Talking to a Puppet

As mentioned, Johnny in the last phone conversation in the van is not talking to the person he thinks he is. The film reveals Takahashi at his desk, using his hand as if he were a sock puppeteer—but there is no puppet. His desk is emitting a grid of green light to track the movement of his hand and arm.

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The Make It So chapter on gestural interfaces suggests Takahashi is using his hand to control the mouth movements of the avatar. I’d clarify this a bit. Lip synching by human animators is difficult even when not done in real time, and while it might be possible to control the upper lip with four fingers, one thumb is not enough to provide realistic motion of the lower lip.

Instead I suggest that the same computer modifying his voice is also providing the fine mouth movements, using the same camera that must be present for the video phone calls. So what are the hand motions for? They provide cues as to how fast or slow Takahashi wants his puppet to speak, further disguising his own speech patterns. And the arm position could provide different body language for the avatar as a whole, to ensure for example that the puppet avatar does not react with surprise or anger even if Takahashi himself expresses those emotions.

We saw this avatar in a phone call once before, when Johnny dialed into an internal phone number from the phone booth. But we’ve also seen the video image of Takahashi himself when he called Street Preacher. Perhaps the avatar is an option for incoming calls, just as today we can assign custom ringtones to individual callers on our mobiles. For outgoing calls, an important person such as Takahashi would be more likely to use his true face to impress the callee.

Video phones have been predicted in science fiction fiction and film for a very long time now, but have never achieved wide scale usage. Human communication is richer and more expressive when we can see each other, so why are we resistant? One reason is that in the real world we don’t have makeup artists following us around to ensure we look our best at all times. Donald Norman suggested in chapter 8 of his book Things That Make Us Smart that real time video enhancement would solve this problem, but then if we’re all going to be presenting false avatars to each other, why bother?

A Cringing Computer

After the call ends, Anna, a personality uploaded into a mainframe, appears on the screen. Takahashi is annoyed by this and makes a sweeping arm gesture to get rid of her, detected by the green light grid. The computer screen actually sinks into the desk in response.

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This is discussed in chapter 10 of the book as an interface handling emotional input. I’d like to add that this is also an emotional output, the computer seeming to hide itself from an angry user. Given how often current day users express the wish to beat their computers with heavy blunt objects, perhaps that is exactly what it is doing.

Computers in film and TV often have annoying personalities, which is surprising for (presumably) commercial products. Another cringing computer, emphasised by being named “Slave”, made regular appearances in season 4 of Blake’s 7. Would users feel more comfortable if their computer systems gave the appearance of being afraid every time they had to report an error? It’s worth considering.

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