Syd’s dash display

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If Jasper’s car is aftermarket, Syd’s built-in display seems to be more consumer-savvy. It is a blue electroluminescent flat display built into the dashboard. It has more glanceable information with a cleaner information hierarchy. It has no dangerous keyboard entry. All we see of the display in these few glimpses is the speedometer, but even that’s enough to illustrate these differences.

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3 of 3: Brain Hacking

The hospital doesn’t have the equipment to decrypt and download the actual data. But Jane knows that the LoTeks can, so they drive to the ruined bridge that is the LoTek home base. As mentioned earlier under Door Bombs and Safety Catches the bridge guards nearly kill them due to a poorly designed defensive system. Once again Johnny is not impressed by the people who are supposed to help him.

When Johnny has calmed down, he is introduced to Jones, the LoTek codebreaker who decrypts corporate video broadcasts. Jones is a cyborg dolphin. Continue reading

Jasper’s car dashboard

Jasper is a longtime friend of Theo’s who offers his home as a safe house for a time. Jasper’s civilian vehicle features a device on its dashboard that merits some attention. It is something like a small laptop computer, with a flat-screen in a roughly pill-shaped black plastic frame mounted in the center of the dashboard. The top half of this screen shows a view from a backward-facing camera mounted on the vehicle.

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The lower half shows a number of different mode- and context-aware displays. The first we see is an overhead schematic of the vehicle, showing pulses moving back and forth from the front to the rear of the car, similar to Prius dash displays that display the transfer of power between the brakes and the battery.

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As the vehicle nears Jasper’’s house, the overhead schematic view draws up and is replaced with a column of text, which is in turn replaced by a circular object with animated rays projecting from it. Neither Jasper nor Theo gives the screen any notice during the scene.

Several dings

It’s dangerous to ask drivers to parse columns of text while operating a vehicle. Information must be glanceable.

The monochrome display seems to unnecessarily constrain the color palette. It’s good to give color-blind users modes that optimize the display for monochrome, and if we’re being generous, we can presume Jasper’s done just that.

But on the other hand, the monochrome minimizes the distractions that the mode switching causes. Note that the rapid changes that happen when Jasper is not on open road, but nearing a building. His attention should be on navigating the space ahead of him rather than on the screen. Maybe the monochrome helps ameliorate this.

Lastly note that the dashboard also features a full keyboard beneath the screen, positioned for the driver’s use. Since we never see it in use, let’s hope it’s not actually meant to be used while driving. Better would be a more suitable input mechanism like voice that doesn’t occupy the driver’s hands and eyes to use.

But wait

But those dings make more sense when we consider the interface narratively. The big clue is why would it persistently show a backward-facing camera when he’s driving forward? Can’t he just use the rear-view mirror? It seems to be something a normal driver wouldn’t concern themselves with. But it is something that a member of an underground resistance might be interested in, to use computer vision algorithms to help him know if he or she was being tailed or there was some threat behind him. That clue (along with the contrast to Syd’s car display) hints that this is not an off-the-shelf system, but something that Jasper has hacked together for himself. Maybe the software is shared amongst resistance members.

In any case, a homemade system can’t be expected to have the same level of usability as a professionally designed one. So narratively, this interface earns a pass.

Brain Scanning

The second half of the film is all about retrieving the data from Johnny’s implant without the full set of access codes. Johnny needs to get the data downloaded soon or he will die from the “synaptic seepage” caused by squeezing 320G of data into a system with 160G capacity. The bad guys would prefer to remove his head and cryogenically freeze it, allowing them to take their time over retrieval.

1 of 3: Spider’s Scanners

The implant cable interface won’t allow access to the data without the codes. To bypass this protection requires three increasingly complicated brain scanners, two of them medical systems and the final a LoTek hacking device. Although the implant stores data, not human memories, all of these brain scanners work in the same way as the Non-invasive, “Reading from the brain” interfaces described in Chapter 7 of Make It So.

The first system is owned by Spider, a Newark body modification
specialist. Johnny sits in a chair, with an open metal framework
surrounding his head. There’s a bright strobing light, switching on
and off several times a second.

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Nearby a monitor shows a large rotating image of his head and skull, and three smaller images on the left labelled as Scans 1 to 3. Continue reading

Green Laser Scan

In a very brief scene, Theo walks through a security arch on his way into the Ministry of Energy. After waiting in queue, he walks towards a rectangular archway. At his approach, two horizontal green laser lines scan him from head to toe. Theo passes through the arch with no trouble.

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Though the archway is quite similar to metal detection technology used in airports today, the addition of the lasers hints at additional data being gathered, such as surface mapping for a face-matching algorithm.

We know that security mostly cares about what’s hidden under clothes or within bodies and bags, rather than confirming the surface that security guards can see, so it’s not likely to be an actual technological requirement of the scan. Rather it is a visual reminder to participants and onlookers that the scan is in progress, and moreover that this the Ministry is a secured space.

Though we could argue that the signal could be made more visible, laser light is very eye catching and human eyes are most sensitive at 555nm, and this bright green is the closest to the 808 diode laser at 532nm. So for being an economic, but eye catching signal, this green laser is a perfect choice.

High Tech Binoculars

In Johnny Mnemonic we see two different types of binoculars with augmented reality overlays and other enhancements: Yakuz-oculars, and LoTek-oculars.

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The Yakuza are the last to be seen but also the simpler of the two. They look just like a pair of current day binoculars, but this is the view when the leader surveys the LoTek bridge.

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I assume that the characters here are Japanese? Anyone?

In the centre is a fixed-size green reticule. At the bottom right is what looks like the magnification factor. At the top left and bottom left are numbers, using Western digits, that change as the binoculars move. Without knowing what the labels are I can only guess that they could be azimuth and elevation angles, or distance and height to the centre of the reticule. (The latter implies some sort of rangefinder.) Continue reading

Report Card: The Faithful Wookiee

Read all The Faithful Wookiee reviews in chronological order.

Of course we understand that The Faithful Wookiee was an animation for children and teens, the script of which was thrown together in a short time. We understand that it is meant to be entertainment and not a prediction, building on the somewhat-unexpected success of a sci-fi movie released the year before. We get that the plot is, well, unlikely. We understand that 1978 was not a time when much thought was given to consistent and deeply thought-through worldbuilding with technology. We understand it is hand-drawn animation and all the limitations that come with this.

But, still, to ensure a critique is valuable to us, we must bypass these archaeological excuses and focus instead on the thing as produced. And for that, the short does not fare well.

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Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

Comms have interfaces with inexplicably moving buttons. Headsets require pilots to take their hands off the controls. Spaceships with EZ-open external doors, the interfaces just don’t make sense. The one bright spot might be the video phone on which Fett calls Vader, but with no apparent camera and unlabeled buttons, it’s a pretty dim bright spot.

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Fi: A (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

Comms efficiently lets us know Chewie is incoming, mysteriously not responding to hails. Headsets let us know when Luke is talking to base. We find out about Boba’s deception to suddenly reveal the danger our heroes are in as well as the stakes. The escape hatch ends the story quickly without violence. These interfaces are almost exclusively narrative in purpose, which is why they fail in other ways.

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Interfaces: F (0 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

The comms make its user remember and interpret important data. The headsets require pilots to take their hands off the controls. The evillest organization in the galaxy bypassing basic security. A door that seems to ignore the basics of safety and security. There is little to recommend these interfaces as models for designs in the real world.

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Final Grade C (8 of 12), Matinée.

Despite the failings of the interfaces, I’ll argue that The Faithful Wookiee may be the best thing about the Star Wars Holiday Special. And, we’re back to that mess, next.

Children of Men: Overview

When it was released, Children of Men seemed a fanciful dystopia. Today with its depictions of environmental blight, terrorist bombs, refugee-phobia, and a militarized police state, it seems uncomfortably prescient. The film is sci-fi, but it doesn’t lean heavily on the use of interfaces for its storytelling. So while it will be only a handful of reviews, let’s celebrate the 10th anniversary of this dark film with some nerdy analysis.

Release Date: 05 January 2007 (USA)

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Plot

In the year 2010, humanity suddenly suffers from global infertility. Most of the world is thrown into chaos, but Britian soliders on under military rule. Refugees in this society are considered a threat to the nation, and they are routinely rounded up and deported or killed.

In 2027, one member of this society, named Theo Faron, is dutifully trudging on with his life when he is kidnapped and taken to meet his estranged wife Julian, now the leader of a secretive and militaristic refugee-rights organization. She convinces him to use his relationship to his powerful cousin Nigel to arrange transportation papers for a young woman. When Theo delivers the papers, he learns that the young woman, named Kee, is pregnant. Shocked at this symbol of hope, he protects her from a society that hates her, a government that will kill her, and the refugee-rights organization who wants to use the child for their own ends, escorting her at great personal cost to a fabled boat that can protect and nurture her and her child and thereby the future of humanity.

Intermission

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At this point there is still an hour of film and a dozen interfaces to go. Fortunately, by abandoning a strict chronological approach these can be grouped into four types of interfaces.

  1. The LoTeks and Yakuza both use a kind of high tech binoculars.
  2. Johnny enters cyberspace to try and find the download access codes for the data, an attempt that fails.
  3. Retrieving the data without the codes needs two brain reading medical scanners and a final LoTek brain hacking device.
  4. In between action scenes Johnny and others make video phone calls using a variety of different gadgets.
    The last of these phone calls itself demonstrates two interesting interfaces, a puppet avatar and a cringing computer.

In this remaining hour Johnny is always accompanied by Jane, the other lead character. She won’t appear in any of these discussions though, because she never uses any interfaces. Jane is a bodyguard, who relies on simple but reliable blades and throwing spikes for weapons. She has an augmented nervous system, with sockets in her arms that we briefly see connected to some electronic medical equipment, but alas we never learn the full extent of her capabilities. I suggest reading Neuromancer if you’re interested in cyberpunk body modifications, as Jane is just a renaming of Molly who appeared in the original Johnny Mnemonic short story and Neuromancer.

There is also Anna, the former CEO of Pharmakom who is now a “neural net persona” within the Pharmakom mainframe after being “imprinted” shortly before her death. She appears every so often on computer screens to both Johnny and Takahashi. I don’t consider her to be an interface, as the interaction between her and other characters is simple conversation and she is treated no differently to an intrusive video phone caller. Chris may wish to jump in and provide his own analysis though. 🙂

Escape door

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There is one last interface in The Faithful Wookiee we see in use. It’s one of those small interfaces, barely seen, but that invites lots of consideration. In the story, Boba and Chewie have returned to the Falcon and administered to Luke and Han the cure to the talisman virus. Relieved, Luke (who assigns loyalty like a puppy at a preschool) says,

“Boba, you’re a hero and a faithful friend. [He isn’t. —Editor] You must come back with us. [He won’t.What’s the matter with R2?”

C3PO says,“I’m afraid sir, it’s because you said Boba is a faithful friend and faithful ally. [He didn’t.] That simply does not feed properly into R2’s information banks.”

Luke asks, “What are you talking about?”

“We intercepted a message between Boba and Darth Vader, sir. Boba Fett is Darth Vader’s right-hand man. I’m afraid this whole adventure has been an Imperial plot.”

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Luke did not see this coming.

Luke gapes towards Boba, who has his blaster drawn and is backing up into an alcove with an escape hatch. Boba glances at a box on the wall, slides some control sideways, and a hatch opens in the ceiling. He says, deadpan, “We’ll meet again…friend,” before touching some control on his belt that sends him flying into the clear green sky, leaving behind a trail of smoke.

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A failure of door

Let’s all keep in mind that the Falcon isn’t a boat or a car. It is a spaceship. On the other side of the hatch could be breathable air at the same pressure as what’s inside the ship, or it could also be…

  • The bone-cracking 2.7° Kelvin emptiness of space
  • The physics-defying vortex of hyperspace
  • Some poisonous atmosphere like Venus’, complete with sulfuric acid clouds
  • A hungry flock of neebrays.

There should be no easy way to open any of its external doors.

Think of an airplane hatch. On the other side of that thing is an atmosphere known to support human life, and it sure as hell doesn’t open like a gen-1 iPhone. For safety, it should take some doing.

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If we’re being generous, maybe there’s some mode by which each door can be marked as “safe” and thereby made this easy to open. But that raises issues of security and authorizations and workflow that probably aren’t worth going into without a full redesign and inserting some new technological concepts into the diegesis.

Let’s also not forget that to secure that most precious of human biological needs, i.e. air, there should be an airlock, where the outer door and inner door can’t be opened at the same time without extensive override. But that’s not a hindrance. It could have made for an awesome moment.

  • LUKE gapes at Boba. Cut to HAN.
  • HAN
  • You won’t get any information out of us, alive or dead. Even the droids are programmed to self-destruct. But there’s a way out for you.
  • HAN lowers his hand to a panel, and presses a few buttons. An escape hatch opens behind Boba Fett.
  • BOBA FETT
  • We’ll meet again…friend.

That quick change might have helped explain why Boba didn’t just kill everyone and steal the Falcon and the droids (along with their information banks) then and there.

Security is often sacrificed to keep narrative flowing, so I get why makers are tempted to bypass these issues. But it’s also worth mentioning two other failures that this 58-second scene illustrates.

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A failure to droid

Why the hell did C3PO and R2D2 wait to tell Luke and Han of this betrayal until Luke happened to say something that didn’t fit into “information banks?” C3PO could have made up some bullshit excuse to pull Luke aside and whisper the news. But no, he waits, maybe letting Luke and Han spill vital information about the Rebellion, and only when something doesn’t compute, blurt out that the only guy in the room with the blaster happens to be in bed with Space Voldemort.

I can’t apologize for this. It’s a failure of writing and an unimaginative mental model. If you are a writer wondering how droids would behave, think of them less as stoic gurus and more as active academies.

A failure of plot

Worse, given that C3PO says this is all an Imperial plot, we’re meant to understand that in an attempt to discover the Rebel base, the Empire…

  • Successfully routed rumors of a mystical talisman, which the Empire was just about to find, to the Rebels in a way they would trust it
  • Actually created a talisman
  • Were right on their long shot bet that the Rebels would bite at the lure
  • Bioengineered a virus that
    • Caused a sleeping sickness that only affects humans
    • Survived on the talisman indefinitely
  • Somehow protected Boba Fett from the virus even though he is human
  • Planted a cure for the virus on a planet near to where Han and Chewie would find the talisman
  • Successfully routed the location of the cure to Chewbacca so he would know where to go
  • Got Boba Fett—riding an ichthyodont—within minutes, to the exact site on the planet where Chewie would crash-land the Falcon.

Because without any of these points, the plan would not have worked. Yet despite the massive logistics, technological, and scientific effort, this same Empire had to be stupid enough to…

  • Bother to interrupt the mission in progress to say that the mission was on track
  • Use insecure, unencrypted, public channels to for this report

Also note that despite all this effort (and buffoonery) they never, ever used this insanely effective bioweapon against the Rebels, again.


I know, you’re probably thinking this is just some kid’s cartoon in the Star Wars diegesis, but that only raises more problems, which I’ll address in the final post on this crazy movie within a crazy movie.