The multipass is the all-purpose card of 2263. It’s a driver’s license, work authorization record, proof of identity, emergency medical information, phone card, plus all your credit cards in one. There is a white rectangle and yellowish, rounded-bevel shape on the lower left, each of which may be a button, but that we don’t see in use.

Often just showing it is enough for a human’s satisfaction, but sometimes it must be read by a machine. To do this, the holder inserts it into a slot, where the machine verifies its authenticity and registers the user locally. In Korben’s taxi, he has to leave it in as he operates the vehicle. At the Fhloston Paradise check-in booth, travelers dip it in and out of the reader.



The act of inserting the card to authenticate may seem a bit old-fashioned in the days of RFID and read-at-a-distance technology, but it’s also nice to see that whatever agency was able to get the various corporations and government agencies to cooperate has also got privacy in mind. If it needs to be dipped to be read, maybe it can’t be read at a distance. That means the holder has more control over when and how it’s accessed.

As far as convenience, hot damn. It’s practically a wallet in and of itself. But there are security concerns to having all of this in one place. There are many cards that work like this in the world. Bus passes, skeeball tickets, gift cards. They’re generally low-cost. If you steal or forge Korben Dallas’ multipass, though, do you suddenly have his charge accounts, his taxi, and his phone card all at once? Seems high-cost, especially since the one forgery we see in the movie actually works.

This returns us, as so many things do, to multifactor authentication. This security philosophy requires that the user presents three factors: something they have, something they are, and something they know. The multipass covers only the first two.

  • The multipass itself is the thing they have.
  • The picture is something they are, i.e., what they look like.
  • It could be improved by requiring something they know, like a PIN or a password.

We don’t know what kind of power Cornelius’ order wielded in the world, but since it wasn’t enough to sway the president or purchase tickets to Paradise, let’s presume it wouldn’t have been enough to uncover Korben’s password, and in that case, the PIN would have foiled the attempted forgery.


Slow Police


Wrapping up our week of The Fifth Element police interfaces…

When the police chase Korben into the permanent fog bank at street level of the city, the exciting car chase must stop. They must slow down and undergo a careful search. The front of the car has an LED scrolling sign between its beacon lights that cuts back and forth between displaying “SLOW” and “POLICE.”



From a citizen standpoint, having such text can certainly make the police’s circumstances and desires quite clear. Then again, language can be quite ambiguous. What would you do if you saw a police car that read, “CELLAR DOOR” as it passed? How are you meant to comply?

Though we never actually see the sign change to display any other text, the fact that it’s LED implies that it can and does. Sure, I get the movie’s joke of the police calling themselves “slow,” but there are lots of interaction questions left unanswered. Can the officers in the car change the sign? If so, how? Does the passenger have a keyboard? Or is it voice command? If there’s a control available to the driver, how is it made safe, and not as deadly as a driver trying to compose a text message today? And to what degree can the message be changed? Can they create anything, or do they select from a commissioner-approved menu of options? Or can they not control it at all—is the sign completely controlled from dispatch, or from some context-aware algorithm?

The film gives no clues, so it’s left as an exercise for the design viewer. Which, sometimes, is just the way I like it.


Yellow circles everywhere


Korben (and his poor neighbor) aren’t the only ones to deal with the yellow circles. Apparently they appear everywhere.

When Right Arm fails to convince the counter staff for Fhloston Paradise that he is Korben Dallas. Knowing that he works for a sociopathic killer, he gets upset. As the doors to gate 18 close behind her, the ticket taker smiles and says, “Sorry, sir, boarding is finished!” and the platform on which she stands lowers her out of sight. At the same time a pane of glass with the familiar two yellow circles rises up. In his frustration, Right Arm shouts, “I don’t believe this!” and pounds the glass(?) around the booth.


Instantly, a whooping warning is heard, and three columns of computer-controlled guns drop from the ceiling, clacking into place as if they were being armed. Two columns are behind him and one directly in front, each with two guns, pointing a total of six automatic weapons at him. Red LEDs blink on the column in front near a camera and a voice sternly warns him, “This is not an exercise. This is a police control. Put your hands in the yellow circles…”

The scene is played for laughs, as an example of an inappropriately harsh reaction to an expression of frustration. But the design of the system is worth noting. The compliance technique is designed to be easy to communicate and comprehend. The recorded voice could have said something like “stand in a spread-eagle position against the glass” but that is too wordy and leaves lots to interpretation. Giving the user very basic signals, i.e. yellow circles, and a very unambiguous task, i.e. putting your hands in the circles, is as clear as it could be. (Though I’m not sure what would happen if you were someone with only one hand, or no hands, or a prosthetic hand.)

The red lights, stern recorded audio, mechanical sounds, and whooping sound all let Right Arm know the gravity of the situation he’s in. Even the fact that they drop and swivel toward him give him the clear signal that if he tried to run, these weapons could track him. The sound appears behind him first, causing him to swivel, where he’s met with the four menacing barrels. He is first disoriented and then cowed.


Sure, I’d really hate to live in such an oppressive police state where expressing frustration in public is met with possible death from a robot, but looking at it purely from the perspective of the signals and instructions, it’s well done.



Please forgive the title. It’s a portmanteau of “e” and “peepholes” that was too goofy to resist and not part of the official Fifth Element canon.

When the police have an apartment in lockdown, they have a special tool to evaluate individual citizens in their apartments. It’s an electronic peephole that allows them to see and communicate with the citizen inside their apartment. To use it, a police officer places a handheld device shaped something like an iron up to the door near eye height. Pressing a button at the thumb switches a status light from green to red and opens an electronic “hole” in the door, through which the officer can see, but out of which the citizen cannot.


While the eephole is activated, the intercom between the yellow circles in which the citizen has placed his or her hands glows orange, letting them know that the call is active. Then the officer can freely interrogate the citizen.

Officer: Sir, are you classified as human?
Korben: Negative. I am a meat popsicle.


How the device works is something of a mystery, but we have to take its results at face value. We’re concerned about the interaction, and that works OK. The device has a single handle and flat plate that fits against the door readily. The thumb button is placed so it’s easy to activate while holding it up with one hand. The fact that it’s portable rather than embedded in the door means that it can be taken away by the police after their business is done, rather than leaving it there to be hacked.

If I had to make any improvements, I would hope to make the device stick to the door so the officer could have both hands ready for his weapon should he need it, or feel more free to dodge out of the way. I would also omit any of the many glowing lights that appear extraneous, at least to what we see in this scene. I might also provide some output to the officer that the interaction is under warrant, or maybe even that it’s being being recorded, to remind them not to abuse this breach of privacy. Clearly it causes stress among the citizens subject to it.


Apartment Lockdown


Zorg issues orders to the police to arrest Korben Dallas. A squad of 8 officers arrive to his apartment block. They know what apartment number he’s supposed to be in, but Korben’s number has been removed by Cornelius, and the neighbor has blacked his out.


To authorize the lockdown, the squad leader opens a police box mounted on the wall in the hallway by placing the top edge of a transparent warrant into a slot on its side. The box verifies the warrant and slides open. The squad leader presses a red button within.


During lockdown a klaxon sounds, red beacon lights descend from the hallway ceiling, and a loud, clear voiceover is heard in the hallway and in the apartments themselves.



The circles in question are painted at chest height on the walls inside of each apartment, a little wider than shoulder width. There is a small intercom interface mounted in the wall directly between the yellow circles. The police use different interfaces for peering inside apartments and this intercom for communicating with citizens, but these will be discussed separately in the next post.


There are a few sets of users for this particular set of interfaces: The police, Zorg, and Korben. To evaluate the system, we need to look at each user independently.

  1. For the police, this interface seems to work well. Since the lockdown is part of the infrastructure, they don’t have to bring anything but their standard gear and the warrant. They save energy and the tedium of alerting the citizens and issuing standard compliance instructions. In a fully networked world, you might think to simply have him or her authorize themselves using biometrics, but in keeping with the principles of multifactor authentication, you might require the officer to carry something anyway. Since you’d want a physical warrant for a poor or luddite citizen to be able to see and verify, it’s going to be there, might as well use it.
  2. For Zorg and issuing authorities like him, he kind-of wants to minimize danger to his people and certainly his equipment, which this helps do. He also wants to cover his ass from citizen lawsuits, and having the traceability of the warrant-scan means he will have a record that due process has been followed. As we’ll see tomorrow, ultimately he doesn’t get what he needs, but as far as this lockdown interface, it seems like it would work just fine.
  3. For the citizen Korben, the interface provides a clear signal and easy-to-follow instructions, so the proximal part “works.” What doesn’t work is that the whole system is horribly demeaning, authoritarian, and—fully risking Godwin’s Law, here—fascist.

Security is almost always at odds with usability, and this interface proves no different. To improve the experience for the good citizen, you might want to provide some warning, some ability to finish what they’re doing, or some less demeaning way to show that they are cooperating. But any concessions made for the good citizens will be taken advantage of by the bad ones, and so I don’t know that design can really fix that tension.

P.S. As of this writing my Minority Report review is not posted, but readers interested to compare and contrast a similar scene done with more seriousness some 5 years later should check it out.

Police light


This post (the first in what is going to amount to The Fifth Element Police Week. What is this, sweeps?) is going to veer to the edge of interaction design, getting into the Venn overlap of industrial design and wearable tech.

The police seen throughout New York each wear uniforms that feature a large, circular, glowing light over the right side of their chest.

There are only two things to say that’s positive about this police light. One: Yes, it looks cool. Two: It certainly gives narby citizens a clear, attention-getting signal that something is up. This might be OK for community relations officers, who are only ever interfacing with the public. But when it comes to dealing with actual criminals, it’s a terrible idea.


It’s a terrible idea because of its placement

Imagine this scene from the chief’s perspective. When he addresses Leeloo down the pipe as she’s standing on the ledge of the building, he is in an isosceles stance, with his shoulders perpendicular to the target and his weapon held in front of his heart. This common stance would place the weapon directly in the glow of the circle. This means that his forearms and weapon will have the brightest illumination in his field of vision and be distracting. This might be manageable by coating his uniform and the back of the weapon with a super black coating to absorb much of this light. But, depending on the distance of the target, it is also likely to place the perp in shadow, making them harder to see and harder to hit.

Looking at the officer on the right, we see he is taking a different stance. He is “bladed” to the target, closer to a Weaver stance, with his body turned a bit sideways. This stance turns the light to the adjacent wall, which minimizes the backscatter and perp-shadow effects, but also aims the light toward his fellow officer, possibly distracting him or her. That’s a pretty crappy design. But wait, it gets worse.


It’s a terrible idea because it’s a giant, glowing target

What’s worse is to imagine the scene from the perspective of the perp, say, the Mondosahwans in the airport. They want to specifically shoot the police in the crowd and all they have to do is shoot towards the glowing discs. That’s right, the police in 2263 are actually wearing attention-drawing targets. Admittedly, if you are going to get shot in the line of duty, you’d rather draw fire away from the head to a place with a solid slab of bone and lots of body armor. But why draw their fire in the first place?

As we saw in another post, Zorg believes in the fallacy/parable of the broken window, and so favors a bit of destruction that encourages market activity. We also know from the film that he has a lot of control over the NYPD. It might be that he’s deliberately sabotaging the police through this design to encourage the sale of more body armor and weapons, but are we to believe that the cops themselves are willing to go along with this? C’mon. They’re smarter than this.

Improve it with a little bit of smarts

Outfit the light with a little agentive smarts, and most of these problems could be fixed. The light could simply dim when it’s counterproductive to have it illuminated. Proximity sensors can sense when the officer’s arm is in the way. Context aware sensors can sense when it might blind another officer. It would take a lot of smarts to know when the officer is being targeted by a weapon, but certainly simple audio sensors should shut it off in the sound of gunfire.

5E-opedia: Search


Leeloo learns about the facts of the human race which she is destined to save through an online encyclopedia available to her in many places: in Cornelius’’ home, the spaceship to Fhloston Paradise, and aboard Zorg’’s ship. Three modes are seen for it. Today we discuss the third mode, which is to search for an in-depth topic.


When Leeloo experiences full-scale combat with Zorg and the Mangalores aboard Fhloston Paradise, she grows curious about war. On the route back to Earth aboard Zorg’s ship, she once again returns to the online encyclopedia she’s been referencing throughout the film. When she sits down, it just so happens that the system is in the middle of the W topics. It is amid “we*” and “wh*” words. “Weapon” is at the top, so maybe that’s what Zorg was looking for.

TheFifthElement-W TheFifthElement-weapon

To access a particular topic not on screen, she simply begins typing. She types “WAR,” the letters filling the screen in green all-caps, and the entry for war begins playing. This entry is different than the prior one seen on martial arts. This is simply a series of still images presented serially, around four dozen that culminate in an image of the French test of an atomic weapon at Mururoa Atoll.




Two small nuances to note. The first is that we don’t see a result of possible search results. Like Wikipedia, there is a main entry for war, and it presumes that’s the one she means. If it’s wrong, she can interrupt. That’s a smart default that will work in most cases.

The second is that we don’t see or hear Leeloo hit an “enter” key after she finishes typing “war.” (The other keys each emit a small beep.) How did the system know she wasn’t continuing on to “warrior” or “warship”? A smart system would be able to interpret the pause after the “r” as a likely end, once it passes an outer threshold for her typical typing speed, and begin to show her the “war” entry. Then, if she continued to add another letter just outside that threshold, it could evaluate the string. If it might be a continuation, like typing an “s” for “warship” it could pause the display and wait. If a continuation wouldn’t make any sense, like “warx,” it could presume she was entering a new word beginning with “x” or help her recover in case it was just a plain old typo.

Interestingly, this is kind of the way Google Instant search works. Did the designers for The Fifth Element accidentally invent it 13 years ahead of Google?

Despite that cool possibility, I have to ding this entry for not really explaining anything. Some aren’t really about war but about terror, such as the image of the burning cross at a KKK rally. But even for the others, yes, they are horrific images. And they are a stinging reminder of the horrors that accompany war. But they really only work for someone with the prior knowledge of what they describe. Steve McCurry‘s haunting image of a tank in Kuwait, for instance, inspires despair only if you know the full background story of that war, and this sequence certainly does not provide it to Leeloo.


Ultimately, regardless of the mode this encyclopedia is in, it is a cinematic conceit that we should not take as a good example of rapid learning for the real world.

5E-opedia: In-depth topic


Leeloo learns about the facts of the human race which she is destined to save through an online encyclopedia available to her in many places: in Cornelius’’ home, the spaceship to Fhloston Paradise, and aboard Zorg’’s ship. Three modes are seen for it. Today we discuss the second mode, which is to select an in-depth topic.

In-Depth Topic

Leeloo can understand each item in the topic lists as they fly past. If she sees a topic that interests her in particular, she can press a button to find out more about that topic in more detail. (We don’t see the button, we just hear it.) Given that she’s looking at a screen of at most 66 and at least 4 options, and we don’t see a selection indicator, it’s anyone’s guess as to how she does this. Later we’ll see that she has a QWERTY keyboard to search for a particular word, and we don’t see that same search interface here, so it’s something other than that.

Once she indicates that she’s interested in martial arts, the entry fills the screen. The screen is a mix of a paragraph of text, images zooming around, and subtopics writ in large red majuscule letters scrolling past: KRAV CONTACT, SUMO, WRESTLING, SAVATE, KUNG FU, JU JITSU, NINJITSU, WRANG DO, FULL CONTACT… A still image of Bruce Lee from Enter the Dragon appears. This style of still-image and animated-text continues to play in a watch-and-learn way until it’s done, and then returns to the topic list.


Here, as before, I am examining things unmeant for examination. Still, I have a job to do. In the diegesis of the film, the text flies by too quick for anyone but a perfect Mondoshawan to read. But here in the real world, I hit pause. There I learned that the paragraph of text in the background has nothing to do with martial arts. We only see snippets, but they read as follows. (Please post your short sci-fi stories that can make sense of these lines in exactly this same order.)

: a hindu thus
talks to hi[s] troops about taking
d takes on a persona of its own.
monster, if it wants to live, have
loved. We then get a news flash
cult (think Waco siege coverage)

This little bit of text reads much more like a script than an encyclopedia entry. Like it was a bit of text just lying around on someone’s computer. In any case it would not help Leeloo learn Jeet Kun Do in the slightest.

On the right side of the screen (see above) we also see a vertical green rectangle. At the top is the number 5, bookended with arrows. Below that is a graph, a set of thumbnail images (whose captions are too small to read) are linked by right-angle connecting lines, like what you might see in a tech-tree for a real-time strategy video game.


When the display shifts to showing the subtopics, this green area changes. The 5 changes to a dot, and a grid of circular icons appears, each with a green rectangle to its right. The left column of icons is hard to decipher, but the right column of icons looks like control buttons one might expect: More detail, next in sequence, prior in sequence, zoom out, zoom all the way out, fast forward. Missing are common controls for video such as pause and play. A the bottom is a button labeled “EDIT”. This control panel is not seen in use.

It’s still about the learning, stupid

That stuff on the left is pointless. Of course that bit from a script is goofy. The animated stuff might be interesting for getting someone kind of excited about the topic, or maybe to remember how awesome martial arts (that they already knew about) are, but for learning any of it from a computer screen, she would have been better off spending time on youtube. Even the subtopics make no sense. Sure, they’re all martial arts, but what’s the order? Not alphabetical. Not age. Savate (18th century) is between wrestling and Sumo, both far more ancient. It’s not even a list of the same scope of thing. Aren’t Krav and Full Contact different translations for the same thing? Anyway, learning the vocabulary of a domain is only a rudimentary first step to actually learning it, much less performing it. Good thing she’s “perfect.”

The first green area on the right does actually seem useful for learning. It’s an abstract representation of how some things fit together. There’s a relationship implied between parts. It may also provide a map to a bigger picture in which this particular topic fits. That’s actually pretty useful and even Wikipedia adopts it for entries that fit into larger domains of knowledge. So, OK, we’ll cut it some slack there.

The second green area, even though I’m doing a lot of inference there from icons, also seems like it might be pretty useful. It’s too bad we don’t get to see it in action.

Better for Leeloo’s purposes of learning a topic—even if you did it blazingly fast—would be to provide her a definition, a bit about the history, and then some blazingly fast how-tos of modern practice augmented with the principles at work in each of the examples.

5E-opedia: Watch and learn


Leeloo learns about the facts of the human race which she is destined to save through an online encyclopedia available to her in many places: in Cornelius’’ home, the spaceship to Fhloston Paradise, and aboard Zorg’’s ship. Three modes are seen for it. Today we discuss the first mode, which is just play-and-watch.


When we first see her using the (unnamed) encyclopedia, she is simply watching four columns of words quickly scroll by. The words are arranged alphabetically, top-to-bottom before continuing to the next column. There is a large, blinking, lower-case letter reversed out of a white square in the lower left. Near the middle of the screen, a thick bracket emphasizes four of the words from the screen and red lines connects each of the words to a large image on the right side of the screen. The words and pictures fly by at a rate that’s impossible for us mere humans to follow, but Cornelius assures David that she”s ‘learning our history…the last 5,000 years she’s missed. She’s been asleep for quite a while, you know.”


This mode is all passive. When in the scene Leeloo goes to grab a turkey from the kitchen to bring back and eat, the screen is still moving with no one in front of it. We see a menu of capital letters, and a selection moving from “A” to “M”, by itself.

The Tyranny of Pause

Here I’m going to have to break the usual stance with which I review interfaces. That is, I usually treat each interface as if it was perfectly as it should be in the world of the movie or TV show, trying to willfully ignore its speculative nature. (That’s how we can make it relevant to our real world work.) But here, there’s just too much that’s broken in the content to make any sense. You only notice it when you slow the movie down to read and examine the screens, so this is totally unfair. But then again, the DVD format had been in the world for two years by the time The Fifth Element came out, so there’s not a great excuse for playback technology. They could presume it would eventually be paused.

First off, the words in the lists are repeated. The first column is identical to the third. The second is identical to the fourth. I can’t imagine a good reason why this would help a reader. I was hoping maybe there was some autostereogram thing going on, but no. It just adds noise.

Secondly, the vast majority of images have little to do with the words to which they’re connected. “Me” points to a halved cantaloupe filled with blackberries. (See the image above.) “Maunder” points to an image of a woman’s softly parted, lipsticked lips. What on earth is Leeloo meant to learn from that? (Also I think it’s high time we bring back maunder into common usage.)


Worse, the images repeat. So the same picture of a chimpanzee connects to both “meadow” and “matriarch.” The same picture of a nose (flipped horizontally once) connects to “nav(vv?)y,” “nefarious,” and “negate.”

Also the same word may appear multiple times, connected to different pictures. “Maw” points once to a mouth, which is sensible, but once to a full-body portrait of a model in a little black dress. I’m all for polysemy and homonymy, but this just makes no sense.

Only once does the connection make absolute sense, as “Napoleon” points to François Gérard’s 1804 portrait of “Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, at Malmaison.”


Now I understand the tough challenge the interface designers faced: They probably had zero time, the damned thing had to look…well…encyclopedic, it had to make Leeloo look like a learning machine, no one had the budget or time to create new media for all these entries. Plus Larry Lessig wouldn’t found the Creative Commons organization for four years later. But…still.

Sometimes the words are arbitrarily cut off, as in “mayonnais” and “masturbat.” (Both the prurient-minded and those prone to conspiracies about subliminal influence may note that the word “masturbat~” appears three times, twice as a full word, and once cut off in this way.)

So, in short, unless she’s studying the Dada Encyclopedia, this display just makes no sense.


Even if the images didn’t repeat, the words didn’t repeat, the images made sense for the words, and words appeared fully spelled out, it’s a ridiculous display for what Leeloo is trying to do. At best, this might be able to teach her the written words for some concrete things. But even this is doubtful. How does she know that “Napoleon” as a word means a particular individual rather than the word for a painted portrait, or the name of the uniform being depicted? Without going too far into history or learning theory, we can say that Leeloo would need exposure to some propositional language to understand history as interrelated events occurring across time, and an alphabetical list of words and pictures just isn’t enough.