Sci-fi Interfaces and Decipher SciFi go to the movies

OMG y’all. We totally got asked on a date and we should totally go.

So I happen to be in NYC for the Interaction17 conference this week, and agreed with the guys from the Decipher SciFi podcast that we should hang out. So it’s late notice, but we have a plan: Join us at 7:25 P.M. to watch The Space Between Us, and then hangout and chat about it afterward? There may even be podcast recording and interface redesigning, it’s hard to say. Providing you’re not into The Big Game.

Here’s a link to the event details.

https://www.facebook.com/events/1302970839741111/1304373202934208/?notif_t=like&notif_id=1486263480732356

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Luke’s predictive HUD

When Luke is driving Kee and Theo to a boat on the coast, the car’s heads-up-display shows him the car’s speed with a translucent red number and speed gauge. There are also two broken, blurry gauges showing unknown information.

Suddenly the road becomes blocked by a flaming car rolled onto the road by a then unknown gang. In response, an IMPACT warning triangle zooms in several times to warn the driver of the danger, accompanied by a persistent dinging sound.

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It commands attention effectively

Props to this attention-commanding signal. Neuroscience tells us that symmetrical expansion like this triggers something called a startle response.  (I first learned this in the awesome and highly recommended book Mind Hacks.) Any time we see symmetrical expansion in our field of vision, within milliseconds our sympathetic nervous system takes over, fixes our attention to that spot, and prompts us to avoid the thing that our brains believe is coming right at us. It all happens way before conscious processing, and that’s a good thing. It’s evolutionarily designed to keep us safe from falling rocks, flying fists, and pouncing tigers, and scenarios like that don’t have time for the relatively slow conscious processes.

Well visualized

The startle response varies in strength depending on several things.

  • The anxiety of the person (an anxious person will react to a slighter signal)
  • The driver’s habituation to the signal
  • The strength of the signal, in this case…
    • Contrast of the shape against its background
    • The speed of the expansion
  • The presence of a prepulse stimulus

We want the signal to be strong enough to grab the attention of a possibly-distracted driver, but not strong enough to cause them to overreact and risk control of car. While anything this critical to safety needs to be thoroughly tested, the size of the IMPACT triangle seems to sit in the golden mean between these two.

And while the effect is strongest in the lab with a dark shape expanding over a light background, I suspect given habituation to the moving background of the roadscape and a comparatively static HUD, the sympathetic nervous system would have no problem processing this light-on-dark shape.

Well placed

We only see it in action once, so we don’t know if the placement is dynamic. But it appears to be positioned on the HUD such that it draws Luke’s attention directly to the point in his field of vision where the flaming car is. (It looks offset to us because the camera is positioned in the middle of the back seat rather than the driver’s seat.) This dynamic positioning is great since it saves the driver critical bits of time. If the signal was fixed, then the driver would have his attention pulled between the IMPACT triangle and the actual thing. Much better to have the display say, “LOOK HERE!”

Readers of the book will recall this nuance from the lesson from Chapter 8, Augment the Periphery of Vision: “Objects should be placed at the edge of the user’s view when they are not needed, and adjacent to the locus of attention when they are.”

Improvements

There are a few improvements that could be made.

  • It could synchronize the audio to the visual. The dinging is dissociated from the motion of the triangle, and even sounds a bit like a seat belt warning rather than something trying to warn you of a possible, life-threatening collision. Having the sound and visual in sync would strengthen the signal. It could even increase volume with the probability and severity of impact.
  • It could increase the strength of the audio signal by suppressing competing audio, by pausing any audio entertainment and even canceling ambient sounds.
  • It could predict farther into the future. The triangle only appears once the flaming car actually stops in the road a few meters ahead. But there is clearly a burning car rolling down to the road for seconds before that. We see it. The passengers see it. Better sensors and prediction models would have drawn Luke’s attention to the problem earlier and helped him react sooner.
  • It could also know when the driver is actually focused on the problem and than fade the signal to the periphery so that it does not cover up any vital visual information. It can then fade completely when the risk has passed.
  • An even smarter system might be able to adjust the strength of the signal based on real-time variables, like the anxiety of the driver, his or her current level of distraction, ambient noise and light, and of course the degree of risk (a tumbleweed vs. a small child on the road).
  • It could of course go full agentive and apply the brakes or swerve if the driver fails to take appropriate action in time.

Despite these improvements, I believe Luke’s HUD to be well designed that gets underplayed in the drama and disorientation of the scene.

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Syd’s dash display

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If Jasper’s car is aftermarket, Syd’s built-in display seems to be more consumer-savvy. It is a blue electroluminescent flat display built into the dashboard. It has more glanceable information with a cleaner information hierarchy. It has no dangerous keyboard entry. All we see of the display in these few glimpses is the speedometer, but even that’s enough to illustrate these differences.

Jasper’s car dashboard

Jasper is a longtime friend of Theo’’s who offers his home as a safe house for a time. Jasper’’s civilian vehicle features a device on its dashboard that merits some attention. It is something like a small laptop computer, with a flat screen in a roughly pill-shaped black plastic frame mounted in the center of the dashboard. The top half of this screen shows a view from a backwards-facing camera mounted on the vehicle.

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Green Laser Scan

In a very brief scene, Theo walks through a security arch on his way into the Ministry of Energy. After waiting in queue, he walks towards a rectangular archway. At his approach, two horizontal green laser lines scan him from head to toe. Theo passes through the arch with no trouble.

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Though the archway is quite similar to metal detection technology used in airports today, the addition of the lasers hints at additional data being gathered, such as surface mapping for a face-matching algorithm.

We know that security mostly cares about what’s hidden under clothes or within bodies and bags, rather than confirming the surface that security guards can see, so it’s not likely to be an actual technological requirement of the scan. Rather it is a visual reminder to participants and onlookers that the scan is in progress, and moreover that this the Ministry is a secured space.

Though we could argue that the signal could be made more visible, laser light is very eye catching and human eyes are most sensitive at 555nm, and this bright green is the closest to the 808 diode laser at 532nm. So for being an economic, but eye catching signal, this green laser is a perfect choice.

Report Card: The Faithful Wookiee

Read all The Faithful Wookiee reviews in chronological order.

Of course we understand that The Faithful Wookiee was an animation for children and teens, the script of which was thrown together in a short time. We understand that it is meant to be entertainment and not a prediction, building on the somewhat-unexpected success of a sci-fi movie released the year before. We get that the plot is, well, unlikely. We understand that 1978 was not a time when much thought was given to consistent and deeply thought-through worldbuilding with technology. We understand it is hand-drawn animation and all the limitations that come with this.

But, still, to ensure a critique is valuable to us, we must bypass these archaeological excuses and focus instead on the thing as produced. And for that, the short does not fare well.

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Children of Men: Overview

When it was released, Children of Men seemed a fanciful dystopia. Today with its depictions of environmental blight, terrorist bombs, refugee-phobia, and a militarized police state, it seems uncomfortably prescient. The film is sci-fi, but it doesn’t lean heavily on the use of interfaces for its storytelling. So while it will be only a handful of reviews, let’s celebrate the 10th anniversary of this dark film with some nerdy analysis.

Release Date: 05 January 2007 (USA)

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Plot

In the year 2010, humanity suddenly suffers from global infertility. Most of the world is thrown into chaos, but Britian soliders on under military rule. Refugees in this society are considered a threat to the nation, and they are routinely rounded up and deported or killed.

In 2027, one member of this society, named Theo Faron, is dutifully trudging on with his life when he is kidnapped and taken to meet his estranged wife Julian, now the leader of a secretive and militaristic refugee-rights organization. She convinces him to use his relationship to his powerful cousin Nigel to arrange transportation papers for a young woman. When Theo delivers the papers, he learns that the young woman, named Kee, is pregnant. Shocked at this symbol of hope, he protects her from a society that hates her, a government that will kill her, and the refugee-rights organization who wants to use the child for their own ends, escorting her at great personal cost to a fabled boat that can protect and nurture her and her child and thereby the future of humanity.

Escape door

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There is one last interface in The Faithful Wookiee we see in use. It’s one of those small interfaces, barely seen, but that invites lots of consideration. In the story, Boba and Chewie have returned to the Falcon and administered to Luke and Han the cure to the talisman virus. Relieved, Luke (who assigns loyalty like a puppy at a preschool) says,

“Boba, you’re a hero and a faithful friend. [He isn’t. —Editor] You must come back with us. [He won’t.What’s the matter with R2?”

C3PO says,“I’m afraid sir, it’s because you said Boba is a faithful friend and faithful ally. [He didn’t.] That simply does not feed properly into R2’s information banks.”

Luke asks, “What are you talking about?”

“We intercepted a message between Boba and Darth Vader, sir. Boba Fett is Darth Vader’s right-hand man. I’m afraid this whole adventure has been an Imperial plot.”

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Luke did not see this coming.

Luke gapes towards Boba, who has his blaster drawn and is backing up into an alcove with an escape hatch. Boba glances at a box on the wall, slides some control sideways, and a hatch opens in the ceiling. He says, deadpan, “We’ll meet again…friend,” before touching some control on his belt that sends him flying into the clear green sky, leaving behind a trail of smoke. Continue reading

Video call

After ditching Chewie, Boba Fett heads to a public video phone to make a quick report to his boss who turns out to be…Darth Vader (this was a time long before the Expanded Universe/Legends, so there was really only one villain to choose from).

To make the call, he approaches an alcove off an alley. The alcove has a screen with an orange bezel, and a small panel below it with a 12-key number panel to the left, a speaker, and a vertical slot. Below that is a set of three phone books. For our young readers, phone books are an ancient technology in which telephone numbers were printed in massive books, and copies kept at every public phone for reference by a caller.

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