A little radio silence

Apologies for the brief radio silence, readers. I’ve moved on from my prior day-job employer, and between talking to folks about a next opportunity, working on a seekrit sci-fi interfaces project in the works, and preparing for some upcoming presentations, I’ve been very strapped for time. Wrapping up SWHS as soon as I’m able, and excited about some upcoming posts from two additional contributors. Stay tuned.

Gestural Spheres

While working on some other material this weekend, I just noticed two unusual, but similar gestures from different movies in 2015, which are gestures on the outside of spheres.

First, the Something control sphere from Tomorrowland.

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And, the core memories in Inside Out.

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The gestures are subtly different (Tomorrowland is full palm, Inside Out is two fingers) and their meanings are different (Tomorrowland is to shift direction of travel of the time camera, Inside Out is to scrub the time itself) but they are a nice gestural rhyme of each other.

The Inside Out image reminds me that I really, really need to do a full retrospective of interfaces in Pixar movies, because they are quite extraordinary in the aggregate.

The Faithful Wookie

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Release Date: 17 NOV 1978 (USA)

Despite what you may think, I know how far down the Sarlacc pit this is going. I’m in the middle of The Avengers, which I interrupted for the Star Wars Holiday Special, and now we’re looking at the interfaces inside a ten-minute cartoon that Lumpy watches complacently while stormtroopers trash his home and rough up his family in the background. We’re at Inception level Hoth.

I even know I have proclaimed that I must shy away from reviewing interfaces in hand-drawn animation on principle. I know all this. But if you have yet to brave gazing into the dark heart of The Special, know that this is its highlight. The animation is gorgeous and trippy (like something out of Heavy Metal magazine circa 1980) almost making the frame story of The Special worth it. Even if the plot is a little wan.

Plot

Luke, the droids, and Leia are aboard the cruiser R.S. Revenge,  anxiously awaiting word from Han and Chewie, who are racing to find a mystical talisman before the Empire does. The Millennium Falcon comes out of lightspeed barreling toward the cruiser and out of radio contact. After it zooms past, Luke takes the droids and chases the Falcon to an intensely pink moon. Luke crashes into the soupy surface, and while looking for them with binoculars, he is saved from a pink sauropod attack by Boba Fett. (Yes, that Boba Fett. This is where he is introduced in the Star Wars universe.) Fett then leads them to the Falcon.

There Luke sees Chewie eject the talisman from the ship, before falling into the same coma-like sleep as Han. Turns out the talisman is infected with a virus that only affects humans. To survive, Luke is hung upside down next to Han until they can be cured. Something something blood to the brain something. Fett offers to get a remedy in the nearby city.

After he gets the serum, Fett contacts Darth Vader (insert gasp) on a public video phone (insert gasp). Back at the ship, the Droids intercept the message, hearing that the talisman is a red herring—Fett and Vader are really trying to earn their trust to learn the location of the new Rebel base. When Fett returns to the Falcon, they inject the serum to wake Han and Luke, but the droids out Fett as the bad guy he is. Fett escapes with his jet pack, promising that they’ll meet again.

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Lumpy’s Brilliant Cartoon Player

I am pleased to report that with this post, we are over 50% of the way through this wretched, wretched Holiday Special.

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Description

After Lumpy tries to stop stormtroopers from going upstairs, an Imperial Officer commands Malla to keep him quiet. To do so, she does what any self-respecting mother of a pre-teen in the age of technology does, and sits him down to watch cartoons. The player is a small, yellow device that sits flat on an angled tabletop, like a writing desk.

Two small silver buttons stack vertically on the left, and an upside down plug hole strainer on the right. A video screen sits above these controls. Since no one in the rest of his family wants to hear the cartoon introduction of Boba Fett, he dons a pair of headphones, which are actually kind of stylish in that the earpieces are square and perforated, but not beveled. There are some pointless animations that start up, but then the cartoon starts and Lumpy is, in fact, quiet for the duration. So, OK, point one Malla.

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Why no budding DJ has glommed onto this for an album cover is beyond me.

Analysis

We only see Lumpy press down onto the surface of the device from the far side, so it’s mostly conjecture about how the interface works. The same goes for the media. But we do know the basic needs of video: Start, stop, and volume. And a single click-stop dial could handle all that, even if kind of poorly.

We also don’t know whether the device has media inserts—like a Blu-Ray player—or is more like a television with fixed streams of ongoing content to pick from, or like a Netflix requiring a search of a practically infinite on-demand catalogue. But that sink drain thing looks like it’s meant to be a channel selector, and this was 1978, so let’s presume it was a television model with a few-year prescient Walkman personal-media bent. In fact, there’s a handle visible in the shot posted below, so let’s give this thing some credit for presaging miniaturization to the point of mobility. It must have blown some kids minds back then.

And, sure, this interface could manage the task at hand, even if it’s missing some feedback for exactly which channel is being watched, and what the current volume is or what that second click-stop dial does, or why it has an affordance for turning when Lumpy clearly pushes it.

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Apology

What I’m most interested in though is the crappy, crappy production quality of the thing. While it’s easy and admittedly fun to decry this as rushed through the prop department in about 30 minutes, I’m going to use my old friend apologetics to wonder if maybe Lumpy himself put this together. Not like a science fair project, but as an off-the shelf product. Wouldn’t it be awesome to give a kid a blank box with a video screen, let him take any object he found on top of it to use as a control device? A thimble could become the on-off switch. A jack could become the channel selector. A Matchbox car could become the volume control. This would diegetically explain the dopey sink strainer, and give Lumpy an awesome opportunity to think about the affordances of the things around him and the relationships-of-parts he could use to control abstract variables like volume, power, playback speed, etc. Maybe he could even assign objects to favorite videos. This stone in that crayon circle means that video. It would be a dream to foster interaction design thinking.

Sure, you might be thinking, but this would take cameras of an eye-like quality, and perfect image recognition attached to a near general artificial intelligence. Too bad they don’t have anything like that in Star Wars, yeah?

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Of course one imagines such a device might be prohibitively expensive for a smuggler’s Life Day budget, and moreover this is giving the Star Wars Holiday Special waaaaay too much credit, but these are the truffles I actually do hope to find in rooting around all this muck for you.

Also to drop this. Contact me with demos.

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Jefferson Projection

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When Imperial troopers intrude to search the house, one of the bullying officers takes interest in a device sitting on the dining table. It’s the size of a sewing machine, with a long handle along the top. It has a set of thumb toggles along the top, like old cassette tape recorder buttons.

Saun convinces the officer to sit down, stretches the thin script with a bunch of pointless fiddling of a volume slider and pantomimed delays, and at last fumbles the front of the device open. Hinged at the bottom like a drawbridge, it exposes a small black velvet display space. Understandably exasperated, the officer stands up to shout, “Will you get on with it?” Saun presses a button on the opened panel, and the searing chord of an electric guitar can be heard at once.

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Inside the drawbridge-space a spot of pink light begins to glow, and mesmerized officer who, moments ago was bent on brute intimidation, but now spends the next five minutes and 23 seconds grinning dopily at the volumetric performance by Jefferson Starship.

During the performance, 6 lights link in a pattern in the upper right hand corner of the display. When the song finishes, the device goes silent. No other interactions are seen with it.

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Many questions. Why is there a whole set of buttons to open the thing? Is this the only thing it can play? If not, how do you select another performance?Is it those unused buttons on the top? Why are the buttons unlabeled? Is Jefferson Starship immortal? How is it that they have only aged in the long, long time since this was recorded? Or was this volumetric recording somehow sent back in time?  Where is the button that Saun pressed to start the playback? If there was no button, and it was the entire front panel, why doesn’t it turn on and off while the officer taps (see above)? What do the little lights do other than distract? Why is the glow pink rather than Star-Wars-standard blue? Since volumetric projections are most often free-floating, why does this appear in a lunchbox? Since there already exists ubiquitous display screens, why would anyone haul this thing around? How does this officer keep his job?

Perhaps it’s best that these questions remain unanswered. For if anything were substantially different, we would risk losing this image, of the silhouette of the lead singer and his microphone. Humanity would be the poorer for it.

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Itchy’s SFW Masturbation Chair

With the salacious introduction, “Itchy, I know what you’d like,” Saun Dann reveals himself as a peddler of not just booby trapped curling irons, but also softcore erotica! The Life Day gift he gives to the old Wookie is a sexy music video for his immersive media chair.

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The chair sits in the family living room, and has a sort of helmet fixed in place such that Itchy can sit down and rest his head within it. On the outside of the helmet are lights that continuously blink out of sync with each other and seem unrelated to the actual function of the chair. Maybe a fairy-lights power indicator?

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Saun first powers the device by inserting a “proton pack” into the back of the chair. This is kind of strange since none of the other devices seen in the home require batteries or charging. Are they lower power so batteries last longer? Is there an unseen electrical infrastructure but that monitors any plugged in object for illegal-device signatures? Whatever the reason, the battery pack plugs in and the chair comes to life.

When Itchy sits down, he rests his head in the helmet, and Saun puts a media cartridge into a tray sticking out of the armrest. There is a single red button on the forward edge. He then engages the cartridge by slapping it on edge so the tray slides into a recess. Then he lowers the forehead plate of the helmet over Itchy, who sits back to enjoy the show. Saun wishes him, “Happy Life Day!” and then with a nudge-nudge-wink-wink-you-know-seeeeexxxxx tone in his voice, leans in to reiterate, “And I do mean Happy Life Day!”

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Itchy punches the top of the armrest with his hairy finger, and the media plays, full of theremin meanderings, stage lights and spandex dancers shot through a kaleidoscope-refraction lens, and a scantily-feathered singer (IMDB tells me the character name is Mermeia Holographic Wow, played by the diva Diahann Carroll) who purrs out a full 5 minutes of mind-numbing introduction before a 4-minute musical number. You can almost hear the director saying over a soggily-chewed stogie, “Sorry, Diahann, but we don’t have a lot to work with, here, you’re really going to have to stretch this out.”

I know you’re searching for me
Searching
Searching
I am here
My voice is for you alone
I am found in your eyes only
I exist for you
I am in your mind
As you create me
Oh yes
I can feel my creation
[Giggle]
I’m getting your message
Are you getting mine?

Itchy growls and spasms in his chair enthusiastically.

Oh, oh! We are excited aren’t we?
Well just relax
Just relax
Yes

[More Itchy grunting]

Now
We can have a good time
Can’t we?

[spasming, panting]

I’ll tell you a secret
I find you adorable

Itchy loves this assertion so much that he punches a control on the armrest, and the playback jumps back to replay the line again. And again. And again. Four times in total.

(I find you adorable)
(I find you adorable)
(I find you adorable)
I don’t need to ask how you found me
You see, I am your fantasy
I am your experience
So experience me
I am your pleasure
So enjoy me
This is our moment together in time
That we might turn this moment an eternity

[Music mercifully begins]

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I’m sorry to have to remind people about this point in your career, Diahann.

So…Exactly what is this machine?

So, if the words of the recording are to be believed, this machine automatically reads the mind (or stored preferences) of its user to create a custom, on-the-fly immersive video.

Here you should note that Itchy’s species of sexual preference is human, not Wookie, and then note with sadness that Chewie is not mixed-species. Itchy is living an unfulfilled life.

If it constructs its visions on-the-fly, then what is the cartridge for? It can’t be Itchy’s preferences. Why would Saun have them? My best guess is that the cartridge contains the template of the song, This Minute Now, and the device reads the wearer’s in-the-moment preferences to pick the avatar that sings it. That template isn’t neutral, though. It has to be a sexy template, because Saun does all the nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat routine. Aww, yeah, sexy template for Life Day.

Knowing that this might be a privately-observed sexytime moment, I’d recommend the designers add a curtain or perhaps situate the chair inside a private chamber to make the user less exposed. Otherwise it might be awkward—for a human user at least—for other members of the family to observe him becoming visibly and audibly aroused (the panting), much less do…uh…anything about it. Of course I don’t know Wookie social rules, so this might be well within their social norms. Kinda makes you wonder about how Chewie spends his idle time on the Falcon in front of Han. “Chewie. Do you mind? Take it into your berth!”

Controls

The instant replay feature is useful to the task. And it’s quite well executed, since it’s a quick-to-press button to replay the last moment, and that moment is of unspecified length. The media must have very sophisticated and detailed markup for a “repeat that bit” to work, and it does. Of course, it also can read Itchy’s mind, so maybe it just knows to play across the most-recent high-excitement part. It’s a self-administered dopamine hit.

A better tool might monitor the user’s brainwaves for a perfect combination of tension and release to ensure a perfectly satisfying experience. No button needed. That would also alleviate the problem that the user’s hand might be otherwise engaged during the exciting part to try and target a button. The (prolly NSFW text, even if it’s WebMDsexual response cycle of humans is a known thing, so surely a Wookie’s is too. Let me disturb you by visualizing the combination of concepts so implied.

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But we also have to ask after the placement and purpose of that sole red button. Saun slapped the cartridge edge-on to lodge the tray in place. But that’s where the button is. Did the lodging activate the play, or did pressing button?

If the cartridge, what does the button do? (Not replay, Itchy clearly presses the top of the armrest for that.) And how does it avoid accidental activation while being slapped in?

If the button, why have the tray slide in and out? To keep it private? Sorry, you lost that battle with the living room masturbatorium. To protect the media? Then why have it in the armrest where it’s sure to be subject to the bangings of Wookie demands for again!?

With the commercial release of Oculus Rift just about to ship post-CES, let’s not turn to this device for any immersive-media lessons. There is better blind-use masturbation VR in Strange Days, more dystopic ones in THX-1138 (yes, I now realize, it’s a recurring Lucas theme), more private ones in Sleeper, and less creepy things almost anywhere you turn.

Let’s just let Itchy have his personalized-avatar, happy Life Day, there, in the middle of the astroturfed family room.

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Stay classy, Star Wars Holiday Special.

Chef Gormaand

Hello, readers. Hope your Life Days went well. The blog is kicking off 2016 by continuing to take the Star Wars universe down another peg, here, at this heady time of its revival. Yes, yes, I’ll get back to The Avengers soon. But for now, someone’s in the kitchen with Malla.

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After she loses 03:37 of  her life calmly eavesviewing a transaction at a local variety shop, she sets her sights on dinner. She walks to the kitchen and rifles through some translucent cards on the counter. She holds a few up to the light to read something on them, doesn’t like what she sees, and picks up another one. Finding something she likes, she inserts the card into a large flat panel display on the kitchen counter. (Don’t get too excited about this being too prescient. WP tells me models existed back in the 1950s.)

In response, a prerecorded video comes up on the screen from a cooking show, in which the quirky and four-armed Chef Gourmaand shows how to prepare the succulent “Bantha Surprise.”

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And that’s it for the interaction. None of the four dials on the base of the screen are touched throughout the five minutes of the cooking show. It’s quite nice that she didn’t have to press play at all, but that’s a minor note.

The main thing to talk about is how nice the physical tokens are as a means of finding a recipe. We don’t know exactly what’s printed on them, but we can tell it’s enough for her to pick through, consider, and make a decision. This is nice for the very physical environment of the kitchen.

This sort of tangible user interface, card-as-media-command hasn’t seen a lot of play in the scifiinterfaces survey, and the only other example that comes to mind is from Aliens, when Ripley uses Carter Burke’s calling card to instantly call him AND I JUST CONNECTED ALIENS TO THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL.

Of course an augmented reality kitchen might have done even more for her, like…

  • Cross-referencing ingredients on hand (say it with me: slab of tender Bantha loin) with food preferences, family and general ratings, budget, recent meals to avoid repeats, health concerns, and time constraints to populate the tangible cards with choices that fit the needs of the moment, saving her from even having to consider recipes that won’t work;
  • Make the material of the cards opaque so she can read them without holding them up to a light source;
  • Augmenting the surfaces with instructional graphics (or even air around her with volumetric projections) to show her how to do things in situ rather than having to keep an eye on an arbitrary point in her kitchen;
  • Slowed down when it was clear Malla wasn’t keeping up, or automatically translated from a four-armed to a two-armed description;
  • Shown a visual representation of the whole process and the current point within it;

…but then Harvey wouldn’t have had his moment. And for your commitment to the bit, Harvey, we thank you.

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The Groomer

The groomer is a device for sale at the Wookie Planet Trading Post C by local proprietor Saun Dann. It looks like a dust brush with an OXO designed, black, easy-grip handle, with a handful of small silver pushbuttons on one side (maybe…three?), and a handful of black buttons on the other (again, maybe three). It’s kind of hard to call it exactly, since this is lower-res than a recompressed I Can Haz Cheezburger jpg.

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Let’s hear Saun describe it to the vaguely menacing Imperial shopper in his store.

Besides shaving and hair trimming, it’s guaranteed to lift stains off clothing, faces, and hands. Cleans teeth, fingers and toenails, washes eyes, pierces ears, calculates, modulates, syncopates life rhythms, and can repeat the Imperial Penal Code—all 17 volumes— in half the time of the old XP-21. Just the thing to keep you squeaky clean.

There are so many, many problems with this thing. On every level it’s wretched. Continue reading

Rebel videoscope

Talking to Luke

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Hidden behind a bookshelf console is the family’s other comm device. When they first use it in the show, Malla and Itchy have a quick discussion and approach the console and slide two panels aside. The device is small and rectangular, like an oscilloscope, sitting on a shelf about eye level. It has a small, palm sized color cathode ray tube on the left. On the right is an LED display strip and an array of red buttons over an array of yellow buttons. Along the bottom are two dials.

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Without any other interaction, the screen goes from static to a direct connection to a hangar where Luke Skywalker is working with R2-D2 to repair some mechanical part. He simply looks up to the camera, sees Malla and Itchy, and starts talking. He does nothing to accept the call or end it. Neither do they. Continue reading