The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

This week, to celebrate both the holiday and the release of a new film in the Star Wars, universe, we pause the ongoing review to return briefly to the interfaces of an old, wretched entry in this ongoing saga.

Release Date: 17 November 1978 (USA)

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Han and Chewbacca are flying back to the Wookie home world Kazook [sic] for Life Day (read: Christmas) but encounter some imperial trouble which delays them. Worried, Chewie’s wife Malla makes several video calls on an illegal and hidden rebel communication device to try and find his whereabouts, and receives assurances that they are on their way. Then she attempts to cook Bantha Surprise while watching a local-cable cooking show by the eccentric, four-armed Chef Gormaanda.

Family friend Saun Dann arrives with gifts for each of them—including an erotic VR brain implantation chair for Chewbacca’s father Itchy—even as the Empire declares martial law on the planet. Princess Leia and C-3PO contact Malla and ask Saun Dann to look after the family. Stormtroopers arrive at the door to search the place for Solo and Chewbacca. One of the Imperial officers inspects a hologram-box and spends a few minutes to enjoy a music video on it. Saun is coerced to leave.

Alone, the young Wookie named Lumpy proves to be a nuisance to the stormtroopers during their search, so the family distracts him by having him watch a cartoon of Boba Fett and Darth Vader. Finally satisfied that the rebels are not there, the stormtroopers leave and Lumpy finally checks out the video introduction to the electronics kit left him as a gift by Saun. He uses the kit to build a television and watch a live-broadcast local television program. The program is interrupted by the announcement of an Imperial curfew being imposed.

An individual stormtrooper, B4-7-11, returns to the home to threaten Lumpy, but is intercepted by Han and Chewie, who have finally arrived. They defeat him and Han leaves. Saun returns and answers a call from an Imperial officer, lying about the fate of B4-7-11 . Saun leaves, and the Wookies finally undertake their Life Day rituals.

The main ritual involves donning robes, passing into a ball of light that teleports them to the Tree of Life, where they are joined by other Wookies, as well as R2-D2, C-3PO, Han Solo, and Princess Leia, who have teleported here by some unknown means. The English-speaking characters make a speech before Leia sings a traditional song. This causes Chewbacca to go into a reverie, recalling his recent adventures with the Rebellion, always from odd out-of-body ,third-person perspectives, as if from camera droids littered about the galaxy.

After Chewbacca’s reverie, they return home, sit at the table for dinner, and bow their heads in reverent prayer.


 

On most overviews I include links to purchase or view the film. But as this entire film is available on YouTube, it is included, in full, below. Analyses follow.

 

 

 

 

Orange/blue SHIELD Agent Interfaces

The SHIELD helicarrier cockpit has dozens and dozens of agents sitting at desktop screens, working 3D mice and keyboards, speaking to headsets, and doing superspy information work.

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The camera mostly sweeps by these interfaces, never lingering too hard on them. It’s hard to see any details because of the motion blur, but given the few pauses we do see:

  • Wireframe of the helicarrier (A map to help locate problems?)
  • Gantt chart (Literally for the nascent Avengers initiative?)
  • Complex, node-network diagram (Datamining as part of the ongoing search for Loki?)
  • View of a flying camera pointing down. (You might think this is a live view from the bottom of the Helicarrier, but it’s above water, and this seems to be showing land, so recorded? part of the search?)
  • Live-video displays of cameras around the Helicarrier

There are others that appear later (see the next entry) but these bear some special note for a couple of reasons.

  • The ones that are instantly recognizable make sense at this glanceable level.
  • I couldn’t spot any repeats, even among the fuidget-filled screens (this represents a lot of work.)
  • The screens are all either orange or blue. Not as in orange and blue highlights. I mean each screen is either strictly values of orange or strictly values of blue. Maybe cyan.

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scifiinterfaces presents: STRANGE DAYS in 35mm

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December 30 only

In San Francisco and looking to see a dark, disturbing New Year’s Eve themed science fiction film just before 2015 ends? Who isn’t? On December 30th, come to the Roxie Theater to join Chris Noessel, Design Fellow at Cooper, keeper of scifiinterfaces.com, and the co-author of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction for a viewing of Strange Days: a twisted, recursive, techno-serial-killer brain-interface thriller. The movie was written by TERMINATOR great James Cameron, Scorsese-compadre Jay Cocks, and features an all star cast led by Ralph Fiennes as the anti-hero Lenny Nero and Angela Bassett as “Mace” Mason, whose performance won her a Saturn award for Best Actress. The film also earned director Kathryn Bigelow (POINT BREAK, THE HURT LOCKER) a Saturn for best director.

It’s neither available on Blu-ray nor for streaming in the US, so you won’t want to miss this rare 35mm presentation. If you thought Brainstorm’s anti-corporate take on telexperience tech lacked bite, you will want to see this take on what telexperience tech would mean to psychopaths. Note that it’s rated R, not really a kid’s film, here.

For those familiar with prior scifiinterfaces movie nights, this is a LONG movie, and so there will be only the briefest of introduction presentations.

1995, 146 minutes, 35mm

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Grabby hologram

After Pepper tosses off the sexy bon mot “Work hard!” and leaves Tony to his Avengers initiative homework, Tony stands before the wall-high translucent displays projected around his room.

Amongst the videos, diagrams, metadata, and charts of the Tesseract panel, one item catches his attention. It’s the 3D depiction of the object, the tesseract itself, one of the Infinity Stones from the MCU. It is a cube rendered in a white wireframe, glowing cyan amidst the flat objects otherwise filling the display. It has an intense, cold-blue glow at its center.  Small facing circles surround the eight corners, from which thin cyan rule lines extend a couple of decimeters and connect to small, facing, inscrutable floating-point numbers and glyphs.

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Wanting to look closer at it, he reaches up and places fingers along the edge as if it were a material object, and swipes it away from the display. It rests in his hand as if it was a real thing. He studies it for a minute and flicks his thumb forward to quickly switch the orientation 90° around the Y axis.

Then he has an Important Thought and the camera cuts to Agent Coulson and Steve Rogers flying to the helicarrier.

So regular readers of this blog (or you know, fans of blockbuster sci-fi movies in general) may have a Spidey-sense that this feels somehow familiar as an interface. Where else do we see a character grabbing an object from a volumetric projection to study it? That’s right, that seminal insult-to-scientists-and-audiences alike, Prometheus. When David encounters the Alien Astrometrics VP, he grabs the wee earth from that display to nuzzle it for a little bit. Follow the link if you want that full backstory. Or you can just look and imagine it, because the interaction is largely the same: See display, grab glowing component of the VP and manipulate it.

Prometheus-229 Two anecdotes are not yet a pattern, but I’m glad to see this particular interaction again. I’m going to call it grabby holograms (capitulating a bit on adherence to the more academic term volumetric projection.) We grow up having bodies and moving about in a 3D world, so the desire to grab and turn objects to understand them is quite natural. It does require that we stop thinking of displays as untouchable, uninterruptable movies and more like toy boxes, and it seems like more and more writers are catching on to this idea.

More graphics or more information?

Additionally,  the fact that this object is the one 3D object in its display is a nice affordance that it can be grabbed. I’m not sure whether he can pull the frame containing the JOINT DARK ENERGY MISSION video to study it on the couch, but I’m fairly certain I knew that the tesseract was grabbable before Tony reached out.

On the other hand, I do wonder what Tony could have learned by looking at the VP cube so intently. There’s no information there. It’s just a pattern on the sides. The glow doesn’t change. The little glyph sticks attached to the edges are fuigets. He might be remembering something he once saw or read, but he didn’t need to flick it like he did for any new information. Maybe he has flicked a VP tesseract in the past?

Augmented “reality”

Rather, I would have liked to have seen those glyph sticks display some useful information, perhaps acting as leaders that connected the VP to related data in the main display. One corner’s line could lead to the Zero Point Extraction chart. Another to the lovely orange waveform display. This way Tony could hold the cube and glance at its related information. These are all augmented reality additions.

Augmented VP

Or, even better, could he do some things that are possible with VPs that aren’t possible with AR. He should be able to scale it to be quite large or small. Create arbitrary sections, or plan views. Maybe fan out depictions of all objects in the SHIELD database that are similarly glowy, stone-like, or that remind him of infinity. Maybe…there’s…a…connection…there! Or better yet, have a copy of JARVIS study the data to find correlations and likely connections to consider. We’ve seen these genuine VP interactions plenty of places (including Tony’s own workshop), so they’re part of the diegesis.

Avengers_PullVP-05.pngIn any case, this simple setup works nicely, in which interaction with a cool media helps underscore the gravity of the situation, the height of the stakes. Note to selves: The imperturbable Tony Stark is perturbed. Shit is going to get real.

 

Avengers, assembly!

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When Coulson hands Tony a case file, it turns out to be an exciting kind of file. For carrying, it’s a large black slab. After Tony grabs it, he grabs the long edges and pulls in opposite directions. One part is a thin translucent screen that fits into an angled slot in the other part, in a laptop-like configuration, right down to a built-in keyboard.

The grip edge

The grip edge of the screen is thicker than the display, so it has a clear, physical affordance as to what part is meant to be gripped and how to pull it free from its casing, and simultaneously what end goes into the base. It’s simple and obvious. The ribbing on the grip unfortunately runs parallel to the direction of pull. It would make for a better grip and a better affordance if the grip was perpendicular to the direction of pull. Minor quibble.

I’d be worried about the ergonomics of an unadjustable display. I’d be worried about the display being easily unseated or dislodged. I’d also be worried about the strength of the join. Since there’s no give, enough force on the display might snap it clean off. But then again this is a world where “vibrium steel” exists, so material critiques may not be diegetically meaningful.

Login

Once he pulls the display from the base, the screen boops and animated amber arcs spin around the screen, signalling him to login via a rectangular panel on the right hand side of the screen. Tony puts his four fingers in the spot and drags down. A small white graphic confirms his biometrics. As a result, a WIMP display appears in grays and amber colors.

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Briefing materials

One window on the left hand side shows a keypad, and he enters 1-8-5-4. The keypad disappears and a series of thumbnail images—portraits of members of the Avengers initiative—appear in its place. Pepper asks Tony, “What is all this?” Tony replies, saying, “This is, uh…” and in a quick gesture, places his ten fingertips on the screen at the portraits, and then throws his hands outward, off the display.

The portraits slide offscreen to become ceiling-height volumetric windows filled with rich media dossiers on Thor, Steve Rogers, and David Banner. There are videos, portraits, schematics, tables of data, cellular graphics, and maps. There’s a smaller display near the desktop where the “file” rests about the tesseract. (More on this bit in the next post.)

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Insert standard complaint here about the eye strain that a translucent display causes, and the apology that yes, I understand it’s an effective and seemingly high-tech way to show actors and screens simultaneously. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.

The two-part login shows an understanding of multifactor authentication—a first in the survey, so props for that. Tony must provide something he “is”, i.e. his fingerprints, and something he knows, i.e. the passcode. Only then does the top secret information become available.

I have another standard grouse about the screen providing no affordances that content has an alternate view available, and that a secret gesture summons that view. I’d also ordinarily critique the displays for having nearly no visual hierarchy, i.e. no way for your eyes to begin making sense of it, and a lot of pointless-motion noise that pulls your attention in every which way.

But, this beat is about the wonder of the technology, the breadth of information SHIELD in its arsenal, and the surprise of familiar tech becoming epic, so I’m giving it a narrative pass.

Also, OK, Tony’s a universe-class hacker, so maybe he’s just knowledgeable/cocky enough to not need the affordances and turned them off. All that said, in my due diligence: Affordances still matter, people.

Correcting attribution for the medpod

Gorgeous + Catastrophic presentation card

Earlier this year I made two presentations called Gorgeous+Catastrophic, in which I show six sci-fi interfaces that are both beautiful to behold and that would be disastrous if implemented in the real world, all to illustrate why we should keep interfaces in sci-fi at arm’s length and evaluate them with a critical eye. It’s a fun talk to give. You should totally ask me to come present it at your local conference.

But in one of the talks, when I introduced the first of the six examples—the medpod interface from Prometheus, starting around 06:35 in the video—I misattributed the whole design to Territory Studio. This was oversimplifying the team on a couple of levels, so let me make the formal correction and apology here.

Territory Studio did work on Prometheus, and even did work on the medpod: They did the VFX interfaces shown around 07:50, and were joined by teams from Fuel VFX and Compuhire. They did not do the on-set touchscreen that sits on the side of the medpod that Noomi Rapace/Elizabeth Shaw touches directly starting around 07:28. That was designed by Shaun Yue, working as an individual contractor. An additional complication is that George Simons, who was graphics supervisor on the film, is now with Territory, but was not then. And then, there’s the credits, which only list names, not companies, and not full teams.

Mea culpa. I should have known better, since I even have an interview with Shaun Yue on this blog about that movie. It’s a small competitive field, and proper credit is hard to get. It’s functionally advertising, so this mistake isn’t minor. My apologies to Shaun, George Simons, Rheea Aranha, John Hill, Paul Roberts, Daniel Burke, Mark Jordan, Eliot Eveson, and Adam Stevenson. If I give the same talk again I won’t make the same mistake.

The trickiness of attribution

It doesn’t excuse the mistake (and I’m glad I have this forum to right the wrong) but I will note how very difficult it is to get attribution of scifiinterfaces correctly.

Who is the designer?

A sci-fi interface is a pie with a lot of fingers in it. If it’s central to the plot, then the writer will have described what it does in the script. The director will have had (in this case) his opinions as well, well before shooting, and actors may have input after reading the script and during shooting. If it’s not central to the plot, it may have been handed to someone elsewhere in the hierarchy. Then there’s art directors, production designers, and editors all directly touching the end result of what we see on screen.

With interfaces becoming more and more part of sci-fi movie making, the teams are getting larger and more specialized. There may be one team whose responsibility are on-set interfaces that the actors see and touch. Another team might be handling the post-production interfaces that are built after principal shooting. One individual might do the graphics as static elements and another do the motion design. Final assets produced by designers may be cut up and remixed by editors (without consulting the original designers) to meet the narrative needs of the flow of the story, so what winds up on screen may not be what was originally designed.

Given all of these people, where is the line of who is and isn’t the designer? Or even the design team? Is it everyone? Is it just “the designer?” Who is that in this complicated case? Who gets the credit?

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An informally defined role

Another part of the difficulty of attribution is that interface design is not as formalized a role as many of the other roles in movie production. If a person is listed as the Director of Photography, that has a specific meaning and set of responsibilities. But there isn’t a formal title that every production agrees to, like Director of Interfaces (even though, hey, Hollywood, maybe it’s time). Sometimes, as was the case with Prometheus, it’s a mixture of individuals and studios hired separately. Sometimes the designers are in-house employees of the studio. It’s hard to even review the credits for some movies and clearly say these people were the ones involved in the interface. That person’s name may represent the individual whose name stands in for a studio. Even Prometheus listed the individuals by name, even though I’ve confirmed through some direct conversations who were hired as individual contractors rather than individuals.

It is so very complicated.

So again, this is not an excuse, but an explication about why trying to get the attribution right is a fraught enterprise, and I did not due my due diligence when speaking about interfaces. It would be easiest to simply bypass attribution altogether, but I want to recognize people for the difficult and beautiful work they do.

This whole thing is especially on my mind as we head into the end of the year and I’m working with folks to create an award for the best sci-fi interface of the year. This will be important to get right, and clearly I’ve got to get better at doing it.

Movie night: Ghostbusters

Spooktech

Thursday, 29 OCT 02015, 9 P.M. at The New Parkway

Come to Oakland to celebrate Halloween week spooktech with Chris Noessel, Design Fellow at Cooper and keeper of scifiinterfaces.com, with a big-screen viewing of the sci-fi/comedy/spooky greats Ghostbusters.

Reserve your ticket before they’re sold out at Brown Paper Tickets

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The pre-show includes

  • A trivia contest you take on your phone
  • A bookstacking contest
  • A short presentation deconstructing Ghostbusters for its…uhh…questionable service design

You can win stuff!

Prizes

Agenda

8:15 – 9:00: Dinner from The New Parkway concession stand: menu, queueing for seats.

9:00 – 9:10: Seating (going to try to get this done quickly)

9:10 – 9:40: Pre-show

9:40 – 11:30Ghostbusters

Address

The New Parkway: 474 24th St, Oakland, CA 94612. You can find directions on getting there using Google or on the cinema website.

People getting back to San Francisco via BART need not worry. According to BART schedule, there are three trains to catch after the film:

  • 11:39 You can make it if you dash
  • 11:59 Makes for a leisurely stroll back
  • 12:19 Would even let you grab a drink nearby first

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Report Card: Back to the Future Part II

Read all the Back to the Future Part II reviews in chronological order.

At least according by the hubbub today, c.f. #BacktotheFuture, this movie struck a deep chord in audiences with its tongue-in-cheek futurism and occasional forays into brilliance. And while much of social media has been poring over the film to see what it got right (the pointless interpretation of futurism, imho) let’s instead return to our little corner of nerdery and see how its interfaces fared.

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Videoconferencing

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Marty Sr. answers a call from a shady business colleague shortly after coming home. He takes the call in the den on the large video screen there. As he approaches the screen, he sees a crop of a Renoir painting, “Dance at La Moulin de la Galette,” with a blinking legend “INCOMING CALL” along the bottom. When he answers it, the Renoir shrinks to a corner of the screen, revealing the live video feed with his correspondent. During the conversation, the Renoir disappears, and text appears near the bottom of the screen providing reminders about the speaker. This appears automatically, with no prompting from Marty Sr.

Needles, Douglas J.
Occupation: Sys Operations
Age: 47
Birthday: August 6, 1968
Address: 88 Oriole Rd, A6t
Wife: Lauren Anne
Children: Roberta, 23 Amy, 20
Food Prefence: Steak, Mex
Food Dislike: Fish, Tuna
Drinks: Scotch, Beer
Hobbies: Avid Basketball Fan
Sports: Jogging, Slamball, Tennis
Politics: None

This is an augmented reality teleconference, as mentioned in Chapter 8 of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction. See more information in that chapter. In short, it’s a particularly good example of one type of augmentation that is very useful for people having to interact with networks of people much larger than Dunbar’s number equips us for. Unfortunately, the information appears in a distracting scroll across the bottom, and is not particularly pertinent to the conversation, so could benefit from a bit of context awareness or static high-resolution display to be really useful. Continue reading

VR Goggles

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At the dinner table, both Marty Jr. and Marlene have VR goggles. Marty wears his continuously, but Marlene is more polite and rests hers around her neck when with the family. When she receives a call, red LEDs flash the word “PHONE” on the outside of the goggles as they ring. This would be a useful signal if the volume were turned down or the volume was baffled by ambient sounds.

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Marty Jr’’s goggles are on, and he announces to Marty Sr. that the phone is for him and that it’s Needles.

This implies a complete wireless caller ID system (which had only just been released to market in the United States the year before the movie was released) and a single number for the household that is distributed amongst multiple communications devices simultaneously, which was not available at the time (or hey, even now), so it’s quite forward looking. Additionally, it lets the whole social circle help manage communication requests, even if it sacrifices a bit of privacy.