Report Card: Las Luchadoras vs. El Robot Asesino

Read all the Las Luchadoras vs. El Robot Asesino posts in chronological order.

By any short description of its plot, this film should be amazing and meta. Like Kung Fury or Galaxy Lords, but, let’s be frank, it is so not that. Someone at Netflix should produce a reboot and it would probably be amazing. No, instead, this film has an actor in a robotic Truman Capote getup smashing through dozens of cardboard sets and flailing vaguely in the direction of characters who dutifully scream and drop from the non-contact karate chop.

And hugs. Robot assassins need hugs, too.

It is a pathetic paean to its source material, the much more well-done Cybernauts from The Avengers, (the British one with younger Olenna, not the Marvel one with the cosmic purple snap crackle and pop.)

Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

The mission slot has some nice affordances, but deep strategic flaws. The mission card is a copy by someone who didn’t quite understand what they were looking at. The trivium bracelet and remote just break all believability, earning the film a flat zero.

Fi: B (3 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

ID card goes in slot, evil robot finds that person. Bracelet roboticizes people, remote controls them. As dumb (and derivative) as the technologies are, the interfaces help you understand the kindergarten-minded rules for technology in this diegesis.

Interfaces: F (0 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Recall that these interfaces all serve the bad guy. The mission slot interface is actually quite nice for its simplicity, but loses any credit since it ultimately becomes a paper trail of evidence against him, all in one convenient robot just waiting for authorities to uncover. The bracelet might get props for being easy to get on, if it wasn’t also as easy to get off again and need tailoring for each new victim. The remotes are also quite nice for their simplicity and even visual hierarchy, but only by virtue of apologetics and thinking of it as a prototype. All knobs and modes needed labeling, anyway. So, a goose egg.

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Final Grade F (3 of 12), Dreck.

Don’t bother. Or do bother, but only to get a schadenfreude chuckle out of the ordeal. Or maybe some tripping material from the janky transfer.

So, loyal readers may rightly ask themselves why on earth I reviewed this pile of metallic crap, which is unknown, uninfluential, and rightly condemned to the trash bin of cinematic B-movie history. One glance at the Youtube transfer (or perhaps the directors oeuvre) should have made all this clear, yes. Well, here are three reasons.

  1. It’s the film’s 50th anniversary, which is adorable.
  2. I try not to judge a book by its cover, and delight in trying to find truffles in oubliettes.
  3. It was a very lightweight way (only four interfaces!) to begin a year dedicated to AI in sci-fi.

In case that last bit didn’t land, let me reiterate outside a bullet list: All posts in 2019 on this blog will focus on the topic of AI in sci-fi. And this film belongs in a category of one of our oldest kinds of fictional AIs, the Judaic story of the Golem.

Hit Points: 178(17d10+ 85)
Special attack: Unreasonable interpretation

It’s been told time and again in different ways, but in most tellings, the golem is a construct that mindlessly obeys whatever instruction it is given, and in its mindless interpretation, does grave damage, even turning back on its maker. Other shows utilizing this trope include Metropolis, Battlestar Galactica, the Alien franchise, The Sorceror’s Apprentice, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I even think that Arabic stories of djinn fulfill the same purpose. Each illustrates how agents that ruthlessly pursue goals—with neither the human sense of reasonableness or the ethical concern for human wellbeing—can go devastatingly awry.

Golem stories illustrate how agents that ruthlessly pursue goals—with neither the human sense of reasonableness or the ethical concern for human wellbeing—can go devastatingly awry.

—This article, like, just now

They are conservative tales in the apolitical sense that they imply we should be very very cautious when engaging these kinds of machines. Don’t start until you’re absolutely sure. This is a key concern for AI. How do we ensure that the intelligences we build do what we want them to, reasonably? How can we encode a concern for humanity?

Aw, hell, no.

Luchadores doesn’t provide any answers, just a warning, some awesome masks, and an occasional piledriver. But we’ll be on the lookout as we continue looking at other examples of sci-fi AI.


Given that the last review I completed was the Star Wars Holiday Special, which was also Dreck, maybe it’s high time I complete a good movie. OK, then. That means back to Idiocracy. And yes, in that tale of stupidity, there is a surprising tale of super intelligence.

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Report Card: The Star Wars Holiday Special

Read all the Star Wars Holiday Special reviews in chronological order.

When The Star Wars Holiday Special aired, it was only one year after the first movie, and while Star Wars was an obvious success at the time, no one knew it was bound to become one of the world’s biggest media juggernauts, which would still be producing blockbuster movies in the same diegesis four decades later (with no end in sight). So we can understand, if not forgive, that it was produced as an afterthought, rather than giving it the full attention and deliberateness we’ve since come to expect from the franchise. In short it was a crass way to keep audiences—and the toy purchasing public—thinking about Star Wars until Empire could be released a year and a half later.

It was doomed from the start. CBS wanted to camp on the movie’s success, and stupidly thought to force-choke it into a variety show format, like The Sonny & Cher Jedi Hour or Donny & Marie, Sith Lords, Variety Show. At the time, Lucas couldn’t be bothered to provide much beyond the framework story and a “Wookiee Bible,” (mentioned here) which explained the background and behavior of the Wookiees, including the fact that they were the center of the story and they can only growl. The first director quit after shooting a few scenes. Other than The Faithful Wookiee, the whole thing seems obviously rushed to production. It had about 30 minutes of script that had to be stretched into 90 minutes of airtime. Though they pulled in some respectable TV names of the time (Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, Art Carney) to carry the thing and even had the stars of the original cast, those actors couldn’t do much with what amounted to a salad of terrible ideas written by and for goldfish: people pegging the S meter on the Myers-Briggs test.

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I’m quite fascinated by the Special partly for its narrative—for there is one, dishwater-flavored though it is—which requires us to be in the narrative and yet out of it at the same time, depending on the need, switching back and forth at a moment’s notice. For instance, you must dismiss the fact that Malla would have any interest in pausing her day for 5 minutes to stare at a security camera feed from inside a shop, because you know the point is the scene in the shop. Or, we dismiss the awkwardness of Itchy watching cross-species VR erotica in the family living room because we know that the point is the Mermeia Wow number. Or, we dismiss the tragic implication that Malla may be mentally challenged, because she takes a comedy cooking skit as literal instructions she should attempt to follow, because we know the point is the “comedy.” But how do we (or the toy-purchasing kids that were the target audience) know which parts to dismiss and which parts to indulge? There are no explicit clues. These are fascinating mental jumps for us to have to make.

It’s also interesting from a sci-fi interfaces point of view because, like most children’s shows, the interfaces are worse than an afterthought. They are created by adults (who don’t understand interaction design) merely to signal high-techn-ess to kids, whom they mistakenly believe aren’t very observant, and they do so under insane budgetary and time constraints. So they half-ass what they can, at best, half-ass, and the result is, well, the interfaces from The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Ordinarily I like to reinforce the notions that what designers are doing in reading this blog is building up a necessary skepticism against sci-fi (and plundering it for great ideas, intentional or otherwise), but in this case I can’t really back that up. What we’re doing here is just staring agape in amazement at what can come out of the illusion machine when everything goes wrong.

But, to compare apples-to-oranges, let’s go through the analysis categories:

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Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

They are all not just props but obvious props. Straight up tape recorders. Confusing and contradictory user flows. A secret rebel communication device that shrilly…rings. Generally when they are believable, they are very mundane. Like, I’d say the Chef Gourmaand recipe selector or Saun Dann’s final use of the Imperial Comms (which contradicts Malla’s use of the same device.) The Special interfaces break believability all over the place and in terrible ways.

Fi: F (0 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

If I’m being charitable, maaaaaybe some of them help set the tone? The holocircus and cartoon player tell of the gee-whiz high-tech world of this galaxy far far away. But the Groomer, the Jefferson Projection, and the living room masturbation chair are pointless (and unnerving) diversions that distract. Any goodness in Lumpy’s cartoon player is strictly accidental and depend on heavy apologetics. The Life Day orbs have some nice features, but they’re almost extradiegetic, a cinematic conceit. Admittedly the show only gave a nod to a central narrative anyway because of its genre, but it cannot be said that the interfaces inform the narrative.

Interfaces: F (0 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

This is the easiest rating to get, because it’s the thing movies are usually good at. But with the complicated and contradictory flows of the Imperial Comms, “secret” interfaces that rat out the users, extraneous controls and terrible interaction models, these interfaces are a hindrance much more than a help.

Final Grade F (0 of 12), Dreck.

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Doing this review was so painful, I note it took a little over two years since I started it. In between the first and last post, I’ve had to take a lot of breaks: a manifesto of sorts, a rumination on the Fermi Paradox in sci-fi, and reviews of the Battlestar Galactica mini-series, Johnny Mnemonic, Children of Men, a Black Mirror episode, and Doctor Strange.

I have not had a review at 0 before, so I had to invent the category name. Now if my ratings were recommendations, The Star Wars Holiday Special would get a MUST-SEE, but for cultural reasons. Like, you must see it because otherwise you would not believe it is real. But for inspiration or even skepticism-building, it’s only useful except as a cautionary tale.

For some reason the Special got a lot of attention this past December (c.f. Vanity Fair, Vox, the Nerdist, Newsweek, Mental Floss) which makes me think it was a concentrated stealth push by Disney to coincide with the release of The Last Jedi. Or maybe it’s just other writers, like me, are filled with a kind of psychological wound that the new films always reopen. A fear that we will once again he asked to watch a stormtrooper watch a “holographic” music video with questionable silhouettes.

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Whatever their reasons for talking about the Special, for me it serves as a reminder, kind of like The Laughing Gnome or perhaps Spider-Man 3, that even the greats occasionally have to overcome massive, embarrassing, WTF mistakes.

And with that, the review is done. I have gone into the Wampa cave and come out alive. Godspeed, Star Wars Holiday Special.

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Report Card: White Christmas

Read all the Black Mirror, “White Christmas” reviews in chronological order.

I love Black Mirror. It’s not always perfect, but uses great story telling to get us to think about the consequences of technology in our lives. It’s a provocateur that invokes the spirit of anthology series like The Twilight Zone, and rarely shies away from following the tech into the darkest places. It’s what thinking about technology in sci-fi formats looks like.

But, as usual, this site is not about the show but the interfaces, and for that we turn to the three criteria for evaluation here on scifiinterfaces.com.

  1. How believable are the interfaces? Can it work this way? (To keep you immersed.)
  2. How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story? (To tell a good story.)
  3. How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals? (To be a good model for real-world design?)

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Report Card: Doctor Strange

Read all Doctor Strange reviews in chronological order.

Chris: I really enjoyed Doctor Strange. Sure, it’s blockbuster squarely in origin story formula, but the trippiness, action, special effects, and performances made it fun. And the introduction of the new overlapping rulespace of magic makes it a great addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And hey, another Infinity Stone! It’s well-connected to the other films.

Scout: Doctor Strange is another delightful film that further rounds out the Marvel universe. It remained faithful (enough) to the comics that I loved growing up and the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch was spot-on perfect, much as Robert Downey Jr. was for Tony Stark. It is a joyful and at times psychedelic ride that I’m eager to take again. “The Infinity Wars” will be very interesting indeed.

But, as usual, this site is not about the movie but the interfaces, and for that we turn to the three criteria for evaluating movies here on scifiinterfaces.com.

  1. How believable are the interfaces? (To keep you immersed.)
  2. How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story? (To tell a good story.)
  3. How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals? (To be a good model for real-world design?)
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Sci: B- (3 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

Magic might be a tricky question for narrative believability, as by definition it is a breaking of some set of rules. It’s tempting laziness to patch every hole we find by proclaiming “it’s magic!” and move on. But in most modern stories, magic does have narrative rules; what it’s breaking is known laws of physics or the capabilities of known technology, but still consistent within the world. Oh, hey, kind of like a regular sci-fi story.

The artifacts mostly score quite well for believability. The Boots, the Staff, and the Bands are constrained in what they do, so no surprise there. Even the Cloak is a believable intelligent agent acting for Strange. Its flight-granting and ability to pull in any spatial direction arbitrarily don’t quite jive, but they don’t contradict each other, just raise questions that aren’t answered in the movie itself.

But, the Sling Rings are a trainwreck in terms of usability and believability. With that and the Eye missing some key variables that simply must be specified for it to do what we see it doing, it breaks the diegesis, taking us out of the movie.

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

None of these are tacked-on gee-whiz.

  • Since Strange is occupying an office (Master) that is part of a venerated and peacekeeping secret organization (the Masters of Mysticism) we would expect it to have some tools in place to help the infantry and the boss.
  • That the powerful artifacts choose their masters helps establish Strange as unique and worthy.
  • The Eye is core to the plot, and the film uses it to convey how much of a talent and rulebreaking maverick Strange is.
  • The Staff helps us see Mordo’s militancy, threat, and lawful neutral-ness.
  • The laugh-out-loud comedy of the Cloak comes from its earnestly trying to help, its constraints, and how Strange is really, really new to this job.
  • Even the dumb Sling Ring helps show Strange’s learning and confidence, and set up how Strange gets stabbed and yadda yadda yadda begins his reconciliation with Dr. Palmer.
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Once more, because it was so damned funny.

All great narrative uses of the “tech” in the film.

Interfaces: C+ (2 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

The Boots do. The Cloak totally does. The “AR” surgical assistant does. (And it’s not even an artifact.) If we ever get to technologies that would enable such things, these would be fine models for real world equivalents. (With the long note about general intelligence needing language for strategic discussions with humans.)

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That aside, the Sling Ring services a damned useful purpose, but its design is a serious impediment to its utility, and all the Masters of the Mystic Arts uses it. The Staff kind of helps its user, i.e. Mordo, but you have to credit it with a great deal of contextual intelligence or some super-subtle control mechanism.  The Bands are so clunky that they’re only useful in the exact context in which they are used. And the Eye, with its missing controls, missing displays, and dangerously ambiguous modes, is a universe-crashing temporal crisis just waiting to happen. This is where the artifacts suffer the most. For that, it gets the biggest hit.

Final Grade B- (9 of 12), Must-see.

Definitely see it. It’s got some obvious misses, but a lot of inventive, interesting stuff, and some that are truly cutting edge concepts. In a hat tip to Arthur C. Clarke’s famous third law, I suppose this is “sufficiently advanced technology.

Report Card: Children of Men

Read all Children of Men reviews in chronological order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Grade A (12 of 12), Blockbuster.

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

Report Card: Johnny Mnemonic

There are no more interfaces within the film to analyse. But before moving on to the grades, some final (and brief – I promise) discussion about cyberpunk and virtual reality.

Read all Johnny Mnemonic reviews in chronological order.

Cyberpunk Love

As stated at the beginning, Johnny Mnemonic is a cyberpunk film, with the screenplay written by noted cyberpunk author William Gibson, loosely based on one of his short stories of the same name. Why would user interface designers care? Because the cyberpunk authors were the first to write extensively about personal computing technologies, world wide networks, 2D/3D GUIs, and AI. Cyberspace, both the idea and the word itself, comes from cyberpunk fiction. Just as Star Trek inspired NASA engineers and astronauts, the cyberspace depicted by the authors inspired virtual reality programmers and designers. In the first virtual reality wave of the mid to late 1990s, it seemed that everybody working in the field had read Neuromancer.

If you’ve never read any cyberpunk and are now curious, Neuromancer by William Gibson is still the classic work. For a visual interpretation, the most cyberpunk of all films, in style and tone rather than plot, is Blade Runner. Cyberpunk founder Bruce Sterling, who wrote the foreword for “Make It So”, often writes about design; and sometimes cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson has also written interesting and thought provoking non-fiction about computers and user experience. It’s beyond the scope of this post to outline all their ideas for you, but if you are interested start with:

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In the Beginning was the Command Line

VR Love

Johnny Mnemonic also includes scenes set in virtual reality, a trend that began with Tron (although that particular film did not use the term). These virtual reality scenes with their colorful graphics  were most likely included to make computer systems less boring and more comprehensible to a general audience. However, these films from Tron onwards have never been successful. (If you work around computer people you’ll hear otherwise from plenty of fans, but computer geeks are not a representative sample.)

In the more recent Iron Man films, Tony Stark in his workshop uses a gestural interface, voice commands, and large volumetric projections. This could easily have been depicted as a VR system, but wasn’t. Could there be a usability problem when virtual reality interfaces are used in film?

The most common reason given for not using VR is that such sequences remind the audience that they’re watching an artificial experience, thus breaking suspension of disbelief. Evidence for this is the one financially successful VR film, The Matrix, which very carefully made its virtual reality identical to the real world. The lesson is that in film, just like most fields, user interfaces should not draw too much attention to themselves.

Sci: B (3 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

Johnny Mnemonic is a near-future film that takes itself seriously, comparable in intention if not result to Blade Runner. The title also identified it as a cyberpunk film, implying a background setting and technology for the tiny proportion of the audience who’d actually read anything by William Gibson. For those who hadn’t, the film opened with a lengthy crawl, typeset in dense caps/small caps text with red and white color shifting, which probably didn’t help.

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The everyday electronics in Johnny Mnemonic include the hotel wall screen and remote, the image grabber, the fax machine. They’re all believable (we’ll pass judgement on those unmarked buttons later!)  within the world depicted. The more specialised interfaces such as the motion detector, door bomb, and binoculars likewise fit the design aesthetic and style of technology used.

The airport security scanner without human staff present wasn’t very believable even in the more relaxed era of 1995, but for how it is used rather than what it does. As a scanner and projector it’s fine.

The most important interfaces in the film are the phone system, brain technology, and cyberspace.

Of these the phone system is almost always awesome, with visible cameras and familiar controls. The photorealistic puppet avatar used by Takahashi is a little beyond today’s capabilities, but not greatly so. And it’s nicely foreshadowed by the stylized image filter that Strike uses in the bulletin board conversation. Johnny hacking a phone booth with a swipe card is the one glaring exception to believability, but even here the only effect is that Johnny can talk to someone he otherwise would have trouble reaching. I would have been happier if he’d flipped up a panel to reveal a diagnostic port to hack, but it’s not a major problem.

The cyberspace sequence was awesome in 1995 and holds up well today. The datagloves look dated to someone like me who follows virtual reality technology, but I doubt they bother anyone else. The Johnny Mnemonic cyberspace has a lot of “flashy graphics” but these don’t seem to interfere with getting work done. At the time of writing Swiss Modern minimalism is the preferred style for user interfaces, but more playful and colorful graphics have been used in the past and no doubt will be again in the future.

Lastly we have the brain technology, which starts well. The MemDoubler and Johnny’s uploading kit both look like consumer electronic devices designed for a single function. Spider and the hospital have bigger and clunkier medical gear, but this fits with their need for scavenged and multifunction technology.

Johnny Mnemonic fails when we meet Jones the cyborg dolphin and the neural interface that Johnny uses to “hack his own brain.” Now, I found these believable when I saw the original release, and when I re-watched it on DVD, but that’s because I had read all the books. It’s only when I started writing this report card that I noticed there is absolutely no indication that such interfaces are even possible before this point in the film. Contrast this with Blade Runner, which as well as replicants was careful to show us an artificial owl, a forensic analyst who could identify an artificial snake scale, and a workshop where artificial eyes were designed. If neither the evil megacorporation nor the consumer electronics industry can build a neural interface in the world of Johnny Mnemonic, it’s hard to believe the LoTeks could get their hands on one.

For believability Johnny Mnemonic is mostly awesome, but let down by the neural interfaces. I’m therefore giving it a B.

Fi: D (1 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

The interfaces in Johnny Mnemonic have varied roles within the story.

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I’ll start with those that support the story by working as advertised. The video phone system, from the first hotel room call on, has the narrative function of allowing characters to communicate expressively with voice and facial expressions rather than, say, email. The phones works flawlessly without getting in the way.

The early brain technology devices also support the story. The MemDoubler explains what it does and its operation is clear. The data upload kit clearly shows the original data disk and the start, progress, and end of the upload process. The image grabber and fax machine, like the video phones, work without distracting the characters or audience.

The door bomb allows Johnny to escape from heavily armed thugs, using brains and technology rather than brute force. It fits well with his character.

The cyberspace search sequence serves two purposes. It shows Johnny being clever and figuring out where to go next, and it shows the audience that this is really a cyberpunk film with advanced computer technology. The interface performs both functions beautifully. Meanwhile the Pharmakom tracker who is also in cyberspace is performing the equivalent of “tracing the phone call” in a current day action film. His standing interface visually distinguishes him from Johnny.

However, the bulletin board conversation in cyberspace is not so good. Strike doesn’t have any useful information to give Johnny, and then he gets wiped out by a virus attack for no apparent reason as the Yakuza have already located where Johnny and Jane are.

The airport security scanner and the LoTek binoculars have the narrative function of telling us something about the characters being viewed rather than providing information to be acted on. The airport scanner and the first use of the LoTek binoculars remind us that Johnny has an implant which is important to the plot. These help the audience since said implant is otherwise invisible and rarely causes him any difficulty. The second use of the LoTek binoculars is to tell us that Street Preacher is dangerous, which we can already figure out from the trail of bodies he leaves behind him.

The motion detector is the first of the interfaces which support the narrative by not working. If it had given the alarm, the access codes might have been saved and the scientists might escape or defend themselves. The scene is structured so that only Johnny gets away because he is in the bathroom, but it could just as easily have played out with the same results if the motion detector had been missing altogether.

The brain scanners at Spider’s place and then the hospital don’t work either. The intent is presumably to emphasise how difficult it is to retrieve “the data” and increase the tension as Johnny’s time runs out. The problem is that both scanners are very obviously cobbled together from ancient junk. Instead of impressing us with how fiendishly difficult it is to crack the encryption, these instead suggest that Johnny would be much better off getting help from someone else.

And lastly, the LoTek bug dropper again functions by being a terrible interface. Nearly killing the lead characters gives Johnny an excuse for an epic rant, and a reason for tension in the subsequent debate between Johnny and the LoTeks over the download. However, again I have to wonder why Johnny didn’t immediately head back into town. These people are meant to be the only hope against the evil corporate overlords? Seriously?

Overall, the interfaces in Johnny Mnemonic are a mixed bag when it comes to the narrative, from awesome to awful. I’m giving it a D.

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

While the interfaces in Johnny Mnemonic aren’t always good for story telling, they are mostly good models for real world design. I’ll go from worst to best for an upbeat ending.

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Worst

The undisputed worst interface in the film is the LoTek bug dropper. Don’t do this.

The LoTek brain scanner and decryption hardware is clunky and difficult to use. So difficult in fact that it appears only Jones the cyborg dolphin can operate it successfully. Not at all ideal for a movement devoted to making information free and available to all. But as cryptography is not my field, I’m willing to accept that perhaps there is no better interface. (If the codebreaking division of the NSA is notorious for marine odours leaking into the air conditioning and suspiciously high levels of tuna consumption, please let us know via the comments.)

The motion detector has a simple interface, but the too quiet audio alarm makes it dangerously ineffective. Easily improved, but only if someone survives and is able to post a review. The watch triggered bomb is a useful starting point for thinking about controllers for real world devices.

Numerous electronic gadgets in Johnny Mnemonic have grids of unmarked buttons, which is horrible design for consumer electronics. Fortunately they are only briefly used and not important to the plot. That said, the image grabber used as part of the upload process, with labels added, would be great for writing SciFiInterfaces reviews.

The two different brain scanners used by Spider are difficult to judge, since they’re apparently designed for specialists rather than consumers. But like the MemDoubler and uploader we saw earlier, Spider can quickly perform a diagnostic and interpret the results.

The airport security scanner appears better suited to being used by actual human beings rather than by itself. The scanner is impressive, but suppose it did detect that Johnny was carrying an illegal weapon or device? If Johnny keeps walking, there’s no evidence that it could actually stop him.

The MemDoubler is a neat piece of electronics that does one job easily and efficiently. It’s a bit chatty for something that is possibly illegal and probably meant for covert use, but it was Johnny who decided that a hotel lift was the appropriate place to use it.

The New Darwin hotel room wall screen and remote are not intrusive, simple to use, and don’t require the guest to be fully attentive. Later the Beijing hotel wall screen is equally easy to use, and the bathroom shows off context awareness.

The data uploader, once assembled, has better labels than the consumer electronics. The controls are simple and allow a novice user to carry out the upload and access code generation without problems.

The LoTek binoculars are an excellent design for a group that needs to keep an eye on who is wandering around the neighbourhood.

The various video phones, from wall screen to portable, all Just Work. The various characters use them so effortlessly that it’s easy to overlook that this is in fact awesome.

Best

And finally the cyberspace interface was and remains my favourite, and an excellent model for any real world designers. (OK, the second layer of security that requires reshaping a pyramid could use a little work, but even that is not a bad interface.)

There are enough good designs here to outweigh the few disasters, so my rating is A.

Final Grade: B- (8 of 12)

Related lessons from the book

  • Zoomrects in the LoTek binoculars and the continuous perspective streaming of imagery during the data upload are both examples of using motion to create meaning (page 64)
  • Bright colors are used during the data upload and download, even for the presentation of scientific research and data, because Sci-Fi glows (page 40)
  • The data uploader gives off a regular chirping sound in addition to a numeric counter, conveying ambient system state with ambient sound (page 112)
  • The LoTek binoculars, and to a lesser extent the Yakuza binoculars too, place a visual signal in the user’s path (page 210) by directly overlaying text onto the image rather than having a separate display
  • Although the film does not use this excessively, the airport scanner and the brain scanner screens are mostly blue (page 42)
  • Surprisingly, the phone system mostly relies on numbers rather than names, even though the goal is to contact a person, not use an interface (page 207). Only Takahashi contacts someone by name
  • Takahashi is an example in the book of an interface that can handle emotional inputs (page 214), and we can add Johnny’s threatening gesture and Strike’s “retreat” during the bulletin board conversation
  • Takahashi is also an example of letting users alter their appearance (page 221), and we can add Jones the dolphin with a custom avatar  in cyberspace
  • In the cyberspace of Johnny Mnemonic various areas and individual buildings have their own visual style, because the visual design is a fundamental part of the interface (page 31) and creative combinations of even common stylistic choices create a unique appearance (page 73)
  • Navigation within the three-dimensional cyberspace simulates physically flying to make use of users’ spatial memory (page 62), but allows “teleporting” directly to a desired location because being useful is more important than looking impressive (page 264)
  • The cyberspace interface for the hotel and copyshop both use gesture for simple, physical manipulations and use language for abstractions (page 104)

New lesson

Not everything in virtual reality needs to be three-dimensional

The cyberspace sequence shows windows, usually in full screen mode, with two dimensional spreadsheet interfaces for tabular data. There’s no need to represent these in 3D. This rule is a combination of build on what users already know (page 19) and don’t get caught up in the new for its own sake (page 25).

Report Card: The Faithful Wookiee

Read all The Faithful Wookiee reviews in chronological order.

Of course we understand that The Faithful Wookiee was an animation for children and teens, the script of which was thrown together in a short time. We understand that it is meant to be entertainment and not a prediction, building on the somewhat-unexpected success of a sci-fi movie released the year before. We get that the plot is, well, unlikely. We understand that 1978 was not a time when much thought was given to consistent and deeply thought-through worldbuilding with technology. We understand it is hand-drawn animation and all the limitations that come with this.

But, still, to ensure a critique is valuable to us, we must bypass these archaeological excuses and focus instead on the thing as produced. And for that, the short does not fare well.

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Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

Comms have interfaces with inexplicably moving buttons. Headsets require pilots to take their hands off the controls. Spaceships with EZ-open external doors, the interfaces just don’t make sense. The one bright spot might be the video phone on which Fett calls Vader, but with no apparent camera and unlabeled buttons, it’s a pretty dim bright spot.

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

Comms efficiently lets us know Chewie is incoming, mysteriously not responding to hails. Headsets let us know when Luke is talking to base. We find out about Boba’s deception to suddenly reveal the danger our heroes are in as well as the stakes. The escape hatch ends the story quickly without violence. These interfaces are almost exclusively narrative in purpose, which is why they fail in other ways.

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Interfaces: F (0 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

The comms make its user remember and interpret important data. The headsets require pilots to take their hands off the controls. The evillest organization in the galaxy bypassing basic security. A door that seems to ignore the basics of safety and security. There is little to recommend these interfaces as models for designs in the real world.

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Final Grade C (8 of 12), Matinée.

Despite the failings of the interfaces, I’ll argue that The Faithful Wookiee may be the best thing about the Star Wars Holiday Special. And, we’re back to that mess, next.

Report Card: Oblivion

Read all the Oblivion reviews in chronological order.

According to the director, Oblivion is “a daylight science fiction film with a kind of Twilight Zone story,” a callback to pre-Star Wars, 1970’s lonely man sci-fi set against a huge backdrop. (Read the full interview by Germain Lussier on /Film for more.) Certainly, it’s more visually-satisfying thing than intellectually-satisfying thing, but fortunately that same thing does not play out in the interfaces.

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Sci: B (3 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

One of the great strengths of the interfaces are their deep ties to the diegesis. There’s little fuidgetry, little that could be generically lifted and placed in another film. It’s what we used to call site-specific in design school and that’s a good thing for believability.

See how in Vika’s desktop the sections of interface contain things she has to monitor: Land, hydrorigs, drones, the Tet’s orbital position. Most of the interfaces in the film are this considered.

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On the flip side, there are communication systems that suffer more downtime than modern systems. There’s a flight control interface that omits the weather. The Scav binoculars just don’t make sense. And the Odyssey has a bunch of problems given that’s meant to be a near-future-ish extension of what we know today.

And then…then…then there’s the narrative-shortcut trope of the oh-by-the-way faster-than-light communication system that would have meant a much more advanced (and more defended?) world for the Tet to encounter in the first place.

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So, some dings.

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

This is where Oblivion’s interfaces really shine. They’re gorgeously realized with a rich stylistic and motion language. But moreso IMHO some of the apparent “problems” with the interfaces actually tell of the deep deception by the Tet. It’s core to telling that central story, and partly told through the interfaces.

Home 49 disconnects its inhabitants from the land they’re tasked to protect. Tet’s thinking: Perfect.

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Jack’s bike doesn’t make a lot of sense in the diegesis except that it is a perfect outlet for his sense of “freedom.” Tet’s thinking: Whew. Glad he has that outlet.

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Other narrative aspects of the interfaces like the drone programmer help underscore the drones as aggressive, suspect, and alien, rather than defensive human measures.

I’d add a + to that A if the drones hadn’t been designed to look evil and menacing. Had they been more Hello Kitty and less Galactic Empire, Jack might have been less suspicious.

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If it needs to be said: Not actually from Oblivion. Maybe the reboot.

Interfaces: B (3 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

The centerpiece of the film is Vika’s desktop. It’s her command and control center workstation that enables her to manage the strategy to Jack’s tactics, and even rest her teacup as she works. The most commonly accessed bits are in easy reach, and the display-only information is turned vertically for her like a clock on the wall.

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It has a few ergonomic problems, like angling its displays away from her observational sphere (just for a teacup?) It doesn’t equip her for crisis conversations like it should. Some of its interactions are inconsistent. It sometimes makes her hunt for information rather than leading her there. But, all in all, a nice dashboard for her task.

There are other interesting bits, like the situationally-shaped reticle, the breakfast table that allows for sitrep breakfasts, and well-mapped Odyssey controls that imply a bit of agentive support.

There are some usability problems throughout, or it would have fared better, but overall a good show.

Final Grade B+ (10 of 12), MUST-SEE

All told, these interfaces are rich and powerful and embody solid modern thinking about visual styling, motion design, gestural interaction, and heads-up-displays. Big props to that pro gmunk for his work (and keep an eye out for an interview with him about his work on the film soon.)

And may I send out a special shout-out to the guest bloggers for their excellent insights and write-ups: Clayton, Aleatha, Heath, and Maximilion. They did great and I’m very glad that at least four other people in the world know how much effort goes into providing these in-depth interface analyses. Let’s hope we hear from more about them on this blog in the future.

Pitch time: Learn more lessons about gestural interfaces, heads-up-displays, and other interface concepts from a vast survey of science fiction movies and television programs in the book I co-authored with Nathan Shedroff, Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction.

Report Card: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers is an unlikely movie to have come out of the 1990s. Director Paul Verhoeven says that it got made because it was a high-turnover time at Sony, and the script just got shooed along as studio leads paraded in and out. The irony, hyperbole, and critique of American neocons as fascist warmongers was all in the script from the beginning. Had anyone looked at the script or the dailies, he says, it might not have been made. That’s probably why I like this movie so much, in that it’s a criticism of hawkishness and the culture that gives rise to it.

But despite that soft spot that I have for it, I’m here to rate the interfaces, and in that regard, it is lucky I don’t send it to the brig.

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Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

If it I could convince myself to give a negative score, I would. The interfaces are just so bad they break believability all over the place. Sure, we’re willing to accept the emergence of psychic powers, but give us an interface that makes testing it believable. And of course, all the Federation spaceship interfaces that are just so very, very broken: single-factor login that’s out of order, undocking interfaces that are a disaster in the making, inscrutable spinning pizzas, a starnav & stardrive that seem to want to induce seizures more than help people pilot, the terrible fuigetry of the red phone, the silly evasion interface, the absolute lack of affordances for sealing compartment 21. It’s just one disaster after another.

There are a few precious bright spots. The interface of Fedpaint was believable and maybe even ahead of its time, though we don’t see it much. The news and information hub in the terminal foresaw a time when digital information would be everywhere. The jumpball scoreboard is certainly believable, largely because it was just a real world one that didn’t think about the goals of the audience. But these can’t hope to make up for the gravity of its other crimes.

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Fi: C (2 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

Here the interfaces fare a little better. The news that is only very slightly interactive tell of a society where the illusion of choice is a given. The easy-bullying grade Board helps illustrate how might makes right here. The bug volumetric projection shows the indoctrination process. It all helps to paint the picture of the society. Even the panic-inducing collision alarm & rescue shuttle interfaces help “sweeten” the scenes they appear in, underscoring the emotional tone of the scenes in which they appear.

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On the other hand, the diegesis-breaking goofiness of the course-plotting scene, had me digressing from the tech to write COURSE OPTIMAL, an open letter for writers to drop the stoic guru metaphor and adopt an active academy model instead. While it let me try my hand at scene writing, it wrecked much of the storytelling cred it had built up.

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Interfaces: D (1 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Certainly there are some examples of good, goal-directed interfaces. The war game equipment is well suited to the learning goals of boot camp. The healing chamber helps its patient physically, socially, and psychologically. The briefly-seen insertion windows help give the escape pod pilot a sense of what she needs to do to get the pod oriented correctly for re-entry.

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And if you want to give them the benefit of the apologetics doubt, the doors work like doors should, the tattoo-o-matic—though a placebo—helps customers manage pain, and lastly, the weapons cache opens as seamlessly as you’d need it to in a crisis. I’m not sure those were intended as I’m interpreting them, but that’s what apologetics is all about.

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But then you get to the terrible interfaces like the live fire exercise that seems to want to kill recruits, the pillory that forgets that the drama is the point, the combat interfaces that are full of sound and fury and not much else, the Klendathu casualty announcement that doesn’t help people reading it, the fuigetry-filled binoculars, and the inscrutable uplink, and it’s just not a place to look for inspiration for real-world design.

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Final Grade D (3 of 12), MATINÉE

Despite its ultimate grade, I’m still fond of this one, and hope to be showing it in 2015 at a sci-fi movie night where we can lament together at the marvelous train-wreck that are the Starship Troopers interfaces.

Report Card: Wall•E

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Wall•E is a humorous, robo-everything, sci-fi dystopia. This puts some challenges for the interfaces, as they have to sometimes break believability for the joke. Still, the humor is meant to be all in-world (or diegetic), so we can apply a thorough real-world critique.

Sci: A- (3.5 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

It’s funny. Wall-E is a mix of both realistic interfaces that you might find in the real world, and cinematic interfaces that really only work for the narrative.

The Realistic

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The Dust Storm alert is an effective warning and call to immediate action. The immediacy of the Storm Warning and its announcement of direction and distance would be a good extension for current weather radios.

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Every critical automatic system should have an emergency ‘off’ button that is well labeled. Otto’s control might be poorly placed, but its use and implications are obvious to the captain in his moment of need.

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The Hover Chair is a multi-use, omni-terrain mobility device that is comfortable and thoroughly addictive. It would be the ultimate Rascal scooter, and likely be as popular in real life as it is on the Axiom.

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In many ways, The Social Network has already pervaded our society in programs like Skype. The major and dangerous change on the Axiom is that one program is getting all of a person’s attention at all times.

The Cinematic

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The Dropship. Very Inefficient. It shows that BNL likes complicating things, but isn’t very convincing as an activation sequence for an inter-planetary exploration pod.

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The Lifeboat is excellent way to show how automated all of BNL’s technology has become, but a terrible layout for an emergency tool.

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The project team (in the world of Wall•E) that built the Gatekeeper must have had an enormous budget, a massively talented team, and a top-flight project manager. It’s so exquisitely overbuilt in almost every possible way.

Regardless of which type they are, each says something very fundamental about Buy-N-Large’s design/engineering studios. A few of these interfaces feel so complicated and overly antagonistic to their users that it’s amazing they weren’t redesigned or updated at some point. Other interfaces feel like something that a person would encounter in those situations.

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

Each interface shows BNL’s goal of saving people from thought and effort. Even when this costs people their privacy, their independence, or their ability to think critically it feels deliberate and intentional. Useful to the user? No. Useful to BNL? Yes. This is the core of BNL’s role in the story as the corporate antagonist, and the interfaces are crucial to telling that story.

Interfaces: B- (2.5 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

I can see the Hover Chair as a product in a TV advertisement, and many of the interfaces like the Lifeboat and Otto’s Manual Control will likely be needed in real-life situations. The Hover Chair and Lifeboat serve as excellent prototypes of what not to do, and Otto’s control was designed exceptionally well).

Other cases, like the Audio Buttons and Eve’s Gun speak to specific situations on a post-apocalyptic Earth that will be hard to replicate. Hopefully, today’s arms manufacturers won’t create such dangerous energy weapons capable of being fired so easily. But there’s no way of knowing what kind of situations BNL had to plan for in their design, so no way of knowing just how bad the design actually is.

Final Grade A- (10 of 12), BLOCKBUSTER

Buy-N-Large is a case study in a pathologically helpful corporation stripping power and authority (and even critical thought) from citizens’ everyday life. What might look great on a vacation commercial ends up instead acting like the worst kind of drug on a person’s willpower and desire to think critically.

Designers should be careful of falling into these traps, and look to the Social Network as a lesson in what can happen when you only care about moment-to-moment happiness and profit.

Related lessons from the book

  • Eve’s drop-off pod includes lots of immediate feedback that tightens the feedback loops. (page 20)
  • Eve Extends her Hand to Shoot (just like the sixth gestural pidgin word, page 101).
  • Wall-E’s range vision adhered to much of the Augmented Reality lessons (chapter 8), such as augmenting the periphery (page 162) and context awareness (page 165).
  • Otto’s off switch and the Lifeboat Auto-Destruct confirm that red means danger. (page 44)

New lessons

  • Eve’s drop-off pod, the Lifeboat controls all scream for Labels, labels, labels.
  • The Hover Chair implies many things
    • A system should never fail into a worse state. (a New Lesson first seen on this blog with Logan’s Run.)
    • Build assistants not solutions.
    • Optimizing for the worst within us drags everyone down.
    • Let users easily pause virtual worlds (out of respect for the real one).
    • Explicitly in the Social Network writeup: Work With the Human Need and Build Products for More than just Fleeting Pleasure.