Sci-fi Spacesuits: Biological needs

Spacesuits must support the biological functioning of the astronaut. There are probably damned fine psychological reasons to not show astronauts their own biometric data while on stressful extravehicular missions, but there is the issue of comfort. Even if temperature, pressure, humidity, and oxygen levels are kept within safe ranges by automatic features of the suit, there is still a need for comfort and control inside of that range. If the suit is to be warn a long time, there must be some accommodation for food, water, urination, and defecation. Additionally, the medical and psychological status of the wearer should be monitored to warn of stress states and emergencies.

Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t reveal any interfaces being used to control temperature, pressure, or oxygen levels. There are some for low oxygen level warnings and testing conditions outside the suit, but these are more outputs than interfaces where interactions take place.

There are also no nods to toilet necessities, though in fairness Hollywood eschews this topic a lot.

The one example of sustenance seen in the survey appears in Sunshine, we see Captain Kaneda take a sip from his drinking tube while performing a dangerous repair of the solar shields. This is the only food or drink seen in the survey, and it is a simple mechanical interface, held in place by material strength in such a way that he needs only to tilt his head to take a drink.

Similarly, in Sunshine, when Capa and Kaneda perform EVA to repair broken solar shields, Cassie tells Capa to relax because he is using up too much oxygen. We see a brief view of her bank of screens that include his biometrics.

Remote monitoring of people in spacesuits is common enough to be a trope, but has been discussed already in the Medical chapter in Make It So, for more on biometrics in sci-fi.

Crowe’s medical monitor in Aliens (1986).

There are some non-interface biological signals for observers. In the movie Alien, as the landing party investigates the xenomorph eggs, we can see that the suit outgases something like steam—slower than exhalations, but regular. Though not presented as such, the suit certainly confirms for any onlooker that the wearer is breathing and the suit functioning.

Given that sci-fi technology glows, it is no surprise to see that lots and lots of spacesuits have glowing bits on the exterior. Though nothing yet in the survey tells us what these lights might be for, it stands to reason that one purpose might be as a simple and immediate line-of-sight status indicator. When things are glowing steadily, it means the life support functions are working smoothly. A blinking red alert on the surface of a spacesuit could draw attention to the individual with the problem, and make finding them easier.

Emergency deployment

One nifty thing that sci-fi can do (but we can’t yet in the real world) is deploy biology-protecting tech at the touch of a button. We see this in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Starlord’s helmet.

If such tech was available, you’d imagine that it would have some smart sensors to know when it must automatically deploy (sudden loss of oxygen or dangerous impurities in the air), but we don’t see it. But given this speculative tech, one can imagine it working for a whole spacesuit and not just a helmet. It might speed up scenes like this.

What do we see in the real world?

Are there real-world controls that sci-fi is missing? Let’s turn to NASA’s space suits to compare.

The Primary Life-Support System (PLSS) is the complex spacesuit subsystem that provides the life support to the astronaut, and biomedical telemetry back to control. Its main components are the closed-loop oxygen-ventilation system for cycling and recycling oxygen, the moisture (sweat and breath) removal system, and the feedwater system for cooling.

The only “biology” controls that the spacewalker has for these systems are a few on the Display and Control Module (DCM) on the front of the suit. They are the cooling control valve, the oxygen actuator slider, and the fan switch. Only the first is explicitly to control comfort. Other systems, such as pressure, are designed to maintain ideal conditions automatically. Other controls are used for contingency systems for when the automatic systems fail.

Hey, isn’t the text on this thing backwards? Yes, because astronauts can’t look down from inside their helmets, and must view these controls via a wrist mirror. More on this later.

The suit is insulated thoroughly enough that the astronaut’s own body heats the interior, even in complete shade. Because the astronaut’s body constantly adds heat, the suit must be cooled. To do this, the suit cycles water through a Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment, which has a fine network of tubes held closely to the astronaut’s skin. Water flows through these tubes and past a sublimator that cools the water with exposure to space. The astronaut can increase or decrease the speed of this flow and thereby the amount to which his body is cooled, by the cooling control valve, a recessed radial valve with fixed positions between 0 (the hottest) and 10 (the coolest), located on the front of the Display Control Module.

The spacewalker does not have EVA access to her biometric data. Sensors measure oxygen consumption and electrocardiograph data and broadcast it to the Mission Control surgeon, who monitors it on her behalf. So whatever the reason is, if it’s good enough for NASA, it’s good enough for the movies.

Back to sci-fi

So, we do see temperature and pressure controls on suits in the real world, which underscores their absence in sci-fi. But, if there hasn’t been any narrative or plot reason for such things to appear in a story, we should not expect them.

The Fermi Paradox and Sci-fi

In the prior post we introduced the Fermi paradox—or Fermi question—before an overview of the many hypotheses that try to answer the question, and ended noting that we must consider what we are to do, given the possibilities. In this post I’m going to share which of those hypotheses that screen-based sci-fi has chosen to tell stories about.

First we should note that screen sci-fi (this is, recall, a blog that concerns itself with sci-fi in movies and television), since the very, very beginning, has embraced questionably imperialist thrills. In Le Voyage dans la Lune, George Melies’ professor-astronomers encounter a “primitive” alien culture on Earth’s moon when they land there, replete with costumes, dances, and violent responses to accidental manslaughter. Hey, we get it, aliens are part of why audiences and writers are in it: As a thin metaphor for speculative human cultures that bring our own into relief. So, many properties are unconcerned with the *yawn* boring question of the Fermi paradox, instead imagining a diegesis with a whole smörgåsbord of alien civilizations that are explicitly engaged with humans, at times killing, trading, or kissing us, depending on which story you ask.


But some screen sci-fi does occasionally concern itself with the Fermi question.

Which are we telling stories about?

Screen sci-fi is a vast library, and more is being produced all the time, so it’s hard to give an exact breakdown, but if Drake can do it for Fermi’s question, we can at least ballpark it, too. To do this, I took a look at every sci-fi in the survey that produced Make It So and has been extended here on, and I tallied the breakdown between aliens, no aliens, and silent aliens. Here’s the Google Sheet with the data. And here’s what we see.


No aliens is the clear majority of stories! This is kind of surprising for me, since when I think of sci-fi my brain pops bug eyes and tentacles alongside blasters and spaceships. But it also makes sense because a lot of sci-fi is near future or focused on the human condition.

Some notes about these numbers.

I counted all the episodes or movies that exist in a single diegesis as one. So the two single largest properties in the sci-fi universe, Star Trek and Star Wars, only count once each. That seems unfair, since we’ve spent lots more total minutes of our lives with C3PO and the Enterprise crews than we have with Barbarella. This results in low-seeming numbers. There’s only 53 diegeses at the time of this writing even though it spans thousands of hours of shows. But all that said, this is ballpark problem, meant to tally rationales across diegeses, so we’ll deal with numbers that skew differently than our instincts would suggest. Someone else with a bigger budget of time or money can try and get exhaustive with the number, attempt to normalize for total minutes of media produced, and again for number of alien species referenced at their leisure, and then again for how popular the particular show was. Those numbers may be different.


Additionally the categorizations can be ambiguous. Should Star Trek go in “Silent Aliens” because of the Prime Directive, or under “Aliens” since the show has lots and lots and lots of aliens? Since the Fermi question seeks to answer why Silent Aliens are silent in our real world now, I opted for Silent Aliens, but that’s an arguable choice. Should The Martian count as “Life is Rare” since it’s competence porn that underscores how fragile life is? Should Deep Impact show that life is rare even though they never talk about aliens? It’s questionable to categorize something on a strong implication, but I did it where I felt the connection was strong. Additionally I may have ranked something as “no reason” because I missed an explanatory line of dialog somewhere. Please let me know if I missed something major or got something wrong in the comments.

All that said, let’s look back and see how those broad numbers break down when we look at individual Fermi hypotheses. First, we should omit shows with aliens. They categorically exclude themselves. Aliens is an obvious example. Also, let’s exclude shows that are utterly unconcerened with the question of aliens, e.g. Logan’s Run, (or those that never bother to provide an explanation as to why aliens may have been silent for so long, e.g. The Fifth Element.) We also have to dismiss the other show in the survey that shows a long-dead species but does not investigate why, Total Recall (1990). Aaaaand holy cow, that takes us down to only 8 shows that give some explanation for the historical absence or silence of aliens. Since that number is so low, I’ll list the shows explicitly to the right of their numbers. I’ll leave the numbers as percentages for consistency when I get to increase the data set.

No Aliens

8% Life is rare: Battlestar Galactica (2004)
25% Life doesn’t last (Natural disasters): Deep Impact, The CoreArmaggedon
8% Life doesn’t last (Technology will destroy us): Forbidden Planet

Silent Aliens

8% Superpredators: Oblivion
0% Information is dangerous
33% Prime directive: The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mission to Mars, Star Trek
0% Isolationism
0% Zoo
0% Planetarium
0% Lighthouse hello
0% Still ringing
8% Hicksville: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
0% Too distributed
0% Tech mismatch
0% Inconceivability
0% Too expensive
8% Cloaked: Men in Black

(*2% lost to rounding)

It’s at this point that some readers are sharpening their keyboards to inform me of the shows I’ve missed, and that’s great. I would rather have had the data before, but I’m just a guy and nothing motivates geeks like an incorrect pop culture data set. We can run these numbers again when more come in and see what changes.


In the meantime, the first thing we note is that of those that concern themselves with the question of Silent Aliens, most use some version of the prime directive.

Respectively, they say we have to do A Thing before they’ll contact us.

  • Mature ethically
  • Mature technologically by finding the big obelisk on the moon (and then the matching one around Jupiter)
  • Mature technologically by mastering faster-than-light travel
  • Find the explanatory kiosk/transportation station on Mars

It’s easy to understand why Prime Directives would be attractive as narrative rationales. It explains why things are so silent now, and puts the onus on us as a species to achieve The Thing, to do good, to improve. They are inspirational and encourage us to commit to space travel.

The second thing to note, is that those that concern themselves with the notion that Life Doesn’t Last err toward disaster porn, which is attractive because such films are tried and true formulas. The dog gets saved along with the planet, that one person died, there’s a ticker tape parade after they land, and the love interests reconcile. Some are ridiculous. Some are competent. None stand out to me as particularly memorable or life changing. I can’t think of one that illustrates how it is inevitable.

So prime directives and disaster porn are the main answers we see in sci-fi. Are those the right ones? I’ll discuss that in the next post. Stay Tuned.

The Fifth Element Movie Night Pre-Show


For those who missed the first sci-fi interfaces Movie Night, my friend Reed stepped up and brought a multi-camera setup to the event and edited in post so you could vicariously see what it was like. Watch above, but if you’re more interested in reading, the transcript (edited because the messiness of the spoken word) appears below.

[0:00] INTRO

Hey, good evening. Thanks for showing up. This is actually a wild hair idea that occurred to me in the shower about three and a half weeks ago. My name is Chris Noessel. Every year for the past five years I’ve hosted a private showing in my home, and I thought, "How on Earth and I going to cram all the people I want to invite into my small living room this year?" I tried to work out the logistics and just failed. But fortunately I was able to contact The New Parkway and they said, "We love this sort of thing. And we have a slot open. And we have the film pre-licensed." So for all those reasons a big round of applause to The New Parkway.


So I’m going to do one plug really quickly, if you’re not familiar. You’re here because you love the movie. I’m going to tell you a little about the project that this evening came about from. About six years ago my coauthor Nathan Shedroff approached me with this cool idea about a book. He noticed that the Motorola Star-Tac phone was surprisingly like the Star Trek communicator, and thought, "Hey, there’s probably a connection here." So over the course of about six years we collected every sci-fi interface that we could in an online database. We tagged that cloud with a database and wrote a book about the results. That book was published in 2012. We just went through our second printing where all of the errata (that many people here may have pointed out) is now corrected. In fact, one of the awards for the trivia contest is a copy of that second [printing].


So, that’s what that project is about. Since just before the release of the book I’ve been hosting a website called where I’m slowly releasing that database that we built up and adding a few other things, so it’s actually quite a lot of nerdery all in one place.


So I want to start up the evening. What we’re going to do is some Fifth Element interface trivia. What I need is 10 volunteers…

[No spoilers from the transcript! Answers to the trivia are in the video. If you want to try the questions yourself, put your answers in the comments before watching it, though all the awards have been given out.]

  1. Why is March 18 Fifth Element Day?
  2. How many cigarettes is Korben allowed each day?
  3. How many points does Korben Dallas have on his license when he gets in the taxi, and for extra credit, how does he know?
  4. What Big Label appears on this interface in the film?
  5. What Big Label appears on this interface in the film?
  6. What Big Label appears on this interface in the film?
  7. What is Leeloo looking at when we see this close up of her eye?
  8. What word is repeated three times in the encyclopedia?
  9. This image is associated with which entry in the encyclopedia?
  10. This image is associated with which entry in the encyclopedia?
  11. Fill in the blank "This is a police patrol. This is not an exercise. Can you please spread your legs and _______________."
  12. In the pilot of sci-fi university, the weapon against ultimate evil is an example of what two interface principles?
  13. Can you name any of the four things that the design of the ultimate weapon tests for?
  14. What does it mean that the ultimate evil approaches Earth in exactly the right bearing and at exactly the right time to be stopped by a spinning weapon that cannot be aimed?


As you may have surmised, the blog covers individual interfaces in movies. I’m going to talk very briefly about one that appears in this film.

One of the reasons why I picked The Fifth Element to watch annually is that it has a number of great interfaces. On the blog there are 53, some of which contain multiple interfaces. It’s chock-full of interface goodness. We’re going to talk about this particular one. Note that this isn’t one of the great ones, this is one of the ones that could use improvement.

[22:14] 4 A DAY

So let’s take a little tour. When Dallas wakes up we see that his apartment sort of "comes on" after his alarm, and one of the things he does is he walks to this machine to get his cigarettes. At the very bottom it shows what his goal is. "TO QUIT IS MY GOAL." (That’s what the shirt says.) At the top is kind of a reminder. It says, "Quit smoking!" With "4 Refill" and "4™ a day." On the right side is this utterly inexplicable LCD display. I think those "1s" are meant to represent the cigarettes, but I’m not certain. And I think in the center is a huge, overblown "there are four left." Why on earth would you need that, when you can glance to the left and look? And the last thing. Is that the temprature of the cigarettes? Is it important that they stay at 27.5 degrees? Really, that makes no sense at all.

And then this is the interface panel that’s he’s got, the buttons that he has to push, and they make more sense. You’ll see Korben only presses the bottom one and it’s kind of useless.

Audience member: It’s a tiny humidor! [This is brilliant, whoever suggested it. But I looked, and it’s too warm!]

To explain why this is good, we have to dip down very briefly into persuasive design. Has anybody here every studied persuasive design?

[23:19] HOT SIGNALS IN THE PATH (poorly explained)

Awesome. Did you study under B.J. Fogg? B.J. talks about a principle called "putting the hot signal on the path." What that means is, when you are trying to provide a trigger for a user to get them to recognize an opportunity to change their own behavior, it needs to be a hot signal. Hot in this sense is one that gets the user’s attention readily. And that’s one of the problems with this interface. There are signals all over it to tell Korben, "Hey, you don’t want to keep smoking." There’s a surgeon general’s warning in the back. There’s that reminder of the goal.

But we also know that humans have a psychological capacity to habituate. You see something a number of times and you’ll stop seeing it anymore. (The other thing is that if the surgeon general’s warning is meant to persuade anyone, it’s behind four glass vials where it absolutely cannot be read. It’s a piece of misery.

I have one story to tell to illustrate the hot signal in the path. Back when I had a small apartment in Houston, we had an air conditioner that was located in the attic. It had a drain pan that actually dripped through a hole in the ceiling directly onto the head of the shower-er. That was freezing. I hated this thing. I thought, "Screw that." I took the hole and moved it to the side. (Oh wow you can’t see me there. I disappeared when that happened.)

This seemed to solve my problem. I had no cold water, I could enjoy my showers. But what ultimately occurred was that the water flooded the drain pan above me. My short term goal of not being frozen to death was actually a bad thing to design for. I should have left it above me because it was a hot signal in the path. (The irony there I hope you’ll appreciate.) The signal was in a place where I would encounter it, in a place the designers know I would be. And that’s what hot signals on the path are.


When we take that same principle and apply it to the interface, we want to stop the habituation by having this [the goal statement] be an e-ink display that changes every day. And [the surgeon general’s warning] be an LED screen that changes and doesn’t show text. You can’t read text there, through a glass vial. What you want to see back there is an image. And I borrowed one of the images from the Australian cigarette packages that are really gory and really gross and make you think twice. "What the heck am I about to smoke?"

[26:01] WRAP UP [Leaving off the transcript]

Okey doke. That’s all I’m going to leave you with. Because a) there’s beer and b) there’s a cool movie to watch. But if you dig this kind of thinking, there are four places you can get it.

[26:19] MOAR

[26:41] 3 quick announcements:

  • I have Movie Night shirts up at (What’s that red cross-bar for? The site was down at the time.)
  • If you’re interested in trying some future thinking, come to Cooper’s Design the Future class, which I’ll be teaching.
  • Stick around for a post-show preview of the next sci-fi university
  • OK, we’ll see that start in about a minute. You guys enjoy the show.

Fifth Element tees


Major thanks to everyone who came out and joined me for the first ever movie night at The New Parkway in Oakland! It was a sold-out show, and while there were a few glitches, folks are telling me they had a great time and are looking forward to the next one. There will be a more detailed report once the pre-show video comes out. But in the meantime, this: If you didn’t win the trivia contest or weren’t able to attend, you can still get your hands on the “movie night” t-shirts I debuted there.


Head on over to the spreadshirt shop. It’s ugly (with the default CSS). It doesn’t have a custom URL or anything. It only has 5 products at the moment. But hey, that’s all part of the charm if you’d like to wear your sci-fi interface nerdiness with pride.

P.S. I have no idea why the women’s KEEP CLEAR tee is not appearing in orange since I designed it like the Men’s tee, but I have a request with Spreadshirt now. Hopefully it’ll be fixed soon.


I’m thinking the Bay Area has an appetite for maybe two movie nights a year (let me know if I’m wrong) but I’d also love to try this in Berlin. Do you (or someone you know) know of a cinema in Berlin like the New Parkway that might be interested in my replicating this there?

Fifth Element Day at the New Parkway is on!

9 P.M. Tuesday, 18 MAR 2014, $10, New Parkway Theater


Thanks to the fast action of connections on social media, we have the requisite numbers to cover the licensing costs to show The Fifth Element on 18 March at the New Parkway!


You’ll notice on the original page as well as this one that sales are being routed to Brown Paper Tickets. That’s the ticket sales service that New Parkway likes to work with. If you were one of the VIPs who ordered through, look for an email in your inbox over the next few days that confirms your name will be on a VIP Will-Call List at the door, cross-referenced with the email account you provided.


I’m certainly going to introduce myself and the movie to begin. Then I’ll offer up a little trivia game about the interfaces in the film. (Hint: This very blog might be the best place to shop for clues.) The reward for most correct answers will be a copy of Make It So 2nd edition print (with all those pesky errata from the 1st edition fixed.)


Stretch Goal

If we make it to 100 people, I’ll try to get my hands on one of the replica prop kits for a multipass, and offer that as another prize. Tell your friends and family and get us to 100 people!

If we make it past 100, and get to the max capacity of 140, I’ll come up with some other, even crazier stretch goal.

Scifiinterfaces content

After the trivia, there are a couple of things I could do. But I’ll put it to you, blog readers: What sounds best?

If there’s some other idea you’ve got to make this first scifiinterfaces movie night more fun than a Mangalore concert, drop it in the comments. I’ll check back occasionally on results, and finalize things sometime as we near the event.

Seriously, this is going to be supergreen.


Fifth Element Day at the New Parkway?

9 P.M. Tuesday, 18 MAR 2014, $10


Regular readers of the blog will recall that Korben Dallas’ Busy Day starts when he wakes up on 18 March 2263. This is also Director Luc Besson’s birthday, natch. Let’s celebrate this most incredible sci-fi film (with its most incredible interfaces) with a viewing on that most auspicious of days.


If we get enough people, we can get the rights to view it at the New Parkway Cinema in Oakland and enjoy the film the way it was meant to be enjoyed: With a bunch of other sci-fi nerds, on the big silver screen, with couches, beanbags, food, and a full bar (remember, Luc’s French.)


How many is enough people?

At $10 tickets, we need at least 50 to secure the rights and have the show. More than that and we get to thank New Parkway for working with me on such short notice. Much more than that and I can have a trivia contest with prizes. And if anyone’s interested, I could either play the Fifth-Element-centric pilot of Sci-Fi University beforehand, or maybe even a live, short-but-nerdy review of one of the other interfaces that appear everywhere in the film. I’ll get feedback on the site once it’s going.

When is the cutoff date?

There’s not a lot of time! We need that 50 as soon as possible so we can secure the cinema and the rights, etc. Ideally we could get that number by end of day today, 19 February. But that’s not a ton of time. So the final cutoff will be this Friday, 21 February 2014 at 4 P.M. Pacific Standard Time

Buy your tickets at Brown Paper Tickets. If we can’t get at least 50 people, you’re not charged. But once we get those 50, the thing’s happening, the sale goes through, and we let Korben Dallas and Leeloo save the universe one more time.


UPDATE1: My math was off by half. We need 50 for the licensing. I’ve changed the above, and if you’re wondering, it used to say 25.

UPDATE2: We made the numbers! It’s on!

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.

The Ultimate Weapon


The most interesting interface in the film belongs to the Ultimate Weapon, because it raises such unusual challenges to interface design.

The Design Challenge

According to the movie, the Ultimate Evil arrives every 5000 years, and this is the only time the weapon needs to be fired. (Its prior firing would be around 2737 B.C.E., and if it was on Earth before then, in prehistory.) Its designers must ensure that it will be usable to users separated by around 250 (human) generations. Given such an expanse of time, how can a designer ensure that any necessary inputs will be available between potential uses? What materials will survive that long to ensure structural and functional viability? What written instructions can survive the vast changes in language and cultural contexts? How can you ensure that spoken instructions or principles will be passed down accurately from generation to generation? Presuming some lossy transmission, what clues can you give in the interface itself as to the intended use?

Mondoshawan physiology

Fortunately, the Mondoshawan physiology is not a substantial problem. In their suits they are still similarly-sized, bilateral, upright bipeds with a head where sensory organs are clustered at the top, and, emerging from the tops of their torsos, prehensile arms at the end of which are manipulator digits. This solves a great deal of what could be difficult interspecies issues. Imagine, for contrast, trying to design an interface usable by intelligent versions of both butterflies and cephalopods. Not easy. But an interface for two humanoid species: Much less difficult.

How to ensure the interface material lasts?

Certainly, the system must maintain some physical integrity over time. Passing over the creative license of “advanced alien technologies,” we see that the material for the weapon is quite-long lasting, i.e. stone and in the case of the key, metal. Additionally, the weapon is kept in a temple in the desert, a non-volatile environment suited to preserving such materials.


There are materials for the stones that could last longer and be more resistant to damage, like metal or industrial ceramics, but we do not know anything about the provenance of the weapon, and whether such materials were available.

How to hide the weapon from malefactors?

In the words of Cornelius, an evil person could stand on the platform and activate the weapon to “turn light to dark.” No one wants that to happen. The Mondoshawans hide the weapon in the Egyptian temple, and take pains to carefully conceal the presence of the door to the weapon room and its keyhole. Ordinarily Mondoshawans keep the key to the door of the room which houses the weapon to themselves offworld, but when they take the stones for protection, they leave the key with a member of a sect that worships the weapon, ensuring that the key is passed down through the generations along with the weapon’s instructions.

How to ensure the instructions persist?

Even with durable materials, if the use of the weapon isn’’t so completely intuitive as to be automatic, the instructions on how to activate it must endure transmission through time, across the lives of generations of people (and Mondoshawans). In this case, the instruction set is fairly simple; one must have access to “the” five elements for the weapon to work. Four are the familiar classical alchemical elements of earth, air, fire, and water. These are represented in the movie by four patterns of lines. The lines have subtle variations that reflect physical properties of that element. Earth was flat horizontal lines. Water was wavy horizontal lines at the base. Air was wavy horizontal lines at the top. Fire was vertical wavy lines.

The simplicity, replicability, and memetic nature of this part of the instruction set is demonstrated as we see the symbol repeated in a number of places: on the walls of the pyramid, on the sides of the stones, on the pedestals to which each stone fits, on Cornelius’’ belt buckle, and as a mark on Leeloo’’s skin. Had these symbols been more complex in nature, there would have been more risk that they would have shifted and evolved, like language does, beyond recognition and therefore use as a clue to the weapon’s function.

The instructions are also kept alive through the ages via myth and religious fervor. The characters Cornelius and David belong to a sect devoted to the Ultimate Weapon. This is clever cultural design. Humans have historically demonstrated a desire to worship, and the Mondoshawans have taken advantage of this, providing the Ultimate Weapon a group of people wholly dedicated to its preservation regardless of whether or not their generation is the one to see it fire. The rites, rituals, and artifacts of this religion that act as a backup for the instructions on firing the Ultimate Weapon, as we see when Cornelius tries to explain it all to the President.

The transmission media of memes and religious fervor are not—as we see in the film—perfect. Language and culture are lossy media. But they do get the characters close enough so that they can figure out the rest on their own.

How to make sure it can be figured out?

The weapon is initialized by placing the sacred stones on the proper pedestals. But which stones go on which pedestal? Fortunately, anyone with a visual or tactile sense can match the right stone to the right pedestal by matching the pattern. Furthermore, since the stones and their fitting are almost triangular, it is easy to tell how they should be seated. See the pilot of Sci-Fi University for more about these affordances and constraints.


The main challenge within this part of the bigger challenge is the spans of time involved. Given 5,000 years between firings, entire cultures, countries, technologies, and languages come and go in that time. How many people alive now are fluent in languages from 5 millennia past? You have to use mechanisms that don’t depend on culture, technology, or language. Physical affordances and constraints are a fine tool for these reasons.

How to let users know they’re on the right track?

When a little bit of the required element is provided to the placed stones, there is immediate feedback as small rectangles open just a bit near the tops. It is this partway state that indicates to the protagonists that, even though they haven’t completely supplied enough material, they are on the right track. This clue gives them enough of a signal that they continue trying to deduce control of the interface.


What activation materials to use?

The stones require some small amount of each element to be supplied to their topmost surface to become active. For three of the four (earth, air, water), these elements are in abundance here on Earth.

To consider the fourth, fire, takes us to strategic questions about the design.

Why this design?

It’s possible that the design of the weapon is constrained by some unknown cosmogenic power source in the stones. <handwaving>It’s mystical physics that requires that there be 4 stones and 4 pillars and smooches in the center.</handwaving> But it is of course of more use to us to imagine that it wasn’t, but some deliberate design. Which leads me to ask why wasn’t it a single big button? Well, I can see five effects this particular design has.

1. It allows you to disable the weapon

A major part of the plot involves the fact that the stones—keys to operating the machine—have been removed from Earth to keep them safe. This proves to be a major complication and a minor mystery to the protagonists, but is in fact one of main features of the weapon. Much of it is architectural and would be very difficult to move. By adding activation keys, the Mondoshawans ensured that they could disable it if necessary.

2. It tests for environmental stewardship

If three of the activation elements were not available: earth, air, and water, it would raise serious issues about the human caretakers of the planet. Do they stand on a scorched earth? Is their air ruined? Have they let the water of Earth, like what happened on Mars, evaporate into space? Any of these scenarios raise serious doubts about whether life on the planet is worth saving. Or is there to save.

3. It tests for cultural stewardship

Unlike the other elements, fire isn’t as abundant. In pre-cultural Earth, it was an accident of geothermal activity and lightning. To be able to control it to a level that it can be applied to the stone speaks of a fundamental level of cultural and technological advancement. If humans have not kept stewardship of their culture well enough to be able to control fire, it again raises the question of whether they are worth saving.

The key to the weapon room similarly tests for cultural stewardship. It looks like a fragile thing, made of thin perforated metal. Having a reverant group treat it as a holy artifact ensures that it will not get crushed or rusted, and in the process lose access to the room that contains the weapon.

4. It tests for basic intelligence

The affordances and constraints that help the characters position the stones correctly require a level of basic, intelligence as individuals. Can they do pattern matching? Do they understand simple physics? This isn’t the strongest of tests, but I’m pretty had humans devolved to primates by this point or distracted by constant war, they’d have been screwed.

5. It tests for a capacity for love

The “fifth element” (ignoring wu xing and similar actual 5-element philosophies) in this case is love. In the film Korben must overcome his reticence to confess his love for Leeloo. When he does, she realizes that humanity—including its capacity for war—are worth saving, and the weapon fires. Love is a big word of course, so it’s not clear whether familial, friendly, platonic, or even purely sexual love would suffice, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. The designers wanted to make sure that humanity still has some capacity for feeling intense care toward another. If not, why bother saving them?

It’s made a bit dubious because it’s specifically for the love of an “ultimate warrior,” a “perfect being.” Leeloo looks very much like a very fit, pretty example of one of a human, who has shown very human capacities for joy, pain, fear, delight, &c. It’s not that hard of a test for Korben to love her, except, to overcome his own sense of awkwardness and humility and openness to rejection (in front of a small crowd, no less.) If she had looked like a Mangalore it would have been a more difficult—and more telling—test of the capacity for altruistic love, but perhaps that’s not the point.

These five effects seem like pretty good reasons to design the interface to this weapon in this particular way. In total, they test to make sure there’s a humanity there worth saving. And fortunately for humanity in 2263, Korben (and the culture that produced him) prove just enough of a match.


As if that wasn’t enough, bear with me for just two more bits of nerdery about the weapon. These are a bit extraneous to the interface, but derived from study of the interface, and so may be of note to readers.

1. We can’t ignore the fact that the Ultimate Evil plummets toward the Earth in a straight line. A straight line, that is, that puts it directly in the path of the ultimate weapon, which fires a perfectly straight line. And recall that the weapon is on a planet that’s orbiting around a star, and precessing its rotational axis. This is too slim a chance to be coincidence. It stands to reason that this is not, as Cornelius says, a sentient evil bent on ending “all life” (which would just veer a few degrees out of the way to safety), but part of the same system as the weapon, designed to identify and tempt the worst of people, i.e. Zorg, and try and thwart these aspects of humanity that are ultimately tested. If that’s the case, and the Mondoshawans installed the weapon, did they, by extension, install the Ultimate Evil as well? Is this some sort of “invisible fence” meant to keep humanity in check, and destroy it if it ever evolves for the worse?

2. Many of these same issues have been addressed in the real world by the designers of containers of radioactive waste (the danger of which persists between 10,000 and 1,000,000 years) and, more positively, the the Long Now Foundation working on its main project, the Millennium Clock. For those unfamiliar with this project, it is a prospective, large-scale clock that once built, will chime every thousand years. The clock mechanism and function is intended to last for 10,000 years. The Long Now foundation is faced with similar long-term design challenges and have come to some similar conclusions as the designers for the film. The clock will be made of Bronze Age materials and technology, and it will be situated in the desert. The clock will largely be self-maintaining, but the Foundation is also developing a Rosetta Wheel containing many, many examples of existing human language, useful for decoding written instructions. The idea itself has many elements that ensure its persistence as a meme, being simple, distinct, and a powerful embodiment of an important message about the value of long-term thinking. The Long Now Foundation was begun in 01996, the year prior to the release of The Fifth Element. I am a huge fan of the Foundation and its initiatives, and I encourage readers to read further to learn more.

Sci-fi University Pilot

How do you ensure that a complicated weapon can be fired by people hundreds or even thousands of years in the future?

Sci-fi University critically examines interfaces in sci-fi that illustrate core design concepts. In this six-minute pilot episode, Christopher discusses how the Ultimate Weapon Against Evil brilliantly and subtly embodies the design concepts of affordances and constraints.

This is a pilot, to see if folks like the format. So please leave your thoughts in the comments, and if enough folks dig it—and if I run across other interfaces that bear such explication—I’ll do more sometime in the future. If you’d like to view it at a larger size, check it out on YouTube. Happy viewing!