The Thanatorium: Usher Panel

The thanatorium is a speculative device for assisted suicide in Soylent Green. Suicide and death are not easy topics and I will do my best to address them seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.

There are four experiences to look at in the interface and service design of the Thanatorium: The patient, their beneficiaries, the usher to the beneficiaries, and the attendants to the patient. This post is about the interface for the usher. This Thanatorium personnel is there as a stage manager of sorts, both to help the patient and the beneficiaries go where they need to go, ensure the beneficiaries do not do what they must not, and run the tech aspects of the ceremony.

The usher, left, ushing.

Note that—as I backworlded in the last post—these notes presume that the reason the beneficiaries are separated from the patients are to prevent them from trying to stop the event, and to minimize distractions during the cinerama display for gross biochemical reasons. Also recall that we’re having to go with a best-guess as to what the usual experience is, since we only see Thorn’s tardy thuggery in the film.

The usher’s tasks

Based on what we see in the film, the usher has a lot to do for each event…

  • Receive the patient’s preferences (music category, color, whatever other questions intake asked before we join that scene) from the intake personnel 
  • Escort the patient to the “theater” and the beneficiaries to the observation room
  • Set the color of the light and the music to the patient’s preferences
  • Close the portal for the hemlock drinking
  • Open the portal for last farewells
  • Close the portal for the cinerama display
  • Start the cinerama display
  • Get help if the patient gets up or otherwise interrupts the ceremony
  • Wait for when the patient dies
  • Open the portal to view the body’s being shuttled away
  • Ensure the beneficiaries behave, answer any questions
  • Escort the beneficiaries back to the lobby
A screen shot from the movie showing the existing usher panel.

The interface barely touches on any of this

With all that in mind, we can see that this interface is woefully ill-equipped for any of his tasks. In the prior post I argue that the features for speaking to the patient—the speaker, the audio jack, and the SPEAKING PERMITTED indicator—should be separated from the usher’s stage manager functions. So we’re only going to pay attention in this post to the row of backlit rocker toggles labeled PORTAL, EFFECTS, CHAMBER 2, AUDIO, VISUAL, CHAMBER 1 and a little bit of the authorization key that looks like a square metal button in the screen cap above. And note I’m going to make suggestions that are appropriate to the early 1970s rather than use either modern real-world or speculative interface technologies.


First, that authorization key is pretty cool

The fact that it’s a featureless, long metal cuboid is so simple it feels sci-fi. Even the fact that its slot is unlabeled is good—it would help prevent a malicious or grief-panicked user from figuring out how to take control. You could even go one step further and have a hidden magnetic switch, so there’s not even a slot to clue in users. Production designer note, though, this means that the panel needs to be wood (or something non-magnetic) rather than a ferromagnetic metal. Aluminum, maybe, since it’s paramagnetic, but you also don’t want anything that can scratch or wear easily and give away the position of the secret spot.

A side view of a magnetic cabinet lock. When the magnet gets close to the right spot on the cabinet door, it pulls the latching mechanism open, allowing the door to be opened.
This is a cabinet lock, but the same principle would apply.

But, the buttons don’t match the scene

The PORTAL button never changes state, though we see the portal open and close in the scene. AUDIO is dim though we hear the audio. Maybe dim equals on? No, because VISUAL is lit. There’s some gymnastics we could do to apologize for this, but Imma give up and just say it’s just a moviemaking error.

And they are poorly clustered

Why is CHAMBER 2 before CHAMBER 1? Why are the three AV buttons split up by CHAMBER 2? A more reasonable chunking of these would be PORTAL on its own, CHAMBER 1 & CHAMBER 2 together, and the remaining A/V buttons together. These groups should be separated to make them easier to identify and help avoid accidental activation (though the stakes here are pretty low.)

One square by itself labeled PORTAL. Two squares side-by-side labeled CHAMBER 1 and CHAMBER 2. And three squares together labeled AUDIO, VISUAL, and EFFECTS.
If we were just dealing with these 6 buttons, this might be a reasonable clustering. But, read on…

The PORTAL button is the wrong type and orientation

Look close at the screen shot and you’ll see that each button consists of three parts. A white, back-lit square which bears the label, and two black pushbuttons that act like rocker switches. That is, press the upper one in, and the lower one pops out. Press that popped-out lower one in, and the upper one pops out again. When the lower button is pressed in, the button is “on,” which you can tell because those are the only ones with the upper button popped out and the back light illuminated.

Rocker switches are good for things with two mutually exclusive states, like ON and OFF. The PORTAL button is the only one for which this makes unambiguous sense, with its two states being OPEN and CLOSED. But, we have to note that it is poorly mapped. The button has a vertical orientation, but the portal closes from right to left. It means the usher has to memorize which toggle state is open and which one is closed. It would more usable to have an inferrable affordance. Cheapest would be to turn the button sideways so it maps more clearly, but an even tighter mapping would be a slider mounted sideways with OPEN and CLOSED labels. I don’t think the backlit status indicator is necessary here because there’s already a giant signal of the state of the portal, and that’s the adjacent portal.

An image of a slider switch.

What do EFFECTS and CHAMBER even do?

What does the EFFECTS button do? I mean, if AUDIO and VISUAL have their own controls, what’s left? Lasers? A smoke machine? Happiness pheromones? (I’m getting The Cabin in the Woods vibes here.) Whatever it is, if there are multiple, they should have individual controls, in case the patient wants one but not the other, or if there’s any variability that needs controlling.

Also what do CHAMBER 1 and CHAMBER 2 do? It’s very poor labeling. What chambers do they refer to? Maybe the observation room is chamber 1 and the theater is chamber 2? If so, different names could save the usher’s having to memorize them. Also, what do these switches control? Lights? Door locks? We would need to know to really make design recommendations for these.

The AV controls are incomplete

Which takes us to AUDIO, and VISUAL. Each of these is missing something.

Sure, they might need ON/OFF controls as we see here. But how about a volume control to accommodate the hard-of-hearing and the sound-sensitive? How about a brightness control for the video? These could have an OFF state and replace the toggle switches.

We know from the movie itself that the service has offered Sol his choice of music genre. Where is the genre selector? This is a non-trivial problem since the number of genres is on the order of 1000. They probably don’t offer all of them, but at intake they do ask Sol his preference as an open-ended question, so it implies a huge selection. Radio band selectors would have made sense to audiences in the 1970s, and signal a huge number of options, but risk being “out of tune” and imply that it’s broadcast. So either have a small number of options with a 15° rotary switch (and rewrite the intake scene so Sol selects from a menu) or three 10-digit rotary switches with a “commit” momentary button, and have a small reference booklet hanging there.

I also want to believe that the theme of the video can be selected. Sol has chosen “nature” but you could imagine patients requesting for their end-of-life ceremony something else like “family,” “celestial,” “food” (given the diegesis, this should be first) or even “religious” (with a different one for each of the world’s twelve major religions). So it would make sense to have a video theme selector as well, say, on the order of 20 options. That could be a 15° rotary switch. Labeling gets tough, but it could just be numbers with an index label to the side.

An image showing the components of such a video selector, including the label.

I’m going to presume that they never need scrubbing controls (REWIND or FAST FORWARD) for the AV. The cinerama plays through once and stops. Sudden rewinding or fast forwarding would be jarring for the patient and ruin the immersion. Have a play button that remains depressed while the cinerama is ongoing. But if the patient passes more quickly than expected, a RESET button would make sense. So would a clock or a countdown timer, since Sol had confirmed at intake that it would be at least 20 minutes, and to let the usher know how much time they have left to get those neurotransmitter numbers up up up.

Some controls are straight up missing

How does an usher set the lights according to the patient’s preferences? They ask at intake, and we see Sol’s face washed with a soothing amber color once the attendants leave, so there should be a color selector. Three RGB slide potentiometers would provide perfect control, but I doubt anyone would quibble that the green they’d asked for was #009440 and not #96b300, so you could go with a selector. The XKCD color survey results show that there are on the order of about 30 colors, so something similar to the video-theme selector above would work, with a brightness potentiometer to the side.

XKCD color graph showing the outlines with crowdsourced regions and labels. But please check out the full post as linked in the image caption. It’s so much more awesome than just this.
I will always be in awe of this undertaking and visualization, Randall Monroe.

These controls ought to be there

The patient experience is a bit of a show, so to signal its beginning and end, there should be lighting controls for the usher to dim and raise the lights, like in a theater. So let’s add those.

Also, the usher has a minor medical task to accomplish: Monitoring the health of the patient to know when they’ve passed. The three metrics for clinical death are a cessation of all three of…

  1. breath
  2. blood flow
  3. brain activity

…so there should be indicators for each of these. As discussed in the medical chapter of the book, this is ideally a display of values over time, but in the resource-poor and elecromechanical world of Soylent Green, it might have to be a collection of gauges, with an indicator bulb near the zero for when activity has stopped. A final, larger indicator bulb should light when all three gauges are still. To really underscore the morbidness of this interface, all those indicators should be green.

A comp showing the three clinical death gauges and incdicators, as described.

If you buy my backworlding, i.e. that part of the point of preventing interruptions is to maximize the dopamine and serotonin being released into the patient’s body, there should also be status indicators showing the level of these neurotransmitters in the patient’s bloodstream. They can be the same style of gauges, but I’d add a hand drawn arrow to some point along the chapter ring that reads “quota.” Those indicators should be larger than the clinical death indicators to match their importance to Soylent’s purposes.

Lastly, thinking of Thorn’s attack, the usher should have a panic button to summon help if the patient or the beneficiaries are getting violent (especially once they discover they’re locked in.) This should be hidden under the panel so it can be depressed secretly.

Where should this panel go?

As described in the beneficiaries post we’re going to leave the communication interface just below the portal, where they are now for those fleeting moments when they can wish the patient goodbye.

A screen shot of the movie showing Thorn at the portal addressing the usher, angrily, as usual.

And there’s no need to put the usher’s controls under the nose of the beneficiaries. (In fact with the medical monitoring it would be kind of cruel.) So let the usher have a lectern beside the door, in a dim pool of light, and mount the controls to the reading top. (Also give them a stool to rest on, have we learned nothing?) Turn the lectern such that the interface is not visible to beneficiaries in the room. This lets the usher remain respectfully out of the center of attention, but in a place where they can keep an eye on both the patient when the portal is open, and the beneficiaries throughout.

An image of a lectern
Looks cheap? Perfect.

In total, the lectern panel would look something like this…

The “READY” indicators are explained in the attendant’s post.

…and the scene could go something like this…

  • Interior. Thanatorium observation room.
  • The Usher escorts Thorn into the room. Thorn rushes to the portal. The usher steps behind a lectern near the door.
  • Usher
  • It’s truly a shame you missed the overture.
  • The Usher slides a switch on the lectern panel, and the portal closes.
  • Thorn
  • I want to see him.
  • Usher, looking down at his interface
  • That is prohibited during the ceremony.
  • Worm’s eye view. Thorn takes a few steps toward him and knocks the lectern to the ground. It falls with its interface in the foreground. In the background, we see Thorn slam the usher against the wall.
  • Thorn
  • Well I can assure you, open that damned thing right now, or I swear to God you’ll die before he does!
  • Usher
  • OK, OK!
  • The usher falls to his hands and knees and we see him slide the switch to open the portal. Thorn steps back to it, and the usher gets on his feet to right the lectern

2 thoughts on “The Thanatorium: Usher Panel

  1. Pingback: The Thanatorium, a beneficiary’s experience | Sci-fi interfaces

  2. Pingback: Thanatorium: Attendant interface | Sci-fi interfaces

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