St. God’s: Unscannable Panic

During Joe’s consultation with Dr. Lexus, all the clues he has been stumbling past finally begin to sink in. When Dr. Lexus asks him to pay the bill, and—thinking Joe is mentally challenged—instructs him to put his tattoo up to the OmniBro payment system, he realizes that Joe has no barcode on his wrist.

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The doctor is absolutely terrified of this. He can barely conceive it. “Why come you don’t have a tattoo?” [sic] “You’re not unscannable, are you‽…You’re unscannable!!” In a panic he reaches out to his treatment panel and smashes the lower-left hand icon, shouting, “UNSCANNABLE!!” This causes a klaxon to sound and red beacon light to blink. Joe realizes he can’t stay and flees.

The panel

Dr. Lexus has a 3×4 mini-panel similar to Biggiez’ intake interface. It gets only a blurry half a second of screen time, but through the annoying power of screengrab, I can see that they’re a subset of the graphics from the intake interface.

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Artists’ janky interpretation

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Zorg’s desk

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When Zorg begins to choke on a cherry pit, in his panic he pounds a numeric keypad on his desk, clearly hoping that this will contact someone or help him in some way. His clumsy mashing instead causes a number of bizarre things to happen around his office; i.e. the doors lock, a lifejacket inflates (bearing the charming label “HEAD THROUGH HOLE”), a cactus raises and lowers, a Rolodex of photographs appears and spins wildly, a rack begins to shoot plastic wrapped tuxedo shirts into the air, cards spit out of a slot, and a strange piglet-sized, hairless pet with a trunk is roused from its napping place as it raises to the surface of the desk and stares at Zorg helplessly.

In the talk I give about the lines of influence between interfaces in sci-fi and the real world, I cite this as a negative example of affective computing.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, affective computing largely deals with giving computers a sense of emotion or empathy for their users. In this case, of course Zorg doesn’t want to summon his elephantito from its adorable genetically modified slumber. He’s panicking. He wants help. The joke in the scene is largely about how the unfeeling technology on which Zorg relies is of little practical value in a crisis, but we know that a smarter design would have accounted for this case of panicked mashing.

If (a bunch of key chords are pressed rapidly in succession) {summon help}.

Interaction designers should take care to learn from this fictional example that though some scenarios may be rare, they may be dire enough to demand design attention.

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This poor Ouliman Akaptan is named Picasso, designed by Hélène Girard.

For a general analysis, I find the number pad to be the worst choice of input for this system. On the plus side it’s useful for arbitrarily-long combinatorial and chorded input. It’s for this reason the telephone network system adopted this strategy to provide access to any one of its 10,000,000,000 nodes. (And that’s only with a ten digit number.) Fine. If Zorg needs a phone pad for dialing numbers than give him a phone. But for this desk interface, it burdens his long-term memory, forcing him to remember the codes for the things he wants. If he really has only around a dozen or so things to control, give him individual controls that are well grouped, distinguished, labeled, and mapped. Also in taking this tack, someone in his service might have thought to give the vengeful, psychopathic industrialist an actual panic button.

Interior Doors

Certain doors within Prometheus require the user open them by providing input to a glowing keypad on the door. Reviewing these door panels in detail shows a great deal of variation in their design and interaction.

Descriptions

The first one we see has the panel to the left within arm’s reach of the door’s central seam. To open this door, David touches a black square on the interface, though its details are difficult to see. We do hear a beeping to confirm the touch before the door whooshes open.

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We get a clearer view of the panel that lets him into a hallway. This door is just around a meter wide, and the panel is on the left near the frame at chest level. This vertical panel has white safety stripes at the top, with a yellow row of buttons below that. The middle of the panel has two columns on the left and right edges stacked with buttons, and a 4×3 grid of buttons, labeled with characters that look something like Braille, but that don’t translate readily from English Braille, and with some of the dots in the cells larger or brighter than others. Below that grid of buttons is a white duplication of the yellow buttons above. At the bottom is a red duplication of the safety stripes button at the top.

To gain access to the hallway (where the destination threshold event occurs), David presses two keys at once—what would be the 2 and 4 keys on a telephone keypad—and the door slides open.

Later he touches the same chord of keys to open a door for Shaw and Holloway.

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There is another design for the door panel outside of Meredith’s room. This panel has the white safety stripe button, the Braille-ish panel (but with the left column colored yellow), a new yellow panel of triangles, and the red safety stripe button at the bottom.

The door is slightly open when he approaches it, but unpassable. After Meredith commands, “Robe!” he presses the “5” key on the panel and the door opens fully. This panel is on the right side of the door.

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The panel to exit Weyland’s sickbay is on the door just to the left. When Shaw wants to leave the room after her traumatizing alien-abortion, she slams both hands against the panels, sliding her fingers along it and pressing what sounds like five separate buttons.

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The panel that gives Shaw access back into the escape pod’s sickbay is again different, with many of the same elements from other panels, but a row of five yellow ovals outlined below the safety stripes button at the top.

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This is the only time we also see the panel on the far side of the same door. We only see a corner of it, but it does not have ovals on the other side, and some circular elements below the Braille panel. It is probably the same design as on Meredith’s door.

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Then when the alien breaks into the escape pod and pins her against this door, we see a close up of a panel, but this one appears identical to the one on the inside of the door, rather than the yellow-oval one we saw moments before. It also appears to be identical to the one on the inside of the door (and outside Meredith’s quarters.) A confusing detail in this panel is that while similar “Braille” cells are differentiated in other panels by a variation in the dots, in this one the the “3” and “6” keys seem to be the exact same character, highlights and all. Since we don’t know the meanings of this character, it could be a “shift” or modifier key which bears repeating, we don’t know. To activate this panel, she slams her left hand downward onto it. This opens the door, freeing the massive xenomorph alien within to grapple the architect alien.

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And finally, when we see her escaping the hallway where the aliens are locked in combat, she approaches a door with an oval interface, which she opens by slamming the heel of her palm against it with a grunt.

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Analysis

Passing through doorways is probably one of the most common non-work activities that a crew member can do onboard a spaceship. To have crewmember key in a password every time seems like a pointless waste of everyone’s time. There are so many passive ways to check identity to authorize access that it seems silly to even bother to list them. Why not use any of these alternate technologies?

Add to that that each door panel seems to have a different one of half-dozen different designs, placed randomly on the left or right side of the door, and at least in the escape pod, multiple designs per door at several different heights. What value can there be to this chaos? It would be grossly error prone and frustrating. This level of randomness to the interface even defies the notion of it being a watchclock.

Since David and Shaw each had multiple, different-length passwords for different doors, it might seem that it’s a security measure. But when it can be opened with a punch or a hand bump, is it really security? Giving this aspect of the design the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it has some contextual awareness of Shaw’s heightened stress levels, and responds to the affective command where it might not in normal circumstances. This affective computing apology would be the way you wanted doors to work, but the film gives no evidence that this is what is at play.

Given the apparent randomness of the other panel interfaces, even apology ultimately fails us in making sense of these confusing interfaces.