Deckard’s Photo Inspector

Back to Blade Runner. I mean, the pandemic is still pandemicking, but maybe this will be a nice distraction while you shelter in place. Because you’re smart, sheltering in place as much as you can, and not injecting disinfectants. And, like so many other technologies in this film, this will take a while to deconstruct, critique, and reimagine.

Description

Doing his detective work, Deckard retrieves a set of snapshots from Leon’s hotel room, and he brings them home with with. Something in the one pictured above catches his eye, and he wants to investigate it in greater detail. He takes the photograph and inserts it in a black device he keeps in his living room.

Note: I’ll try and describe this interaction in text, but it is much easier to conceptualize after viewing it. Owing to copyright restrictions, I cannot upload this length of video with the original audio, so I have added pre-rendered closed captions to it, below. All dialogue in the clip is Deckard.

Deckard does digital forensics, looking for a lead.

He inserts the snapshot into a horizontal slit and turns the machine on. A thin, horizontal orange line glows on the left side of the front panel. A series of seemingly random-length orange lines begin to chase one another in a single-row space that stretches across the remainder of the panel and continue to do so throughout Deckard’s use of it. (Imagine a news ticker, running backwards, where the “headlines” are glowing amber lines.) This seems useless and an absolutely pointless distraction for Deckard, putting high-contrast motion in his peripheral vision, which fights for attention with the actual, interesting content down below.

If this is distracting you from reading, YOU SEE MY POINT.

After a second, the screen reveals a blue grid, behind which the scan of the snapshot appears. He stares at the image in the grid for a moment, and speaks a set of instructions, “Enhance 224 to 176.”

In response, three data points appear overlaying the image at the bottom of the screen. Each has a two-letter label and a four-digit number, e.g. “ZM 0000 NS 0000 EW 0000.” The NS and EW—presumably North-South and East-West coordinates, respectively—immediately update to read, “ZM 0000 NS 0197 EW 0334.” After updating the numbers, the screen displays a crosshairs, which target a single rectangle in the grid.

A new rectangle then zooms in from the edges to match the targeted rectangle, as the ZM number—presumably zoom, or magnification—increases. When the animated rectangle reaches the targeted rectangle, its outline blinks yellow a few times. Then the contents of the rectangle are enlarged to fill the screen, in a series of steps which are punctuated with sounds similar to a mechanical camera aperture. The enlargement is perfectly resolved. The overlay disappears until the next set of spoken commands. The system response between Deckard’s issuing the command and the device’s showing the final enlarged image is about 11 seconds.

Deckard studies the new image for awhile before issuing another command. This time he says, “Enhance.” The image enlarges in similar clacking steps until he tells it, “Stop.”

Other instructions he is heard to give include “move in, pull out, track right, center in, pull back, center, and pan right.” Some include discrete instructions, such as, “Track 45 right” while others are relative commands that the system obeys until told to stop, such as “Go right.”

Using such commands he isolates part of the image that reveals an important clue, and he speaks the instruction, “Give me a hard copy right there.” The machine prints the image, which Deckard uses to help find the replicant pictured.

This image helps lead him to Zhora.

I’d like to point out one bit of sophistication before the critique. Deckard can issue a command with or without a parameter, and the inspector knows what to do. For example, “Track 45 right” and “Track right.” Without the parameter, it will just do the thing repeatedly until told to stop. That helps Deckard issue the same basic command when he knows exactly where he wants to look and when doesn’t know what exactly what he’s looking for. That’s a nice feature of the language design.

But still, asking him to provide step-by-step instructions in this clunky way feels like some high-tech Big Trak. (I tried to find a reference that was as old as the film.) And that’s not all…

Some critiques, as it is

  • Can I go back and mention that amber distracto-light? Because it’s distracting. And pointless. I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.
  • It sure would be nice if any of the numbers on screen made sense, and had any bearing with the numbers Deckard speaks, at any time during the interaction. For instance, the initial zoom (I checked in Photoshop) is around 304%, which is neither the 224 or 176 that Deckard speaks.
  • It might be that each square has a number, and he simply has to name the two squares at the extents of the zoom he wants, letting the machine find the extents, but where is the labeling? Did he have to memorize an address for each pixel? How does that work at arbitrary levels of zoom?
  • And if he’s memorized it, why show the overlay at all?
  • Why the seizure-inducing flashing in the transition sequences? Sure, I get that lots of technologies have unfortunate effects when constrained by mechanics, but this is digital.
  • Why is the printed picture so unlike the still image where he asks for a hard copy?
  • Gaze at the reflection in Ford’s hazel, hazel eyes, and it’s clear he’s playing Missile Command, rather than paying attention to this interface at all. (OK, that’s the filmmaker’s issue, not a part of the interface, but still, come on.)
The photo inspector: My interface is up HERE, Rick.

How might it be improved for 1982?

So if 1982 Ridley Scott was telling me in post that we couldn’t reshoot Harrison Ford, and we had to make it just work with what we had, here’s what I’d do…

Squash the grid so the cells match the 4:3 ratio of the NTSC screen. Overlay the address of each cell, while highlighting column and row identifiers at the edges. Have the first cell’s outline illuminate as he speaks it, and have the outline expand to encompass the second named cell. Then zoom, removing the cell labels during the transition. When at anything other than full view, display a map across four cells that shows the zoom visually in the context of the whole.

Rendered in glorious 4:3 NTSC dimensions.

With this interface, the structure of the existing conversation makes more sense. When Deckard said, “Enhance 203 to 608” the thing would zoom in on the mirror, and the small map would confirm.

The numbers wouldn’t match up, but it’s pretty obvious from the final cut that Scott didn’t care about that (or, more charitably, ran out of time). Anyway I would be doing this under protest, because I would argue this interaction needs to be fixed in the script.

How might it be improved for 2020?

What’s really nifty about this technology is that it’s not just a photograph. Look close in the scene, and Deckard isn’t just doing CSI Enhance! commands (or, to be less mocking, AI upscaling). He’s using the photo inspector to look around corners and at objects that are reconstructed from the smallest reflections. So we can think of the interaction like he’s controlling a drone through a 3D still life, looking for a lead to help him further the case.

With that in mind, let’s talk about the display.

Display

To redesign it, we have to decide at a foundational level how we think this works, because it will color what the display looks like. Is this all data that’s captured from some crazy 3D camera and available in the image? Or is it being inferred from details in the 2 dimensional image? Let’s call the first the 3D capture, and the second the 3D inference.

If we decide this is a 3-D capture, then all the data that he observes through the machine has the same degree of confidence. If, however, we decide this is a 3D inferrer, Deckard needs to treat the inferred data with more skepticism than the data the camera directly captured. The 3-D inferrer is the harder problem, and raises some issues that we must deal with in modern AI, so let’s just say that’s the way this speculative technology works.

The first thing the display should do it make it clear what is observed and what is inferred. How you do this is partly a matter of visual design and style, but partly a matter of diegetic logic. The first pass would be to render everything in the camera frustum photo-realistically, and then render everything outside of that in a way that signals its confidence level. The comp below illustrates one way this might be done.

Modification of a pair of images found on Evermotion
  • In the comp, Deckard has turned the “drone” from the “actual photo,” seen off to the right, toward the inferred space on the left. The monochrome color treatment provides that first high-confidence signal.
  • In the scene, the primary inference would come from reading the reflections in the disco ball overhead lamp, maybe augmented with plans for the apartment that could be found online, or maybe purchase receipts for appliances, etc. Everything it can reconstruct from the reflection and high-confidence sources has solid black lines, a second-level signal.
  • The smaller knickknacks that are out of the reflection of the disco ball, and implied from other, less reflective surfaces, are rendered without the black lines and blurred. This provides a signal that the algorithm has a very low confidence in its inference.

This is just one (not very visually interesting) way to handle it, but should illustrate that, to be believable, the photo inspector shouldn’t have a single rendering style outside the frustum. It would need something akin to these levels to help Deckard instantly recognize how much he should trust what he’s seeing.

Flat screen or volumetric projection?

Modern CGI loves big volumetric projections. (e.g. it was the central novum of last year’s Fritz winner, Spider-Man: Far From Home.) And it would be a wonderful juxtaposition to see Deckard in a holodeck-like recreation of Leon’s apartment, with all the visual treatments described above.

But…

Also seriously who wants a lamp embedded in a headrest?

…that would kind of spoil the mood of the scene. This isn’t just about Deckard’s finding a clue, we also see a little about who he is and what his life is like. We see the smoky apartment. We see the drab couch. We see the stack of old detective machines. We see the neon lights and annoying advertising lights swinging back and forth across his windows. Immersing him in a big volumetric projection would lose all this atmospheric stuff, and so I’d recommend keeping it either a small contained VP, like we saw in Minority Report, or just keep it a small flat screen.


OK, so we have an idea about how the display would (and shouldn’t) look, let’s move on to talk about the inputs.

Inputs

To talk about inputs, then, we have to return to a favorite topic of mine, and that is the level of agency we want for the interaction. In short, we need to decide how much work the machine is doing. Is the machine just a manual tool that Deckard has to manipulate to get it to do anything? Or does it actively assist him? Or, lastly, can it even do the job while his attention is on something else—that is, can it act as an agent on his behalf? Sophisticated tools can be a blend of these modes, but for now, let’s look at them individually.

Manual Tool

This is how the photo inspector works in Blade Runner. It can do things, but Deckard has to tell it exactly what to do. But we can still improve it in this mode.

We could give him well-mapped physical controls, like a remote control for this conceptual drone. Flight controls wind up being a recurring topic on this blog (and even came up already in the Blade Runner reviews with the Spinners) so I could go on about how best to do that, but I think that a handheld controller would ruin the feel of this scene, like Deckard was sitting down to play a video game rather than do off-hours detective work.

Special edition made possible by our sponsor, Tom Nook.
(I hope we can pay this loan back.)

Similarly, we could talk about a gestural interface, using some of the synecdochic techniques we’ve seen before in Ghost in the Shell. But again, this would spoil the feel of the scene, having him look more like John Anderton in front of a tiny-TV version of Minority Report’s famous crime scrubber.

One of the things that gives this scene its emotional texture is that Deckard is drinking a glass of whiskey while doing his detective homework. It shows how low he feels. Throwing one back is clearly part of his evening routine, so much a habit that he does it despite being preoccupied about Leon’s case. How can we keep him on the couch, with his hand on the lead crystal whiskey glass, and still investigating the photo? Can he use it to investigate the photo?

Here I recommend a bit of ad-hoc tangible user interface. I first backworlded this for The Star Wars Holiday Special, but I think it could work here, too. Imagine that the photo inspector has a high-resolution camera on it, and the interface allows Deckard to declare any object that he wants as a control object. After the declaration, the camera tracks the object against a surface, using the changes to that object to control the virtual camera.

In the scene, Deckard can declare the whiskey glass as his control object, and the arm of his couch as the control surface. Of course the virtual space he’s in is bigger than the couch arm, but it could work like a mouse and a mousepad. He can just pick it up and set it back down again to extend motion.

This scheme takes into account all movement except vertical lift and drop. This could be a gesture or a spoken command (see below).

Going with this interaction model means Deckard can use the whiskey glass, allowing the scene to keep its texture and feel. He can still drink and get his detective on.

Tipping the virtual drone to the right.

Assistant Tool

Indirect manipulation is helpful for when Deckard doesn’t know what he’s looking for. He can look around, and get close to things to inspect them. But when he knows what he’s looking for, he shouldn’t have to go find it. He should be able to just ask for it, and have the photo inspector show it to him. This requires that we presume some AI. And even though Blade Runner clearly includes General AI, let’s presume that that kind of AI has to be housed in a human-like replicant, and can’t be squeezed into this device. Instead, let’s just extend the capabilities of Narrow AI.

Some of this will be navigational and specific, “Zoom to that mirror in the background,” for instance, or, “Reset the orientation.” Some will more abstract and content-specific, e.g. “Head to the kitchen” or “Get close to that red thing.” If it had gaze detection, he could even indicate a location by looking at it. “Get close to that red thing there,” for example, while looking at the red thing. Given the 3D inferrer nature of this speculative device, he might also want to trace the provenance of an inference, as in, “How do we know this chair is here?” This implies natural language generation as well as understanding.

There’s nothing from stopping him using the same general commands heard in the movie, but I doubt anyone would want to use those when they have commands like this and the object-on-hand controller available.

Ideally Deckard would have some general search capabilities as well, to ask questions and test ideas. “Where were these things purchased?” or subsequently, “Is there video footage from the stores where he purchased them?” or even, “What does that look like to you?” (The correct answer would be, “Well that looks like the mirror from the Arnolfini portrait, Ridley…I mean…Rick*”) It can do pattern recognition and provide as much extra information as it has access to, just like Google Lens or IBM Watson image recognition does.

*Left: The convex mirror in Leon’s 21st century apartment.
Right: The convex mirror in Arnolfini’s 15th century apartment

Finally, he should be able to ask after simple facts to see if the inspector knows or can find it. For example, “How many people are in the scene?”

All of this still requires that Deckard initiate the action, and we can augment it further with a little agentive thinking.

Agentive Tool

To think in terms of agents is to ask, “What can the system do for the user, but not requiring the user’s attention?” (I wrote a book about it if you want to know more.) Here, the AI should be working alongside Deckard. Not just building the inferences and cataloguing observations, but doing anomaly detection on the whole scene as it goes. Some of it is going to be pointless, like “Be aware the butter knife is from IKEA, while the rest of the flatware is Christofle Lagerfeld. Something’s not right, here.” But some of it Deckard will find useful. It would probably be up to Deckard to review summaries and decide which were worth further investigation.

It should also be able to help him with his goals. For example, the police had Zhora’s picture on file. (And her portrait even rotates in the dossier we see at the beginning, so it knows what she looks like in 3D for very sophisticated pattern matching.) The moment the agent—while it was reverse ray tracing the scene and reconstructing the inferred space—detects any faces, it should run the face through a most wanted list, and specifically Deckard’s case files. It shouldn’t wait for him to find it. That again poses some challenges to the script. How do we keep Deckard the hero when the tech can and should have found Zhora seconds after being shown the image? It’s a new challenge for writers, but it’s becoming increasingly important for believability.

Though I’ve never figured out why she has a snake tattoo here (and it seems really important to the plot) but then when Deckard finally meets her, it has disappeared.

Scene

Interior. Deckard’s apartment. Night.

Deckard grabs a bottle of whiskey, a glass, and the photo from Leon’s apartment. He sits on his couch, places the photo on the coffee table and says “Photo inspector?” The machine on top of a cluttered end table comes to life. Deckard continues, “Let’s look at this.” He points to the photo. A thin line of light sweeps across the image. The scanned image appears on the screen, pulled in a bit from the edges. A label reads, “Extending scene,” and we see wireframe representations of the apartment outside the frame begin to take shape. A small list of anomolies begins to appear to the left. Deckard pours a few fingers of whiskey into the glass. He takes a drink and says, “Controller,” before putting the glass on the arm of his couch. Small projected graphics appear on the arm facing the inspector. He says, “OK. Anyone hiding? Moving?” The inspector replies, “No and no.” Deckard looks at the screen he says, “Zoom to that arm and pin to the face.” He turns the glass on the couch arm counterclockwise, and the “drone” revolves around to show Leon’s face, with the shadowy parts rendered in blue. He asks, “What’s the confidence?” The inspector replies, “95.” On the side of the screen the inspector overlays Leon’s police profile. Deckard says, “unpin” and lifts his glass to take a drink. He moves from the couch to the floor to stare more intently and places his drink on the coffee table. “New surface,” he says, and turns the glass clockwise. The camera turns and he sees into a bedroom. “How do we have this much inference?” he asks. The inspector replies, “The convex mirror in the hall…” Deckard interrupts, saying, “Wait. Is that a foot? You said no one was hiding.” The inspector replies, “The individual is not hiding. They appear to be sleeping.” Deckard rolls his eyes. He says, “Zoom to the face and pin.” The view zooms to the face, but the camera is level with her chin, making it hard to make out the face. Deckard tips the glass forward and the camera rises up to focus on a blue, wireframed face. Deckard says, “That look like Zhora to you?” The inspector overlays her police file and replies, “63% of it does.” Deckard says, “Why didn’t you say so?” The inspector replies, “My threshold is set to 66%.” Deckard says, “Give me a hard copy right there.” He raises his glass and finishes his drink.


This scene keeps the texture and tone of the original, and camps on the limitations of Narrow AI to let Deckard be the hero. And doesn’t have him programming a virtual Big Trak.

The Court of Idiots

It’s Halloween, as if the news of the past week were not scary enough. Pipe bombs to Democratic leaders. The largest massacre of Jewish people in on American soil in history. The murder of two black senior citizens by a white supremacist in Kentucky. Now let’s add to it with this nightmare scene from Idiocracy. Full disclosure: We’re covering technology as old as civilization here, so there won’t be any screen interfaces.


Joe is wheeled into the courtroom in a cage. There is a large gallery there, all of whom are booing him. One throws his milkshake at the accused. Others throw trash. The narrator says, “Joe was arrested for not paying his hospital bill and not having his IPP tattoo. He would soon discover that in the future, Justice was not only blind, but had become rather retarded as well.”

IDIOCRACY_court30.png

Joe is let out of his cage. The judge, identified by his name plate as The Honorable Hector “The Hangman,” stands at his bench in a spotlight in front of a wall of logos, grinning in anticipation at a new victim. He slams a massive gavel and shouts at the booing crowd, “Listen up! Now. I’m fixin’ to commensurate this trial here. [All of this is sic.] We gon’ see if we can’t come up with a verdict up in here. Now. Since y’all say y’ain’t got no money, we have proprietarily obtained you one of them court-appointed lawyers. So, put your hands together to give it up for Frito Pendejo!”

Frito, wearing a long-sleeve t-shirt with “ATTORNEY AT LAW” running down the sleeve, sits and looks at a paper on the counsel table, saying “Says here you, uh, robbed a hospital?! Why’d you do that?” Joe says, “But I’m not guilty!” Frito replies, “That’s not what the other lawyer said.”

IDIOCRACY_attorneyatlaw

When the trial officially starts, the judge says, “Shut up. Shut up! Now, prosecutor. Why you think he done it?” The prosecutor stands up and says, “K. Number one, your honor. Just look at him.” Most everyone in the courtroom, including, Frito, laughs at this. Frito stands up and says, “He talks like a fag, too!” When more laughter dies down, the prospector continues, saying, “We’ve got all this, like, evidence, of how, like, this guy didn’t even pay at the hospital and I heard that he doesn’t even have his tattoo.” There are collective gasps. He continues, “I know! And I’m all, ‘You gotta be shitting me.’ But check this out, man, judge should be like, ‘Guilty!’ Peace.” The gallery erupts with applause and cheers. There is one guy wearing a helmet with a camera mounted to the top and he takes it all in dumbly.

IDIOCRACY_trial-Cam

When Frito stands to raise an objection, he says, “Your honor, I object…that this guy, also broke my apartment and shit.” There are gasps from the gallery, and Frito feels emboldened. “Yeah! And you know what else, I object that he’s not going to have any money to pay me after he pays back all the money he stole from the hospital!” This last bit is addressed to the gallery. They shout in anger. Frito finishes, saying, “And I object. I OBJECT that he interrupted me while I was watching, OW, MY BALLS! THAT IS NOT OK! I REST MY CASE.”

Joe stands and says, “Your Honor, I’m pretty sure we have a mistrial, here, sir.” Hector looks confused at this statement. Frito gets hostile and says, “I’m going to mistrial my foot up your ass if you don’t shut up!”

IDIOCRACY-mistrial-my-foot

Joe ignores him and says, “Please listen!” The prosecuting attorney simply mocks him, “Please listen!” Hector laughs. The lawyers high five each other.

The narrator says, “Joe stated his case, logically and passionately. But his perceived effeminate voice only drew big gales of stupid laughter. Without adequate legal representation, Joe was given a stiff sentence.”

So…this nightmare

For most Americans, the drafting and adjudication of laws feels like something that happens “out there.” But upholding the law is something that, through jury duty or being part of a court case, is something most citizens directly experience some time in their lives. So it may seem like familiar, everyday stuff.

WitnessForTheProsecution575-600x365
Wait. I know this.

But take that less trodden path to ask why it is the way it is, and you’ll eventually find yourself at the foundations of civilization and in the throes of philosophy. A key premise and promise of civilized society is having a fair and rational place for citizens to air grievances, and institutions that make and enforce just laws. In practice it’s far from perfect, but I’d bet most folks agree it’s better than the alternatives of lawlessness, personal violence, revenge, tribal feuds, and vigilantism.

Laws and courts are institutions that are so old and foundational, it’s hard to remember that:

  • They were, in fact, invented. There was a time before them.
  • There were reasons for the way they were designed.
  • Their design, like all designs, aren’t perfect, and involve some trade offs.
  • They evolve over time.
  • There are alternate designs to consider.

Idiocracy illustrates how important its norms are, and how tragic it can be when those norms are lost, and everyone involved is a fucking idiot. It’s not exactly monster rampage, body horror, or torture porn, but this scene is as scary a thing as you could ask for Halloween.

Violence as a means

Frito threatens violence a lot. So do a lot of the people in Idiocracy. I’m not even sure if they mean it, but they think that threatening or beating or shooting someone into silence is a fine way to disagree. One of the key promises of civilization is to undo that might-makes-right bullshit that kept generations of peasants suffering while an aristocracy lived the high life peeing in hallways, flubbing courtly love, and stuffng birds into each other like meaty nesting-dolls. We’ve moved on.

yorkshirepie.png
Have we, though?

Skepticism

It’s funny-terrifying that the case made against Joe is so stupid. There are crass appeals to emotion. Prosecution says that there’s “all this, like, evidence” but does not actually share any, like, evidence. Frito riles the Gallery up with insults “he talks like a fag” and personal grievances that aren’t germane to the case. (Ow My Balls! should not be evidence in, well, anything.)  It’s emotional theater and the audience eats it up, because what they’re there for is hits to the amygdala bong: The emotional highs and lows that you might get from a sports show. People screaming in cheers when their confirmation bias is rewarded, or fury when there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance. There’s probably nothing like a Fair Witness left on the planet, and if it weren’t for Joe’s intelligence that gets him out of jail, he would wind up suffering in prison for no reason at all. The lack of skepticism, of applying doubt to all things—especially the things that thrill you emotionally—causes unnecessary suffering. Sure, it’s an unjust universe, but civilization was invented to try and hold a little light against that darkness. The citizenry of Idiocracy are gullible and blithely self-serving to a cruel fault.

Impartiality

The system that pits prosecution against defense and presumes is called “adversarial,” since each counsel will present opposing cases to an impartial judge or jury, who is presumed competent to sort through the competing claims to come to the truth. It’s contrasted with an inquisitorial (or nonadversarial) system where the judges run the line of inquiry. Congressional hearings, for example, are much more of an inquisitorial system. Congresspeople ask the questions, rather than the lawyers.

The adversarial system depends on the impartiality of the judge and jury. If they presume guilt or innocence from the start, why have the trial at all? (This is sometimes called a kangaroo court, where procedure and ethics are ignored, and the outcome is a foregone conclusion.) Only dispassionate, neutral participants can look past their feelers to find a fair and impartial truth. You need people capable of impartial, critical thinking to look past the tricks and their own cognitive biases. That’s out the window in Idiocracy.

IDIOCRACY_court31

Joe is presumed guilty by literally everyone involved. It’s not wholly their fault. Joe is brought in wearing prison fatigues. He is wheeled in a cage. On the surface, he looks guilty. Humans have an availability bias, wherein easily recalled information is believed to be true and representative, and for very stupid people, that can be strictly what they see. And Joe looks guilty. Everyone around me is shouting that he’s guilty. So, the idiot thinks, he must be guilty.

Posers, surface evidence, and meaning

One of the worst things about the scene—and this plays out in the movie generally—is how people’s status is based on stupid, surface markers. For instance: Why do they accept that the judge is smart? Well, he uses fancy, “faggy” words like “commensurate” (It’s a malaprop. He means commence. But the Idiocrats are too stupid to know this.) and “proprietarily.” (I think he means “properly,” but it’s marvelously hard to tell.) Investigating this moves us very quickly into the semiosis treadmill, whereby a sign comes slowly to become the signified, even when it stupidly contradicts the original thing that was signified.

How do courts protect against idiocy?

It doesn’t always. But generally, there are lots of checks against incompetence. Anyone can request a mistrial if it’s shown that counsel, a judge, or a jury is incompetent, prejudiced, or doesn’t follow the rules. Lawyers can be reviewed and disbarred. Remedy for judges varies by state, but judges can be impeached, or undergo judicial review and be removed from their office. Their cases can be overturned by higher courts. (Yes, even that one.)

But notably all these presume that the incompetence is abnormal, and that others are competent to review and judge their competence. When everyone either gets so stupid or so corrupt that they have no interest in checking each other for fairness, the system just collapses.

IDIOCRACY-comminserate

Can design do anything?

This blog is primarily targeted at people who work in technology and love sci-fi. (Like I do.) A natural question is: Can design do anything to help inoculate courts against Idiocracy? And normally, I try to offer some hopeful answer to these questions, but this one has me stumped. What design interventions could we impose to increase skepticism? Impartiality? Critical thinking? Understanding? Seriously, if you have something, I’d love to hear it, because as of right now, I’ve got nothing.

How’s that for a Halloween scare?

Trick or Treat

Any Trump acolyte who has gleefully shouted “Lock her up! Lock her up!” at one of their farrowing-crate rallies, despite Clinton’s exoneration by the FBI, despite Trump’s own ongoing litany of scandals (including that ongoing issue of security), is guilty of this same kind of mob mentality as these morons in Idiocracy. It is all raw hate without reason. Hits from the tribalism bong. It’s not just that the mob hasn’t heard reason, it’s not interested in reason, only in justification. Only in thinking of political conversations as hobo fights. Did our guy land a hit? Insult? Hur dur, yarp.

lock her up
Yes, you, redhat.

It’s pretty soul crushing. So let’s have some spooky, escapist fun tonight for self-care. But as of tomorrow we’ll have 6 days and we should hit it hard.

Snitch phone

If you’re reading these chronologically, let me note here that I had to skip Bea Arthur’s marvelous turn as Ackmena, as she tends the bar and rebuffs the amorous petitions of the lovelorn, hole-in-the-head Krelman, before singing her frustrated patrons out of the bar when a curfew is announced. To find the next interface of note, we have to forward to when…

Han and Chewie arrive, only to find a Stormtrooper menacing Lumpy. Han knocks the blaster out of his hand, and when the Stormtrooper dives to retrieve it, he falls through the bannister of the tree house and to his death.

SWHS_generalalert-09.png

Why aren’t these in any way affiiiiixxxxxxeeeeeeddddddd?

Han enters the home and wishes everyone a Happy Life Day. Then he bugs out.

SWHS_generalalert-12.png

But I still have to return for the insane closing number. Hold me.

Then Saun Dann returns to the home just before a general alert comes over the family Imperial Issue Media Console.

Continue reading

The Hong Kong Mode (4 of 5)

In the prior three posts, I’ve discussed the goods-and-bads of the Eye of Agamotto in the Tibet mode. (I thought I could squeeze the Hong Kong and the Dark Dimension modes into one post, but turns out this one was just too long. keep reading. You’ll see.) In this post we examine a mode that looks like the Tibet mode, but is actually quite different.

Hong Kong mode

Near the film’s climax, Strange uses the Eye to reverse Kaecilius’ destruction of the Hong Kong Sanctum Sanctorum (and much of the surrounding cityscape). In this scene, Kaecilius leaps at Strange, and Strange “freezes” Kaecilius in midair with the saucer. It’s done more quickly, but similarly to how he “freezes” the apple into a controlled-time mode in Tibet.

HongKong-freeze-12fps.gif

But then we see something different, and it complicates everything. As Strange twists the saucer counterclockwise, the cityscape around him—not just Kaecilius—begins to reverse slowly. (And unlike in Tibet, the saucer keeps spinning clockwise underneath his hand.) Then the rate of reversal accelerates, and even continues in its reversal after Strange drops his gesture and engages in a fight with Kaecilius, who somehow escapes the reversing time stream to join Strange and Mordo in the “observer” time stream.

So in this mode, the saucer is working much more like a shuttle wheel with no snap-back feature.

A shuttle wheel, as you’ll recall from the first post, doesn’t specify an absolute value along a range like a jog dial does. A shuttle wheel indicates a direction and rate of change. A little to the left is slow reverse. Far to the left is fast reverse. Nearly all of the shuttle wheels we use in the real world have snap-back features, because if you were just going to leave it reversing and pay attention to something else, you might as well use another control to get to the absolute beginning, like a jog dial. But, since Strange is scrubbing an endless “video stream,” (that is, time), and he can pull people and things out of the manipulated-stream and into the observer-stream and do stuff, not having a snap-back makes sense.

For the Tibet mode I argued for a chapter ring to provide some context and information about the range of values he’s scrubbing. So for shuttling along the past in the Hong Kong mode, I don’t think a chapter ring or content overview makes sense, but it would help to know the following.

  • The rate of change
  • Direction of change
  • Shifted datetime
  • Timedate difference from when he started

In the scene that information is kind of obvious from the environment, so I can see the argument for not having it. But if he was in some largely-unchanging environment, like a panic room or an underground cave or a Sanctum Sanctorum, knowing that information would save him from letting the shuttle go too far and finding himself in the Ordovician. A “home” button might also help to quickly recover from mistakes. Adding these signals would also help distinguish the two modes. They work differently, so they should look different. As it stands, they look identical.

DoctorStrange-Tibet-v-HongKong.png

He still (probably) needs future branches

Can Strange scrub the future this way? We don’t see it in the movie. But if so, we have many of the same questions as the Tibet mode future scrubber: Which timeline are we viewing & how probable is it? What other probabilities exist and how does he compare them? This argues for the addition of the future branches from that design.

Selecting the mode

So how does Strange specify the jog dial or shuttle wheel mode?

One cop-out answer is a mental command from Strange. It’s a cop-out because if the Eye responds to mental commands, this whole design exercise is moot, and we’re here to critique, practice, and learn. Not only that, but physical interfaces are more cinegenic, so better to make a concrete interaction for the film.

You might think we could modify the opening finger-tut (see the animated gif, below). But it turns out we need that for another reason: specifying the center and radius-of-effect.

DoctorStrange-tutting-comparison.gif

Center and radius-of-effect

In Tibet, the Eye appears to affect just an apple and a tome. But since we see it affecting a whole area in Hong Kong, let’s presume the Eye affects time in a sphere. For the apple and tome, it was affecting a small sphere that included the table, too, it’s just that table didn’t change in the spans of time we see. So if it works in spheres, how is the center and the radius of the sphere set?

Center

Let’s say the Eye does some simple gaze monitoring to find the salient object at his locus of attention. Then it can center the effect on the thing and automatically set the radius of effect to the thing’s size across likely-to-be scrubbed extents. In Tibet, it’s easy. Apple? Check. Tome? Check. In Hong Kong, he’s focusing on the Sanctum, and its image recognition is smart enough to understand the concept of “this building.”

Radius

But the Hong Kong radius stretches out beyond his line of sight, affecting something with a very vague visual and even conceptual definition, that is, “the wrecked neighborhood.” So auto-setting these variables wouldn’t work without reconceiving the Eye as a general artificial intelligence. That would have some massive repercussions throughout the diegesis, so let’s avoid that.

If it’s a manual control, how does he do it? Watch the animated gif above carefully and see he’s got two steps to the “turn Eye on” tut: opening the eye by making an eye shape, and after the aperture opens, spreading his hands apart, or kind of expanding the Eye. In Tibet that spreading motion is slow and close. In Hong it’s faster and farther. That’s enough evidence to say the spread*speed determines the radius. We run into the scales problem of apple-versus-neighborhood that we had in determining the time extents, but make it logarithmic and add some visual feedback and he should be able to pick arbitrary sizes with precision.

So…back to mode selection

So if we’re committing the “turn on” gesture to specifying the center-and-radius, the only other gesture left is the saucer creation. For a quick reminder, here’s how it works in Tibet.

Since the circle works pretty well for a jog dial, let’s leave this for Tibet mode. A contrasting but related gesture would be to have Strange hold his right hand flat, in a sagittal plane, with the palm facing to his left. (See an illustration, below.) Then he can tilt his hand inside the saucer to reverse or fast forward time, and withdraw his hand from the saucer graphic to leave time moving at the adjusted rate. Let the speed of the saucer indicate speed of change. To map to a clock, tilting to the left would reverse time, and tilting to the right would advance it.

How the datetime could be shown is an exercise for the reader.

The yank out

There’s one more function we see twice in the Hong Kong scene. Strange is able to pull Mordo and Wong from the reversing time stream by thrusting the saucer toward them. This is a goofy choice of a gesture that makes no semantic sense. It would make much more sense for Strange to keep his saucer hand extended, and use his left hand to pull them from the reversing stream.

DoctorStrange-yank-out.gif

Whew.

So one of the nice things about this movie interface, is that while it doesn’t hold up under the close scrutiny of this blog,  the interface to the Eye of Agamotto works while watching the film. Audience sees the apple happen, and gets that gestures + glowing green circle = adjusting time. For that, it works.

That said, we can see improvements that would not affect the script, would not require much more of the actors, and not add too much to post. It could be more consistent and believable.

But we’re not done yet. There’s one other function shown by the Eye of Agamotto when Strange takes it into the Dark Dimension, which is the final mode of the Eye, up next.

Tibet Mode Analysis: Representing the future (3 of 5)

A major problem with the use of the Eye is that it treats the past and the future similarly. But they’re not the same. The past is a long chain of arguably-knowable causes and effects. So, sure, we can imagine that as a movie to be scrubbed.

But the future? Not so much. Which brings us, briefly, to this dude.

pierre-simon-laplace.png

If we knew everything, Pierre-Simon Laplace argued in 1814, down to the state of every molecule, and we had a processor capable, we would be able to predict with perfect precision the events of the future. (You might think he’s talking about a computer or an AI, but in 1814 they used demons for their thought experiments.) In the two centuries since, there have been several major repudiations of Laplace’s demon. So let’s stick to the near-term, where there’s not one known future waiting to happen, but a set of probabilities. That means we have to rethink what the Eye shows when it lets Strange scrub the future.

Note that in the film, the “future” of the apple shown to Strange was just a likelihood, not a fact. The Eye shows it being eaten. In the actual events of the film, after the apple is set aside:

  • Strange repairs the tome
  • Mordo and Wong interrupt Strange
  • They take him into the next room for some exposition
  • The Hong Kong sanctum portal swings open
  • Kaecilius murders a redshirt
  • Kaecilius explodes Strange into the New York sanctum

Then for the next 50 minutes, The Masters of Mysticism are scrambling to save the world. I doubt any of them have time to while away in a library, there to discover an abandoned apple with a bite taken out of it, and decide—staphylococcus aureus be damned—a snack’s a snack. No, it’s safe to say the apple does not get eaten.

post-eye-no-apple.png

So the Eye gets the apple wrong, but it showed Strange that future as if it were a certainty. That’s a problem. Sure, when asked about the future, it ought to show something, but better would be to…

  • Indicate somewhere that what is being displayed is one of a set of possibilities
  • Provide options to understand the probability distribution among the set
  • Explore the alternates
  • Be notified when new data shifts the probability distribution or inserts new important possibilities

So how to display probabilities? There are lots of ways, but I am most fond of probability tree diagrams. In nerd parlance, this is a unidirectional graph where the nodes are states and the lines are labeled for probabilities. In regular language they look like sideways two-dimensional trees. See an example below from mathisfun.com. These diagrams seem to me a quick way to understand branching possibilities. (I couldn’t find any studies giving me more to work on than “seem to me”.)

probability-tree-coin2.png

In addition to being easy to understand, they afford visual manipulation. You can work branching lines around an existing design.

Now if we were actually working out a future-probabilities gestural scrubber attached to the Eye of Agamotto saucer, we’d have a whole host of things to get into next, like designing…

  1. A compact but informative display that signals the relative probabilities of each timeline
  2. The mechanism for opening that display so probabilities can be seen rather than read
  3. Labels so Strange wouldn’t have to hunt through all of them for the thing of interest (or some means of search)
  4. A selection process for picking the new timeline
  5. A comparison mode
  6. A means of collapsing the display to return to scrub mode
  7. A you-are-here signal in the display to indicate the current timeline

Which is a big set of design tasks for a hobbyist website. Fortunately for us, Strange only deals with a simple, probable (but wrong) scenario of the apple’s future as an illustration for the audience of what the Eye can do; and he only deals with the past of the tome. So while we could get into all of the above, it’s most expedient just to resolve the first one for the scene and tidy up the interface as it helps illustrate a well-thought-out and usable world.

Below I’ve drafted up an extension of my earlier conceptual diagram. I’ve added a tree to the future part of the chapter ring, using some dots to indicate the comparative likelihood of each branch. This could be made more compact, and might be good to put on a second z-axis layer to distinguish it from the saucer, but again: conceptual diagram.

Eye-of-Agamoto-tail.png

If this were implemented in the film, we would want to make sure that the probability tree begins to flicker right before Wong and Mordo shut him down, as a nod to the events happening off screen with Kaecilius that are changing those futures. This would give a clue that the Eye is smartly keeping track of real-world events and adjusting its predictions appropriately.

These changes would make the Eye more usable for Strange and smart as a model for us.

Eye-of-Agamoto-01_comp.png

Twist ending: This is a real problem we will have to solve

I skipped those design tasks for this comp, but we may not be able to avoid those problems forever. As it turns out, this is not (just) an idle, sci-fi problem. One of the promises of assistive AI is that it will be giving its humans advice, based on predictive algorithms, which will be a set of probabilistic scenarios. There may be an overwhelmingly likely next scenario, but there may also be several alternatives that users will need to explore and understand before deciding the best strategy. So, yeah, an exercise for the reader.

Wrapping up the Tibet Mode

So three posts is not the longest analysis I’ve done, bit it was a lot. In recap: Gestural time scrubbing seems like a natural interaction mapped well to analog clocks. The Eye’s saucer display is cool, but insufficient. We can help Strange much more by adding an events-based chapter ring detailing the facts of the past and the probabilities of the future.

Alas. We’re not done yet. As you’ll recall from the intro post, there are two other modes: The Hong Kong and Dark Dimension modes. Let’s next talk the Hong Kong mode, which is like the Tibet mode, but different.

Tibet mode: Display for interestingness (2 of 5)

Without a display, the Eye asks Strange to do all the work of exploring the range of values available through it to discover what is of interest. (I am constantly surprised at how many interfaces in the real world repeat this mistake.) We can help by doing a bit of “pre-processing” of the information and provide Strange a key to what he will find, and where, and ways to recover exactly where interesting things happen.

watch.png
The watch from the film, for reasons that will shortly become clear.

To do this, we’ll add a ring outside the saucer that will stay fixed relative to the saucer’s rotation and contain this display. Since we need to call this ring something, and we’re in the domain of time, let’s crib some vocabulary from clocks. The fixed ring of a clock that contains the numbers and minute graduations is called a chapter ring. So we’ll use that for our ring, too.

chapter-rings.png

What chapter ring content would most help Strange?

Good: A time-focused chapter ring

Both the controlled-extents and the auto-extents shown in the prior post presume a smooth display of time. But the tome and the speculative meteorite simply don’t change much over the course of their existence. I mean, of course they do, with the book being pulled on and off shelves and pages flipped, and the meteorite arcing around the sun in the cold vacuum of space for countless millennia, but the Eye only displays the material changes to an object, not position. So as far as the Eye is concerned, the meteoroid formed, then it stays the same for most of its existence, then it has a lot of activity as it hits Earth’s atmosphere and slams into the planet.

A continuous display of the book shows little of interest for most of its existence, with a few key moments of change interspersed. To illustrate this, lets make up some change events for the tome.

Eye-of-Agamotto-event-view.png

Now let’s place those along an imaginary timeline. Given the Doctor Strange storyline, Page Torn would more likely be right next to Now, but making this change helps us explore a common boredom problem, see below. OK. Placing those events along a timeline…

Eye-of-Agamotto-time-view.png

And then, wrapping that timeline around the saucer. Much more art direction would have to happen to make this look thematically like the rest of the MCU magic geometries, but following is a conceptual diagram of how it might look.

Eye-of-Agamoto-dial.png
With time flowing smoothly, though at different speeds for the past and the future.

On the outside of the saucer is the chapter ring with the salient moments of change called out with icons (and labels). At a glance Strange would know where the fruitful moments of change occur. He can see he only has to turn his hand about 5° to the left to get to the spot where the page was ripped out.

Already easier on him, right? Some things to note.

  1. The chapter ring must stay fixed relative to the saucer to work as a reference. Imagine how useless a clock would be if its chapter ring spun in concert with any of its hands. The center can still move with his palm as the saucer does.
  2. The graduations to the left and right of “now” are of a different density, helping Strange to understand that past and future are mapped differently to accommodate the limits of his wrist and the differing time frames described.
  3. When several events occur close together in time, they could be stacked.
  4. Having the graduations evenly spaced across the range helps answer roughly when each change happened relative to the whole.
  5. The tome in front of him should automatically flip to spreads where scrubbed changes occur, so Strange doesn’t have to hunt for them. Without this feature, if Strange was trying to figure out what changed, he would have to flip through the whole book with each degree of twist to see if anything unknown had changed.

Better: A changes-focused chapter ring

If, as in this scene, the primary task of using the Eye is to look for changes, a smooth display of time on the chapter ring is less optimal than a smooth display of change. (Strange doesn’t really care when the pages were torn. He just wants to see the state of the tome before that moment.) Distribute the changes evenly around the chapter ring, and you get something like the following.

Eye-of-Agamoto-event.png

This display optimizes for easy access to the major states of the book. The now point is problematic since the even distribution puts it at the three o’clock point rather than the noon, but what we buy in exchange is that the exact same precision is required to access any of the changes and compare them. There’s no extra precision needed to scrub between the book made and the first stuff added moments. The act of comparison is made simpler. Additionally, the logarithmic time graduations help him scrub detail near known changes and quickly bypass the great stretches of time when nothing happens. By orienting our display around the changes, the interesting bits are made more easy to explore, and the boring bits are more easy to bypass.

In my comp, more white areas equal more time. Unfortunately, this visual design kind of draws attention to the empty stretches of time rather than the moments of change, so would need more attention; see the note above about needing a visual designer involved.

So…the smooth time and the distributed events display each has its advantages over the other, but for the Tibet scene, in which he’s looking to restore the lost pages of the tome, the events-focused chapter ring gets Strange to the interesting parts more confidently.


Note that all the events Strange might be scrubbing through are in the past, but that’s not all the Eye can do in the Tibet mode. So next up, let’s talk a little about the future.

Ford Explorer Status

image00

One computer in the control room is dedicated to showing the status of the Jeeps out on tour, and where they currently are on the island.

Next to the vehicle outline, we see the words “Vehicle Type: Ford Explorer” (thank you, product placement) along with “EXP” 4–7.  EXP 4 & 5 look unselected, but have green dots next to them, while EXP 6 & 7 look selected with red dots next to them.  No characters interact with this screen. Mr. Arnold does tap on it with a pen (to make a point though, not to interact with it).

On the right hand side of the screen also see a top-down view of the car with the electric track shown underneath, and little red arrows pointing forward.  Below the graphic are the words “13 mph”.  The most visible and obvious indicator on the screen is the headlights.  A large “Headlights On” indicator is at the top of the screen, with highlighted cones coming out of the Jeep where the headlights are on the car. Continue reading

Scav dual-monoculars

As Jack searches early in the film for Drone 172, he parks his bike next to a sinkhole in the desert and cautiously peers into it. As he does so, he is being observed from afar by a sinister looking Scav through a set of asymmetrical…well, it’s not exactly right to call them binoculars.

scav_oculars_04

 

They look kind of binocular, but that term technically refers to a machine that displays two slighty-offset images shown independently to each eye such that the user perceives stereopsis, or a single field in 3D. But a quick shot from the Scav’s perspective shows that this is not what is shown at all. Continue reading

TETVision

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The TETVision display is the only display Vika is shown interacting with directly—using gestures and controls—whereas the other screens on the desktop seem to be informational only. This screen is broken up into three main sections:

  1. The left side panel
  2. The main map area
  3. The right side panel

The left side panel

The communications status is at the top of the left side panel and shows Vika the status of whether the desktop is online or offline with the TET as it orbits the Earth. Directly underneath this is the video communications feed for Sally.

Beneath Sally’s video feed is the map legend section, which serves the dual purposes of providing data transfer to the TET and to the Bubbleship as well as a simple legend for the icons used on the map.

The communications controls, which are at the bottom of the left side panel, allow Vika to toggle the audio communications with Jack and with Sally. Continue reading

Vika’s Desktop

Oblivion-Desktop-Overview

As Jack begins his preflight check in the Bubbleship, Vika touches the center of the glass surface to power up the desktop that keeps her in contact with Sally on the TET and allows her to assist and monitor Jack as he repairs the drones on the ground.

The interface components

Oblivion-Desktop-Overview-000

Continue reading