Logan’s Run (1976): Overview

Release date: 23 Jun 1976, United States

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In a self-contained hedonistic society, the enforced maximum age is 30. Lifeclocks implanted in citizen’s hands register their ages. Once their time is out and their lifeclocks are blinking, citizens are killed in a public ritual known as “Carousel,” in which they hope to achieve “”renewal,” a form of rebirth.” Logan 5 is a Sandman, whose job is to catch “runners,” people who try and escape this fate.

On the body of one of the terminated runners, Logan encounters a mysterious ankh. When he reports this object to the central computer, the computer prematurely ages his lifeclock and sends him on a mission to learn more about an underground resistance movement and a mysterious place called “sanctuary.” Now a runner himself, Logan gains the trust of resistance member Jessica 6 and escapes the city and the pursuing Sandmen. At the edge of the city, they meet one of the robots that maintain life within the city, and beyond that, the ruins of Washington D.C. There in the outdoors they meet an old man and come to realize the possibility of a life beyond 30.

Returning to the city to try and share their message of liberation, Logan is captured instead. Hearing that Sanctuary does not exist, the computer suffers a meltdown and explodes, ruining the city in the process. Citizens escape to meet the outside world and a new future of age and liberation.

Lifeclock: The central conceit

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The central technological conceit of the movie is the lifeclock, a rosette crystal that is implanted in each citizen’s left palm at birth. This clock changes color in stages over the course of the individual’s lifetime.

Though the information in the movie is somewhat contradictory as to the actual stages, the DVD has an easter egg that explains the stages as follows.

White white Birth to 8 years
Yellow yellow 9 to 15 years
Green green 16 to 23 years
Red red 24 years to 10 days before Lastday (30 years)
Blinking Red red_blink from 10 days before Lastday to Lastday
Black black End of Lastday (Carousel/death)

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Lifeclocks derive their signal and possibly power from a local-area broadcast in the city. When Logan and Jessica leave the city their lifeclocks turn clear.

The signal of the lifeclock is so central to life that most citizens dress exclusively in colors that match their lifeclock color. Only certain professions, such as Sandmen and the New You doctor, are seen to wear clothing that lacks clear reference to a lifeclock color, even though the individuals in these professions have lifeclocks and are still subject to carousel at Lastday. We can presume, though are not shown explicitly, that certain rights and responsibilities are conferred on citizens in different stages, such as legal age of sexual consent and access to intoxicants, so the clothing acts as a social signal of status.

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As an interface the lifeclock is largely passive, and can be discussed for its usability in two main ways.

Color

The first is the color. Are the stages easily discernable by people? The main problem would be between the red and green stages since the forms of red-green color blindness affects around 4% of the population. To accommodate for this, reds are made more discernable with a brighter glow than the green. As a wavelength, red carries the farthest, and blinking is of course a highly visible and attention-getting signal, which makes it difficult for an individual to socially hide that his or her time for carousel has come.

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Black is a questionable signal since this indicates actual violation of the law but does not draw any attention to itself. Casual observation of a relaxed hand with a black lifeclock might even be mistaken for a colored lifeclock in shadow, but as the citizenry has complete faith in the system and a number of countermeasures in place to ensure that everyone either attends carousel or is terminated, perhaps this is not a concern.

But if we’re just going on human signal processing, the red should be reserved for LastWeek, and a blinking red for after LastDay. That leaves a color gap between 24 and 30. I’d make this phase blue, since it looks so clearly different from red. The new colors would be as follows.

White white Birth to 8 years
Yellow yellow 9 to 15 years
Green green 16 to 23 years
Blue blue 24 years to 10 days before Lastday (30 years)
Red red from 10 days before Lastday to Lastday
Blinking Red red_blink End of Lastday (Carousel/death)

Location on the body

The second question is the location of the lifeclock. Where should it be placed? It is a social signal, and as such needs to be visible. The parts of the body that are most often seen uncovered in the film are the hand, the neck, and the head. The neck and head are problematic since these are not visible to the citizen himself, useful for reinforcing compliance with the system. This leaves the hand.

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Given the hand, the palm seems an odd choice since in a relaxed position or when the hand is in use, the palm is often hidden from view of other people. The colored clothing seen in the film show that a citizen’s life stage is not really considered a private matter, so a location on the back of the hand would have made more sense. To keep it in view of its owner, a location on the fleshy pad between the thumb and the forefinger would have made a better, if less cinematic, choice.

Retrogram

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The lifeclock is alterable, as we see when the Übercomputer sets Logan’’s lifeclock to blinking red years before he is actually due to Carousel. This procedure must be beyond the capabilities of the populace since it could be used to blackmail citizens, or, if reversible, to allow them to delay carousel.

Procedure

Why this procedure was designed in a way to cause stress and discomfort on the part of the subject is unclear. Since the computer is counting on Logan and needs his cooperation, it should have taken the exact opposite approach. Even if the discomfort is a necessary part of the retrogram, the computer should have handled it like a friendly nurse, explaining that there will be some unavoidable pain, and given Logan some tools to manage it like a number to count to. And c’mon, it should skip the ominous red light.

Industrial design

The other design consideration is the placement of the divot in which Logan must place his lifeclock for retrogramming. All told, it’s pretty good. It’s a natural placement, almost difficult for Logan to avoid putting his hand in the right spot. Even if the Übercomputer is going to just “sneak up” on Logan and retrogram him without warning, it’s the right spot given that the Übercomputer seems to have no complex actuators.

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There’s an interesting issue about the divot that depends on the level of pain that Logan is feeling. If it’s too great, Logan might jerk his hand away and ruin the retrogram. In that case, the arm of the chair should hold Logan’s hand in place, like one of those automated blood pressure cuffs. But the pain we see on Logan’s face in the scene doesn’t look that great. It looks like just enough to force him to concentrate to keep it there, to do his duty and comply. In this case even if the pain isn’t a necessary part of the operation, the Übercomputer might want to add that pain in, just as a test of his continued compliance.

The Circuit

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One of my favorite interfaces in Logan’s Run is one of the worst in the survey. It’s called The Circuit, and it’s a system for teleporting partners for casual sex right into your living room. ZOMGEVERYBODYSIGNUP.

Credit where it’s due: I first explored this interface in Issue 04 of Raymond Cha’s awesome print zine FAQNP in 2012. I’m going to go into even more nerdly depth on some of the topics here, but it was in that publication that I first got riled up about it. If you want to read those thoughts, you’ll need to go find a back issue and you totally should because the whole zine rocks.

Anyway, this interface is such a hot, hot mess that I have to break it up into a couple of posts. This first one is a description and the first part of a critique. Continue reading

Is serial presentation a problem in The Circuit?

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In the prior post I described the wonky sex teleporter known as The Circuit and began a critique. Today I go deep into a particular issue to finish the critque.

We only see Logan encounter two riders when using The Circuit, but we can presume that there are a lot of people on there. Why does it only show Logan a single choice at a time? If he actually has, say, 12 candidates that are a match, a serial presentation like this puts a significant burden on his memory. Once he gets to #12 and thinks he’s seen enough candidates, was it #3 or #5 he liked best?

The serial presentation also looks like it might make extra work. If he gets to #12 and decides he was most fond of #2, does he have to jump back through 10 people to get there? What does he say to each of them in turn? Does he have to reject them each again? How awkward is that? If not, and he can jump back to #2, what’s the control for that? Does he have to remember what station they were on and retune them in again? Continue reading

Can this be tweaked into shape?

The sci-fi interfaces project is about analysis, not to have an excuse to just to poke fun at how interfaces made for one media won’t work in another. That’s too easy, and doesn’t really give sci-fi interface designers their due. The point of the blog is really to examine these interfaces critically so we can learn lessons for our real world work.

Sometimes learning lessons is about naming the core good stuff in an interface and abstracting it a bit to formalize what we want to replicate elsewhere, as I showed with the Ultimate Weapon Against Evil.

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Often it’s about catching them on problems that remind us of design heuristics that we already know, as with the 3D scanner in Ghost in the Shell.

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Occasionally it’s acknowledging that the designer of a sci-fi interface has subtly different goals and constraints than a real-world designer and teasing out what does and doesn’t apply and why, as we see time and again with big labels.

Every now and then it’s about figuring out how what looks broken is really brilliant, as in the whole category of apologetics.

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But sometimes, a system is so broken that none of this is possible. The Circuit is one of those interfaces. The inputs don’t make any sense. The workflow is either potentially life-threateningly catastrophic or seriously suboptimal. The output is either misleading or part of the catastrophic workflow. The distribution of control among the users is pointlessly (or sexist-ly) one-sided. There’s no diamond-in-the-rough goodness going on here for usability tweaks or apologetics.

To redesign this interface, we have to go back to the fundamentals of human psychology, the prospective technology of Logan’s run, and start almost from scratch, which is the next post.

Matchmaking in Dome City

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So in prior posts I spent a lot of pixels describing and discussing the critical failures of the interaction design of the Circuit. The controls don’t make any sense. It is seriously one-sided. It doesn’t handle a user’s preferences. In this post we’re going to go over some of the issues involved in rethinking this design.

Circuit goals

As I express time and again in design projects—and teach in classes on interaction design—to design a system right you need to understand the goals of each actor. In a real-world project we might get more into it, but our “tuners” and “travelers” have some pretty simple goals to achieve in using The Circuit.

Goals of our users

  • Find a compatible partner for satisfying sexytimes™
  • Minimize social awkwardness
  • Have an easy way to opt out of mismatches and, if they’re just tired of it, of the whole matchmaking process for the evening

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For Jessica, social awkwardness entails not getting matched with an authority, since she’s a resistance fighter. Continue reading