After Hawkeye is enthralled by Loki, agent Coulson has to call agent Romanoff in from the field, mid-mission. While he awaits her to extract herself from a situation, he idly glances at case file 242-56 which consists of a large video of Barton and Romanoff mid-combat, and overview profiles of the two agents. A legend in the upper right identifies this as STRIKE TEAM: DELTA, and a label at the top reads ABIDJAN OPERATION. There is some animated fuigetry on the periphery of the video, and some other fuigetry in windows that are occluded by the case file.
Jack flies the airship most of the way to the TET when he decides to listen the recordings of the Odyssey. He presses the play button on the recorder, it makes a beep and an electronic voice says, “Flight recorder playback for the Odyssey mission, 3 May 2017.” Then the playback starts.
First, real flight recorders
Before starting the analysis of the black box in Oblivion I thought it could be helpful to do some research on real-word black boxes. That way I had a reference point, something to compare this to. Oddly enough, there is a lot of information on the internet about the required recording and survival aspects of the device, but not much about means to find it after a crash. Beacons and transmitters are mentioned, but not many requirements to facilitate a person actually spotting it. Anyway, after that research I came up with a list of requirements for the device. It must…
- Survive extreme temperature, pressure, and water conditions.
- Record both ship and crew´s data on the flight.
- Be easy to find in a crash site.
- Provide quick access to the stored data.
You can think of modern flight recorders as big and tough hard drives that make digital recordings of both ship data and cockpit voice. Most modern commercial jets use a “quick access recorder” that stores data in a removable memory that can be plugged in to a common computer. And some recorders can also have an USB or Ethernet port for quick access, too. But often the device is damaged by the crash, and the full data needs to be accessed with special equipment.
So it’s against these requirements that we can analyze the real-world design of the flight recorder.
And really, this thing is like a Christmas tree of attention getting lights and sounds in comparison.
Great: Commanding attention
I have to give it to them here, they did a really good job. Aside from the normal design patterns for black boxes, the flight recorder in the movie provides other ways to find the device. The flashing white light can be easily spotted in the dark —and also on the day if bright enough. Even more, flashing is one of the most attention-getting signals that there are, neurologically speaking. And it can be instantly associated with an electronic device, while a fixed flight could be taken as a reflection on some debris.
Irregular flashing is even more powerful: A pattern that is semi random (or stochastic in the literature), with some flashes slightly offset from the main pattern. That difference in the flashing is even more attention getting that a regular one. This too would be really helpful in a crash site where you have an important amount of flashes going on as well: police cars, ambulances and fire cars. In that situation, the randomness of the flashing can help in distinguishing the device from the surroundings.
Julia was wandering through the Odyssey´s wreckage when she heard a soft and repeating sound. She pulled out some wreckage to find the flight recorder. These sound signals help her to locate the device more precisely when at close distance, even when it´s covered by debris if the sound is strong enough.
When Julia finds the recorder, she knows that she and Jack need to carry it back to the Tower to better examine it. And as the recorder is kind of heavy, Julia folds out an small handler and uses it to lift up the recorder.
Great: Even better than a flash memory
The recorder in the movie also provides a way to instantly access the voice recordings of the crew. It uses a display and several buttons in a way that is similar to a music player, and building on a known mental model means that anyone looking for the device is going to be able to use it.
Assistive tools for the emergency mode
The recorder in the movie also seems to have two different modes or settings, an “emergency” mode when it has to be found and another mode to play the recordings. As with real flight recorders, the emergency mode could be activated by internal sensors. These could detect the crash via a sudden and/or significant change in velocity, for example. But it ought to have a manual control of some sort to return to normal mode.
When Julia finds the recorder, the device was beeping and using a light as beacon. It also had two status LEDs turned on and the small display was showing a graph curve in red. In contrast, when Jack is hearing the playbacks, the recorder doesn´t show any of those functions. Both the beeping, the lights, and the small screen display are all turned off, and the graph isn´t showing anymore.
What is that red graph supposed to mean anyway?
It´s not very clear what the purpose of the small screen display is. What is it meant to communicate? Additionally the display is oddly placed next to the controls of the recorder, which implies a mapping that doesn’t really seem logical. But mapping is not the only issue, because when the recorder is actually playing, this display is always off.
Given that It´s only on when Julia finds the recorder and the device is capable of playing the recordings by itself, it might be a way to tell the amount of battery life of the device. Although even then, a graph is something that shows change through time. When you need to know the energy levels at one specific moment, using a common battery indicator, or even a depletion bar would work better.
So maybe the graph is telling us that the device has some way of recharging itself. In that case, the graph could be showing charge and discharge cycles—or energy consumption rates—and by association also telling about some problem with the charging system. Even assuming this is the case, it´s odd that the display is always off during playback so it probably has some control to turn it on and off.
A screen dedicated to sound.
The recorder uses another, bigger display to show a number that indicates some time value, like recording or playback time. The bottom half of the display shows a spectrum analyzer of the recording playing at the moment, but when the recorder is not working this part of the display remains empty. During the movie we see that the recorder plays only sound, i.e. the voice recordings during the mission.
This screen offers some visualization but showing the spectrum analysis of the playback seems like a secondary feature. You know, given that it´s not necessary to actually hear the playback. But the display has a MODE button, so maybe the recorder can also record video to take advantage of the full size of the screen. In that case maybe the crew of the Odyssey just chose to only record audio, be it for privacy or to save storage space for the rest of the mission.
But again, we never actually see the recorder playing video. And the display has a low resolution, monochrome screen—like some early PDAs. So making sense of any video playing from there would definitely be a challenge.
As Ibanez and Barcalow are juuuuuust about to start a slurpy on-duty make out session, their attention is drawn by the coffee mug whose content is listing in the glass.
Ibanez explains helpfully, “There’s a gravity field out there.” Barcalow orders her to “Run a scan!” She turns to a screen and does something to run the scan, and Barcalow confirms that “Sensors [are] on” As she watches an amber-colored graticule distort as if weighed down by an increasingly heavy ball while a Big Purple Text Label blinks GRAVITIC DISTORTION. Two numbers increment speedily at the bottom-right edge of the screen and modulus at 1000. “There,” she says.
So many plot questions
- What kind of coffee cups can withstand enough gravity to tip the contents 45 degrees but remain themselves perfectly still and upright?
- Why did they need the coffee cup? Wouldn’t their inner ear have told them the same thing faster?
- Why is the screen in the background of the coffee cup still blinking OPTIMAL COURSE?
Of course we have to put these aside in favor of the interaction design questions.
First the “workflow”
Why on earth would they need to turn on sensors? Aren’t the sensors only useful when they’re sensing? If you have a sense that something is wrong, turning on the sensors only confirms what you already know. This is still more of that pesky stoic guru metaphor. This should have been an active academy that warned them—loudly—the moment nearby gravity started looking weird.
The visualization is not bad…
Let’s pause the criticism for one moment to give credit where credit is due. The grid vortex is a fast and reliable way to illustrate the invisible problem that they’re facing and telegraph increasing danger. Warped graticules have been a staple of depicting spacetime curvature since Disney’s 1979 movie The Black Hole.
This is also the same technique that scientists use to depict the same phenomenon, so it’s got some street cred, too.
The same thing can be shown in 3D, but it’s visually noisier. Moreover, the 2D version builds on our sense of basic physics, as we can easily imagine what would happen to anything nearing the depression. So, it’s mostly the right display.
…But then, the interaction
Despite the immediacy of the display, there’s a major problem. Sure, this interface conveys impending doom, but it doesn’t convey any useful information to help them know where the threat is coming from or what to do about it after they know that doom impends. (Plus, they had to turn it on, and all it tells them is, “Yep, looks pretty bad out there.”) To design this right, they need a sense of the 3D vector of the threat as compared to their own vector, and what the best available options are.
Better: Augmented reality to telegraph the invisible threat
Fortunately, we already have the medium and channel for Ibanez and Barcalow to immediately understand the 3D direction of the threat in the real world and most importantly, in relation to the ship’s trajectory and orientation, since that’s the tool they have on hand to avoid the threat. We’ve already seen that volumetric projection is a thing in this world, so the ship should display the VP just outside the ship’s viewports. The animation can illustrate the threat coming from the outside on the outside, and fade once the threat gets to be in a range of visible light. In this way there’s no 2D to 3D interpretation. It’s direct. Where’s the unexpected gravitic distortion? Look out the window. There. There is the the unexpected gravitic distortion. The HUD display would need to be aimed at the navigator’s seat, but for very distant objects, e.g. out of visible light range, the parallax shift wouldn’t be problematic for other locations on the bridge. You’d also have to manage the scenario where the threat comes from a direction not out the window (like, say, through the floor) but you can just shift the VP interior for that.
Next, you could use VP inside the ship to show the two paths and point of collision, as well as best predicted paths (there’s that useful active academy metaphor again.) Then we can let Ibanez trust her own instincts as she presses the manual override to steer the ship clear. I don’t have the time to comp an internal VP up right now, so I’ll rely on your imagination to comp this particular part of a much better solution than what we see on screen.
To make your flight as short as possible, our flight attendants are switching on the sleep regulator, which will regulate your sleeping during the flight.
First, props to screenwriters Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen for absolutely nailing annoying airline doublespeak. “Regulate your sleeping” means “knock you unconscious,” and even when Korben raises a finger to interject, the flight attendant ignores him and presses a button to begin “regulating his sleep.”
Given that ignoring passenger interruptions is standard operating procedure, it’s a nice design feature that the berths are horizontal and less than a meter tall. Even if a passenger was somehow all the way at the top of the berth, the fall to the cushy flooring would likely do them no harm.
The panel has four rounded rectangles: One for each person who might be in the berth? On approach, an amber, underlit toggle button is already on. She presses an adjacent toggle button, which glows yellow, and Korben passes out immediately. Three pairs of steady lights illuminate on the right side of the panel, one pair yellow, the other two red, but it is not clear what these indicate.
On arrival to the planet Fhloston Paradise, the attendants press the yeloow buttons and the passengers awake immediately.
Let me be blunt. The panel is a pretty crap interface, with no labeling to indicate what the buttons mean and no security to prevent mischievous passengers from messing with other passengers. (Imagine the poor kid trapped inside and subject to the button flicking of a sibling.) There’s no clear medical monitoring on the outside, which you’d think would be vital with any interface that affects biology like this. Even if a centralized station had the monitoring details elsewhere on the ship, anyone passing by should get some indication of what’s happening.
Admittedly, this is an interface with complex attention-getting needs. The attendants need to know that the regulator is working, and that bears a light. But the attendants also need to know when something is medically trending poorly or just plain failing, and that also bears a light. It would be important to clearly distinguish these signals, since confusing one for the other could be deadly.
Better would have been a well labeled system-is-operating signal facing the attendant when she is standing at the panel, and another well-labeled, blinking, loud, system-needs-attention signal that can be seen down either end of the hallway. Let us pray that they never, ever remake this film, but if there’s a directors cut, this interface could use a makeover.
The breach is not well-handled by the systems around the control room. Not only do the lights not have a local backup power source, but the screens on the background display Big Labels saying unhelpful things like, “ESCAPE ALERT – UNKNOWN SECURITY BREACH.” If you were designing a system specifically to control nightmare monsters to sacrifice helpless victims, I think the first thing your risk officer should work out is a system that can recognize and withstand when one of those two things (monsters or victims) was out of place. The least you could do is provide users with extremely clear status messages about them.
Sitterson and Truman scan the video monitors for Dana and Marty.
After the breach, we see one more interface for the stage managers: an old escape route. Even though Control is world-critical, its designers imagined that things could go haywire. Presuming that other scenarios are going fine, if all hope is lost in this one, the stage managers have a way out of the control room. We only get a few glimpses of this interface, but it looks to be a computer-controlled security access lock whose 8-bit graphics imply that it was implemented in the early 1990s, around the time when Microsoft Windows 3.1 was the dominant computing paradigm.
Sitterson desperately enters his PID.
After working desperately a bit, Sitterson is able to get the system to a screen that asks for his PID. He uses a rubber-key keypad below the screen to enter it, and is told “SECURITY OVERRIDE GRANTED.” In this way he is able to open the trap door and escape the monsters swarming the control room.
Especially given the amount of stress that a user is likely to be under while using this interface, and the infrequency with which it must be used, it seems absolutely cruel to secure the door by a memorized identification number. Unless that PID is used frequently enough to become habit, it’s unlikely to be remembered when the user is trying to escape death. Better is to use the ID cards already seen in the film in combination with some biometric scan like retina or finger print.
There is a system in place to manage the “resources,” the nightmare creatures available to be chosen by the victims for their sacrifice. This management includes letting them out to the surface, putting them back in place safely, and containment throughout the intervening year between sacrifices.
Dana and Marty experience the cages from the perspective of a monster
The one interface element that we do see in use is the one that Dana and Marty use to release the imprisoned nightmare monsters throughout the complex. It is a single kill-switch button labeled “SYSTEM PURGE”, located on a panel in the security booth that overlooks the main elevator bank. While hiding from approaching security forces, Dana notices the switch beneath the monitoring screens. She flips a protective switch cover to enable it, sees a confirming amber light, and then slams down on the kill switch. Moments later, the first of several waves of nightmare monsters are released through the elevator doors into the complex.
Dana slams the System Purge kill switch.
From a story viewpoint, this is an awesome moment where the story becomes utter chaos and the workforce of jaded sacrificers get their horrible, horrible come-uppance. But from a design standpoint, it’s utter nonsense. Imagine a nuclear power plant where the kill switch, which is accessible through an unlocked door and labeled clearly for any saboteur to read, dumps live fuel rods and heavy water onto the heads of the plant operators. Or a zoo where the animals-are-furious-and-hungry switch dumps the animals right onto the grounds. A system like Control, with global reach and resources, would find some other space into which this murderous tsunami can be vented, and ensure proper security around the activation mechanism. Still, this makes for hilarious chaos and the “happy” ending, so as audience members we’re glad Control messed up on its design strategy.
Marty had already been shown to be able to hack Control’s electronics upstairs, so I suspect the narrative decision about the purge switch was made to give Dana some additional agency in this part of the story, and add some punch to the onset of the final act, so we’ll count that as a minor quibble, too.