High Tech Binoculars

In Johnny Mnemonic we see two different types of binoculars with augmented reality overlays and other enhancements: Yakuz-oculars, and LoTek-oculars.


The Yakuza are the last to be seen but also the simpler of the two. They look just like a pair of current day binoculars, but this is the view when the leader surveys the LoTek bridge.


I assume that the characters here are Japanese? Anyone?

In the centre is a fixed-size green reticule. At the bottom right is what looks like the magnification factor. At the top left and bottom left are numbers, using Western digits, that change as the binoculars move. Without knowing what the labels are I can only guess that they could be azimuth and elevation angles, or distance and height to the centre of the reticule. (The latter implies some sort of rangefinder.) Continue reading

The HoverChair Social Network


The other major benefit to the users of the chair (besides the ease of travel and lifestyle) is the total integration of the occupant’s virtual social life, personal life, fashion (or lack-thereof), and basic needs in one device. Passengers are seen talking with friends remotely, not-so-remotely, playing games, getting updated on news, and receiving basic status updates. The device also serves as a source of advertising (try blue! it’s the new red!).

A slight digression: What are the ads there for? Considering that the Axiom appears to be an all-inclusive permanent resort model, the ads could be an attempt to steer passengers to using resources that the ship knows it has a lot of. This would allow a reprieve for heavily used activities/supplies to be replenished for the next wave of guests, instead of an upsell maneuver to draw more money from them. We see no evidence of exchange of money or other economic activity while on-board the Axiom

OK, back to the social network.


It isn’t obvious what the form of authentication is for the chairs. We know that the chairs have information about who the passenger prefers to talk to, what they like to eat, where they like to be aboard the ship, and what their hobbies are. With that much information, if there was no constant authentication, an unscrupulous passenger could easily hop in another person’s chair, “impersonate” them on their social network, and play havoc with their network. That’s not right.

It’s possible that the chair only works for the person using it, or only accesses the current passenger’s information from a central computer in the Axiom, but it’s never shown. What we do know is that the chair activates when a person is sitting on it and paying attention to the display, and that it deactivates as soon as that display is cut or the passenger leaves the chair.

We aren’t shown what happens when the passenger’s attention is drawn away from the screen, since they are constantly focused on it while the chair is functioning properly.

If it doesn’t already exist, the hologram should have an easy to push button or gesture that can dismiss the picture. This would allow the passenger to quickly interact with the environment when needed, then switch back to the social network afterwards.

And, for added security in case it doesn’t already exist, biometrics would be easy for the Axiom. Tracking the chair user’s voice, near-field chip, fingerprint on the control arm, or retina scan would provide strong security for what is a very personal activity and device. This system should also have strong protection on the back end to prevent personal information from getting out through the Axiom itself.

Social networks hold a lot of very personal information, and the network should have protections against the wrong person manipulating that data. Strong authentication can prevent both identity theft and social humiliation.

Taking the occupant’s complete attention

While the total immersion of social network and advertising seems dystopian to us (and that’s without mentioning the creepy way the chair removes a passenger’s need for most physical activity), the chair looks genuinely pleasing to its users.

They enjoy it.

But like a drug, their enjoyment comes at the detriment of almost everything else in their lives. There seem to be plenty of outlets on the ship for active people to participate in their favorite activities: Tennis courts, golf tees, pools, and large expanses for running or biking are available but unused by the passengers of the Axiom.

Work with the human need

In an ideal world a citizen is happy, has a mixture of leisure activities, and produces something of benefit to the civilization. In the case of this social network, the design has ignored every aspect of a person’s life except moment-to-moment happiness.

This has parallels in goal driven design, where distinct goals (BNL wants to keep people occupied on the ship, keep them focused on the network, and collect as much information as possible about what everyone is doing) direct the design of an interface. When goal-driven means data driven, then the data being collected instantly becomes the determining factor of whether a design will succeed or fail. The right data goals means the right design. Wrong data goals mean the wrong design.

Instead of just occupying a person’s attention, this interface could have instead been used to draw people out and introduce them to new activities at intervals driven by user testing and data. The Axiom has the information and power, perhaps even the responsibility, to direct people to activities that they might find interesting. Even though the person wouldn’t be looking at the screen constantly, it would still be a continuous element of their day. The social network could have been their assistant instead of their jailer.

One of the characters even exclaims that she “didn’t even know they had a pool!”. Indicating that she would have loved to try it, but the closed nature of the chair’s social network kept her from learning about it and enjoying it. By directing people to ‘test’ new experiences aboard the Axiom and releasing them from its grip occasionally, the social network could have acted as an assistant instead of an attention sink.


Moment-to-moment happiness might have declined, but overall happiness would have gone way up.

The best way for designers to affect the outcome of these situations is to help shape the business goals and metrics of a project. In a situation like this, after the project had launched a designer could step in and point out those moments were a passenger was pleasantly surprised, or clearly in need of something to do, and help build a business case around serving those needs.

The obvious moments of happiness (that this system solves for so well) could then be augmented by serendipitous moments of pleasure and reward-driven workouts.

We must build products for more than just fleeting pleasure


As soon as the Axiom lands back on Earth, the entire passenger complement leaves the ship (and the social network) behind.

It was such a superficial pleasure that people abandoned it without hesitation when they realized that there was something more rewarding to do. That’s a parallel that we can draw to many current products. The product can keep attention for now, but something better will come along and then their users will abandon them.


A company can produce a product or piece of software that fills a quick need and initially looks successful. But, that success falls apart as soon as people realize that they have larger and tougher problems that need solving.

Ideally, a team of designers at BNL would have watched after the initial launch and continued improving the social network. By helping people continue to grow and learn new skills, the social network could have kept the people aboard the Axiom it top condition both mentally and physically. By the time Wall-E came around, and life finally began to return to Earth, the passengers would have been ready to return and rebuild civilization on their own.

To the designers of a real Axiom Social Network: You have the chance to build a tool that can save the world.

We know you like blue! Now it looks great in Red!

The Hover Chair


The Hover Chair is a ubiquitous, utilitarian, all-purpose assisting device. Each passenger aboard the Axiom has one. It is a mix of a beach-side deck chair, fashion accessory, and central connective device for the passenger’s social life. It hovers about knee height above the deck, providing a low surface to climb into, and a stable platform for travel, which the chair does a lot of.

A Universal Wheelchair

We see that these chairs are used by everyone by the time that Wall-E arrives on the Axiom. From BNL’s advertising though, this does not appear to be the original. One of the billboards on Earth advertising the Axiom-class ships shows an elderly family member using the chair, allowing them to interact with the rest of the family on the ship without issue. In other scenes, the chairs are used by a small number of people relaxing around other more active passengers.

At some point between the initial advertising campaign and the current day, use went from the elderly and physically challenged, to a device used 24/7 by all humans on-board the Axiom. This extends all the way down to the youngest children seen in the nursery, though they are given modified versions to more suited to their age and disposition. BNL shows here that their technology is excellent at providing comfort as an easy choice, but that it is extremely difficult to undo that choice and regain personal control.

But not a perfect interaction

Continue reading

The SandPhone


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.


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:


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


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



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:

NEW YOU #483


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.


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.

Rhod’s rod


One of the most delightfully flamboyant characters in sci-fi is the radio star in The Fifth Element, Ruby Rhod. He wears a headpiece to hear his producers as well as to record his own voice. But to capture the voices of others, he has a technological staff that he carries.


The handle of the device has a microphone built into it. Because of the length of the staff, his reach to potential interviewees is extended. The literal in-your-face nature of the microphone matches Ruby’s in-your-face show.


To let interviewees know when they’re being recorded, a red light in the handle illuminates. This also lets others nearby know that the interviewee is “on air” and not to interrupt.

Ruby also has a single switch on the handle. It’s a small silver toggle. It’s likely that he can set this switch to function as he likes. The one time we see it in action, he has set it to play back an “audio cut,” (the sound clips morning radio talk show hosts insert into their programs) in this case an intimate recording of the Princess of Kodar Japhet. He flips the toggle to play the cut, and flips it back when it’s done.

Here, a different input would have worked better. The toggle switch is too easy to bump and kind of ruins the design of the handle. Better would be a billet button. This sort of momentary button sits flush with a bezel, which prevents accidental activation from, say, a finger laying across it, or resting the button against a flat surface. If Ruby wants the recorded sound to play out completely, and the button press only starts or stops the playback, it would be good to know the state of the playback, and using a billet button with a LED ring would be best.

We also know that Ruby is a performer. He would be happier if he had more than a play button, but a way to express himself. His hand is already in a grip to hold the staff, so the control should fit that—If you could outfit the billet button with directional pressure sensitivity, he could assign each direction to a control. So, for instance, while he was pressing the button, the audio would play, and the harder he pressed up, the volume for each echo would increase. Or pressing down could lower the sample in tone, etc. This would allow him to not just play the audio cut, but perform it.


To work as a device that the character would want to carry, it has to match his sense of style. I mean this first in a general sense, and the device does that, with its handle of ornately carved silver. Ruby’s necklaces, bracelets, and rings are all silver, and they work together. The staff also works in his hand like a drum major’s baton, augmenting his larger-than-life presence with an attention-commanding object.

It has to fit his daily fashion as well, and the staff does that, too. The shaft can change appearance. I don’t know if it’s an e-ink-type surface, replaceable staves, or fabric sleeves that change out, but when Ruby’s in leopard print, the staff is in leopard print, too. When Ruby’s decked out in rose-adorned tuxedo black, the staff matches.



Though this is more a portable than a wearable technology, the fact that it can change to match the personal style of the wearer makes it not only functional, but since it fits his persona, desirable as well.

Alien head stem line


Using a tool that looks suspiciously identical to the Injection Carbon Reader, the stem line provides electrical current to nerve endings. It is inserted directly into the alien head and then controlled wirelessly via unseen controls on a nearby touch-sensitive slate pad.


The output on the stem line device animates with changes, but it seems the numbers appear near the middle and then slide to fixed positions on the top and bottom. If the point of the display was output, and it is meant to be seen from a distance, wouldn’t a simpler large-number display make more sense? If motion is meant to convey the meaning, like a digital gauge on a multimeter, then the text should be fixed on the graduated background and slide with it.


By stimulating the locus coeruleus of the alien, the Prometheus scientists seek to “trick it into thinking it’s still alive,” even though they have not confirmed the physiology of this 2000 year old alien specimen, or even that (in a quick Googling, the author learned that) this is the panic area of the nervous system. Were the results really that surprising?

Security and Control’s control

The mission is world-critical, so like a cockpit, the two who are ultimately in control are kept secure. The control room is accessible (to mere humans, anyway) only through a vault door with an armed guard. Hadley and Sitterson must present IDs to the guard before he grants them access.

Sitterson and Hadley pass security.

Truman, the guard, takes and swipes their cards through a groove in a hand-held device. We are not shown what is on the tiny screen, but we do hear the device’s quick chirps to confirm the positive identity. That sound means that Truman’s eyes aren’t tied to the screen. He can listen for confirmation and monitor the people in front of him for any sign of nervousness or subterfuge.

Hadley boots up the control room screens.

The room itself tells a rich story through its interfaces alone. The wooden panels at the back access Bronze Age technology with its wooden-handled gears, glass bowls, and mechanical devices that smash vials of blood. The massive panel at which they sit is full of Space Age pushbuttons, rheostats, and levers. On the walls behind them are banks of CRT screens. These are augmented with Digital Age, massive, flat panel displays and touch panel screens within easy reach on the console. This is a system that has grown and evolved for eons, with layers of technology that add up to a tangled but functional means of surveillance and control.

The interfaces hint at the great age of the operation.

Utter surveillance

In order for Control to do their job, they have to keep tabs on the victims at all times, even long before the event: Are the sacrifices conforming to archetype? Do they have a reason to head to the cabin?

The nest empties.

To these ends, there are field agents in the world reporting back by earpiece, and everything about the cabin is wired for video and audio: The rooms, the surrounding woods, even the nearby lake.

Once the ritual sacrifice begins, they have to keep an even tighter surveillance: Are they behaving according to trope? Do they realize the dark truth? Is the Virgin suffering but safe? A lot of the technology seen in the control room is dedicated to this core function of monitoring.

The stage managers monitor the victims.

There are huge screens at the front of the room. There are manual controls for these screens on the big panel. There is an array of CRTs on the far right.

The small digital screens can display anything, but a mode we often see is a split in quarters, showing four cameras in the area of the stage. For example, all the cameras fixed on the rooms are on one screen. This provides a very useful peripheral signal in Sitterson and Hadley’s visual field. As they monitor the scenario, motion will catch their eyes. If that motion is not on a monitor they expect it to be, they can check what’s happening quickly by turning their head and fixating. This helps keep them tightly attuned to what’s happening in the different areas on “stage.”

For internal security, the entire complex is also wired for video, including the holding cages for the nightmare monsters.

Sitterson looks for the escapees amongst the cubes.

The control room watches the bloody chaos spread.

One screen that kind of confuses us appears to be biometrics of the victims. Are the victims implanted with devices for measuring such things, or are sophisticated non-invasive environmental sensors involved? Regardless of the mechanisms, if Control has access to vital signs, how are they mistaken about Marty’s death? We only get a short glance at the screen, so maybe it’s not vital signs, but simple, static biometrics like height, and weight, even though the radiograph diagram suggests more.

Sitterson tries to avoid talking to Mordecai.


Sitterson and Hadley are managing a huge production. It involves departments as broad ranging as chemistry, maintenance, and demolitions. To coordinate and troubleshoot during the ritual, two other communications options are available beyond the monitors; land phone lines and direct-connection, push-to-talk microphones.

Hadley receives some bad news.

Military communication

All telecommunications in the film are based on either a public address or a two-way radio metaphor.

Commander Adams addresses the crew.

To address the crew from inside the ship, Commander Adams grabs the microphone from its holder on the wall. Its long handle makes it easy to grab. By speaking into the lit, transparent circle mounted to one end, his voice is automatically broadcast across the ship.

Commander Adams lets Chief Quinn know he’s in command of the ship.

Quinn listens for incoming signals.

The two-way radio on his belt is routed through the communications officer back at the ship. To use it, he unclips the small cylindrical microphone from its clip, flips a small switch at the base of the box, and pulls the microphone on its tether close to his mouth to speak. When the device is active, a small array of lights on the box illuminates.

Confirming their safety by camera, Chief Quinn gets an eyeful of Alta.

The microphone also has a video camera within it. When Chief Quinn asks Commander Adams to “activate the viewer,” he does so by turning the device such that its small end faces outwards, at which time it acts as a camera, sending a video signal back to the ship, to be viewed on the “view plate.”

The Viewplate is used frequently to see outside the ship.

Altair IV looms within view.

The Viewplate is a large video screen with rounded edges that is mounted to a wall off the bridge. To the left of it three analog gauges are arranged in a column, above two lights and a stack of sliders. These are not used during the film.

Commander Adams engages the Viewplate to look for Altair IV.

The Viewplate is controlled by a wall mounted panel with a very curious placement. When Commander Adams rushes to adjust it, he steps to the panel and adjusts a few horizontal sliders, while craning around a cowling station to see if his tweaks are having the desired effect. When he’’s fairly sure it’’s correct, he has to step away from the panel to get a better view and make sure. There is no excuse for this poor placement.