Her interface components (2/8)

Depending on how you slice things, the OS1 interface consists of five components and three (and a half) capabilities.

Her-earpiece

1. An Earpiece

The earpiece is small and wireless, just large enough to fit snugly in the ear and provide an easy handle for pulling out again. It has two modes. When the earpiece is in Theodore’s ear, it’s in private mode, hearable only by him. When the earpiece is out, the speaker is as loud as a human speaking at room volume. It can produce both voice and other sounds, offering a few beeps and boops to signal needing attention and changes in the mode.

Her-cameo

2. Cameo phone

I think I have to make up a name for this device, and “cameo phone” seems to fit. This small, hand-sized, bi-fold device has one camera on the outside an one on the inside of the recto, and a display screen on the inside of the verso. It folds along its long edge, unlike the old clamshell phones. The has smartphone capabilities. It wirelessly communicates with the internet. Theodore occasionally slides his finger left to right across the wood, so it has some touch-gesture sensitivity. A stripe around the outside-edge of the cameo can glow red to act as a visual signal to get its user’s attention. This is quite useful when the cameo is folded up and sitting on a nightstand, for instance.

Theodore uses Samantha almost exclusively through the earpiece and cameo phone, and it is this that makes OS1 a wearable system.

3. A beauty-mark camera

Only present for the surrogate sex scene, this small wireless (are we at the point when we can stop specifying that?) camera affixes to the skin and has the appearance of a beauty mark.

4. (Unseen) microphones

Whether in the cameo phone, the desktop screen, or ubiquitously throughout the environment, OS1 can hear Theodore speak wherever he is over the course of the film.

5. Desktop screen

Theodore only uses a large monitor for OS1 on his desktop a few times. It is simply another access point as far as OS1 is concerned. Really, there’s nothing remarkable about this screen. It is notable that there’s no keyboard. All input is provided by either voice, camera, or a touch gesture on the cameo.

Her-install01

If those are components to the interface, they provide the medium for her 3.5 capabilities.

Her capabilities

1. Voice interface

Users can speak to OS1 in fully-natural language, as if speaking to another person. OS1 speaks back with fully-human spoken articulation. Theodore’s older OS had a voice interface, but because of its lack of artificial intelligence driving it, the interactions were limited to constrained commands like, “Read email.”

2. Computer vision

Samantha can process what she sees through the camera lens of the cameo perfectly. She recognizes distinct objects, people, and gestures at the physical and pragmatic level. I don’t think we ever see things from Samatha’s perspective, but we do have a few quick close ups of the camera lens.

3. Artificial Intelligence

The most salient aspect of the interface is that OS1 is a fully realized “Strong” artificial intelligence.

It would like me to try and get to some painfully-crafted definition of what counts as either an artificial intelligence or sentience, but in this case we don’t really need a tight definition to help suss out whether or not Samantha is one. That’s the central conceit of the film, and the evidence is just overwhelming.

  • She has a human command of language.
  • She’s fully versed in the nuances of human emotion (and Theodore has a glut of them to engage).
  • She has emotions and can fairly be described as emotional. She has a sexual drive.
  • She has existential crises and a rich theory of mind. At one point she dreamily asks Theodore “What’s it like to be alive in that room right now?” as if she was a philosophical teen idly chatting with her boyfriend over the phone.
  • She commits lies of omission in hiding uncomfortable truths.
  • She changes over time. She solves problems. She learns. She creates.
  • She has a sense of humor. When Theodore tells her early on to “read email” in the weird toComputerese (my name for that 1970s dialect of English spoken only between humans and machines) grammar he had been using with his old operating system, Samantha jokingly adopts a robotic voice and replies, “OK. I will read the email for Theodore Twombly” and gets a good laugh out of him before he apologizes.

Pedants will have some fun discussing whether this is apt but I’m moving forward with it as a given. She’s sentient.

3.5 An “operating system”

This item only counts as half a thing because Theodore uses it as an operating system maaaybe twice in the film. Really, this categorization is a MacGuffin to explain why he gets it in the first place, but it has little to no other bearing on the film.

scarlettjoclippy

What’s missing?

Notably missing in OS1 is a face or any other visual anthropomorphic aspect. There’s no Samantha-faced Clippy. Notice that she’s very carefully disembodied. Jonze does not spend screen time close up on her camera lens, like Kubrick did with HAL’s unblinking eye. Had he done so, it would have given us the impression that she’s somewhere behind that eye. But she’s not. Even in the prop design, he makes sure the camera lens itself looks unremarkable, neutral, and unexpressive, and never gets a lingering focus.

Her “organs,” like the cameo and earpiece, don’t even connect together physically at all. Speaking as she does through the earpiece means she doesn’t exist as a voice from some speaker mounted to the wall. She exists across various displays and devices, in some psychological ether between them. For us, she’s a voiceover existing everywhere at once. For Theodore, she’s just a delightful voice in his head. An angel—or possibly a ghost—borne unto him.

This disembodiment (both the design and the cinematic treatment) frees Theodore and the audience from the negative associations of many other sci-fi intelligences, robots, and unfortunate experiments in commercial artificial intelligence that got trapped in the muck of the uncanny valley. One of the main reasons designers have to be careful about invoking the anthropomorphic sense in users is because it will raise expectations of human capabilities that modern technology just can’t match. But OS1 can match and exceed those expectations, since it’s an AI in a work of fiction, so Jonze is free of that constraint.

And having no visual to accompany a human-like voice allows users to imagine our own “perfect” embodiment to the voice. Relying on the imagination to provide the visuals makes the emotional engagement greater, as it does with our crushes on radio personalities, or the unseen monster in a horror movie. Movies can never create as fulfilling an image for an individual audience member as their imagination can. Theodore could picture whatever he wanted to–even if he wanted to–to accompany Samantha’s computer-generated voice. Unfortunately for the audience, Jonze cast Scarlett Johansen, a popular actress whose image we are instantly able to recall upon hearing her husky, sultry voice, so the imagined-perfection is more difficult for us.

This is just the components and capabilities. Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the key interactions with OS1.

7 thoughts on “Her interface components (2/8)

  1. Oh, well done! I love the comparison vs Hal: Hal is the creepy eye, whereas Her is disembodied, “everyware”. You are very right to point this out as a deliberate choice, with full immersion into technology. And your Scralett Clippy will surely go down into the classic design history. Can I use it in my next talk? -Greg

  2. I’ve been thinking a lot about the choice to cast Scarlett Johansson.

    I had thought that it was a good move. Knowing that Johansson is a winsome and sexy actor helps to sell us on Theodore falling for Samantha romantically and sexually.

    Having a recognizable actor in the role also helps make the surrogate scene work. At first, I was surprised that the movie didn’t make the obvious move of having Johansson play the surrogate, but as the scene played out it became clear that it needed us to see her as Not Samantha, and so it needed to give us a different actor.

    But your point about how ‘her’ breaks from cinematic convention in working hard to underline for us that Samantha is disembodied is so strong that now, like you, I’m surprised and disappointed by the choice of such a recognizable actor.

  3. Interestingly, Samantha Morton was the original actress and was apparently replaced after most filming was complete. I wonder if a “Morton version” will be available on the video release.

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