UX Podcast #25: @axbom and @beantin make it so

UX Podcast #25: @axbom and @beantin make it so

In this show we joined James and Per, interaction designers in Stockholm, Sweden. We talk to them about the background to Make It So, how the book came about, the influence that Sci-fi has on real world interfaces (and vice versa), and we nerd it up on a few occasions with some specific sci-fi examples.

All this whilst spanning three time zones (Stockholm, New York and San Franciso).

The Monster from the Id

The plastic educator has a side effect that serves as the mystery at the dark heart of the film. Use of the device gives rise to ““monsters from the id,”” which manifest while the user is asleep and attack the sleeper’’s enemies. Our first clue to the origins of the monster appear when Morbius explains the Krell gauges.

The encyclopedia registers a negligible amount of power.

“Gauges line the curving walls of the lab in stacks of two,” Morbius explains, ““Their calibrations appear to indicate that they are set in decimal series, each division recording exactly ten times as many amperes as the one preceding it. Ten times ten, times ten, times ten, times ten, times ten, on and on and on, row after row, gauge after gauge.””

He turns on the encyclopedia and a small bit of light appears on the first gauge. He turns on the plastic educator and the gauge shows a little more.

Asleep, Morbius’’ id manifests as a horrible monster.

This explanation helps to set up the awesome power of Morbius’’ monster when we see Morbius sleeping in the lab, and sixteen of the gauges are lit up. (It’s 10^16 times more powerful than an encyclopedia.) We know the (then) unbelievable technologies showed the barest sliver of a reading, and here they are blasting power to…somewhere.

After waking, both Morbius’’ monster and the power gauges fade.

The connection is severed as Morbius awakens, and within seconds the monster fades and the gauges behind him dim one by one.

Adams wrestles Morbius into the seat of the educator.

This dramatic link is underscored when the monster has come into the underground city to destroy Morbius, Adams, and Alta. As Adams wrestles Morbius down, we hear the angry pounding of the monster against the vault like doors, and see the gauges glowing and fluctuating wildly in the background.

The plastic educator

Dr. Morbius introduces the Krell “plastic educator,” saying, ““As far as I can make out, they used it to condition and test their young, in much the same way as we once employed finger painting among our kindergarten children.””

Morbius grasps the educator’s head mount.

The device is a station at which the learner sits. There is a large dashboard before him, in turn before a space enclosed in a tetrahedral encasement of plastic. To his right is a large column made of plastic with red and yellow graduations running up the side. Inside the column is a strange shape like a lathed accordion, terminating in a pulsing ring that indicates a level against the graduations. An arced panel hangs from the ceiling with other printed graduations with lines of light above and below. Blue neon squiggles blink randomly along the walls.

Morbius demonstrates proper placement of the educator interface.

To activate the station, the learner grasps a pair of curved metal arms, which are connected at a hinged base and tipped with crystal orbs. He leans forward, rests his forehead on a third arm, and pulls the pair of arms to rest on his temples. He turns a pair of dials on the dashboard before him, and the crystal orbs on all three arms glow, indicating that the headset is operational.

Morbius points to the intelligence indicator.

Adams and Doc try to guage their own IQs.

The device’’s immediate result is that the accordion shape inside the column rises such that the lit ring indicates the intelligence of the user. (To Adams’ and Doc’’s dismay, their readings are much lower than Morbius’.)

With the press of a lever Morbius manifests a thought visually.

The primary function of the device is for the user to make a thought of theirs manifest in the tetrahedral space. The user concentrates on the thing, and then pulls a lever at the base of the headset. A red ring at the base of the headset illuminates, and a material appears above a pedestal at the base of the tetrahedron. By concentrating, the user shapes this material into the desired thing. Morbius shapes it into an image of Alta. The image is a scaled, translucent, volumetric display of Alta, which moves and smiles just as she would.

The projection ceases immediately when the mechanism is removed.

To stop using the device and shut down the projection, the learner simply lifts the lever and removes the headset from contact, and the orbs, the red ring, and the volumetric projection all fade within moments.

Finished with his demonstration, Morbius turns the educator off.

Turning the dashboard off requires a user to turn two free-spinning dials that sit to each side of the headset inwards. The lights of the dashboard fade.

Krell technology

Morbius is the inheritor of a massive underground complex of technology once belonging to a race known as the Krell. As Morbius explains, ““In times long past, this planet was the home of a mighty and noble race of beings which called themselves the Krell….”

Morbius tours Adams and Doc through the Krell technopolis.

“Ethically as well as technologically, they were a million years ahead of humankind; for in unlocking the mysteries of nature they had conquered even their baser selves… “…seemingly on the threshold of some supreme accomplishment which was to have crowned their entire history, this all but divine race perished in a single night.

““In the centuries since that unexplained catastrophe even their cloud-piercing towers of glass and porcelain and adamantine steel have crumbled back into the soil of Altair, and nothing——absolutely nothing——remains above ground.””

Despite this advancement, unless we ascribe to the Krell some sort of extra sensory perception and control, much of the technology we see has serious design flaws.

Morbius plays half-a-million-year-old Krell music.

The first piece of technology is a Krell recorded-music player, which Morbius keeps on the desk in his study. The small cylindrical device stands upright, bulging slighty around its middle. It is made of a gray metal, with a translucent pink band just below the middle. A hollow button sits on top.

The cylinder rests in a clear plastic base, with small, identical metal slugs sitting upright in recessions evenly spaced around it. To initiate music playback, Morbius picks one of the slugs and inserts it into the hollow of the button. He then depresses the momentary button once. The pink translucent band illuminates, and music begins to flow from unseen speakers around the office.

Modern audiences have a good deal of experience with music players, and so the device raises a great many questions. How does a user know which slug relates to what music? The slugs all look the same so this seems difficult at best. How does a user eject the slug? If by upending the device, one hopes that the cylinder comes free from the base easily, or the other slugs will all fall out as well. It must have impressed audiences to see music contained in such small containers, but otherwise the device is more attractive than usable.

Morbius inputs the combination to open the door.

Many Krell doors are protected by a combination lock. The mechanism stands high enough that Morbius can easily reach out and operate it. Its large circular face has four white triangles printed on its surface at the cardinal points, and other geometric red and yellow markings around the remainder. A four-spoke handle is anchored to a swivel joint at the center of the face. To unlock the door, a user twists the handle such that one of its spokes lines up with the north point, and then angles the handle to touch the spoke to the triangle there, before returning the handle to a neutral angle and twisting to the next position in the combination. When the sequence is complete, the triangles, the tips of the spokes, and a large ring around the face all light up and blink as the two-plane aperture doors slide open.

Even Walter Pigeon has trouble making sense of this awkward device. There appear to be no snap-to affordances for the neutral angle of the handle or the cardinal orientations, leaving the user unsure if each step in the sequence has been received correctly. Additionally, if the combination consists of particular spokes at this one point, why are the spokes undifferentiated? If the combination consists of pointing to different triangles, why are there four spokes instead of one? Is familiarity with some subtle cue part of the security measures?

Morbius shares operation of the Krell encyclopedia.

All of Krell wisdom and knowledge is contained in a device that Morbius shows to Adams and Doc. It consists of an underlit scroll of material sliding beneath a rectangular hole cut in the surface of a table. To illuminate it, Morbius turns one of the two ridged green dials located to the left of the “screen” about 45 degrees clockwise. To move the scroll, Morbius turns the other green dial clockwise as well.

Why is the least frequently used dial, i.e. the power button, closer than the more frequently used button, i.e. the scroll wheel? This requires the reader to be stretched awkwardly. Why is the on-off dial free spinning? There appear to be only two states: lit and unlit. The dial should have two states as well. If the content of the pages is discretely chunked into pages, it would also argue for a click-stop rather than free-spinning dial as well, but we do not get a good look at the scroll contents. One might also question the value of a scroll as the organizing method for a vast body of information, since related bits of information may be distractingly far apart.

Care to contribute?

Have too much spare time, like overthinking things, and think you have the midi-chlorians to contribute to the Make It So database? We’ve just posted an open invitation. Check out the Contribute! link on the left of the site to indulge in the full gauntlet of requirements.

(Other) Morbius technology

Aside from Robbie, we see two other instances of Morbius’’ post-Krell inventions, each of which is lacking in its own way.

A tossed orange demonstrates the very dangerous disposal system.

The first is the disposal, which is housed in a cylindrical nook off of the living room. The smooth walls of this nook are covered in the same metallic, cupric material as a short pedestal seated within. When something is tossed into the nook above the pedestal, it is instantly disintegrated in streaks of green-white energy. There is no indication that the device can distinguish between garbage to be disintegrated and, say, human flesh, but even if it can, the utter irreversibility of the action begs for some additional step of confirmation and safety.

Commander Adams discovers Morbius’’ hidden door.

The second is the secret door from Morbius’’ study to the Krell complex. It is a recessed stretch of wall off of the living room. Adams discovers it accidentally when he approaches and to his amazement, it slides open by dint of his mere proximity. If this is meant to be either secret or secure, it fails on both counts.

Handwave switches

Much of the control of Morbius’’ highly technological house is given to wave-over switches. These devices sit on the tops of tables, and illuminate briefly when they detect a hand moving above them. Each is keyed to a different job.

Alta must “beam” Robbie several times before he arrives.

One of these devices summons Robbie. After waving her hand several times over it, Alta expresses her frustration when Robbie finally arrives. ““Where have you been?”” she asks, ““I’’ve beamed and beamed.”” It hints at the need for some feedback from Robbie that he has heard the summons and is coming.

With a wave of his hand Morbius activates the security shutters around his house.

Another hand wave device closes or opens the protective metal shutters that seal Morbius’’ house.

To see the outdoors better, Morbius waves off the indoor lights.

Another one allows him to turn off interior lights, which he uses in the film to see what is approaching so noisily.

One interesting fact of these interfaces is that they lack any affordance for their cause and effect. How is a new user meant to know to wave? How would she know what would happen as a result? Though this is generally inadvisable, we can imagine that Morbius only ever planned for he and Alta to use it.