Escape Pod


When Vickers realizes Janek is really mutinying and going to ram the alien ship with the Prometheus, she has only 40 seconds to flee to an escape pod. She races to the escape room and slams her hand on a waist-high box mounted on the wall next to one of the pods. The clear, protective door over the pod lifts. She hurriedly dons her environment suit and throws herself into one of the coffin-shaped alcoves. She reaches to her right and on a pad we can’t see, she presses five buttons in sequence, shouting, “Come on!” The pod is sealed and shot away from the ship to land on the planet below.


The transparent cover gives a clear view into the pod. That’s great, since if there were multiple people trying to escape, it would be easier to target an empty one. The the shape inside is unmistakeable. That’s great because at a glance even an untrained passenger could figure out what this is. The bright orange stripes are appropriately intense and attention-getting as well.

Viewers might have questions about the placement of the back-lit button panels inside the pod, seeing as how they’re in a very awkward place for Vickers to see and operate. I presume she has some other interface facing her, and the panels we see in the scene are for operating when the pod is resting on the planet’s surface and its lid opened. From that position, these buttons make more sense.

I think that’s where the greatness ends. The main consideration for an escape pod is that it is used in dire emergencies. Fractions of a second might mean the difference between safety and disintegration, and so though the cinematic tension in the scene is built up by these designed-in delays, an ideal system shouldn’t work the same way. How could it be improved? There are three delays, and each of them could be improved or removed.

Delay 1: Opening a pod

Why should she have to open the pod with a button or handprint reader or whatever that thing is? The pods should be open at all times.


If pods had to be sealed for some biological or mechanical reason, then a pod should open up for her immediately when she enters the room. Simple motion detectors are all that is needed.

If she has to authorize for some dystopian, only-certain-people-can-be-saved corporate reason, then a voice print could work, allowing her to shout in the hallway as she runs for the pod.


Some passive recognition would be even better since it wouldn’t cost her even the time of shouting: Face-recognition or fast retinal scan through cameras mounted in the room or the pod. Run a quick laser line across her face and she’s authorized.

Delay 2: Suiting Up

Can she put on the environment suit in the pod? Yes, the pod is cramped, but that’s the biggest delay she experiences. Increase the size of the pod slightly to allow for that kind of maneuvering, and then she can just grab the suit as she’s running by and put it on in the pod’s relative safety.


Even cooler would be if the pod was the environment suit: All she would have to do is throw herself in the pod, activate it, and the minute she landed on LV223, the capsule transformed, Autobot-style, into an exosuit, giving her more protection and more enhancement for survival on an alien planet. Plus, you can imagine the awesomeness of letting Vickers fight the zombified Weyland Ripley-style.

Delay 3: Activation

This is one delay that I’m pretty sure can’t be either automatic or passive. The cost of making a mistake is too dire. Accidentally pressed a button? Sorry, you’re now being shot away from the mother ship faster than it can travel. Still, why does she have to hit a series of buttons here? Is it a (shudder) password, as a corporate cost-control measure? Yes, that spells dystopia, but it should be faster and more intuitive, and we’ve already authorized her, above.

Fortunately this doesn’t need much rethinking. Since we’ve already seen a great interaction used for an emergency procedure, i.e. the 5-finger touch-twist used for emergency decontamination on the MedPod, I’d suggest using that. Crew would only have to be trained once.


The total interaction, then, should be that Vickers:

  1. Runs to the escape room
  2. Is identified passively (and notified of it by voice)
  3. Grabs a suit (this is optional if you go with the awesome exosuit idea)
  4. Throws herself into an open pod
  5. Performs a simple gesture on a touch pad
  6. Is shot away from the soon-to-explode ship

Bam! You have saved massive amounts of time, a crewmember removed from the immediate danger, and you have the setup for an awesome ending where Vickers in her exosuit can just punch the falling alien spaceship out of the the way rather than running from it like a moron.

Mr. Yuk


On the side of the valley in which the first complex is found, there is a giant skull carved into the overlooking crag. It’s easy—given the other transgressions in the film—to dismiss this as spookhouse attempt at being scary. But what if (stay with me here) it’s a warning sign, an alien Mr. Yuk, put there for other sentient humanoids to understand that this place is deadly with a capital D? This explains why the outpost hasn’t been disturbed by rescuers of their own race. They were smart enough to see the warning and turn right back around. (Why they didn’t nuke it from orbit is another question.)

The Material

Seeing this as a warning label raises other questions. Why wouldn’t a warning be technological or linguistic, like most of the interfaces inside the complex? The black infection material is still deadly after 2000 years. Who knows how much longer it will be viable? So where the interfaces inside are for immediate use, the warning outside needs to be effective for millennia, outlasting both the power reserves that would drive technology and the persistent semantics that would cement linguistic understanding. Rock, in contrast, lasts a very, very long time. Even during the erosion the shape and its clear meaning will simply lose clarity, not wink out altogether.

The symbol

Similarly, this shape is a clear symbol of death that is tied to biology, which changes on evolutionary timeframes, guaranteeing its readability for—hopefully—longer than the xenomorph liquid would be a danger.

For these reasons, this is labeling that is more than a Castle Grayskull set dressing attempt at scaaaarrrry, but a reasonable choice at providing an effective warning that will last as long as the danger. You know, providing visiting scientists actually pay attention to such things.

Pilot seat


The reawakened alien places his hand in the green display and holds it there for a few seconds. This summons a massive pilot seat. If the small green sphere is meant to be a map to the large cyan astrometric sphere, the mapping is questionable. Better perhaps would be to touch where the seat would appear and lift upwards through the sphere.

He climbs into the seat and presses some of the “egg buttons” arrayed on the armrests and on an oval panel above his head. The buttons illuminate in response, blinking individually from within. The blink pattern for each is regular, so it’s difficult to understand what information this visual noise conveys. A few more egg presses re-illuminate the cyan astrometric display.


A few more presses on the overhead panel revs up the spaceship’s engines and seals him in an organic spacesuit. The overhead panel slowly advances towards his face. The purpose for this seems inexplicable. If it was meant to hold the alien in place, why would it do so with controls? Even if they’re just navigation controls that no longer matter since he is on autopilot, he wouldn’t be able to take back sudden navigation control in a crisis. If the armrest panels also let him navigate, why are the controls split between the two parts?



On automatic at this point, the VP traces a thin green arc from the chair to the VP earth and adds highlight graphics around it. Then the ceiling opens and the spaceships lifts up into the air.

Alien Stasis Chambers

The alien stasis chambers have recessed, backlit touch controls. The shape of each looks like a letterform. (Perhaps in Proto-Indo-European language that David was studying at the start of the film?) David is able to run his fingers along and tap these character shapes in particular sequences to awaken the alien sleeping within.


The writing/controls take up quite a bit of room, on both the left and right sides of the chamber near the occupant’s head. It might seem a strange decision to have controls placed this way, since a single user might have to walk around the chamber to perform tasks. But a comparison of the left and right side shows that the controls are identical, and so are actually purposefully redundant. This way it doesn’t matter which side of the chamber a caretaker was on, he could still operate the controls. Two caretakers might have challenges “walking over” each other’s commands, especially with the missing feedback (see below).


Having the writing/controls spread over such a large area does seem error prone. In fact in the image above, you can see that David’s left hand is resting with two fingers “accidentally” in the controls. (His other hand was doing the button pressing.) Of course this could be written off as “the technology is not made for us, it’s made for an alien race,” but the movie insists these aliens and humans share matching DNA, so apart from being larger in stature, they’re not all that different.

Two things seem missing in the interface. The first is simple feedback. When David touches the buttons, they do not provide any signal that his touch has been received. If he didn’t apply enough pressure to register his touch, he wouldn’t have any feedback to know that until an error occurred. The touch walls had this feedback, so it seems oddly missing here.

The second thing missing is some status indicator for the occupant. Unless that information is available on wearable displays, having it hidden forces a caretaker to go elsewhere for the information or rely solely on observation, which seems far beneath the technological capabilities seen so far in the complex. See the Monitoring section in Chapter 12 of Make it So for other examples of medical monitoring.

Alien Astrometrics


When David is exploring the ancient alien navigation interfaces, he surveys a panel, and presses three buttons whose bulbous tops have the appearance of soft-boiled eggs. As he presses them in order, electronic clucks echo in in the cavern. After a beat, one of the eggs flickers, and glows from an internal light. He presses this one, and a seat glides out for a user to sit in. He does so, and a glowing pollen volumetric projection of several aliens appears. The one before David takes a seat in the chair, which repositions itself in the semicircular indentation of the large circular table.


The material selection of the egg buttons could not be a better example of affordance. The part that’s meant to be touched looks soft and pliable, smooth and cool to the touch. The part that’s not meant to be touched looks rough, like immovable stone. At a glance, it’s clear what is interactive and what isn’t. Among the egg buttons there are some variations in orientation, size, and even surface texture. It is the bumpy-surfaced one that draws David’s attention to touch first that ultimately activates the seat.

The VP alien picks up and blows a few notes on a simple flute, which brings that seat’s interface fully to life. The eggs glow green and emit green glowing plasma arcs between certain of them. David is able to place his hand in the path of one of the arcs and change its shape as the plasma steers around him, but it does not appear to affect the display. The arcs themselves appear to be a status display, but not a control.

After the alien manipulates these controls for a bit, a massive, cyan volumetric projection appears and fills the chamber. It depicts a fluid node network mapped to the outside of a sphere. Other node network clouds appear floating everywhere in the room along with objects that look like old Bohr models of atoms, but with galaxies at their center. Within the sphere three-dimensional astronomical charts appear. Additionally huge rings appear and surround the main sphere, rotating slowly. After a few inputs from the VP alien at the interface, the whole display reconfigures, putting one of the small orbiting Bohr models at the center, illuminating emerald green lines that point to it and a faint sphere of emerald green lines that surround it. The total effect of this display is beautiful and spectacular, even for David, who is an unfeeling replicant cyborg.


At the center of the display, David observes that the green-highlighted sphere is the planet Earth. He reaches out towards it, and it falls to his hand. When it is within reach, he plucks it from its orbit, at which point the green highlights disappear with an electronic glitch sound. He marvels at it for a bit, turning it in his hands, looking at Africa. Then after he opens his hands, the VP Earth gently returns to its rightful position in the display, where it is once again highlighted with emerald, volumetric graphics.


Finally, in a blinding flash, the display suddenly quits, leaving David back in the darkness of the abandoned room, with the exception of the small Earth display, which is floating over a small pyramid-shaped protrusion before flickering away.

After the Earth fades, david notices the stasis chambers around the outside of the room. He realizes that what he has just seen (and interacted with) is a memory from one of the aliens still present.



Hilarious and insightful Youtube poster CinemaSins asks in the video “Everything Wrong with Prometheus in 4 minutes or Less,” “How the f*ck is he holding the memory of a hologram?” Fair question, but not unanswerable. The critique only stands if you presume that the display must be passive and must play uninterrupted like a television show or movie. But it certainly doesn’t have to be that way.

Imagine if this is less like a YouTube video, and more like a playback through a game engine like a holodeck StarCraft. Of course it’s entirely possible to pause the action in the middle of playback and investigate parts of the display, before pressing play again and letting it resume its course. But that playback is a live system. It would be possible to run it afresh from the paused point with changed parameters as well. This sort of interrupt-and-play model would be a fantastic learning tool for sensemaking of 4D information. Want to pause playback of the signing of the Magna Carta and pick up the document to read it? That’s a “learning moment” and one that a system should take advantage of. I’d be surprised if—once such a display were possible—it wouldn’t be the norm.


The only thing I see that’s missing in the scene is a clear signal about the different state of the playback:

  1. As it happened
  2. Paused for investigation
  3. Playing with new parameters (if it was actually available)

David moves from 1 to 2, but the only change of state is the appearance and disappearance of the green highlight VP graphics around the Earth. This is a signal that could easily be missed, and wasn’t present at the start of the display. Better would be some global change, like a global shift in color to indicate the different state. A separate signal might compare As it Happened with the results of Playing with new parameters, but that’s a speculative requirement of a speculative technology. Best to put it down for now and return to what this interface is: One of the most rich, lovely, and promising examples of sensemaking interactions seen on screen. (See what I did there?)

For more about how VP might be more than a passive playback, see the lesson in Chapter 4 of Make It So, page 84, VP Systems Should Interpret, Not Just Report.

Touch Walls


When exploring the complex, David espies a few cuneiform-like characters high up on a stone wall. He is able to climb a ladder, decipher the language quickly, ascertain that it is an interface rather than an inscription, and figure out how to surreptitiously operate it. To do so, he puts his finger at the top of one of the grooves and drags downward. The groove illuminates briefly in response, and then fades. He does this to another groove, then presses a dot, and presses another dot not near the first one at all. Finally he presses a horizontal triangle firmly, which after a beat plays a 1:1 scale glowing-pollen volumetric projection.

The material and feedback of this interaction are lovely. The grooves provide a nice, tactile, physical affordance for the gesture. A groove is for dragging. A dot or a shape is for pressing. But I cannot imagine what kind of affordances are available to this language such that David can suss out the order of operation on two undifferentiated grooves. Of course presuming that the meaning of the dot and triangle are somehow self-evident to speakers of Architect, David has a 50% chance of getting the order of the grooves right. So we might be able to cut this scene some slack.


But a few scenes later, this is stretched beyond credulity. When David encounters a similarly high-up interface, he is able to ascertain on sight that chording—pressing two controls at once—is possible and necessary for operation. For this interface, he presses and drags 14 different chords flawlessly to open the ancient alien door. This is a much longer sequence involving an interaction that has no affordance.


Looking at the design of the command, an evaluation depends if it’s just a command or a password. If it’s just a control that means “open the door,” why would it take 14 characters’ worth of a command? Is there that much that this door can do? Otherwise a simple press-to-open seems like a more usable design.

If it’s a door security system then the 14 part input is a security password. This would be the more likely interpretation since the chamber beyond contains the deadly, deadly xenomorph liquid. With this in mind it’s a good design to have a 14-part password that includes a required interaction with no affordance. I’m no statistician, but I think the likelihood of guessing the correct password to be 14 factorial, or around 87,178,291,200 to 1. I have no idea what the odds are for guessing the correct operation of an interaction with zero affordance. We’d have to show some aliens MS-DOS to get some hard numbers, but that seems pretty damned secure. Unfortunately, it also stretches the believability of the scene way past the breaking point, to presume that David can just observe the alien login screen and guess the giant password.

Audio Syringe


David uses this device when Shaw begins to double over from the pain of the alien growing in her womb. It is a palm-sized cylinder with a large needle sticking out one end and a yellow button on the other. To administer it, he jams it into her shoulder, depressing the yellow button with his thumb, and holds it there until the spraying sound coming from it ceases.


This is not a hypospray (as described in Chapter 12, Medicine, of the book), which would not have a needle, so where is the sound coming from? It might be an audio augmentation to let the administrator know. This would be a reasonable sound, as it gives sense of pressure releasing. But there should be some clear signal—like a soft double-beep—when the doseage is complete, less it be removed too soon for misinterpreting the audio signal.