5E-opedia: Watch and learn

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Leeloo learns about the facts of the human race which she is destined to save through an online encyclopedia available to her in many places: in Cornelius’’ home, the spaceship to Fhloston Paradise, and aboard Zorg’’s ship. Three modes are seen for it. Today we discuss the first mode, which is just play-and-watch.

Watch-and-learn

When we first see her using the (unnamed) encyclopedia, she is simply watching four columns of words quickly scroll by. The words are arranged alphabetically, top-to-bottom before continuing to the next column. There is a large, blinking, lower-case letter reversed out of a white square in the lower left. Near the middle of the screen, a thick bracket emphasizes four of the words from the screen and red lines connects each of the words to a large image on the right side of the screen. The words and pictures fly by at a rate that’s impossible for us mere humans to follow, but Cornelius assures David that she”s ‘learning our history…the last 5,000 years she’s missed. She’s been asleep for quite a while, you know.”

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This mode is all passive. When in the scene Leeloo goes to grab a turkey from the kitchen to bring back and eat, the screen is still moving with no one in front of it. We see a menu of capital letters, and a selection moving from “A” to “M”, by itself.

The Tyranny of Pause

Here I’m going to have to break the usual stance with which I review interfaces. That is, I usually treat each interface as if it was perfectly as it should be in the world of the movie or TV show, trying to willfully ignore its speculative nature. (That’s how we can make it relevant to our real world work.) But here, there’s just too much that’s broken in the content to make any sense. You only notice it when you slow the movie down to read and examine the screens, so this is totally unfair. But then again, the DVD format had been in the world for two years by the time The Fifth Element came out, so there’s not a great excuse for playback technology. They could presume it would eventually be paused.

First off, the words in the lists are repeated. The first column is identical to the third. The second is identical to the fourth. I can’t imagine a good reason why this would help a reader. I was hoping maybe there was some autostereogram thing going on, but no. It just adds noise.

Secondly, the vast majority of images have little to do with the words to which they’re connected. “Me” points to a halved cantaloupe filled with blackberries. (See the image above.) “Maunder” points to an image of a woman’s softly parted, lipsticked lips. What on earth is Leeloo meant to learn from that? (Also I think it’s high time we bring back maunder into common usage.)

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Worse, the images repeat. So the same picture of a chimpanzee connects to both “meadow” and “matriarch.” The same picture of a nose (flipped horizontally once) connects to “nav(vv?)y,” “nefarious,” and “negate.”

Also the same word may appear multiple times, connected to different pictures. “Maw” points once to a mouth, which is sensible, but once to a full-body portrait of a model in a little black dress. I’m all for polysemy and homonymy, but this just makes no sense.

Only once does the connection make absolute sense, as “Napoleon” points to François Gérard’s 1804 portrait of “Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, at Malmaison.”

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Now I understand the tough challenge the interface designers faced: They probably had zero time, the damned thing had to look…well…encyclopedic, it had to make Leeloo look like a learning machine, no one had the budget or time to create new media for all these entries. Plus Larry Lessig wouldn’t found the Creative Commons organization for four years later. But…still.

Sometimes the words are arbitrarily cut off, as in “mayonnais” and “masturbat.” (Both the prurient-minded and those prone to conspiracies about subliminal influence may note that the word “masturbat~” appears three times, twice as a full word, and once cut off in this way.)

So, in short, unless she’s studying the Dada Encyclopedia, this display just makes no sense.

Um…learning?

Even if the images didn’t repeat, the words didn’t repeat, the images made sense for the words, and words appeared fully spelled out, it’s a ridiculous display for what Leeloo is trying to do. At best, this might be able to teach her the written words for some concrete things. But even this is doubtful. How does she know that “Napoleon” as a word means a particular individual rather than the word for a painted portrait, or the name of the uniform being depicted? Without going too far into history or learning theory, we can say that Leeloo would need exposure to some propositional language to understand history as interrelated events occurring across time, and an alphabetical list of words and pictures just isn’t enough.

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5E-opedia: In-depth topic

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Leeloo learns about the facts of the human race which she is destined to save through an online encyclopedia available to her in many places: in Cornelius’’ home, the spaceship to Fhloston Paradise, and aboard Zorg’’s ship. Three modes are seen for it. Today we discuss the second mode, which is to select an in-depth topic.

In-Depth Topic

Leeloo can understand each item in the topic lists as they fly past. If she sees a topic that interests her in particular, she can press a button to find out more about that topic in more detail. (We don’t see the button, we just hear it.) Given that she’s looking at a screen of at most 66 and at least 4 options, and we don’t see a selection indicator, it’s anyone’s guess as to how she does this. Later we’ll see that she has a QWERTY keyboard to search for a particular word, and we don’t see that same search interface here, so it’s something other than that.

Once she indicates that she’s interested in martial arts, the entry fills the screen. The screen is a mix of a paragraph of text, images zooming around, and subtopics writ in large red majuscule letters scrolling past: KRAV CONTACT, SUMO, WRESTLING, SAVATE, KUNG FU, JU JITSU, NINJITSU, WRANG DO, FULL CONTACT… A still image of Bruce Lee from Enter the Dragon appears. This style of still-image and animated-text continues to play in a watch-and-learn way until it’s done, and then returns to the topic list.

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Here, as before, I am examining things unmeant for examination. Still, I have a job to do. In the diegesis of the film, the text flies by too quick for anyone but a perfect Mondoshawan to read. But here in the real world, I hit pause. There I learned that the paragraph of text in the background has nothing to do with martial arts. We only see snippets, but they read as follows. (Please post your short sci-fi stories that can make sense of these lines in exactly this same order.)

: a hindu thus
talks to hi[s] troops about taking
d takes on a persona of its own.
monster, if it wants to live, have
loved. We then get a news flash
cult (think Waco siege coverage)

This little bit of text reads much more like a script than an encyclopedia entry. Like it was a bit of text just lying around on someone’s computer. In any case it would not help Leeloo learn Jeet Kun Do in the slightest.

On the right side of the screen (see above) we also see a vertical green rectangle. At the top is the number 5, bookended with arrows. Below that is a graph, a set of thumbnail images (whose captions are too small to read) are linked by right-angle connecting lines, like what you might see in a tech-tree for a real-time strategy video game.

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When the display shifts to showing the subtopics, this green area changes. The 5 changes to a dot, and a grid of circular icons appears, each with a green rectangle to its right. The left column of icons is hard to decipher, but the right column of icons looks like control buttons one might expect: More detail, next in sequence, prior in sequence, zoom out, zoom all the way out, fast forward. Missing are common controls for video such as pause and play. A the bottom is a button labeled “EDIT”. This control panel is not seen in use.

It’s still about the learning, stupid

That stuff on the left is pointless. Of course that bit from a script is goofy. The animated stuff might be interesting for getting someone kind of excited about the topic, or maybe to remember how awesome martial arts (that they already knew about) are, but for learning any of it from a computer screen, she would have been better off spending time on youtube. Even the subtopics make no sense. Sure, they’re all martial arts, but what’s the order? Not alphabetical. Not age. Savate (18th century) is between wrestling and Sumo, both far more ancient. It’s not even a list of the same scope of thing. Aren’t Krav and Full Contact different translations for the same thing? Anyway, learning the vocabulary of a domain is only a rudimentary first step to actually learning it, much less performing it. Good thing she’s “perfect.”

The first green area on the right does actually seem useful for learning. It’s an abstract representation of how some things fit together. There’s a relationship implied between parts. It may also provide a map to a bigger picture in which this particular topic fits. That’s actually pretty useful and even Wikipedia adopts it for entries that fit into larger domains of knowledge. So, OK, we’ll cut it some slack there.

The second green area, even though I’m doing a lot of inference there from icons, also seems like it might be pretty useful. It’s too bad we don’t get to see it in action.

Better for Leeloo’s purposes of learning a topic—even if you did it blazingly fast—would be to provide her a definition, a bit about the history, and then some blazingly fast how-tos of modern practice augmented with the principles at work in each of the examples.

5E-opedia: Search

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Leeloo learns about the facts of the human race which she is destined to save through an online encyclopedia available to her in many places: in Cornelius’’ home, the spaceship to Fhloston Paradise, and aboard Zorg’’s ship. Three modes are seen for it. Today we discuss the third mode, which is to search for an in-depth topic.

Search

When Leeloo experiences full-scale combat with Zorg and the Mangalores aboard Fhloston Paradise, she grows curious about war. On the route back to Earth aboard Zorg’s ship, she once again returns to the online encyclopedia she’s been referencing throughout the film. When she sits down, it just so happens that the system is in the middle of the W topics. It is amid “we*” and “wh*” words. “Weapon” is at the top, so maybe that’s what Zorg was looking for.

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To access a particular topic not on screen, she simply begins typing. She types “WAR,” the letters filling the screen in green all-caps, and the entry for war begins playing. This entry is different than the prior one seen on martial arts. This is simply a series of still images presented serially, around four dozen that culminate in an image of the French test of an atomic weapon at Mururoa Atoll.

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Two small nuances to note. The first is that we don’t see a result of possible search results. Like Wikipedia, there is a main entry for war, and it presumes that’s the one she means. If it’s wrong, she can interrupt. That’s a smart default that will work in most cases.

The second is that we don’t see or hear Leeloo hit an “enter” key after she finishes typing “war.” (The other keys each emit a small beep.) How did the system know she wasn’t continuing on to “warrior” or “warship”? A smart system would be able to interpret the pause after the “r” as a likely end, once it passes an outer threshold for her typical typing speed, and begin to show her the “war” entry. Then, if she continued to add another letter just outside that threshold, it could evaluate the string. If it might be a continuation, like typing an “s” for “warship” it could pause the display and wait. If a continuation wouldn’t make any sense, like “warx,” it could presume she was entering a new word beginning with “x” or help her recover in case it was just a plain old typo.

Interestingly, this is kind of the way Google Instant search works. Did the designers for The Fifth Element accidentally invent it 13 years ahead of Google?

Despite that cool possibility, I have to ding this entry for not really explaining anything. Some aren’t really about war but about terror, such as the image of the burning cross at a KKK rally. But even for the others, yes, they are horrific images. And they are a stinging reminder of the horrors that accompany war. But they really only work for someone with the prior knowledge of what they describe. Steve McCurry‘s haunting image of a tank in Kuwait, for instance, inspires despair only if you know the full background story of that war, and this sequence certainly does not provide it to Leeloo.

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Ultimately, regardless of the mode this encyclopedia is in, it is a cinematic conceit that we should not take as a good example of rapid learning for the real world.