Retrogram

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The lifeclock is alterable, as we see when the Übercomputer sets Logan’’s lifeclock to blinking red years before he is actually due to Carousel. This procedure must be beyond the capabilities of the populace since it could be used to blackmail citizens, or, if reversible, to allow them to delay carousel.

Procedure

Why this procedure was designed in a way to cause stress and discomfort on the part of the subject is unclear. Since the computer is counting on Logan and needs his cooperation, it should have taken the exact opposite approach. Even if the discomfort is a necessary part of the retrogram, the computer should have handled it like a friendly nurse, explaining that there will be some unavoidable pain, and given Logan some tools to manage it like a number to count to. And c’mon, it should skip the ominous red light.

Industrial design

The other design consideration is the placement of the divot in which Logan must place his lifeclock for retrogramming. All told, it’s pretty good. It’s a natural placement, almost difficult for Logan to avoid putting his hand in the right spot. Even if the Übercomputer is going to just “sneak up” on Logan and retrogram him without warning, it’s the right spot given that the Übercomputer seems to have no complex actuators.

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There’s an interesting issue about the divot that depends on the level of pain that Logan is feeling. If it’s too great, Logan might jerk his hand away and ruin the retrogram. In that case, the arm of the chair should hold Logan’s hand in place, like one of those automated blood pressure cuffs. But the pain we see on Logan’s face in the scene doesn’t look that great. It looks like just enough to force him to concentrate to keep it there, to do his duty and comply. In this case even if the pain isn’t a necessary part of the operation, the Übercomputer might want to add that pain in, just as a test of his continued compliance.

Lifeclock: The central conceit

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The central technological conceit of the movie is the lifeclock, a rosette crystal that is implanted in each citizen’s left palm at birth. This clock changes color in stages over the course of the individual’s lifetime.

Though the information in the movie is somewhat contradictory as to the actual stages, the DVD has an easter egg that explains the stages as follows.

White white Birth to 8 years
Yellow yellow 9 to 15 years
Green green 16 to 23 years
Red red 24 years to 10 days before Lastday (30 years)
Blinking Red red_blink from 10 days before Lastday to Lastday
Black black End of Lastday (Carousel/death)

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Lifeclocks derive their signal and possibly power from a local-area broadcast in the city. When Logan and Jessica leave the city their lifeclocks turn clear.

The signal of the lifeclock is so central to life that most citizens dress exclusively in colors that match their lifeclock color. Only certain professions, such as Sandmen and the New You doctor, are seen to wear clothing that lacks clear reference to a lifeclock color, even though the individuals in these professions have lifeclocks and are still subject to carousel at Lastday. We can presume, though are not shown explicitly, that certain rights and responsibilities are conferred on citizens in different stages, such as legal age of sexual consent and access to intoxicants, so the clothing acts as a social signal of status.

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As an interface the lifeclock is largely passive, and can be discussed for its usability in two main ways.

Color

The first is the color. Are the stages easily discernable by people? The main problem would be between the red and green stages since the forms of red-green color blindness affects around 4% of the population. To accommodate for this, reds are made more discernable with a brighter glow than the green. As a wavelength, red carries the farthest, and blinking is of course a highly visible and attention-getting signal, which makes it difficult for an individual to socially hide that his or her time for carousel has come.

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Black is a questionable signal since this indicates actual violation of the law but does not draw any attention to itself. Casual observation of a relaxed hand with a black lifeclock might even be mistaken for a colored lifeclock in shadow, but as the citizenry has complete faith in the system and a number of countermeasures in place to ensure that everyone either attends carousel or is terminated, perhaps this is not a concern.

But if we’re just going on human signal processing, the red should be reserved for LastWeek, and a blinking red for after LastDay. That leaves a color gap between 24 and 30. I’d make this phase blue, since it looks so clearly different from red. The new colors would be as follows.

White white Birth to 8 years
Yellow yellow 9 to 15 years
Green green 16 to 23 years
Blue blue 24 years to 10 days before Lastday (30 years)
Red red from 10 days before Lastday to Lastday
Blinking Red red_blink End of Lastday (Carousel/death)

Location on the body

The second question is the location of the lifeclock. Where should it be placed? It is a social signal, and as such needs to be visible. The parts of the body that are most often seen uncovered in the film are the hand, the neck, and the head. The neck and head are problematic since these are not visible to the citizen himself, useful for reinforcing compliance with the system. This leaves the hand.

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Given the hand, the palm seems an odd choice since in a relaxed position or when the hand is in use, the palm is often hidden from view of other people. The colored clothing seen in the film show that a citizen’s life stage is not really considered a private matter, so a location on the back of the hand would have made more sense. To keep it in view of its owner, a location on the fleshy pad between the thumb and the forefinger would have made a better, if less cinematic, choice.

Logan’s Run (1976): Overview

Release date: 23 Jun 1976, United States

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In a self-contained hedonistic society, the enforced maximum age is 30. Lifeclocks implanted in citizen’s hands register their ages. Once their time is out and their lifeclocks are blinking, citizens are killed in a public ritual known as “Carousel,” in which they hope to achieve “”renewal,” a form of rebirth.” Logan 5 is a Sandman, whose job is to catch “runners,” people who try and escape this fate.

On the body of one of the terminated runners, Logan encounters a mysterious ankh. When he reports this object to the central computer, the computer prematurely ages his lifeclock and sends him on a mission to learn more about an underground resistance movement and a mysterious place called “sanctuary.” Now a runner himself, Logan gains the trust of resistance member Jessica 6 and escapes the city and the pursuing Sandmen. At the edge of the city, they meet one of the robots that maintain life within the city, and beyond that, the ruins of Washington D.C. There in the outdoors they meet an old man and come to realize the possibility of a life beyond 30.

Returning to the city to try and share their message of liberation, Logan is captured instead. Hearing that Sanctuary does not exist, the computer suffers a meltdown and explodes, ruining the city in the process. Citizens escape to meet the outside world and a new future of age and liberation.

The Pointlessly Menacing Learnerator

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Though their spaceship and robot technology are far superior to Terran technology, alien gadget tech trails pathetically. How else to explain a learning device whose affordance is at best part prickly eggbeater and part disturbing sex toy? It is also sad that its designers didn’’t think to use the same material in Gort and the spaceship—impervious as it is to bullets and our finest welding—instead opting to use a material that suffers catastrophic impact failure when dropped from a height of three feet onto a bed of grass. Perhaps in the future mankind will find its place in the universe offering basic material consultancy and product design to otherwise-superior alien species.

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The Revival Chamber

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When Gort brings Klaatu’s body back to the ship for revival, he saunters ominously past the terrified Helen and lays the body on a table. He lowers the lights gesturally, and then flips a switch on the wall to the right of the chamber. As a result, the surface of the table illuminates beneath Klaatu, a buzz begins and increases in volume and insistency, and a light illuminates in a tube near Klaatu’s head. Some unknown time later, Klaatu wakes up, brought back to life with time enough to deliver a terrible warning to the people of Earth.

As an interface, it seems as simple as it gets, but it could be done better. Attach some sensors to detect weight load on the table, and some biometric sensors to detect if the body is dead or alive. If the body is dead and sits in the right position, start the revival procedure. This automatic procedure would be useful for Klaatu if he was dying and Gort was not around. He could just climb on to the table and the moment he passed, systems would kick into gear that would revive him.

Remember, Klaatunians, even when you think you’ve finished your designs, pause and think, “This is awesome, yet, how could I improve it even more?”

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Klaatunian interior

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When the camera first follows Klaatu into the interior of his spaceship, we witness the first gestural interface seen in the survey. To turn on the lights, Klaatu places his hands in the air before a double column of small lights imbedded in the wall to the right of the door. He holds his hand up for a moment, and then smoothly brings it down before these lights. In response the lights on the wall extinguish and an overhead light illuminates. He repeats this gesture on a similar double column of lights to the left of the door.

The nice thing to note about this gesture is that it is simple and easy to execute. The mapping also has a nice physical referent: When the hand goes down like the sun, the lights dim. When the hand goes up like the sun, the lights illuminate.

He then approaches an instrument panel with an array of translucent controls; like a small keyboard with extended, plastic keys. As before, he holds his hand a moment at the top of the controls before swiping his hand in the air toward the bottom of the controls. In response, the panels illuminate. He repeats this on a similar panel nearby.

Having activated all of these elements, he begins to speak in his alien tongue to a circular, strangely lit panel on the wall. (The film gives no indication as to the purpose of his speech, so no conclusions about its interface can be drawn.)

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Gort also operates the translucent panels with a wave of his hand. To her credit, perhaps, Helen does not try to control the panels, but we can presume that, like the spaceship, some security mechanism prevents unauthorized control.

Missing affordances

Who knows how Klaatu perceives this panel. He’s an alien, after all. But for us mere humans, the interface is confounding. There are no labels to help us understand what controls what. The physical affordances of different parts of the panels imply sliding along the surface, touch, or turning, not gesture. Gestural affordances are tricky at best, but these translucent shapes actually signal something different altogether.

Overcomplicated workflow

And you have to wonder why he has to go through this rigmarole at all. Why must he turn on each section of the interface, one by one? Can’t they make just one “on” button? And isn’t he just doing one thing: Transmitting? He doesn’t even seem to select a recipient, so it’s tied to HQ. Seriously, can’t he just turn it on?

Why is this UI even here?

Or better yet, can’t the microphone just detect when he’s nearby, illuminate to let him know it’s ready, and subtly confirm when it’s “hearing” him? That would be the agentive solution.

Maybe it needs some lockdown: Power

OK. Fine. If this transmission consumes a significant amount of power, then an even more deliberate activation is warranted, perhaps the turning of a key. And once on, you would expect to see some indication of the rate of power depletion and remaining power reserves, which we don’t see, so this is pretty doubtful.

Maybe it needs some lockdown: Security

This is the one concern that might warrant all the craziness. That the interface has no affordance means that Joe Human Schmo can’t just walk in and turn it on. (In fact the misleading bits help with a plausible diversion.) The “workflow” then is actually a gestural combination that unlocks the interface and starts it recording. Even if Helen accidentally discovered the gestural aspect, there’s little to no way she could figure out those particular gestures and start intergalactic calls for help. And remembering that Klaatu is, essentially, a space ethics reconn cop, this level of security might make sense.