Homing Beacon

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After following a beacon signal, Jack makes his way through an abandoned building, tracking the source. At one point he stops by a box on the wall, as he sees a couple of cables coming out from the inside of it, and cautiously opens it.

The repeater

I can’t talk much about interactions on this one given that he does not do much with it. But I guess readers might be interested to know about the actual prop used in the movie, so after zooming in on a screen capture and a bit of help from Google I found the actual radio.

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When Jack opens the box he finds the repeater device inside. He realizes that it’s connected to the building structure, using it as an antenna, and over their audio connection asks Vika to decrypt the signal.

The desktop interface

Although this sequence centers around the transmission from the repeater, most of the interactions take place on Vika’s desktop interface. A modal window on the display shows her two slightly different waveforms that overlap one another. But it’s not clear at all why the display shows two signals instead of just one, let aside what the second signal means.

After Jack identifies it as a repeater and asks her to decrypt the signal, Vika touches a DECODE button on her screen. With a flourish of orange and white, the display changes to reveal a new panel of information, providing a LATITUDE INPUT and LONGITUDE INPUT, which eventually resolve to 41.146576 -73.975739. (Which, for the curious, resolves to Stelfer Trading Company in Fairfield, Connecticut here on Earth. Hi, M. Stelfer!) Vika says, “It’s a set of coordinates. Grid 17. It’s a goddamn homing beacon.”

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At the control tower Vika was already tracking the signal through her desktop interface. As she hears Jack’s request, she presses the decrypt button at the top of the signal window to start the process.

When you look at the display, the decrypt button is already there for her to press. So either the computer already knows there is an encryption going on, or the user can press the decrypt button at any time, regardless of whether the signal is encrypted or not. In both cases, it’s bad interaction design.

An issue of agentive tech

If the computer already knows that the signal is encrypted, why doesn’t it tell her that? It should automatically handle the decryption, alert her that it was decrypted, and show the lat/long results on the screen. If it’s wrong, she can dismiss it. But let’s not rely on her consultation of a stoic guru just to find out. (It doesn’t even make sense from the TET’s perspective.) In this way you simplify the interface—as you no longer need a “decrypt” button—and help Vika and Jack with their goals more effectively.

Needs more states

From the sequence you can tell that the decrypt button has only two states , OFF and ON. To improve the interface, we’d want to have a few more states, indicating CONFIDENCE, PROCESSING, and of course if it’s wrong, the opportunity to DISMISS. Each of these would need specific designing for microinteractions, but these two states aren’t enough.

What if those weren’t coordinates?

When Vika presses the decrypt button we can see it expands the bottom part of the window, adding some encryption-related info. And way at the very bottom the interface there are a couple of labels that read LONGITUDE INPUT and LATITUDE INPUT. Not the best name though since it’s easy to mistake these for the coordinates of the signal source rather than the message itself. The numbers there start to change as the computer seems to be decoding the signal from the repeater, and making the correction on the data on real time.

But the strange bit are those same coordinate inputs. It seems as if the computer already knows—before it finishes decrypting—that the signal is transmitting a set of longitude and latitude coordinates. I mean, what if the encrypted data wasn’t coordinates at all…say, an entry code to some scav station? It’s possible that there is some metadata in the signal that conveys this information, but if that was immediately available, again, the system should have told them.

Finally, there is no feedback whatsoever about the time needed to complete the decryption. It doesn’t do much harm here as it’s pretty fast, but I’m guessing that more complex transmissions might pass the threshold of attention it would become an issue.

What is out there?

This is the first thing Jacks asks once he knows about the encrypted coordinates. And the interface designers thought about that one too, and place a small button next to the coordinate labels. That button leads to another window with the map display but not only that, if you look closely you can see that the button label also changes. While at first it reads MAP, after a few seconds the labels changes to GRID followed later by the number 17. And it keeps looping between those last two.

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The changing labels are a way to add more info on the same screen real estate. If Vika happens to know the surroundings of sector 17 she could have told Jack there was nothing there without even looking at the map. In the next sequence we see Vika scrolling around the map view—hopefully it opened right at those coordinates, but even if she’s scrolling around to see if there’s anything of interest there, I’ll note that the location does not have a drop pin to let her re-orient.

Losing the signal

Just as Jack is cutting one of the wires from the repeater to shut down the transmission we get a view of the desktop interface again. The modal window that Vika was using to track and decode the signal suddenly closes. This is a nice use of affordances, as the animation itself shows Vika that the signal was interrupted from the source. A more common trope is a big “no signal” label, so this is nice to see.

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After Vika finishes the decryption of the coordinates from the signal, Jacks takes his pliers to cut the wires going from the repeater to the building structure to shut down the transmission.

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Jacks decides to shut down the transmission from the repeater. As he does so, the desktop closes the window that Vika was using to track the signal, emphasizing the action with a short sound warning.

 

The only issue I can see is that in some cases Vika would end up opening the modal window again immediately if she was in the middle of work. The computer should stores the signal in memory and switch automatically from LIVE FEED to CACHE so she could continue.

Mostly useable

So the desktop interface definitely has its issues, but at the same time some few well considered details. The main challenge is its withholding the encryption from Vika. It shouldn’t. On the other hand, the interfaces have some clever information design, such as the space-saving labels and the animation which embodies the facts about the signal.

One thought on “Homing Beacon

  1. Pingback: TETVision | Sci-fi interfaces

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