Life Day Orbs

The last interface in The Star Wars Holiday Special is one of the handful of ritual interfaces we see in the scifiinterfaces survey. After Saun Dann leaves, the Wookiee family solemnly proceeds to a shelf in the living room. One by one they retrieve hand-sized transparent orbs with a few lights glowing inside of each. They gather together in the center of the living room, and a watery light floods them from stage right while the rest of the house lights dim. They hold the orbs up, with heads tilted reverently. Then they go blurry before refocusing again, and now they’re wearing blood red robes and floating in a sea of stars.

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Then we cut to a long procession of Wookiees walking single file across an invisible space bridge into a glowing ball of space light, which explodes in sparkles at no particular time, and to which no one in the procession reacts in any way.

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Break for commercial.

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Snitch phone

If you’re reading these chronologically, let me note here that I had to skip Bea Arthur’s marvelous turn as Ackmena, as she tends the bar and rebuffs the amorous petitions of the lovelorn, hole-in-the-head Krelman, before singing her frustrated patrons out of the bar when a curfew is announced. To find the next interface of note, we have to forward to when…

Han and Chewie arrive, only to find a Stormtrooper menacing Lumpy. Han knocks the blaster out of his hand, and when the Stormtrooper dives to retrieve it, he falls through the bannister of the tree house and to his death.

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Why aren’t these in any way affiiiiixxxxxxeeeeeeddddddd?

Han enters the home and wishes everyone a Happy Life Day. Then he bugs out.

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But I still have to return for the insane closing number. Hold me.

Then Saun Dann returns to the home just before a general alert comes over the family Imperial Issue Media Console.

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21 Hyperdiegetic Questions about The Faithful Wookiee

Since I only manage to restart The Star Wars Holiday Special reviews right around the time a new Star Wars franchise movie comes out, many of you may have forgotten it was even being reviewed. Well, it is. If you need to catch up, or have joined this blog after I began it years ago, you can head back to beginning to read about the plot and the analyses so far. It’s not pretty.

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When we last left the Special, Lumpy was distracted from the Stormtrooper ransack of their home by watching The Faithful Wookiee. The 6 analyses of that film focused on the movie from a diegetic perspective, as if it were a movie like any other on this blog, dealing mostly with its own internal “logic.”

Picking up, we need to look at The Faithful Wookiee from a “hyperdiegetic” perspective, that is, in the context of the other show in which it occurs, that is, The Star Wars Holiday Special. Please note that, departing from the mission statement for a bit, these questions not about the interfaces, but about the backworlding that informs these interfaces. Continue reading

Bitching about Transparent Screens

I’ve been tagged a number of times on Twitter from people are asking me to weigh in on the following comic by beloved Parisian comic artist Boulet.

Since folks are asking (and it warms my robotic heart that you do), here’s my take on this issue. Boulet, this is for you.

Sci-fi serves different masters

Interaction and interface design answers to one set of masters: User feedback sessions, long-term user loyalty, competition, procurement channels, app reviews, security, regulation, product management tradeoffs of custom-built vs. off-the-shelf, and, ideally, how well it helps the user achieve their goals.

But technology in movies and television shows don’t have to answer to any of these things. The cause-and-effect is scripted. It could be the most unusable piece of junk tech in that universe and it will still do exactly what it is supposed to do. Hell, it’s entirely likely that the actor was “interacting” with a blank screen on set and the interface painted on afterward (in “post”). Sci-fi interfaces answer to the masters of story, worldbuilding, and often, spectacle.

I have even interviewed one of the darlings of the FUI world about their artistic motivations, and was told explicitly that they got into the business because they hated having to deal with the pesky constraints of usability. (Don’t bother looking for it, I have not published that interview because I could not see how to do so without lambasting it.) Most of these things are pointedly baroque where usability is a luxury priority.

So for goodness’ sake, get rid of the notion that the interfaces in sci-fi are a model for usability. They are not.

They are technology in narrative

We can understand how they became a trope by looking at things from the makers’ perspective. (In this case “maker” means the people who make the sci-fi.)

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Not this Maker.

Transparent screens provide two major benefits to screen sci-fi makers.

First, they quickly inform the audience that this is a high-tech world, simply because we don’t have transparent screens in our everyday lives. Sci-fi makers have to choose very carefully how many new things they want to introduce and explain to the audience over the course of a show. (A pattern that, in the past, I have called What You Know +1.) No one wants to sit through lengthy exposition about how the world works. We want to get to the action.

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With some notable exceptions.

So what mostly gets budgeted-for-reimagining and budgeted-for-explanation in a script are technologies that are a) important to the diegesis or b) pivotal to the plot. The display hardware is rarely, if ever, either. Everything else usually falls to trope, because tropes don’t require pausing the action to explain.

Secondly (and moreover) transparent screens allow a cinematographer to show the on-screen action and the actor’s face simultaneously, giving us both the emotional frame of the shot as well as an advancement of plot. The technology is speculative anyway, why would the cinematographer focus on it? Why cut back and forth from opaque screen to an actor’s face? Better to give audiences a single combined shot that subordinates the interface to the actors’ faces.

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We should not get any more bent out of shape for this narrative convention than any of these others.

  • My god, these beings, who, though they lived a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away look identical to humans! What frozen evolution or panspermia resulted in this?
  • They’re speaking languages that are identical to some on modern Earth! How?
  • Hasn’t anyone noticed the insane coincidence that these characters from the future happen to look exactly like certain modern actors?
  • How are there cameras everywhere that capture these events as they unfold? Who is controlling them? Why aren’t the villains smashing them?
  • Where the hell is that orchestra music coming from?
  • This happens in the future, how are we learning about it here in their past?

The Matter of Believability

It could be, that what we are actually complaining about is not usability, but believability. It may be that the problems of eye strain, privacy, and orientation are so obvious that it takes us out of the story. Breaking immersion is a cardinal sin in narrative. But it’s pretty easy (and fun) to write some simple apologetics to explain away these particular concerns.

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Why is eye strain not a problem? Maybe the screens actually do go opaque when seen from a human eye, we just never see them that way because we see them from the POV of the camera.

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Why is privacy not a problem? Maybe the loss of privacy is a feature, not a bug, for the fascist society being depicted; a way to keep citizens in line. Or maybe there is an opaque mode, we just don’t see any scenes where characters send dick pics, or browse porn, and would thereby need it. Or maybe characters have other, opaque devices at home specifically designed for the private stuff.

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Why isn’t orientation a problem? Tech would only require face recognition for such an object to automatically orient itself correctly no matter how it is being picked up or held. The Appel Maman would only present itself downwards to the table if it was broken.

So it’s not a given that transparent screens just won’t work. Admittedly, this is some pretty heavy backworlding. But they could work.

But let’s address the other side of believability. Sci-fi makers are in a continual second-guess dance with their audience’s evolving technological literacy. It may be that Boulet’s cartoon is a bellwether, a signal that non-technological audiences are becoming so familiar with the real-world challenges of this trope that is it time for either some replacement, or some palliative hints as to why the issues he illustrates aren’t actually issues. As audience members—instead of makers—we just have to wait and see.

Sci-fi is not a usability manual.

It never was. If you look to sci-fi for what is “good” design for the real-world, you will cause frustration, maybe suffering, maybe the end of all good in the ’verse. Please see the talk I gave at the Reaktor conference a few years ago for examples, presented in increasing degrees of catastrophe.

I would say—to pointedly use the French—that the “raison d’être” of this site is exactly this. Sci-fi is so pervasive, so spectacular, so “cool,” that designers must build up a skeptical immunity to prevent its undue influence on their work.

I hope you join me on that journey. There’s sci-fi and popcorn in it for everyone.

Report Card: White Christmas

Read all the Black Mirror, “White Christmas” reviews in chronological order.

I love Black Mirror. It’s not always perfect, but uses great story telling to get us to think about the consequences of technology in our lives. It’s a provocateur that invokes the spirit of anthology series like The Twilight Zone, and rarely shies away from following the tech into the darkest places. It’s what thinking about technology in sci-fi formats looks like.

But, as usual, this site is not about the show but the interfaces, and for that we turn to the three criteria for evaluation here on scifiinterfaces.com.

  1. How believable are the interfaces? Can it work this way? (To keep you immersed.)
  2. How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story? (To tell a good story.)
  3. How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals? (To be a good model for real-world design?)

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Pregnancy Test

Another incidental interface is the pregnancy test that Joe finds in the garbage. We don’t see how the test is taken, which would be critical when considering its design. But we do see the results display in the orange light of Joe and Beth’s kitchen. It’s a cartoon baby with a rattle, swaying back and forth.

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Sure it’s cute, but let’s note that the news of a pregnancy is not always good news. If the pregnancy is not welcome, the “Lucky you!” graphic is just going to rip her heart out. Much better is an unambiguous but neutral signal.

That said, Black Mirror is all about ripping our hearts out, so the cuteness of this interface is quite fitting to the world in which this appears. Narratively, it’s instantly recognizable as a pregnancy test, even to audience members who are unfamiliar with such products. It also sets up the following scene where Joe is super happy for the news, but Beth is upset that he’s seen it. So, while it’s awful for the real world; for the show, this is perfect.

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Restraining Order

After Joe confronts Beth and she calls for help, Joe is taken to a police station where in addition to the block, he now has a GPS-informed restraining order against him.

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To confirm the order, Joe has to sign is name to a paper and then press his thumbprints into rectangles along the bottom. The design of the form is well done, with a clearly indicated spot for his signature, and large touch areas in which he might place his thumbs for his thumbprints to be read.

A scary thing in the interface is that the text of what he’s signing is still appearing while he’s providing his thumbprints. Of course the page could be on a loop that erases and redisplays the text repeatedly for emphasis. But, if it was really downloading and displaying it for the first time to draw his attention, then he has provided his signature and thumbprints too early. He doesn’t yet know what he’s signing.

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Government agencies work like this all the time and citizens comply because they have no choice. But ideally, if he tried to sign or place his thumbprints before seeing all the text of what he’s signing, it would be better for the interface to reject his signature with a note that he needs to finish reading the text before he can confirm he has read and understands it. Otherwise, if the data shows that he authenticated it before the text appeared, I’d say he had a pretty good case to challenge the order in court.