The Door

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The door to unit 281-53 has security and control features that make it Not Like Our Doors.

Sweetie’s Door

Korben’s white cat is named Sweetie. After a long night of carousing the 5000 block, she wants to be let back in, so she meows at the door as soon as she hears Korben’s alarm go off. He presses the lowest on the 5-button panel and a little cat-sized door opens up to let her in. After she passes through, it immediately closes behind her.

The kitty door could be improved by lessening the work it requires of Korben to zero, by automatically opening and closing for Sweetie. Even if Korben wanted her outside for certain hours of the night, we’ve seen that the apartment knows about schedules, so could accomodate another few bytes of scheduling information. To provide automatic access, though, would require some kind of identification. Low-level tokens like an RFID on her collar could work (such systems are sold today) but Korben lives in a crime-ridden area and any criminal could swipe the collar and use it to open the kitty door to “case the joint” or use some trickery to open the big door. An implanted RFID chip would be worse since it would put Sweetie’s life at risk as a “key.” More passive systems like kitty-biometrics would be much more expensive, and all the other evidence in the film tells us that this is not a wealthy man’s apartment. Ultimately, though there are other solutions for the problem, none fit the circumstances as well.

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Four out of five of the panel’s icons are clearer than those seen on the apartment’s other panels.

  • A moon (the mysterious one. Night mode?)
  • A high star (for shining a light from above the door, downward?)
  • An ajar door, for opening or closing it
  • A low star (for shining a light below on Sweetie
  • A a cat face (and cat butt?) for opening Sweetie’s door

In addition to being readable, they’re also well-mapped. The button for the human is in the middle. The cat door is lower on the panel. Let’s presume the lights are similarly well mapped.

The only difficulty this system might have is accidental activation of the wrong thing since the buttons are so similar and close together. It might not be so bad to accidentally turn on a light when you meant to open the door, but if you’d intended to turn on the light to check who’s outside and then accidentally opened the door, it could mean a home invasion. This is a Fitts’ Law problem for a doorknob. Better would be for the “knob” to be a hand’s width distant from any of the other buttons. This would also save him from having to look to target it precisely to do something as common as shutting the door.

Video peephole

Unlike adorable kittens, humans on the other side of the door may pose a threat. Korben can see who has come calling via a video monitor, located above the panel. The feed is always on. The video camera sits above the lintel and aims straight down, so Korben can see all the way to where Sweetie would be. Three buttons below the monitor are not seen in use. For most cases, the monitor would work well. Korben can glance at it from anywhere in the room and have a good idea who is there. And, since it’s a one-way system, he has time to get quick things done before answering without seeming too rude.

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That said, the camera is not foolproof. Early in the film Korben checks it and though it looks as if the hallway was empty, upon opening it finds a would-be robber who has donned a “hat” with a picture of the empty hallway from the perspective of the camera. Though he’s ultimately unsuccessful in robbing Korben his ruse to appear invisible to the door monitor worked perfectly. Multiple cameras might make it harder for this trick to be effective, but some other sensors, like a weight sensor under the floor outside or heat sensor would be harder to fool.

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As if that weren’t bad enough, the fact that the camera has a very limited field of view allows anyone to hide just off to the side. Cornelius uses this tactic when he uses Leeloo as a sort of video bait to get him to open the door.

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This latter problem could be solved with a fisheye lens on the camera (y’know, like real peepholes), which would show him more of the hallway and reduce the places where an assailant could easily hide.

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Pneumatic Mail

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Korben receives physical mail to a transparent, flat pneumatic tube in his apartment. When new mail arrives, he hears a whoosh, the envelope drops into place, and the plastic material that the tube is made of becomes edge-lit with the film’s signature orange color.

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To retrieve the letter, Korben lifts a hinged side and slides the letter out. The tube hangs at from the ceiling about waist high, to the left of his window desk on the far side of his apartment from the door.

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The positioning of the tube is nice as the desk is one place he’s likely to put information received there to use: reading and storing if necessary. Another location might have been near the door, to catch his attention in a physical location that he frequents. But infrequent use is not too much of a problem since the edge lighting should catch his attention.

His attention could be drawn more aggressively to the tube by having the light blink a few times at the arrival of new mail, or when he enters the apartment. Presuming the system knows the importance of a given letters—such as when he is fired from Zorg industries—it could offer an additional audio cue, such as a simple statement of "urgent" using the same voice that announces his allotment of cigarettes in the morning.

Another tiny improvement might be to remove the flap entirely, but adding a grip gap at the edge, on the apartment-facing side of the tube. Presuming this wouldn’t mess with the pneumatic or stability of the letter in place, it would save Korben from having to target and raise the flap. Grabbing mail would just be easier.

Oddly, the edge lighting does not disappear when Korben retrieves letters, which is odd given the slight context-awareness that the rest of the apartment displays. The light should turn off or fade once the letter is removed.

The daffy bastard

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When Korben gets in his taxi and sits down, it recognizes this and in a female version of the hazy synthesized voice heard in the 4 a day cigarette dispenser, prompts him to “Please enter your license.” Korben fits his license into a small horizontal slot mounted in the ceiling of the cab, just above the driver’s seat near the windshield. He slams it in. It verifies that he’s authorized and starts the cab, including lighting the taxi light up top. It tells him, “Welcome on board, Mr. Dallas. Fuel level 10.”

Korben steers with an X-shaped control yoke. We never see his feet, so don’t know if he has any foot pedals. He has a throttle that maps like a boat throttle: push forward to increase thrust.

In the central dashboard he has an underlit panel of toggle buttons. Each button has a single function, which is printed on its surface.

Main controls: Docking lock, Automatic, Emergency power, Power. Light controls: Auxiliary lights, Parking lights, Smog lights, Main lights. Alerts: Power level low, Power failure, Light failure, Environment warning

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Two small panels to his left provide him a similar array of “comfort controls”, “taxi controls”, and “main panel one.” A more free-form keyboard sits beneath a vertical grayscale monitor, crammed full of unreadable text and, occasionally, annoyingly, blinking.

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The buttons across these panels are completely labeled, lit for easy reading in the dim cabin light, clustered in meaningful groups, and nicely positioned so that Korben can utilize his spatial memory to map the functions. But they are also labeled in all capital letters and aren’t much differentiated beyond that, which might require Korben to take his eyes off the road to target a particular one, which could increase the odds of an accident. Better inputs using physical controls would have more physical differentiation so he could find them with just one hand, labeling that was easier to read at a glance, and the most common controls right on the yoke near his fingers.

In the scene, Korben reaches to the center panel and presses “power.” The voice confirms that he’s using “Propulsion 2-X-4,” (whatever that means.) Then Korben presses “Docking lock,” which releases the mechanical hold on the taxi.

The voice reminds him sternly that he has five points left on his license, and as the garage door opens, to “Have a nice day.” Lights on either side of the garage door shine green, signaling to him that the skyway is clear. But on pulling out, they turn red just as a car passes and Korben has to slam on the brakes.

Of course the humor comes from how these interfaces aren’t entirely helpful, and the green lights shouldn’t tell him the same information he can see with his own eyes. It should be doing a bit of calculation to signal if it’s clear for the next several seconds so he can safely pull out. But of course doing that right would ruin the joke. Maybe we’re meant to understand that Korben just can’t afford any but the crappiest versions of technology.

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Later, when Leeloo does her daring cliff dive from the side of a building and crashes through the roof of his cab, Korben struggles to maintain control of it and get the hell out of the way of oncoming traffic. During the chaos, the computerized voice tells him, “You’ve just had an accident.” Korben sardonically shouts, “Yes! I know I just had an accident, you daffy bastard.” It continues adding unhelpfully, “You have one point left on your license.” Of course the fun is how annoying the taxi is, but let’s just be explicit: the cab should wait until it senses that Korben has regained control before burdening his attention with this information, and possibly making it worse.

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When Korben risks it all to help Leeloo, the speaker cover near where his license is lodged glows bright red as it says, “One point has been removed from your license…” Korben, furious and with zero points left on his license and nothing to lose, rips the device off his ceiling to shut the daffy bastard up.

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Taxi shield

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The taxi panel has one weak moment. When Korben has the taxi in hiding from the police, he wants to lower the taxi shield to check on Leeloo. To lower the shield, he presses on the “DOCKING LOCK” button on the panel, which doesn’t quite make sense. We saw this button used earlier to actually do what it says. Why does its function change now?

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It might be that the button has two modes, i.e. in a garage it anchors the vehicle and elsewhere it lowers the shield. Modal buttons aren’t great. What if Korben is in the garage and needs to lower the shield? Just say no to modal buttons. If the functions can be operated independently, they should have separate buttons.

Additionally, if it’s going to have to be modal and have a secondary function, it should be labeled as such. Even if the shield was aftermarket, the installing mechanic could have taken a sharpie to the button to note which of the dozens of buttons on the dashboard is the one that activates it. Mechanics, you now have no excuse.

Of course leaving behind my New Criticism stance on authorial intent, it’s entirely possible that Willis just pressed the wrong button, or that the prop he was faced with on set didn’t have a button that worked, and he just picked one at hand. But I like Willis, and I like not having to second guess film makers, so I’m going to cut him some slack for this detail that most probably, nobody but me ever noticed. Until, you know, now.

Taxi navigation

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The taxi has a screen on the passenger’s side dashboard that faces the driver. This display does two things. First, it warns the driver when the taxi is about to be attacked. Secondly, it helps him navigate the complexities of New York circa 2163.

Warning system

After Korben decides to help Leeloo escape the police, they send a squadron of cop cars to apprehend them. And by apprehend I mean blow to smithereens. The moment Korben’s taxi is in sights, they don’t try to detain or disable the vehicle, but to blast it to bits with bullets and more bullets. It seems this is a common enough thing to have happen that Korben’s on-board computer can detect it in advance and provide a big, flashing, noisemaking warning to this effect.

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In many cases I object to the Big Label, but not here. In fact, for such a life-threatening issue, more of the taxi’s interface should highlight the seriousness. My life’s in danger? Go full red alert, car. Change the lights to crimson. Dim non-essential things. You’ve got an “automatic” button there. Does that include evasive maneuvering? If so, make that thing opt-out rather than opt-in. Help a brother out.

Navigation aid

At other times during the chase scene, Korben can glance at the screen to see a wireframe of the local surroundings. This interface has a lot of problems.

1. This would work much, much more safely and efficiently for Korben if it was a heads-up display on the windshield. Let’s shrink that feedback loop. Every time a driver glances down he risks a crash and in this case, Korben risks the entire world. If HUD tech isn’t a part of the diegesis, audio cues might be some small help that don’t require him to take his eyes of the “road.”

2. How does the wireframe style help? It’s future-y of course, but it adds a lot of noise to what he’s got to process. He doesn’t need to understand tesselations of surfaces. He needs to understand the shapes and velocities of things around him so he can lose the tail.

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(Exercise for the reader: Provide a solid diegetic explanation for why this screen appeared in the film flipped horizontally.)

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3. There’s some missing information. If the onboard computer can do some real-time calculations and make a recommendation on the best next step, why not do it? We see above that the police have the same information that Korben does. So even better might be information on what the tail is likely to do so Korben can do the opposite. Or maneuvers that Korben can execute that the cop car can’t. If it’s possible to show places he should definitely not go, like dead ends or right into the path, say, of a firing squad of police cars, that would be useful to know, too.

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4. What are those icons in the lower right meant to do? They’re not suggestions as they appear after Korben performs his maneuvers, and sometimes appear along with warnings instead of maneuvers.

Even if they are suggestions, what are they directions to? His original destination? He didn’t have one. Some new destination? When did he provide it? Simple, goal-aware directions to safety? Whatever the information, these icons add a lot cognitive weight and visual work. Surely there’s some more direct way to provide cues, like being superimposed on the 3D so he can see the information rather than read and interpret it.

If they’re something else other than suggestions, they’re just noise. In a pursuit scenario, you’d want to strip that stuff out of the interface.

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5. What is that color gradient on the left meant to tell him? All the walls in this corridor are 350…what? The screen shot above hints that it represents simple height from the ground, but the 2D map has these colors as well, and height cues wouldn’t make sense there. If it is height, this information might help Korben quickly build a 3D mental map of the information he’s seeing. But using arbitrary colors forces him to remember what each color means. Better would be to use something with a natural order to it like the visible spectrum or black-body spectrum. Or, since people already have lots of experience with monocular distance cues and lighting from above, maybe a simple rendering as if the shapes were sunlit would be fastest to process. Taking advantage of any of these perceptual faculties would let him build a 3D model quickly so he can focus on what he’s going to do with the information.

Side note: Density might actually make a great deal more sense to the readout, knowing that Korben has a penchant for ramming his taxi through things. If this was the information being conveyed, varying degrees of transparency might have served him better to know what he can smash through safely, and even what to expect on the other side.

6. Having the 2D map helps a bit to understand the current level of the city from a top-down view. Having it be small in the upper right is a sound placement, since that’s a less-important subset of the information he really needs. It has some color coding but as mentioned above it doesn’t seem to relate to what’s colored in the 3D portion, which could make for an interpretation disaster. In any case, Korben shouldn’t have to read this information in the tiny map. It’s a mode, a distraction. While he’s navigating the alleys and tunnels of the city, he’s thinking in a kind of 3D node-graph. Respect that kind of thinking with a HUD that puts information on the “edges” of the graph, i.e., the holes in the surfaces around him that he’s looking at. That’s his locus of attention. That’s where he’s thinking. Augment that.

So, you know…bad

Fortunately, given that the interface has so many problems, Korben only really glances at this once during the chase, and that’s at the warning sound. But if the younger Korben was meant to use this at all, there’s a lot of work to make this useful rather than dangerous.

Mondoshawan piloting

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The Mondoshawan pilot grasps two handles. Each handle moves in a transverse plane (parallel to the floor), being attached to a base by two flat hinges. We only see this interface for a few seconds, but it seems very poorly mapped.

Here on Earth, a pilot primarily needs to specify pitch, roll, and thrust. She supplies this input through a control yoke and a throttle. Each action is clearly differentiated. Pitch is specified by pushing or pulling the yoke. Roll is specified by rolling the yoke like a steering wheel. Thrust is specified by pushing or pulling the throttle. It’s really rare that a pilot wanting to lift the plane will accidentally turn the yoke to the right.

But look at the Mondoshawan inputs. They can specify four basic variables, i.e., an X and a Z for each hand. Try as I might, I can’t elegantly make that fit the act of flying well. (Pipe up if I’m not seeing something obvious.) Even if roll, pitch, and thrust was each assigned to an axis arbitrarily, the pilot would end up having to use the same motion on different hands for different variables, and there would be one “extra” axis. Of course there are two other Mondoshawans visible in the ship, and perhaps between them they’re managing that third axis of control somehow. With training and their “200,000 DNA memo groups,” the Mondoshawans could probably manage it, but it would spell trouble for us poor humans with our measly 40 and need for more direct mapping and control differentiation.

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NucleoLab Display

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The scientist Mactilburgh reconstructs Leeloo from a bit of her remains in his “nucleolab.” We see a few interfaces here.

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We never see Mactilburgh interact with the controls on this display: Potentiometers, dials with circular LED readout rings, glowing toggle buttons, and unlit buttons labeled “OFF” and “ESC.” There’s not much to grasp onto for analysis. These are just “sciencey” set of physical controls. The display is a bit of similar scienciness, meant to vaguely convey that Leeloo is a higher-order being, but beyond that, incomprehensible. Interestingly, the Mondoshawan DNA shows not just a more detailed graphic, but adds color to convey an additional level of complexity.

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An odd bit: In the lower right hand corner of the screen you can see the words “FAMILIAL HYPERCHOL TEROLEMIA.” Looking up this term reveals the genetic condition Familial Hypercholesterolemia. It’s only missing the “ES.” What’s this label doing here? This could be the area on the DNA chain where the markers appear for this predisposition to high cholesterol, but wouldn’t you expect that to take up 5000 times less room on a DNA strand of a perfect being, not the same percentage? Also it kind of takes the winds out of the sails of Mactilburgh’s breathless claim that she’s perfect. Anyway it’s a warning lesson for sci-fi interface designers: Watch where you pull your sciencey words from. If it’s a real thing, ask whether the meaning runs counter to your purposes or not.

Mondoshawan Thrusters

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If you haven’t been following it, there’s been some great discussion in the comments about my critique of the Mondoshawan flight interface. Clayton and Phil raised some great points and the discussion necessitates understanding the apparent capabilities of the actuators, i.e. thrusters. So here are some images for reference.

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The capabilities may be fairly limited. The only evidence we have that the thrusters move at all are from early in the film. When the ship has to fight the gravity of a planet, they splay out like the ribs of an umbrella. Otherwise, in space we never see them move.

What’s worse is that the actual maneuverability of the ship seems minimal. When the ship is attacked by Mangalores, it doesn’t even turn to try and evade.

Most of the time interaction designers don’t have the opportunity to redesign actuators, only controls and displays. If we presume that the Mondoshawan thrusters can only splay from the ship’s axis, how would this change the fit of the controls?