Audio Syringe


David uses this device when Shaw begins to double over from the pain of the alien growing in her womb. It is a palm-sized cylinder with a large needle sticking out one end and a yellow button on the other. To administer it, he jams it into her shoulder, depressing the yellow button with his thumb, and holds it there until the spraying sound coming from it ceases.


This is not a hypospray (as described in Chapter 12, Medicine, of the book), which would not have a needle, so where is the sound coming from? It might be an audio augmentation to let the administrator know. This would be a reasonable sound, as it gives sense of pressure releasing. But there should be some clear signal—like a soft double-beep—when the doseage is complete, less it be removed too soon for misinterpreting the audio signal.

Gene Sequence Comparison

Genetic tester


Shaw sits at this device speaking instructions aloud as she peers through a microscope. We do not see if the instructions are being manually handled by Ford, or whether the system is responding to her voice input. Ford issues the command “compare it to the gene sample,” the nearby screen displays DNA gel electrophoresis results for the exploding alien sample and a human sample. When Ford says, “overlay,” the results slide on top of each other. A few beats after some screen text and a computerized voice informs them that the system is PROCESSING, (repeated twice) it confirms a DNA MATCH with other screen text read by the same computerized voice.


Playback box

When Halloway visits Shaw in her quarters, she uses a small, translucent glass cuboid to show him the comparison. To activate it, she drags a finger quickly across the long, wide surface. That surface illuminates with the data from the genetic tester, including the animation. The emerald green colors of the original have been replaced by cyan, the red has been replaced by magenta, and some of the contextualizing GUI has been omitted, but it is otherwise the same graphic. Other than this activation gesture, no other interactivity is seen with this device.


There’s a bit of a mismatch between the gesture she uses for input and the output on the screen. She swipes, but the information fades up. It would be a tighter mapping for Shaw if a swipe on its surface resulted in the information’s sliding in at the same speed, or at least faded up as if she was operating a brightness control. If the fade up was the best transition narratively, another gesture such as a tap might be a better fit for input. Still, the iOS standard for unlocking is to swipe right, so this decision might have been made on the basis of the audience’s familiarity with that interaction.

Alien head stem line

Using a tool that looks suspiciously identical to the Injection Carbon Reader, the stem line provides electrical current to nerve endings. It is inserted directly into the alien head and then controlled wirelessly via unseen controls on a nearby touch-sensitive slate pad.


The output on the stem line device animates with changes, but it seems the numbers appear near the middle and then slide to fixed positions on the top and bottom. If the point of the display was output, and it is meant to be seen from a distance, wouldn’t a simpler large-number display make more sense? If motion is meant to convey the meaning, like a digital gauge on a multimeter, then the text should be fixed on the graduated background and slide with it.


By stimulating the locus coeruleus of the alien, the Prometheus scientists seek to “trick it into thinking it’s still alive,” even though they have not confirmed the physiology of this 2000 year old alien specimen, or even that (in a quick Googling, the author learned that) this is the panic area of the nervous system. Were the results really that surprising?

Table Scanner


After sterilizing the alien head, it is slid out to a table scanner big enough for a crew member to lie upon. Ford brushes the head with some powered material, and says, “Scan.” In response, David presses a button on a nearby illuminated keypad before him, and an arch with sensors slides back and forth over the table on which the head rests. Ford looks at the scan on screen and says, “Dr. Shaw, look at this.”



The readout screen has a 3D floating pixel display like in the navigation and Neuro-Visor. In this case the scan reveals that the exterior of the object is not an exoskeleton but a suit. On the right side of the screen is a set of curiously organic graphic interface elements seen only on the sterilizer and otherwise unlike anything else in the film.


There isn’t a clear reason for this change in visual style, but it stands out, so bears a bit of notice. From a readout of 92% “EF-09/8 CONV.” there are lines that flow, like plant leaves, to other labels reading “PROCESSING DATA” and “SCAN HEADS STABLE.” The organic lines drop from the top of the screen to a circular element. These lines look like delicate filaments, and even overlap one another, before connecting to the circle. To the right of this circle more filaments drift from an arc to the upper third of a pie chart. And to the left of the large circle, more filaments run in organic arcs to a smaller circle reading “RKJ-RSSN RATIO”, with a bar chart augmented with numerical data, before drifting out to another circle reading 8.7, and finally arcing off to the lower right hand side of the screen. Comparing this interconnected set of GUI elements to anything else in the movie is a stark contrast. Other interfaces have horizontal and vertical lines, connected with regular filleted corners. The swoopy shapes are lovely, though a minor criticism might be that it feels a bit decorative for a scientific application.

The main criticism for this display is not its GUI but its placement. It requires the scientist to crane her neck to see the results, turning her field of vision far away from the object she’s examining. If there were sudden changes in its appearance, she’d likely miss them. Better would be to have the screen above the table or attached to its edge so a shift from object to scan can happen with a quick glance, and that would let the object remain in her peripheral vision so she would be more likely to notice any change.

Later this same scanning table is used on Dr. Shaw. No attempt is made to fit her into the de-sterilizer, though the point of the quarantine is to determine possible contagion. After a scan, he sees a VP readout that confirms she is pregnant with Halloway’s posthumous, alien baby.

Alien head sterilizer


In the lab, Shaw and Ford investigate the alien head from the complex. They first seek to sterilize it. Though we don’t see how the process is initiated, after it is, a “dumb waiter” raises the head from some storage space to a glass-walled chamber where it is sprayed with some white mist. A screen displays an animation of waves passing along the surface of the head.

When the mist clears, a screen reads “SAMPLE STERILE. NO CONTAGION PRESENT,” which Ford dutifully repeats even though Shaw has a screen that says the exact same thing. Obscure metrics and graphs fill the edges of the screen.


It might have been tempting for the designers to simply supply the analysis, i.e., “no contagion,” but by providing the data from which the analysis derives, the scientists can check and verify the data for themselves, so the combination is well considered.

There are several problems with this sterilization system.

The text of the analysis reads well and unambiguously, but the graphics would be more informative if they indicated their values within clear ranges. As they are, they push the burden of understanding the context of the values onto the scientists’ memories. If this was a very commonplace activity, this might not be much of an issue.

More importantly are the problems with the industrial design. First, this device seems surprisingly head-sized. Wouldn’t a crewmember be the most likely thing they’d have to sterilize? Shouldn’t it be bigger? But moreover, this device is in the wrong place on the ship. If it was infected with an alien pathogen, sterilizing it here is already too late. The pathogen has already spread everywhere between the airlock, the storage space, and on the hands of whoever had to move it between. It would be better if possibly unsterile material could be loaded into a decontamination system outside the ship, and then only once sterilized then pass through to the interior.

Injection radiocarbon dater


Shaw uses a handheld device to perform a real-time carbon dating on an alien cadaver. This device is a cylinder with thick-gauged needle. White rings around the base and a big button on its side indicate power. When pressed into the alien tissue, the date appears on a small screen along its side along with four beeps. Shaw then turns it off with the press of the button.

Though the device has a very little screen time, it seems simple to use, suited to purpose, and with nothing extraneous. A simple device that as far as we see is well done.

Topography “Pups”

The “pups,” as low-grade sociopath and geologist Fifield calls them, are a set of spheres that float around and spatially map the surface contours of a given space in real-time.


To activate them, Fifield twists their hemispheres 90 degrees along their equator, and they begin to glow red along two red rings.

When held up for a few seconds, they rise to the vertical center of the space they are in, and begin to fly in different directions, shining laser in a coronal ring as they go.


In this way they scan the space and report what they detect of the internal topography back to the ship, where it is reconstructed in 3D in real time. The resulting volumetric map features not just the topography, but icons (yellow rotating diamonds with last initials above them) to represent the locations of individual scientists and of course the pups themselves.


The pups continue forward along the axis of a space until they find a door, at which they will wait until they are let inside. How they recognize doors in alien architecture is a mystery. But they must, or the first simple dead-end or burrow would render it inert.

The pups are simple, and for that they’re pretty cool. Activation by twist-and-lift is easy through the constraints of the environment suits, easy to remember, and quick to execute, but deliberate enough not to be performed accidentally. Unfortunately we never see how they are retreived, but it raises some interesting interaction design challenges.


Early in the film, when Shaw sees the MedPod for the first time, she comments to Vickers that, “They only made a dozen of these.” As she caresses its interface in awe, a panel extends as the pod instructs her to “Please verbally state the nature of your injury.”


The MedPod is a device for automated, generalized surgical procedures, operable by the patient him- (or her-, kinda, see below) self.

When in the film Shaw realizes that she’s carrying an alien organism in her womb, she breaks free from crewmembers who want to contain her, and makes a staggering beeline for the MedPod.

Once there, she reaches for the extended touchscreen and presses the red EMERGENCY button. Audio output from the pod confirms her selection, “Emergency procedure initiated. Please verbally state the nature of your injury.” Shaw shouts, “I need cesarean!” The machine informs her verbally that, “Error. This MedPod is calibrated for male patients only. It does not offer the procedure you have requested. Please seek medical assistance else–”


I’ll pause the action here to address this. What sensors and actuators are this gender-specific? Why can’t it offer gender-neutral alternatives? Sure, some procedures might need anatomical knowledge of particularly gendered organs (say…emergency circumcision?), but given…

  • the massive amounts of biological similarity between the sexes
  • the needs for any medical device to deal with a high degree of biological variability in its subjects anyway
  • most procedures are gender neutral

…this is a ridiculous interface plot device. If Dr. Shaw can issue a few simple system commands that work around this limitation (as she does in this very scene), then the machine could have just done without the stupid error message. (Yes, we get that it’s a mystery why Vickers would have her MedPod calibrated to a man, but really, that’s a throwaway clue.) Gender-specific procedures can’t take up so much room in memory that it was simpler to cut the potential lives it could save in half. You know, rather than outfit it with another hard drive.

Aside from the pointless “tension-building” wrong-gender plot point, there are still interface issues with this step. Why does she need to press the emergency button in the first place? The pod has a voice interface. Why can’t she just shout “Emergency!” or even better, “Help me!” Isn’t that more suited to an emergency situation? Why is a menu of procedures the default main screen? Shouldn’t it be a prompt to speak, and have the menu there for mute people or if silence is called for? And shouldn’t it provide a type-ahead control rather than a multi-facet selection list? OK, back to the action.

Desperate, Shaw presses a button that grants her manual control. She states “Surgery abdominal, penetrating injuries. Foreign body. Initiate.” The screen confirms these selections amongst options on screen. (They read “DIAGNOS, THERAP, SURGICAL, MED REC, SYS/MECH, and EMERGENCY”)

The pod then swings open saying, “Surgical procedure begins,” and tilting itself for easy access. Shaw injects herself with anesthetic and steps into the pod, which seals around her and returns to a horizontal position.

Why does Shaw need to speak in this stilted speech? In a panicked or medical emergency situation, proper computer syntax should be the last thing on a user’s mind. Let the patient shout the information however they need to, like “I’ve got an alien in my abdomen! I need it to be surgically removed now!” We know from the Sonic chapter that the use of natural language triggers an anthropomorphic sense in the user, which imposes some other design constraints to convey the system’s limitations, but in this case, the emergency trumps the needs of affordance subtleties.

Once inside the pod, a transparent display on the inside states that, “EMERGENCY PROC INITIATED.” Shaw makes some touch selections, which runs a diagnostic scan along the length of her body. The terrifying results display for her to see, with the alien body differentiated in magenta to contrast her own tissue, displayed in cyan.



Shaw shouts, “Get it out!!” It says, “Initiating anesthetics” before spraying her abdomen with a bile-yellow local anesthetic. It then says, “Commence surgical procedure.” (A note for the grammar nerds here: Wouldn’t you expect a machine to maintain a single part of speech for consistency? The first, “Initiating…” is a gerund, while the second, “Commence,” is an imperative.) Then, using lasers, the MedPod cuts through tissue until it reaches the foreign body. Given that the lasers can cut organic matter, and that the xenomorph has acid for blood, you have to hand it to the precision of this device. One slip could have burned a hole right through her spine. Fortunately it has a feather-light touch. Reaching in with a speculum-like device, it removes the squid-like alien in its amniotic sac.

OK. Here I have to return to the whole “ManPod” thing. Wouldn’t a scan have shown that this was, in fact, a woman? Why wouldn’t it stop the procedure if it really couldn’t handle working on the fairer sex? Should it have paused to have her sign away insurance rights? Could it really mistake her womb for a stomach? Wouldn’t it, believing her to be a man, presume the whole womb to be a foreign body and try to perform a hysterectomy rather than a delicate caesarian? ManPod, indeed.


After removing the alien, it waits around 10 seconds, showing it to her and letting her yank its umbilical cord, before she presses a few controls. The MedPod seals her up again with staples and opens the cover to let her sit up.

She gets off the table, rushes to the side of the MedPod, and places all five fingertips of her right hand on it, quickly twisting her hand clockwise. The interface changes to a red warning screen labeled “DECONTAMINATE.” She taps this to confirm and shouts, “Come on!” (Her vocal instruction does not feel like a formal part of the procedure and the machine does not respond differently.) To decontaminate, the pod seals up and a white mist fills the space.

OK. Since this is a MedPod, and it has something called a decontamination procedure, shouldn’t it actually test to see whether the decontamination worked? The user here has enacted emergency decontamination procedures, so it’s safe to say that this is a plague-level contagion. That’s doesn’t say to me: Spray it with a can of Raid and hope for the best. It says, “Kill it with fire.” We just saw, 10 seconds ago, that the MedPod can do a detailed, alien-detecting scan of its contents, so why on LV-223 would it not check to see if the kill-it-now-for-God’s-sake procedure had actually worked, and warn everyone within earshot that it hadn’t? Because someone needs to take additional measures to protect the ship, and take them, stat. But no, MedPod tucks the contamination under a white misty blanket, smiles, waves, and says, “OK, that’s taken care of! Thank you! Good day! Move along!”

For all of the goofiness that is this device, I’ll commend it for two things. The first is for pushing the notion forward of automated medicine. Yes, in this day and age, it’s kind of terrifying to imagine devices handling something as vital as life-saving surgery, but people in the future will likely find it terrifying that today we’d rather trust an error prone, bull-in-a-china-shop human to the task. And, after all, the characters have entrusted their lives to an android while they were in hypersleep for two years, so clearly that’s a thing they do.

Second, the gestural control to access the decontamination is well considered. It is a large gesture, requiring no great finesse on the part of the operator to find and press a sequence of keys, and one that is easy to execute quickly and in a panic. I’m absolutely not sure what percentage of procedures need the back-up safety of a kill-everything-inside mode, but presuming one is ever needed, this is a fine gesture to initiate that procedure. In fact, it could have been used in other interfaces around the ship, as we’ll see later with the escape pod interface.

I have the sense that in the original script, Shaw had to do what only a few very bad-ass people have been willing to do: perform life-saving surgery on themselves in the direst circumstances. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch since she’s primarily an anthropologist and astronomer in the story, but give a girl a scalpel, hardcore anesthetics, and an alien embryo, and I’m sure she’ll figure out what to do. But pushing this bad-assery off to an automated device, loaded with constraints, ruins the moment and changes the scene from potentially awesome to just awful.

Given the inexplicable man-only settings, requiring a desperate patient to recall FORTRAN-esque syntax for spoken instructions, and the failure to provide any feedback about the destruction of an extinction-level pathogen, we must admit that the MedPod belongs squarely in the realm of goofy narrative technology and nowhere near the real world as a model of good interaction design.

Remote Monitoring

The Prometheus spacesuits feature an outward-facing camera on the chest, which broadcasts its feed back to the ship, where the video it overlaid with the current wearer’s name, and inscrutable iconographic and numerical data along the periphery. The suit also has biometric sensors, continuously sending it’s wearer’s vital signs back to the ship. On the monitoring screen, a waveform in the lower left appears is similar to a EKG, but is far too smooth and regular to be an actual one. It is more like an EKG icon. We only see it change shape or position along its bounding box once, to register that Weyland has died, when it turns to a flat line. This supports its being iconic rather than literal.


In addition to the iconic EKG, a red selection rectangle regularly changes across a list in the upper left hand corner of the monitor screens. One of three cyan numbers near the top occasionally changes. Otherwise the peripheral data on these monitoring screens does not change throughout the movie, making it difficult to evaluate its suitability.

The monitoring panel on Prometheus features five of the monitoring feeds gathered on a single translucent screen. One of these feeds has the main focus, being placed in the center and scaled to double the size of the other monitors. How the monitoring crewperson selects which feed to act as the main focus is not apparent.


Vickers has a large, curved, wall-sized display on which she’s able to view David’s feed at one point, so these video feeds can be piped to anyone with authority.


David is able to turn off the suit camera at one point, which Vickers back on the Prometheus is unable to override. This does not make sense for a standard-issue suit supplied by Weyland, but it is conceivable that David has a special suit or has modified the one provided to him during transit to LV-223.


The surface of LV-223, as one imagines with the overwhelming majority of alien planets, is inhospitable to human life. For life support and protection, the crew wears suits complete with large clear “fishbowl” helmets that give a full-range of view. A sensor strip arcs across the forehead of the bowl, with all manner of sensors broadcasting information back to the ship. Crew also wear a soft fabric cap beneath the bowl with their name clearly stitched into a patch that sits above the forehead. (Type nerds: The face is modular, something similar to Eurostile. The name is in all caps. This is par for sci-fi typography, but poor for legibility at distance.)




Sadly for the crewmembers (and the actors as well) the air inside these bowls are not well filtered and circulated. The inside surface fogs up quite easily from the wearer’s breath.


Audio is handled intuitively, with all microphones between spacesuits being active all the time, with an individual’s volume relative to his or her proximity to the listener. Janek is at one point able to stand in front of the ship and address everyone inside it, knowing that the helmet microphones are monitored at all times.

Lights, Cameras

There are lights inside the helmet, placed over the forehead and pointing down to make the wearer’s face visible to others nearby, as well as anyone remote-monitoring the wearer with a backward-facing camera. A curious feature of the suits that they also include yellow lights that highlight the wearer’s neck. What is the purpose of these lights? Certainly it shows off Michael Fassbender’s immaculate jawline, but diegetically, it’s unclear what the purpose of these things are. It is after the scientists remove their helmets in the alien environment—against the direct orders of the Captain—it becomes clear that the spacesuits were designed with this in mind. This way the spacesuits can be operated helmetlessly while maintaining identification lights for other crew. The odds of this being a feature that would ever be used on an alien planet are astronomically low, but the designers accommodated the ability to be operated without helmets.


Sleeve computers

Holloway’s left sleeve has two small screens. The left one of these displays inscrutably small lines of cyan text. The right one has a label of PT011, with a 3×3 array of two-digit hexadecimal numbers beneath it.


A few of the hexadecimal pairs have highlight boxes around them. Looking at this grid, Holloway is able to report to the others that, “Look at the CO2 levels. Outside it’s completely toxic, and in here there’s nothing. It’s breathable.” It’s inscrutable, but believably shorthand for vital bits of information, understsandable to well-trained wearers. For inputs to the sleeve computer, he has four momentary buttons along the bottom and a rotary side-mounted dial. Using these controls, Holloway is able to disable his safety controls and remove the helmet.