An Interview with Mark Coleran

In homage to the wrap of Children of Men, this post I’m sharing an interview with Mark Coleran, a sci-fi interface designer who worked on the film. He also coined the term FUI, which is no small feat. He’s had a fascinating trajectory from FUI, to real world design here in the Bay Area, and very soon, back to FUI again.

I’d interviewed Mark way back in 2011 for a segment of the Make It So book that got edited out of the final book, so it’s great to be able to talk to him again for a forum where I know it will be published, scifiinterfaces.com.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

So obviously my background is in sci-fi interfaces, the movies. I spent around 10 years doing that from 1997 to 2007. Worked on a variety of projects ranging from the first one, which was Tomb Raider, through to finishing off the last Bourne film, Bourne Ultimatum.

The Bourne Ultimatum, from Mark’s online portfolio, see more at coleran.com

My experience of working in films has been coming at it from the angle of loving the technology, loving the way machines work. And trying to expose it, to make it quite genuine. That’s what I got a name for in the industry was to try and create a more realistic side of interfaces. Continue reading

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Report Card: Children of Men

Read all Children of Men reviews in chronological order.

Depending on how you count, there are only 9 interfaces in Children of Men. This makes sense because it’s not one of those Gee-Whiz-Can-You-Believe-the-Future technofests like Forbidden Planet or Minority Report. Children of Men is a social story about the hopelessness of a world without children, so the small number of interfaces—and even the way they are underplayed—is wholly appropriate to the theme. Given such a small number, you would not expect them to be as spectacular as they are. Or maybe you would. I don’t know how you roll.

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Sci: A (4 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

The interfaces are wholly believable, given the diegesis. Technology is focused on security, transportation, and distracting entertainment, which is exactly what you’d expect. Nothing breaks physics or reason.

The only ding is that Quietus could have included some nod to its reimbursement promise, and that’s so minor it only reveals itself as a problem after deep consideration. It doesn’t break the flow of the film.

Fi: A (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

All of the interfaces point back in some way to the world that created them and help move the story along. Security is everywhere. Jasper cobbles together technology to help his resistance. Suicide is a government-sanctioned option.

Interfaces: A- (4 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

  • Luke’s HUD is a little slow, considering that its job is to help avoid collisions.
  • Jasper’s Home Alarm could do more to help its occupants respond effectively to the alarm.
  • The Music Player isn’t very readable at a distance.

These are the main three issues that mar an otherwise very well-considered set of interfaces and technologies.

Final Grade A (12 of 12), Blockbuster.

It’s rare that a film’s interfaces get a full blockbuster rating on this site. The only other one at the time of publication is The Fifth Element. And while I take pains to rate the interfaces as distinct from the movie, I’m pleased when such a brilliant (yet, ironically, dark) film includes brilliant interfaces as well.

Ministry of Art detector gate

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Jumping back in the film a bit, we’re going to visit the Ministry of Art. When Theo goes there to visit his brother, after the car pulls to the front of the secured building, Theo steps out and walks toward a metal-detector gate.

Its quite high, about 3 meters tall. The height helps to reinforce the notion that this is a public space.

  1. This principle, that short ceilings are personal, and high ceilings are public, is I believe a well-established one in architectural design. Read the Alexandrian pattern if you’d like to read more about it.
  2. Is it a public space? It is, since it’s a Ministry. But it isn’t, since he joins his brother in what looks like a rich person’s private dining room. I was always a bit confused by what this place was meant to be. Perhaps owning to The Dark Times, Nigel has cited Minister rights and cordoned off part of the Tate Modern to live in. If anyone can explain this, please speak up.
  3. On the downside, the height makes the text more out of sight and harder to read by the people meant to be reading it.

The distance is balanced by the motion graphics of the translucent sign atop the gate. Animated red graphics point the direction of ingress, show a security stripe pattern, and provide text instructions.

Motion is a very strong attention-getting signal, and combined with the red colors, does all the attention-getting that the height risks. But even that’s not a critical issue, as there is of course a guard standing by to ensure his understanding and compliance.

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Note that there is no interaction here (which is the usual filter for this blog), but since I’m publishing an interview with the designer of this and the Kubris interface soon, I thought I’d give it a quick nod.

Jasper’s Music Player

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After Jasper tells a white lie to Theo, Miriam, and Kee to get them to escape the advancing gang of Fishes, he returns indoors. To set a mood, he picks up a remote control and presses a button on it while pointing it at a display.

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He watches a small transparent square that rests atop some things in a nook. (It’s that decimeter-square, purplish thing on the left of the image, just under the lampshade.) The display initially shows an album queue, with thumbnails of the album covers and two bright words, unreadably small. In response to his button press, the thumbnail for Franco Battiato’s album FLEURs slides from the right to the left. A full song list for the album appears beneath the thumbnail. Then track two, the cover of Ruby Tuesday, begins to play. A small thumbnail to the right of the album cover appears, featuring some white text on a dark background and a cycling, animated border. Theo puts the remote control down, picks up the Quietus box, and walks over to Janice. *sniff*

This small bit of speculative consumer electronics gets around 17 seconds of screen time, but we see enough to consider the design. 

Persistent display

One very nice thing about it is that it is persistently visible. As Marshall McLuhan famously noted, we are simply not equipped with earlids. This means that when music is playing in a space, you can’t really just turn away from it to stop listening. You’ll still hear it. In UX parlance, sound is non-modal.

Yet with digital music players, the visual displays that tell you about what’s being played, or the related interfaces that help you know what you can do with the music are often hidden behind modes. Want to know what that song you can’t stop hearing is? Find your device, wake it up, enter a password, find the app, and even then you may have to root around to find the software to find what you’re looking for.

But a persistent object means that non-modal sound is accompanied by (mostly) non-modal visuals. This little box is always somewhere, glowing, and telling you what’s playing, what just played, and what’s next.

Remote control

Finding the remote is a different problem, of course, and if your household is like my household, it is a thing which seems to want to be lost. To keep that non-modality of sound matched by the controls, it would be better to have the device or the environment know when Jasper is looking at the display, and enable loose gestural or voice controls to control it.

Imagine the scene if he grabs the Quietus box, looks up to the display, and says, “Play…” then pause while he considers his options, and says “…‘Ruby Tuesday’…the Battiato one.” We would have known that his selection has deep personal meaning. If Cuarón wanted to convey that this moment has been planned for a while, Jasper could even have said, “Play her goodbye song.”

Visual layout

The visual design of the display is, like most of the technology, meant to be a peripheral thing, accepting attention but not asking for it. In this sense it works. The text is so small the audience is not tempted to read it. The thumbnails are so small it is only if you already knew the music that it would refresh your memory. But if this was a real product meant to live in the home, I would redesign the display to be usable at the 3–6 meter distance, which would require vastly reducing the number of elements, increasing their size, and perhaps overlaying text on image.

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Jasper’s home alarm

When Theo, Kee, and Miriam flee the murderous Fishes, they take refuge in Jasper’s home for the night. They are awoken in the morning by Jasper’s sentry system.

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A loud cacophonous alarm sounds, made up of what sounds like recorded dog barks, bells clanging, and someone banging a stick on a metal trash can lid. Jasper explains to everyone in the house that “It’s the alarm! Someone’s breaking in!”

They gather around a computer screen with large speakers on either side. The screen shows four video feeds labeled ROAD A, FOREST A, FRONT DOOR, and ROAD B. Labels reading MOTION DETECTED <> blink at the bottom of the ROAD A and ROAD B feeds, where we can see members of the Fishes removing the brush that hides the driveway to Jasper’s house.

The date overlays the upper right hand corner of the screen, 06-DEC-2027, 08:10:58.

Across the bottom is a control panel of white numbers and icons on red backgrounds.

  • A radio button control for the number of video feeds to be displayed. Though we are seeing the 4-up display, the icon does not appear to be different than the rest.
  • 16 enumerated icons, the purpose for which is unclear.
  • Video control icons for reverse, stop, play, and fast forward.
  • Three buttons with gray backgrounds and icons.
  • A wide button blinking MASTER ALARM

The scene cuts to Jasper’s rushing to the car outside the home, where none of the cacophony can be heard.

Similar to his car dashoard, it makes sense that Jasper has made this alarm himself. This might explain the clunky layout and somewhat inscrutable icons. (What do the numbers do? What about that flower on the gray background?)

The three jobs of an intruder alarm

Jasper’s alarm is OK. It certainly does the job of grabbing the household’s attention, which is the first job of an alarm, and does it without alerting the intruders, as we see in the shot outside the house.

It could do a bit better at the second job of an alarm, which is to inform the household of the nature of the problem. That they have to gather around the monitor takes precious time that could be used for making themselves safer. It could be improved by removing this requirement.

  • If Jasper had added more information to the audio alarm, even so basic as a prerecorded “Motion on the road! Motion on the road!” then they might not have needed to gather around the monitor at all.
  • If the relevant video feeds could be piped to wearable devices, phones, or their car, then they can fill in their understanding at the same time that they are taking steps to getting the hell out of there.
  • Having the artificial intelligence that we have in actual-world 2017 (much less speculative 2027), we know that narrow AI can process that video to have many more details in the broadcast message. “Motion on the road! I see three cars and at least a dozen armed men!”

There is arguably a third job of an advanced alarm, and this is to help the household understand the best course of action. This can be problematic when the confidence of the recommendation is low. But if the AI can confidently make a recommendation, it can use whatever actuators it has to help them along their way.

  • It could be informational, such as describing the best option. The audio alarm could encourage them to “Take the back road!” It could even alert the police (though in the world of Children of Men, Jasper would not trust them and they may be disinclined to care.)
  • The alarm could give some parameters and best-practice recommendations like, “You have 10 minutes to be in the car! Save only yourselves, carry nothing!”
  • It could keep updating the situation and the countdown so the household does not have to monitor it.
  • It can physically help as best it can, like remotely starting and positioning cars for them.

This can get conceptually tricky as the best course of action may be conditional, e.g. “If you can get to the car in 5 minutes, then escape is your best option, but if it takes longer or you have defenses, then securing the home and alerting the police is the better bet.” But that may be too much to process in the moment, and for a household that does not rehearse response scenarios, the simpler instruction may be safer.

Kubris

Perhaps the most unusual interface in the film is a game seen when Theo visits his cousin Nigel for a meal and to ask for a favor. Nigel’’s son Alex sits at the table silent and distant, his attention on a strange game that it’s designer, Mark Coleran, tells me is called “Kubris,” a 3D hybrid of Tetris and Rubik’s Cube.

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Alex operates the game by twitching and sliding his fingers in the air. With each twitch a small twang is heard. He suspends his hand a bit above the table to have room. His finger movements are tracked by thin black wires that extend from small plastic discs at his fingertips back to a device worn on his wrist. This device looks like a streamlined digital watch, but where the face of a clock would be are a set of multicolored LEDs arranged in rows.  These LEDs flicker on and off in inscrutable patterns, but clearly showing some state of the game. There is an inset LED block that also displays an increasing score.

The game also features a small, transparent, flat screen that rests on the table in front of him. It displays a computer-generated cube, similar to a 5×5 Rubik’s Cube, made up of smaller transparent cubes that share colors with the LEDs on his wrist. As Alex plays, he changes the orientation of the cube, and positions smaller cubes along the surface of the larger.

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Alex plays this game continually during the course of the scene. He is so engrossed in it that when Nigel asks him twice to take his pills, he doesn’t even register the instruction. Nigel must yell at him to get Alex to comply.

Though the exact workings of the game are a mystery, it serves to illustrate in a technological way how some of the younger people in 2027 disengage from the horror of the world through games that have been designed for addiction and obsession.

Luke’s predictive HUD

When Luke is driving Kee and Theo to a boat on the coast, the car’s heads-up-display shows him the car’s speed with a translucent red number and speed gauge. There are also two broken, blurry gauges showing unknown information.

Suddenly the road becomes blocked by a flaming car rolled onto the road by a then unknown gang. In response, an IMPACT warning triangle zooms in several times to warn the driver of the danger, accompanied by a persistent dinging sound.

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It commands attention effectively

Continue reading

Syd’s dash display

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If Jasper’s car is aftermarket, Syd’s built-in display seems to be more consumer-savvy. It is a blue electroluminescent flat display built into the dashboard. It has more glanceable information with a cleaner information hierarchy. It has no dangerous keyboard entry. All we see of the display in these few glimpses is the speedometer, but even that’s enough to illustrate these differences.

Jasper’s car dashboard

Jasper is a longtime friend of Theo’s who offers his home as a safe house for a time. Jasper’s civilian vehicle features a device on its dashboard that merits some attention. It is something like a small laptop computer, with a flat-screen in a roughly pill-shaped black plastic frame mounted in the center of the dashboard. The top half of this screen shows a view from a backward-facing camera mounted on the vehicle.

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The lower half shows a number of different mode- and context-aware displays. The first we see is an overhead schematic of the vehicle, showing pulses moving back and forth from the front to the rear of the car, similar to Prius dash displays that display the transfer of power between the brakes and the battery.

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As the vehicle nears Jasper’’s house, the overhead schematic view draws up and is replaced with a column of text, which is in turn replaced by a circular object with animated rays projecting from it. Neither Jasper nor Theo gives the screen any notice during the scene.

Several dings

It’s dangerous to ask drivers to parse columns of text while operating a vehicle. Information must be glanceable.

The monochrome display seems to unnecessarily constrain the color palette. It’s good to give color-blind users modes that optimize the display for monochrome, and if we’re being generous, we can presume Jasper’s done just that.

But on the other hand, the monochrome minimizes the distractions that the mode switching causes. Note that the rapid changes that happen when Jasper is not on open road, but nearing a building. His attention should be on navigating the space ahead of him rather than on the screen. Maybe the monochrome helps ameliorate this.

Lastly note that the dashboard also features a full keyboard beneath the screen, positioned for the driver’s use. Since we never see it in use, let’s hope it’s not actually meant to be used while driving. Better would be a more suitable input mechanism like voice that doesn’t occupy the driver’s hands and eyes to use.

But wait

But those dings make more sense when we consider the interface narratively. The big clue is why would it persistently show a backward-facing camera when he’s driving forward? Can’t he just use the rear-view mirror? It seems to be something a normal driver wouldn’t concern themselves with. But it is something that a member of an underground resistance might be interested in, to use computer vision algorithms to help him know if he or she was being tailed or there was some threat behind him. That clue (along with the contrast to Syd’s car display) hints that this is not an off-the-shelf system, but something that Jasper has hacked together for himself. Maybe the software is shared amongst resistance members.

In any case, a homemade system can’t be expected to have the same level of usability as a professionally designed one. So narratively, this interface earns a pass.