Alien / Blade Runner crossover

I’m interrupting my review of the Prometheus interfaces for a post to share this piece of movie trivia. A few months ago, a number of blogs were all giddy with excitement by the release of the Prometheus Blu-Ray, because it gave a little hint that the Alien world and the Blade Runner world were one and the same. Hey internets, if you’d paid attention to the interfaces, you’d realize that this was already well established by 1982, or 30 years before.

A bit of interface evidence that Alien and Blade Runner happen in the same universe.


The Museum of One Film

Years ago in grad school I heard a speaker tell of a possibly-imaginary museum called the Museum of One Painting. In that telling, the museum was a long hall. The current One Painting (they were occasionally switched out) was hung at the far end from the entrance. As you walked the length of it, to your left you would see paintings and exhibits of the things that had influenced the One Painting. Then at the end you would spend time with the One Painting. On your way out, to your left you could see paintings and other artworks that were influenced by the One Painting.


Ah yes, I believe this was made during Henry Hillinick’s Robbie the Robot phase.
Hat tip to the awesome Matte Shot.

I loved this museum concept. It was about depth of understanding. It provided context. It focused visits on building a shared understanding that you could discuss with other visitors, even if they’d gone a week before you. My kind of art museum. I fell in love with this concept pretty hard and began to believe in the intervening decades that it was just a fable, constructed by wishful museum theorists.

Nope. Today I searched for it, and found it. It’s real. It’s housed in a small building in Penza, Russia. The reality is a little different than how I had it described (or, rather, how I wrote it to memory), and I think it’s only in Russian (mine is a pittance), and given recent politics I’m not sure I’d be welcome there; but its beautiful core concept is intact. A deep dive into a single painting at a time.


Just a quick 9-hour drive from Moscow.

The whole reason I bring this up on the blog is because the awesome American cinema chain Alamo Drafthouse is doing something like this, but for film. And not just any film, but for the upcoming Blade Runner 2049. Their Road to Nowhere series examines dystopian films that influenced or were influenced by Blade Runner. Some you probably know and love. (Metropolis! Logan’s Run! The Fifth Element!) Some I’d never heard of but now want to. (1990: The Bronx Warriors! Hardware! Prayer of the Rollerboys!)

Road to Nowhere.png

I try not to be a gushing fanboy for anything on this blog, but I gotta hand it to the Drafthouse for this. This is my kind of film nerdery. If I was to run a film series, it would be just like this, only with some sci-fi interface analysis and redesign meetups thrown in for good measure. Just thrilled that it’s happening, and there’s a Drafthouse near me in San Francisco. (Sorry if there’s not one near you, but maybe there’s something similar?)

Anyway, I was not paid by anyone to write this. Just…just happy and nerding out. Hope to see you there.

Blade Runner (1982)

Whew. So we all waited on tenterhooks through November to see if somehow Tyrell Corporation would be founded, develop and commercialize general AI, and then advance robot evolution into the NEXUS phase, all while in the background space travel was perfected, Off-world colonies and asteroid mining established, global warming somehow drenched Los Angeles in permanent rain and flares, and flying cars appear on the market. None of that happened. At least not publicly. So, with Blade Runner squarely part of the paleofuture past, let’s grab our neon-tube umbrellas and head into the rain to check out this classic that features some interesting technologies and some interesting AI.

Release date: 25 Jun 1982

The punctuation-challenged crawl for the film:

“Early in the 21st Century, THE TYRELL CORPORATION advanced Robot evolution into the NEXUS phase—a being virtually identical to a human—known as a Replicant. [sic] The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonisation of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on Earth—under penalty of death. Special police squads—BLADE RUNNER UNITS—had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicants.

“This was not called execution. It was called retirement.”

Four murderous replicants make their way to Earth, to try and find a way to extend their genetically-shortened life spans. The Blade Runner named Deckard is coerced by his ex-superior Bryant and detective Gaff out of retirement and into finding and “retiring” these replicants.

Deckard meets Dr. Tyrell to interview him, and at Tyrell’s request tests Rachel on a Voight-Kampff machine, which is designed to help blade runners tell replicants from people. Deckard and Rachel learn that she is a replicant. Then with Gaff, he follows clues to the apartment of one exposed replicant, Leon, where he finds a synthetic snake scale in the bathtub and a set of photographs in a drawer. Using a sophisticated image inspection tool in his home, he scans one of the photos taken in Leon’s apartment, until he finds the reflection of a face. He prints the image to take with him.

He takes the snake scale to someone with an electron microscope who is able to read the micrometer-scale “maker’s serial number” there. He visits the maker, a person named “the Egyptian,” who tells Deckard he sold the snake to Taffey Lewis. Deckard visits Taffey’s bar, where he sees Zhora, another of the wanted replicants, perform a stage act with a snake. She matches the picture he holds. He heads backstage to talk to her in her dressing room, posing as a representative of the “American Federation of Variety Artists, Confidential Committee on Moral Abuses.” When she finishes pretending to prepare for her next act, she attacks him and flees. He chases and retires her. Leon happens to witness the killing, and attacks Deckard. Leon has the upper hand but Deckard is saved when Rachel appears from the crowd and shoots Leon in the head. They return to his apartment. They totally make out.

Meanwhile, Roy has learned of a Tyrell employee named Sebastian who does genetic design. On orders, Pris befriends Sebastian and dupes him into letting her into his apartment. She then lets Roy in. Sebastian figures out that they are replicants, but confesses he cannot help them directly. Roy intimidates Sebastian into arranging a meeting between him and Dr. Tyrell. At the meeting, Tyrell says there is nothing that can be done. In fury, Roy kills Tyrell and Sebastian.

The police investigating the scene contact Deckard with Sebastian’s address. Deckard heads there, where he finds, fights, and retires Pris. Roy is there, too, but proves too tough for Deckard to retire. Roy could kill Deckard but instead opts to die peacefully, even poetically. Witnessing this act of grace, Deckard comes to appreciate the “humanity” of the replicants, and returns home to elope with Rachel.

In the last scene, Gaff hints to Deckard with this unicorn origami that Deckard himself is a replicant.

P.S. This series uses “The Final Cut” edit of the movie, so I don’t have to hear that wretchedly-scripted voiceover from the theatrical release. If you can, I recommend seeing that version.


8 Reasons The Voight-Kampff Machine is shit (and a redesign to fix it)

Distinguishing replicants from humans is a tricky business. Since they are indistinguishable biologically, it requires an empathy test, during which the subject hears empathy-eliciting scenarios and watched carefully for telltale signs such as, “capillary dilation—the so-called blush response…fluctuation of the pupil…involuntary dilation of the iris.” To aid the blade runner in this examination, they use a portable machine called the Voight-Kampff machine, named, presumably, for its inventors.

The device is the size of a thick laptop computer, and rests flat on the table between the blade runner and subject. When the blade runner prepares the machine for the test, they turn it on, and a small adjustable armature rises from the machine, the end of which is an intricate piece of hardware, housing a powerful camera, glowing red.

The blade runner trains this camera on one of the subject’s eyes. Then, while reading from the playbook book of scenarios, they keep watch on a large monitor, which shows an magnified image of the subject’s eye. (Ostensibly, anyway. More on this below.) A small bellows on the subject’s side of the machine raises and lowers. On the blade runner’s side of the machine, a row of lights reflect the volume of the subject’s speech. Three square, white buttons sit to the right of the main monitor. In Leon’s test we see Holden press the leftmost of the three, and the iris in the monitor becomes brighter, illuminated from some unseen light source. The purpose of the other two square buttons is unknown. Two smaller monochrome monitors sit to the left of the main monitor, showing moving but otherwise inscrutable forms of information.

In theory, the system allows the blade runner to more easily watch for the minute telltale changes in the eye and blush response, while keeping a comfortable social distance from the subject. Substandard responses reveal a lack of empathy and thereby a high probability that the subject is a replicant. Simple! But on review, it’s shit. I know this is going to upset fans, so let me enumerate the reasons, and then propose a better solution.

-2. Wouldn’t a genetic test make more sense?

If the replicants are genetically engineered for short lives, wouldn’t a genetic test make more sense? Take a drop of blood and look for markers of incredibly short telomeres or something.

-1. Wouldn’t an fMRI make more sense?

An fMRI would reveal empathic responses in the inferior frontal gyrus, or cognitive responses in the ventromedial prefrontal gyrus. (The brain structures responsible for these responses.) Certinaly more expensive, but more certain.

0. Wouldn’t a metal detector make more sense?

If you are testing employees to detect which ones are the murdery ones and which ones aren’t, you might want to test whether they are bringing a tool of murder with them. Because once they’re found out, they might want to murder you. This scene should be rewritten such that Leon leaps across the desk and strangles Holden, IMHO. It would make him, and other blade runners, seem much more feral and unpredictable.

(OK, those aren’t interface issues but seriously wtf. Onward.)

1. Labels, people

Controls needs labels. Especially when the buttons have no natural affordance and the costs of experimentation to discover the function are high. Remembering the functions of unlabeled controls adds to the cognitive load for a user who should be focusing on the person across the table. At least an illuminated button helps signal the state, so that, at least, is something.

 2. It should be less intimidating

The physical design is quite intimidating: The way it puts a barrier in between the blade runner and subject. The fact that all the displays point away from the subject. The weird intricacy of the camera, its ominous HAL-like red glow. Regular readers may note that the eyepiece is red-on-black and pointy. That is to say, it is aposematic. That is to say, it looks evil. That is to say, intimidating.

I’m no emotion-scientist, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re testing for empathy, you don’t want to complicate things by introducing intimidation into the equation. Yes, yes, yes, the machine works by making the subject feel like they have to defend themselves from the accusations in the ethical dilemmas, but that stress should come from the content, not the machine.

2a. Holden should be less intimidating and not tip his hand

While we’re on this point, let me add that Holden should be less intimidating, too. When Holden tells Leon that a tortoise and a turtle are the same thing, (Narrator: They aren’t) he happens to glance down at the machine. At that moment, Leon says, “I’ve never seen a turtle,” a light shines on the pupil and the iris contracts. Holden sees this and then gets all “ok, replicant” and becomes hostile toward Leon.

In case it needs saying: If you are trying to tell whether the person across from you is a murderous replicant, and you suddenly think the answer is yes, you do not tip your hand and let them know what you know. Because they will no longer have a reason to hide their murderyness. Because they will murder you, and then escape, to murder again. That’s like, blade runner 101, HOLDEN.

3. It should display history 

The glance moment points out another flaw in the interface. Holden happens to be looking down at the machine at that moment. If he wasn’t paying attention, he would have missed the signal. The machine needs to display the interview over time, and draw his attention to troublesome moments. That way, when his attention returns to the machine, he can see that something important happened, even if it’s not happening now, and tell at a glance what the thing was.

4. It should track the subject’s eyes

Holden asks Leon to stay very still. But people are bound to involuntarily move as their attention drifts to the content of the empathy dilemmas. Are we going to add noncompliance-guilt to the list of emotional complications? Use visual recognition algorithms and high-resolution cameras to just track the subject’s eyes no matter how they shift in their seat.

5. Really? A bellows?

The bellows doesn’t make much sense either. I don’t believe it could, at the distance it sits from the subject, help detect “capillary dilation” or “ophthalmological measurements”. But it’s certainly creepy and Terry Gilliam-esque. It adds to the pointless intimidation.

6. It should show the actual subject’s eye

The eye color that appears on the monitor (hazel) matches neither Leon’s (a striking blue) or Rachel’s (a rich brown). Hat tip to Typeset in the Future for this observation. His is a great review.

7. It should visualize things in ways that make it easy to detect differences in key measurements

Even if the inky, dancing black blob is meant to convey some sort of information, the shape is too organic for anyone to make meaningful readings from it. Like seriously, what is this meant to convey?

The spectrograph to the left looks a little more convincing, but it still requires the blade runner to do all the work of recognizing when things are out of expected ranges.

8. The machine should, you know, help them

The machine asks its blade runner to do a lot of work to use it. This is visual work and memory work and even work estimating when things are out of norms. But this is all something the machine could help them with. Fortunately, this is a tractable problem, using the mighty powers of logic and design.

Pupillary diameter

People are notoriously bad at estimating the sizes of things by sight. Computers, however, are good at it. Help the blade runner by providing a measurement of the thing they are watching for: pupillary diameter. (n.b. The script speaks of both iris constriction and pupillary diameter, but these are the same thing.) Keep it convincing and looking cool by having this be an overlay on the live video of the subject’s eye.

So now there’s some precision to work with. But as noted above, we don’t want to burden the user’s memory with having to remember stuff, and we don’t want them to just be glued to the screen, hoping they don’t miss something important. People are terrible at vigilance tasks. Computers are great at them. The machine should track and display the information from the whole session.

Note that the display illustrates radius, but displays diameter. That buys some efficiencies in the final interface.

Now, with the data-over-time, the user can glance to see what’s been happening and a precise comparison of that measurement over time. But, tracking in detail, we quickly run out of screen real estate. So let’s break the display into increments with differing scales.

There may be more useful increments, but microseconds and seconds feel pretty convincing, with the leftmost column compressing gradually over time to show everything from the beginning of the interview. Now the user has a whole picture to look at. But this still burdens them into noticing when these measurements are out of normal human ranges. So, let’s plot the threshold, and note when measurements fall outside of that. In this case, it feels right that replicants display less that normal pupillary dilation, so it’s a lower-boundary threshold. The interface should highlight when the measurement dips below this.


I think that covers everything for the pupillary diameter. The other measurement mentioned in the dialogue is capillary dilation of the face, or the “so-called blush response.” As we did for pupillary diameter, let’s also show a measurement of the subject’s skin temperature over time as a line chart. (You might think skin color is a more natural measurement, but for replicants with a darker skin tone than our two pasty examples Leon and Rachel, temperature via infrared is a more reliable metric.) For visual interest, let’s show thumbnails from the video. We can augment the image with degree-of-blush. Reduce the image to high contrast grayscale, use visual recognition to isolate the face, and then provide an overlay to the face that illustrates the degree of blush.

But again, we’re not just looking for blush changes. No, we’re looking for blush compared to human norms for the test. It would look different if we were looking for more blushing in our subject than humans, but since the replicants are less empathetic than humans, we would want to compare and highlight measurements below a threshold. In the thumbnails, the background can be colored to show the median for expected norms, to make comparisons to the face easy. (Shown in the drawing to the right, below.) If the face looks too pale compared to the norm, that’s an indication that we might be looking at a replicant. Or a psychopath.

So now we have solid displays that help the blade runner detect pupillary diameter and blush over time. But it’s not that any diameter changes or blushing is bad. The idea is to detect whether the subject has less of a reaction than norms to what the blade runner is saying. The display should be annotating what the blade runner has said at each moment in time. And since human psychology is a complex thing, it should also track video of the blade runner’s expressions as well, since, as we see above, not all blade runners are able to maintain a poker face. HOLDEN.

Anyway, we can use the same thumbnail display of the face, without augmentation. Below that we can display the waveform (because they look cool), and speech-to-text the words that are being spoken. To ensure that the blade runner’s administration of the text is not unduly influencing the results, let’s add an overlay to the ideal intonation targets. Despite evidence in the film, let’s presume Holden is a trained professional, and he does not stray from those targets, so let’s skip designing the highlight and recourse-for-infraction for now.

Finally, since they’re working from a structured script, we can provide a “chapter” marker at the bottom for easy reference later.

Now we can put it all together, and it looks like this. One last thing we can do to help the blade runner is to highlight when all the signals indicate replicant-ness at once. This signal can’t be too much, or replicants being tested would know from the light on the blade runner’s face when their jig is up, and try to flee. Or murder. HOLDEN.

For this comp, I added a gray overlay to the column where pupillary and blush responses both indicated trouble. A visual designer would find some more elegant treatment.

If we were redesigning this from scratch, we could specify a wide display to accomodate this width. But if we are trying to squeeze this display into the existing prop from the movie, here’s how we could do it.

Note the added labels for the white squares. I picked some labels that would make sense in the context. “Calibrate” and “record” should be obvious. The idea behind “mark” is an easy button for the blade runner to press when they see something that looks weird, like when doctors manually annotate cardiograph output.

Lying to Leon

There’s one more thing we can add to the machine that would help out, and that’s a display for the subject. Recall the machine is meant to test for replicant-ness, which happens to equate to murdery-ness. A positive result from the machine needs to be handled carefully so what happens to Holden in the movie doesn’t happen. I mentioned making the positive-overlay subtle above, but we can also make a placebo display on the subject’s side of the interface.

The visual hierarchy of this should make the subject feel like its purpose is to help them, but the real purpose is to make them think that everything’s fine. Given the script, I’d say a teleprompt of the empathy dilemma should take up the majority of this display. Oh, they think, this is to help me understand what’s being said, like a closed caption. Below the teleprompt, at a much smaller scale, a bar at the bottom is the real point.

On the left of this bar, a live waveform of the audio in the room helps the subject know that the machine is testing things live. In the middle, we can put one of those bouncy fuiget displays that clutters so many sci-fi interfaces. It’s there to be inscrutable, but convince the subject that the machine is really sophisticated. (Hey, a diegetic fuiget!) Lastly—and this is the important part—An area shows that everything is “within range.” This tells the subject that they can be at ease. This is good for the human subject, because they know they’re innocent. And if it’s a replicant subject, this false comfort protects the blade runner from sudden murder. This test might flicker or change occasionally to something ambiguous like “at range,” to convey that it is responding to real world input, but it would never change to something incriminating.

This way, once the blade runner has the data to confirm that the subject is a replicant, they can continue to the end of the module as if everything was normal, thank the replicant for their time, and let them leave the room believing they passed the test. Then the results can be sent to the precinct and authorizations returned so retirement can be planned with the added benefit of the element of surprise.


Look, I’m sad about this, too. The Voight-Kampff machine is cool. It fits very well within the art direction of the Blade Runner universe. This coolness burned the machine into my memory when I saw this film the first dozen times, but despite that, it just doesn’t stand up to inspection. It’s not hopeless, but does need a lot of thinkwork and design to make it really fit to task, and convincing to us in the audience.