“Real-time,” Interplanetary Chat

While recording a podcast with the guys at DecipherSciFi about the twee(n) love story The Space Between Us, we spent some time kvetching about how silly it was that many of the scenes involved Gardner, on Mars, in a real-time text chat with a girl named Tulsa, on Earth. It’s partly bothersome because throughout the rest of the the movie, the story tries for a Mohs sci-fi hardness of, like, 1.5, somewhere between Real Life and Speculative Science, so it can’t really excuse itself through the Applied Phlebotinum that, say, Star Wars might use. The rest of the film feels like it’s trying to have believable science, but during these scenes it just whistles, looks the other way, and hopes you don’t notice that the two lovebirds are breaking the laws of physics as they swap flirt emoji.

Hopefully unnecessary science brief: Mars and Earth are far away from each other. Even if the communications transmissions are sent at light speed between them, it takes much longer than the 1 second of response time required to feel “instant.” How much longer? It depends. The planets orbit the sun at different speeds, so aren’t a constant distance apart. At their closest, it takes light 3 minutes to travel between Mars and Earth, and at their farthest—while not being blocked by the sun—it takes about 21 minutes. A round-trip is double that. So nothing akin to real-time chat is going to happen.

But I’m a designer, a sci-fi apologist, and a fairly talented backworlder. I want to make it work. And perhaps because of my recent dive into narrow AI, I began to realize that, well, in a way, maybe it could. It just requires rethinking what’s happening in the chat. Continue reading

Phone System Analysis

Note to readers: The author and editor of this series of posts would like to be Matrix-style cool, competent, stylishly-dressed world-changers with superhuman abilities. In reality we are much closer to the protagonists of Johnny Mnemonic: always frantically improvising to stay one step ahead of disaster with a mix of clunky technology. (And we don’t even have a cybernetic dolphin helping out.) So, um, yeah. This post is out of order. Sorry. Please pretend you haven’t read Cyberspace: the Hardware yet. OK. On to an analysis of the phone system.

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The video phones in Johnny Mnemonic all seem easy to use and reliable, but this is generally true of all phones in film and TV, video or otherwise. The audience want to see the characters communicate, not struggle with technology – unless difficulty or failure is necessary for the plot! Continue reading

The SandPhone

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Not everyone is comfortable giving over to the flimsy promise of Carrousel [sic]. Some citizens run, and Sandmen find and terminate these cultural heretics.

Sandmen carry a device with them that has many different uses. It goes unnamed in the movie, so let’s just call it the SandPhone. It is a thick black rectangle about 20cm at its long edge, about the size of a very large cell phone. Near the earpiece on one broad side is a small screen for displaying text and images. Below that is a white line. The lower half of this face is metallic grill that covers a microphone. On the left edge is a momentary button that allows talking. Just above this is a small red button. When not in use, the device is holstered on the sandman’s belt.

The SandPhone lets the Sandman receive information through a display that can show both image and text. The Sandman sends back information and requests by voice in a CB radio metaphor.

Notifications

The first time we see the device is when Logan and Francis are attending Carrousel. Somehow, on his belt it catches his attention. With the crowd too loud for sound, and no evidence it’s light, my bet’s on haptics. Realizing he’s got a message, he picks it up, presses the edge button and the screen displays two lines of text:

RUNNER: GREAT HALL
ENTRANCE WEST.

He then puts the device to his face as we would a cell phone and shouts, "Affirmative!" as loud as he can.

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Perp wayfinding

Running with the device outside the Great Hall, Logan uses the SandPhone as a detector. By holding it flat out in front of him he hears a rhythmic pulse. Turning it this way and that, he listens for the change in pitch. It rises when he is pointing towards the targeted runner.

Bio identification

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When he and Francis have terminated the runner, he snaps the device off his belt, and pressing the edge button, he reports back to dispatch, "Runner terminated, 0.31. Ready for cleanup." Then by placing the device near the head of the dead runner, the device displays on the screen the last photographic image of him on file. Since the face on the SandPhone screen does not match the face he sees before him, Logan lifts the device to his face and, holding the edge button, requests an identity check of dispatch. Instantly he pulls the device away from his face to show the text:

IDENT. AFFIRM
NEW YOU #483
FACE CHANGE.

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Send backup

Much later in the film we see Logan alert dispatch to the location of the underground hideout by reaching down to the holstered device and pressing the white line button on its face. Its screen pulses green, and his position is highlight on the runner board (see below) at dispatch. Minutes later the location is raided by Sandmen.

Analysis

The first thing to note is that this is pretty close to a modern smart phone. He receives images and text messages, can talk to dispatch, and it has a biometric capability for identifying citizens. It’s tempting to paint this as visionary, but keep in mind that the first mobile phone was demonstrated in 1973, three years earlier, so it’s likely that the film makers were riffing off of the demo technology they’d heard about or maybe even seen in person.

We evaluate an interface’s design by how well it helps its user achieves his goals. (Even if those goals are anethma. That’s how we judge an interface.) In this case, the SandPhone helps Logan get the information he needs, when he needs it, across multiple channels. It doesn’t distract him with other functions. It’s context aware and doesn’t apparently have battery issues.

There are improvements of course.

We should make sure his hands are free by making the information available as an augmented reality display instead of a handheld device. This would also give him the information privately rather than display it for anyone (notably members of the resistance) to see it. Wayfinding would be more sensible as an overlay to his vision through this device.

Some surface tweaks might also be made, such as giving him a means of text input so he wouldn’t have to shout above the roar of Carrousel. Some silent means of input would help for when he needs to provide silent input as well. First I thought optical inputs might be ideal, given the augmented reality, but we don’t want his eyes distracted like that, even for the duration of glances. Instead some other gestural input—perhaps a face twitch or subvocal input—that lets him keep the rest of his body tense and ready for action.

Citizen biometrics should be a background fact, given the penopticon of Dome City. The information would come to him when he gets his assignement. But turn those same biometrics around on Logan, and his body could request reinforcements before he even thought to do so manually. When his heart rate elevates and galvanic skin response lowers, dispatch would know something was up, and route backup immediately.

A strategic interaction designer would even ask why he has to chase runners at all, when predictive algorithms could guess which citizens were likely to run and take action to forestall their rebellion. But then we’re into Minority Report, and this needs to stay Logan’s Run.