The holocircus

To distract Lumpy while she tends to dinner, Malla sits him down at a holotable to watch a circus program. She leans down to one of the four control panels inset around the table’s edge, presses a few buttons, and the program begins.


In the program small volumetric projections of human (not Wookie) performers appear on the surface of the table and begin a dance and acrobatic performance to a soundtrack that is, frankly, ear-curdling.

Partway through the performance, Lumpy presses the second-from-the-left button, and the main dancer (who has just got to be a Radical Faerie, a full year before that august organization formed) disappears from the table only to become a life-sized projection just off the table, as if the figure had invisible legs but stood on the floor of the house.

When Lumpy is done with the performance, he presses a button, and RF guy disappears from the room and reappears in small size on the table to join the other performers on the table for a bow and curtain call before they all disappear and that ghastly, inhumane music stops.

So…yeah. This interface.

The terrible usability of tape recorders

It’s pretty clear the control panels are cassette recorders. I know that young readers won’t know what the pfassk that is,  so for due diligence, let me explain. Those devices recorded and played back audio stored on magnetic tapes wound in cartridges. The controls for it were six stay-state toggles. These types of buttons have two states. Pushing one locks it down and sets the device to a mode: Play, Rewind, or Fast Forward. One special button, Record (often colored red) had to be chorded with the Play button as a safety precaution against accidentally destroying an existing recording. Users had to press a special Stop button to release any pressed button and stop the mode. Fast forward and Rewind could be pressed while audio was playing, but in such cases they would act as a momentary button. When any of the modes reached the end of a tape, higher-end recorders would also automatically release that button.

So let’s all admit that these are pretty terrible controls. From the fact that they almost all look the same to the fact that toggles make much more sense. (Press one button to play, press that same button again to make it stop.) But toggles weren’t the consumer model of the time. And this holocircus interface, hastily put together from things that the prop department could purchase off the shelf in the one day they were given to hack it together, inherits all that unusability and piles some more confusion onto it.

For instance

When we see Lumpy press the “Make the Dancing Man Bigger” mode, no other buttons are depressed. That means Malla had to set the circus mode, start the program, and press something like a stop button that released those. In turn that means if there was nothing on the table, it could either be because this was a blank spot in the media or that it wasn’t actually playing. You couldn’t tell, though, because the neither the controls nor the media didn’t reflect the state of the thing. This is probably not a common problem because we see that the garish programs and their terrible soundtracks are pretty effing hard to miss, but from a pure usability point of view, it sucks and should be avoided.

Now, there’s probably a thought exercise that could be done to figure out what keys mapped to which functions (and how), as well as second-guess the capabilities of the media (could he have picked any performer to enlarge, or was there just this option?) but honestly, it would be a Sisyphean multithreaded process of single-function vs. combined-letter arguments made by myself in a wall of text with little to no payoff for either of us. Knock yourself out in the comments if you want, but I’d rather focus on another aspect of the interface that I think does pay off, and that’s the visual language of the VP.


You know, for kids

This volumetric projection does not have most of the visual signals common to sci-fi hologram trope:

  • Edge-lighting
  • Blue cast
  • Scan lines
  • Projection rays

It does have translucency and an unusual scale, but that’s it. This visual language was actually established in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. So its absence here is conspicuous. As I noted in Make It So, these signals make it very clear to the observer that what they are observing is media—i.e. not real. Of course the real reason these VPs lack those signals is because this show had the budget of this blog post, but can we find a diegetic reason?

Surprisingly, I think yes. Kid’s media is different than regular media. Just like we pretend that Santa Claus is real for young children until they’re old enough to start to think critically about it, perhaps special effort is taken on these VPs to make it really immersive for the hairy kiddo. He doesn’t get the it’s-not-real signals because they want him to believe that it is.

Which is some fine holiday apologetics, if I do say so myself.

One thought on “The holocircus

  1. Pingback: Report Card: The Star Wars Holiday Special | Sci-fi interfaces

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