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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.

Report Card: Logan’s Run


For our purposes, Dome City is a service. Provided by the city’s ancestors to provide a “good life” for their cloned descendants in a sustainable way, i.e., a way that does not risk the problems of overpopulation. The “good life” in this case is a particular hedonistic vision full of fashion, time at the spa, and easy casual sex.

There’s an ethical, philosophical, and anthropological question on whether this is the “right” sort of life one would want to structure a service around. I suspect it’s a good conversation that will last at least a few beers. Fascinating as that question may be, looking into the interaction design requires us to accept those as a given and see how well the touchpoints help these personas address their goal in this framework.

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

The Fade Out drug is the only, only interface that’s perfectly believable. And while I can make up some reasons the Clean Up Rig is cool, that’s clearly what I’m bringing to it, and the rest of the bunch, to an interface, has massive problems with fundamental believability and usability. Seriously, the movie is a study in bad design.

Fi: A (4 of 4)

How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

Here the interfaces are fine. The Lifeclock tells us of their forced life limit. The Circuit tells us of the easy sex. Fade Out tells of easy inebriation. New You of easy physical changes.

The interfaces help tell the story of this bizarre dystopia, help paint the “vast, silly spectacle” that Roger Ebert criticized when he write his original review in 1976.

Other interfaces help move the plot along in effective, if sometimes ham-handed ways, like the SandPhone and Aesculator Mark III. So even when they’re background tech, they help. Full marks.

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

Sure, if you ignore all the usability problems and handwaving the movie does, the characters are getting what they want on a surface level. But ultimately, the service design of Dome City fails for every reason it could fail.

  • The system was poorly implemented.
  • Its touchpoints are unusable.
  • Its touchpoints don’t let its users achieve the system goals.

But the main reason it fails is that it fails to take into account some fundamental aspects of human nature, such as

  • Biophilia
  • The (entirely questionable) tendency towards punctuated serial monogamy in pair bonds
  • A desire for self-determination
  • Basic self-preservation.

If you don’t understand the goals of your users, you really have no hope of designing for them. And if you’re designing an entire, all-consuming world for those same users, misjudging the human universals puts your entire project—and their world—at risk.

Final Grade C- (5 of 12), MATINEE

Related lessons from the book

  • The Übercomputer’s all caps and fixed-width evoke “that look” of early computer interfaces (page 33), as does its OCR sans-serif typeface (page 37) and blue color (page 42).
  • The SandPhone would have been much more useful as Augmented Reality (chapter 8, page 157)
  • The Aesculaptor could use a complete revamp from the Medical Chapter (chapter 9, page 258), most notably using waveforms (page 263) and making it feel humane (page 281).
  • The Evidence Tray reminds us of multifactor authentication (page 118).
  • Of course The Circuit appears in the Sex chapter (chapter 13, page 293) and as my redesign showed, needed to modernize its matchmaking (page 295) use more subtle cues (page 301). Certainly Jessica-5 could have used a safeword (page 303).

New lessons

  • The Lifeclock reminds us to keep meaningful colors distinguishable.
  • The Circuit shows why a serial presentation democritizes options.
  • The Circuit also shows us that matchmaking must account for compatability, availability, and interest.
  • The Aesculaptor tells why a system should never fail into a worse state.
  • Carrousel implies that we don’t hide the worst of a system, but instead cover it in a dazzle pattern.
  • The improvements I suggested for the SandPhone imply that solving problems higher up the goal chain are much harder but more disruptive.
  • The Evidence Tray gives us the opposite of the “small interfaces” lesson (page 296), too large an interface can overpromise for small interactions.

I grew up in Texas, and had the chance to visit the Fort Worth Water Gardens and Market Center where some of the scenes were shot. So I have a weirdly personal connection to this movie. Despite that, on review, the interfaces just suck, bless their little interactive hearts. Use them as fodder for apologetics and perhaps as a cautionary tale, but little, little else.

Report Card: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)


Oh, for the days when a movie had only five technologies to review.

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

Keep in mind that we’re not entirely concerned with the believability of the technology, just the believability of the interface. So, we get to bypass all the messy questions about how a technology brings someone back after death, and ask instead could that technology be operated by a wall switch? And the answer is, even though most of them could be improved, yes.

  • Sure, Gort could be the primary control mechanism for the ship, with a voice input.
  • Sure, everything in the ship could be gestural, if it’s meant for security

The only notable exception is the ridiculous design of the learning device. But, hey, royals have given each other Imperial (Fabergé) eggs before, so maybe the delicacy is part of the expression. I’ll cut it some slack.

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

Especially for 1951, this must have been a mind-blowing vision of technology. Robots with disintegrator beams for eyes. Electronics you don’t even touch. A Lazarus table that can bring people back from dead with the flip of a switch? It all painted a picture that was terrifically alien and advanced, greatly contrasting the mundane technology seen elsewhere in the film.

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

One of the interfaces is awesome: The gestural security. The rest of the interfaces have some major room for improvement.

  • The doors should really be operable in the absense of Gort.
  • Gort’s pretty awesome, but some audible output would be nice for feedback or conversation across the long stretches of interstellar travel.
  • The revival table should really be more automatic.
  • The learning device, well, failed Klaatu in many, many ways.

Final Grade B+ (10 of 12), MUST-SEE

Related lessons from the book

  • Gort is sticks to obvious representation, his dull visage matching his muteness and lack of real intelligence. (Chapter 9)
  • The communication device kind-of signaled while recording (though I suspect it was really signaling that it was just on) (page 200)
  • The communications panel did not minimize the number of controls (page 204)
  • The gestural interfaces embodied the first of the gestural pidgin (Wave to activate) identified in chapter 5.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is full of some very forward-looking interfaces for its time, and was created without regard to cultural conventions of today. I highly recommend it, even for all its moralistic posturing and strange ethnocentrism. Also for some of the best end title typography in all of ever.


Report Card: Ghost in the Shell


The movie Ghost in the Shell came out a full 6 years after Masamune Shirow’s cyberpunk manga “Mobile Armored Riot Police” was serialized, and preceded the two anime television series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2nd GIG. The entire franchise is massive and massively influential. It’s fair enough to say that this film might be the worst in the series to evaluate, but I have to start somewhere, and the start is the most logical place for this.

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

The main answer to this question has to do with whether you believe that artificial intelligence and its related concept machine sentience is possible. Several concepts rely on that given.

The main thing that’s frustrating in the film is that this artificial intelligence is not brought to bear in ways that seem obvious.

There are even a few interfaces that seem bad, useless, or impossible to apologize for:

These bad interfaces are minor exceptions, and there are reasons to debate why they’re not actually broken, but some artifact of the culture. All in all, not bad for a movie almost two decades old.

Fi: A (4 of 4)

How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

Technology isn’t window dressing for Ghost in the Shell. It is central to the plot, and interntally consistent in all the ways that matter.

  • Ghost hacking by public terminal tells of a society whose technology is fundamentally embedded in its infrastructure
  • The crappy security tells of heroes being savvy and heroic, and while perhaps a little overexplanatory, telling
  • The spider tank’s vision speaks of a terrifying inhuman intelligence
  • The tera-keyboard tells us how far cybernetics have come, and how technology is fundamentally embedded in human bodies.

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

All of them seem to, and some of them do so with a degree of savviness and sophistication.

  • Perpvision’s squint gestures let Kunasagi remain motionless while investigating her surroundings
  • Thermoptic camouflage lets its users make simple, synechdochic gestures to become quickly hidden
  • The tera-keyboard is the most powerful tool for capturing thought as its happening I’ve come across

The few that drag it down are:

These are more narrative than useful, and prevent me from awarding full marks.

Final Grade A- (11 of 12), BLOCKBUSTER

Related lessons from the book

  • The synechdochic gestures in the thermoptic camouflage Builds on what users already know (page 19)
  • The heavily layered, transparent green profiles seen in the movie fail to Avoid the confusion caused by too many overlapping, transparent layers (page 54)
  • The cyberneticist’s brain VP adheres to most of the Pepper’s ghost style (page 81)
  • The neck jacks certainly Let the user relax the body for brain procedures (page 135).
  • The scanner virtual reality in fact Deviates from the real world with caution (page 145)
  • The tera-keyboard doesn’t quite Visualize brain-reading interfaces (page 154) from the output side, but it certainly answers the opportunity from the input side.
  • Chief Aramaki knows too well that The human is sometimes the ideal interface (page 205)

New lessons

  • The scanners should Distribute colors for readable contrasts.
  • The notion of squint gestures and synechdochic gestures suggests a tweak to the lesson on page 116, to make a new lesson I might call Put actuators in fitting parts.
  • Squint gestures also imply Social gestures should be subtle.
  • The pair of crappy interfaces remind us that Agentive interfaces should handle the mundane tasks.

To be honest, I would not have counted myself a fan of the movie before this review, even though I’d been to see it in the cinema on its release. After the review, though, I’m thoroughly impressed by the subtlety and richness of its interfaces. I’m now even curious to see the television show since fans say it’s even better.

Report Card: The Fifth Element


In full disclosure, The Fifth Element may be one of my favorite sci-fi films of all time. So I had to be extra vigilant about the reviews so as not to come off as a fanboy. Even with all that due diligence, Besson’s movie fared really well on a close examination of its interfaces.

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

I’m giving the Ultimate Weapon a giant pass, since it’s the MacGuffin and more mystical than scientific. Other than that, there’s only three bits that really made me roll my eyes.

  1. The sleep regulator
  2. The nucleolab
  3. The Eeepholes.

That’s so few—out of dozens and dozens of interfaces—that it makes for a very believable technological universe in which the story can play out.

Fi: A (4 of 4)

How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

The technology brilliantly brings this world to life. Korben’s taxi and apartment interfaces (the cigarette dispenser, the nanny state slideaway bed, the pneumatic mail by which he’s fired) help us understand the dire circumstances in which he begins the story. The police interfaces (lockdown tools, compliance circles, on-car displays) tell of a police state that has gone off the deep end. Zorg’s little vacuum robots, weapons, and bombs, tell of a corporatist who’s lost his soul.

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

Again, brilliantly. There are some missteps: The roach cam might have triggered less of a disgust reaction. Rhod’s rod might have been a little more performative. The police lights kind of work against their intentions. Whoever designed those evacuation beacons needs to be jailed for gross negligence. And the 5E-opedia could have been actually encyclopedic rather than random.

But there’s so much awesomeness to balance it out. The makeup tech fits fashionistas. The military communications fits soliders. The second bomb fits Mangalores. And of course the Ultimate Weapon fits multiple races across eons with its brilliant affordances and constraints.

For the sheer number of interfaces and the thought given to the aesthetic and interaction details, I’m proud that The Fifth Element has scored top marks, and just squeaked past another favorite, The Cabin in the Woods, for the top spot on the site so far. Here’s hoping more movies and television shows bring to life such a well-designed, personal vision of speculative technology, and grand adventures taking place amongst it.

Final Grade A (12 of 12), BLOCKBUSTER

Related lessons from the book

  • Lots of these interfaces could use a dose of lower case (Otherwise, AVOID ALL CAPS, page 34) but help confirm that Sans-Serif is the Typeface of the Future (page 37).
  • Korben’s alarm clock Uses Sound for Urgent Attention (page 208).
  • Korben’s taxi might have avoided pissing him off, Zorg’s desk might have saved its owner from a cherry, and Ruby’s staff might have allowed him to perform his playbacks had each Handled Emotional Inputs (page 214)
  • The multipass should have Required multifactor authentication (page 118)
  • The 5E-opedia could have Added Meaning to Information Through Organization (page 239) rather than use an alphabetical list.

New lessons

  • The military headsets remind us to Signal Dual-Presence, and additionally to Avoid Pushing into Wearables.
  • Korben’s alarm clock reminds us that Pain is an (Anti-)Affordance.
  • The Modoshawan flight controls want us to Map the Inputs to the Outputs.
  • The Mondoshawan un-disguising taught us to Use the Available Body Part in designing gestures.
  • The yellow circle compliance technique implies that we should Make Crisis Instructions Simple, Simple, Simple.
  • The terrible police chest lights should get agentive and Adjust Like a Good Valet.
  • The Ultimate Weapon reminds us to Keep Objects Orientationless if at all possible.

Report Card: Prometheus


Prometheus had an unreasonably high bar to vault. It had to work as a prequel to one of the most successful and revered sci-fi movies ever. It was directed by Ridley Scott, who produced Alien and another of the most successful and revered sci-fi movies ever. And in the 33 years since Alien premiered, Hollywood’s special effects capabilities have evolved beyond all ken, along with audience’s expectations of what makes for an exciting and engaging interface.

Even cutting it a bit of slack for these massive challenges, it was quite a letdown for its ofttimes inexplicable plot, wan characters, science-iness, and getting so caught up in its own grandoise themes it forgot about being a movie. But here at, reviews must be of interfaces, and to that end I’ll bypass much of these script objections, to focus in on the tech.

Sci: D+ (1 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?

I’ll go out on a prediction limb and say that 50 years in the future is, given Moore’s Law, enough time to account for much of the human technology we see in the film. Artificial intelligence and genetics are hot areas of research and might even get to David levels of cyborg in five decades.There are some physics questions around free-floating volumetric projections, but that’s enough of a sci-fi trope to get grandfathered along.

The alien interfaces are of course meant to be vastly superior to our own, and so get a special pass. But even still, the glowing pollen displays are conceivable and are used consistently. You can imagine the touch walls and energy-arc interfaces. The in-your-face alien flight controls have some ergonomic sense to them.

But these are interrupted by frequent speed bumps of design. Access panels across Prometheus shift position, layout, and security requirements at almost every door. 3D maps can be transmitted through a mountain to the ship but not to the nearby people who can use it most. A science ship has a single button that throws it into ramming mode, replete with an audio countdown. These dissolve credulity.

Fi: B (3 of 4)

How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

Of our categories, this is where Prometheus’ interfaces shine the most. For example, the choice of materials for the alien interfaces are not only beautiful, but offer a great deal of affordance for users and audiences alike. And of course the visual designs of the interfaces is luscious. As a whole they are unique, engaging, and at times a spectacular pageant for the eyes.

The interaction design functions admirably for the narrative as well. The ship keeps its steward uninformed in order to tell the audience what’s happening dramatically. The audio syringe reinforces the body horror of assaultive medicine. The escape pod’s crimes against usability make sense to build tension around Vicker’s escape. The stupid, stupid MedPod fulfills its role of building Snakes on a Plane claustrophobia. (Perhaps this is a clue to the reason the film fails in terms of our other categories: It treats its technology solely as narrative tools.)

If they didn’t shirk believability so badly, the interfaces would get full marks for narrative.

Interfaces: D- (1 of 4)

How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

I want to call attention to the film’s brilliant interfaces first. The alien astrometrics sit perfectly between passive and active sensemaking modes. The decontamination gesture is simple and memorable. The visual design of the on-ship interfaces is exquisite in its look and feel. The language learning interface combines the best of human- and computer-based teaching techniques. Each of these embodies some forward-looking technological ideas with solid interaction design.


These occur in a movie with a ship that pointlessly withholds crucial mission information until the last possible minute. Environmental suits that blind its wearers. A decontamination system in the middle of the sterile zone. A 3D display style that confounds our mind’s ability to understand shape. A mysogynist MedPod designed by Marquis de Sade Industries. Door panels whose only function is to torture the crew with pointless tedium. Mapping tech that does not display the map to its users. Escape pods that hinder escape.

The movie’s transgressions against basic interaction design principles drag its brilliant moments way, way down. Take great care when looking at the film’s interfaces for lessons for your own real world design.

Final Grade C- (5 of 12), MATINEE

Related lessons from the book

  • The HYPSP>S020 interface might have instead augmented the periphery of vision, as described in Chapter 8, Augmented Reality.
  • The volumteric maps conform to the wireframe Pepper’s Ghost style, as described in Chapter 4.
  • The Flight Controls remind us of the importance of grouping controls, as described in Chapter 2.
  • The MedPod forgets a number of the lessons (show waveforms, be useful) in Chapter 12, which is all about medical technology.
  • David reminds us why Anthropomorphism (Chapter 9) is comfortable. When asked why he needs to wear a helmet, he replies, “I was designed like this because you people are more comfortable interacting with your own kind. If I didn’t wear the suit, it would defeat the purpose.”

New lessons

  • The language instructor implies that Metadata Should be Placed on a Perpendicular Plane.
  • The mission briefing reminds us to Prioritize Transition Layers by Importance, and even suggests a gesture to let the computer know when it is no longer being addressed.

Report Card: The Cabin in the Woods

From the sudden and hilarious appearance of the title on screen, I knew that The Cabin in the Woods was going to be a special film. And in fact, it is one of my favorite movies of the past year, and dare I say one of the best sci-fi/horror hybrid movies of all time. (Admittedly it’s not a giant subgenre.) When we focus on the interfaces, they ultimately help tell this dark story of epic comeuppance, even if they stumble a bit on the details.

Sci: B+ (3 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?

The surveillance and control interfaces are all perfectly believable, even as they span different technological paradigms. There are some aspects of the interface that must be excused as “mystical,” and some toying with chemical science, i.e. human sex pheromones and the “let’s split up” chemical, that prevent us from awarding it full marks.

Fi: A (4 of 4)

How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

In addition to helping set the stage of a service that spans technological eras, nearly all of the problems help tell the story of a controlling organization that is only barely in control. It’s dysfunctional and jaded enough in the execution of its dark duty that we’re kind of OK with their failure and ultimate destruction. And much of the rest of the problems can be swept under the narrative rug of “it’s mystical,” again, in a very smart way. The only thing that takes us out of the narrative to ask “why” and “how” is the inexplicable cause-failure SYSTEM PURGE switch, but it ultimately just sped up a part of the film that could have been too slow in the wrong part.

Interfaces: C (2 of 4)

How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

There’s lots of goodness in the interfaces to learn from: Solid clustering of monitoring signals, strong physical differentiation in the control dashboard, and even well-protected and well-labeled kill switches. But there are equally large problems as well: There are several blind controls that only permit expert use. There’s an escape hatch security system that only increases the panicked user’s panic. The communication system between the humans and Old Ones is ambiguous enough to cause world-class failures to communicate. For these reasons, you should be careful when pulling lessons for the real world from the interfaces found here.

Final Grade B+ (9 of 12), MUST-SEE

Related lessons from the book

  • The delightful mechanical controls in the film already embody the lesson Mix Mechanical and Other Controls Where Appropriate. (page 26)
  • Those same controls might have used some smarter grouping as seen in Chapter 3, Visual Interfaces. (page 55)
  • The control room interfaces should have remembered the lesson from the Communication Chapter, that Signaling Change of State isn’t Enough. (page 202)
  • The course-correction interfaces that nudged Jules and Curt into sex started to fulfill the Sex chapter’s Augment Everything opportunity. (page 301)

Suggested new lessons

  • The excellent differentiation seen in the control panel suggests a new lesson to Differentiate Physical Controls, such that they are easy to find by touch, and tell apart immediately.

Report Card: Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet is an influential film not just because of its positive audience reaction and later cult success, but also because Gene Roddenberry has stated that it deeply influenced his massive science fiction property Star Trek, in look, general plot structure, and even some of the same effects.

The film is also notable for the introduction of Robbie the Robot, an anthropomorphic robot who was such a hit (and so expensive for MGM to create) that he warranted a follow-up movie all to himself, and inspired the creator Robert Kinoshita to make a similar robot for the long-running family-friendly serial Lost in Space.

But as much as we adore the nostalgic themes and effects, and as much as we recognize the influence of the film, our review must be of its interfaces, and for that it does not ultimately fare well.

Sci: B+ (3 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?

The Krell technology is meant to be advanced beyond our understanding of physics and technology, so the film shouldn’t be dinged for that. Robbie is somewhat problematic (how, again, does he hold and fire the gun?) but as a result of Krell enhancements, we can forgive a bit of that, too. The Terran technology in contrast scores higher, even with the invisible “force field” version of an electric fence.

Fi: B (3 of 4)

How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

For a reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the interfaces could have easily been tacked on, unrelated to the central plot. But for the most part the interfaces are deeply integrated in the story, telling a tale of a man’s toying with technology that is terrifyingly advanced and ultimately uncontrollable. The film’s indulgence in some extraneous (and ultimately poorly thought out) “gee-whiz, what’ll they think of next?” moments are the main reason it does not warrant full marks.

Interfaces: F (0 of 4)

How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Between demure self-destruct mechanisms, death-prone trash bins, and critically unhelpful astrogator tools, the interfaces in Forbidden Planet are gory distaster scenes waiting to happen. There’s little that a designer would want to pull from these for their own work in the real world. Unless, perhaps, you’re Krell.

Final Grade C (6 of 12), MATINEE

Related lessons from the book

  • The astrogrator’s armillary would have worked in more circumstances with a dynamic, volumetric display (and some attention to visual hierarchy.) (Page 75)
  • Commander Adam’s Public Address system balances ease and control in activation (page 202) while also signaling state (page 202.) It also is an example of a Fixed Connection system (page 203).
  • With his language use (page 187), mobility, and ability to manipulate human objects, Robbie the Robot might have fallen into the Uncanny Valley (page 184). Fortunately his strange manner of speech and inhuman appearance clearly signals his inhuman-ness, as recommended on p185.
  • The handwave switches in Morbius house illustrate the first of Hollywood’s Gestural Pidgin (page 98): Wave to Activate.
  • Though the Krell technology has many usability problems, the Plastic Educator shaped the look of Volumetric Projections from this point to the present day in sci-fi (page 78), and will likely shape it for decades to come.

Suggested new lessons

Report Card: Metropolis

Sci: C+ (2 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?

Metropolis scores high on its mundane interfaces. The video phone, though a patchwork of paradigms, was quite prescient for its day. But with the goofiness of the steam piping, flood switch, and the magical thinking required for the Machine Man, we have to ding the movie interfaces pretty hard for science and engineering.

Fi: A (4 of 4)

How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

The interfaces help paint a picture of a society deeply oppressed through machines. Given that Metropolis was the first “serious” sci-fi movie and used interfaces to such great storytelling effect, it scores our highest mark.

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

Josephat and poor worker #11811 have a very hard time accomplishing their goals: Their machines provide information and controls but do very little to make it easy. If these were the only two users, Metropolis would score quite low.

But from Joh’s perspective, if you believe that he’s the “real” user of these systems, it’s all working quite well. Work is getting done, oppression is getting done, and if you believe the fan theory of the last post, they catalyze the collapse of the Metropolis as desired. Even when Joh meets Rotwang’s Machine Man and realizes it is the key to realizing his plan, the interfaces couldn’t be better.

Final Grade B+ (9 of 12), MUST-SEE

Metropolis’ paradigms and mundane interfaces are of their time, and while a beautiful example of dystopian Art Deco imagination, may not be applicable to modern interface design. But they are fantastic examples of how forward-looking sci-fi can be in its interfaces, while still using them to help tell epic tales. The notions that inform the Machine-Man still qualify as “sufficiently advanced” to appear magic, and set an anthropomorphic example that the real world has yet to match.

Related lessons from the book:

  • Joh’s desk interface would have benefited from Grouped Controls (page 55)
  • The video phone is discussed at length in the Communication chapter (page 198)
  • Machine Maria is a robot, the nature of which is discussed in Anthropomorphism (page 177)
  • She is also used for seduction purposes, as discussed in the Sex chapter (page 291)
    Her fully conversational control interface is considered in the Sonic Interfaces chapter (page 109)
  • Joh’s call might have been quicker if he’d been able express a desire to speak to Grot (See The goal is to contact a person, not use an interface, page 207)
  • Grot might have answered more quickly with a visual signal in the user’s path (page 210)