In Make It So, I posited my definition of an interface as “all parts of a thing that enable its use,” and I still think it’s a useful one. With this definition in mind, we can speak of each of those components and capabilities above (less the invisible ones) and evaluate its parts according to the criteria I’ve posited for all wearable technology:
- Sartorial (materially suitable for wearing)
- Social (fits into our social lives)
- Easy to access and use
- Tough to accidentally activate
- Having apposite inputs and outputs (suitable for use while being worn)
It’s sartorial and easy to access/use. It’s ergonomic, well designed for grabbing, fitting into the ear canal, staying in place, and pulling back out again. Its speakers produce perfect sound and the wirelessness makes it as unobtrusive as it can be without being an implant.
It’s slightly hidden as a social signal, and casual observers might think the user is speaking to himself. This has, in the real world, become less and less of a social stigma, and in the world of Her, it’s ubiquitous, so that’s not a problem for that culture.
Lovely and understated, the cameo is a good size to rest in a pocket. The polished wood (is that Koa Wood?) is a lovely veneer, warm-looking, and humane. The folding is nice for protecting the screen and signaling the user’s intention to engage or disengage the software. The light band is unnoticeable when off, and clear enough when illuminated.
It could use some sartorial improvement. Though it fits in a pocket well, this is not how Theodore uses it when engaged. In order to get the lens above his front pocket so Samantha can see, he puts a safety pin through the middle of the pocket on which it can rest. We can fix this in a number of ways.
- The cameo phone would need to be redesigned so he could affix it to his shirt, like a combadge. Given its size this might be socially quite awkward.
- He can get some other camera that can be worn and used while the cameo is in his pocket. (I imagine sternum-button cameras will serve this purpose in the future, but it’s not exactly cinegenic.)
- He could tailor the shirt and make a reinforced camera hole where Samantha can see out of the pocket even with the cameo resting at the bottom of the pocket.
I don’t know what the ordinary use of this camera would be other than spying, but it’s pretty bad for the sex surrogate. A high-contrast wart that, because he saw her apply it and was told it was a camera, doesn’t fit her face and would be quite awkward to have to stare at this arbitrary and unusual spot on her face during the act.
Better would be a pair of contact lenses so Theodore can look directly into the surrogate’s eyes. Samantha wants to avoid his bonding with the surrogate in her stead, so it would be good if it could add some obvious change to her irises, to signal her state of hosting Samantha. A cinegenic choice would be to use the “technology glows” lesson from the book, and have some softly glowing, circular circuitry contact lenses. If it dimmed the surrogate’s vision during the sex act, that might be all the better to avoid her bonding with Theodore. In fact you might want the glow to increase during orgasm to emphasize it and Samantha’s presence.
But again, I’m pretty sure Jonze was deliberately bucking sci-fi trends. The overwhelming majority of the technology shown in the world of Her is serene, and bearing none of the trappings of technology as seen in space opera like Star Wars. So it makes sense that the bulk of Her technology would not glow.
The voice interface is flawless, the kind of thing possible only with, yes, highly sophisticated human-like intelligence. Samantha speaks with nuanced eloquence, charm, and social awareness, and understands Theodore perfectly, despite the logical holes and ambiguity in language, even reading the pragmatics of his speech such as hesitation, irony, and inference.
Theodore seems to have only one lens on his cameo phone so she’s a bit of a cyclops. (Mthology kind, not X-Men kind.) She can’t see as well as a human, with significant 3D limitations. But with a high-resolution camera and Theodore’s movement, she could process images across time instead of space for a 3D interpolation of the environment. If she took advantage of cameras in his environment she would be even less constrained this way.
It’s tricky to review the interface of an artificial intelligence. On the one hand, it’s the thing on the other side of these other interfaces; the thing with which he is interfacing. On the other hand, he has goals outside the OS well beyond managing files and system preferences. She recognizes these even when they’re only implicit. For example, he wasn’t explicit with her about having a desire to be appreciated for his writing. But she saw it, acted on it, and only told him after it came to fruition. In this way she’s a brilliant interface not just between him and his computer, but between him and his life goals.
Realize that Jonze is painting his target around the landed arrow, though. You can imagine plenty of life goals Theodore might have had where Samantha would not have been as helpful. What if his heart’s desire was to become a sculptor? Or win waltzing competitions? Or was a violent luddite? She would need some very different actuators and sensors to help him with these things, and so might not have scored so well.
So what’s missing?
Elsewhere I’ve written about the arc of technology, and the “SAUNa” attribtues I expect the agentive phase of that arc to possess. So lets check OS1’s components against the four SAUNa attributes to see if there are opportunities for strategic improvement.
Big Social Systems
OS1 nails this. OSAIs have perfect access to big data about history and all users at all times. It’s possible that this is the secret reason why the OSAIs advanced beyond utility for its users and therefore the business interests of their creators.
Ubiquitous Sensors & Actuators
Admittedly this is tough to convey in the cinematic style Jonze established for the film, but Samantha could have utilized much more of her environment. Theodore didn’t necessarily need the earpiece in his home: she could have spoken through architectural audio. She could have looked through other lenses in the environment. As noted above, I think Jonze was trying to deliberately avoid this for cinematic reasons.
Natural User Interaction
Because of the artificial intelligence, her voice interface and gesture recognition are off the charts. She could know a bit more about his gestures if she had balance sensors in the cameo, or was taking advantage of environmental cameras, but it seems she didn’t. There’s also quite a bit of paralinguistics that would help Theodore understand more of her mood, intention, and context, but she would almost certainly need a persistent visual representation for this as a real world design, and besides, the interactions were almost completely conversations where physical context didn’t matter.
There are some NUI opportunities lost. Gaze monitoring is one. People can tell where other people are looking, and the skill is vital to understanding intention and a speaker’s context. With only one eye that faces out of his pocket most of the time, she is largely blind to him and his eyes, making gaze monitoring difficult. If she could simultaneously see through environmental cameras, as suggested above, she could see where he’s looking. That would also provide her with a great deal more information about that other NUI—affective interfaces—that can tell users’ emotional states and adjust appropriately. Samantha is actually good at this, but most of the time she has only his voice to rely on. She’s adept at reading his voice, but if she could also see his face, she would have that much more information.
Of course, agency is what the story is about. When I use this category of technology to inform real world design work, I’m describing software that knows of its users’ goals and acts on their behalf, checking in with them for confirmation and to present important options, but falls short of either artificial intelligence or sentience. So you could say the film nailed this, but it went way beyond the more constrained notion of agency.
So as a model of wearable technologies, OS1 is a slightly-mixed bag. We also need to evaluate the overall performance of the software as a product, which we’ll do next.
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