Report Card: Idiocracy

Read all the Idiocracy posts in chronological order.

Now we come to the end of Idiocracy, if not yet the idiocracy.

This film never got broad release. There are stories about its being supressed by the studio because of the way the film treated brands.

I don’t know what they’re talking about.

But whatever the reason, I’m happy to do my part in helping it get more awareness. Because despite its expositive principle being wrong (and maybe slightly eugenic), the film illustrates frustrations I also have with some of the world’s stupider ills, and does so in funny ways. Also, as I noted in the last writeup, it even illustrates speculative and far-reaching issues with superintelligence. So, it’s smarter than it looks.

I’d recommend lots and lots more people see this, generally, if only to reinforce the demonization of idiocy and make more people want to be not that. So first let me say: If you haven’t yet, see the film. Help others see it. Make People Valorize Enlightenment Again.

Now, let’s turn to the interfaces.

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Report Card: White Christmas

Read all the Black Mirror, “White Christmas” reviews in chronological order.

I love Black Mirror. It’s not always perfect, but uses great story telling to get us to think about the consequences of technology in our lives. It’s a provocateur that invokes the spirit of anthology series like The Twilight Zone, and rarely shies away from following the tech into the darkest places. It’s what thinking about technology in sci-fi formats looks like.

But, as usual, this site is not about the show but the interfaces, and for that we turn to the three criteria for evaluation here on scifiinterfaces.com.

  1. How believable are the interfaces? Can it work this way? (To keep you immersed.)
  2. How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story? (To tell a good story.)
  3. How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals? (To be a good model for real-world design?)

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Report Card: Battlestar Galactica miniseries

Read all of the Battlestar Galactica Miniseries in chronological order.

The miniseries represents the best that the reboot has to offer. Its story is contained, the characters fill their roles, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The miniseries even ends on a solid cliffhanger: Will humanity survive?

Battlestar Galactica also picked a rarely chosen theme for its run. The well-used and anachronistic technology was in direct opposition to the Star Wars Prequels being released at the time. After getting my feet wet with my previous reviews, this was an entertaining choice because of its difficulty, detail, and setting.

I was constantly reminded during the review process that this miniseries represented—and this can’t be stated strongly enough—the end of human civilization.

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Report Card: Oblivion

Read all the Oblivion reviews in chronological order.

According to the director, Oblivion is “a daylight science fiction film with a kind of Twilight Zone story,” a callback to pre-Star Wars, 1970’s lonely man sci-fi set against a huge backdrop. (Read the full interview by Germain Lussier on /Film for more.) Certainly, it’s more visually-satisfying thing than intellectually-satisfying thing, but fortunately that same thing does not play out in the interfaces.

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

One of the great strengths of the interfaces are their deep ties to the diegesis. There’s little fuidgetry, little that could be generically lifted and placed in another film. It’s what we used to call site-specific in design school and that’s a good thing for believability.

See how in Vika’s desktop the sections of interface contain things she has to monitor: Land, hydrorigs, drones, the Tet’s orbital position. Most of the interfaces in the film are this considered.

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On the flip side, there are communication systems that suffer more downtime than modern systems. There’s a flight control interface that omits the weather. The Scav binoculars just don’t make sense. And the Odyssey has a bunch of problems given that’s meant to be a near-future-ish extension of what we know today.

And then…then…then there’s the narrative-shortcut trope of the oh-by-the-way faster-than-light communication system that would have meant a much more advanced (and more defended?) world for the Tet to encounter in the first place.

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So, some dings.

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

This is where Oblivion’s interfaces really shine. They’re gorgeously realized with a rich stylistic and motion language. But moreso IMHO some of the apparent “problems” with the interfaces actually tell of the deep deception by the Tet. It’s core to telling that central story, and partly told through the interfaces.

Home 49 disconnects its inhabitants from the land they’re tasked to protect. Tet’s thinking: Perfect.

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Jack’s bike doesn’t make a lot of sense in the diegesis except that it is a perfect outlet for his sense of “freedom.” Tet’s thinking: Whew. Glad he has that outlet.

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Other narrative aspects of the interfaces like the drone programmer help underscore the drones as aggressive, suspect, and alien, rather than defensive human measures.

I’d add a + to that A if the drones hadn’t been designed to look evil and menacing. Had they been more Hello Kitty and less Galactic Empire, Jack might have been less suspicious.

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If it needs to be said: Not actually from Oblivion. Maybe the reboot.

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

The centerpiece of the film is Vika’s desktop. It’s her command and control center workstation that enables her to manage the strategy to Jack’s tactics, and even rest her teacup as she works. The most commonly accessed bits are in easy reach, and the display-only information is turned vertically for her like a clock on the wall.

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It has a few ergonomic problems, like angling its displays away from her observational sphere (just for a teacup?) It doesn’t equip her for crisis conversations like it should. Some of its interactions are inconsistent. It sometimes makes her hunt for information rather than leading her there. But, all in all, a nice dashboard for her task.

There are other interesting bits, like the situationally-shaped reticle, the breakfast table that allows for sitrep breakfasts, and well-mapped Odyssey controls that imply a bit of agentive support.

There are some usability problems throughout, or it would have fared better, but overall a good show.

Final Grade B+ (10 of 12), MUST-SEE

All told, these interfaces are rich and powerful and embody solid modern thinking about visual styling, motion design, gestural interaction, and heads-up-displays. Big props to that pro gmunk for his work (and keep an eye out for an interview with him about his work on the film soon.)

And may I send out a special shout-out to the guest bloggers for their excellent insights and write-ups: Clayton, Aleatha, Heath, and Maximilion. They did great and I’m very glad that at least four other people in the world know how much effort goes into providing these in-depth interface analyses. Let’s hope we hear from more about them on this blog in the future.

Pitch time: Learn more lessons about gestural interfaces, heads-up-displays, and other interface concepts from a vast survey of science fiction movies and television programs in the book I co-authored with Nathan Shedroff, Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction.

Report Card: Wall•E

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Wall•E is a humorous, robo-everything, sci-fi dystopia. This puts some challenges for the interfaces, as they have to sometimes break believability for the joke. Still, the humor is meant to be all in-world (or diegetic), so we can apply a thorough real-world critique.

Sci: A- (3.5 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

It’s funny. Wall-E is a mix of both realistic interfaces that you might find in the real world, and cinematic interfaces that really only work for the narrative.

The Realistic

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The Dust Storm alert is an effective warning and call to immediate action. The immediacy of the Storm Warning and its announcement of direction and distance would be a good extension for current weather radios.

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Every critical automatic system should have an emergency ‘off’ button that is well labeled. Otto’s control might be poorly placed, but its use and implications are obvious to the captain in his moment of need.

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The Hover Chair is a multi-use, omni-terrain mobility device that is comfortable and thoroughly addictive. It would be the ultimate Rascal scooter, and likely be as popular in real life as it is on the Axiom.

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In many ways, The Social Network has already pervaded our society in programs like Skype. The major and dangerous change on the Axiom is that one program is getting all of a person’s attention at all times.

The Cinematic

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The Dropship. Very Inefficient. It shows that BNL likes complicating things, but isn’t very convincing as an activation sequence for an inter-planetary exploration pod.

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

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The project team (in the world of Wall•E) that built the Gatekeeper must have had an enormous budget, a massively talented team, and a top-flight project manager. It’s so exquisitely overbuilt in almost every possible way.

Regardless of which type they are, each says something very fundamental about Buy-N-Large’s design/engineering studios. A few of these interfaces feel so complicated and overly antagonistic to their users that it’s amazing they weren’t redesigned or updated at some point. Other interfaces feel like something that a person would encounter in those situations.

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

Each interface shows BNL’s goal of saving people from thought and effort. Even when this costs people their privacy, their independence, or their ability to think critically it feels deliberate and intentional. Useful to the user? No. Useful to BNL? Yes. This is the core of BNL’s role in the story as the corporate antagonist, and the interfaces are crucial to telling that story.

Interfaces: B- (2.5 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

I can see the Hover Chair as a product in a TV advertisement, and many of the interfaces like the Lifeboat and Otto’s Manual Control will likely be needed in real-life situations. The Hover Chair and Lifeboat serve as excellent prototypes of what not to do, and Otto’s control was designed exceptionally well).

Other cases, like the Audio Buttons and Eve’s Gun speak to specific situations on a post-apocalyptic Earth that will be hard to replicate. Hopefully, today’s arms manufacturers won’t create such dangerous energy weapons capable of being fired so easily. But there’s no way of knowing what kind of situations BNL had to plan for in their design, so no way of knowing just how bad the design actually is.

Final Grade A- (10 of 12), BLOCKBUSTER

Buy-N-Large is a case study in a pathologically helpful corporation stripping power and authority (and even critical thought) from citizens’ everyday life. What might look great on a vacation commercial ends up instead acting like the worst kind of drug on a person’s willpower and desire to think critically.

Designers should be careful of falling into these traps, and look to the Social Network as a lesson in what can happen when you only care about moment-to-moment happiness and profit.

Related lessons from the book

  • Eve’s drop-off pod includes lots of immediate feedback that tightens the feedback loops. (page 20)
  • Eve Extends her Hand to Shoot (just like the sixth gestural pidgin word, page 101).
  • Wall-E’s range vision adhered to much of the Augmented Reality lessons (chapter 8), such as augmenting the periphery (page 162) and context awareness (page 165).
  • Otto’s off switch and the Lifeboat Auto-Destruct confirm that red means danger. (page 44)

New lessons

  • Eve’s drop-off pod, the Lifeboat controls all scream for Labels, labels, labels.
  • The Hover Chair implies many things
    • A system should never fail into a worse state. (a New Lesson first seen on this blog with Logan’s Run.)
    • Build assistants not solutions.
    • Optimizing for the worst within us drags everyone down.
    • Let users easily pause virtual worlds (out of respect for the real one).
    • Explicitly in the Social Network writeup: Work With the Human Need and Build Products for More than just Fleeting Pleasure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related lessons from the book

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

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

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