Topography “Pups”

The “pups,” as low-grade sociopath and geologist Fifield calls them, are a set of spheres that float around and spatially map the surface contours of a given space in real-time.


To activate them, Fifield twists their hemispheres 90 degrees along their equator, and they begin to glow red along two red rings.

When held up for a few seconds, they rise to the vertical center of the space they are in, and begin to fly in different directions, shining laser in a coronal ring as they go.


In this way they scan the space and report what they detect of the internal topography back to the ship, where it is reconstructed in 3D in real time. The resulting volumetric map features not just the topography, but icons (yellow rotating diamonds with last initials above them) to represent the locations of individual scientists and of course the pups themselves.


The pups continue forward along the axis of a space until they find a door, at which they will wait until they are let inside. How they recognize doors in alien architecture is a mystery. But they must, or the first simple dead-end or burrow would render it inert.

The pups are simple, and for that they’re pretty cool. Activation by twist-and-lift is easy through the constraints of the environment suits, easy to remember, and quick to execute, but deliberate enough not to be performed accidentally. Unfortunately we never see how they are retreived, but it raises some interesting interaction design challenges.

Krell technology

Morbius is the inheritor of a massive underground complex of technology once belonging to a race known as the Krell. As Morbius explains, ““In times long past, this planet was the home of a mighty and noble race of beings which called themselves the Krell….”

Morbius tours Adams and Doc through the Krell technopolis.

“Ethically as well as technologically, they were a million years ahead of humankind; for in unlocking the mysteries of nature they had conquered even their baser selves… “…seemingly on the threshold of some supreme accomplishment which was to have crowned their entire history, this all but divine race perished in a single night.

““In the centuries since that unexplained catastrophe even their cloud-piercing towers of glass and porcelain and adamantine steel have crumbled back into the soil of Altair, and nothing——absolutely nothing——remains above ground.””

Despite this advancement, unless we ascribe to the Krell some sort of extra sensory perception and control, much of the technology we see has serious design flaws.

Morbius plays half-a-million-year-old Krell music.

The first piece of technology is a Krell recorded-music player, which Morbius keeps on the desk in his study. The small cylindrical device stands upright, bulging slighty around its middle. It is made of a gray metal, with a translucent pink band just below the middle. A hollow button sits on top.

The cylinder rests in a clear plastic base, with small, identical metal slugs sitting upright in recessions evenly spaced around it. To initiate music playback, Morbius picks one of the slugs and inserts it into the hollow of the button. He then depresses the momentary button once. The pink translucent band illuminates, and music begins to flow from unseen speakers around the office.

Modern audiences have a good deal of experience with music players, and so the device raises a great many questions. How does a user know which slug relates to what music? The slugs all look the same so this seems difficult at best. How does a user eject the slug? If by upending the device, one hopes that the cylinder comes free from the base easily, or the other slugs will all fall out as well. It must have impressed audiences to see music contained in such small containers, but otherwise the device is more attractive than usable.

Morbius inputs the combination to open the door.

Many Krell doors are protected by a combination lock. The mechanism stands high enough that Morbius can easily reach out and operate it. Its large circular face has four white triangles printed on its surface at the cardinal points, and other geometric red and yellow markings around the remainder. A four-spoke handle is anchored to a swivel joint at the center of the face. To unlock the door, a user twists the handle such that one of its spokes lines up with the north point, and then angles the handle to touch the spoke to the triangle there, before returning the handle to a neutral angle and twisting to the next position in the combination. When the sequence is complete, the triangles, the tips of the spokes, and a large ring around the face all light up and blink as the two-plane aperture doors slide open.

Even Walter Pigeon has trouble making sense of this awkward device. There appear to be no snap-to affordances for the neutral angle of the handle or the cardinal orientations, leaving the user unsure if each step in the sequence has been received correctly. Additionally, if the combination consists of particular spokes at this one point, why are the spokes undifferentiated? If the combination consists of pointing to different triangles, why are there four spokes instead of one? Is familiarity with some subtle cue part of the security measures?

Morbius shares operation of the Krell encyclopedia.

All of Krell wisdom and knowledge is contained in a device that Morbius shows to Adams and Doc. It consists of an underlit scroll of material sliding beneath a rectangular hole cut in the surface of a table. To illuminate it, Morbius turns one of the two ridged green dials located to the left of the “screen” about 45 degrees clockwise. To move the scroll, Morbius turns the other green dial clockwise as well.

Why is the least frequently used dial, i.e. the power button, closer than the more frequently used button, i.e. the scroll wheel? This requires the reader to be stretched awkwardly. Why is the on-off dial free spinning? There appear to be only two states: lit and unlit. The dial should have two states as well. If the content of the pages is discretely chunked into pages, it would also argue for a click-stop rather than free-spinning dial as well, but we do not get a good look at the scroll contents. One might also question the value of a scroll as the organizing method for a vast body of information, since related bits of information may be distractingly far apart.

Rotwang’’s Maschinenmensch (Machine-Man)

Rotwang’s Machine-Man is the most magical technology seen in the film. This is understandable since there the only common precedent available to the audience were stories of golems and imps, soulless and wicked servants out to wreck havoc at their master’s bidding. Despite this imp paradigm, many of the interfaces around the Machine-Man are worthy of note.

Rotwang reveals the Machine-Man.

When Rotwang first reveals the Machine-Man to Joh, he does so with a dramatic yank of a curtain to the side. There sits the automaton, in a throne before a catwalk. In response to the curtain’s opening, the catwalk gradually illuminates. Did the Man-Machine turn the lights on? Was it a “curtain switch?” The movie gives no clues, but the lesson is clear. Light signals power, and the Machine-Man is imbued with a lot of it.

The Machine-Woman awaits Rotwang’s instructions.

The Machine-Man as Joh meets it is entirely machine in appearance. (Beautifully designed by Walter Schulze-Mittendorff. This piece of sci-fi is so iconic and seminal that it warrants its own Wikipedia page.) At Joh’’s instruction, Rotwang gives the Machine-Man the outward likeness of Maria. How he is actually able to accomplishing this is vague, but note that as he twists up the power, more and more bars illuminate at the foot of the table. An early establishment that, as power increases, so does light.

Rotwang powers the transformation table.

This “light = power” theme is reinforced a number of times throughout this sequence.

Some machine glows as Rotwang turns it on.

With a switch the transformation begins.

Rotwang increases the power to the transformation table.

What does the tall tank, the arcing sphere, or the large wafer switch do? We don’’t know. But with the flick of a switch, something glows, and even without any sound to tell us, we know that he’’s summoning a great deal of power for what he’s about to do next.

Machine-Maria devises her saboteur’’s scheme.

Machine-Maria looks nearly identical to the real Maria. But in seeking to make the differences clear to the audience, actress Brigitte Helm needed to supply some kind of uncanny valley a century before the term was invented. Her response, which underscores the “evil twin” nature of Machine-Maria, was to adopt sharp, precise movements, an under-the-brow stare, and asymmetry. These simple cues let us know in a few seconds that she is not human and not to be trusted.

On the pyre, Machine-Maria reverts to her original form.

Machine-Maria’s death also underscores its deeply magical roots. When burning on the pillar, Machine-Maria transforms back to her original, machine-like form for little given reason other than her spell has been somehow broken.

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.