Sci-fi University Pilot

How do you ensure that a complicated weapon can be fired by people hundreds or even thousands of years in the future?

Sci-fi University critically examines interfaces in sci-fi that illustrate core design concepts. In this six-minute pilot episode, Christopher discusses how the Ultimate Weapon Against Evil brilliantly and subtly embodies the design concepts of affordances and constraints.

This is a pilot, to see if folks like the format. So please leave your thoughts in the comments, and if enough folks dig it—and if I run across other interfaces that bear such explication—I’ll do more sometime in the future. If you’d like to view it at a larger size, check it out on YouTube. Happy viewing!

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Mangalore Bomb

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Sadly for Zorg, just after he deactivates his bomb, a fallen Mangalore warrior remotely activates his own bomb in Plavalaguna’s suite. The remote control is made from a combination lock. The Mangalore twists the dial to the right numbers, and on reaching the last number, a red LED lights in the center. In the diva’s suite, the box that secretly housed the bomb opens, and the bomb rises like a small metallic ziggurat, accentuated in places with red LEDs. A red, 7-segment countdown timer begins ticking down its final 5 seconds.

Aggression

Mangalores are warlike, as in they really like war. They breathe war. They sleep war. They eat war for breakfast, then poop war, then root around in their couches for war scraps and snack on that. The detonation device isn’t very sophisticated, and that’s just fine by Mangalores. If a Mangalore declared a Design major instead of War in college, they’d have been killed on the spot. This device is perfect for a species that just wants to grab something cheap and convenient, make a few modifications, and get to the boom.

We don’t see a deactivation mechanism. And while you can imagine that a nice safety would be to deactivate if the dial drifted more than, say, 5 clicks from the final activation number, Mangalores wouldn’t have it. They’d “liberate” your mother’s homeland merely for having suggesting it.

If I had to improve it in any way, it’s that it places a burden on memory, and there’s not a lot of indication that Mangalores excel in the thinking skills department, c.f. warlike. Do they have the capacity to memorize a series of numbers in order? And it is easy to recall the series in the middle of a war zone? If not, what would be better? They have their weapons with them nearly at all times, so how about a little glowing, red button on the forestock?

Ha. Joke’s on you, Mangalores. As we know from earlier in the movie, you couldn’t resist pressing it, long before you made it to ocean liners. I think if you’re that warlike and stupid, this would be best for everyone.

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Fhloston evacuation

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When Fhloston Paradise’s bomb alarms finally go off (a full 15:06 after Zorg’s bomb actually starts. WTH, Fhloston?) four shipwide systems help evacuate the ship.

First, a klaxon is heard on a public address system across the ship. A recorded female voice calmly announces that…

This is a type A alert. For security reasons the hotel must be evacuated. Please proceed calmly to the lifeboats located in the main hallways.

This voice continues to speak a warning countdown, repeating the remaining time every minute, and then when there’s less than a minute at 15 second intervals, and each of the last 10 seconds.

Second, in the main hallway, small, rows of red beacon lights emerge out of the floor and begin flashing and blinking. They repeatedly flash in order to point the direction of the lifeboats.

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Third, in the main hallway large arrows on the floor and “LIFEBOAT” lettering illuminate green to point travelers towards ingress points for individual lifeboats.

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Fourth, the lifeboats themselves eject from the ship to get the passengers far from danger.

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Awesome

  • The voice warning is a trope, but a trope for a reason. For visually impaired guests and people whose attention is focused on, you know, escape, the audio will still help them keep tabs on the time they have left.
  • The racing lights provide a nice directionality (a similar interface would have helped Prometheus).
  • The arrows and beacons require no language skills to comprehend.

Awful

  • The voice warning and the “LIFEBOAT” signs do require language to comprehend. They couldn’t have used Running Man?
  • You know when’s a crappy time to add trip hazards to the floor? When a herd of panicked humans are going to be running over it. Seriously. There is no excuse for this.
  • The beacons and the arrows should be the same color. Green is the ISO standard for exit, so while we’re moving the beacon lights to the ceiling where they belong, we can swap them out for some #33cc00 beacons.
  • The green arrows at first seem badly placed as it’s difficult to see when there’s a crowd of people, but then you realize that when the room is empty, people will see and follow them. People in a crowd will just follow whatever direction the horde is currently going, and seeing the arrows is unnecessary. But in a light crowd, people will get a glimpse of the arrow and become stressed out over an occluded, potentially life-saving signal or worse, get trampled to death trying to stop and read it to make sure everyone is going the right way, so ultimately awful. Put that up on the ceiling or high on the walls, too. Because people genuinely panic.

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Zorg bomb

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When Zorg believes he has recovered the sacred stones, he affixes a bomb to the door of Plavalaguna’s suite. The bomb is a little larger than a credit card, with a slot at the top for a key card to be dropped in. The front of the bomb houses all the buttons and lights. The bottom and top edges are rounded back.

The interface for the bomb is quite simple. Zorg presses three large, transparent buttons along the top in order from left to right to activate the bomb. These buttons glow bright red during the countdown. Below these buttons, four red LEDs blink in succession counting off quarter seconds. At the bottom of the display a 4-character, 7-segment timer counts down from the time set: 20 minutes. The device audibly ticks off each second as it passes.

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Activation

An (adhesive? magnetic?) backing lets Zorg simply place the bomb on the wall to affix it there. Zorg presses the three large buttons in order from left to right to activate it and start the countdown.

Activation analysis

The bomber is after simple activation, but also wants very much to avoid accidental activation. Pressing the buttons in order might happen accidentally, for example from a tire or foot rolling across it. Better would be to have the activation code something much less likely to happen accidentally, like 1-3-2 or 2-3-1.

There’s also a question of whether a bomber would put giant glowing lights, reflective yellow tape, or an audible tick on the bomb (LEDs, if you didn’t know, don’t come with a ticking sound built in.) Each of these draws attention to the bomb, giving helpless victims time to evacuate, alert the authorities, or inform any explosive ordnance disposal personnel that happen to be wandering by. Yes, Zorg wants the bomb to explode, but only after a certain time, so he can get away. He should affix the bomb in some hidden place and design it with a less attention-getting display to suit his fiendish goals.

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Deactivation

Once Zorg realizes that the box he stole was empty, he returns to the Fhloston Paradise liner to look for the stones. His first task is to deactivate the bomb. To do this he pulls out a keycard, and gingerly holds it above the bomb. His caution and nervousness implies that it has a jostle-sensitive anti-handling sensors, and that if he bumped it, it would go off. Fortunately for him, he manages to slip the card in without jostling the bomb, and sure enough, it stops with five seconds to go.

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Deactivation analysis

The keycard is a mostly-smart deactivation strategy. As we can see, Zorg is quite nervous during the deactivation, and in such high-stress times, it’s better to rely on an object than a stressed villain’s memory for something like a password. The card is thin like a credit card and can fit in a wallet, so it’s easy to carry around. There’s a risk that the card could be misplaced, but the importance of the key will ensure that Zorg will keep track of it. There’s a risk it could be ruined and become useless, but we can presume Zorg made it with tough, ruggedized materials.

The problem with the shape is one of orientation. There are four ways a card can be oriented to a slot, and looking at the card, there is no clear indication of the correct one. The copper circuitry printed on both sides is asymmetrical, so it’s at least possible to tell the current orientation. Perhaps this is the “password” that the system requires, and the random stranger picking it up only has a one in four chance of getting it right.

Fortunately for Zorg, he remembers the correct orientation, and is able to stop the bomb.

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Or, this bomb, anyway.

Helmsman’s HUD

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Aboard the Fhloston Paradise luxury liner, we are treated to a quick view of the ship’’s wheel. The helmsman stands before the wheel, in the middle of a ceiling-mounted translucent yellow cylinder that drops just below shoulder level. This surface acts as heads-up display that is visible only from the inside.

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The content of the display is a 3-D, featureless, blue graticule with an overlay featuring target brackets, various numeric data strangely labeled with various numbers of ““m””s and “n”s, and a green, faint outline of a railing, as if the helmsman was looking out from a Lawnmower Man interpretation of an Age of Sail wheelbridge. At the top of the display are three yellow-outline rectangles with no content. In the center-top of his view is a compass readout, with a rolling counter display that appears to show bearing.

In practice, the Captain calmly gives an order to a barker, who confirms with a, “Yes, sir” before walking to the edge of the cylinder and shouting the same order, “HELM ONE OH EIGHT!” To confirm that he heard the message, the helmsman repeats the order back and turns the wheel. The helmsman wears a headset that amplifies his spoken confirmation back to everyone on the bridge.

Sometimes a Human is the Best Interface

The Captain doesn’t want to shout or wear a headset. He’s a gentleman. But if the helmsman is going to be trapped in the yellow cone of silence, there must be an intermediary to convey the commands and ensure that they’re carried out. Even if technology could solve it better, I have the sense that navies are places where traditions are carried on for the sake of tradition, so the human aspect of this interaction doesn’t bother me too much. It does add a layer of intermediation where data can go wrong, but the barker and the helmsman each repeat the command loudly, so the Captain can hear and error-check that way.

Long live the HUD

On the plus side, showing the graticule grants a sense of speed and (kind-of) bearing that would be much more difficult to do on the surface on all-water planet like Fhloston Paradise. So that’s nice.

But that information would be even more useful if it was backed up by some other contextual information like the clouds, the position of the sun, or, say, anything else on the surface of the planet toward which they might be barreling. A simple highly-transparent live feed of a camera from somewhere would have been more useful.

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And of course I can’t let the silly nonsense data on the edges just go. Shipmen love their sea-salted jargon, but they also love effectiveness, and there is no sense to labeling one variable “nm” and the next “nmn,” much less a whole screen of them. They would be difficult to distinguish at the very least. Certainly there’s no use to having two variables labeled just “m” with no other contextualizers. Even if it was better labeled, presenting this information as an undifferentiated wall of data isn’t helpful. Better would be to turn some of these into differentiable graphics that help the helmsman see the information and not have to read it. In any case, the arbitrary blinking on and off of data just needs to stop. It’s a pointless distraction unless there is some monitoring data that is trending poorly and needs attention.

Sometimes an AI is the Best (Secret) Interface

Finally, if you obsess over editing details (and you are reading this blog…) you’ll note that the bearing indicator at the top begins to change before the helmsman moves the wheel. It even moves before the helmsman repeats the order. It even begins before the the barker shouts the orders. (Reminiscent of the chem department flub from Cabin I covered earlier.) It looks like the HUD designers wanted movement and mistimed it before the events in the scene.

But we don’t have to leave it there. We’ve already noted that seamen love standing on tradition. What if this whole interface was vestigial? If the ship has a low-level AI that listens to the captain, it wouldn’t need to wait for any of the subsequent human processes: the barker, the helmsman repeat, or the wheel turning. Each of these acts to confirm the command, but the ship can go from the first order when it has a high degree of confidence. This would also excuse the nmnmmnonsense we see on the HUD. The display might have degraded to displaying noise, but no one needs to fix it because the ship runs just fine without it.

Thinking that the Fhloston Paradise might have been a bioship only makes its destruction from a Zorg Mangalore Zorg bomb only makes its destruction much more tragic, but also more heroic as it died saving the people it had been programmed to serve all along.

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Sleep regulator

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To make your flight as short as possible, our flight attendants are switching on the sleep regulator, which will regulate your sleeping during the flight.

First, props to screenwriters Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen for absolutely nailing annoying airline doublespeak. “Regulate your sleeping” means “knock you unconscious,” and even when Korben raises a finger to interject, the flight attendant ignores him and presses a button to begin “regulating his sleep.”

Given that ignoring passenger interruptions is standard operating procedure, it’s a nice design feature that the berths are horizontal and less than a meter tall. Even if a passenger was somehow all the way at the top of the berth, the fall to the cushy flooring would likely do them no harm.

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The panel has four rounded rectangles: One for each person who might be in the berth? On approach, an amber, underlit toggle button is already on. She presses an adjacent toggle button, which glows yellow, and Korben passes out immediately. Three pairs of steady lights illuminate on the right side of the panel, one pair yellow, the other two red, but it is not clear what these indicate.

On arrival to the planet Fhloston Paradise, the attendants press the yeloow buttons and the passengers awake immediately.

Analysis

Let me be blunt. The panel is a pretty crap interface, with no labeling to indicate what the buttons mean and no security to prevent mischievous passengers from messing with other passengers. (Imagine the poor kid trapped inside and subject to the button flicking of a sibling.) There’s no clear medical monitoring on the outside, which you’d think would be vital with any interface that affects biology like this. Even if a centralized station had the monitoring details elsewhere on the ship, anyone passing by should get some indication of what’s happening.

Admittedly, this is an interface with complex attention-getting needs. The attendants need to know that the regulator is working, and that bears a light. But the attendants also need to know when something is medically trending poorly or just plain failing, and that also bears a light. It would be important to clearly distinguish these signals, since confusing one for the other could be deadly.

Better would have been a well labeled system-is-operating signal facing the attendant when she is standing at the panel, and another well-labeled, blinking, loud, system-needs-attention signal that can be seen down either end of the hallway. Let us pray that they never, ever remake this film, but if there’s a directors cut, this interface could use a makeover.

Red mics

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We saw in an earlier post how the military uses communication headsets with red LEDs in the tips of the antennas that provide a social signal about the attention of its wearer. On board the spaceship to Fhloston Paradise, the same technique is used to signal functioning microphones.

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The simple status signal of glowing signals to the speaker that the device is on and that their voice is being broadcast, listened to, or might be overheard.

These are two binary states: microphone recording/not, light on/off. and the relationship could be swapped such that the light illuminates when the device is not recording. But since the consequences for accidentally broadcasting the wrong thing are dire, it makes sense to associate the attention-getting signal with the costly state that requires attention and care.

The red appears elsewhere as a signal for microphone or antenna, even when it’s not glowing. We see it on Korben’s wireless phone at home, Zorg’s assistant’s headset, on Korben’s room phone aboard the Fhloston Paradise, on the handheld mic aboard Zorg’s ship, and on the President’s wireless phone. We can presume it’s a signal common pattern across all the commucication technology of this world. The commonality helps signal to anyone familiar with it the purpose of an otherwise unmarked and miniaturized component.

Rhod’s rod

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

Function

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

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

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

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

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

Fashion

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

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

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

Fuel cell

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Just before the spaceship takes off for Fhloston Paradise, the audience gets to see the manual interface that the airport employees use to refuel the ship. On the tarmac beneath the spaceship, the ground crewman plugs in a portable control box to the underside of the plane, and presses a button to open a hatch in the ground, from which a new, glowing green radioactive fuel cell emerges.

One of the crewmen grabs it by its circular handles at the end, removes it from the hatch, and sets it on the ground.

He then uses the plugged-in control box to open a compartment on the underside of the spaceship, from which one of the ground crew removes the spent fuel cell by hand, and inserts it into the still-open hatch.

Finally they pick up the full fuel cell and insert it into the compartment on the plane.

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This scene is there to set up how Cornelius stows away on the craft, but also serves as a cinematic pun when it crosscuts to a scene inside the ship (but which must be seen rather than read to appreciate.) For such a “throwaway” technology, it’s handled really well.

  • The ground affords natural shielding from any collection of radioactive fuel cells.
  • Being circular, the cells and the handles to manipulate the cells are orientation-less.
  • There are familiar black-and-yellow-stripe warnings on the walls of the hatch and the revealed sides of the spaceship compartment. These warnings are only visible when it’s relevant.
  • The radioactivity trefoil symbol has the same colors and appears on the fuel cell, the hatch, and the compartment.
  • Having a portable and wired control box means that it’s not readily available for any passing hackers.
  • The transparent container lets the material act as an additional warning to observers: There is danger here.
  • The transparent container lets the fuel itself tell the ground crew which cell is spent and which one is full.

All told, short of making it automated, this is how it should work.

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