Dome City Rail

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Citizens move between the distant parts of the city by means of a free, public transportation system. It is an ultra-light rail, featuring cars for two passengers, that move between long translucent tubes that connect the domes of the city. When one car stops at a station, its door slides open to allow exit and entry. We never see a car waiting behind another. Once seated, riders press a red button on a panel between the two seats (just visible in the screen capture below), and the car seals shut and takes off to the next station.

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A small panel inside the car alerts passengers to the name of the next stop as well as any additional information that is of use. When Logan and Jessica head to Cathedral Station, the panel blinks a red light to draw their attention. (The paired green light is never seen illuminated. What’s it there for?) A female voice says "Entering a reservation for violent delinquents. Authorized persons only." The screen before them reads, “personal risk area." (For those wondering why it stops there at all, anyone can get out of their car here, but Logan has to use his personal communication device with Control to have the gate to Cathedral opened.

The panel and voice output are useful to alert riders whose attention has drifted. Text could be put in the environment of course, since this information rarely changes, but it’s a bit harder to read when it’s moving and isn’t as likely to gain a distracted rider’s attention.

The last bit of interface is the LED displays on the walls of fancier stops like Arcade (the dome with the shopping mall and Caroussel.) We never see this sign change, but it makes sense that while riders are at the station, it displays the stop as a reinforcing bit of information, and can display alternate messages for citizens waiting on a car otherwise.

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The interface is incredibly simple because the system is so constrained. You have to hop on at a station, and like an airport tram or a shabbat elevator, the car runs along a fixed loop. You hop out when you’re there. The main negative issues I see are selecting a stop and perhaps safety.

Selecting a stop

It’s a waste of time and energy to have cars stopping and starting at unwanted stations. It can also be distracting to have the car tell you about all the intermediate stops when you’re not interested in them.

To solve this problem, the track system should be built with track bypasses so we have to worry less about track congestion at stops. Then riders could either ride the “local” from stop to stop, or optionally have some way to indicate their desired stop, bypassing the ones in between. What’s this indication look like? In the panopticon of Dome City, the Übercomputer can just listen to your conversations wherever you’re having them, and when you get to a car default to the stop expressed in conversation. Logan and Jessica had just spoken about Cathedral Station, so when they stepped in, it could have just asked them to confirm. If the selection was wrong, or no stop had been mentioned recently, riders should be able to speak their destination or the event to which they’re headed. As a last fallback, a screen displaying discrete options could allow them to select a destination by touch or gesture.

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Rider safety

The safety issue is subtle, but if riders have no control over the cars, why are the seats facing forward? It’s much safer in a head-on collision to be seated "backward," like an infant’s car seat. Psychologically, people are most comfortable sitting forward to see in the direction of potential collisions, but if you lived in an UberNanny State like Dome City, the system would just force people to sit in the safest way.

It’s going to be more complicated than this

Getting public transportation experience design right is tough enough. But it’s going to get more complicated. Here at the dawn of computer-driven cars and computer-requested and computer-wayfinding "routeless" busses, the challenges will be manifold. How do you signal a stop? How does it gracefully degrade? How do you pay? How do you get to a just-in-time defined stop? How do you indicate your destination(s), willingness to share the ride, and urgency? How do you not disenfranchise people just because they have no cell phone? Dome City is small and constrained enough to ignore such problems, like a light rail in a small, wealthy, downtown core, making it almost too simple to be instructive.

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The Aesculaptor Mark III

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The device with which the cosmetic surgery is conducted is delightfully called the Aesculaptor Mark III. Doc brags that it is “the latest. It’s completely self-contained.

In it, the patient lies flat in a recess on a rounded table, the tilt and orientation of which is computer controlled. Above the table is a metallic sphere with six spidery articulated arms. Some of these house laser scalpels and some of these house healing sprays. The whole mechanism is contained in a cylinder of glass.

To control the system, Doc has a panel made up of unlabeled buttons and dials, a single blue monitor, and another panel displaying a random five-digit number and two levers. One is labeled “ANODYNE” and the other is labeled “KINESIS.”

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When Doc receives a mysterious call (on what may be the earliest wireless telephone in mainstream science fiction,) he receives instructions to murder Logan. To do so he turns off the healing by moving the ANODYNE lever into the lower position.

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So. Yeah. Also just terrible. I mean there’s the plot question. I ordinarily don’t drop into questions of plot, but come on. If Doc wanted to eliminate Logan, wouldn’t he increase the anodyne, so Logan wouldn’t know he was being killed until it was too late? If you wanted to torture him, wouldn’t you put him under a paralytic first, and only then turn off the anodyne? Turning on the KINESIS (moving lasters?) and turning off the anodyne just seem counter to his actual goals. Unless you want to fantheory this so that Doc’s instruction was "make him escape."

But yes, back to the interface. There’s almost nowhere to start. Undifferentiated controls? Unlabeled controls? No visual hierarchy? Only the device itself and an oscilloscope to monitor the system and the patient’s trending state? Un-safeguarded knife switches for the primary controls? And note that the fail state is in the direction of gravity. If that knife switch gets loose, oops, you’re screwed.

Logan’s Run took place long before the lessons of the Therac-25, with its tragic interface and programming problems that resulted in the deaths of several cancer patients, but even audiences in 1976 would not believe that any medical device would have such an easy means of disabling the only aspect of it that keeps it from becoming an abattoir.

New You Selector

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In addition to easy sex and drugs, citizens of Dome City who are either unhappy or even just bored with the way they look can stop by one of the New You salons for a fast, easy cosmetic alternation.

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At the salon we get a glimpse of an interface a woman is using to select new facial features. She sits glancing down at a small screen on which she sees an image of her own face. A row of five unlabeled, gray buttons are mounted on the lower bevel of the screen. A black circle to the right of the screen seems to be a camera. She hears a soft male voice advising, “I recommend a more detailed study of our projections. There are new suggestions for your consideration.

She presses the fourth button, and the strip of image that includes her chin slides to the right, replaced with another strip of image with the chin changed. Immediately afterwards, the middle strip of the image slides left, replaced with different cheekbones.

In another scene, she considers a different shape of cheekbones by pressing the second button.

So. Yeah. Terrible.

  • The first is poor mapping of buttons to the areas of the face. It would make much more sense, if the design was constrained to such buttons, to place them vertically along the side of the screen such that each button was near to the facial feature it will change.
  • Labels would help as well, so she wouldn’t have to try buttons out to know what they do (though mapping would help that.)
  • Another problem is mapping of controls to functions. In one scene, one button press changes two options. Why aren’t these individual controls?
  • Additionally, if the patron is comparing options, having the serial presentation places a burden on her short term memory. Did she like the apple cheeks or the modest ones better? If she is making her decision based on her current face, it would be better to compare the options in questions side-by-side.
  • A frontal view isn’t the only way her new face would be seen. Why does she have to infer the 3D shape of the new face from the front view? She should be able to turn it to any arbitrary angle, or major viewing angles at once, or watch videos of her moving through life in shifting light and angle conditions, all with her new face on.
  • How many options for each component are there? A quick internet search showed, for noses, types show anything between 6 and 70. It’s not clear, and this might change how she makes her decision. If it’s 70, wouldn’t some subcategories or a wizard help her narrow down options?
  • Recovery. If she accidentally presses the wrong button, how does she go back? With no labeling and an odd number of buttons to consider, it’s unclear in the best case and she’s forced to cycle through them all in the worst.
  • The reason for the transition is unclear. Why not a jump cut? (Other than making sure the audience notices it.) Or a fade? Or some other transition.
  • Why isn’t it more goal-focused? What is her goal in changing her face? Like, can she elect to look more like a perticular person? Or what she thinks her current object of affection will like? (Psychologically quite dystopian.) Or have her face follow current face fashion trends? Or point out the parts of herself that she doesn’t like? Or randomize it, and just "try something new?"

OK I guess for both showing how easy cosmetic surgery is in the future, and how surface Dome City’s residents’ concepts of beauty are, this is OK. But for actual usability, a useless mess.

Let’s fade out

As if five posts about sex weren’t enough. Now: drugs.

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Francis arrives at Logan’s apartment with a young woman on each arm, laughing and talking as if intoxicated. Once inside, Logan’s friend Francis takes a small mirrored bottle and tosses it up to the ceiling, saying, “Let’s fade out!” The bottle breaks on the ceiling, its container dissolving into the air, and spreading a pink smoke into the air. Logan, Francis, and the women laugh and stand in the smoke for a moment before collapsing together on the couch. They “fade”, whatever that is.

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The drug delivery system is a nice one for aesthetic reasons. You throw it against a surface in a celebratory manner, where it makes a pleasant tinkling sound before spreading the candy-colored smoke, which everyone can inhale together for its intoxicating effects. Since the shards of the bottle disappear completely, there is no danger of being cut or cleaning up.

It’s also delivers a particular social signal. Vaporization is a quick way to get an intoxicant into the bloodstream, and the cloud means everyone at the party can get intoxicated together at the same time. (And there’s a mesmerizing, swirling smoke to look at as the high takes hold.) Still, much of a cloud is wasted as it dissipates, unused. This would be part of its appeal: an expensive high that advertises how wealthy and generous the provider is. Like they were “makin’ it rain,” or showing off a bottle of Cristal at a club, the conspicuous consumption signals the wealth and priveleges that mark the Sandmen as more desirable partners.

It wouldn’t be for everyone, but for a small subset of the population, this would work on several levels.

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A better Circuit

The prior posts described The Circuit, critiqued it, investigated the salient aspects of matchmaking in Dome City, and threw up its hands saying that I’m going to have to rethink this one from scratch. In this post, I provide that redesign with the design rationale.

The scenario

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Logan is out and about doing his (admittedly horrible) Sandman job. While riding in a transport across the city, his attention drifts to a young lady waiting with a friend on a platform. He thinks she’s lovely and smiles. She catches his eye and smiles, too, before looking away. In the transport, he looks up at a glowing blue point on the ceiling near the windshield. It pulses in response.

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Matchmaking in Dome City

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So in prior posts I spent a lot of pixels describing and discussing the critical failures of the interaction design of the Circuit. The controls don’t make any sense. It is seriously one-sided. It doesn’t handle a user’s preferences. In this post we’re going to go over some of the issues involved in rethinking this design.

Circuit goals

As I express time and again in design projects—and teach in classes on interaction design—to design a system right you need to understand the goals of each actor. In a real-world project we might get more into it, but our “tuners” and “travelers” have some pretty simple goals to achieve in using The Circuit.

Goals of our users

  • Find a compatible partner for satisfying sexytimes™
  • Minimize social awkwardness
  • Have an easy way to opt out of mismatches and, if they’re just tired of it, of the whole matchmaking process for the evening

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For Jessica, social awkwardness entails not getting matched with an authority, since she’s a resistance fighter.

We’d want to establish what “compatible” means for each in a categorical sense. Is Carl homosexual? Is Logan bisexual? Is Jessica heterosexual? For design in the real world we’d also want to know about their mental model of sex, but for purposes of this scene it may not be too important, just that we help maximize compatibility between users.

Personas account for most but not all actors here. There’s another, more sinister character to consider here, and that’s the Übercomputer. Put in place long ago, it has a primary goal to maintain the status quo within Dome City, which breaks down into a number of other goals.

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Goals of the Übercomputer

  • Maximize pleasure among the populace
  • Discourage pair bonding (it might interfere with Carrousel [sic] and general compliance)
  • Overcome the resistance movement
  • Solve the problem of the decaying DNA base (a secret subplot revealed later in the movie)

It seems like these latter goals don’t have much to do with the Circuit, but read on, because they do.

Domain

A designer also needs to take into account the broad facts of the domain. In this case, we have to think about matchmaking. For this, a person looking for a casual encounter wants to find a person who is compatible, interested, and available. (Source: reason.)

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Being Compatible

If Logan wants to be spanked in a monkey suit but Jessica wants to cuddle, little else in the equation matters. For a successful match, two have to have compatible preferences. This is kind of complicated because what a person wants depends yes on categorical interests, but also on mood, and there are a large number of abstractions to manage. Logan might not have particular acts he’s interested in, just as long as he’s able to please his partner with whatever it is they’re into. Sexuality is a fluid spectrum, especially in a hedonistic culture like Dome City. But I suspect some set of categorical preferences is workable if handled respectfully and thoroughly, and users have some means of communicating preferences that don’t fit the mold. A supercategory for those common categorical preferences would be:

  • Desired/Undesired traits (both physical and psychological)
  • Desired/Undesired activities (and role in those activities)
  • Desired/Undesired individuals

Given the high-tech world of Logan’s Run, there are a number of ways for the Circuit to have a model of each user’s categorical interests. Logan can express them directly upfront, or through use of the system, but living in a sexy panopticon means that the Übercomputer can also infer it over time, note when it’s on the verge of changing, and maybe even nudge it in useful directions.

Making compatible

If we’re going to respect the Übercomputer’s need to nudge the system, then we should also consider that the humans can be primed. In this sense, priming means being exposed to stimulus that affects mood and influences subsequent choices the user makes. The interpretation I offered in the previous post that Carl was put there as a way to make Jessica look better is an example of negative priming, but it’s possible that Logan can be positively primed, too. It’s what modern advertising is based on, and those same tools are available to the system.

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Being Available

If one of the parties is unavailable for a hookup, the compatibility doesn’t matter. In the real world this could mean one is committed to a monogamous partner. But for Logan’s Run, this isn’t an issue. Sexual pair bonding is not part of the culture. In this case, it means available at the moment, receptive to an offer to hook up. This could be as simple as an indicator that “he’s online right now,” but with a sufficiently smart system, this could include

  • Predictions that he will be available soon
  • Knowledge of routine times he’s available
  • Warning that he’s losing interest, and his window of availability is about to close

Making available

Again, the Übercomputer can just act as more than a passive go-between, but can also influence things to make sure that two people happen to be available at the same time. Encourage Jessica to stay at the gym a few extra minutes. Clear a way through the computer-driven traffic to get Logan home an extra few minutes, and oh, hey, gurl…

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Being Interested

If compatible is a gauge of categorical fitness, interest is a gauge of specifics. That is, at the decision point, does Carl dig Logan and Logan dig Carl? Modern sites and apps let people express and respond to interest in the moment using interface, and we can use some cool tech to design this right, but again, Dome City is a panopticon with ubiquitous tech and a central artificial intelligence. It can detect expressed interest and disinterest as it happens in the world as well, and let people when they hit the sweet spot of someone in whom you’re interested who’s also interested in you.

Making interest

If the Übercomputer wants to make sure that, say, Logan notices Jessica, it could outfit Dome City with cinematic tools to make that happen. Say they’re sitting near each other in Carrousel, the moment that Logan glances her way, an amber spotlight subtly and magically makes her slightly brighter and warmer than the people around her. “Who’s that girl?” he thinks, and things are underway.

Tech to use

So these are the things that need to be handled by any dating system: compatability, availability, and interest. What tools does the world of Logan’s Run have to design with? If we were just using tech from the original, we’d have a small set of tech:

  • Analog controls
  • Slideshow-like projection screens
  • Voice interface
  • Wireless communication
  • Slow teleportation
  • Lifeclocks
  • Artificial intelligence (the Übercomputer)

If we’re thinking about a reboot, the sky’s the limit. I’m more interested in thinking about future technology, so I’ll leave the 70s constraints behind and instead focus on:

  • Real time social interfaces
  • Big Social data
  • Ubiquitous sensor and actuator technology
  • Wall-sized OLED displays
  • “Natural” user interfaces, especially gesture and voice

Since it’s really hard to guess what the future looks like past the singularity, I’d ordinarily focus on algorithms that are merely agentive and not full-blown AI. But the Übercomputer is a core part of the story of Logan’s Run, so I’ll presume that as a fait accompli, as I take all these factors into a rethink of The Circuit in the next post.

Can this be tweaked into shape?

The sci-fi interfaces project is about analysis, not to have an excuse to just to poke fun at how interfaces made for one media won’t work in another. That’s too easy, and doesn’t really give sci-fi interface designers their due. The point of the blog is really to examine these interfaces critically so we can learn lessons for our real world work.

Sometimes learning lessons is about naming the core good stuff in an interface and abstracting it a bit to formalize what we want to replicate elsewhere, as I showed with the Ultimate Weapon Against Evil.

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Often it’s about catching them on problems that remind us of design heuristics that we already know, as with the 3D scanner in Ghost in the Shell.

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Occasionally it’s acknowledging that the designer of a sci-fi interface has subtly different goals and constraints than a real-world designer and teasing out what does and doesn’t apply and why, as we see time and again with big labels.

Every now and then it’s about figuring out how what looks broken is really brilliant, as in the whole category of apologetics.

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But sometimes, a system is so broken that none of this is possible. The Circuit is one of those interfaces. The inputs don’t make any sense. The workflow is either potentially life-threateningly catastrophic or seriously suboptimal. The output is either misleading or part of the catastrophic workflow. The distribution of control among the users is pointlessly (or sexist-ly) one-sided. There’s no diamond-in-the-rough goodness going on here for usability tweaks or apologetics.

To redesign this interface, we have to go back to the fundamentals of human psychology, the prospective technology of Logan’s run, and start almost from scratch, which is the next post.

Is serial presentation a problem in The Circuit?

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In the prior post I described the wonky sex teleporter known as The Circuit and began a critique. Today I go deep into a particular issue to finish the critque.

We only see Logan encounter two riders when using The Circuit, but we can presume that there are a lot of people on there. Why does it only show Logan a single choice at a time? If he actually has, say, 12 candidates that are a match, a serial presentation like this puts a significant burden on his memory. Once he gets to #12 and thinks he’s seen enough candidates, was it #3 or #5 he liked best?

The serial presentation also looks like it might make extra work. If he gets to #12 and decides he was most fond of #2, does he have to jump back through 10 people to get there? What does he say to each of them in turn? Does he have to reject them each again? How awkward is that? If not, and he can jump back to #2, what’s the control for that? Does he have to remember what station they were on and retune them in again?

The face-to-face nature of the system also puts a strange social pressure on both the rider and the tuner. In trying to maximize pleasure for the populace, the Übercomputer doesn’t want anyone settling out of politeness, especially if there’s a better combination for each party somewhere. Sure he’s probably practiced at this, but how is Carl supposed to feel after the rejection? Ideally we’d save him from rejection in the first place, but if we can’t do that is there a way to minimize having to look at the guy in the face as he’s twisting the knob to the next channel? Because ouch.

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Would tableau be better?

These arguments would seem to argue for a tableau layout of available riders, where Logan can pick favorites from among them, select some to get a closer look at, and initiate contact with his favorite candidates in parallel to see the best or first deal he could get. And if you were designing to optimize for individual users, this might be the best design choice.

Maximizing for everyone

But in Dome City, the Übercomputer has a goal to not just maximize pleasure for only the most beautiful. It’s not just a hedonist-dystopia or Battle of the Beauties. It’s more of a socialist-hedonist-dystopia. It wants to maximize pleasure for everyone. How can it systemically encourage that?

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Of course it encourages everyone to try and be as fit and attractive as they can be. Gyms and saunas are everywhere. (Interesting digression: Would a fetish arise for less-fit people?) Citizens even have access to fast and painless cosmetic surgery to try out new appearances. Over and above these tools available to individual citizens, the Übercomputer has a design tool it can use to maximize matches, and it has to do with a weird little social experiment called the 11th Person Game.

The 11th person game

In this admittedly objectifying game, ask a friend to select a doorway and a point in time. From that starting point, they much watch for the next person to pass through the doorway, and decide in a moment whether they would like to marry them or not. (There is a more lascivious version of the game where marriage is not the decision, but I’ll let your imagination fill in that blank.)

When playing, you can’t undo a decision. If you decide yes, you can’t change your mind for someone better who comes along later. Once you say “no,” you’re stuck with that no even if they turned out be your favorite. If another person passes through the doorway while you’re still making up your mind about the prior person, tough luck. The prior person automatically becomes a “no.” The kicker is that if you don’t select someone by the 10th person, you “have” to marry the 11th and others watching you play the game will almost certainly rib you for the forced marriage, especially it’s a terrible match (like a homosexual having to “marry” someone of the opposite sex.)

When people begin to play the 11th person game, they most often have a strategy of finding flaws in people and holding out for a better looking candidate (since that’s pretty much all the information they have to go on in this toy experiment) until time’s up and they find that as of the 11th, they would have been much happier with one of the prior 10.

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Over time, to start “winning” this game, players shift strategies from this flaw-finding and holding out to one of in-the-moment appreciation, of looking for what’s right about a given person and caring much less about the “opportunity” cost of subsequent choices.

Notably, to get the effect, the game depends on, you guessed it, serial presentation of candidates and irrevocable decisions. This is what’s happening in The Circuit. A Green will hop on The Circuit with a mindset of looking to maximize, and after a few nights of winding up alone, feeling like they’re settling, and/or frustrated at lost opportunities, they will slowly shift to one of appreciation. That makes them genuinely happier and moreover, increases the number of matches in the total system. It’s not perfect of course. Logan did reject Carl for whatever reason. But this presentation technique would help maximize pleasure and happiness, which is what the Übercomputer is tasked to do.

Even all the other little unusabilities that go along with it like memory burden, the delay between candidates, and maybe even the social awkwardness, help create a design friction that additionally discourages best-of-all strategies and encourages a shift to appreciation strategies. More people win.

So, serial presentation is not a bug but a feature. Let’s see if we can keep it. Still, given the other massive and unresolvable problems in the design of The Circuit like lousy controls, unilateral control, and a complete lack of preferences, we need a complete rethink of those other parts to make this thing better. In the next post I’ll get into the principles involved and walk through the thinking of a better design. You know, for that coming reboot. (They’re reading and taking notes, right?)