Trivium Bracelet

The control token in Las Luchadras is a bracelet that slaps on and instantly renders its wearer an automaton, subject to the remote control.

Here’s something to note about this speculative technology. Orlak could have sold this, just this, to law enforcement around the world and made himself a very rich and powerful person. But the movie makes clear he is a mad engineer, not a mad businessperson, so we have to move on.

From Orlak’s point of view, getting the bracelet on its victim should be very easy. Fortunately, it does just that. Orlak can slap it on in a flick. But it’s also trivially easy for a bystander to remove, which seems like…a design oversight. It should work more like a handcuff, that requires a key to remove. It can’t look like a handcuff, of course, since Orlak wants it to go unnoticed. But in addition to the security, the handcuff function would enable the device to fit wrists of many sizes. As it is, it appears to be tailor-made to an individual.

As the diagram illustrates, not all wrists are made the same, and it would not help Orlak to have to carry around a sizing set when he hasn’t had time to secretly get the victim’s measurements.

Lastly, the audience might have benefited from seeing some visual connection between the bracelet and the remote, like a shared material that had an unusual color or glow, but Orlak would not want this connection since it could help someone identify him as the controller.

Mission slot

To provide the Victim Cards to the Robot Asesino, Orlak inserts it into an open slot in the robot’s chest, which then illuminates, confirming that the instructions have been received.

There is, I must admit, a sort of lovely, morbid poetry to a cardiogram being inserted into a slot where the robot heart would be to give the robot instructions to end the beating of the human heart described in the cardiogram. And we don’t see a lot of poetry in sci-fi interface designs. So, props for that.

The illumination is a nice bit of feedback, but I think it could convey the information in more useful and cinemagenic ways.

In this new scenario…

  • Orlak has the robot pull back its coat
  • The chamfered slot is illuminated, signaling “card goes here.”
  • As Orlak inserts the target card, the slot light dims as the chest-cavity light brightens, signaling “I have the card.”
  • After a moment, the chest-cavity light turns blood red, signaling confirmation of the victim and the new dastardly mission.

When the robot returns to Orlak after completing a mission, the red light would dim as the slot light illuminates again, signaling that it is ready for its next mission.

These changes improve the interface by first drawing the user’s locus of attention exactly where it needs to go, and then distinguishing the internal system states as they happen. It would also work for the audience, who understands by association that red means danger.

The shape of the slot is pretty good for its base usability. It has clear affordances with its placement, orientation, and metallic lining. There’s plenty of room to insert the target card. It might benefit from a fillet or chamfer for the slot, to help avoid accidentally crumpling the paper cards when they are aimed poorly.

In addition to the tactical questions of illumination and shape of the slot, I have a few strategic questions.

  • There is no authorization in evidence. Can just anyone specify a target? Why doesn’t Gaby use her luchadora powers to Spin-A-Roonie a target card with Orlak’s face on it and let the robot save the day? Maybe the robot has a whitelist of heartbeats, and would fight to resist anyone else, but that’s just me making stuff up.
  • Also I’m not sure why the card stays in the robot. That leaves a discoverable paper trail of its crimes, perfect for a Scooby to hand over to the federales. Maybe the robot has some incinerator or shredder inside? If not, it would be better from Orlak’s perspective to design it as an insert-and-hold slot, which would in turn require a redesign of the card to have some obvious spot to hold it, and a bump-in on the slot to make way for fingers. Then he could remove the incriminating evidence and destroy it himself and not worry whether the robot’s paper shredder was working or not.
  • Another problem is that, since the robot doesn’t talk, it would be difficult to find out who its current target is at any given time. Since anyone can supply a target, Orlak can’t just rely on his memory to be certain. If the card was going to stay inside, it would be better to have it displayed so it’s easy to check.
  • How would Orlak cancel a target?
  • It is unclear how Orlak specifies whether the target is to be kidnapped or killed even though some are kidnapped and some are killed.
  • It’s also unclear about how Orlak might rescind or change an order once given.
  • It is also unclear how the assassin finds its target. Does it have internal maps with addresses? Or does it have unbelievably good hearing that can listen to every sound nearby, isolate the particular heartbeat in question, and just head in that direction, destroying any walls it encounters? Or can it reasonably navigate human cities and interiors to maintain its disguise? Because that would be some amazing technology for 1969. This last is admittedly not an interface question, but a backworlding question for believability.

So there’s a lot missing from the interface.

It’s the robot assassin designer’s job to not just tick a box to tell themselves that they have provided feedback, but to push through the scenarios of use to understand in detail how to convey to the evil scientist what’s happening with his murderous intent.

Who did it better? Victim card edition.

Let’s cut to the chase. Las Luchadoras is a wholesale rip-off of Cybernauts, from the 1961–1969 British TV series The Avengers, specifically the episode “Return of the Cybernauts” from 1967. Thanks to readers Xavier Mouton-Dubosc @dascritch and Roger Long @evil_potato for drawing my attention to the complete ripoffery.

Dust off your stereoscopes for this one.

Compare freely…

  • Bad robot is silver-faced, wears a black trench coat, does not speak, wears black sunglasses, and a black hat.
  • Bad robot is given instructions via a graphically-designed card inserted into a machine slot.
  • Bad robot smashes through walls to gain access to victims who stand there in horror rather than, say, running from the slow-walking golem.
  • When bad robot kills, it does so with karate chops.
  • Bad human captures scientists and forces them to provide engineering specs to fulfill his evil ambitions.
  • Bad human forces scientists to build a wrist-wearable mind-control device, for use on Team Good. (One’s a bracelet. The other is a watch.) The main target for mind-control is a woman.
  • Bad human has plans to use the mind-controlled person to fight the rest of Team Good.
  • The day is saved (spoiler? I guess?) by pulling the mind-control device from the victim and putting it on the robot, which instead of granting the bad human more control of the robot, causes it to go berserk.

It’s like René Cardona saw “Return of the Cybernauts” on TV, loved it, and thought there is only one thing that could make this better: Lady. Wrestlers. So he added luchadoras and hoped BBC Four wouldn’t notice. He just wanted to make the world better, y’all.

If you think I’m exaggerating, here are a few side by side shots.

I guess we can give credit to Cardona’s selection of a Bolero hat instead of that tired Fedora thing? SciFiFashionChoices.com
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Playing the Victim Card

To specify a target for assassination or kidnapping, Orlak (or a henchman) inserts a specially designed card into a slot built into the robot’s chest, right at its heart. One of those cards is below.

The layout of the card puts the victim’s picture on the left; a node-graph diagram that looks like a constellation diagram, and some inscrutable symbols on the right. The characters discuss that this card contains a cardiogram of the victim, but it’s unclear which part of the card has this information, because they usually look something like this:

1896 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution
only license CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Oh, it’s probably worth mentioning that one of the movie’s givens is that a cardiogram can uniquely identify a person, like a thumbprint (which isn’t as provably unique as popular culture would have us believe). But to use a cardiogram to locate a person without a ubiquitous sensing network (unthinkable in 1969) would require a very high resolution cardiogram, a wall-piercing sensors, and some shockingly advanced pattern matching on the part of the robot, and I’m not sure I’m willing to give this film that much credit.

Presuming that there are lots of technical reasons for the stuff on the right, and the robot needs the profile for visual recognition, I imagine the only thing missing is a human-readable name so these are easy for the henchmen and scientists to discuss amongst themselves. I mean, they might happen to know every single scientist in town by sight, but having the name would avoid possible misidentifications. The design of artifacts have to take into account all common scenarios of use, including production, maintenance, and storage.

Speaking of which, it’s unclear how these cards are produced. They seem like they take a lot of expert effort to produce and fabricate. Let’s give the film credit to say that this is a deliberate attempt by the enslaved scientists to…

  • Make something as irrevocable as a death sentence very difficult to order.
  • Ensure an order to the murderous robot takes time, and thereby give time to let passions subside and orders to be rescinded.
  • Serve as a bailiwick of sorts, being too difficult for a layperson to do, and thereby difficult to turn on its masters.
  • Secure their jobs.

LATE BREAKING UPDATE: Turns out these cards are a copy of cards from The Avengers (1961–1969). Check out the comparison.

Las Luchadoras vs el Robot Asesino

This week marks the otherwise unsung 50th anniversary of the absolutely terrible film Las luchadoras vs el robot asesino, or Wrestling Women versus the Robot Assassin. I know I have to finish Idiocracy, but I wanted to pause to share this with you here on its anniversary. It’s a Mexican B-movie from 1969, it has an AI of sorts, and it is brain-explodingly bad with a handful of simple, evil interfaces to review.

Release Date: 9 January 1969 (USA)

Overview

The mad scientist Dr. Orlak has created a robot assassin, which he programs to punch through cheaply constructed set walls and capture scientists to enact his nefarious world domination plan.

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Boosting underrepresented voices

I’ve had this going for a few days via Twitter and Facebook, but a friend pointed out that since most of my readers subscribe, I need a blog post!

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Scifiinterfaces is working on a project about gender representation in sci-fi, specifically around gendered AI in screen sci-fi. I am soliciting guest authors for the posts, and I think it is especially important to hear from underrepresented voices. I’m conscious of how much work those folks are already doing uncompensated, so I want to make a special point of arranging compensation in this case.  Please help support these authors doing important work!

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A teaser graphic from the study tempts you. You want to help this thing come to life. </hypnotist voice>

All donations are shared equally among guest authors. None will be kept by myself.

INCENTIVE #1: One anonymous donor has let me know they will be matching the first $150 of donations. An easy way to double your money!

INCENTIVE #2: As of yesterday, 04 DEC 2018, I upped the ante a little bit. I’m committing that the biggest bid by the time we meet the $600 goal will get a physical copy of the book. Used, these start at $55 on amazon, so it’s nothing to sneeze at. If your bid is over $55, I’ll sign it for you, per your request.

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Frito’s F’n Car interface

When Frito is driving Joe and Rita away from the cops, Joe happens to gesture with his hand above the car window, where a vending machine he happens to be passing spots the tattoo. Within seconds two harsh beeps sound in the car and a voice says, “You are harboring a fugitive named NOT SURE. Please, pull over and wait for the police to incarcerate your passenger.”

Frito’s car begins slowing down, and the dashboard screen shows a picture of Not Sure’s ID card and big red text zooming in a loop reading “PULL OVER”

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The car interface has a column of buttons down the left reading:

  • NAV
  • WTF?
  • BEER
  • FART FAN
  • HOME
  • GIRLS

At the bottom is a square of icons: car, radiation, person, and the fourth is obscured by something in the foreground. Across the bottom is Frito’s car ID “FRITO’S F’N CAR” which appears to be a label for a system status of “EVERYTHING’S A-OK, BRO”, a button labeled CHECK INGN [sic], another labeled LOUDER, and a big green circle reading GO.

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But the car doesn’t wait for him to pull over. With some tiny beeps it slows to a stop by itself. Frito says, “It turned off my battery!” Moments after they flee the car, it is converged upon by a ring of police officers with weapons loaded (including a rocket launcher pointed backward.)

Visual Design

Praise where it’s due: Zooming is the strongest visual attention-getting signals there is (symmetrical expansion is detected on the retina within 80 milliseconds!) and while I can’t find the source from which I learned it, I recall that blinking is somewhere in the top 5. Combining these with an audio signal means it’s hard to miss this critical signal. So that’s good.

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In English: It’s comin’ right at us!

But then. Ugh. The fonts. The buttons on the chrome seem to be some free Blade Runner font knock off, the text reading “PULL OVER” is in some headachey clipped-corner freeware font that neither contrasts nor compliments the Blade Jogger font, or whatever it is. I can’t quite hold the system responsible for the font of the IPPA licence, but I just threw up a little into my Flaturin because of that rounded-top R.

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Then there’s the bad-90s skeuomorphic, Bevel & Emboss buttons that might be defended for making the interactive parts apparent, except that this same button treatment is given to the label Frito’s F’n Car, which has no obvious reason why it would ever need to be pressed. It’s also used on the CHECK INGN and LOUDER buttons, taking their ADA-insulting contrast ratios and absolutely wrecking any readability.

I try not to second-guess designer’s intentions, but I’m pretty sure this is all deliberate. Part of the illustration of a world without much sense. Certainly no design sense.

In-Car Features

What about those features? NAV is pretty standard function, and having a HOME button is a useful shortcut. On current versions of Google Maps there’s an Explore Places Near You Function, which lists basic interests like Restaurants, Bars, and Events, and has a more menu with a big list of interests and services. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Frito has pressed GIRLS and BEER enough that it’s floated to the top nav.

explore_places_near_you

That leaves only three “novel” buttons to think about: WTF, LOUDER, and FART FAN. 

WTF?

If I have to guess, the WTF button is an all-purpose help button. Like a GM OnStar, but less well branded. Frito can press it and get connected to…well, I guess some idiot to see if they can help him with something. Not bad to have, though this probably should be higher in the visual hierarchy.

LOUDER

This bit of interface comedy is hilarious because, well, there’s no volume down affordance on the interface. Think of the “If it’s too loud, you’re too old” kind of idiocy. Of course, it could be that the media is on zero volume, and so it couldn’t be turned down any more, so the LOUDER button filled up the whole space, but…

  • The smarter convention is to leave the button in place and signal a disabled state, and
  • Given everything else about the interface, that’s giving the diegetic designer a WHOLE lot of credit. (And our real-world designer a pat on the back for subtle hilarity.)

FART FAN

This button is a little potty humor, and probably got a few snickers from anyone who caught it because amygdala, but I’m going to boldly say this is the most novel, least dumb thing about Frito’s F’n Car interface.

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Pictured: A sulfuric gas nebula. Love you, NASA!

People fart. It stinks. Unless you have active charcoal filters under the fabric, you can be in for an unpleasant scramble to reclaim breathable air. The good news is that getting the airflow right to clear the car of the smell has, yes, been studied, well, if not by science, at least scientifically. The bad news is that it’s not a simple answer.

  • Your car’s built in extractor won’t be enough, so just cranking the A/C won’t cut it.
  • Rolling down windows in a moving aerodynamic car may not do the trick due to something called the boundary layer of air that “clings” to the surface of the car.
  • Rolling down windows in a less-aerodynamic car can be problematic because of the Helmholtz effect (the wub-wub-wub air pressure) and that makes this a risky tactic.
  • Opening a sunroof (if you have one) might be good, but pulls the stench up right past noses, so not ideal either.

The best strategy—according to that article and conversation amongst my less squeamish friends—is to crank the AC, then open the driver’s window a couple of inches, and then the rear passenger window half way.

But this generic strategy changes with each car, the weather (seriously, temperature matters, and you wouldn’t want to do this in heavy precipitation), and the skankness of the fart. This is all a LOT to manage when one’s eyes are meant to be on the road and you’re in an nauseated panic. Having the cabin air just refresh at the touch of one button is good for road safety.

If it’s so smart, then, why don’t we have Fart Fan panic buttons in our cars today?

I suspect car manufacturers don’t want the brand associations of having a button labeled FART FAN on their dashboards. But, IMHO, this sounds like a naming problem, not some intractable engineering problem. How about something obviously overpolite, like “Fast freshen”? I’m no longer in the travel and transportation business, but if you know someone at one of these companies, do the polite thing and share this with them.

Idiocracy-car

Another way to deal with the problem, in the meantime.

So aside from the interface considerations, there are also some strategic ones to discuss with the remote kill switch, but that deserves it’s own post, next.

Fox News

“He tried taking water from toilets, but it’s Secretary Not Sure who finds himself in the toilet now. And as history pulls down its pants and prepares to lower its ass on Not Sure’s head it will be Daddy Justice who will be crapping on him this time.”

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Today is election day. If you’re American, you’re voting, of course. (or, you know, GTFO.)

Because of voter suppression efforts by the GOP, many who are voting will be facing long lines. Help encourage these Americans, slogging as they are through the GOP swamp just for their right to vote, to stay the course by buying them some pizza. And if it’s you, know that you can report your long line to the same place and have some ‘za sent your way.

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https://polls.pizza/

Godspeed, America.

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I’ll get back to wrapping up Idiocracy later.

House of Representin’

The U.S. House of Representin’ in Idiocracy is a madhouse. When Joe is sworn in as the Secretary of the Interior, he takes his seat in the balcony with the other Cabinet members. He looks down into the gallery. It is dimly lit. When Joe is sworn in as the Secretary of the Interior, he enters the chamber and sits in the balcony with the rest of the Cabinet. He looks down into the gallery. It is dimly lit. There are spotlights roving across the Representatives, who don’t sit at desks but stand in a mosh pit. There is even a center-hung video display like you’d see at an indoor sports area. Six giant LED screens. Ring displays showing weird ASCII characters.

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Sadly, we do not get to The Sennit for a comparison.

Someone plays an entrance theme consisting mostly of a cowbell and grunts. Strobe lights flash. An announcer says, like he was announcing a World Wrestling Entertainment performer, “Ladies and gentlemen…the President of America!” Camacho comes out of a side door screaming. He’s dressed in lots of red and white stripes with a cape made of the union blue. (n.b. The federal code forbids the wearing the flag as apparel.) He does some made-up karate poses. There are logos on the rostrum and currency sheets for wallpaper. He stands at the lectern and begins his address to the Representatives by saying, “Shut up.”

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Identity Processing Program of America

After his initial arrest, Joe is led by a noose stick (and a police officer speaking some devolved version of copspeak) to a machine to get an identity tattoo. Joe sits in the chair and a synthesized voice says, “Welcome to the Identity Processing Program of America. Please insert your forearm into the forearm receptacle.” Joe does as instructed and it locks his arm into place. A screen in front of him shows the legend “Identity Processing Program of America” superimposed over an USA pattern made up of company names and Carls Junior amputated star logos. Five rectangles across the top are labeled: System, Identity, Verify, Imprint, and Done.

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It prompts him to “…speak your name as it appears on your current federal identity card, document number G24L8.” Joe says, “I’m not sure if—“ The machine interprets this as input and blinks the name as it says, “You have entered the name ‘Not Sure.’ Is this correct, Not Sure?”

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Joe tries to correct it, saying, “No…it’s not correct.” On the word “correct” it dings and continues, “Thank you. ‘Not’ is correct.” “Not” stops blinking in the interface.

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