Call for examples: Spreading Disaster Interfaces

So of the bumper crop of our current dystopias, the COVID-19 novel coronavirus feels the most pressing. While everyone is washing their hands regularly, working from home, conducting social isolation, and trying like hell not to touch their face, (you’re doing all these things, right?) they are also downloading and processing the pandemic via cinema. Contagion, in particular, from 2011, seems to be the film people are scrambling to find and watch. These films are more bio-fi than sci-fi, but these interfaces are clearly in the realm of Fictional User Interfaces, and regular readers know I often go off-leash to follow interests wherever they lead.

Contagion (2011)

While it’s a questionable kind of global-disaster therapy (Does it make people too paranoid? Does it give people false hope? Does it model the right behavior?) it makes me want to investigate the displays from such movies.

  • What diegetic questions do these displays hope to answer?
  • How well do the Fictional User Interfaces help answer these questions?
  • What ideally should these characters/teams be monitoring?
  • Are there better forms for this task?

And while there are lots of possible displays for all the permutations of these questions, I expect the anchor display will be what tvtropes.com calls the Spreading Disaster Map Graphic.

Contagion (2011+some change)

You know this one. Map starts with a few red dots labeled “today,” then transitions to another version with more red dots labeled something like “a little future,” and then landing to a final version absolutely covered in red death with a label like, “a little more future.” Holy wow, we think, the stakes are dire.

TV tropes has a number of examples. The list below are those that are closer to sci-fi and filtered for disease vectors rather than, say, human armies.

  • The Andromeda Strain
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Evolution
  • Outbreak
  • Jurassic World (kind of. Not armies but Indominus Rexes)
  • The Killer That Stalked New York
  • Edge of Tomorrow
  • Moana (no, really)

But I suspect they don’t have them all. (Like, where are all the zombie movies?) So scour your brain for examples of these kinds of interfaces, and comment so I have a good sample to work from.

In the meantime, while we’re on the topic, the most useful, informative, and even-keeled post I’ve seen on the issue is this one by Thomas PueyoCoronavirus: Why You Must Act Now.” Please give it a read.

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Deckard’s Front Door Key

I’m sorry. I could have sworn in advance that this would be a very quick post. One or two paragraphs.

  • Narrator
  • It wasn’t.

Exiting his building’s elevator, Deckard nervously pulls a key to his apartment from his wallet. The key is similar to a credit card. He inserts one end into a horizontal slot above the doorknob, and it quickly *beeps*, approving the key. He withdraws the key and opens the door.

The interaction…

…is fine, mostly. This is like a regular key, i.e. a physical token that is presented to the door to be read, and access granted or denied. If the interaction took longer than 0.1 second it would be important to indicate that the system was processing input, but it happens nearly instantaneously in the scene.

A complete review would need to evaluate other use cases.

  • How does it help users recover when the card is inserted incorrectly?
  • How does it reject a user when it is not the right key or the key has degraded too far to be read?

But of what we do see: the affordance is clear, being associated with the doorknob. The constraints help him know the card goes in lengthwise. The arrows help indicate which way is up and the proper orientation of the card. It could be worse.

A better interaction might arguably be no interaction, where he can just approach the door, and a key in his pocket is passively read, and he can just walk through. It would still need a second factor for additional security, and thinking through the exception use cases; but even if we nailed it, the new scene wouldn’t give him something to nervously fumble because Rachel is there, unnerving him. That’s a really charming character moment, so let’s give it a pass for the movie.

Accessibility

A small LED would help it be more accessible to deaf users to know if the key has been accepted or rejected.

The printing

The key has some printing on it. It includes the set of five arrows pointing the direction the key must be inserted. Better would be a key that either used physical constraints to make it impossible to insert the card incorrectly or to build the technology such that it could be read in any way it is inserted.

The rest of the card has numerals printed in MICR and words printed in a derived-from-MICR font like Data70. (MICR proper just has numerals.) MICR was designed such that the blobs on the letterforms, printed in magnetic ink, would be more easily detectible by a magnetic reader. It was seen as “computery” in the 1970s and 1980s (maybe still to some degree today) but does not make a lot of sense here when that part of the card is not available to the reader.

Privacy

Also on the key is his name, R. DECKARD. This might be useful to return the key to its rightful owner, but like the elevator passphrase, it needlessly shares personally identifiable information of its owner. A thief who found this key could do some social hacking with the name and gain access to his apartment. There is another possible solution for getting the key back to him if lost, discussed below.

The numbers underneath his name are hard to read, but a close read of the still frame and correlation across various prop recreations seem to agree it reads

015 91077
VP45 66-4020

While most of this looks like nonsense, the five-digit number in the upper right is obviously a ZIP code, which resolves to Arcadia, California, which is a city in Los Angeles county, where Blade Runner is meant to take place.

Though a ZIP code describes quite a large area, between this and the surname, it’s providing a potential identity thief too much.

Return if found?

There are also some Japanese characters and numbers on the graphic beneath his thumb. It’s impossible to read in the screen grab.

If I was consulting on this, I’d recommend—after removing the ZIP code—that this be how to return they key if it is found, so that it could be forwarded, by the company, to the owner. All the company would have to do is cross-reference the GUID on the key to the owner. It would be a nice nod to the larger world.

(Repeated for easy reference.)

The holes

You can see there are also holes punched in the card. (re: the light dots in the shadow in the above still.) They must not be used in this interaction because his thumb is covering so much of them. They might provide an additional layer of data, like the early mechanical key card systems. This doesn’t satisfy either of the other aspects of multifactor authentication, though, since it’s still part of the same physical token.

This…this is altered.

I like to think this is evidence that this card works something like a Multipass from The Fifth Element, providing identity for a wide variety of services which may have different types of readers. We just don’t see it in the film.

Security

Which brings us, as so many things do in sci-fi interfaces, back to multi-factor authentication. The door would be more secure if it required two of the three factors. (Thank you Seth Rosenblatt and Jason Cipriani for this well-worded rule-of-thumb)

  • Knowledge (something the user and only the user knows)
  • Possession (something the user and only the user has)
  • Inherence (something the user and only the user is)

The key counts as a possession factor. Given the scene just before in the elevator, the second factor could be another voiceprint for inherence. It might be funny to have him say the same phrase I suggested in that post, “Have you considered life in the offworld colonies?” with more contempt or even embarrassment that he has to say something that demeaning in front of Rachel.

Now, I’d guess most people in the audience secure their own homes simply with a key. More security is available to anyone with the money, but economics and the added steps for daily usage prevent us from adopting more. So, adding second factor, while more secure, might read to the audience as an indicator of wealth, paranoia, or of living in a surveillance state, none of which would really fit Blade Runner or Deckard. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it.

Deckard’s Elevator

This is one of those interactions that happens over a few seconds in the movie, but turns out to be quite deep—and broken—on inspection.

When Deckard enters his building’s dark, padded elevator, a flat voice announces, “Voice print identification. Your floor number, please.” He presses a dark panel, which lights up in response. He presses the 9 and 7 keys on a keypad there as he says, “Deckard. 97.” The voice immediately responds, “97. Thank you.” As the elevator moves, the interface confirms the direction of travel with gentle rising tones that correspond to the floor numbers (mod 10), which are shown rising up a 7-segment LED display. We see a green projection of the floor numbers cross Deckard’s face for a bit until, exhausted, he leans against the wall and out of the projection. When he gets to his floor, the door opens and the panel goes dark.

A need for speed

An aside: To make 97 floors in 20 seconds you have to be traveling at an average of around 47 miles per hour. That’s not unheard of today. Mashable says in a 2014 article about the world’s fastest elevators that the Hitachi elevators in Guangzhou CTF Finance Building reach up to 45 miles per hour. But including acceleration and deceleration adds to the total time, so it takes the Hitachi elevators around 43 seconds to go from the ground floor to their 95th floor. If 97 is Deckard’s floor, it’s got to be accelerating and decelerating incredibly quickly. His body doesn’t appear to be suffering those kinds of Gs, so unless they have managed to upend Newton’s basic laws of motion, something in this scene is not right. As usual, I digress.

The input control is OK

The panel design is nice and was surprising in 1982, because few people had ridden in elevators serving nearly a hundred floors. And while most in-elevator panels have a single button per floor, it would have been an overwhelming UI to present the rider of this Blade Runner complex with 100 floor buttons plus the usual open door, close door, emergency alert buttons, etc. A panel that allows combinatorial inputs reduces the number of elements that must be displayed and processed by the user, even if it slows things down, introduces cognitive overhead, and adds the need for error-handling. Such systems need a “commit” control that allows them to review, edit, and confirm the sequence, to distinguish, say, “97” from “9” and “7.” Not such an issue from the 1st floor, but a frustration from 10–96. It’s not clear those controls are part of this input.

Deckard enters 8675309, just to see what will happen.

I’m a fan of destination dispatch elevator systems that increase efficiency (with caveats) by asking riders to indicate their floor outside the elevator and letting the algorithm organize passengers into efficient groups, but that only works for banks of elevators. I get the sense Deckard’s building is a little too low-rent for such luxuries. There is just one in his building, and in-elevator controls work fine for those situations, even if they slow things down a bit.

The feedback is OK

The feedback of the floors is kind of nice in that the 7-segment numbers rise up helping to convey the direction of movement. There is also a subtle, repeating, rising series of tones that accompany the display. Most modern elevators rely on the numeracy of its passengers and their sense of equilibrium to convey this information, but sure, this is another way to do it. Also, it would be nice if the voice system would, for the visually impaired, say the floor number when the door opens.

Though the projection is dumb

I’m not sure why the little green projection of the floor numbers runs across Deckard’s face. Is it just a filmmaker’s conceit, like the genetic code that gets projected across the velociraptors head in Jurassic Park?

Pictured: Sleepy Deckard. Dumb projection.

Or is it meant to be read as diegetic, that is, that there is a projector in the elevator, spraying the floor numbers across the faces of its riders? True to the New Criticism stance of this blog, I try very hard to presume that everything is diegetic, but I just can’t make that make sense. There would be much better ways to increase the visibility of the floor numbers, and I can’t come up with any other convincing reason why this would exist.

If this was diegetic, the scene would have ended with a shredded projector.

But really, it falls apart on the interaction details

Lastly, this interaction. First, let’s give it credit where credit is due. The elevator speaks clearly and understands Deckard perfectly. No surprise, since it only needs to understand a very limited number of utterances. It’s also nice that it’s polite without being too cheery about it. People in LA circa 2019 may have had a bad day and not have time for that shit.

Where’s the wake word?

But where’s the wake word? This is a phrase like “OK elevator” or “Hey lift” that signals to the natural language system that the user is talking to the elevator and not themselves, or another person in the elevator, or even on the phone. General AI exists in the Blade Runner world, and that might allow an elevator to use contextual cues to suss this out, but there are zero clues in the film that this elevator is sentient.

There are of course other possible, implicit “wake words.” A motion detector, proximity sensor, or even weight sensor could infer that a human is present, and start the elevator listening. But with any of these implicit “wake words,” you’d still need feedback for the user to know when it was listening. And some way to help them regain attention if they got the first interaction wrong, and there would be zero affordances for this. So really, making an explicit wake word is the right way to go.

It might be that touching the number panel is the attention signal. Touch it, and the elevator listens for a few seconds. That fits in with the events in the scene, anyway. The problem with that is the redundancy. (See below.) So if the solution was pressing a button, it should just be a “talk” button rather than a numeric keypad.

It may be that the elevator is always listening, which is a little dark and would stifle any conversation in the elevator less everyone end up stuck in the basement, but this seems very error prone and unlikely.

Deckard: *Yawns* Elevator: Confirmed. Silent alarm triggered.

This issue is similar to the one discussed in Make It So Chapter 5, “Gestural Interfaces” where I discussed how a user tells a computer they are communicating to it with gestures, and when they aren’t. 

Where are the paralinguistics?

Humans provide lots of signals to one another, outside of the meaning of what is actually being said. These communication signals are called paralinguistics, and one of those that commonly appears in modern voice assistants is feedback that the system is listening. In the Google Assistant, for example, the dots let you know when it’s listening to silence and when it’s hearing your voice, providing implicit confirmation to the user that the system can hear them. (Parsing the words, understanding the meaning, and understanding the intent are separate, subsequent issues.)

Fixing this in Blade Runner could be as simple as turning on a red LED when the elevator is listening, and varying the brightness with Deckard’s volume. Maybe add chimes to indicate the starting-to-listen and no-longer-listening moments. This elevator doesn’t have anything like that, and it ought to.

Why the redundancy?

Next, why would Deckard need to push buttons to indicate “97” even while he’s saying the same number as part of the voice print? Sure, it could be that the voice print system was added later and Deckard pushes the numbers out of habit. But that bit of backworlding doesn’t buy us much.

It might be a need for redundant, confirming input. This is useful when the feedback is obscure or the stakes are high, but this is a low-stakes situation. If he enters the wrong floor, he just has to enter the correct floor. It would also be easy to imagine the elevator would understand a correction mid-ride like “Oh wait. Elevator, I need some ice. Let’s go to 93 instead.” So this is not an interaction that needs redundancy.

It’s very nice to have the discrete input as accessibility for people who cannot speak, or who have an accent that is unrecognizable to the system, or as a graceful degradation in case the speech recognition fails, but Deckard doesn’t fit any of this. He would just enter and speak his floor.

Why the personally identifiable information?

If we were designing a system and we needed, for security, a voice print, we should protect the privacy of the rider by not requiring personally identifiable information. It’s easy to imagine the spoken name being abused by stalkers and identity thieves riding the elevator with him. (And let’s not forget there is a stalker on the elevator with him in this very scene.)

This young woman, for example, would abuse the shit out of such information.

Better would be some generic phrase that stresses the parts of speech that a voiceprint system would find most effective in distinguishing people.

Tucker Saxon has written an article for VoiceIt called “Voiceprint Phrases.” In it he notes that a good voiceprint phrase needs some minimum number of non-repeating phonemes. In their case, it’s ten. A surname and a number is rarely going to provide that. “Deckard. 97,” happens to have exactly 10, but if he lived on the 2nd floor, it wouldn’t. Plus, it has that personally identifiable information, so is a non-starter.

What would be a better voiceprint phrase for this scene? Some of Saxon’s examples in the article include, “Never forget tomorrow is a new day” and “Today is a nice day to go for a walk.” While the system doesn’t care about the meaning of the phrase, the humans using it would be primed by the content, and so it would just add to the dystopia of the scene if Deckard had to utter one of these sunshine-and-rainbows phrases in an elevator that was probably an uncleaned murder scene. but I think we can do it one better.

(Hey Tucker, I would love use VoiceIt’s tools to craft a confirmed voiceprint phrase, but the signup requires that I permit your company to market to me via phone and email even though I’m just a hobbyist user, so…hard no.)

Deckard: Hi, I’m Deckard. My bank card PIN code is 3297. The combination lock to my car spells “myothercarisaspinner” and my computer password is “unicorn.” 97 please.

Here is an alternate interaction that would have solved a lot of these problems.

  • ELEVATOR
  • Voice print identification, please.
  • DECKARD
  • SIGHS
  • DECKARD
  • Have you considered life in the offworld colonies?
  • ELEVATOR
  • Confirmed. Floor?
  • DECKARD
  • 97

Which is just a punch to the gut considering Deckard is stuck here and he knows he’s stuck, and it’s salt on the wound to have to repeat fucking advertising just to get home for a drink.

So…not great

In total, this scene zooms by and the audience knows how to read it, and for that, it’s fine. (And really, it’s just a setup for the moment that happens right after the elevator door opens. No spoilers.) But on close inspection, from the perspective of modern interaction design, it needs a lot of work.