Alphy’s first action in the film is to announce a call from Dianthus, President of Earth and Rotating Premier of the Sun System. During Alphy’s announcement, a free-standing mock-classical sculpture of a woman shifts to enlarge the crescent frame she holds above her shoulder. This becomes the organically-shaped view screen for the videophone conference between Barbarella and the President.
When it is fully extended, the frame fills with the video feed from Dianthus. No camera mechanism is seen. The gaze matching (see Chapter 4, Volumetric Projection) is handled somewhat mysteriously. For an early part of the conversation Dianthus is looking directly at her breasts rather than her eyes. Barbarella was steeped in the sexual freedom utopia tropes of its day, but this actually seems to be an error in presentation, since neither acknowledges it. Also Dianthus appears at several distances and heights during the course of the fall, sometimes sitting and sometimes standing. He must have had a cameraman. This isn’t inconceivable for a President of Earth, but not yet scalable for mass market use.
When during the call Barbarella gets upset at the possibility of “archaic insecurity,” she crosses to the far side of the statue. This reveals that the display surface is two-dimensional, and displays perfectly from both sides. During her movement, Dianthus follows her and turns around to talk with her from the other side of the statue. We do see at the beginning of the conversation that his camera moves, so he has some kind of different setup than hers. This raises some curious questions about what Dianthus is seeing from his side of the exchange, but alas, we are never shown, so it is an exercise left for the designer/fan.
As with the Purple Drank, controls are never seen for this communication. Alphy handles absolutely everything.
When Korben stands up, his bed recognizes the change. In response it pulls the messy bed and linens away, where they will be “autowashed,” i.e. automatically sanitized, remade, and sealed in plastic (for bedbug protection?) A fresh bed rises up to replace the messy one as the bedframe slides into the wall.
This automated response might be frustrating if it presumed too much. Say, if Korben got up in the night to use the restroom and came back to find his bed missing, so you’d want it to be as context-aware as possible. And there’s evidence that it’s not too smart a system. Later in the film Cornelius hides in the bed and is nearly suffocated as it tries to autowash the bed with him in it, and wraps him in plastic. I get the comedy in the scene, but really, if it had the sensors to know when Korben was laying down in it, it should have a safety that prevents that very thing when a person is there.
Korben does have manual controls. There are two panels of pushbuttons at waist height, about a meter apart on a sliver of wall above the bed recess. We don’t get great views of these panels, but we do see Korben using one of the buttons to hide General Munro and his cronies in the hideaway refrigerator. In the glimpses we get we can see that there are six buttons on each panel, each button labeled with a high-contrast icon. The leftmost button on each controls the bed. Pressing it when it’s hidden opens it. Pressing it when it’s open closes it and, as we saw before, starts the murderous autowash.
All told it’s a pretty awesome system. The agentive part of getting up is handled seamlessly. The alarm has gone off, Korben’s up, and having the bed disappear saves space in the room and removes the temptation of Korben’s slinking back to bed and making himself late for work. And to summon the bed or hide it manually at some unusual time, Korben has understandable, accessible controls. The main down side is the lack of a safety or panic button, and the comparatively minor annoyance that Korben has to tear that plastic off every night even if he just wanted to pass out after a long day of saving the world.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The door to the ship is a vertical slit in the otherwise seamless fuselage. The ramp extends and retracts as part of the door’s function. Gort is the only one in control of it. Klaatu can instruct Gort to open it with the command “Beringa!” and Gort wirelessly initiates the opening sequence.
This might seem to be a questionable security feature, since if Gort is not around, Klaatu cannot enter into the sanctuary of his ship. Fortunately Gort is both indestructible and immovable. The only time he leaves the proximity of the ship is after Klaatu dies. So it seems like his is like an invincible, semi-intelligent, and loyal concierge.
The internal doors are operated by proximity, but only open for Gort and Klaatu. They remain shut even as Helen pounds against them. This implies a combination of proximity sensor and some form of authentication. Since the ship does not display any of the intelligence that Gort does, this authentication is more likely to be something like an RFID chip than biometric authentication.
Citizens move between the distant parts of the city by means of a free, public transportation system. It is an ultra-light rail, featuring cars for two passengers, that move between long translucent tubes that connect the domes of the city. When one car stops at a station, its door slides open to allow exit and entry. We never see a car waiting behind another. Once seated, riders press a red button on a panel between the two seats (just visible in the screen capture below), and the car seals shut and takes off to the next station.
A small panel inside the car alerts passengers to the name of the next stop as well as any additional information that is of use. When Logan and Jessica head to Cathedral Station, the panel blinks a red light to draw their attention. (The paired green light is never seen illuminated. What’s it there for?) A female voice says “Entering a reservation for violent delinquents. Authorized persons only.” The screen before them reads, “personal risk area.” (For those wondering why it stops there at all, anyone can get out of their car here, but Logan has to use his personal communication device with Control to have the gate to Cathedral opened.
The panel and voice output are useful to alert riders whose attention has drifted. Text could be put in the environment of course, since this information rarely changes, but it’s a bit harder to read when it’s moving and isn’t as likely to gain a distracted rider’s attention.
The last bit of interface is the LED displays on the walls of fancier stops like Arcade (the dome with the shopping mall and Caroussel.) We never see this sign change, but it makes sense that while riders are at the station, it displays the stop as a reinforcing bit of information, and can display alternate messages for citizens waiting on a car otherwise.
The interface is incredibly simple because the system is so constrained. You have to hop on at a station, and like an airport tram or a shabbat elevator, the car runs along a fixed loop. You hop out when you’re there. The main negative issues I see are selecting a stop and perhaps safety.
Selecting a stop
It’s a waste of time and energy to have cars stopping and starting at unwanted stations. It can also be distracting to have the car tell you about all the intermediate stops when you’re not interested in them.
To solve this problem, the track system should be built with track bypasses so we have to worry less about track congestion at stops. Then riders could either ride the “local” from stop to stop, or optionally have some way to indicate their desired stop, bypassing the ones in between. What’s this indication look like? In the panopticon of Dome City, the Übercomputer can just listen to your conversations wherever you’re having them, and when you get to a car default to the stop expressed in conversation. Logan and Jessica had just spoken about Cathedral Station, so when they stepped in, it could have just asked them to confirm. If the selection was wrong, or no stop had been mentioned recently, riders should be able to speak their destination or the event to which they’re headed. As a last fallback, a screen displaying discrete options could allow them to select a destination by touch or gesture.
The safety issue is subtle, but if riders have no control over the cars, why are the seats facing forward? It’s much safer in a head-on collision to be seated “backward,” like an infant’s car seat. Psychologically, people are most comfortable sitting forward to see in the direction of potential collisions, but if you lived in an UberNanny State like Dome City, the system would just force people to sit in the safest way.
It’s going to be more complicated than this
Getting public transportation experience design right is tough enough. But it’s going to get more complicated. Here at the dawn of computer-driven cars and computer-requested and computer-wayfinding “routeless” busses, the challenges will be manifold. How do you signal a stop? How does it gracefully degrade? How do you pay? How do you get to a just-in-time defined stop? How do you indicate your destination(s), willingness to share the ride, and urgency? How do you not disenfranchise people just because they have no cell phone? Dome City is small and constrained enough to ignore such problems, like a light rail in a small, wealthy, downtown core, making it almost too simple to be instructive.
While preparing for his night cycle, Wall-E is standing at the back of his transport/home. On the back drop door of the transport, he is cleaning out his collection cooler. In the middle of this ritual, an alert sounds from his external speakers. Concerned by the sound, Wall-E looks up to see a dust storm approaching. After seeing this, he hurries to finish cleaning his cooler and seal the door of the transport.
A Well Practiced Design
The Dust Storm Alert appears to override Wall-E’s main window into the world: his eyes. This is done to warn him of a very serious event that could damage him or permanently shut him down. What is interesting is that he doesn’t appear to register a visual response first. Instead, we first hear the audio alert, then Wall-E’s eye-view shows the visual alert afterward.
Given the order of the two parts of the alert, the audible part was considered the most important piece of information by Wall-E’s designers. It comes first, is unidirectional as well as loud enough for everyone to hear, and is followed by more explicit information.
Equal Opportunity Alerts
By having the audible alert first, all Wall-E units, other robots, and people in the area would be alerted of a major event. Then, the Wall-E units would be given the additional information like range and direction that they need to act. Either because of training or pre-programmed instructions, Wall-E’s vision does not actually tell him what the alert is for, or what action he should take to be safe. This could also be similar to tornado sirens, where each individual is expected to know where they are and what the safest nearby location is.
For humans interacting alongside Wall-E units each person should have their own heads-up display, likely similar to a Google-glass device. When a Wall-E unit gets a dust storm alert, the human could then receive a sympathetic alert and guidance to the nearest safe area. Combined with regular training and storm drills, people in the wastelands of Earth would then know exactly what to do.
Why Not Network It?
Whether by luck or proper programming, the alert is triggered with just enough time for Wall-E to get back to his shelter before the worst of the storm hits. Given that the alert didn’t trigger until Wall-E was able to see the dust cloud for himself, this feels like very short notice. Too short notice. A good improvement to the system would be a connection up to a weather satellite in orbit, or a weather broadcast in the city. This would allow him to be pre-warned and take shelter well before any of the storm hits, protecting him and his solar collectors.
Other than this, the alert system is effective. It warns Wall-E of the approaching storm in time to act, and it also warns everyone in the local vicinity of the same issue. While the alert doesn’t inform everyone of what is happening, at least one actor (Wall-E) knows what it means and knows how to react. As with any storm warning system, having a connection that can provide forecasts of potentially dangerous weather would be a huge plus.
After the security ‘bot brings Eve across the ship (with Wall-e in tow), he arrives at the gatekeeper to the bridge. The Gatekeeper has the job of entering information about ‘bots, or activating and deactivating systems (labeled with “1”s and “0”s) into a pedestal keyboard with two small manipulator arms. It’s mounted on a large, suspended shaft, and once it sees the security ‘bot and confirms his clearance, it lets the ‘bot and the pallet through by clicking another, specific button on the keyboard.
The Gatekeeper is large. Larger than most of the other robots we see on the Axiom. It’s casing is a white shell around an inner hardware. This casing looks like it’s meant to protect or shield the internal components from light impacts or basic problems like dust. From the looks of the inner housing, the Gatekeeper should be able to move its ‘head’ up and down to point its eye in different directions, but while Wall-e and the security ‘bot are in the room, we only ever see it rotating around its suspension pole and using the glowing pinpoint in its red eye to track the objects its paying attention to.
When it lets the sled through, it sees Wall-e on the back of the sled, who waves to the Gatekeeper. In response, the Gatekeeper waves back with its jointed manipulator arm. After waving, the Gatekeeper looks at its arm. It looks surprised at the arm movement, as if it hadn’t considered the ability to use those actuators before. There is a pause that gives the distinct impression that the Gatekeeper is thinking hard about this new ability, then we see it waving the arm a couple more times to itself to confirm its new abilities.
The Gatekeeper seems to exist solely to enter information into that pedestal. From what we can see, it doesn’t move and likely (considering the rest of the ship) has been there since the Axiom’s construction. We don’t see any other actions from the pedestal keys, but considering that one of them opens a door temporarily, it’s possible that the other buttons have some other, more permanent functions like deactivating the door security completely, or allowing a non-authorized ‘bot (or even a human) into the space.
An unutilized sentience
The robot is a sentient being, with a tedious and repetitive job, who doesn’t even know he can wave his arm until Wall-e introduces the Gatekeeper to the concept. This fits with the other technology on board the Axiom, with intelligence lacking any correlation to the robot’s function. Thankfully for the robot, he (she?) doesn’t realize their lack of a larger world until that moment.
So what’s the pedestal for?
It still leaves open the question of what the pedestal controls actually do. If they’re all connected to security doors throughout the ship, then the Gatekeeper would have to be tied into the ship’s systems somehow to see who was entering or leaving each secure area.
The pedestal itself acts as a two-stage authentication system. The Gatekeeper has a powerful sentience, and must decide if the people or robots in front of it are allowed to enter the room or rooms it guards. Then, after that decision, it must make a physical action to unlock the door to enter the secure area. This implies a high level of security, which feels appropriate given that the elevator accesses the bridge of the Axiom.
Since we’ve seen the robots have different vision modes, and improvements based on their function, it’s likely that the Gatekeeper can see more into the pedestal interface than the audience can, possibly including which doors each key links to. If not, then as a computer it would have perfect recall on what each button was for. This does not afford a human presence stepping in to take control in case the Gatekeeper has issues (like the robots seen soon after this in the ‘medbay’). But, considering Buy-N-Large’s desire to leave humans out of the loop at each possible point, this seems like a reasonable design direction for the company to take if they wanted to continue that trend.
It’s possible that the pedestal was intended for a human security guard that was replaced after the first generation of spacefarers retired. Another possibility is that Buy-N-Large wanted an obvious sign of security to comfort passengers.
We learn after this scene that the security ‘bot is Otto’s ‘muscle’ and affords some protection. Given that the Security ‘bot and others might be needed at random times, it feels like he would want a way to gain access to the bridge in an emergency. Something like an integrated biometric scanner on the door that could be manually activated (eye scanner, palm scanner, RFID tags, etc.), or even a physical key device on the door that only someone like the Captain or trusted security officers would be given. Though that assumes there is more than one entrance to the bridge.
This is a great showcase system for tours and commercials of an all-access luxury hotel and lifeboat. It looks impressive, and the Gatekeeper would be an effective way to make sure only people who are really supposed to get into the bridge are allowed past the barriers. But, Buy-N-Large seems to have gone too far in their quest for intelligent robots and has created something that could be easily replaced by a simpler, hard-wired security system.
The Hover Chair is a ubiquitous, utilitarian, all-purpose assisting device. Each passenger aboard the Axiom has one. It is a mix of a beach-side deck chair, fashion accessory, and central connective device for the passenger’s social life. It hovers about knee height above the deck, providing a low surface to climb into, and a stable platform for travel, which the chair does a lot of.
A Universal Wheelchair
We see that these chairs are used by everyone by the time that Wall-E arrives on the Axiom. From BNL’s advertising though, this does not appear to be the original. One of the billboards on Earth advertising the Axiom-class ships shows an elderly family member using the chair, allowing them to interact with the rest of the family on the ship without issue. In other scenes, the chairs are used by a small number of people relaxing around other more active passengers.
At some point between the initial advertising campaign and the current day, use went from the elderly and physically challenged, to a device used 24/7 by all humans on-board the Axiom. This extends all the way down to the youngest children seen in the nursery, though they are given modified versions to more suited to their age and disposition. BNL shows here that their technology is excellent at providing comfort as an easy choice, but that it is extremely difficult to undo that choice and regain personal control.
The other major benefit to the users of the chair (besides the ease of travel and lifestyle) is the total integration of the occupant’s virtual social life, personal life, fashion (or lack-thereof), and basic needs in one device. Passengers are seen talking with friends remotely, not-so-remotely, playing games, getting updated on news, and receiving basic status updates. The device also serves as a source of advertising (try blue! it’s the new red!).
A slight digression: What are the ads there for? Considering that the Axiom appears to be an all-inclusive permanent resort model, the ads could be an attempt to steer passengers to using resources that the ship knows it has a lot of. This would allow a reprieve for heavily used activities/supplies to be replenished for the next wave of guests, instead of an upsell maneuver to draw more money from them. We see no evidence of exchange of money or other economic activity while on-board the Axiom…
OK, back to the social network.
It isn’t obvious what the form of authentication is for the chairs. We know that the chairs have information about who the passenger prefers to talk to, what they like to eat, where they like to be aboard the ship, and what their hobbies are. With that much information, if there was no constant authentication, an unscrupulous passenger could easily hop in another person’s chair, “impersonate” them on their social network, and play havoc with their network. That’s not right.
It’s possible that the chair only works for the person using it, or only accesses the current passenger’s information from a central computer in the Axiom, but it’s never shown. What we do know is that the chair activates when a person is sitting on it and paying attention to the display, and that it deactivates as soon as that display is cut or the passenger leaves the chair.
We aren’t shown what happens when the passenger’s attention is drawn away from the screen, since they are constantly focused on it while the chair is functioning properly.
If it doesn’t already exist, the hologram should have an easy to push button or gesture that can dismiss the picture. This would allow the passenger to quickly interact with the environment when needed, then switch back to the social network afterwards.
And, for added security in case it doesn’t already exist, biometrics would be easy for the Axiom. Tracking the chair user’s voice, near-field chip, fingerprint on the control arm, or retina scan would provide strong security for what is a very personal activity and device. This system should also have strong protection on the back end to prevent personal information from getting out through the Axiom itself.
Social networks hold a lot of very personal information, and the network should have protections against the wrong person manipulating that data. Strong authentication can prevent both identity theft and social humiliation.
Taking the occupant’s complete attention
While the total immersion of social network and advertising seems dystopian to us (and that’s without mentioning the creepy way the chair removes a passenger’s need for most physical activity), the chair looks genuinely pleasing to its users.
They enjoy it.
But like a drug, their enjoyment comes at the detriment of almost everything else in their lives. There seem to be plenty of outlets on the ship for active people to participate in their favorite activities: Tennis courts, golf tees, pools, and large expanses for running or biking are available but unused by the passengers of the Axiom.
Work with the human need
In an ideal world a citizen is happy, has a mixture of leisure activities, and produces something of benefit to the civilization. In the case of this social network, the design has ignored every aspect of a person’s life except moment-to-moment happiness.
This has parallels in goal driven design, where distinct goals (BNL wants to keep people occupied on the ship, keep them focused on the network, and collect as much information as possible about what everyone is doing) direct the design of an interface. When goal-driven means data driven, then the data being collected instantly becomes the determining factor of whether a design will succeed or fail. The right data goals means the right design. Wrong data goals mean the wrong design.
Instead of just occupying a person’s attention, this interface could have instead been used to draw people out and introduce them to new activities at intervals driven by user testing and data. The Axiom has the information and power, perhaps even the responsibility, to direct people to activities that they might find interesting. Even though the person wouldn’t be looking at the screen constantly, it would still be a continuous element of their day. The social network could have been their assistant instead of their jailer.
One of the characters even exclaims that she “didn’t even know they had a pool!”. Indicating that she would have loved to try it, but the closed nature of the chair’s social network kept her from learning about it and enjoying it. By directing people to ‘test’ new experiences aboard the Axiom and releasing them from its grip occasionally, the social network could have acted as an assistant instead of an attention sink.
Moment-to-moment happiness might have declined, but overall happiness would have gone way up.
The best way for designers to affect the outcome of these situations is to help shape the business goals and metrics of a project. In a situation like this, after the project had launched a designer could step in and point out those moments were a passenger was pleasantly surprised, or clearly in need of something to do, and help build a business case around serving those needs.
The obvious moments of happiness (that this system solves for so well) could then be augmented by serendipitous moments of pleasure and reward-driven workouts.
We must build products for more than just fleeting pleasure
As soon as the Axiom lands back on Earth, the entire passenger complement leaves the ship (and the social network) behind.
It was such a superficial pleasure that people abandoned it without hesitation when they realized that there was something more rewarding to do. That’s a parallel that we can draw to many current products. The product can keep attention for now, but something better will come along and then their users will abandon them.
A company can produce a product or piece of software that fills a quick need and initially looks successful. But, that success falls apart as soon as people realize that they have larger and tougher problems that need solving.
Ideally, a team of designers at BNL would have watched after the initial launch and continued improving the social network. By helping people continue to grow and learn new skills, the social network could have kept the people aboard the Axiom it top condition both mentally and physically. By the time Wall-E came around, and life finally began to return to Earth, the passengers would have been ready to return and rebuild civilization on their own.
To the designers of a real Axiom Social Network: You have the chance to build a tool that can save the world.
Me: Well…I like to think of myself as a design critic looking though the lens of–
The computer: “In your voice, I sense hesitance, would you agree with that?”
Me: Maybe, but I would frame it as a careful consider–
The computer: “How would you describe your relationship with Darth Vader?”
Me: It kind of depends. Do you mean in the first three films, or are we including those ridiculous–
The computer: Thank you, please wait as your individualized operating system is initialized to provide a review of OS1 in Spike Jonze’s Her.
A review of OS1 in Spike Jonze’s Her
Ordinarily I wait for a movie to make it to DVD before I review it, so I can watch it carefully, make screen caps of its interfaces, and pause to think about things and cross reference other scenes within the same film, or look something up on the internet.