So of the bumper crop of our current dystopias, the COVID-19 novel coronavirus feels the most pressing. While everyone is washing their hands regularly, working from home, conducting social isolation, and trying like hell not to touch their face, (you’re doing all these things, right?) they are also downloading and processing the pandemic via cinema. Contagion, in particular, from 2011, seems to be the film people are scrambling to find and watch. These films are more bio-fi than sci-fi, but these interfaces are clearly in the realm of Fictional User Interfaces, and regular readers know I often go off-leash to follow interests wherever they lead.
While it’s a questionable kind of global-disaster therapy (Does it make people too paranoid? Does it give people false hope? Does it model the right behavior?) it makes me want to investigate the displays from such movies.
What diegetic questions do these displays hope to answer?
How well do the Fictional User Interfaces help answer these questions?
What ideally should these characters/teams be monitoring?
Are there better forms for this task?
And while there are lots of possible displays for all the permutations of these questions, I expect the anchor display will be what tvtropes.com calls the Spreading Disaster Map Graphic.
You know this one. Map starts with a few red dots labeled “today,” then transitions to another version with more red dots labeled something like “a little future,” and then landing to a final version absolutely covered in red death with a label like, “a little more future.” Holy wow, we think, the stakes are dire.
TV tropes has a number of examples. The list below are those that are closer to sci-fi and filtered for disease vectors rather than, say, human armies.
The Andromeda Strain
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Jurassic World (kind of. Not armies but Indominus Rexes)
The Killer That Stalked New York
Edge of Tomorrow
Moana (no, really)
But I suspect they don’t have them all. (Like, where are all the zombie movies?) So scour your brain for examples of these kinds of interfaces, and comment so I have a good sample to work from.
I’m sorry. I could have sworn in advance that this would be a very quick post. One or two paragraphs.
Exiting his building’s elevator, Deckard nervously pulls a key to his apartment from his wallet. The key is similar to a credit card. He inserts one end into a horizontal slot above the doorknob, and it quickly *beeps*, approving the key. He withdraws the key and opens the door.
…is fine, mostly. This is like a regular key, i.e. a physical token that is presented to the door to be read, and access granted or denied. If the interaction took longer than 0.1 second it would be important to indicate that the system was processing input, but it happens nearly instantaneously in the scene.
A complete review would need to evaluate other use cases.
How does it help users recover when the card is inserted incorrectly?
How does it reject a user when it is not the right key or the key has degraded too far to be read?
But of what we do see: the affordance is clear, being associated with the doorknob. The constraints help him know the card goes in lengthwise. The arrows help indicate which way is up and the proper orientation of the card. It could be worse.
A better interaction might arguably be no interaction, where he can just approach the door, and a key in his pocket is passively read, and he can just walk through. It would still need a second factor for additional security, and thinking through the exception use cases; but even if we nailed it, the new scene wouldn’t give him something to nervously fumble because Rachel is there, unnerving him. That’s a really charming character moment, so let’s give it a pass for the movie.
A small LED would help it be more accessible to deaf users to know if the key has been accepted or rejected.
The key has some printing on it. It includes the set of five arrows pointing the direction the key must be inserted. Better would be a key that either used physical constraints to make it impossible to insert the card incorrectly or to build the technology such that it could be read in any way it is inserted.
The rest of the card has numerals printed in MICR and words printed in a derived-from-MICR font like Data70. (MICR proper just has numerals.) MICR was designed such that the blobs on the letterforms, printed in magnetic ink, would be more easily detectible by a magnetic reader. It was seen as “computery” in the 1970s and 1980s (maybe still to some degree today) but does not make a lot of sense here when that part of the card is not available to the reader.
Also on the key is his name, R. DECKARD. This might be useful to return the key to its rightful owner, but like the elevator passphrase, it needlessly shares personally identifiable information of its owner. A thief who found this key could do some social hacking with the name and gain access to his apartment. There is another possible solution for getting the key back to him if lost, discussed below.
The numbers underneath his name are hard to read, but a close read of the still frame and correlation across various prop recreations seem to agree it reads
015 91077 VP45 66-4020
While most of this looks like nonsense, the five-digit number in the upper right is obviously a ZIP code, which resolves to Arcadia, California, which is a city in Los Angeles county, where Blade Runner is meant to take place.
Though a ZIP code describes quite a large area, between this and the surname, it’s providing a potential identity thief too much.
Return if found?
There are also some Japanese characters and numbers on the graphic beneath his thumb. It’s impossible to read in the screen grab.
If I was consulting on this, I’d recommend—after removing the ZIP code—that this be how to return they key if it is found, so that it could be forwarded, by the company, to the owner. All the company would have to do is cross-reference the GUID on the key to the owner. It would be a nice nod to the larger world.
You can see there are also holes punched in the card. (re: the light dots in the shadow in the above still.) They must not be used in this interaction because his thumb is covering so much of them. They might provide an additional layer of data, like the early mechanical key card systems. This doesn’t satisfy either of the other aspects of multifactor authentication, though, since it’s still part of the same physical token.
I like to think this is evidence that this card works something like a Multipass from The Fifth Element, providing identity for a wide variety of services which may have different types of readers. We just don’t see it in the film.
Which brings us, as so many things do in sci-fi interfaces, back to multi-factor authentication. The door would be more secure if it required two of the three factors. (Thank you Seth Rosenblatt and Jason Cipriani for this well-worded rule-of-thumb)
Knowledge (something the user and only the user knows)
Possession (something the user and only the user has)
Inherence (something the user and only the user is)
The key counts as a possession factor. Given the scene just before in the elevator, the second factor could be another voiceprint for inherence. It might be funny to have him say the same phrase I suggested in that post, “Have you considered life in the offworld colonies?” with more contempt or even embarrassment that he has to say something that demeaning in front of Rachel.
Now, I’d guess most people in the audience secure their own homes simply with a key. More security is available to anyone with the money, but economics and the added steps for daily usage prevent us from adopting more. So, adding second factor, while more secure, might read to the audience as an indicator of wealth, paranoia, or of living in a surveillance state, none of which would really fit Blade Runner or Deckard. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it.
This is one of those interactions that happens over a few seconds in the movie, but turns out to be quite deep—and broken—on inspection.
When Deckard enters his building’s dark, padded elevator, a flat voice announces, “Voice print identification. Your floor number, please.” He presses a dark panel, which lights up in response. He presses the 9 and 7 keys on a keypad there as he says, “Deckard. 97.” The voice immediately responds, “97. Thank you.” As the elevator moves, the interface confirms the direction of travel with gentle rising tones that correspond to the floor numbers (mod 10), which are shown rising up a 7-segment LED display. We see a green projection of the floor numbers cross Deckard’s face for a bit until, exhausted, he leans against the wall and out of the projection. When he gets to his floor, the door opens and the panel goes dark.
A need for speed
An aside: To make 97 floors in 20 seconds you have to be traveling at an average of around 47 miles per hour. That’s not unheard of today. Mashable says in a 2014 article about the world’s fastest elevators that the Hitachi elevators in Guangzhou CTF Finance Building reach up to 45 miles per hour. But including acceleration and deceleration adds to the total time, so it takes the Hitachi elevators around 43 seconds to go from the ground floor to their 95th floor. If 97 is Deckard’s floor, it’s got to be accelerating and decelerating incredibly quickly. His body doesn’t appear to be suffering those kinds of Gs, so unless they have managed to upend Newton’s basic laws of motion, something in this scene is not right. As usual, I digress.
The input control is OK
The panel design is nice and was surprising in 1982, because few people had ridden in elevators serving nearly a hundred floors. And while most in-elevator panels have a single button per floor, it would have been an overwhelming UI to present the rider of this Blade Runner complex with 100 floor buttons plus the usual open door, close door, emergency alert buttons, etc. A panel that allows combinatorial inputs reduces the number of elements that must be displayed and processed by the user, even if it slows things down, introduces cognitive overhead, and adds the need for error-handling. Such systems need a “commit” control that allows them to review, edit, and confirm the sequence, to distinguish, say, “97” from “9” and “7.” Not such an issue from the 1st floor, but a frustration from 10–96. It’s not clear those controls are part of this input.
I’m a fan of destination dispatch elevator systems that increase efficiency (with caveats) by asking riders to indicate their floor outside the elevator and letting the algorithm organize passengers into efficient groups, but that only works for banks of elevators. I get the sense Deckard’s building is a little too low-rent for such luxuries. There is just one in his building, and in-elevator controls work fine for those situations, even if they slow things down a bit.
The feedback is OK
The feedback of the floors is kind of nice in that the 7-segment numbers rise up helping to convey the direction of movement. There is also a subtle, repeating, rising series of tones that accompany the display. Most modern elevators rely on the numeracy of its passengers and their sense of equilibrium to convey this information, but sure, this is another way to do it. Also, it would be nice if the voice system would, for the visually impaired, say the floor number when the door opens.
Though the projection is dumb
I’m not sure why the little green projection of the floor numbers runs across Deckard’s face. Is it just a filmmaker’s conceit, like the genetic code that gets projected across the velociraptors head in Jurassic Park?
Or is it meant to be read as diegetic, that is, that there is a projector in the elevator, spraying the floor numbers across the faces of its riders? True to the New Criticism stance of this blog, I try very hard to presume that everything is diegetic, but I just can’t make that make sense. There would be much better ways to increase the visibility of the floor numbers, and I can’t come up with any other convincing reason why this would exist.
But really, it falls apart on the interaction details
Lastly, this interaction. First, let’s give it credit where credit is due. The elevator speaks clearly and understands Deckard perfectly. No surprise, since it only needs to understand a very limited number of utterances. It’s also nice that it’s polite without being too cheery about it. People in LA circa 2019 may have had a bad day and not have time for that shit.
Where’s the wake word?
But where’s the wake word? This is a phrase like “OK elevator” or “Hey lift” that signals to the natural language system that the user is talking to the elevator and not themselves, or another person in the elevator, or even on the phone. General AI exists in the Blade Runner world, and that might allow an elevator to use contextual cues to suss this out, but there are zero clues in the film that this elevator is sentient.
There are of course other possible, implicit “wake words.” A motion detector, proximity sensor, or even weight sensor could infer that a human is present, and start the elevator listening. But with any of these implicit “wake words,” you’d still need feedback for the user to know when it was listening. And some way to help them regain attention if they got the first interaction wrong, and there would be zero affordances for this. So really, making an explicit wake word is the right way to go.
It might be that touching the number panel is the attention signal. Touch it, and the elevator listens for a few seconds. That fits in with the events in the scene, anyway. The problem with that is the redundancy. (See below.) So if the solution was pressing a button, it should just be a “talk” button rather than a numeric keypad.
It may be that the elevator is always listening, which is a little dark and would stifle any conversation in the elevator less everyone end up stuck in the basement, but this seems very error prone and unlikely.
This issue is similar to the one discussed in Make It So Chapter 5, “Gestural Interfaces” where I discussed how a user tells a computer they are communicating to it with gestures, and when they aren’t.
Where are the paralinguistics?
Humans provide lots of signals to one another, outside of the meaning of what is actually being said. These communication signals are called paralinguistics, and one of those that commonly appears in modern voice assistants is feedback that the system is listening. In the Google Assistant, for example, the dots let you know when it’s listening to silence and when it’s hearing your voice, providing implicit confirmation to the user that the system can hear them. (Parsing the words, understanding the meaning, and understanding the intent are separate, subsequent issues.)
Fixing this in Blade Runner could be as simple as turning on a red LED when the elevator is listening, and varying the brightness with Deckard’s volume. Maybe add chimes to indicate the starting-to-listen and no-longer-listening moments. This elevator doesn’t have anything like that, and it ought to.
Why the redundancy?
Next, why would Deckard need to push buttons to indicate “97” even while he’s saying the same number as part of the voice print? Sure, it could be that the voice print system was added later and Deckard pushes the numbers out of habit. But that bit of backworlding doesn’t buy us much.
It might be a need for redundant, confirming input. This is useful when the feedback is obscure or the stakes are high, but this is a low-stakes situation. If he enters the wrong floor, he just has to enter the correct floor. It would also be easy to imagine the elevator would understand a correction mid-ride like “Oh wait. Elevator, I need some ice. Let’s go to 93 instead.” So this is not an interaction that needs redundancy.
It’s very nice to have the discrete input as accessibility for people who cannot speak, or who have an accent that is unrecognizable to the system, or as a graceful degradation in case the speech recognition fails, but Deckard doesn’t fit any of this. He would just enter and speak his floor.
Why the personally identifiable information?
If we were designing a system and we needed, for security, a voice print, we should protect the privacy of the rider by not requiring personally identifiable information. It’s easy to imagine the spoken name being abused by stalkers and identity thieves riding the elevator with him. (And let’s not forget there is a stalker on the elevator with him in this very scene.)
Better would be some generic phrase that stresses the parts of speech that a voiceprint system would find most effective in distinguishing people.
Tucker Saxon has written an article for VoiceIt called “Voiceprint Phrases.” In it he notes that a good voiceprint phrase needs some minimum number of non-repeating phonemes. In their case, it’s ten. A surname and a number is rarely going to provide that. “Deckard. 97,” happens to have exactly 10, but if he lived on the 2nd floor, it wouldn’t. Plus, it has that personally identifiable information, so is a non-starter.
What would be a better voiceprint phrase for this scene? Some of Saxon’s examples in the article include, “Never forget tomorrow is a new day” and “Today is a nice day to go for a walk.” While the system doesn’t care about the meaning of the phrase, the humans using it would be primed by the content, and so it would just add to the dystopia of the scene if Deckard had to utter one of these sunshine-and-rainbows phrases in an elevator that was probably an uncleaned murder scene. but I think we can do it one better.
(Hey Tucker, I would love use VoiceIt’s tools to craft a confirmed voiceprint phrase, but the signup requires that I permit your company to market to me via phone and email even though I’m just a hobbyist user, so…hard no.)
Here is an alternate interaction that would have solved a lot of these problems.
Voice print identification, please.
Have you considered life in the offworld colonies?
Which is just a punch to the gut considering Deckard is stuck here and he knows he’s stuck, and it’s salt on the wound to have to repeat fucking advertising just to get home for a drink.
In total, this scene zooms by and the audience knows how to read it, and for that, it’s fine. (And really, it’s just a setup for the moment that happens right after the elevator door opens. No spoilers.) But on close inspection, from the perspective of modern interaction design, it needs a lot of work.
“Tunnel in the Sky” is the name of a 1955 Robert Heinlein novel that has nothing to do with this post. It is also the title of the following illustration by Muscovite digital artist Vladimir Manyukhin, which also has nothing to do with this post, but is gorgeous and evocative, and included here solely for visual interest.
Instead, this post is about the piloting display of the same name, and written specifically to sci-fi interface designers.
Last week in reviewing the spinners in Blade Runner, I included mention and a passing critique of the tunnel-in-the-sky display that sits in front of the pilot. While publishing, I realized that I’d seen this a handful of other times in sci-fi, and so I decided to do more focused (read: Internet) research about it. Turns out it’s a real thing, and it’s been studied and refined a lot over the past 60 years, and there are some important details to getting one right.
Though I looked at a lot of sources for this article, I must give a shout-out to Max Mulder of TU Delft. (Hallo, TU Delft!) Mulder’s PhD thesis paper from 1999 on the subject is truly a marvel of research and analysis, and it pulls in one of my favorite nerd topics: Cybernetics. Throughout this post I rely heavily on his paper, and you could go down many worse rabbit holes than cybernetics. n.b., it is not about cyborgs. Per se. Thank you, Max.
I’m going to breeze through the history, issues, and elements from the perspective of sci-fi interfaces, and then return to the three examples in the survey. If you want to go really in depth on the topic (and encounter awesome words like “psychophysics” and “egomotion” in their natural habitat), Mulder’s paper is available online for free from researchgate.net: “Cybernetics of Tunnel-in-the-Sky Displays.”
What the heck is it?
A tunnel-in-the-sky display assists pilots, helping them know where their aircraft is in relation to an ideal flight path. It consists of a set of similar shapes projected out into 3D space, circumscribing the ideal path. The pilot monitors their aircraft’s trajectory through this tunnel, and makes course corrections as they fly to keep themselves near its center.
Please note that throughout this post, I will spell out the lengthy phrase “tunnel-in-the-sky” because the acronym is pointlessly distracting.
In 1973, Volkmar Wilckens was a research engineer and experimental test pilot for the German Research and Testing Institute for Aerospace (now called the German Aerospace Center). He was doing a lot of thinking about flight safety in all-weather conditions, and came up with an idea. In his paper “Improvements In Pilot/Aircraft-Integration by Advanced Contact Analog Displays,” he sort of says, “Hey, it’s hard to put all the information from all the instruments together in your head and use that to fly, especially when you’re stressed out and flying conditions are crap. What if we took that data and rolled it up into a single easy-to-use display?” Figure 6 is his comp of just such a system. It was tested thoroughly in simulators and shown to improve pilot performance by making the key information (attitude, flight-path and position) perceivable rather than readable. It also enabled the pilot greater agency, by not having them just follow rules after instrument readings, but empowering them to navigate multiple variables within parameters to stay on target.
In Wilckens’ Fig. 6, above, you can see the basics of what would wind up on sci-fi screens decades later: shapes repeated into 3D space ahead of the aircraft to give the pilot a sense of an ideal path through the air. Stay in the tunnel and keep the plane safe.
Mulder notes that the next landmark developments come from the work of Arthur Grunwald & S. J. Merhav between 1976–1978. Their research illustrates the importance of augmenting the display and of including a preview of the aircraft in the display. They called this preview the Flight Path Predictor, or FPS. I’ve also seen it called the birdie in more modern papers, which is a lot more charming. It’s that plus symbol in the Grunwald illustration, below. Later in 1984, Grunwald also showed that a heads-up-display increased precision adhering to a curved path. So, HUDs good.
I have also seen lots of examples of—but cannot find the research provenance for—tools for helping the pilot stay centered, such as a “ghost” reticle at the center of each frame, or alternately brackets around the FPP, called the Flight Director Box, that the pilot can align to the corners of the frames. (I’ll just reference the brackets. Gestalt be damned!) The value of the birdie combined with the brackets seems very great, so though I can’t cite their inventor, and it wasn’t in Mulder’s thesis, I’ll include them as canon.
The takeaway from the history is really that these displays have a rich and studied history. The pattern has a high confidence.
Elements of an archetypical tunnel-in-the-sky display
There are lots of nuances that have been studied for these displays. Take for example the effect that angling the frames have on pilot banking, and the perfect time offset to nudge pilot behavior closer to ideal banking. For the purposes of sci-fi interfaces, however, we can reduce the critical components of the real world pattern down to four.
Square shapes (called frames) extending into the distance that describe an ideal path through space
The frame should be about five times the width of the craft. (The birdie you see below is not proportional and I don’t think it’s standard that they are.)
The distances between frames will change with speed, but be set such that the pilot encounters a new one every three seconds.
The frames should adopt perspective as if they were in the world, being perpendicular to the flight path. They should not face the display.
The frames should tilt, or bank, on curves.
The tunnel only needs to extend so far, about 20 seconds ahead in the flight path. This makes for about 6 frames visible at a time.
An aircraft reference symbol or Flight Path Predictor Symbol (FPS, or “birdie”) that predicts where the plane will be when it meets the position of the nearest frame. It can appear off-facing in relation to the cockpit.
These are often rendered as two L shapes turned base-to-base with some space between them. (See one such symbol in the Snow example above.)
Sometimes (and more intuitively, imho) as a circle with short lines extending out the sides and the top. Like a cartoon butt of a plane. (See below.)
Contour lines connect matching corners across frames
A horizon line
There are of course lots of other bits of information that a pilot needs. Altitude and speed, for example. If you’re feeling ambitious, and want more than those four, there are other details directly related to steering that may help a pilot.
Degree-of-vertical-deviation indicator at a side edge
Degree-of-horizontal-deviation indicator at the top edge
Center-of-frame indicator, such as a reticle, appearing in the upcoming frame
A path predictor
Some sense of objects in the environment: If the display is a heads-up display, this can be a live view. If it is a separate screen, some stylized representation what the pilot would see if the display was superimposed onto their view.
What the risk is when off path: Just fuel? Passenger comfort? This is most important if that risk is imminent (collision with another craft, mountain) but then we’re starting to get agentive and I said we wouldn’t go there, so *crumbles up paper, tosses it*.
I haven’t seen a study showing efficacy of color and shading and line scale to provide additional cues, but look closely at that comp and you’ll see…
The background has been level-adjusted to increase contrast with the heads-up display
A dark outline around the white birdie and brackets to help visually distinguish them from the green lines and the clouds
A shadow under the birdie and brackets onto the frames and contours as an additional signal of 3D position
Contour lines diminishing in size as they extend into the distance, adding an additional perspective cue and limiting the amount of contour to the 20 second extents.
What can you play with when designing one in sci-fi?
Everything, of course. Signaling future-ness means extending known patterns, and sci-fi doesn’t answer to usability. Extend for story, extend for spectacle, extend for overwhelmedness. You know your job better than me. But if you want to keep a foot in believability, you should understand the point of each thing as you modify it and try not to lose that.
Each frame serves as a mini-game, challenging the pilot to meet its center. Once that frame passes, that game is done and the next one is the new goal. Frames describe the near term. Having corners to the frame shape helps convey banking better. Circles would hide banking.
Contour lines, if well designed, help describe the overall path and disambiguate the stack of frames. (As does lighting and shading and careful visual design, see above.) Contour lines convey the shape of the overall path and help guide steering between frames. Kind of like how you’d need to see the whole curve before drifitng your car through one, the contour lines help the pilot plan for the near future.
The birdie and brackets are what a pilot uses to know how close to the center they are. The birdie needs a center point. The brackets need to match the corners of the frame. Without these, it’s easier to drift off center.
A horizon line provides feedback for when the plane is banked.
Since I mentioned that each frame acts as a mini-game, a word of caution: Just as you should be skeptical when looking to sci-fi, you should be skeptical when looking to games for their interfaces. The simulator which is most known for accuracy (Microsoft Flight Simulator) doesn’t appear to have a tunnel-in-the-sky display, and other categories of games may not be optimizing for usability as much as just plain fun, with the risk of crashing your virtual craft just being part of the risk. That’s not an acceptable outcome in real-world piloting. So, be cautious considering game interfaces as models for this, either.
So now let’s look at the three examples of sci-fi tunnel-in-the-sky displays in chronological order of release, and see how they fare.
Three examples from sci-fi
So with those ideal components in mind, let’s look back at those three examples in the survey.
Quick aside on the Blade Runner interface: The spike at the top and the bottom of the frame help in straight tunnels to serve as a horizontal degree-of-deviation indicator. It would not help as much in curved tunnels, and is missing a matching vertical degree-of-deviation indicator. Unless that’s handled automatically, like a car on a road, its absence is notable.
Some obvious things we see missing from all of them are the birdie, the box, and the contour lines. Why is this? My guess is that the computational power in the 1976 was not enough to manage those extra lines, and Ridley Scott just went with the frames. Then, once the trope had been established in a blockbuster, designers just kept repeating the trope rather than looking to see how it worked in the real world, or having the time to work through the interaction logic. So let me say:
Without the birdie and box, the pilot has far too much leeway to make mistakes. And in sci-fi contexts, where the tunnel-in-the-sky display is shown mostly during critical ship maneuvers, their absence is glaring.
Also the lack of contour lines might not seem as important, since the screens typically aren’t shown for very long, but when they twist in crazy ways they should help signal the difficulty of the task ahead of the pilot very quickly.
Note that sci-fi will almost certainly encounter problems that real-world researchers will not have needed to consider, and so there’s plenty of room for imagination and additional design. Imagine helping a pilot…
Navigating the weird spacetime around a singularity
Bouncing close to a supernova while in hyperspace
Dodging chunks of spaceship, the bodies of your fallen comrades, and rising plasma bombs as you pilot shuttlecraft to safety on the planet below
AI on the ships that can predict complex flight paths and even modify them in real time, and even assist with it all
Needing to have the tunnel be occluded by objects visible in a heads up display, such as when a pilot is maneuvering amongst an impossibly-dense asteroid field.
…to name a few off my head. These things don’t happen in the real world, so would be novel design challenges for the sci-fi interface designer.
So, now we have a deeper basis for discussing, critiquing, and designing sci-fi tunnel-in-the-sky displays. If you are an aeronautic engineer, and have some more detail, let me hear it! I’d love for this to be a good general reference for sci-fi interface designers.
If you are a fan, and can provide other examples in the comments, it would be great to see other ones to compare.
Happy flying, and see you back in Blade Runner in the next post.
So the first Fritzes are now a thing. Before I went off on that awesome tangent, where were we? Oh that’s right. I was reviewing Blade Runner as part of a series on AI in sci-fi. I was just about to get to Spinners. Now vehicles are complicated things as they are, much less when they are navigating proper 3D space. Additionally, the police force is, ostensibly, a public service, which complicates things even further. So this will get lengthy. Still, I think I can get this down to eight or so subtopics.
In the distant future of 2019⸮, flying cars, called “spinners,” are a reality. They’re largely for the wealthy and powerful (including law enforcement). The main protagonist, Deckard, is only ever a passenger in a few over the course of the film. His partner Gaff flies one, though, so we have enough usage to review.
To pilot the spinner, Gaff keeps his hands on each handle of a split yoke. Within easy reach of his fingers are a few unlabeled buttons and small lights. Once we see him reach with his right thumb to press one of the buttons, but we don’t see any result, so it’s not clear what these buttons do. It’s nice that they don’t require him to take his hands off the controls. (This might seem like a prescient concept, but WP tells me the first non-horn wheel-mounted controls date back as far back as 1966.)
It is contextualizing to note the mode of agency here. That is, the controls are manual, with no AI offering assistance or acting as an agent. (The AI is in the passenger’s seat, lol fight me.) It appears to be up to Gaff to observe conditions, monitor displays, perform wayfinding, and keep the spinner on track.
Note that we never see what his feet are doing and never see him doing other things with his hands other than putting on a headset before lift-off. There are lots of other controls to the pilot’s left and in the console between seats, but we never see them in use. So, you know, approach with caution. There are a lot of unknowns here.
The spinner is more like a VTOL aircraft or helicopter than a spaceship. That is, it is constantly in the presence of planetary gravity and must overcome the constant resistance of air. So the standards I established in the piloting controls post are of only limited use to us here.
The vertical velocity, up or down. (Controlled by the angle of the control stick called the collective. The collective is to the left of the pilot’s hip when they are seated.)
The thrust. (Controlled by the twistgrip on the collective.)
Movement forward, rearward, left, and right. (Controlled with the stick in front of the pilot, called the cyclic.)
Yaw of the vehicle. (Controlled with the pair of antitorque pedals at the pilot’s feet.)
Since we don’t see Gaff when the spinner is moving up and down, let’s presume that the thing he’s gripping is like a Y-shaped cyclic, with lots of little additional controls around the handles. Then, if we presume he has a collective somewhere out of sight to his left and antitorque pedals at his feet, this interface meets modern helicopter standards for control. From the outside, those appear to be well mapped (collective up = helicopter up, cyclic right = helicopter right). Twist for thrust is a little weird, but it’s a standard and certainly learnable, as I recall from my motorcycling days. So let’s say it’s complete and convincing. Is it the best it could be? I’m not enough of an aeronautical engineer (read: not at all) to imagine better options, so let’s move along. I might have more to say if it was agentive.
There are two large screens in the dashboard. The one directly in front of Gaff shows a stylized depiction of the 3D surfaces around him as cyan highlights on a navy blue background. Approaching red shapes describe a pill-shaped tunnel-in-the-sky display. These have been tested since 1981 and found to provide higher tracking performance to ideal paths in manual flight, lower cognitive workload, and enhanced situational awareness. (https://arc.aiaa.org/doi/abs/10.2514/3.56119) So, this is believable and well done. I’m not sure that Gaff could readily use the 3D background to effectively understand the 3D terrain, but it is tertiary, after the real world and the tunnel display.
I have to say that it’s a frustrating anti-trope to run into again, but it must be said: If the spinner knows where the ship should be, and general artificial intelligence exists in this diegesis, why exactly are humans doing the piloting? Shouldn’t the spinner fly itself? But back to the interfaces…
Above the tunnel-in-the-sky display is a cyan 7-segment LED scroll display. In the gif above it displays “MAXIMUM SPEED” and later it provides some wayfinding text. I’m not sure how many different types of information it is meant to cycle through, but it sure would be a pain to wait for vital information to appear, and distracting to have to control it to get to the one you wanted.
There is also a vertical screen in the middle of the console listing cyan labels ALT, VEL, and PTCH. These match to altitude, velocity, and pitch variables, reinforcing the helicopter model. The yellow numbers below these labels change in the scene very slowly, and—remarkably for a four-second interface from 1982—do not appear to change randomly. That’s awesome.
But then, there’s a paragraph of cyan text in the middle of the screen that appears over the course of the scene, letter by letter. This animation calls unnecessary attention to itself. There are also smaller, thin screens in the pilot’s door that also continually scroll that same teeny tiny cyan text. I’m not sure WTF all this text is supposed to be, since it would be horribly distracting to a pilot. There are also a few rows of white LEDs with cylon-eye displays traveling back and forth. They are distracting, but at least they’re regular, and might be habituate-able and act as some sort of ambient display. Anyway, if we were building this thing for real, we’d want to eliminate these.
Lastly, at the bottom of the center screen are some unlabeled bar charts depicting some variables that appear to be wiggling randomly. So, like, only the top fifth of this screen can be lauded. The rest is fuigetry. *sigh* It’s hard to escape.
To help navigate the 3D space, pilots have a number of tools. First, there are windows where you expect windows to be in a car, and there are also glass panels under their feet. The movie doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but it’s clear in the scene where the spinner lifts off from the street level. These transparent panes surround pilots and passengers and allow them to track visual cues for landmarks and to identify collision threats.
The tunnel-in-the-sky display above is the most obvious wayfinding tool. Somehow Gaff has entered a destination, and the tunnel guides him where it needs to go. Since this entails a safe path through the air, it’s the most important display. Other bits of information (like the ALT, VEL, and PTCH in the center screen) should be oriented around it. This would make them glanceable, allowing Gaff glance to check them and quickly return his eyes to the windshield. In fact, we have to admit that a heads up display would allow Gaff to keep his attention where it needs to be rather than splitting it between the real world and these dashboard displays. Modern vehicle drivers are used to this split attention, and can manage it well enough. But I suspect that a HUD would be better.
There is also that crawling LED display above the tunnel-in-the-sky screen. In one scene it shows “SECTOR FOUR (4)…QUAD-” (we don’t get to see the end of this phrase) but it implies that one of the bits of information this scroll provides is a reminder of the name of the neighborhood you’re currently in. That really only helps if you’re way off course, and seems too low a fidelity for actual wayfinding assistance, but presuming the tunnel-in-the-sky is helping provide the rest of the wayfinding, this information is of secondary importance.
A special note about takeoff: ENVIRON CTR
The display sequence infamous for appearing in both Alien and Blade Runner happens as Gaff lifts off in a spinner early in the film. White all-cap letters label this blue screen “ENVIRON CTR,” above a grid of square characters. Then two 8-digit sequences “drop” down the center of the square grid: 92886599 | 95654085. Once they drop 3 rows, the background turns red, the grid disappears to be replaced by a big blinking label PURGE. Characters at the bottom read “24556 DR 5”, and don’t change.
After the spinner lifts off the display shows a complex diagram of a circle-within-a-circle, illustrating the increasing elevation from the ground below. The delightful worldbuilding thing about the sequence is that it is inscrutable, and legible only by a trained driver, yet gets full focus on screen. There’s not really enough information about the speculative engineering or functional constraints of the spinner to say why these screens would be necessary or useful. I have a suspicion that a live camera view would be more useful than the circle-within-a-circle view, but gosh, it sure is cool. Here’s the shot from Alien, by the way, for easy comparison.
Of special note is a scene just before his call to Sebastian’s apartment. Deckard is sitting in his parked vehicle in a call with Bryant. A police spinner glides by and we hear an announcement over his loudspeaker, directed to Deckard’s vehicle saying, “This sector’s closed to ground traffic. What are you doing here?” From inside his vehicle, Deckard looks towards his video phone in the console (we never see if there is video, but he’s looking in that direction rather than out the window) and without touching a thing, responds defensively, “I’m working. What are you doing?” The policeman’s reply comes through the videophone’s speakers, “Arresting you, that’s what I’m doing.”
Note that Deckard did not have to answer the call or even put Bryant on hold. We don’t know what the police officer did on their end, but this interaction implies that the police can make an instant, intrusive audio connection with vehicles it finds suspicious. It’s so seamless it will slip by you if you don’t know to look for it, but it paints quite a picture of intercar communication. Can you imagine if our cars automatically shared an audio space with the cars around it?
Another aspect of the car is that it is an interface not just for the people using the car, but for the citizens observing or near the spinner as it goes about its business. There are a number of features that helps it act as an interface to the public.
Police exist as a social service, and the 995 repeated around the outside helps remind citizens of the number they can call in case of an emergency.
Modern patrol cars have beacons and sirens to tell other drivers to get out of the way when they are on urgent business. Police spinners are gravid with beacons, having 12 of them visible from the front alone. (See below.) As the spinner is taking off, yellow and blue beacons circle as a warning. This would be of no help to a blind person nearby, but the vehicle does make some incidental noise that serves as an audible warning.
The rich light strip makes sense because it has such a greater range of movement than ground-based cars, and needs more attention grabbing power. Another nice touch is that, since the spinner can be above people, there are also beacons on the chassis.
Upshot: Spinners do well
So, all in all, the spinner fares quite well on close inspection. It builds on known models of piloting, shows mostly-relevant data, uses known best practices for assistance, and has a lot of well-considered surface features for citizens.
Now if only I could figure out why they’re called spinners.
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 I Am Mother, Spider Man: Far From Home, and Men in Black: International.
The winner of the Best Interfaces award for 2020 is Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Spider-Man: Far From Home
In the second 2019 nominee movie from the MCU, Peter Parker fails to have a normal summer studying abroad in Europe. He witnesses what he thinks are elemental monsters wreaking havoc on popular tourist cities, and a new superhero named Mysterio fighting them. Over the course of the film, Parker and his Scoobys discover the terrible truth before defeating and exposing the real bad guy. In the end, Parker learns to accept Tony Stark’s legacy, and then has his secret identity rudely outed.
Technology is at the very heart of this plot. And while it could have played out with lots of gee-whiz wiggling-chart nonsense, Far from Home puts in the work to make the interfaces believable, germane to the plot, and still pretty amazing. Sensational. Spectacular, even.
When you watch the film again, keep an eye out for Mysterio’s drone tracking screens, the solid comedy with the trigger-happy AI Edith, and even the lovely suit-design tools that echo Iron Man from over a decade before, and you’ll see why the film is nominated for Best Interfaces of the year.
I would love to extend my congratulations to all the studios who produced this work, but Hollywood is complicated and nothing makes it easy to identify exactly who is to credit for what. So let me extend my congratulations generally to the nominees and winners for an extraordinary body of work. Here’s looking to the next year of sci-fi cinema.
All of the movies nominated for other awards were presented for an Audience Choice award. Across social media, the readership was invited to vote for their favorite, and the results tallied. The winner of the Audience Choice award for 2020 is Avengers: Endgame.
Avengers: Endgame is an indie feelgood about a group of friends who go rock hunting together. Just kidding, of course. Endgame is the biggest box-office movie of all time, earning 2.67 billion dollars worldwide and bringing to climax 11 years of filmmaking in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The story happens after Infinity War, where Thanos did “the snap” that disintegrated half of all life in the universe. Endgame sees the remaining Avengers build a time travel device in order to “undo” the snap, and along the way resolve some longstanding personal arcs.
Interfaces don’t get as much screen time as they have in preceding films, but the ones we do see are lovely. They include some elegant gestural interfaces, like when Thor snaps a gag onto Loki’s mouth, or the Iron Gauntlet that automagically reconfigures itself to fit Hulk’s massive fist. The interfaces even craft emotional beats, as when Thor successfully reclaims Mjolnir from the past. No really, I sniffed.
One of the most subtle feats of the film is how it builds on the groundwork laid in the preceding 21 movies. It doesn’t need to take pains to explain the heads-up display that smoothly guides Avengers as they freefall through the quantum sponge, because the audience will almost certainly have seen the Iron HUD before.
Endgame’s interfaces help tell the story of heroes using every tool at their disposal to defeat one of the MCU’s worst, most Malthusian villains.
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 Alita: Battle Angel, Avengers: Endgame, and Captive State.
The winner of the Best Narrative award for 2020 is Captive State.
After an alien occupation, most of humanity falls in line with the oppressors. But not everyone. Captive State tells the story of a resistance movement bent on freeing humanity and saving the earth from ruthless alien capitalists.
The interfaces in the movie show how “the Legislature” (as the aliens are called) and their human lackeys manage to keep humanity oppressed with drones and tracking “bugs”, as well as the scrappy resistance fighters’ tools for striking back.
This thriller is full of twists and surprises, and its interface designs are compelling and terrifyingly believable, earning its nomination for a Fritz award.
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 Ad Astra, High Life, and X-Men: Dark Phoenix.
The winner of the Best Believable award for 2020 is Ad Astra.
Sometime in the near future, Roy McBridge heads to Mars to find his father and see if he is responsible for immense electrical surges that have been damaging the earth. His journey is troubled by murderous moon pirates, frenzied space baboons, Roy’s unexpected emotions, and the aforementioned surges.
Much of the technology is incidental yet still quite convincing and usable. His bedside news alarm, the various briefing slates, and interplanetary message pads. There are a lot of translucent screens throughout, but that’s a grandfathered trope by now.
By the time Roy reunites with his father and then returns to earth, he and the audience have been through the wringer. The technology is not the point of the story, but it helps tell that story in a very well-done way.
I have wanted to do this for about 6 years. I began imagining it as a thing on an actual stage with physical awards and a sponsor and an academy of hundreds. But things kept getting in the way of the big-production version, (as you can tell by, you know, the lack of any awards from 2014 until now). So in 2019, I thought about what the minimum-delightful version might be, and I’m happy that this was the trick that finally worked.
And tonight’s the night. Alongside the 92nd Academy Awards happening in the Dolby Theatre, in Los Angeles, California, I’ll be announcing five awards. For my RSS subscribers (about half of you), I’ll make a short post for each award that will wind up in your readers, a little less than an hour apart each. For those who follow social media notifications to the site, notifications are timed to go out just after the posts are released. Finally, the final results will be documented as a page that will be part of the persistent navigation on the site.
To kick off the “evening,” I’m first giving an honorary and posthumous award to Fritz Lang.
The Fritz award is named for him, since he was was the first filmmaker to put realistic interfaces in a sci-fi film, specifically his 1927 film Metropolis. (It was the first film I officially reviewed on the blog.) Lang was grappling with the larger role of technology in society, and his interfaces are wonderfully evocative and illustrative. Naming the awards after him honors his pioneering spirit and craft. Plus there’s a fun irony of “being on the fritz” being slang for broken technology. Just look at the wonder of this horrible “human router” interface from the film.
You can find full length films of Metropolis online, such as this high res copy posted by YouTube user Pedro Campos Miranda.
The Fritzes award honors the best interfaces in a full-length motion picture in the past year. Interfaces play a special (and for my money, under-appreciated) role in our movie-going experience, and are a craft all their own that does not otherwise receive focused recognition.
In this first year, awards will be given for Best Believable, Best Narrative, Audience Choice, and Best Interfaces (overall.) A group of critics and creators were consulted to watch the nominated films, compare their merits, and cast votes. Thanks to everyone who helped to get things to this point.