Prometheus: Overview

Release Date: 15 April 2012, USA

In 2094 a team of scientists follow anthropological clues across the galaxy to the Earth-like moon named LV223. On arrival, the scientists discover a huge, ancient complex with urns of a strange black material. The android David sneaks some of this material on board the ship and infects the scientist Halloway with it to see the effects. Halloway has sex with Shaw, who becomes pregnant with an alien aberration.

Returning to the alien complex, David breaks free from the group and discovers that one of the aliens is still alive in a statis chamber. After Halloway is consumed by the infection, the crew returns to the ship, and Shaw uses a MedPod device to manually extract the aberration growing in her womb. Despite the chaos, the believed-dead corporatist Peter Weyland comes out of hidden stasis on the ship, to reveal that the whole enterprise was arranged to let him make contact with the aliens and try to meet his makers and achieve immortality.

Back in the alien complex, David is decapitated and Weyland and his retinue killed by the furious, reanimated alien. The alien launches a spaceship from within the complex to complete his mission of heading to Earth and infecting it, but Captain Janek and crew crash Prometheus into his ship to save the Earth while sacrificing themselves. Shaw, the lone survivor, returns to an ejected life support pod only to find her alien spawn has grown to monstrous size. The furious alien, who has escaped his crashed ship and found the pod, tries to kill her, but she unlocks the MedPod room and escapes with the alien and the aberration locked in mortal combat. The decapitated but functional David contacts Shaw through radio, and informs her that there are other ships by which they can abandon the planet and return home.

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HYP.SL

The android David tends to the ship and the hypersleping crew during the two-year journey.

The first part of the interface for checking in on the crew is a cyan-blue touch screen labeled “HYP.SL” in the upper left hand corner. The bulk of this screen is taken up with three bands of waveforms. A “pulse” of magnification flows across the moving waveforms from left to right every second or so, but its meaning is unclear. Each waveform appears to show a great deal of data, being two dozen or so similar waveforms overlaid onto a single graph. (Careful observers will note that these bear a striking resemblance to the green plasma-arc alien interface seen later in the film, and so their appearance may have been driven stylistically.)

HYP.SL

To the right of each waveform is a medium-sized number (in Eurostile) indicating the current state of the index. They are color-coded for easy differentiation. In contrast, the lines making up the waveform are undifferentiated, so it’s hard to tell if the graph shows multiple data points plotted to a single graph, or a single datapoint across multiple times. Whatever the case, the more complex graph would make identifying a recent trend more complicated. If it’s useful to summarize the information with a single number on the right, it would be good to show what’s happening to that single number across the length of the graph. Otherwise, you’re pushing that trendspotting off to the user’s short term memory and risking missing opportunities for preventative measures.

Another, small diagram in the lower left is a force-directed, circular edge bundling diagram, but as this and the other controls on the screen are inscrutable, we cannot evaluate their usefulness in context.

After observing the screen for a few seconds, David touches the middle of the screen, a wave of distortion spreads from his finger for a half a second, and we hear a “fuzz” sound. The purpose of the touch is unclear. Since it makes no discernable change in the interface, it could be what I’ve called one free interaction, but this seems unlikely since such cinematic attention was given to it. My only other guess is to register David’s presence there like a guard tour patrol system or watchclock that ensures he’s doing his rounds.

Neuro-Visor

The second interface David has to monitor those in hypersleep is the Neuro-Visor, a helmet that lets him perceive their dreams. The helmet is round, solid, and white. The visor itself is yellow and back-lit. The yellow is the same greenish-yellow underneath the hypersleep beds and clearly establishes the connection between the devices to a new user. When we see David’s view from inside the visor, it is a cinematic, fully-immersive 3D projection of events in her dreams, that is presented in the “spot elevations” style that is predominant throughout the film (more on this display technique later).

Later in the movie we see David using this same helmet to communicate with Weyland who is in a hypersleep chamber, but Weyland is somehow conscious enough to have a back-and-forth dialogue with David. We don’t see either David’s for Weyland’s perspective in the scene.

David communicated with Weyland.

As an interface, the helmet seems straightforward. He has one Neuro-Visor for all the hypersleep chambers, and to pair the device to a particular one, he simply touches the surface of the chamber near the hyper sleeper’s head. Cyan interface elements on that translucent interface confirm the touch and presumably allow some degree of control of the visuals. To turn the Neuro-Visor off, he simply removes it from his head. These are simple and intuitive gestures that makes the Neuro-Visor one of the best and most elegantly designed interfaces in the movie.

HYPSP>S020

In addition to the biometric readout at the foot of the hypersleep chamber, David can also check on the humans in hypersleep via direct visual contact. Though the walls of these chambers are ordinarily opaque, by placing his hand on a corner, David can cause the walls become translucent and the top becomes transparent. This allows him to directly view the body to check on a hypersleeper’s appearance, while maintaining some privacy for the hypersleeper from other straying eyes in the area.

The topmost surface of the chamber also has a translucent interface displaying such information as the sleeper’s name, labeled CRYO SLEEP; something called DREAM STATE, which is numerical (Shaw’s is 0560-09797?); and a few other pieces of inscrutable data.

There are a number of problems with this interface. The translucent interface might be a good idea because it would reduce the time between looking at abstractions of data and looking at a subject. But the data shown on the interface is not clearly biometric. (A solid argument can be made that it would be better to swap the data found on this screen and the data seen in the HYP.SL screen at the head of the bed.) In this case, since the data is not biometric, the overlay might actually occlude important outward signs and is therefore a bit misplaced.

Additionally, since the chambers are situated with their feet towards the wall, the orientation of the typography seems to have poor usability as well. For optimal reading in this portrait orientation, a viewer would have to go as far out of his way as possible in the space. This information should have been laid out along the landscape orientation of the pane, and the information moved to the edge such that an unhindered visual scan of the sleeper is possible.

I was at first confused about a feature of the chambers seen later in the movie, when David is surprised to find evidence that Meredith has exited her chamber and walked to her quarters, long ahead of the others. Why was he surprised? If you were designing a system for a caretaker, wouldn’t you want him to know when something as major as that occurs? Then I realized that Meredith outranks and is resentful of David, so it’s entirely likely that if she could, she would enjoy configuring her personal program to wake her ahead of the others and disable any notification that David would ordinarily receive.

Bridge VP: Hello

The main interface on the bridge is the volumetric projection display. This device takes up the center of the bridge and is the size of a long billiards table. It serves multiple purposes for the crew. The first is to display the “Golden Record” message.

Hello, Deadly World

Prometheus broadcasts a message to LV223 in advance of its arrival that appears to be something like the Voyager Golden Record recording. David checks on this message frequently in transit to see if there is a response. To do so he stands in a semi-circular recess and turns a knob on the waist-high control panel there counter clockwise. It’s reasonable that the potentiometer controls the volume of the display, though we don’t see this explicitly.

The computer responds to being turned on by voice, wishing him “good morning” by name, confirming that it is still transmitting the message (reinforced by a Big Label in the content itself), and informing David that there has been “NO RESPONSE LOGGED.”

The content of the display is lovely. Lines of glowing yellow scaffolding define a cube, roughly a meter on a side. Within is a cacophony of anthropological, encyclopedic information as video and images, including…

  • Masterworks of art such as Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo (better known as the Mona Lisa).
  • Portrait of Abraham Lincoln
  • Chemical structures (I could not identify the exact chemicals)
  • Portrait of a young Beethoven
  • The periodic table of elements
  • Mathematical equations
  • A language frequency chart
  • The language-learning A.I. seen elsewhere in the film
  • Musical notation
  • Sonograms of fetuses in utero
  • Video of tribal makeup
  • Video of Noh theater in Japan
  • Video of a young prodigy playing violin in a field

These squares of translucent information are dispersed within the cube semi-randomly. Some display on a sagittal plane. Some on a coronal plane. (None on a transverse plane.) Though to an observer they are greatly overlapped, they do not seem to intersect. Some of these squares remain in place but most slide around along a y- or x-axis, a few even changing direction, in semi-random paths. Two are seen to rotate around their y-axis, and the periodic table is seen to divide into layered columns.

This display quickly imparts to the audience that the broadcast message is complex and rich, telling the vicious, vicious aliens all they need to know about humans prior to their potential contact. But looking at it from a real-world perspective, the shifting information only provides a sense of the things described, which could really work only if you already happened to have existing knowledge of the fundamentals, which the unknown aliens certainly do not have. A better way to build up a sense of understanding was seen in the movie Contact, where one begins with simple abstract concepts that build on one another to eventually form a coherent communication.

In contrast, this display is one of ADHD-like distraction and “sense” rather than one of communication and understanding. But there’s a clue that this isn’t meant to be the actual content at all. Looking closely at the VP, we see that that the language-learning module David uses is present. Look in the image below for the cyan rectangle in the left of the big yellow cube.

Since we know from seeing David use it elsewhere in the film that that module is interactive, and this VP display does not appear to be, we can infer that this is not the actual content being broadcast. This is more like cover art for an album, meant only to give a sense of the actual content to the humans on the “sender” side of the message. In this simple example of apologetics, we see that the complexity that worked for audiences would work equally well for users.

Later in the film we see David turn the display off. Though his hand is offscreen, the click we hear and his shoulder movement seem to indicate that uses the same knob with which he turned it on. After he does so, the display decays in layers common to the movie’s “yellow scaffold” VPs, as a hum slows to a halt.

Bridge VP: Mapping

The main interface on the bridge is the volumetric projection display. This device takes up the center of the bridge and is the size of a long billiards table. It serves multiple purposes for the crew. Its later use is to display the real-time map of the alien complex.

Map of the alien complex

The redshirt geologist named Chance in the landing party uses some nifty tools to initiate mapping of the alien complex. The information is sent from these floating sensors back to the ship, which displays the results in real time.

The display of this information is rich with a saturated-color, color-coded, edge-opacity style, leaving outer surfaces rendered in a gossamer cyan, and internal features rendered in an edge-lit green wireframe. In the area above the VP surface, other arbitrary rectangles of data can be summoned for particular tasks, including in-air volumetric keyboards. The flat base of the bridge VP is mirrored, which given the complex 3D nature of the information, causes a bit of visual confusion. (Am I seeing two diamonds reflected or four on two levels?)

Later in the film, Janek tells Ravel to modify the display; specifically, to “strip away the dome” and “isolate that area, bring it up.” He is even to enlarge and rotate the alien spaceship when they find it. Ravel does these modifications this through a touch screen panel at his station, though he routes the results to the “table.” We don’t see the controls in use so can’t evaluate them. But being able to modify displays are one of the ways that people look for patterns and make sense of such information.

A major question about this interface is why this information is not routed back to the people who can use it the most, i.e. the landing party. Chance has to speak to Janek over their intercom and figure out his cardinal directions in one scene. I know they’re redshirts, but they’re already wearing high tech spacesuits. And in the image below we see that this diegesis has handheld volumetric projections. They couldn’t integrate one of those to a sleeve to help life-critical wayfinding?

VP language instructor

During David’s two year journey, part of his time is spent “deconstructing dozens of ancient languages to their roots.” We see one scene illustrating a pronunciation part of this study early in the film. As he’s eating, he sees a volumetric display of a cuboid appear high in the air opposite his seat at the table. The cuboid is filled with a cyan glow in which a “talking head” instructor takes up most of the space. In the left is a column of five still images of other artificial intelligent instructors. Each image has two vertical sliders on the left, but the meaning of these sliders is not made clear. In the upper right is an obscure diagram that looks a little like a constellation with some inscrutable text below it.

On the right side of the cuboid projection, we see some other information in a pinks, blues, and cyans. This information appears to be text, bar charts, and line graphs. This information is not immediately usable to the learner, so perhaps it is material about the entire course, for when the lessons are paused: Notes about the progress towards a learning goal, advice for further study, or next steps. Presuming this is a general-purpose interface rather than a custom one made just for David, this information could be the student’s progress notes for an attending human instructor.

We enter the scene with the AI saying, “…Whilst this manner of articulation is attested in Indo-European descendants as a purely paralinguistic form, it is phonemic in the ancestral form dating back five millennia or more. Now let’s attempt Schleicher’s Fable. Repeat after me.”

In the lower part of the image is a waveform of the current phrase being studied. In the lower right is the written text of the phrase being studied, in what looks like a simplified phoenetic alphabet. As the instructor speaks this fable, each word is hilighted in the written form. When he is done, he prompts David to repeat it.

akʷunsəz dadkta,
hwælna nahast
təm ghεrmha
vagam ugεntha, Continue reading

Alien / Blade Runner crossover

I’m interrupting my review of the Prometheus interfaces for a post to share this piece of movie trivia. A few months ago, a number of blogs were all giddy with excitement by the release of the Prometheus Blu-Ray, because it gave a little hint that the Alien world and the Blade Runner world were one and the same. Hey internets, if you’d paid attention to the interfaces, you’d realize that this was already well established by 1982, or 30 years before.

A bit of interface evidence that Alien and Blade Runner happen in the same universe.

Destination threshold

As David is walking through a ship’s hallway, a great clanging sounds from deep in the ship, as the colored lights high in the walls change suddenly from a purple to a flashing red, and a slight but urgent beeping begins. He glances at a billiards table in an adjacent room, sees the balls and cue sliding, and understands that it wasn’t just him: gravity has definitely changed.

Prometheus-020

There are questions about what’s going on with the ship that the gravity changed so fast, but our interest must be in the interfaces.

Why did David not expect this? If they’re heading to a planet and the route is known, David should know well in advance. The ship should have told him, especially if the event is going to be one that could potentially topple him. Presuming the ship has sensors to monitor all of this, it should not have come as a surprise.

The warning itself seems mostly well designed, using multiple modes of signal and clear warning signs:

  • Change in color from a soft to intense color (They even look like eyes squinting and concentrating in the thumbnails.)
  • A shift to red, commonly used for warning or crisis
  • Blinking red is a hugely attention-getting visual signal
  • Beeping is a auditory signal that is also a common warning signal, and hard to ignore

After David sees these signals, he walks to wall panel and presses a few offscreen buttons which beep back at him and silence the beeping, replacing it with overhead pulses of light that race up and down the hallway. Over the sound system a male voice announces “Attention. Destination threshold.”

Prometheus-Destination_Threshold

Why should David have to go find out what the crisis is at the wall interface? If he had been unable to get to the wall interface, how would he know what happened? Or if it required split-second action, why require of him to waste his time getting there and pressing buttons? In a crisis, the system should let you know what the crisis is quickly and intrusively if it’s a dire crisis in need of remedy. The audio announcement should have happened automatically.

Racinglights

The overhead lights are almost a nice replacement for beeping. It still says, “alert” without the grating annoyance that audio can sometimes be. (There’s still a soft “click” with each shifting light, just not as bad.) But if he’s able to silence the audio at this wall panel, why wasn’t he able to silence the race lights as well? And why do they “race” up and down the hallway rather than just blink? The racing provides an inappropriate sense of motion. Given that this signal is for when the crew is in an unusual and potentially dangerous situation, it would be better to avoid the unhelpful motion cue by simply blinking, or to use the sense of direction they provide to signal to David where he ought to be. A simple option would be to have the hallway lights race continuously in the direction of the bridge, leading the crew to where they would be most effective. Even better is if the ship has locational awareness of individual crew members, then you can cut all overhead illumination by 20% and pulse a light a few feet away in the desired direction between 80 and 100 percent, while darkening the hallway in the opposite direction. Then, as David walks towards the blinking light, the ship can lead him, even around corners, to get him where he needs to be. In a real crisis, this would be an easy and intuitive way to lead people where they’re need to be. It would of course need simple overrides in case the crew knew something about the situation that the ship did not.

After walking through the racing-light hallways, he turns just past the door and into the bridge, where we can see the legend “DESTINATION THRESHOLD” across the pilots HUD. He turns on a light, licks a finger, and presses another button to activate all of the interfaces on the bridge. He walks to the pilot’s panel, presses a button to open the forward viewscreen, observing LV223 with wide-eyed wonder.

This entire sequence seems strange from an interface perspective. We’re going to presume that licking his fingers was just a character tic and not required by the system. But in addition to the fact, raised above, that David seems somewhat surprised by it all, that he should have to open doors and manually turn on lights and interfaces during a crisis seems pointless. It’s either not a crisis and these signals should diminish, or it is a crisis and more of this technology should be automated.

Interior Doors

Certain doors within Prometheus require the user open them by providing input to a glowing keypad on the door. Reviewing these door panels in detail shows a great deal of variation in their design and interaction.

Descriptions

The first one we see has the panel to the left within arm’s reach of the door’s central seam. To open this door, David touches a black square on the interface, though its details are difficult to see. We do hear a beeping to confirm the touch before the door whooshes open.

Prometheus-008

We get a clearer view of the panel that lets him into a hallway. This door is just around a meter wide, and the panel is on the left near the frame at chest level. This vertical panel has white safety stripes at the top, with a yellow row of buttons below that. The middle of the panel has two columns on the left and right edges stacked with buttons, and a 4×3 grid of buttons, labeled with characters that look something like Braille, but that don’t translate readily from English Braille, and with some of the dots in the cells larger or brighter than others. Below that grid of buttons is a white duplication of the yellow buttons above. At the bottom is a red duplication of the safety stripes button at the top.

To gain access to the hallway (where the destination threshold event occurs), David presses two keys at once—what would be the 2 and 4 keys on a telephone keypad—and the door slides open.

Later he touches the same chord of keys to open a door for Shaw and Holloway.

Prometheus-084

There is another design for the door panel outside of Meredith’s room. This panel has the white safety stripe button, the Braille-ish panel (but with the left column colored yellow), a new yellow panel of triangles, and the red safety stripe button at the bottom.

The door is slightly open when he approaches it, but unpassable. After Meredith commands, “Robe!” he presses the “5” key on the panel and the door opens fully. This panel is on the right side of the door.

Prometheus-036

The panel to exit Weyland’s sickbay is on the door just to the left. When Shaw wants to leave the room after her traumatizing alien-abortion, she slams both hands against the panels, sliding her fingers along it and pressing what sounds like five separate buttons.

Prometheus-271

The panel that gives Shaw access back into the escape pod’s sickbay is again different, with many of the same elements from other panels, but a row of five yellow ovals outlined below the safety stripes button at the top.

Prometheus-323b

This is the only time we also see the panel on the far side of the same door. We only see a corner of it, but it does not have ovals on the other side, and some circular elements below the Braille panel. It is probably the same design as on Meredith’s door.

Prometheus-323c

Then when the alien breaks into the escape pod and pins her against this door, we see a close up of a panel, but this one appears identical to the one on the inside of the door, rather than the yellow-oval one we saw moments before. It also appears to be identical to the one on the inside of the door (and outside Meredith’s quarters.) A confusing detail in this panel is that while similar “Braille” cells are differentiated in other panels by a variation in the dots, in this one the the “3” and “6” keys seem to be the exact same character, highlights and all. Since we don’t know the meanings of this character, it could be a “shift” or modifier key which bears repeating, we don’t know. To activate this panel, she slams her left hand downward onto it. This opens the door, freeing the massive xenomorph alien within to grapple the architect alien.

Prometheus-326

And finally, when we see her escaping the hallway where the aliens are locked in combat, she approaches a door with an oval interface, which she opens by slamming the heel of her palm against it with a grunt.

Prometheus-327

Analysis

Passing through doorways is probably one of the most common non-work activities that a crew member can do onboard a spaceship. To have crewmember key in a password every time seems like a pointless waste of everyone’s time. There are so many passive ways to check identity to authorize access that it seems silly to even bother to list them. Why not use any of these alternate technologies?

Add to that that each door panel seems to have a different one of half-dozen different designs, placed randomly on the left or right side of the door, and at least in the escape pod, multiple designs per door at several different heights. What value can there be to this chaos? It would be grossly error prone and frustrating. This level of randomness to the interface even defies the notion of it being a watchclock.

Since David and Shaw each had multiple, different-length passwords for different doors, it might seem that it’s a security measure. But when it can be opened with a punch or a hand bump, is it really security? Giving this aspect of the design the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it has some contextual awareness of Shaw’s heightened stress levels, and responds to the affective command where it might not in normal circumstances. This affective computing apology would be the way you wanted doors to work, but the film gives no evidence that this is what is at play.

Given the apparent randomness of the other panel interfaces, even apology ultimately fails us in making sense of these confusing interfaces.