Disclosure (1994)

Our next 3D file browsing system is from the 1994 film Disclosure. Thanks to site reader Patrick H Lauke for the suggestion.

Like Jurassic Park, Disclosure is based on a Michael Crichton novel, although this time without any dinosaurs. (Would-be scriptwriters should compare the relative success of these two films when planning a study program.) The plot of the film is corporate infighting within Digicom, manufacturer of high tech CD-ROM drives—it was the 1990s—and also virtual reality systems. Tom Sanders, executive in charge of the CD-ROM production line, is being set up to take the blame for manufacturing failures that are really the fault of cost-cutting measures by rival executive Meredith Johnson.

The Corridor: Hardware Interface

The virtual reality system is introduced at about 40 minutes, using the narrative device of a product demonstration within the company to explain to the attendees what it does. The scene is nicely done, conveying all the important points we need to know in two minutes. (To be clear, some of the images used here come from a later scene in the film, but it’s the same system in both.)

The process of entangling yourself with the necessary hardware and software is quite distinct from interacting with the VR itself, so let’s discuss these separately, starting with the physical interface.

Tom wearing VR headset and one glove, being scanned. Disclosure (1994)

In Disclosure the virtual reality user wears a headset and one glove, all connected by cables to the computer system. Like most virtual reality systems, the headset is responsible for visual display, audio, and head movement tracking; the glove for hand movement and gesture tracking. 

There are two “laser scanners” on the walls. These are the planar blue lights, which scan the user’s body at startup. After that they track body motion, although since the user still has to wear a glove, the scanners presumably just track approximate body movement and orientation without fine detail.

Lastly, the user stands on a concave hexagonal plate covered in embedded white balls, which allows the user to “walk” on the spot.

Closeup of user standing on curved surface of white balls. Disclosure (1994)

Searching for Evidence

The scene we’re most interested in takes place later in the film, the evening before a vital presentation which will determine Tom’s future. He needs to search the company computer files for evidence against Meredith, but discovers that his normal account has been blocked from access.   He knows though that the virtual reality demonstrator is on display in a nearby hotel suite, and also knows about the demonstrator having unlimited access. He sneaks into the hotel suite to use The Corridor. Tom is under a certain amount of time pressure because a couple of company VIPs and their guests are downstairs in the hotel and might return at any time.

The first step for Tom is to launch the virtual reality system. This is done from an Indy workstation, using the regular Unix command line.

The command line to start the virtual reality system. Disclosure (1994)

Next he moves over to the VR space itself. He puts on the glove but not the headset, presses a key on the keyboard (of the VR computer, not the workstation), and stands still for a moment while he is scanned from top to bottom.

Real world Tom, wearing one VR glove, waits while the scanners map his body. Disclosure (1994)

On the left is the Indy workstation used to start the VR system. In the middle is the external monitor which will, in a moment, show the third person view of the VR user as seen earlier during the product demonstration.

Now that Tom has been scanned into the system, he puts on the headset and enters the virtual space.

The Corridor: Virtual Interface

“The Corridor,” as you’ve no doubt guessed, is a three dimensional file browsing program. It is so named because the user will walk down a corridor in a virtual building, the walls lined with “file cabinets” containing the actual computer files.

Three important aspects of The Corridor were mentioned during the product demonstration earlier in the film. They’ll help structure our tour of this interface, so let’s review them now, as they all come up in our discussion of the interfaces.

  1. There is a voice-activated help system, which will summon a virtual “Angel” assistant.
  2. Since the computers themselves are part of a multi-user network with shared storage, there can be more than one user “inside” The Corridor at a time.
    Users who do not have access to the virtual reality system will appear as wireframe body shapes with a 2D photo where the head should be.
  3. There are no access controls and so the virtual reality user, despite being a guest or demo account, has unlimited access to all the company files. This is spectacularly bad design, but necessary for the plot.

With those bits of system exposition complete, now we can switch to Tom’s own first person view of the virtual reality environment.

Virtual world Tom watches his hands rezzing up, right hand with glove. Disclosure (1994)

There isn’t a real background yet, just abstract streaks. The avatar hands are rezzing up, and note that the right hand wearing the glove has a different appearance to the left. This mimics the real world, so eases the transition for the user.

Overlaid on the virtual reality view is a Digicom label at the bottom and four corner brackets which are never explained, although they do resemble those used in cameras to indicate the preferred viewing area.

To the left is a small axis indicator, the three green lines labeled X, Y, and Z. These show up in many 3D applications because, silly though it sounds, it is easy in a 3D computer environment to lose track of directions or even which way is up. A common fix for the user being unable to see anything is just to turn 180 degrees around.

We then switch to a third person view of Tom’s avatar in the virtual world.

Tom is fully rezzed up, within cloud of visual static. Disclosure (1994)

This is an almost photographic-quality image. To remind the viewers that this is in the virtual world rather than real, the avatar follows the visual convention described in chapter 4 of Make It So for volumetric projections, with scan lines and occasional flickers. An interesting choice is that the avatar also wears a “headset”, but it is translucent so we can see the face.

Now that he’s in the virtual reality, Tom has one more action needed to enter The Corridor. He pushes a big button floating before him in space.

Tom presses one button on a floating control panel. Disclosure (1994)

This seems unnecessary, but we can assume that in the future of this platform, there will be more programs to choose from.

The Corridor rezzes up, the streaks assembling into wireframe components which then slide together as the surfaces are shaded. Tom doesn’t have to wait for the process to complete before he starts walking, which suggests that this is a Level Of Detail (LOD) implementation where parts of the building are not rendered in detail until the user is close enough for it to be worth doing.

Tom enters The Corridor. Nearby floor and walls are fully rendered, the more distant section is not complete. Disclosure (1994)

The architecture is classical, rendered with the slightly artificial-looking computer shading that is common in 3D computer environments because it needs much less computation than trying for full photorealism.

Instead of a corridor this is an entire multistory building. It is large and empty, and as Tom is walking bits of architecture reshape themselves, rather like the interior of Hogwarts in Harry Potter.

Although there are paintings on some of the walls, there aren’t any signs, labels, or even room numbers. Tom has to wander around looking for the files, at one point nearly “falling” off the edge of the floor down an internal air well. Finally he steps into one archway room entrance and file cabinets appear in the walls.

Tom enters a room full of cabinets. Disclosure (1994)

Unlike the classical architecture around him, these cabinets are very modern looking with glowing blue light lines. Tom has found what he is looking for, so now begins to manipulate files rather than browsing.

Virtual Filing Cabinets

The four nearest cabinets according to the titles above are

  1. Communications
  2. Operations
  3. System Control
  4. Research Data.

There are ten file drawers in each. The drawers are unmarked, but labels only appear when the user looks directly at it, so Tom has to move his head to centre each drawer in turn to find the one he wants.

Tom looks at one particular drawer to make the title appear. Disclosure (1994)

The fourth drawer Tom looks at is labeled “Malaysia”. He touches it with the gloved hand and it slides out from the wall.

Tom withdraws his hand as the drawer slides open. Disclosure (1994)

Inside are five “folders” which, again, are opened by touching. The folder slides up, and then three sheets, each looking like a printed document, slide up and fan out.

Axis indicator on left, pointing down. One document sliding up from a folder. Disclosure (1994)

Note the tilted axis indicator at the left. The Y axis, representing a line extending upwards from the top of Tom’s head, is now leaning towards the horizontal because Tom is looking down at the file drawer. In the shot below, both the folder and then the individual documents are moving up so Tom’s gaze is now back to more or less level.

Close up of three “pages” within a virtual document. Disclosure (1994)

At this point the film cuts away from Tom. Rival executive Meredith, having been foiled in her first attempt at discrediting Tom, has decided to cover her tracks by deleting all the incriminating files. Meredith enters her office and logs on to her Indy workstation. She is using a Command Line Interface (CLI) shell, not the standard SGI Unix shell but a custom Digicom program that also has a graphical menu. (Since it isn’t three dimensional it isn’t interesting enough to show here.)

Tom uses the gloved hand to push the sheets one by one to the side after scanning the content.

Tom scrolling through the pages of one folder by swiping with two fingers. Disclosure (1994)

Quick note: This is harder than it looks in virtual reality. In a 2D GUI moving the mouse over an interface element is obvious. In three dimensions the user also has to move their hand forwards or backwards to get their hand (or finger) in the right place, and unless there is some kind of haptic feedback it isn’t obvious to the user that they’ve made contact.

Tom now receives a nasty surprise.

The shot below shows Tom’s photorealistic avatar at the left, standing in front of the open file cabinet. The green shape on the right is the avatar of Meredith who is logged in to a regular workstation. Without the laser scanners and cameras her avatar is a generic wireframe female humanoid with a face photograph stuck on top. This is excellent design, making The Corridor usable across a range of different hardware capabilities.

Tom sees the Meredith avatar appear. Disclosure (1994)

Why does The Corridor system place her avatar here? A multiuser computer system, or even just a networked file server,  obviously has to know who is logged on. Unix systems in general and command line shells also track which directory the user is “in”, the current working directory. Meredith is using her CLI interface to delete files in a particular directory so The Corridor can position her avatar in the corresponding virtual reality location. Or rather, the avatar glides into position rather than suddenly popping into existence: Tom is only surprised because the documents blocked his virtual view.

Quick note: While this is plausible, there are technical complications. Command line users often open more than one shell at a time in different directories. In such a case, what would The Corridor do? Duplicate the wireframe avatar in each location? In the real world we can’t be in more than one place at a time, would doing so contradict the virtual reality metaphor?

There is an asymmetry here in that Tom knows Meredith is “in the system” but not vice versa. Meredith could in theory use CLI commands to find out who else is logged on and whether anyone was running The Corridor, but she would need to actively seek out that information and has no reason to do so. It didn’t occur to Tom either, but he doesn’t need to think about it,  the virtual reality environment conveys more information about the system by default.

We briefly cut away to Meredith confirming her CLI delete command. Tom sees this as the file drawer lid emitting beams of light which rotate down. These beams first erase the floating sheets, then the folders in the drawer. The drawer itself now has a red “DELETED” label and slides back into the wall.

Tom watches Meredith deleting the files in an open drawer. Disclosure (1994)

Tom steps further into the room. The same red labels appear on the other file drawers even though they are currently closed.

Tom watches Meredith deleting other, unopened, drawers. Disclosure (1994)

Talking to an Angel

Tom now switches to using the system voice interface, saying “Angel I need help” to bring up the virtual reality assistant. Like everything else we’ve seen in this VR system the “angel” rezzes up from a point cloud, although much more quickly than the architecture: people who need help tend to be more impatient and less interested in pausing to admire special effects.

The voice assistant as it appears within VR. Disclosure (1994)

Just in case the user is now looking in the wrong direction the angel also announces “Help is here” in a very natural sounding voice.

The angel is rendered with white robe, halo, harp, and rapidly beating wings. This is horribly clichéd, but a help system needs to be reassuring in appearance as well as function. An angel appearing as a winged flying serpent or wheel of fire would be more original and authentic (yes, really: ​​Biblically Accurate Angels) but users fleeing in terror would seriously impact the customer satisfaction scores.

Now Tom has a short but interesting conversation with the angel, beginning with a question:

  • Tom
  • Is there any way to stop these files from being deleted?
  • Angel
  • I’m sorry, you are not level five.
  • Tom
  • Angel, you’re supposed to protect the files!
  • Angel
  • Access control is restricted to level five.

Tom has made the mistake, as described in chapter 9 Anthropomorphism of the book, of ascribing more agency to this software program than it actually has. He thinks he is engaged in a conversational interface (chapter 6 Sonic Interfaces) with a fully autonomous system, which should therefore be interested in and care about the wellbeing of the entire system. Which it doesn’t, because this is just a limited-command voice interface to a guide.

Even though this is obviously scripted, rather than a genuine error I think this raises an interesting question for real world interface designers: do users expect that an interface with higher visual quality/fidelity will be more realistic in other aspects as well? If a voice interface assistant has a simple polyhedron with no attempt at photorealism (say, like Bit in Tron) or with zoomorphism (say, like the search bear in Until the End of the World) will users adjust their expectations for speech recognition downwards? I’m not aware of any research that might answer this question. Readers?

Despite Tom’s frustration, the angel has given an excellent answer – for a guide. A very simple help program would have recited the command(s) that could be used to protect files against deletion. Which would have frustrated Tom even more when he tried to use one and got some kind of permission denied error. This program has checked whether the user can actually use commands before responding.

This does contradict the earlier VR demonstration where we were told that the user had unlimited access. I would explain this as being “unlimited read access, not write”, but the presenter didn’t think it worthwhile to go into such detail for the mostly non-technical audience.

Tom is now aware that he is under even more time pressure as the Meredith avatar is still moving around the room. Realising his mistake, he uses the voice interface as a query language.

“Show me all communications with Malaysia.”
“Telephone or video?”

This brings up a more conventional looking GUI window because not everything in virtual reality needs to be three-dimensional. It’s always tempting for a 3D programmer to re-implement everything, but it’s also possible to embed 2D GUI applications into a virtual world.

Tom looks at a conventional 2D display of file icons inside VR. Disclosure (1994)

The window shows a thumbnail icon for each recorded video conference call. This isn’t very helpful, so Tom again decides that a voice query will be much faster than looking at each one in turn.

“Show me, uh, the last transmission involving Meredith.”

There’s a short 2D transition effect swapping the thumbnail icon display for the video call itself, which starts playing at just the right point for plot purposes.

Tom watches a previously recorded video call made by Meredith (right). Disclosure (1994)

While Tom is watching and listening, Meredith is still typing commands. The camera orbits around behind the video conference call window so we can see the Meredith avatar approach, which also shows us that this window is slightly three dimensional, the content floating a short distance in front of the frame. The film then cuts away briefly to show Meredith confirming her “kill all” command. The video conference recordings are deleted, including the one Tom is watching.

Tom is informed that Meredith (seen here in the background as a wireframe avatar) is deleting the video call. Disclosure (1994)

This is also the moment when the downstairs VIPs return to the hotel suite, so the scene ends with Tom managing to sneak out without being detected.

Virtual reality has saved the day for Tom. The documents and video conference calls have been deleted by Meredith, but he knows that they once existed and has a colleague retrieve the files he needs from the backup tapes. (Which is good writing: the majority of companies shown in film and TV never seem to have backups for files, no matter how vital.) Meredith doesn’t know that he knows, so he has the upper hand to expose her plot.


How believable is the interface?

I won’t spend much time on the hardware, since our focus is on file browsing in three dimensions. From top to bottom, the virtual reality system starts as believable and becomes less so.


The headset and glove look like real VR equipment, believable in 1994 and still so today. Having only one glove is unusual, and makes impossible some of the common gesture actions described in chapter 5 of Make It So, which require both hands.

The “laser scanners” that create the 3D geometry and texture maps for the 3D avatar and perform real time body tracking would more likely be cameras, but that would not sound as cool.

And lastly the walking platform apparently requires our user to stand on large marbles or ball bearings and stay balanced while wearing a headset. Uh…maybe…no. Apologetics fails me. To me it looks like it would be uncomfortable to walk on, almost like deterrent paving.


The Corridor, unlike the 3D file browser used in Jurassic Park, is a special effect created for the film. It was a mostly-plausible, near future system in 1994, except for the photorealistic avatar. Usually this site doesn’t discuss historical context (the  “new criticism” stance), but I think in this case it helps to explain how this interface would have appeared to audiences almost two decades ago.

I’ll start with the 3D graphics of the virtual building. My initial impression was that The Corridor could have been created as an interactive program in 1994, but that was my memory compressing the decade. During the 1990s 3D computer graphics, both interactive and CGI, improved at a phenomenal rate. The virtual building would not have been interactive in 1994, was possible on the most powerful systems six years later in 2000, and looks rather old-fashioned compared to what the game consoles of the 21st C can achieve.

For the voice interface I made the opposite mistake. Voice interfaces on phones and home computing appliances have become common in the second decade of the 21st C, but in reality are much older. Apple Macintosh computers in 1994 had text-to-speech synthesis with natural sounding voices and limited vocabulary voice command recognition. (And without needing an Internet connection!) So the voice interface in the scene is believable.

The multi-user aspects of The Corridor were possible in 1994. The wireframe avatars for users not in virtual reality are unflattering or perhaps creepy, but not technically difficult. As a first iteration of a prototype system it’s a good attempt to span a range of hardware capabilities.

The virtual reality avatar, though, is not believable for the 1990s and would be difficult today. Photographs of the body, made during the startup scan, could be used as a texture map for the VR avatar. But live video of the face would be much more difficult, especially when the face is partly obscured by a headset.

How well does the interface inform the narrative of the story?

The virtual reality system in itself is useful to the overall narrative because it makes the Digicom company seem high tech. Even in 1994 CD-ROM drives weren’t very interesting.

The Corridor is essential to the tension of the scene where Tom uses it to find the files, because otherwise the scene would be much shorter and really boring. If we ignore the virtual reality these are the interface actions:

  • Tom reads an email.
  • Meredith deletes the folder containing those emails.
  • Tom finds a folder full of recorded video calls.
  • Tom watches one recorded video call.
  • Meredith deletes the folder containing the video calls.

Imagine how this would have looked if both were using a conventional 2D GUI, such as the Macintosh Finder or MS Windows Explorer. Double click, press and drag, double click…done.

The Corridor slows down Tom’s actions and makes them far more visible and understandable. Thanks to the virtual reality avatar we don’t have to watch an actor push a mouse around. We see him moving and swiping, be surprised and react; and the voice interface adds extra emotion and some useful exposition. It also helps with the plot, giving Tom awareness of what Meredith is doing without having to actively spy on her, or look at some kind of logs or recordings later on.

Meredith, though, can’t use the VR system because then she’d be aware of Tom as well. Using a conventional workstation visually distinguishes and separates Meredith from Tom in the scene.

So overall, though the “action” is pretty mundane, it’s crucial to the plot, and the VR interface helps make this interesting and more engaging.

How well does the interface equip the character to achieve their goals?

As described in the film itself, The Corridor is a prototype for demonstrating virtual reality. As a file browser it’s awful, but since Tom has lost all his normal privileges this is the only system available, and he does manage to eventually find the files he needs.

At the start of the scene, Tom spends quite some time wandering around a vast multi-storey building without a map, room numbers, or even coordinates overlaid on his virtual view. Which seems rather pointless because all the files are in one room anyway. As previously discussed for Johnny Mnemonic, walking or flying everywhere in your file system seems like a good idea at first, but often becomes tedious over time. Many actual and some fictional 3D worlds give users the ability to teleport directly to any desired location.

Then the file drawers in each cabinet have no labels either, so Tom has to look carefully at each one in turn. There is so much more the interface could be doing to help him with his task, and even help the users of the VR demo learn and explore its technology as well.

Contrast this with Meredith, who uses her command line interface and 2D GUI to go through files like a chainsaw.

Tom becomes much more efficient with the voice interface. Which is just as well, because if he hadn’t, Meredith would have deleted the video conference recordings while he was still staring at virtual filing cabinets. However neither the voice interface nor the corresponding file display need three dimensional graphics.

There is hope for version 2.0 of The Corridor, even restricting ourselves to 1994 capabilities. The first and most obvious is to copy 2D GUI file browsers, or the 3D file browser from Jurassic Park, and show the corresponding text name next to each graphical file or folder object. The voice interface is so good that it should be turned on by default without requiring the angel. And finally add some kind of map overlay with a you are here moving dot, like the maps that players in 3D games such as Doom could display with a keystroke.

Film making challenge: VR on screen

Virtual reality (or augmented reality systems such as Hololens) provide a better viewing experience for 3D graphics by creating the illusion of real three dimensional space rather than a 2D monitor. But it is always a first person view and unlike conventional 2D monitors nobody else can usually see what the VR user is seeing without a deliberate mirroring/debugging display. This is an important difference from other advanced or speculative technologies that film makers might choose to include. Showing a character wielding a laser pistol instead of a revolver or driving a hover car instead of a wheeled car hardly changes how to stage a scene, but VR does.

So, how can we show virtual reality in film?

There’s the first-person view corresponding to what the virtual reality user is seeing themselves. (Well, half of what they see since it’s not stereographic, but it’s cinema VR, so close enough.) This is like watching a screencast of someone else playing a first person computer game, the original active experience of the user becoming passive viewing by the audience. Most people can imagine themselves in the driving seat of a car and thus make sense of the turns and changes of speed in a first person car chase, but the film audience probably won’t be familiar with the VR system depicted and will therefore have trouble understanding what is happening. There’s also the problem that viewing someone else’s first-person view, shifting and changing in response to their movements rather than your own, can make people disoriented or nauseated.

A third-person view is better for showing the audience the character and the context in which they act. But not the diegetic real-world third-person view, which would be the character wearing a geeky headset and poking at invisible objects. As seen in Disclosure, the third person view should be within the virtual reality.

But in doing that, now there is a new problem: the avatar in virtual reality representing the real character. If the avatar is too simple the audience may not identify it with the real world character and it will be difficult to show body language and emotion. More realistic CGI avatars are increasingly expensive and risk falling into the Uncanny Valley. Since these films are science fiction rather than factual, the easy solution is to declare that virtual reality has achieved the goal of being entirely photorealistic and just film real actors and sets. Adding the occasional ripple or blur to the real world footage to remind the audience that it’s meant to be virtual reality, again as seen in Disclosure, is relatively cheap and quick.
So, solving all these problems results in the cinematic trope we can call Extradiegetic Avatars, which are third-person, highly-lifelike “renderings” of characters, with a telltale Hologram Projection Imperfection for audience readability, that may or may not be possible within the world of the film itself.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Our first example is a single scene from Jurassic Park, set entirely in the control room of Isla Nublar. Apologies in advance for repeating some material already covered by the book and website, but it is necessary to focus on the aspects that are of interest to this study.

Drs. Sattler and Grant enter the control room along with Lex and Tim. Jurassic Park (1993)

The eponymous Jurassic Park is heavily automated, with the entire park designed to be controlled from the computer systems in this room. Villainous computer system designer Nedry took advantage of this to shut down systems across the entire park, releasing all the dinosaurs, to cover his industrial espionage. Most of the park staff had already been evacuated due to a storm warning, and the small team of core technical staff who remained have, by this point in the film, all been killed by dinosaurs. (Including Nedry—who, had he been given time for extrospection, would probably have rethought those aspects of his plan concerning the release of carnivorous dinosaurs.)

Four of the survivors have gathered in the control room after managing to restore the power, but must still restart the various computer systems. They have discovered that the computer control extends down to door locks, which are consequently not working and have suddenly become the number one priority due to the velociraptors trying to break in.

Our interface user is Lex, a teenage visitor, being given an advance tour of the park before its official opening. The others are Dr Grant, paleontologist; Dr Sattler, paleobotanist; and Lex’s younger brother Tim, dinosaur enthusiast. As a self -described computer hacker Lex is easily the best person qualified to work with the computers as everyone else in the room only has expertise in subjects more than sixty-six million years old.

Lex sitting before the computer and looking at the /usr directory in the 3D file browser. Jurassic Park (1993)

The computers were all rebooted when the power came back on but the programs that control Jurassic Park did not automatically restart. Dr. Sattler spent a moment in front of the computer with Lex, but all she seemed to do is deactivate the screen saver. It’s up to Lex to find and start whatever program runs the security systems for the control room.

Backworlding aside: Unix-savvy viewers might be wondering why these control programs, since they are critical to the park functionality, don’t automatically start when the computer is rebooted. I hazard that perhaps normally they would, but Nedry turned this off to ensure that no-one could undo his sabotage before he got back.
The file system of the computer is rendered as a tree, with directory names (/usr in the image above) shown as text labels, the contents of each directory shown as LEGO-like blocks, and lines linking directories to subdirectories.

The park directory, and two levels of subdirectories in the distance. Jurassic Park (1993)

Most of the information is drawn on a flat two-dimensional plane. The third dimension is used to present information about the number of, and perhaps sizes, of the files in each directory. Note in the image above that the different directories below the foremost park block have different sized heights and areas.

Rendering this plane in perspective, rather than as a conventional 2D window, means that areas closest to the viewpoint can be seen in detail, but there is still some information given about the directories further away. In the image above, the subdirectory of park on the right is clearly smaller than the others, even though we can’t make out the actual name, and also has a number of larger subdirectories.

Up close we can see that each file can have its own icon on top, presumably representing the type of file.

Individual blue files within one directory, and subdirectories beyond. Jurassic Park (1993)

The viewpoint stays at a constant height above the ground plane. Moving around is done with the mouse, using it as a game-style directional controller when the mouse button is held down rather than as an absolute pointing device. It is almost “walking” rather than “flying” but there is a slight banking effect when Lex changes direction.

Closeup of Lex’s hand on the mouse, pressing the left mouse button. Jurassic Park (1993)

Here Lex has browsed through the hierarchy and discovered a promising file. She selects it, but we don’t see how, and a spotlight or sunbeam indicates the selection.

The “Visitors Center” icon highlighted by a beam from above. Jurassic Park (1993)

This is the last of the 3D interactions. The 3D file browser is just a file browser, not an entire operating system or virtual environment, so opening a file or program will open a new interface.

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When Lex runs this program (again, we don’t see how) it is in fact the security system controller for the visitor centre, including the control room. This has a conventional 2D GUI interface and she immediately switches everything on.

The 2D GUI. Security window in green on left, boot progress screen in blue on right. Jurassic Park (1993)

Success! Well, it would be if the control room did not also have very large windows which are apparently not velociraptor-proof. But the subsequent events, and interfaces, are not our concern.


This isn’t a report card, since those are given to complete films or properties, not individual interfaces. But we can ask the same questions.

How believable is the interface?

In this case, very believable. The 3D file browser seen in the film is a real program that was shipped with the computers used in the film. It was created by the manufacturer Silicon Graphics as a demonstration of 3D capabilities, not as an effect just for this film.

How well does the interface inform the narrative of the story?

It supports the narrative, but isn’t essential — there’s plenty of drama and tension due to the velociraptors at the door, and the scene would probably still work if the camera only showed Lex, not the interface. The major contribution of using the 3D file browser is to keep the technology of Jurassic Park seemingly a little more advanced than normal for the time. Apart from dinosaurs, both the book and the film try not to introduce obviously science fictional elements. A 2D file browser (they did exist for Unix computers at the time, including the SGI computers shown in the film) would have been recognisable but boring. The 3D file browser looks advanced while still being understandable.

How well does the interface equip the characters to achieve their goals?

The most interesting question, to which the answer is that it works very well. One problem, visible in the film, is that because the labels are rendered on the 2D ground plane, users have to navigate close to a file or a folder to read its name. Rotating the names to vertical and to always face the user (“billboarding”) would have made them recognisable from further away.

Both at the time of the film and today some computer people will argue that Lex can’t be a real computer hacker because she doesn’t use the command line interface. Graphical user interfaces are considered demeaning. I disagree.
Lex is in a situation familiar to many system administrators, having to restore computer functionality after an unexpected power loss. (Although the velociraptors at the door are a little more hostile than your typical user demanding to know when the system will be back up.) Earlier in the film we saw Ray Arnold, one of the technical staff, trying to restore the system and he was using the command line interface.

Ray Arnold sitting before SGI computer, typing into blue command line window. Jurassic Park (1993)

So why does Lex use the 3D file browser? Because, unlike Ray Arnold, she doesn’t know which programs to run. Rebooting the computers is not enough. The various programs that control Jurassic Park are all custom pieces of software developed by Nedry, and nothing we’ve seen indicates that he would have been considerate enough to write a user guide or reference manual or even descriptive file names. Everyone who might have known which programs do what is either dead or off the island.

Lex needs an interface that lets her quickly search through hundreds or even thousands of files without being able to specify precise search criteria. For a problem involving recognition, “you’ll know it when you see it”, a graphical user interface is superior to a command line.

Film making challenge: diegetic computers

Writing for SciFiInterfaces can be quite educational. Chris asked me to write about the “diegetic” aspects of rendering 3D graphics in film, and I agreed to do so without actually knowing what that meant. Fortunately for me it isn’t complicated. Diegetic images or sounds belong to what we see in the scene itself, for instance characters and their dialog or hearing the music a violinist who is on-screen is playing; while non-diegetic are those that are clearly artefacts of watching a film, such as subtitles, voice overs, or the creepy violin music that is playing as a character explores a haunted house—we don’t imagine there is some violinist in there with them.

So, SciFiinterfaces.com focuses on the diegetic computer interfaces used by characters within the film or TV show itself. We’ve just been discussing the 3D file browser in Jurassic Park. Which, since it was a real interactive program, just meant pointing a camera at the actor and the computer screen, right?

It’s not that easy. Our human eyes and brain do an enormous amount of interpolation and interpretation of what we actually see. There’s the persistence of vision effect that allows us to watch a film in a cinema and see it as fluid motion, even though for a significant percentage of the time we’re actually looking at a blank wall while the projector shutter is closed. Cameras, whether film or digital, take discrete snapshots and are not so easily fooled, leading to various odd effects. One example that’s been known since the early days of filmmaking is that at certain speeds spoked wheels can appear to be rotating far more slowly than expected, or even to be rotating backwards.

Jurassic Park was made in the days when television sets and computer monitors used Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) technology. A CRT cannot display an entire frame at once, instead starting at the top left and drawing pixels line by line (“scan lines”) to the bottom. Just as the top line of pixels fades out, the new frame begins. At 50 or 60 frames a second we see only continuous moving images thanks to our persistence of vision; but a camera, usually running at 24 frames a second, will capture a dark line moving slowly down the screen and the images themselves will flicker. This was a common sight in TV news reports and sometimes in films of the time, when computer monitors were in the background. Here’s a shot from the 1995 film The Net where the new frames have been half-drawn:

View from above of computer expo. The two stacked monitors center right are not genlocked, showing crawl lines. The Net (1995)

One technique that avoids this is to film the computer interface in isolation and composite the graphics into the footage afterwards. This is very easy in the 21st century with all digital processing but Jurassic Park was made in the days of optical compositing, which is more expensive and limits the number of images that can be combined before losing picture quality.

So to shoot CRT monitors with their graphics live, the camera shutter opening must be synchronised to the start of each frame. In TV studios and film sets this is done with genlocking, connecting all the monitors and cameras via cables to a single electronic timing signal. This was apparently the technique used in Jurassic Park, with impressive results. In one control room scene the camera pans across at least eight different monitors, and none of them are flickering.

Real World 3D Filing Systems

It helps to ground our critique if we consider speculative interfaces in light of real-world interfaces that support similar goals, so let’s look at some.

The two dimensional desktop metaphor developed at Xerox PARC in the 1970s and still present on personal computers today was explicitly based on the real world of offices, with desktops, sheets of paper, folders, and even trashcans. What familiar three dimensional storage systems in the real world could we use as a basis for comparison and inspiration?

The desktop GUI. Photo credit: Xerox PARC

At the small scale are kitchens and garages, which have cupboards and shelves and wall hooks. Just as some computer desktops are tidy and others are not, some people will scatter implements and ingredients in a seemingly random fashion that only makes sense to them while others insist on everything being in the right place. At the larger scale are office buildings and warehouses, with aisles and floors and rooms.

These all “work” through the use of containers for storage and spatial memory. They help the user by grouping a very large set of findable things into a smaller number of containers, and keeping those containers in a consistent physical location. In the kitchen example, you don’t have to remember where every plate or utensil is. You know they are on the upper right shelf where the plates go, or in the second drawer down where the utensils go. There is still an organization task for the containers, but it’s a smaller problem. 

There’s a more exotic candidate though, the memory palace.

For those who haven’t encountered the concept before, it is a mental discipline that improves memory recall by associating particular memories with rooms or other spatial locations in an imaginary building. As well as the “3rd floor, south corridor, room 43” coordinates, each room or memory is also associated with a particular visual design element as an additional recall cue. So, for example, if you had to remember the first elements in the Periodic Table in order, you might imagine a tiny dirigible, filled with hydrogen, flying around the front door of your home. Open the door and behind it you see helium-filled balloons welcoming you home, etc.  This is an old technology, in the sense that it has been known for at least a couple of thousand years. 

Fun aside: Memory palaces have been portrayed in some contemporary TV shows, for example Sherlock and The Tunnel. The shot below is just one small location in the wonderfully detailed interior mental landscape used by a character in season three of Sherlock. (I would love to expand on this particular memory palace, but doing so would massively spoil the episode for anyone who hasn’t seen it.)

A screen shot from the Sherlock episode, showing stacked folders and a bust on a desk in a room crammed with materials.
No description because I don’t want to spoil it. Sherlock, series 3 episode 3, “His Last Vow” (2014).

In fiction set in the present day, memory palaces are only used by characters with exceptional mental abilities for, as author John Crowley explains in the fantasy novel Little, Big (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2016): “The whole process was immensely complicated and tedious and was for the most part rendered obsolete by the invention of the filing-cabinet.”

A computer-based, three-dimensional file browser and storage system could have all the strengths of the memory palace without the disadvantages. Like a memory palace it would have the advantage over real world buildings of being infinitely extensible, unlimited by gravity or other physical considerations, and requiring no actual physical effort or materials to create. Unlike a memory palace it would retain the useful real world characteristic that if you forgot where something was you could still find it by just searching every single location.

Tagged: architecture, brain, cognitive effort, disambiguation, immersion, mapping, memory work, mental models, secret, spatial memory, wayfinding

So let’s keep these models in mind—the kitchen, the garage, and the memory palace—as we look at our fictional 3D file browsing examples, starting in the next post with Jurassic Park.

Browsing Files in 3D

Be forewarned—massive spoilers ahead. (The graphic shows the Millennium Falcon sporting a massive spoiler.)

What’s this all about?

The origin story here is that I wanted to review Hackers, a film I enjoy and Chris describes as “awesome/ly bad”. However, Hackers isn’t science fiction. Well, I could argue that it is set in an alternate reality where computer hackers are all physically attractive with fashionable tastes in music and clothing, but that isn’t enough. The film was set firmly in the present day (of 1995) and while the possibilities of computer hacking may be exaggerated for dramatic purposes, all the computers themselves are quite conventional for the time. (And therefore appear quaint and outdated today.)

With the glorious exception of the three dimensional file storage system on the “Gibson” mainframe. This fantastic combination of hardware and software was clearly science fiction then, and remains so today. While one futuristic element is not enough to justify a full review of Hackers, it did start us thinking. The film Jurassic Park also has a 3D file system navigator, which wasn’t covered in depth by either the book or the online review. And when Chris reached out to the website readers, they provided more examples of 3D file systems being added to otherwise mundane computer systems.

So what we have here is a review of a particular interface trope rather than an entire film or TV show: the three dimensional file browsing and navigation interface.


This review is specifically limited to interfaces that are recognisably file systems, where people search for and manipulate individual documents or programs. Cyberspace, a 3D representation of the Internet or World Wide Web, is too broad a topic, and better covered in individual reviews such as those for Ghost in the Shell and Johnny Mnemonic.

I also originally intended to only include non-science fiction films and shows but Jurassic Park is an exception. Jurassic Park has been reviewed, both in the book and on the website, but the 3D file system was a comparatively minor element. It is included here as a well known example for comparison.

The SciFiInterfaces readership also provided examples of research papers for 3D file system browsing and navigation—rather more numerous than actual production systems, even today. These will inform the reviews but not be discussed individually.

Because we are reviewing a topic, not a particular film or TV show, the usual plot summaries will be shortened to just those aspects that involve the 3D file system. As a bonus, we can also compare and contrast the different interfaces and how they are used. The worlds of Ghost in the Shell and Johnny Mnemonic are so different that it would be unfair to judge individual interfaces against each other, but for this review we are considering 3D file systems that have been grafted onto otherwise contemporary computer systems, and used by unaugmented human beings to perform tasks familiar to most computer users.


Having decided on our topic and scope, the properties for review are three films and one episode of a TV show.

Jurassic Park, 1993

“I know this!” and Jurassic Park is so well known that I assume that you do too. We will look specifically at the 3D file system that is used by Lex in the control room to reactivate the park systems.

Disclosure, 1994

This film about corporate infighting includes a virtual reality system, complete with headset, glove, laser trackers, and walking surface, which is used solely to look for particular files.

Hackers, 1995

As mentioned in the introduction this film revolves around the hacking of a Gibson mainframe, which has a file system that is both physically three dimensional and represented on computer screens as a 3D browser.

A bar chart. The x-axis is every year between and including 1902 to 2022. The y-axis, somewhat humorously, shows 2-place decimal values up to 1. Three bars at 1.00 appear at 1993, 1994, and 1995. One also appears in 2016, but has an arrow pointing back to the prior three with a label, “(But really, this one is referencing those.)”

All three of these films date from the 1990s, which seems to have been the high point for 3D file systems, both fictional and in real world research.

Community, season 6 episode 2, “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care” (2016)

In this 21st century example, the Dean of a community college buys an elaborate virtual reality system. He spends some of his time within VR looking for, and then deleting, a particular file. 

Clockwise from top left: Jurassic Park (1993), Disclosure (1994), Hackers (1995), Community (2016)

And one that almost made it

File browsing in two dimensions is so well established in general-purpose computer interfaces that the metaphor can be used in other contexts. In the first Iron Man film, at around 52 minutes, Tony Stark is designing his new suit with an advanced 3D CAD system that uses volumetric projection and full body gesture recognition and tracking. When Tony wants to delete a part (the head) from the design, he picks it up and throws it into a trashcan.

Tony deletes a component from the design by dropping it into a trashcan. Iron Man (2008)

I’m familiar with a number of 2D and 3D design and drawing applications and in all of them a deleted part quietly vanishes. There’s no more need for visual effects than when we press the delete key while typing.

In the film, though, it is not Tony who needs to know that the part has been deleted, but the audience. We’ve already seen the design rendering moved from one computer to another with an arm swing, so if the head disappeared in response to a gesture, that could have been interpreted as it being emailed or otherwise sent somewhere else. The trashcan image and action makes it clear to the audience what is happening.

So, that’s the set of examples we’ll be using across this series of posts. But before we get into the fiction, in the next post we need to talk about how this same thing is handled in the real world.

Hellraiser (2022)

Hey readers. It’s been a while. There are reasons, but let’s move on.

The title card for Hellraiser (2022)

Some Halloween years ago, I made a shout out on social media for examples of interfaces in horror movies. (Other than The Cabin in the Woods and Ghostbusters, that is, since I’ve already reviewed those.) I like Halloween and it seems like a way to celebrate the season, even as it takes us out of the stricter realm of sci-fi.

There weren’t a lot of candidates.

There were horror films, even classic ones, with some technology in it. Androids here, high-tech weapons and torture devices there. But very, very few interfaces. Horror-interfaces are kind of rare for perhaps the reason that sex-interfaces are relatively rare—i.e., the core vibe conflicts. But a friend mentioned Hellraiser and its evil Rubik’s Cubes (called Lament Configuration Boxes in the wikis) and I thought yeah, that’s an intriguing interface.

So I looked it up and, holy wow, there are a lot of Hellraisers. I had no idea. The franchise has 11 films, two novels, and more than 100 comic books. Like Star Wars or Star Trek or Doctor Who, there is enough that a very thorough review of it all might take the better part of the year. Fortunately, the franchise was “rebooted” in 2022 with a new film, which conveniently lets me just focus on that one.

If you’re only into sci-fi interfaces for the sci-fi, or don’t like descriptions of horror, skip this one, and come back to reviews by Hugh Fisher of 3D file browsers, which will be coming up next.



Riley’s new boyfriend Trevor is a bad influence. She’s 6 months sober and trying to get her life in order, but he not only convinces her to help him rob a shipping container at his job, but also to get drunk for courage. Instead of riches, in the shipping container they find only a strange, intricate, hand-sized metal puzzle box. They take it.

When Riley returns home, her brother Matt confronts her drunkenness and kicks her out. She goes to a nearby park, and begins fiddling with the box: looking at the patterns, turning its components, and feeling the textures.

Riley investigates the box.

She inserts a finger into a hole on the side and hears a snap as it pops open.

Is anyone else flashing back to Flash Gordon (1980) and the wood beast scene?

She turns it a few times and snaps it back together only to see a nasty looking curved knife spring out from the interior, nearly cutting her.

One of a group of demons with hideous body-horror modifications—the captions assure me she is called “The Gasp”—appears and tells her that “that blade was meant for you.” It demands she sacrifice herself or offer another in her stead, but Riley passes out.

Victim 1: Matt

Matt wakes up from a nightmare and leaves the apartment to find Riley. He does, but in moving her away from the park, accidentally stabs himself with the puzzle box blade. He heads into a public restroom to tend the wound, but the room transforms into a portal to Cenobite land, sealing his fate. Outside the box absorbs Matt’s blood, the blade retracts back inside, and its parts move of their own accord to a new configuration. She rushes into the bathroom to find Matt missing.

Bye, Matt, your only crime was in caring toooo muuuuuuucccch.

Victim 2: Serena

She takes the box to Trevor, where she insists they find who owns the shipping container to figure out more about the box. They somehow discover (it happens off screen) that the owner of the warehouse is Serena Manaker and that she is in a nearby infirmary. They visit her, where she tells them the box belonged to billionaire Roland Voight. Serena tries to take the box from Riley and in their struggle, parts are moved and Serena gets stabbed with the blade. Riley and Trevor leave with the box, and Serena Ceno-bites the dust. (

Riley hops online and searches for more about Voight. She learns that, like Matt, he interacted with the box and disappeared. Riley heads to Voight’s overgrown estate where the main gate mysteriously opens for her. She sneaks into the mansion to find Voight’s papers which describe the box, its configurations, and the Cenobites. She also finds his journal in which she reads that he was trying to use the box to get an “audience with god.” Following a whisper, she has a vision of Matt that is disturbed when Trevor, Matt’s boyfriend Colin, and their roomate Nora arrive at the mansion.

How Voight came by this information is anyone’s guess, but let’s face it, it’s probably chatGPT.

She reads to them from the journal, that with each new victim the box reconfigures itself and whoever “possesses the final [sixth] configuration is granted a passage to another realm to an audience with god” and that this god “offers choices to whoever holds [it].” Riley wonders if she could use “resurrection” to bring Matt back. The box, however, is missing.

Victim 3: Nora

Nora gets separated from the others and is stabbed in the back with the blade from the box by a mysterious figure. They load her in the van to get her to safety, but Cenobites appear inside the van, and take her. The remaining survivors crash the van and head back to the mansion.

Victim 4, but it’s really just a forcing function: Riley

Outside the mansion Riley has a conversation with Pinhead and gets stabbed with the box blade. Pinhead explains they now can take her, if she does not offer other victims.

Victim 4: a Chatterer

Other Cenobites appear and threaten them, but Riley stabs one of the demons (the wiki describes it as a “Chatterer”) with the blade, who is quickly yanked apart by hooked chains.

“But I never thought pinhead would eat my face!” sobs Cenobite who voted for the Pinhead Eating People’s Faces Party.

Riley, Trevor, and Colin retreat to the mansion, where Riley hits a switch and gates drop, protecting/trapping them inside. Inside who should appear from the shadows but Voight, who was not dead after all, but the mysterious figure from before, strapped with a Cenobite torture device I’d rather not describe. We learn he had hired Trevor to find victims so he could ascend and undo the torture device.

Victim 5: Colin

Hoping to use the box against more demons, Riley lures one of the Cenobites inside where it gets trapped in a gate, but in running from it, Riley drops the box. Voight appears, having recovered it, and stabs Colin. Then he gets to monologuing and explains that he’d successfully worked the box six years earlier and chosen “sensation,” and that resulted in his being outfitted with the wearable torture device. Having had Colin marked as its fifth victim, a massive shape appears out of the sky above the mansion, looking like a giant version of the box in its current, sixth, configuration (the wiki informs me this massive shape is called Leviathan).

Confusingly, this configuration is also called the Leviathan configuration of the box.

Victim 5, re-do: Trevor

As Voight talks with Pinhead in the central chamber below Leviathan, Riley sneaks in and grabs the box. She flips a switch and opens the gates, exposing Voight to the demons. Elsewhere in the mansion, she confronts The Gasp who is just on the verge of destroying Colin. Saying she chooses another victim, Riley uses the tip of the box to stab Trevor, who is schlorped into Cenobite-land.

Back in the central chamber, the torture device falls from Voight and his tissues painfully stitch themselves back together, only to have a hook-chain from the Leviathan drag him up and out of the mansion.

Voight is hoisted up by fleshhooks toward the skylight of his ballroom.

Riley faces the demons one last time, who try to tempt her with resurrecting her brother, but she’s learned her lesson. She knows Matt is gone and Cenobite gifts are always betrayals. They note that she’s chosen to live with the pain she’s caused and “the lament configuration,” and restore the box to its original shape. Riley and Colin limp from the mansion, leaving the box behind.

The final scene involves more body horror as Voight, in Cenobite-hell, is transformed into a hideous Cenobite himself.

Analysis of the box

For a while, I was having trouble finding a good anchor for analysis. What is the user’s goal here? How does a puncturing blade fit in? Should we add safety features to minimize the risk of the user’s getting hurt? But then I realized—hang on, our human victims are merely the incidental users. They certainly don’t put it out into the world for any reason. The description on Hulu says the box is used to “summon Cenobites” but honestly, that’s no protagonists’ goal.

Fish for the souls of the innocent to inflict with unthinkable body horrors, or cut bait.

Once you reframe it, and understand that it is designed against the humans and for the Cenobites, it suddenly falls into place. (You know, like social media. Or, say, American healthcare.) Cenobites are the users here. The box is a fishing lure, meant only to bob on the surface between worlds and attract victims. Unlike the most common horror movie trope, Hellraiser victims aren’t punished for transgressing some social norm. It’s literally not personal, victim. You were just the unlucky one sucked in by the lure.

The proximate lure

And it’s an effective lure for all sorts of human-psychology reasons: inviting materials, textures, affordances, and even appealing to cognitive closure. Let’s discuss each.

Inviting materials (see me)

In the first place, it’s shiny, likely to catch any available light and reflect it to catch attention, but also hinting that it is valuable. I have a suspicion that this is an evolutionary adaptation for finding water (it sparkles in relation to the sun) and quickly identifying animal faces (wet eyes reflecting light) that could be predators to avoid or prey to be hunted. My amateur suspicions aside, evolution is rather tight-lipped about its reasons. Shiny = interesting, and we have to move on from there.

Low-light emphasizes the shiny.

Inviting textures (touch me)

Years ago while reading stuff about the questionable demimonde of Pick-Up Artists, I learned about “kino” which are worn textures that invite touching. Think ostrich feather plumes in hats, or feather boas, or fake fur lapels. Well, this box has it, too. The lines and patterns across its surface have kino in that they invite handling and touching because they look embossed and debossed. Riley’s first interaction with the box really emphasizes this. She doesn’t just turn it, like one might a Rubik’s Cube with its flat colors. No, she feels it.

In hindsight, I probably should have gotten a sponsorship for this post from Rubik’s.

Inviting affordances (manipulate me)

Seminal-and-problematic grandfather of UX Don Norman defined “affordances” back in his “The Design of Everyday Things.” The box is loaded with them.

  • It’s hand-sized, so it invites grabbing and holding.
  • The shape has several details that invite manipulation. For example, the raised wedges on the primary disc imply that the disc spins and even that it is meant to be spun clockwise.
  • The hole in the side invites a poke with a finger (or for the more leery, a stick.)
  • The lines across the corners imply that they can spin around a corner-to-corner axis.

All of these physical things invite a person not just to touch, but to manipulate.

Riley rotates a corner of the Lamentation Configuration.

There’s even a bit of semiotics involved because though this movie exists in a world where the Hellraiser films don’t exist (or all the main characters are wildly ignorant of them) but they presumably do exist in a world where Rubik’s Cube and its hundreds of spin-off and copycat toys do. You know what to do with this puzzle cube because you’ve seen and played with puzzle cubes before.

Cognitive Closure (complete me)

There’s even a bit of psychological allure in that the patterns across the surfaces don’t quite match up, and given the physical affordances discussed above, humans can barely help but to pick the thing up and see if they can set it “right.” The mismatched patterns invite further interaction. With apologies to OCD readers, here are some examples that tug at our psychological desire for closure.

Yes yes torn apart by hell hooks, but I want the circles to be circles.

The point of the hook

All of these things attract and invite manipulation in various ways, until the shape (mostly) ensures that a hand is in the right place to be stabbed by the little blade and—via the collection of blood—reeled in by the extreme body modification posse. This blade is hidden, as it should be, less the victim get scared off by the threat of a puncture wound or laceration. The fact that the seam through which it appears and disappears looks like many other seams on the surface of the box is perfect. It does not telegraph its danger. Unlike aposematics, this is deliberate deception, perfect for the fishing-lure nature of the box.

What the hell? That was not in the YouTube unboxing.

Anything missing?

There are lots of ways we could imagine that the box could lure people toward it, but there are two major and one minor constraints. The first major constraint is extradiegetic—that this is in a movie, so any other aspect of the lure should be visual or audible. Sure, it could emanate a localized sense of warmth and comfort, but it would need to be conveyed to audiences by a line of dialogue or two, and wouldn’t be as immediate. Visible or audible is best.

Secondly and diegetically, it needs to avoid scaring the potential fish, so it shouldn’t demonstrate uncanny behaviors, like whispering the victim’s name or being blurry in their vision. It should keep the user in a design stance in the Daniel Dennett sense, rather than the much scarier intentional stance embodied by humans and animals. In a design stance, the person is trying to understand how the designer intended a thing to be used, which encourages investigation and manipulation. It is generally less fraught and as such, more approachable.

The philosophy. You opened it. We came. Now you must come with us.

The minor constraint is the pressures by the studio for franchising and memetics. You could imagine that a better lure might be a $100 bill on the sidewalk. Victim can’t help but grab that sweet free-meal coupon, and gets poked by a spike coming out of Ben’s nose or something. Or maybe a fuzzy kitty who looks like it had a thorn in its poor little paw. Surprise, its fuzzy belly is a bear trap. But mimicking real-world objects wouldn’t result in a concrete novum that would look cool in posters and be instantly recognizable to audiences. The little puzzle box does that.

It’s on, like, all the posters.

So between these constraints—the need to be cinegenic, memetic, and apparently-harmless, I’d say there is little that can be added to increase the lure-ness of the lure. Maybe adjust the mechanical sounds that occur with each twist to provide a sense of getting closer to a goal, encouragement to continue? The semiotics of that might be tough, but would fit the constraints. And still that suggestion feels small.

While I’m thinking about it, compare freely:

  • A lure that does demonstrate an intentional stance—Under the Skin (2013). (Sci-fi horror.)
  • A lure that demonstrates the uncanniness, but still “works”—Mimic (1997). (Not sci-fi but horror.)

The ultimate lure

But all that is just the first layer, i.e. the thing that might get an unknowing victim to “bite,” and get hooked on the blade. We learn over the course of this movie that there is another level here that proves to the ambitious psychopath even more tempting than a Rubik’s Cube, and that’s the possibility of having otherworldly gifts bestowed upon you: Life, knowledge, love, sensation, power, resurrection, or the hubristic possibility of an audience with (a) god. All you have to do is not care about the lives that you sacrifice to get there, and, being a billionaire, Voight is right on top of that.

All of them, we learn, are tainted offerings, but hey, it wouldn’t be hubris if you were a skeptical, thinking person.

Let’s watch this bit again.

From the fisher’s perspective, it’s a brilliant lure that tricks fish into bringing you other fish.

If this were a just diegesis, built around horror movie tropes similar to morality plays, we would hope that anyone pursuing the god path would merit real punishment. Voight knew what he was doing and still did it anyway. Other victims of the lure, like the fish in our extended metaphor, were just being themselves, responding to signals in their environment. It’s only Voight who has really transgressed here, heartlessly and horribly sacrificing people to hellish suffering, all as a stepping stone to his ambitions. 

In some other alternate universe version of this movie, when Cenobites finally reeled in the psychopaths, the relatively innocent victims sacrificed along the way would be set free and the memory of their suffering erased to spare them the trauma. But no, like fishing, it’s just random destruction of some unlucky victim whose crime was being at the wrong place at the wrong time and being alive. True horror. Bon appetit.

Which brings us to our report card.

Report Card

A graphic summarizing the report card for Hellraiser’s interfaces: Sci B, FI A, Interfaces A. Overall A Blockbuster.

Sci: B (3 out of 4) How believable are the interfaces? (To keep you immersed.)

Novae don’t depend on their imagine-ers solving the actual engineering required to make them a reality. We just accept laser swords and faster-than-light travel, and focus on consequences and the stories that unfold around them. So a mechanical puzzle box that occasionally pops up a blade that summons interdimensional pain demons? Sure, why not?

Still, I’m a little bothered by the seeming impossibility of its growing up to four times its original size with about the same mass and internal workings. Sure, sure, it’s probably a healthy dose of handwavium—and we’re treating horror like it was sci-fi—but for that inexplicable bit of the speculative technology, it gets dinged to a B.

Fi: A (4 out of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story? (To tell a good story.)

The franchise is enabled by this little box, both as a Macguffin, but also to set and raise the stakes. It structures the narrative. And, as mentioned in the intro, it’s a huge franchise with broad awareness. It’s popular enough to be spoofed in other shows. (Here I’m thinking Rick and Morty, but surely there are others.) If you showed one of these props at a Halloween party, I’d bet the majority of the attendees would recognize it and know where it’s from.

Jerry amuses the Hell Demons with his lameness. “Amortycan Grickfitti,” Rick and Morty: Season 5, Episode 5.

Interfaces: A (4 out of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals? (To be a good model for real-world design?)

Once you accept that the design is not for the human protagonists, but a lure for Cenobites fishing, it becomes very clear that the design of this device performs its functions almost perfectly. Not just catching one fish, but encouraging the worst of fish to betray other fishes to get reeled in. If you’re a cenobite, this is *chef’s hell-hooked kiss.*

A graphic summarizing the report card for Hellraiser’s interfaces: Sci B, FI A, Interfaces A. Overall A Blockbuster.

And that’s it for HorrorTech 2023. If you know of a horror interface that you’d like to see analyzed sometime, drop a comment and I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime, Happy Halloween, and stay safe out there.

Fritzes 2023 Winners

The Fritzes award honors the best interfaces in a full-length motion picture in the past year. Interfaces play a special role in our movie-going experience, and are a craft all their own that does not otherwise receive focused recognition. Awards are given for Best Believable, Best Narrative, Audience Choices, and Best Interfaces (overall).

As we know, 2022 marked the third year of the COVID pandemic, but people just seemed to want to move on, venturing back into cinema en mass. Studios reportedly had tight protocols that still let them get big casts and crews onto sets and big movies made again. Surprisingly, the only category to not “fill up” with candidates features two animated films, which could have been made all remotely.

Best Believable

These movies’ interfaces adhere to solid HCI principles and believable interactions. They engage us in the story world by being convincing. The nominees for Best Believable were Belle and Apollo 10 1/2.

The winner of the Best Believable award for 2023 is Belle.


If Belle rubs you the wrong way for turning the volume on the Ugly Guy, Hot Wife trope up to 11, well, that’s because it’s a modern retelling of the OG, Beauty and the Beast. It adds layers of connections between a virtual world called U and the real world of Suzu and her “nerd in the chair” friend Hiro.

The interfaces within U are not what this award is for. It’s the interface to U and all the primary-diegesis interfaces throughout. They’re well-designed and often improved versions of tech we know. Take special note of the lovely and subtle in-ear device that forms the “neural connection” that drops users into the virtual world.

Please keep in mind 7 seconds is all IP law usually allows.

Trigger warning before you check it out: verbal abuse and threats of physical violence towards young children. But it all turns out OK in the end, thanks to our plucky heroes. Catch the movie on Amazon Prime.

Honorable Mention

I want to take a special aside to note one surprisingly spectacular interface in a movie otherwise full of rather derivative ones. In the movie Warriors of Future [sic], most of the interfaces lazily mimic ones seen in other films, without adding anything of particular note. But then there is one scene in which Taylor and Huo Naiguang, two of the eponymous warriors, must escape a collapsing building while fleeing ferocious insectoid aliens. In their heads-up displays, they are given real-time, easy-to read augmented reality instructions on exactly what to do when to get them to safety. It’s fantastic and cinegenic and I just loved this moment. It wasn’t enough to save the film from the weight of the rest of its tropes, but I wanted to give the scene an honorable mention.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen augmented-reality assistant tech do this, and do this so well.

Best Narrative

These movies’ interfaces blow us away with wonderful visuals and the richness of their future vision. They engross us in the story world by being spectacular. The nominees for Best Narrative were The Adam ProjectBig Bug, and Strawberry Mansion

The winner of the Best Narrative award for 2023 is Strawberry Mansion.

Strawberry Mansion

In 2035, dreams are required to be recorded so that aspects within can be taxed. James Preble is a dream tax assessor who is sent to the home of artist Arabella Isadora to audit her older-model VHS dream recordings and determine what she owes. Entering her dreams, he comes to know and fall in love the dream version of herself, while in the outside world, psychopathic, capitalist forces threaten him even as he nearly loses himself in the dreamtime.

The interfaces are lo-fi and really well done, shaping the dystopian and absurdist world where the lines between taxes and dreams and advertising are losing their meaning. Keep a special eye out for the wonderfully disgusting (especially for a vegetarian) Cap’n Kelly fast food ordering interface (is the sack-of-chicken character a mediated avatar or an AI?), and the lovely touches that connect Isadora’s helmet and her VCR.

Watch it on Prime Video or Vudu.

Audience Choices

This year I present many Audience Choices awards. Across social media, the readership was invited to vote for their favorite, and the results tallied. The results are below.

Best Low-Fi

Between Strawberry Mansion, Brian & Charles, and the spectacular and narratively challenging anti-colonial Neptune Frost, low-fi sci-fi interfaces made their own special splash in 2022. This tactic lets filmmakers compete against the big-budget films with charm instead of money, and sets the work stylistically apart. I would not be surprised to see more of this in the years to come.

Audiences selected Strawberry Mansion as their favorite, and just looking at this thing, it’s easy to see why.

Best HUD

There were lots of HUDs this year, with audiences choosing between seven: The Adam Project, Big Bug, Lightyear, M3gan, Strawberry Mansion, Wakanda Forever, and Warriors of Future. It was a three-way tie between M3gan, Wakanda Forever, and Warriors of Future, requiring me to cast a tie-breaking vote.

So, congratulations to M3gan as the winner, notably for the lack of any obvious FUIgetry, even if I wasn’t sure why some framing rectangles were placed where they were, and the science of affective interfaces has proven dubious at best. It was still great stuff.

Best Sand Table

Sand tables are an important tool for telegraphing character’s plans to the audience and keeping commanders in the action with the grunts. Audiences had their pick between Black Adam, Lightyear, or Warriors of Future.

Audiences picked Lightyear. Congrats!

Best Reticle

Reticles are often an opportunity for a little indulgent opulence wherever they appear. Some nice reticles were seen in Thor: Love and Thunder, Lightyear, and Warriors of Future.

Thor: Love and Thunder walks away with the win for the reticles seen as the Guardians of the Galaxy—with Thor’s help of course—battle against the Booskan scum early in the film.

Best Big Red Warning

Big Red Warnings are important to show the audience that there’s an obstacle a character has just run into. Audiences had their pick of warnings from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Lightyear, Thor: Love and Thunder, and Warriors of Future.

The winner is Lightyear, for any of the handful of red warnings throughout.

Best Interfaces

The movies nominated for Best Interfaces manage the extraordinary challenge of being believable and helping to paint a picture of the world of the story. They advance the state of the art in telling stories with speculative technology. The nominees for Best Narrative are The Batman, Black Adam, and Lightyear.

The winner of the Best Interfaces award for 2023 is Lightyear.


This movie tells the “real world” backstory of Buzz Lightyear, who audiences first met as the Quixotic, toyified version of the character in Toy Story. In the movie, Buzz makes a mistake that traps Star Command troops on a hostile planet. He tries to achieve faster-than-light travel that will help return everyone home, but returning from one particular mission he learns that Star Command has come under assault by a robot army under the leadership of the mysterious Zurg. With the help of a few plucky cadets and a robot cat named Sox, Buzz infiltrates Zurg’s ship, saves Star Command, and learns more about what makes a home.

Pixar has long been a powerhouse for awesome interface design, and the studio is in fine form here. The interfaces feel just real enough for immersion, and just narrative enough to signal plot points and do all that troublesome exposition about how stuff works in this world. Also Sox is hilarious, and a fine model for zoomorphic general AI. Oh—and on the way they also remembered to give their HUDs an augmented reality to identify currently-cloaked teammates. Really, nice job, Lightyear.

Catch Lightyear and appreciate its awesome interfaces on Disney Plus or amazon. And, hey, Pixar—I live right up the road. Have me over! 🙂

Congratulations to all the candidates and the winners. Thank you for helping advance the art and craft of speculative interfaces in cinema.

Is there something utterly fantastic that I missed? It’s possible. Let me know in the comments, I’d love to see what you’ve got.

Fritz 2023 Nominees

It’s that time of year, when we look back at the sci-fi movies of the prior year to consider the challenges of on-screen interfaces and decide who did it best.

I admit a bit of frustration with the sci-fi movies in 2022. Many just didn’t need interfaces to tell their stories. Just no name a few that come to mind: Everything Everywhere All at Once, Prey, Nope, Slash/Back, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, Next Exit. And many that did had interfaces that were just displays—and it’s hard to gauge the design if no character is using it. Of the rest, many looked very, very similar to stuff we’d seen before. Of course, that’s the way of cultural semiotics and the formalization of cinematic language, but for anyone looking at the body of work for progress—like, say, me—it can be frustrating.

Despite this, there were enough movies to mostly fill out nominees. The exception was Best Believable, for which there are only two.

See the trailers below, in alphabetical order for the category, and be sure and catch the shows so you can have opinions on them and cast an informed vote for the Audience Choice.

Note: There are some movies that might have been nominated but were only released in cinemas in 2022, and as of the time of this post do not have a home streaming option. Looking at you, Avatar: Way of Water. Those movies could not be included, and, as this award just relies on stuff I’ve seen, I may have missed some worthy stuff. Sorry about that, but one nerd does not an academy make.

Best Believable

These movies’ interfaces adhere to solid HCI principles and believable interactions. They engage us in the story world by being convincing. The nominees for Best Believable are Apollo 10 1/2 and Belle (with a focus on the main diegesis, not the virtual world).

Best Narrative

These movies’ interfaces blow us away with wonderful visuals and the richness of their future vision. They engross us in the story world by being spectacular. The nominees for Best Narrative are The Adam Project, Big Bug, and Strawberry Mansion.

Best Interfaces

The movies nominated for Best Interfaces manage the extraordinary challenge of being believable and helping to paint a picture of the world of the story. They advance the state of the art in telling stories with speculative technology. The nominees for Best Interfaces are The Batman, Black Adam, and Lightyear.

Audience Choices

This year I’m trying something new and offering up a whole slew of Audience Choice stuff: Best Lo-Fi interfaces, best Big Red Warning, best HUD, etc. This is partly a response to trope, but also an acknowledgement of trends.

See and vote for the Audience Choices at this Google Form:



Winners will be announced near the end of March. I’ll lock Audience Choices on 12 March. I’ll probably share individual interfaces on Mastodon intermittently, which is where I moved the social media since the Muskification of Twitter. Happy, skeptical viewing.

Report Card: Soylent Green (1973)

The report card, as detailed in the post

Read all the Soylent Greens posts in chronological order.

Soylent Green left a huge mark on popular culture. It’s entirely possible I’m skewed by my nerd circle of friends but I’d wager every single one of them know the phrase “It’s made of people!” even if they couldn’t name the source. Heck, it was parodied on The Simpsons, which is its own mark of cultural currency.

If you couldn’t tell by my tone in the reviews (and I was not hiding it) while I appreciate the film, I can’t say I like it. Our protagonist is a wretched bully, though Heston plays him as a hero; the worldbuilding is inconsistent and writing full of holes; its Malthusian intent squicks me out.

Not sure why MGM made Heston a bobblehead, but there it is.

At the same time I think many of its themes are very, very important and even more pressing today than they were in 1973:

  • Unchecked oligarchy and corporatism self-interesting us into the Anthropocene
  • Environmental collapse
  • Ecological collapse
  • Social collapse
  • Cops are violent thugs
  • The dehumanization of a populace by authoritarians
  • Food and water scarcity
  • Etc. etc.

I think it warrants a modern reboot, and offers the opportunity to rethink these themes in the information age. It would be interesting to see a writer rethink it without hinging it all on The Big Secret. Or, diegetically, a post-information age. It would be cool to see the Thanatorium with an even starker frontstage/backstage dichotomy, á la Westworld.

If it does get a reboot, it will be an opportunity to rethink its service and interaction design as well. Because little of it fares well on close inspection.

Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

The patient’s experience is missing some important stuff, but the intake questionnaire that informs it is missing tons of things that would be needed for the service, the beneficiary’s interface has stuff it shouldn’t, the attendants’ interface makes no sense, and worst of all, the usher’s interface is deeply lacking in the controls it needs to make what we see happen happen. All of it has to be “read” for what it is meant to be rather than what it is, and that takes modern audiences out of the experience.

Fi: D (1 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

Certainly the speculative service helps sell the notion of a culture so inured to collapse that they would make it (far too) easy to commit suicide. We understand that only Thorn can hear Sol’s dying words, even if the why is utterly confounding. The warmth of the front stage workers belies the horrible truth of the back stage. None of it is particularly well art directed, other than it does feel like it was cobbled together with stuff in a bunch of 1970s garages (which kind of works, diegetically, I guess, but not enough to save it). So they don’t really help with the narrative as much as they could.

It’s worth noting that this was Edward G. Robinson’s last film. He died two weeks after wrapping his scenes, making his fictional death scene even more poignant. But that doesn’t raise the grade because that has nothing to do with the design, just our respect for the talented actor.

Interfaces: F (0 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Because they’re not believable, they don’t equip anyone for their goals, even though, of course the actors act as if they do.

  • The beneficiaries are treated like hostile witnesses rather than wishing to see a loved one off (without having to see all the dehumanizing backstage tech)
  • The usher doesn’t have the controls they need in the place they need it to ensure that things go smoothly, displays to show whether he’s meeting the ecstasy meat quota (if you’re into that backworlding), or even a panic button for when beneficiaries get hostile, as we see one do.
  • The attendants have all the analog tools to get the patient in place and comfortable and…uh…dying properly, but not the technological ones to ensure that the patient’s vital signs are being read.
  • The patient is the closest one with a desireable experience, but the movie completely sidesteps the need for privacy and human connection, and misses some important worldbuilding opportunities.

Even in its time it was not thought out thoroughly, and today we have much better channels for service delivery and much more sophistication around designing for it.

Final Grade F (1 of 12), Dreck.

The report card, as detailed in the post

Enjoy this film for its cultural currency and some of its themes, but steer clear of it for its design.

Unlike this amazing glow-in-the-friggin-dark poster by Matt Ferguson, which is excellently designed. Oh and don’t believe the linked tweet. Is it for sale at the time this post was written. It’s just very, very expensive. I am accepting donations.

Now that 2022 is almost behind us, we can breathe a small sigh of relief that Soylent Green is not true here in the year it was meant to take place. But let’s not pat ourself on the environmental back yet, we are still heading for a 2.4°C scenario and despite the small-seeming number, that’s disastrous. So no resting on laurels. There is still work to be done at a planetary level to avoid a collapse scenario where we are forced to choose between cannibalism and suicide by cinema.

Comments now open.

The baby in the Thanatorium bathwater

Throughout the reviews of Soylent Green, I have been cautious to stick to the movie, to the interface and service design. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to tease apart one of the complex, real-world ethical questions head-on.

The Thanatorium is the singular speculative technology in Soylent Green. The film contrasts the services’ caring facade with its deceptive, exploitative, cannibalist true nature. This Big Twist was played for shock: the film ends right after Thorn, shot and bleeding out, shouts his famous line “Soylent Green is people! We’ve got to stop them somehow!”, so if there is any effect from his murderous investigative journalism, i.e. any change, it is unaddressed. The film only cares about *gasp* its tabloid zinger. (Yes I’m aware of a cut scene in which Soylent and the government issue retractions. That scene was, as mentioned, cut.)

Note that the Thanatorium visuals are also used extradiegetically to get the audience to re-appreciate their own lives and ecology. (I am still searching for a name for this literary device.) We are given 73 minutes of bleak, dirty, sweaty oppression, and breathe a sigh of relief when we are shown images of sunlit tulips and pristine nature, inspiring us after the movie is over to to go outside, hug a fruit tree and a bee, and think, “My gods. We just can’t let Soylent Green happen.” So it wasn’t just shock, but I digress.

As we rightly reject the Thanatorium’s deception, oligarchical exploitation of the working classes, and of course, cannibalism; let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is something in there that is worth considering.

Since I’m not a bioethicist, I’m going to lean on Matthew Burnstein’s essay “The Thanatoria of Soylent Green: On Reconciling the Good Life with the Good Death” in Bioethics at the Movies, ed. Sandra Shapshay (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009): 275-94. In it Burnstein points out that “the good life”—on which much of Western philosophy focuses—depends on what he calls the mastery model. That is, a moral actor must have agency, and use that agency well, before we can call theirs a good life. Burnstein points out that this model operates from our adolescence throughout our lives (up to a point, read on) and even after our life, in that our possessions and remains are handled in the manner we specify. We can specify a good after-death.

But there is a curious carve-out for death itself. It is good to build mastery over your life, we say, so you can lead a good one. It is good to exhibit mastery over one’s things after your life, we say. But the manner of your death? No no no. You must not choose that. Psychologists and physicians are the only ones who can make that call for you, and only in certain circumstances. Burnstein calls this carve-out “moral gerrymandering,” and it’s a pretty illuminating phrase: Why would we not apply the mastery model here?

There are good reasons to take caution with permitting “easy” suicide, putting aside supernatural objections as well as the obvious need to prevent murders that are disguised as suicide.

Suicide is an irreversible decision, and sometimes our perceptions of things in the moment are exaggerated and even wrong. What feels like hopelessness may improve if we just gave it time. It would be tragic if a person gave into the grip of temporary despair with an irreversible decision, and never got a chance to change their story. So, yes, we should put some guidelines around such an act. We should provide universal mental health care and try to ensure that people are in crises have places to turn. But the moral gerrymandering around death means that we most often forbid suicide outright, and when it is permitted, it’s prohibitively constrained.

CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In my home country of the USA, there are currently 11 states that permit physician-assisted suicide (PAS). (Around the world PAS is legal in a number of countries, but I am less familiar with those laws even in passing.) The rules around PAS are deliberately restrictive. You have to prove you are of sound mind and that your incurable disease will kill you within 6 months. A person with a slow-burn incurable disease—especially one where the mind will go before the body—is mostly doomed to just…suffer through it, at emotional and financial toll to themselves and their loved ones. There are Patient Instructions/Advance Directives that people can use to clearly state directives for medical instructions for different situations, but one cannot issue a directive that breaks the law, like asking for euthanasia, and drawing up legal documents can be financially prohibitive. So for many there are still massive impediments to having death with dignity, or what Burnstein calls “the good death.”

A dear friend of mine is going through this very thing right now with a loved one, and while it’s not my place to tell their story, it is heart-wrenching and inhumane to hear play out.

There are some good real-world models. Dignitas is an association in Switzerland that offers life counseling and death with dignity services according to Swiss law. Travel can be prohibitively costly for anyone who does not already live there, and any person who is present with them at the time of their death may face harsh legal consequences upon returning home. It would be more humane if other jurisdictions would take steps towards enabling their own death with dignity policies, and undoing the moral gerrymandering that says we must only die according to the dictates of chance.

Oh bad news, it looks like Nerve Attenuation Syndrome.
Welp, that will cause suffering and bankrupt your family slowly over a decade, but the dice are what they are.

Even in the misguided Malthusian fiction that is Soylent Green, what is presented as a horror is quite rational. Without the thanatorium, Sol has a Sophie’s Choice between starvation and cannibalism. A gentle, pleasant suicide is a welcome third option. What is wicked in this speculative service is that they use his cadaver without his consent and hide the truth of their product from the population at large, so that oligarchs on “the board” can continue to live out the last days of the earth enjoying showers, exploited sex workers, air conditioning, and food that is not made of humans. In short; It’s the oligarchy, not the suicide services, that is the villain, though the film spends its calories on the shockeroo moment.

Oh nooooo.

When considering this model for the real world, we should take great exception to the no-questions-asked expediency seen in Soylent Green. We would want such a service to be slow, deliberative, and life-affirming, with counseling and assistance programs to help people overcome crises of all sorts and palliative care. (As Dignitas does.) And then, yes, additionally, self-determination suicide services. But not walk-in “suicide booth” stuff.

So as we put the reviews of Soylent Green to rest, let’s not take that shock at face value. The Thanatorium—without the casual expediency, deception, cannibalism, and oligarchy—is a model worth considering.

The “spectacular” suicide experience from Soylent Green

The thanatorium is a speculative service for assisted suicide in Soylent Green. Suicide and death are not easy topics and I will do my best to address them seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.

There are four experiences to look at in the interface and service design of the Thanatorium: The patient, their beneficiaries, the usher to the beneficiaries, and the attendants to the patient. This post is about the patient themselves. Since there aren’t any technological interfaces, this will be a review of the service design from the patient’s and Soylent’s perspectives. If you’re only into this blog for technological interfaces, this is a post to skip, as it’s going to be about set design, lighting, props, signage, and ritual design, among other things.

Sol’s goals

Part of how we measure the efficacy of an experience is by checking whether it helps its user achieve their goals in the ways they would like them achieved. So let’s say that Sol’s goals are to take advantage of the service to have a good death, i.e. to pass painlessly and with dignity, and to have his belongings passed along according to his wishes. He wants psychological comfort as well, which in this case means helping him psychologically transition from the world he is leaving behind by setting up a liminal space for the ceremony, pointing toward notions of eternity and away from the horrible world he is leaving.

“People,” you say? Yeah, screw that. I’m out.

We are going to completely bypass the script question here about why Sol doesn’t bother to communicate to Thorn the Dark Secret in his goodbye note, but then does tell him when he happens to join him at the Thanatorium. That is what it is.

Sol’s experience

After Sol learns that his options are cannibalism or starvation, he makes the decision to die with dignity. To enact this wish, he dresses in his Sunday best, heads to the state-sponsored Thanatorium, officed in a low-rise building at the end of a wide street in downtown New York City.

Authors Islam Abohela and Noel Lavin insightfully note in their 2020 paper, The Height of Future Architecture: Significance of High versus Low Rise Architecture in Science Fiction Films, that the horizontality of this building contrasts earlier, vertical sci-fi visions of the cityscape as lofty and aspirational. In short, the building is in a horizontal repose suitable to its purpose. Further, the bright illumination spilling out from its frosted-glass doors onto the street helps to sell its next-world-ly promise, especially as the terminus of a dark road.

Initial greeting

At Sol’s approach a young worker opens the door and welcomes him. (How did she know of his approach, given the frosted glass? Let’s presume cameras, though we see no hint of this.)

With the door open, Sol feels the air conditioning pouring from inside and says, “It feels good.” She replies, “Yes, sir. Won’t you please come in?” He hesitates a moment with the gravity of it, but proceeds. Inside he walks through a turnstile and the greeter escorts him to one of the intake queues.

Worldbuilding question: The New York City of Soylent Green is oppressively hot and overcrowded. You would imagine that people would want to feel that refreshing cool air themselves, even if they weren’t there to suicide. I would expect people to be laying on the sidewalk there near the doors on the off-chance to feel a cool breeze. But the street leading to the Thanatorium is vacant. Why is this so? You might think well, it’s an authoritarian state, and curfew is probably enforced brutally. But then why is Sol allowed to just amble his way there? It would have been a nice beat to have seen Sol approached by an angry cop and challenged, only to have Sol point up the street to the Thanatorium, to which the cop softens and nods, allowing Sol to continue. This would have signaled that, despite curfew, the Thanatorium is open 24 hours a day, 7 days for “business.”


Taking a moment to appreciate the set design, the placid blues and non-descript “plop art” backdrops sell this space as a hospital rather than, say, an airport terminal, or church. It could have gone all “heavenly gate” but that would have been too soon in the patient experience, and lacked the personalized immersion that leads to…uh…the ecstasy meat (a gross, backworlded concept introduced in the beneficiaries post). The service keeps its powder dry to maximize that main event and thereby its output. So this design wins for being both familiar to the patients and effective for Soylent.

The film cuts away to show Thorn returning home to find Sol’s goodbye letter, and then running to the Thanatorium. When we cut back to Sol, he is in the middle of answering some questions by the intake staff, i.e. His favorite color and genre of music. Sol responds and the intake personnel marks his answers on a reusable plastic form. Before signing, Sol wants to confirm that the ceremony will last, “A full 20 minutes?”

“Certainly,” comes the reply, “Guaranteed.”

This scriptwriting moment bears a mention. This comes across as a negotiation, but what is being exchanged here? And what could Sol do with a guarantee when he won’t be there in case this mustache reneges on the deal? Nothing, of course, but it really sets up the transactional nature here. One’s death is so cheap in the world of Soylent Green that one can use it as a bargaining chip. Dark.

There’s a lot that we don’t get to examine in this intake experience because the scene is cut, but per Sol’s goals identified above, we have to imagine it would include questions about his beneficiaries and privacy. Additional questions appear in the text below.

Theater 11

The usher comes and retrieves Sol, making small talk and escorting him down halls, past the beneficiaries’ observation room, to “theater 11,” which is the death chamber to which he’s been assigned, with attendants waiting there standing aside a bed in the center of the room. The inclusion of “11” reminds us that there are many such theaters in the Thanatorium. It would have been nice for the beneficiaries only room to have had a similar number, i.e. “Observation 11: beneficiaries only,” linking the two together for the users and the audience.

We’ll get back to Sol’s experience in a moment, but first a note on the floor markings and the architecture.

I first thought the red line on the floor might have been wayfinding lines like you see in some hospitals. If it was a particularly busy day, and the patient ambulatory, the intake personnel could say, “Follow the red line on the floor to theater 11.” But, a glance at the scenes that precede this show that these markings are only present in the antechamber leading into the theater and the theater itself. So it serves as more of a decoration, a red line leading to a red circle in the middle of which is a white gray, and black circle. The end of the line in two senses.

This sense of the terminus is reinforced by the design of the room. The small passageway down which Sol walks joins with the more expansive theater, creating a sort of “reverse womb” implying a balance between the beginning and end of life. It’s not critical that patients pick up on any of this, of course, but all contributes to a sense of liminality; of interest to both Sol and Soylent.

So all good, but I wish the lighting here had echoed the approach to the building. It should have been a glowing pool of light at the end of a dark passageway, rather than the even overhead lighting reminiscent of a school cafeteria that we see in the film. Pools of light in the center combined with many flickering pinpoints of light at the periphery would have increased the sense of other-worldliness and unified the approach to the building with the entrance to the theater, creating a rhythm of self-similar spectacle. It also would have let the scale of the 180° screen become apparent only once the ceremony started, adding to its thrill and overwhelming scale.

The attendant behavior

In service design, the behavior of the frontstage staff is of particular concern, as humans are good at reading other humans for cues about unfamiliar things. In this case, the attendants are silent, wear beatific expressions, and move with a dance-like deliberateness throughout their parts. It is perhaps the most effective cue-of-transition for the patient. The outfits are a little goofy, but borrow semantically from western Christian liturgy, so are kind-of appropriate. If the patient were atheist or from a different religious tradition, other costumes with different signifiers would be more appropriate.

It’s also of note that not everyone is comfortable with being touched by strangers. It signals a warmth in the scene, but might feel threatening to some patients. Another question to add to the intake questionnaire.


Once Sol is in the theater, the attendants greet him with silent handshakes, lead him to the bed, and begin to help him disrobe. This segment bears many questions.

Why does he need to be naked?

I get why he is disrobed here, from Soylent’s perspective. I’ve never been a mortician, but it does seem that getting the clothes off of a living person would be easier than getting it off a dead person, why make the task harder for Soylent employees down the line? Just work it into the ceremony, some product manager says. And from Sol’s perspective, he’d like to see his clothes being taken away in a nice basket with some assurances that the clothes would be washed and given back to the community; an additional assurance that he’s doing a good, selfless thing in this world with dwindling resources.

But then there are the pants. Maybe it’s me, but there is not a dignified way to remove one’s pants around other, clothed, people. Did they help him out of his pants? Did he do that and just hand the clothes to them? Is he just in his underwear? All of it seems awkward.

I think the service could take a privacy clue from hospitals, public pools, and spas: provide a small room where a patient can undress themselves and switch into a robe. This would also be an opportunity to get a shower, which the movie demonstrates is a cherished luxury in the world of Soylent Green, another reward to lure citizens. Water is in short supply in the world of Soylent Green, but the corpses that are sent en masse to The Exchange for processing don’t get otherwise cleaned, so it would be another nice, hygienic worldbuilding hint.

In the scene, the disrobing is taken as a solemn moment, but Sol is distracted from thinking too hard about it by the appearance of an orange floodlight.

That orange floodlight

During the disrobing, a floodlight of Sol’s favorite color illuminates. I complained briefly about this in the prior post, but what’s causing this light to come on? The usher is back at intake, so it’s not him. Maybe the light is on a timer, but that seems hard for the attendants to manage against the other things that need to happen.

Also, why does it come on at this moment in the ceremony? It might be a deliberate distraction for Sol, meant to focus his attention on the meaning of the ceremony rather than the mundane disrobing, but if so, you might think that the light should illuminate before the disrobing begins. But recall that it’s only happenstance that Sol’s favorite color is the warm and flattering orange. If a patient’s favorite color happened to be blue—which is the most popular color around the world—it would grant everything in theater 11 a cool, detached appearance, and give the patient’s own skin a deathly pallor. Not great for the experience.

Much better would be to keep the custom-color flood light off until the overture begins—when the patient’s attention is not drawn to themselves but focused on the chamber around them—and illuminate it with the rise of the music, in response to the usher’s controls. This would maximize the impact of the color on Sol’s emotional state while not making his own skin and the attendants look off-putting.

Getting onto the bed

Once disrobed, the attendants help Sol onto the bed. How they do this is left off-screen, but it’s a non-trivial problem since as you can see in the screen shot, Sol is 5’7″ and the bed height is well above his waist. Hopefully there’s a set of retractable steps under the bed skirt that can make this accessible to Sol without his having to be hoisted up by the attendants, which would be undignified.


Once in bed, the attendants provide the “hemlock,” (which is what I’m calling the deadly draught they provide in homage to the death of Socrates) and Sol drinks.

We don’t see the glass in the room prior to its being handed to him, but I imagine since this is the point of no return, it bears some attention. Should it be waiting already poured, or should he watch it being poured? Should be pour it himself? If poured, should it be from a gold, porcelain, or glass pitcher? Should there be a tray? Where should all this be staged?

For materials, gold is a good funereal symbol for never tarnishing, but might be too tempting a theft target for poverty-stricken citizens. Stoneware has a nice connotation of being of-the-earth, but is a poor choice for being opaque and here implying its contents are something to be hidden. So I’d recommend a simple glass pitcher that emphasizes clarity. The Toyo pitcher shown below has no handle and so requires two hands to operate, granting a ceremonial, human feel to the act of pouring. While we’re at it, ditch the footed highball glass for a stange or zombie glass to match the pitcher’s simplicity. Have them sitting on an end table on a tray at the side of the bed in their own pool of light and have the attendant pour and hand the glass to the patient. When they depart the chamber one attendant can take the tray out with them for cleaning, and the other can push the end table back under the bed.

Another argument for delaying the floodlight until the overture is that light can change the apparent color of the drink. It just so happens that Sol’s orange flatters the amber color of the draught, but if his favorite color had been, say, red, it might have made the drink look like a wicked ink. Keep the floodlight off to keep the apparent color of the drink something pleasant and unthreatening.

Sol makes no expression in response to the taste of the hemlock, so we have no clue how it’s flavored, but it’s in everyone’s interest that it be palatable, if not pleasant. It would have been a nice touch at intake to ask him to select from a menu of favorite flavors as well, especially to hide the taste of whatever other drugs need to be mixed in.

Once Sol has imbibed the draught, he lies back on the wedge pillow and the attendants draw a sheet up to his chest.

As the orange floodlight dims to a candlelight whisper, Sol waits for the overture to begin as the attendants depart.


Alone at last, Sol is treated to an audio overture as the drugs work through his system. The music is the principal theme from the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pathétique.” He stares up at the ceiling, bathed in his favorite color, listening to his favorite music unaware that things are about to become even more spectacular.


The overture complete (and, per my ecstasy meat theory, the MDMA and opiates have kicked in) the audio-visual presentation starts. The music changes to the first movement of Beethoven’s “Symphony #6 (The Pastoral),” and a very wide-angle video presentation begins on the wrap-around screen above him, starting with a verdant field of tulips blowing in a breeze.

The tiny angles in the screen edge hint that this is meant to work exactly like Cinerama with multiple projectors and stitched edges, though the lack of deformation and perspective in the images is all wrong.

It later transitions to images of fauna, other flora, wholesome livestock, and sunsets—all romantic scenes of a highly-selective-memory of Earth’s heyday. It’s important to remember that audiences in 1973 may have heard of a Cinerama display like this, but few of them had seen it. And the 180+° screen seen in the film dwarfs the original Cinerama 2.65:1 display ratio. So though folks today may yawn at this in comparison to IMAX or Oculus AR displays, at the time this would have seemed very sci-fi.

From our vantage point, it all seems a little cruel, bathing Sol in scenes of what he cannot have and what for him will never be, but maybe it points at an afterlife where the things you recall fondly will be yours again, in abundance. (Hey that seems like a formula for every afterlife story.) Mixed with the drugs in Sol’s system, it would help flood his mind and body with euphoria and all the pleasant neurotransmitters that entails.

I minimize this gif because it is so freaking distracting, as it would be to users.

At a few minutes into the presentation, the SPEAKING PERMITTED light of the beneficiaries interface begins blinking, and the patient is able to talk to their loved ones. This would interrupt the spectacle of the display, but add a flood of additional emotions (and thereby hormones) from heartfelt declarations of love and farewell. Immediately afterward “Morning Mood” from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite #1” plays as biophilic videos play: Alpine mountainscapes with grazing donkeys, tarns with floral banks. Finally it segues to scenes depicting the end-of-a-day: A sunset over waves crashing on the black rocks of a pristine West Coast beach, another sun sets through gaps in swiftly drifting clouds.

The screen fades to black as “Aase’s Death” plays from the “Peer Gynt Suite.” In the film, this is the point where Sol shares the Dark Secret and tells Thorn he must go the Exchange and provide proof to the elders. (Ugh. Screenwriters, again, if this was so important, why did he wait until this moment—which he was not sure would come—to convey this information? It makes no sense. But I digress.)

Psst…did you know the namesake of the James Webb telescope was a filthy homophobe? Now you do.

The camera is all close up in their faces for this final beat, so we don’t know what is playing on the screen, but I’d like to think it’s images of stars and nebulae to evoke not just the end of a terrestrial day, but a connection to things that by comparison seem eternal, everlasting.

Communication signals

The dialogue makes me realize another signal is missing for Sol, that is, how does he know when the audio channel to the observation room is open? Now, it would be nice if the audio channel were tied to the state of the viewing portal. That is, audio is connected when the portal is open and they can see each other; and off when the portal is closed. But, we know that Soylent wants the usher to have control of the channels to silence either party at will, so in lieu of that, let’s give some signal to Sol near the observation window to let him know when the audio channel is open. It should look akin to the interface on the other side in the observation room, but it would have to be redesigned for a 10-foot rather than 2-foot experience. It would also have to not be distracting to the patient when their attention is on the cinerama, so a dim, backlit visual might be enough for sighted users. Separate and custom-designed rooms should be built for differently abled patients.

After his plea to Thorn, Sol finally passes, marking the end of his experience with the Thanatorium.

All told, Sol’s experience suits his goals fairly well. He wants a sense of dignity, spectacle, importance, connection to his loved one, and otherworldliness that he receives. There are little things to fix throughout, as mentioned in the text.

My biggest criticism is of being physically separated from loved ones, when a held hand might take the edge off of the fear of death and add a nice dose of oxytocin to the result, but Soylent’s interest is more about maximizing control of the end product, so this, full of risk, would not make it into the final design.