The Aesculaptor Mark III

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The device with which the cosmetic surgery is conducted is delightfully called the Aesculaptor Mark III. Doc brags that it is “the latest. It’s completely self-contained.

In it, the patient lies flat in a recess on a rounded table, the tilt and orientation of which is computer controlled. Above the table is a metallic sphere with six spidery articulated arms. Some of these house laser scalpels and some of these house healing sprays. The whole mechanism is contained in a cylinder of glass.

To control the system, Doc has a panel made up of unlabeled buttons and dials, a single blue monitor, and another panel displaying a random five-digit number and two levers. One is labeled “ANODYNE” and the other is labeled “KINESIS.”

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When Doc receives a mysterious call (on what may be the earliest wireless telephone in mainstream science fiction,) he receives instructions to murder Logan. To do so he turns off the healing by moving the ANODYNE lever into the lower position.

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So. Yeah. Also just terrible. I mean there’s the plot question. I ordinarily don’t drop into questions of plot, but come on. If Doc wanted to eliminate Logan, wouldn’t he increase the anodyne, so Logan wouldn’t know he was being killed until it was too late? If you wanted to torture him, wouldn’t you put him under a paralytic first, and only then turn off the anodyne? Turning on the KINESIS (moving lasers?) and turning off the anodyne just seem counter to his actual goals. Unless you want to fantheory this so that Doc’s instruction was “make him escape.”

But yes, back to the interface. There’s almost nowhere to start. Undifferentiated controls? Unlabeled controls? No visual hierarchy? Only the device itself and an oscilloscope to monitor the system and the patient’s trending state? Un-safeguarded knife switches for the primary controls? And note that the fail state is in the direction of gravity. If that knife switch gets loose, oops, you’re screwed.

Image of the Therac-25 from http://fauxdurbeyfield.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/therac-25-because-there-isnt-enough-radiation-in-this-world/
Image from http://fauxdurbeyfield.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/therac-25-because-there-isnt-enough-radiation-in-this-world/

Logan’s Run took place long before the lessons of the Therac-25, with its tragic interface and programming problems that resulted in the deaths of several cancer patients, but even audiences in 1976 would not believe that any medical device would have such an easy means of disabling the only aspect of it that keeps it from becoming an abattoir.

New You Selector

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In addition to easy sex and drugs, citizens of Dome City who are either unhappy or even just bored with the way they look can stop by one of the New You salons for a fast, easy cosmetic alternation.

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At the salon we get a glimpse of an interface a woman is using to select new facial features. She sits glancing down at a small screen on which she sees an image of her own face. A row of five unlabeled, gray buttons are mounted on the lower bevel of the screen. A black circle to the right of the screen seems to be a camera. She hears a soft male voice advising, “I recommend a more detailed study of our projections. There are new suggestions for your consideration.

She presses the fourth button, and the strip of image that includes her chin slides to the right, replaced with another strip of image with the chin changed. Immediately afterwards, the middle strip of the image slides left, replaced with different cheekbones.

In another scene, she considers a different shape of cheekbones by pressing the second button.

So. Yeah. Terrible.

  • The first is poor mapping of buttons to the areas of the face. It would make much more sense, if the design was constrained to such buttons, to place them vertically along the side of the screen such that each button was near to the facial feature it will change.
  • Labels would help as well, so she wouldn’t have to try buttons out to know what they do (though mapping would help that.)
  • Another problem is mapping of controls to functions. In one scene, one button press changes two options. Why aren’t these individual controls?
  • Additionally, if the patron is comparing options, having the serial presentation places a burden on her short term memory. Did she like the apple cheeks or the modest ones better? If she is making her decision based on her current face, it would be better to compare the options in questions side-by-side.
  • A frontal view isn’t the only way her new face would be seen. Why does she have to infer the 3D shape of the new face from the front view? She should be able to turn it to any arbitrary angle, or major viewing angles at once, or watch videos of her moving through life in shifting light and angle conditions, all with her new face on.
  • How many options for each component are there? A quick internet search showed, for noses, types show anything between 6 and 70. It’s not clear, and this might change how she makes her decision. If it’s 70, wouldn’t some subcategories or a wizard help her narrow down options?
  • Recovery. If she accidentally presses the wrong button, how does she go back? With no labeling and an odd number of buttons to consider, it’s unclear in the best case and she’s forced to cycle through them all in the worst.
  • The reason for the transition is unclear. Why not a jump cut? (Other than making sure the audience notices it.) Or a fade? Or some other transition.
  • Why isn’t it more goal-focused? What is her goal in changing her face? Like, can she elect to look more like a perticular person? Or what she thinks her current object of affection will like? (Psychologically quite dystopian.) Or have her face follow current face fashion trends? Or point out the parts of herself that she doesn’t like? Or randomize it, and just “try something new?”

OK I guess for both showing how easy cosmetic surgery is in the future, and how surface Dome City’s residents’ concepts of beauty are, this is OK. But for actual usability, a useless mess.

Let’s fade out

As if five posts about sex weren’t enough. Now: drugs.

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Francis arrives at Logan’s apartment with a young woman on each arm, laughing and talking as if intoxicated. Once inside, Logan’s friend Francis takes a small mirrored bottle and tosses it up to the ceiling, saying, “Let’s fade out!” The bottle breaks on the ceiling, its container dissolving into the air, and spreading a pink smoke into the air. Logan, Francis, and the women laugh and stand in the smoke for a moment before collapsing together on the couch. They “fade”, whatever that is.

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The drug delivery system is a nice one for aesthetic reasons. You throw it against a surface in a celebratory manner, where it makes a pleasant tinkling sound before spreading the candy-colored smoke, which everyone can inhale together for its intoxicating effects. Since the shards of the bottle disappear completely, there is no danger of being cut or cleaning up.

It’s also delivers a particular social signal. Vaporization is a quick way to get an intoxicant into the bloodstream, and the cloud means everyone at the party can get intoxicated together at the same time. (And there’s a mesmerizing, swirling smoke to look at as the high takes hold.) Still, much of a cloud is wasted as it dissipates, unused. This would be part of its appeal: an expensive high that advertises how wealthy and generous the provider is. Like they were “makin’ it rain,” or showing off a bottle of Cristal at a club, the conspicuous consumption signals the wealth and priveleges that mark the Sandmen as more desirable partners.

It wouldn’t be for everyone, but for a small subset of the population, this would work on several levels.

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A better Circuit

The prior posts described The Circuit, critiqued it, investigated the salient aspects of matchmaking in Dome City, and threw up its hands saying that I’m going to have to rethink this one from scratch. In this post, I provide that redesign with the design rationale.

The scenario

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Logan is out and about doing his (admittedly horrible) Sandman job. While riding in a transport across the city, his attention drifts to a young lady waiting with a friend on a platform. He thinks she’s lovely and smiles. She catches his eye and smiles, too, before looking away. In the transport, he looks up at a glowing blue point on the ceiling near the windshield. It pulses in response.

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In the evening Logan returns home. He passes his foyer, one wall of which shows an “art video” of beautiful people doing beautiful things in slow-mo. He gives it a glance like he always does.

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He steps into the shower and the back wall is another display of the same “art video.” At one point, one of the men in the video, Carl, turns to the “camera,” smiles, and the picture freezes. A notification sound precedes a man’s voice, which says, “Hey, Logan.” Logan glances at the Carl’s image. His name and an infographic of his proposal to Logan (for shower sex) appears along with a transcript of what he’s said. Logan smiles and says, “Hey, Carl. Not tonight, buddy.” The infographic disappears and the display returns to its normal mode, but with a hint at others who are a match. One of the women in the display is Jessica, but she’s not featured yet.

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Logan finishes his shower and puts on his robe. He steps to his wet bar to mix himself a drink. The wall behind the bar is yet another display. While mixing his drink he glances up to catch an image of Jessica as she looked his way on the transport and smiled. Logan says, “OK, who is she?

A well-modulated voice answers, “This is Jessica-5. She seemed to like you. I think you’ll like her, too.” Her image freezes in the display and some icons appear around her explaining what she’s interested in, highlighting those activities that Logan shares. Logan glances at the infographics and nods at what he sees. “Hm.”

The voice replies, “She returned home a little while ago.” Logan reaches for another tumbler, but the voice interrupts, “Her public profile says she likes white wine, Logan.” Logan grabs a wine glass instead. The glowing blue point near him turns white, and Logan glances at it. It pulses and fades to blue in response. The video wall returns to life, mostly focused on flattering video of Jessica. He pours her a glass of white wine.

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He walks to an alcove in his room, which contains “half” a bed that’s pushed up against the wall, which has the same “art display.” It’s currently featuring Jessica. Half a table is pushed against the same wall with a chair. Logan sets the drinks down on the table. He glances at the display, which becomes a mirror long enough for him to adjust his robe and his hair. Sitting down in the chair, he sees a few infographics appears of compatible proposals for Jessica. He looks at them, makes a few swipes to select one and adjust it for his current mood. He then looks to the wall, smiles charmingly, and says, “Hi, Jessica. My name is Logan.”

Jessica, in her apartment, has a similar alcove. She has just stepped out of the shower herself. She hears a notification and lights draw her attention to the alcove. There she sees a just-captured image of Logan in his chair offering her a glass of wine. She sees his name, a transcript, and the infographic offer above his shoulder. She sees to the side infographics of likely counteroffers she might make. Behind him she can see video of when he noticed her on the transport and other flattering video from the recent past. A different but similarly well-modulated voice says, “This is Logan, Jessica. He’s the one you saw riding by on the transport just after yoga today. He’s a Sandman.”

“A Sandman?” She takes a breath and thinks for a moment. She bites her lip before saying, coyly, “Hi there, Logan. If you’ll give me a minute to dry my hair, I’ll be right with you.”

After a beat she hears his voice reply, “I’m OK with wet hair.” She glances at a glowing blue point on the adjacent wall. It brightens a bit when she’s starting right at it. She says, “OK.” The blue dot pulses in response.

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In a swirly bit of multicolored light (homage to the original), the video wall between them becomes a two-way portal, with a flickering hairline remaining at the dividing line in the walls. Logan’s half a bed joins Jessica’s half a bed to form a whole. The same thing happens with the two halves of table. Logan pushes the wine across the table surface to offer it to her. “Pleased to meet you, Jessica,” he says as the lights in their apartment dim slightly and a soft music begins to play.

What we just saw

This scenario describes several uses of The Circuit.

  • In the first, we see Logan express interest to the system in a particular girl.
  • In the next, Logan receives a proposal from a partner he’s had before, but rejects him. We see additional options for Logan after the rejection, in case Logan was in the mood, but just not with Carl. It turns out he wasn’t.
  • In the final use, we see useful information coming to find Logan. The Circuit makes a partner suggestion to Logan based on observed behavior out and about Dome City, and provides information for Logan to remember and evaluate her. He has a number of template scenarios and parameters that he can adjust for his proposal to Jessica. We see him confirm his interest in her directly, giving the system a biometric check on Logan’s biometrics to check for sobriety and authenticity. The system also makes a recommendation to Logan about how to make his proposal slightly more appealing.
  • We see the interface from Jessica’s perspective and understand that she has the same one as Logan. We see it offer her a useful warning where he runs counter to one of her implicit preferences: a disinclination towards authority figures. We see her use an explicit interaction with the circuit to indicate consent to meeting and for a similar biometric check.
  • We see the results of an accepted proposal: instant physical proximity for bom-chikka-fow-fow.

What we didn’t see

There are lots of features of modern matchmaking sites and apps that aren’t in evidence in this scenario. Could Carl have sent his request asynchronously hours before? What if Logan has a number of those messages? How would he “answer” them? How would they be prioritized? What if Logan had had a crappy time with Carl, how would he then blacklist him? What if Logan wasn’t interested in particular people as much as he was in particular acts some evening? How would he find a match then? What if he wanted to try something new?

There are lots and lots of juicy problems to solve, but for now, let’s stick to this scene. There are some implications for the greater diegesis, but this certainly makes a more believable future tech hookup interaction.

Plot implications

In the original film scene, Jessica bid a hasty retreat from his apartment after she realized he was a Sandman who had killed her Runner friend. If we’re including preferences, she would have known he was a Sandman in advance, so this surprise part of the scene has to be reconsidered. Perhaps she’s less doe-eyed innocent and instead flirting with danger. Or perhaps you add a throwaway line about Sandmen have the privilege of hiding that part of their identity in their preferences. If the plot still needs her to bug out, the arrival of boorish Francis, and her disinclination towards group scenes can do the trick.

It makes sense that the portal tech would appear in other places in Dome City, not just in apartments, so some city planning would have to happen to make the diegesis feel cohesive. (Yes, I’m offering that critique to the original. They invent teleportation and the only use they ever put it to is booty calls?)

Why is this design good for Logan, Carl, Jessica, and the other citizens of Dome City?

  • The ubiquitous screens function as background art when not in use, and the content reinforces Dome City’s cultural values of youth, physical appearance, and pleasure.
  • They afford seamless flows between living everyday life, entertaining the notion of nookie, and the actual act. It keeps them in the flow(Csikszentmihalyi) of life.
  • An asynchronous proposal system avoids social pressure that might trip Logan into accepting Carl to be polite. This lets both parties save face.
  • The proposer’s image is offered to the receiver as a gesture of good faith, but the receiver is in control of his or her privacy.
  • It offers bilateral control to each partner to propose, accept or reject, and pull the eject seat at any time. Neither party is privileged in the exchange.

Why is this design good for the Übercomputer?

  • The displays also serve to prime citizens with sensual images and, you know, get ‘em in the mood. This supports the shared goal of maximizing pleasure across the populace..
  • The Übercomputer’s is seen as a friendly, useful, soft-sell agent. This increases trust and reliance on it, which would help forestall revolutions like the one Jessica ends up being a part of anyway. (She’s too clever.)

Why is this design good for telling the story of Logan’s Run?

  • It fulfills the apparent original intent of the hookup interface in Logan’s Run in a more believable, usable way: the controls match modern trends in technology and the task at hand.
  • It tells the story of a massive infrastructure built just to support casual sex. That’s commitment to a bit.
  • It inserts the Übercomputer into citizens homes in a deep way, further exposing the intrusion of the government into private matters.

Lessons

Wow. 6500 words about a single interface. What lessons can we derive from it? In this case, we ran smack dab into a terrible interface that reminded us of some of our first principles of good interaction design:

  • Understand the goals of the actors for whom you’re designing
  • Understand the domain from a human psychology and workflow perspective
  • Match technologies and controls to the workflow rather than the other way around
  • Step through it from a persona perspective using scenarios
  • (And though I didn’t expose the iterations) iterate against the constraints and goals until you’re satisfied that the results will be, well, awesome.

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.

We’d want to establish what “compatible” means for each in a categorical sense. Is Carl homosexual? Is Logan bisexual? Is Jessica heterosexual? For design in the real world we’d also want to know about their mental model of sex, but for purposes of this scene it may not be too important, just that we help maximize compatibility between users.

Personas account for most but not all actors here. There’s another, more sinister character to consider here, and that’s the Übercomputer. Put in place long ago, it has a primary goal to maintain the status quo within Dome City, which breaks down into a number of other goals.

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Goals of the Übercomputer

  • Maximize pleasure among the populace
  • Discourage pair bonding (it might interfere with Carrousel [sic] and general compliance)
  • Overcome the resistance movement
  • Solve the problem of the decaying DNA base (a secret subplot revealed later in the movie)

It seems like these latter goals don’t have much to do with the Circuit, but read on, because they do.

Domain

A designer also needs to take into account the broad facts of the domain. In this case, we have to think about matchmaking. For this, a person looking for a casual encounter wants to find a person who is compatible, interested, and available. (Source: reason.)

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Being Compatible

If Logan wants to be spanked in a monkey suit but Jessica wants to cuddle, little else in the equation matters. For a successful match, two have to have compatible preferences. This is kind of complicated because what a person wants depends yes on categorical interests, but also on mood, and there are a large number of abstractions to manage. Logan might not have particular acts he’s interested in, just as long as he’s able to please his partner with whatever it is they’re into. Sexuality is a fluid spectrum, especially in a hedonistic culture like Dome City. But I suspect some set of categorical preferences is workable if handled respectfully and thoroughly, and users have some means of communicating preferences that don’t fit the mold. A supercategory for those common categorical preferences would be:

  • Desired/Undesired traits (both physical and psychological)
  • Desired/Undesired activities (and role in those activities)
  • Desired/Undesired individuals

Given the high-tech world of Logan’s Run, there are a number of ways for the Circuit to have a model of each user’s categorical interests. Logan can express them directly upfront, or through use of the system, but living in a sexy panopticon means that the Übercomputer can also infer it over time, note when it’s on the verge of changing, and maybe even nudge it in useful directions.

Making compatible

If we’re going to respect the Übercomputer’s need to nudge the system, then we should also consider that the humans can be primed. In this sense, priming means being exposed to stimulus that affects mood and influences subsequent choices the user makes. The interpretation I offered in the previous post that Carl was put there as a way to make Jessica look better is an example of negative priming, but it’s possible that Logan can be positively primed, too. It’s what modern advertising is based on, and those same tools are available to the system.

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Being Available

If one of the parties is unavailable for a hookup, the compatibility doesn’t matter. In the real world this could mean one is committed to a monogamous partner. But for Logan’s Run, this isn’t an issue. Sexual pair bonding is not part of the culture. In this case, it means available at the moment, receptive to an offer to hook up. This could be as simple as an indicator that “he’s online right now,” but with a sufficiently smart system, this could include

  • Predictions that he will be available soon
  • Knowledge of routine times he’s available
  • Warning that he’s losing interest, and his window of availability is about to close

Making available

Again, the Übercomputer can just act as more than a passive go-between, but can also influence things to make sure that two people happen to be available at the same time. Encourage Jessica to stay at the gym a few extra minutes. Clear a way through the computer-driven traffic to get Logan home an extra few minutes, and oh, hey, gurl…

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Being Interested

If compatible is a gauge of categorical fitness, interest is a gauge of specifics. That is, at the decision point, does Carl dig Logan and Logan dig Carl? Modern sites and apps let people express and respond to interest in the moment using interface, and we can use some cool tech to design this right, but again, Dome City is a panopticon with ubiquitous tech and a central artificial intelligence. It can detect expressed interest and disinterest as it happens in the world as well, and let people when they hit the sweet spot of someone in whom you’re interested who’s also interested in you.

Making interest

If the Übercomputer wants to make sure that, say, Logan notices Jessica, it could outfit Dome City with cinematic tools to make that happen. Say they’re sitting near each other in Carrousel, the moment that Logan glances her way, an amber spotlight subtly and magically makes her slightly brighter and warmer than the people around her. “Who’s that girl?” he thinks, and things are underway.

Tech to use

So these are the things that need to be handled by any dating system: compatability, availability, and interest. What tools does the world of Logan’s Run have to design with? If we were just using tech from the original, we’d have a small set of tech:

  • Analog controls
  • Slideshow-like projection screens
  • Voice interface
  • Wireless communication
  • Slow teleportation
  • Lifeclocks
  • Artificial intelligence (the Übercomputer)

If we’re thinking about a reboot, the sky’s the limit. I’m more interested in thinking about future technology, so I’ll leave the 70s constraints behind and instead focus on:

  • Real time social interfaces
  • Big Social data
  • Ubiquitous sensor and actuator technology
  • Wall-sized OLED displays
  • “Natural” user interfaces, especially gesture and voice

Since it’s really hard to guess what the future looks like past the singularity, I’d ordinarily focus on algorithms that are merely agentive and not full-blown AI. But the Übercomputer is a core part of the story of Logan’s Run, so I’ll presume that as a fait accompli, as I take all these factors into a rethink of The Circuit in the next post.

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.

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?

The face-to-face nature of the system also puts a strange social pressure on both the rider and the tuner. In trying to maximize pleasure for the populace, the Übercomputer doesn’t want anyone settling out of politeness, especially if there’s a better combination for each party somewhere. Sure he’s probably practiced at this, but how is Carl supposed to feel after the rejection? Ideally we’d save him from rejection in the first place, but if we can’t do that is there a way to minimize having to look at the guy in the face as he’s twisting the knob to the next channel? Because ouch.

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Would tableau be better?

These arguments would seem to argue for a tableau layout of available riders, where Logan can pick favorites from among them, select some to get a closer look at, and initiate contact with his favorite candidates in parallel to see the best or first deal he could get. And if you were designing to optimize for individual users, this might be the best design choice.

Maximizing for everyone

But in Dome City, the Übercomputer has a goal to not just maximize pleasure for only the most beautiful. It’s not just a hedonist-dystopia or Battle of the Beauties. It’s more of a socialist-hedonist-dystopia. It wants to maximize pleasure for everyone. How can it systemically encourage that?

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Of course it encourages everyone to try and be as fit and attractive as they can be. Gyms and saunas are everywhere. (Interesting digression: Would a fetish arise for less-fit people?) Citizens even have access to fast and painless cosmetic surgery to try out new appearances. Over and above these tools available to individual citizens, the Übercomputer has a design tool it can use to maximize matches, and it has to do with a weird little social experiment called the 11th Person Game.

The 11th person game

In this admittedly objectifying game, ask a friend to select a doorway and a point in time. From that starting point, they much watch for the next person to pass through the doorway, and decide in a moment whether they would like to marry them or not. (There is a more lascivious version of the game where marriage is not the decision, but I’ll let your imagination fill in that blank.)

When playing, you can’t undo a decision. If you decide yes, you can’t change your mind for someone better who comes along later. Once you say “no,” you’re stuck with that no even if they turned out be your favorite. If another person passes through the doorway while you’re still making up your mind about the prior person, tough luck. The prior person automatically becomes a “no.” The kicker is that if you don’t select someone by the 10th person, you “have” to marry the 11th and others watching you play the game will almost certainly rib you for the forced marriage, especially it’s a terrible match (like a homosexual having to “marry” someone of the opposite sex.)

When people begin to play the 11th person game, they most often have a strategy of finding flaws in people and holding out for a better looking candidate (since that’s pretty much all the information they have to go on in this toy experiment) until time’s up and they find that as of the 11th, they would have been much happier with one of the prior 10.

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Over time, to start “winning” this game, players shift strategies from this flaw-finding and holding out to one of in-the-moment appreciation, of looking for what’s right about a given person and caring much less about the “opportunity” cost of subsequent choices.

Notably, to get the effect, the game depends on, you guessed it, serial presentation of candidates and irrevocable decisions. This is what’s happening in The Circuit. A Green will hop on The Circuit with a mindset of looking to maximize, and after a few nights of winding up alone, feeling like they’re settling, and/or frustrated at lost opportunities, they will slowly shift to one of appreciation. That makes them genuinely happier and moreover, increases the number of matches in the total system. It’s not perfect of course. Logan did reject Carl for whatever reason. But this presentation technique would help maximize pleasure and happiness, which is what the Übercomputer is tasked to do.

Even all the other little unusabilities that go along with it like memory burden, the delay between candidates, and maybe even the social awkwardness, help create a design friction that additionally discourages best-of-all strategies and encourages a shift to appreciation strategies. More people win.

So, serial presentation is not a bug but a feature. Let’s see if we can keep it. Still, given the other massive and unresolvable problems in the design of The Circuit like lousy controls, unilateral control, and a complete lack of preferences, we need a complete rethink of those other parts to make this thing better. In the next post I’ll get into the principles involved and walk through the thinking of a better design. You know, for that coming reboot. (They’re reading and taking notes, right?)

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.

Description

Early in the film, after a hard day of liquefying runners, Logan-6 comes home to his apartment and wants to add a little sex to his evening. He slips into a robe, grabs a remote control, and begins to twist dials on its surface. In response, we hear frequencies swooping to and fro like someone is tuning an AM radio but never quite finding a station. Meanwhile an alcove on one side of his living room displays a blinking, wispy texture of multicolored light. (It bears a passing resemblance to Star Trek TOS teleporters, for those interested in tracing SFX similarities.)

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It takes about 10 seconds of Logan’s tuning, but eventually a figure appears in the lights. It coalesces into a man wearing

  • A lot of gold swag
  • Red velour hip huggers
  • A gold belt buckle that would do the WWE proud
  • A tan worthy of Jersey Shore
  • Nothing else

This fellow is never named in the movie or the credits or the internet, so I’ll just call him Carl-4. Carl likes what he sees in Logan, and so gives him a showy pose and a winsome smile.

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Logan smiles and shakes his head “no,” looks down, and resumes fiddling with his remote control. Carl vanishes quickly in the texture of light. A few seconds of tuning later and Jessica-5 coalesces in the alcove. She looks around a little doe-eyed and dumbfounded, almost as if she stumbled onto the Circuit by accident and is now a little perplexed about how she got here. Nonetheless, she accepts Logan’s extended hand and steps out of the alcove into his apartment where hijinks might have ensued, if it weren’t for her learning he was a Sandman.

Problems

It’s a quick, 50-second scene, meant to wow the audience with futuristic technology, shock and titillate with how casual the sex is in Dome City, and, for purposes of the plot, get the sandman Logan and the revolutionary Jessica in contact for the first time so he can meet her and see her ankh necklace.

I have the distinct impression that this device was first conceived between a pair of roommate movie producers sitting around in their apartment one Saturday in bathrobes, high off their asses, with one of them thumbing through a copy of Penthouse while the other one practiced feathering his hair or whatever they did while they were high in the 70s. The one with the magazine takes a huge hit off his bong and says to the other while blowing out smoke, “Dude. Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could just reach in to this magazine, and pull one of these girls out of here?” The other of course agrees, pauses with his hairbrush midair to think, and then says, “Dude. We’re movie producers. We can make. That. Shit. Happen.” Because really, that’s the only way something this goofball could have come about.

Mismatched Controls

What the hell is Logan tuning? The 1970s were certainly operating with radio metaphors, but it just doesn’t make sense in this context. Is Jessica being broadcast on a channel? Can two tuners tune her in at the same time? Are there multiple copies of Jessica? That makes no sense unless she’s virtual, which we know she’s not, or instantly/infinitely replicable, which isn’t part of this diegesis.

Why would he have to tune at all? Is he actually trying to get something “right” in the system in order to summon the next candidate? What if he gets it wrong? What if he only tunes a partner in 95%? Can he leave her there indefinitely? What if she steps off at 99.5%? Where does that extra mass go? Instant weight loss, sure, but also the possibility of a teleporter lobotomy.

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Is he dialing the preferences for what he’s interested in at that moment? If so, why does he keep tuning even as someone is appearing? If it’s some kind of live results, like Google’s live search, why are the “travelers” of the circuit summoned before he’s done? It’s premature, and premature is bad in casual sex.

As you can tell, I’ve tried to come up with some apologetic answer, and I just can’t think of any way this control makes sense. It’s a sci-fi interface fail.

Lopsided control

For purposes of the description, let’s call Logan a “tuner,” and Carl and Jessica “travelers.” These terms are derived from the scene, not meant to describe some ideal. Note that Logan gets a remote control, but the travelers don’t. They don’t have any controls. It’s tempting to want to imagine that the interior walls of the alcove have some interface that we can’t see, but really the space is too shallow and they are too far away from its walls for that to make any sense. No, this system privileges the tuners with control, and the travelers are just passive participants.

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Think about this from the traveler’s perspective. Once Jessica hops on, she gets zapped away from the start location, only to appear in stranger-after-strangers homes, where her choices are to

  • Accept an offer from a tuner.
  • Express disinterest in a tuner and get zapped to the next location.
  • Or…what? What if she gets tired of riding the circuit? Is she stuck? Does she have to just walk into the stranger’s apartment and make awkward small talk, explaining that she’s tired, find the front door as the tuner frustratedly keeps tuning to find someone new, and then step out into a hallway in a random point in Dome City and then find her way home? It would be a terrible experience. She’d never do it.
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I spoke with an attendee to the BoingBoing conference about the possibility that this privilege of control might be part of Logan’s job as a Sandman, but we reasoned our way out of that. It’s not mentioned anywhere in the movie, and if riders were simply on a conveyor belt for selection by Sandmen, why is Jessica surprised and flustered to wind up in the apartment of one?

If you’ve studied film theory, you’re probably familiar with a criticism called the male gaze, developed by Laura Mulvey. This interface is lousy with it. If you’re not familar, realize that this was created just to satisfy things from Logan’s perspective, of what would be pleasing for him. No thought at all has been given any of the other participants except as objects to be considered in his whim of instant sex.

When rethinking this, we should consciously redesign the system with less “stoner Penthouse” and more Chatroulette, where at least both participants have control: options to keep going, skip to the next candidate, or bow out at any time.

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It’s entirely possible of course that this is just a power exchange, with subs as riders and doms as tuners. After all, they don’t have to ride The Circuit for sex. They have places in Dome City like the Love Shop and the gym where they can go to find a partner in other ways. While this dom-sub possibility might propose some interesting challenges, there’s not a lot of corroborating evidence in the film that this is the case.

Preferences

Finally there’s the notion of preferences. Logan rejects Carl, and his expression as he does so is really bothersome. The smile and head shake say less “Thanks, but not a match,” and more of an offensive “Oh, those silly, silly fags.” (I’m ಠ_ಠ at you, Michael York.) I’m sure in the 1970s, the ambiguity of what Logan was thinking was quite useful. It let both the uptight and queer members in the audience imagine the most palatable reason for the rejection. For our purposes, the rejection of Carl raises the question of preferences.

From the vantage of the 2010s, anyone who’s tried their hand at a matchmaking system knows that preferences are a pretty big deal. There are simply too many candidates out there to consider them one by one, and so expressing preferences helps focus your efforts on a smaller set of more-likely hits. These can either be simple, like the one-time Japanese key fob experiment LoveGety, to systems that let the numbers speak for themselves, like OKCupid, to those that profess the ability to do deep psychological profiling that in turn require hours of your time to answer a battery of questions. Knowing how crucial they are, it’s odd that preferences don’t appear to be part of The Circuit. Why not?

No preferences

One possible reason is that the system didn’t have any preferences. In the 1970s, not even “video (tape) dating” had been invented yet, so preferences may not have been on anyone’s mind in a computational sense. Had the designers given it a bit of thought, they would realize that even then people were expressing some preferences by the choice of party or bar they went to, as they could count on a certain type of person being there. Even the way they dressed and carried themselves was expressing something about who they wanted to be and even do that night. But it’s more likely (if less instructive) that preferences were just not a part of the Circuit.

Logan ain’t feeling it

Another interpretation is that Logan’s rejection of Carl is circumstantial. In this interpretation, Logan is omnisexual, and just happens to be not in the mood for a heaping helping of dude that night. Or maybe Logan would have been fine with a guy, just rejecting this particular one, unwilling to face the challenge of unbuckling all that bling amidst the slipperiness of still-drying tanning butter. That only raises the question of scope: Why can’t Logan capture categorical preferences well in advance, and express circumstantial exceptions or additional preferences in the moment? It’s not a requirement, but it sure would help Logan find what he’s looking for with less of the awkwardness and wasted time of face-to-face rejection.

The system pretends it’s a bit janky to influence him

A final interpretation is that the computer knows Logan’s preferences, but ignores them, on purpose, from time to time. It could be a simple attempt to open his mind to new experiences. It could also be an attempt at persuasion. Similar to how accountants for a publically traded company will make a kind-of bad quarter seem really bad so that the next quarter, even if it’s just a little bit good feel great by comparison, presenting Logan with one choice that’s totally wrong (Carl) may increase his appreciation of the next choice (Jessica). This presumes that the computer has an agenda, is smart about making it happen, is in the business of persuasion, and the system has a serial presentation of candidates, and that’s not all a given in this case. But let’s keep that possibility in mind.

Not a problem: Casualness

Just so it’s clear, I’m not getting on any high horse about casual sex. They’ve cured sexually transmitted infections and birth control is the default. Casual sex a given in this diegesis, and as long as it’s between consenting adults, get over it.

Not a problem: Teleportation

Similarly I’m not going to get into the scientific possibility of teleportation. As far as Logan’s Run is concerned, that’s just a part of his world and the science of it just happens. I’m concerned about the interface that allows use of the tech.

There’s one more potential problem, but it’s extensive enough to warrant it’s own post, so come back tomorrow when I’ll talk about presentation strategies for hooking up in Dome City.

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.

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.