exactly what to do.

Why Not Network It?

Whether by luck or proper programming, the alert is triggered with just enough time for Wall-E to get back to his shelter before the worst of the storm hits. Given that the alert didn’t trigger until Wall-E was able to see the dust cloud for himself, this feels like very short notice. Too short notice. A good improvement to the system would be a connection up to a weather satellite in orbit, or a weather broadcast in the city. This would allow him to be pre-warned and take shelter well before any of the storm hits, protecting him and his solar collectors.

Other than this, the alert system is effective. It warns Wall-E of the approaching storm in time to act, and it also warns everyone in the local vicinity of the same issue. While the alert doesn’t inform everyone of what is happening, at least one actor (Wall-E) knows what it means and knows how to react. As with any storm warning system, having a connection that can provide forecasts of potentially dangerous weather would be a huge plus.

Nucleolab Progress Indicator

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As the nucleolab is reconstructing Leeloo, the screen on the control panel provides update, detailing the process. For the most part this update is a wireframe version of what everyone can see with their eyes.

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The only time it describes something we can’t see with our own eyes is when Leeloo’s skin is being “baked” by an ultraviolet light under a metal cover. Of course we know this is a narrative device to heighten the power of the big reveal, but it’s also an opportunity for the interface to actually do something useful. It has a green countdown clock, and visualizes something that’s hidden from view.

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As far as a progress indicator goes, it’s mostly useful. Mactilburgh presumably knows roughly how long things take and even the order of operations. All he needs is confirmation that his system is doing what it’s supposed to be, and the absence of an error is enough for him. The timer helps, too, since he’s like a kid waiting for an Easy Bake Oven…of science.

But Munro doesn’t know what the heck is going on. Sure he knows some of the basics of biology. There’s going to be a skeleton, some muscle, some nerves. But beyond that, he’s got a job to do, and that’s to take this thing out the minute it goes pear-shaped. So he needs to know: Is everything going OK? Should I pop the top on a tall boy of Big Red Button? It might be that the interface has some kind of Dire Warning mode for when things go off the rails, but that doesn’t help during the good times. Giving Munro some small indicator that things are going well would remove any ambiguity and set him at ease.

An argument could be made that you don’t want Munro at ease, but a false positive might kill Leeloo and risk the world. A false negative (or a late negative) just risks her escape. Which happens anyway. Fortunately for us.

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Taxi navigation

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The taxi has a screen on the passenger’s side dashboard that faces the driver. This display does two things. First, it warns the driver when the taxi is about to be attacked. Secondly, it helps him navigate the complexities of New York circa 2163.

Warning system

After Korben decides to help Leeloo escape the police, they send a squadron of cop cars to apprehend them. And by apprehend I mean blow to smithereens. The moment Korben’s taxi is in sights, they don’t try to detain or disable the vehicle, but to blast it to bits with bullets and more bullets. It seems this is a common enough thing to have happen that Korben’s on-board computer can detect it in advance and provide a big, flashing, noisemaking warning to this effect.

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In many cases I object to the Big Label, but not here. In fact, for such a life-threatening issue, more of the taxi’s interface should highlight the seriousness. My life’s in danger? Go full red alert, car. Change the lights to crimson. Dim non-essential things. You’ve got an “automatic” button there. Does that include evasive maneuvering? If so, make that thing opt-out rather than opt-in. Help a brother out.

Navigation aid

At other times during the chase scene, Korben can glance at the screen to see a wireframe of the local surroundings. This interface has a lot of problems.

1. This would work much, much more safely and efficiently for Korben if it was a heads-up display on the windshield. Let’s shrink that feedback loop. Every time a driver glances down he risks a crash and in this case, Korben risks the entire world. If HUD tech isn’t a part of the diegesis, audio cues might be some small help that don’t require him to take his eyes of the “road.”

2. How does the wireframe style help? It’s future-y of course, but it adds a lot of noise to what he’s got to process. He doesn’t need to understand tesselations of surfaces. He needs to understand the shapes and velocities of things around him so he can lose the tail.

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(Exercise for the reader: Provide a solid diegetic explanation for why this screen appeared in the film flipped horizontally.)

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3. There’s some missing information. If the onboard computer can do some real-time calculations and make a recommendation on the best next step, why not do it? We see above that the police have the same information that Korben does. So even better might be information on what the tail is likely to do so Korben can do the opposite. Or maneuvers that Korben can execute that the cop car can’t. If it’s possible to show places he should definitely not go, like dead ends or right into the path, say, of a firing squad of police cars, that would be useful to know, too.

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4. What are those icons in the lower right meant to do? They’re not suggestions as they appear after Korben performs his maneuvers, and sometimes appear along with warnings instead of maneuvers.

Even if they are suggestions, what are they directions to? His original destination? He didn’t have one. Some new destination? When did he provide it? Simple, goal-aware directions to safety? Whatever the information, these icons add a lot cognitive weight and visual work. Surely there’s some more direct way to provide cues, like being superimposed on the 3D so he can see the information rather than read and interpret it.

If they’re something else other than suggestions, they’re just noise. In a pursuit scenario, you’d want to strip that stuff out of the interface.

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5. What is that color gradient on the left meant to tell him? All the walls in this corridor are 350…what? The screen shot above hints that it represents simple height from the ground, but the 2D map has these colors as well, and height cues wouldn’t make sense there. If it is height, this information might help Korben quickly build a 3D mental map of the information he’s seeing. But using arbitrary colors forces him to remember what each color means. Better would be to use something with a natural order to it like the visible spectrum or black-body spectrum. Or, since people already have lots of experience with monocular distance cues and lighting from above, maybe a simple rendering as if the shapes were sunlit would be fastest to process. Taking advantage of any of these perceptual faculties would let him build a 3D model quickly so he can focus on what he’s going to do with the information.

Side note: Density might actually make a great deal more sense to the readout, knowing that Korben has a penchant for ramming his taxi through things. If this was the information being conveyed, varying degrees of transparency might have served him better to know what he can smash through safely, and even what to expect on the other side.

6. Having the 2D map helps a bit to understand the current level of the city from a top-down view. Having it be small in the upper right is a sound placement, since that’s a less-important subset of the information he really needs. It has some color coding but as mentioned above it doesn’t seem to relate to what’s colored in the 3D portion, which could make for an interpretation disaster. In any case, Korben shouldn’t have to read this information in the tiny map. It’s a mode, a distraction. While he’s navigating the alleys and tunnels of the city, he’s thinking in a kind of 3D node-graph. Respect that kind of thinking with a HUD that puts information on the “edges” of the graph, i.e., the holes in the surfaces around him that he’s looking at. That’s his locus of attention. That’s where he’s thinking. Augment that.

So, you know…bad

Fortunately, given that the interface has so many problems, Korben only really glances at this once during the chase, and that’s at the warning sound. But if the younger Korben was meant to use this at all, there’s a lot of work to make this useful rather than dangerous.

Barbarella’s energy box

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In addition to the portable brainwave detector, Dianthus also provides Barbarella with a number of weapons from the Museum of Conflict for her mission. All of these weapons are powered by a single energy box.

We only see it in use after she fires a single shot from the smallest of the weapons. She tries a second shot, but when it doesn’’t work, she glances at a device on the cuff of her boot. The device is designed in a taijitu, a yin-yang set of lights: one red, one white. They are blinking in an alternating pattern, and after viewing it she tells Pygar, ““My energy box is completely dead.””

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Though having a visual signal is quite useful to understand the state of an invisible resource like power, the signal would be much more useful if it showed the amount of energy remaining, and gave warnings before the power was completely out. Failing all that, it would be more useful if she just put the device on the glove of her shooting hand so it was in her field of view at all times.

And though Barbarella’s culture doesn’t understand war, even a peaceful person can quickly come to realize the risk in making your available resources—like power for your weapons—wholly visible to your enemies.

Mr. Yuk

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On the side of the valley in which the first complex is found, there is a giant skull carved into the overlooking crag. It’s easy—given the other transgressions in the film—to dismiss this as spookhouse attempt at being scary. But what if (stay with me here) it’s a warning sign, an alien Mr. Yuk, put there for other sentient humanoids to understand that this place is deadly with a capital D? This explains why the outpost hasn’t been disturbed by rescuers of their own race. They were smart enough to see the warning and turn right back around. (Why they didn’t nuke it from orbit is another question.)

The Material

Seeing this as a warning label raises other questions. Why wouldn’t a warning be technological or linguistic, like most of the interfaces inside the complex? The black infection material is still deadly after 2000 years. Who knows how much longer it will be viable? So where the interfaces inside are for immediate use, the warning outside needs to be effective for millennia, outlasting both the power reserves that would drive technology and the persistent semantics that would cement linguistic understanding. Rock, in contrast, lasts a very, very long time. Even during the erosion the shape and its clear meaning will simply lose clarity, not wink out altogether.

The symbol

Similarly, this shape is a clear symbol of death that is tied to biology, which changes on evolutionary timeframes, guaranteeing its readability for—hopefully—longer than the xenomorph liquid would be a danger.

For these reasons, this is labeling that is more than a Castle Grayskull set dressing attempt at scaaaarrrry, but a reasonable choice at providing an effective warning that will last as long as the danger. You know, providing visiting scientists actually pay attention to such things.

Flight instrument panels

There are a great many interfaces seen on the bridge of the Prometheus, and like most flight instrument panels in sci-fi, they are largely about storytelling and less about use.

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The captain of the Prometheus is also a pilot, and has a captain’s chair with a heads-up display. This HUD has with real-time wireframe displays of the spaceship in plan view, presumably for glanceable damage feedback.

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He also can stand afore at a waist-high panel that overlooks the ship’s view ports. This panel has a main screen in the center, grouped arrays of backlit keys to either side, a few blinking components, and an array of red and blue lit buttons above. We only see Captain Janek touch this panel once, and do not see the effects.

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Navigator Chance’s instrument panel below consists of four 4:3 displays with inscrutable moving graphs and charts, one very wide display showing a topographic scan of terrain, one dim panel, two backlit reticles, and a handful of lit switches and buttons. Yellow lines surround most dials and group clusters of controls. When Chance “switches to manual”, he flips the lit switches from right to left (nicely accomplishable with a single wave of the hand) and the switches lights light up to confirm the change of state. This state would also be visible from a distance, useful for all crew within line of sight. Presumably, this is a dangerous state for the ship to be in, though, so some greater emphasis might be warranted: either a blinking warning, or a audio feedback, or possibly both.

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Captain Janek has a joystick control for manual landing control. It has a line of light at the top rear-facing part, but its purpose is not apparent. The degree of differentiation in the controls is great, and they seem to be clustered well.

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A few contextless flight screens are shown. One for the scientist known only as Ford features 3D charts, views of spinning spaceships, and other inscrutable graphs, all of which are moving.

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A contextless view shows the points of metal detected overlaid on a live view from the ship.

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There is a weather screen as well that shows air density. Nearby there’s a push control, which Chance presses and keeps held down when he says, “Boss, we’ve got an incoming storm front. Silica and lots of static. This is not good.” Thought we never see the control, it’s curious how such a thing could work. Would it be an entire-ship intercom, or did Chance somehow specify Janek as a recipient with a single button?

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Later we see Chance press a single button that illuminates red, after which the screens nearby change to read “COLLISION IMMINENT,” and an all-ship prerecorded announcement begins to repeat its evacuation countdown.

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This is single button is perhaps the most egregious of the flight controls. As Janek says to Shaw late in the film, “This is not a warship.” If that’s the case, why would Chance have a single control that automatically knows to turn all screens red with the Big Label and provide a countdown? And why should the crew ever have to turn this switch on? Isn’t a collision one of the most serious things that could happen to the ship? Shouldn’t it be hard to, you know, turn off?

Destination threshold

As David is walking through a ship’s hallway, a great clanging sounds from deep in the ship, as the colored lights high in the walls change suddenly from a purple to a flashing red, and a slight but urgent beeping begins. He glances at a billiards table in an adjacent room, sees the balls and cue sliding, and understands that it wasn’t just him: gravity has definitely changed.

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There are questions about what’s going on with the ship that the gravity changed so fast, but our interest must be in the interfaces.

Why did David not expect this? If they’re heading to a planet and the route is known, David should know well in advance. The ship should have told him, especially if the event is going to be one that could potentially topple him. Presuming the ship has sensors to monitor all of this, it should not have come as a surprise.

The warning itself seems mostly well designed, using multiple modes of signal and clear warning signs:

  • Change in color from a soft to intense color (They even look like eyes squinting and concentrating in the thumbnails.)
  • A shift to red, commonly used for warning or crisis
  • Blinking red is a hugely attention-getting visual signal
  • Beeping is a auditory signal that is also a common warning signal, and hard to ignore

After David sees these signals, he walks to wall panel and presses a few offscreen buttons which beep back at him and silence the beeping, replacing it with overhead pulses of light that race up and down the hallway. Over the sound system a male voice announces “Attention. Destination threshold.”

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Why should David have to go find out what the crisis is at the wall interface? If he had been unable to get to the wall interface, how would he know what happened? Or if it required split-second action, why require of him to waste his time getting there and pressing buttons? In a crisis, the system should let you know what the crisis is quickly and intrusively if it’s a dire crisis in need of remedy. The audio announcement should have happened automatically.

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The overhead lights are almost a nice replacement for beeping. It still says, “alert” without the grating annoyance that audio can sometimes be. (There’s still a soft “click” with each shifting light, just not as bad.) But if he’s able to silence the audio at this wall panel, why wasn’t he able to silence the race lights as well? And why do they “race” up and down the hallway rather than just blink? The racing provides an inappropriate sense of motion. Given that this signal is for when the crew is in an unusual and potentially dangerous situation, it would be better to avoid the unhelpful motion cue by simply blinking, or to use the sense of direction they provide to signal to David where he ought to be. A simple option would be to have the hallway lights race continuously in the direction of the bridge, leading the crew to where they would be most effective. Even better is if the ship has locational awareness of individual crew members, then you can cut all overhead illumination by 20% and pulse a light a few feet away in the desired direction between 80 and 100 percent, while darkening the hallway in the opposite direction. Then, as David walks towards the blinking light, the ship can lead him, even around corners, to get him where he needs to be. In a real crisis, this would be an easy and intuitive way to lead people where they’re need to be. It would of course need simple overrides in case the crew knew something about the situation that the ship did not.

After walking through the racing-light hallways, he turns just past the door and into the bridge, where we can see the legend “DESTINATION THRESHOLD” across the pilots HUD. He turns on a light, licks a finger, and presses another button to activate all of the interfaces on the bridge. He walks to the pilot’s panel, presses a button to open the forward viewscreen, observing LV223 with wide-eyed wonder.

This entire sequence seems strange from an interface perspective. We’re going to presume that licking his fingers was just a character tic and not required by the system. But in addition to the fact, raised above, that David seems somewhat surprised by it all, that he should have to open doors and manually turn on lights and interfaces during a crisis seems pointless. It’s either not a crisis and these signals should diminish, or it is a crisis and more of this technology should be automated.

Robbie the Robot

Dr. Morbius creates Robbie after having his intellectual capacity doubled by the Krell machines. The robot is a man-sized, highly capable domestic servant receiving orders aurally, and responding as needed with a synthesized voice of his own.

Robbie exits the cockpit of his vehicle.

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Robbie first appears steering a special vehicle to pick up the officers. It is specially built for him, accommodating his inability to sit down. From this position, he can wirelessly maneuver the vehicle, and even turn his head around to address passengers.

Robbie fires Adams’’ sidearm.

Despite his having only two wide, flat fingers on each hand, he is able to grasp and manipulate objects as a human would. To demonstrate this, Morbius has him aim and fire Commander Adams’’ weapon at a nearby tree. How he pulled the trigger is something of an unanswered question since his hands are hidden from view as he fires, but he does so all the same. This makes him quite useful as an interface, since he is able to use any of the devices already in the environment. Additionally, should he become unavailable, humans can carry on in his absence.

Alta thanks Robbie for offering to make her a new dress.

Given that he must interact with humans, who have social needs, his stature helps ingratiate him. In one scene Alta wishes to express her gratitude for his promise of a new dress, and she gives him a hug. Though he does not hug back, she still smiles through and after the expression. Had he been less anthropometric, she would have had to express her thanks in some other way that was less pleasant to her.

Robbie warms the coffee for Alta and Farman.

In addition to being physically suited for human interaction, he is quite socially aware and able to anticipate basic human needs. In one scene, as Lt. Farman walks with Alta towards a cold pot of coffee, without having been asked, Robbie reaches down to press a button that warms the coffee by the time the two of them arrive. He also knows to leave immediately afterwards to give the two some privacy.

Despite these human-like qualities, some of his inhuman qualities make him useful, too. He is shown to be incredibly strong. He is tireless. He can synthesize any material he “tastes.”

With eyes behind his head, Robbie shoos a pesky monkey.

He even has “eyes in the back of his head,” or a 360-degree field of vision for surveillance of his surroundings. In one charming scene he combines this observation with small nonlethal lasers to shoo away a pesky monkey trying to steal fruit behind his back.

Morbius shows Robbie’’s “sub-electronic dilemma” when asked to harm a human.

Addressing safety concerns, Robbie is built to obey Asimov’’s first law of robotics. After having his creator instruct him to point a weapon at Adams, and “aim right between the eyes and fire,” Robbie’’s servos begin to click and whir noisily. His dome glows a pinkish-red as blue sparks leap across it. Morbius explains, ““He’’s helpless. Locked in a sub-electronic dilemma between my direct orders and his basic inhibitions against harming rational beings.”” When the command is canceled, the sparks stop immediately and the red fades over a few seconds.

This failsafe seems quite serious, as Dr. Morbius explains that if he were to allow the state to continue, that Robbie would “blow every circuit in his body.” Since the fault of such a state is with the one issuing the command and not Robbie, it seems a strange design. It would be like having your email server shut down because someone is trying to send an email infected with a virus. It would make much more sense for Robbie to simply disregard the instruction and politely explain why.

Tool of liberation

Maria’’s heroism in saving the children of the Lower City from flooding is aided by what may be only positive depiction of a technology in the film.

Maria summons the children with the gong in the town square.

To summon the children so that she can direct them to safety, she climbs a structure in the center of the town square. There she struggles with a very difficult-to-budge lever, but when she finally does so, it sets a loud gong to ringing. In keeping with the film’’s theme, this brings people together so they can be saved.