Colossus Computer Center

As Colossus: The Forbin Project opens, we are treated to an establishing montage of 1970’s circuit boards (with resistors), whirring doodads, punched tape, ticking Nixie tube numerals, beeping lights, and jerking control data tapes. Then a human hand breaks into frame, and twiddles a few buttons as an oscilloscope draws lines creepily like an ECG cardiac cycle. This hand belongs to Charles Forbin, who walks alone in this massive underground compound, making sure final preparations are in order. The matte paintings make this space seem vast, inviting comparisons to the Krell technopolis from Forbidden Planet.

Forbidden Planet (1956)
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1976)

Forbin pulls out a remote control and presses something on its surface to illuminate rows and rows of lights. He walks across a drawbridge over a moat. Once on the far side, he uses the remote control to close the massive door, withdraw the bridge and seal the compound.

The remote control is about the size of a smartphone, with a long antenna extending out the top. Etched type across the top reads “COLOSSUS COMPUTER SYSTEMS.” A row of buttons is labeled A–E. Large red capital letters warn DANGER RADIATION above a safety cover. The cover has an arrow pointing right. Another row of five buttons is labeled SLIDING WALLS and numbered 1–5. A final row of three buttons is labeled RAMPS and numbered 1–3.

Forbin flips open the safety cover. He presses the red button underneath, and a blood-red light floods the bottom of the moat and turns blue-white hot, while a theremin-y whistle tells you this is no place a person should go. Forbin flips the cover back into place and walks out the sealed compound to the reporters and colleagues who await him. 

I can’t help but ask one non-tech narrative question: Why is Forbin turning lights on when he is about to abandon the compound? It might be that the illumination is a side-effect of the power systems, but it looks like he’s turning on the lights just before leaving and locking the house. Does he want to fool people into thinking there’s someone home? Maybe it should be going from fully-lit to an eerie, red low-light kinda vibe.

The Remote Control

The layout is really messy. Some rows are crowded and others have way too much space. (Honestly, it looks like the director demanded there be moar buttins make tecc! and forced the prop designer to add the A–E.) The crowding makes it tough to immediately know what labels go with what controls. Are A–E the radiation bits, and the safety cover control sliding walls? Bounding boxes or white space or some alternate layout would make the connections clear.

You might be tempted to put all of the controls in strict chronological order, but the gamma shielding is the most dangerous thing, and having it in the center helps prevent accidental activation, so it belongs there. And otherwise, it is in chronological order.

The labeling is inconsistent. Sure, maybe A–E the five computer systems that comprise Colossus. Sliding walls and ramps are well labeled, but there’s no indication about what it is that causes the dangerous radiation. It should say something like “Gamma shielding: DANGER RADIATION.” It’s tiny, but I also think the little arrow is a bad graphic for showing which way the safety cover flips open. Existing designs show that the industrial design can signal this same information with easier-to-understand affordances. And since this gamma radiation is an immediate threat to life and health, how about foregoing the red lettering in favor of symbols that are more immediately recognizable by non-English speakers and illiterate people. The IAEA hadn’t invented its new sign yet, but the visual concepts were certainly around at the time, so let’s build on that. Also, why doesn’t the door to the compound come with the same radiation warning? Or any warning?

The buttons are a crap choice of control as well. They don’t show what the status of the remotely controlled thing is. So if Charles accidentally presses a button, and, say, raises a sliding wall that’s out of sight, how would he know? Labeled rocker switches help signal the state and would be a better choice.

But really, why would these things be controlled remotely? It be more secure to have two-handed momentary buttons on the walls, which would mean that a person would be there to visually verify that the wall was slid or the ramp retracted or whatever it is national security needed them to be.

There’s also the narrative question about why this remote control doesn’t come up later in the film when Unity is getting out of control. Couldn’t they have used this to open the fortification and go unplug the thing?

So all told, not a great bit of design, for either interaction or narrative, with lots of improvement for both.

Locking yourselves out and throwing away the key

At first glance, it seems weird that there should be interfaces in a compound that is meant to be uninhabited for most of its use. But this is the first launch of a new system, and these interfaces may be there in anticipation of the possibility that they would have to return inside after a failure.  We can apologize these into believability.

But that doesn’t excuse the larger strategic question. Yes, we need defense systems to be secure. But that doesn’t mean sealing the processing and power systems for an untested AI away from all human access. The Control Problem is hard enough without humans actively limiting their own options. Which raises a narrative question: Why wasn’t there a segment of the film where the military is besieging this compound? Did Unity point a nuke at its own crunchy center? If not, siege! If so, well, maybe you can trick it into bombing itself. But I digress.

“And here is where we really screw our ability to recover from a mistake.”

Whether Unity should have had its plug pulled is the big philosophical question this movie does not want to ask, but I’ll save that for the big wrap up at the end.

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The FloorMaster

As Joe wanders through the (incredibly depressing) lobby of St. God’s Memorial Hospital, it is at once familiar but wrong. One of these wrong things is a floor cleaning robot labeled The FloorMaster. It loudly announces “YOUR FLOOR IS NOW CLEAN!” while bumping over and over into a toe kick under a cabinet. (It also displays this same phrase on a display panel.) The floor immediately below its path is, in fact, spotless, but the surrounding floor is so filthy it is opaque with dirt, as well as littered with syringes and trash lined with unsettling stains.

There are few bananas for scale, but I’m guessing it’s half meter square. It has a yellow top with greed sides and highlights. It has bumpers and some

Narratively awesome

The wonderful thing about this device is it quickly tells us a couple of things at once. First, the FloorMaster is a technology that is, itself, kind of stupid. Today’s Roombas “know” to turn a bit when they bump into a wall. It’s one of the basic ways they avoid this very scenario. So this illustrates that the technology in this world is, itself, kind of stupid. (How society managed to make it this far without imploding or hell, exploding, is a mystery.)

It also shows that the people around the machines are failing to notice and do anything about the robot. They are either too dull to notice or this is just so common that it’s not worth doing anything about.

It also shows how stupid capitalism has become (it’s a running theme of St. God’s and the rest of the movie). It calls itself the floor master, but in no way has it mastered your floors. In no way are your floors clean, despite what the device itself is telling and blinking at you. And CamelCase brand names are so 1990s, much less 2505.

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Realistically stupid

So, I wrote this whole book about agents, i.e. technologies that persistently respond to triggers with behaviors that serve people. It’s called Designing Agentive Technologies: AI That Works for People. One of my recurring examples in that book and when I speak publicly about that content is the Roomba, so I have a bookload of opinions on how this thing should be designed. I don’t want to simply copy+paste that book here. But know that Chapter 9 is all about handoff and takeback between an agent and a user, and ideally this machine would be smart enough to detect when it is stuck and reach out to the user to help.

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I would be remiss not to note that, as with the The Fifth Element floor sweeping robots, safety of people around the underfoot robot is important. This is especially true in a hospital setting, where people may be in a fragile state and not as alert as they would ordinarily be. So unless this was programmed to run only when there was no one around, it seems like a stupid thing to have in a hospital. OK, chalk another point up to its narrative virtues.

Fighting US Idiocracy

Speaking of bots, there is a brilliant bot that you can sign up for to help us resist American idiocracy. It’s the resistbot, and you can find it on Facebook messenger, twitter, and telegram. It provides easy ways to find out who represents you in Congress, and deliver messages to them in under 2 minutes. It’s not as influential as an in-person visit or call, but as part of your arsenal, it helps with reminders for action. Join!

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Jasper’s home alarm

When Theo, Kee, and Miriam flee the murderous Fishes, they take refuge in Jasper’s home for the night. They are awoken in the morning by Jasper’s sentry system.

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A loud cacophonous alarm sounds, made up of what sounds like recorded dog barks, bells clanging, and someone banging a stick on a metal trash can lid. Jasper explains to everyone in the house that “It’s the alarm! Someone’s breaking in!”

They gather around a computer screen with large speakers on either side. The screen shows four video feeds labeled ROAD A, FOREST A, FRONT DOOR, and ROAD B. Labels reading MOTION DETECTED <> blink at the bottom of the ROAD A and ROAD B feeds, where we can see members of the Fishes removing the brush that hides the driveway to Jasper’s house. Continue reading

Cyberspace: Beijing Hotel

After selecting its location from a map, Johnny is now in front of the virtual entrance to the hotel. The virtual Beijing has a new color scheme, mostly orange with some red.

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The “entrance” is another tetrahedral shape made from geometric blocks. It is actually another numeric keypad. Johnny taps the blocks to enter a sequence of numbers.

The tetrahedral keypad

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Note that there can be more than one digit within a block. I mentioned earlier that it can be difficult to “press” with precision in virtual reality due to the lack of tactile feedback. Looking closely, here the fingers of Johnny’s “hands” cast a shadow on the pyramid, making depth perception easier. Continue reading

Cyberspace: the hardware

And finally we come to the often-promised cyberspace search sequence, my favourite interface in the film. It starts at 36:30 and continues, with brief interruptions to the outside world, to 41:00. I’ll admit there are good reasons not to watch the entire film, but if you are interested in interface design, this will be five minutes well spent. Included here are the relevant clips, lightly edited to focus on the user interfaces.

Click to see video of The cyberspace search.

Click to see Board conversation, with Pharmakom tracker and virus

First, what hardware is required?

Johnny and Jane have broken into a neighbourhood computer shop, which in 2021 will have virtual reality gear just as today even the smallest retailer has computer mice. Johnny clears miscellaneous parts off a table and then sits down, donning a headset and datagloves.

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Headset

Headsets haven’t really changed much since 1995 when this film was made. Barring some breakthrough in neural interfaces, they remain the best way to block off the real world and immerse a user into the virtual world of the computer. It’s mildly confusing to a current day audience to hear Johnny ask for “eyephones”, which in 1995 was the name of a particular VR headset rather than the popular “iPhone” of today. Continue reading

Video Phone Calls

The characters in Johnny Mnemonic make quite a few video phone calls throughout the film, enough to be grouped in their own section on interfaces.

The first thing a modern viewer will note is that only one of the phones resembles a current day handheld mobile. This looks very strange today and it’s hard to imagine why we would ever give up our beloved iPhones and Androids. I’ll just observe that accurately predicting the future is difficult (and not really the point) and move on.

More interesting is the variety of phones used. In films from the 1950s to the 1990s, everyone uses a desk phone with a handset. (For younger readers: that is the piece you picked up and held next to your ear and mouth. There’s probably one in your parents’ house.) The only changes were the gradual replacement of rotary dials by keypads, and some cordless handsets. In 21st century films everyone uses a small sleek handheld box. But in Johnny Mnemonic every phone call uses a different interface.

New Darwin

First is the phone call Johnny makes from the New Darwin hotel.

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As previously discussed, Johnny is lying in bed using a remote control to select numbers on the onscreen keypad. He is facing a large wall mounted TV/display screen, with what looks like a camera at the top. The camera is realistic but unusual: as Chapter 10 of Make It So notes, films very rarely show the cameras used in visual communication. Continue reading

High Tech Binoculars

In Johnny Mnemonic we see two different types of binoculars with augmented reality overlays and other enhancements: Yakuz-oculars, and LoTek-oculars.

Yakuz-oculars

The Yakuza are the last to be seen but also the simpler of the two. They look just like a pair of current day binoculars, but this is the view when the leader surveys the LoTek bridge.

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I assume that the characters here are Japanese? Anyone?

In the centre is a fixed-size green reticule. At the bottom right is what looks like the magnification factor. At the top left and bottom left are numbers, using Western digits, that change as the binoculars move. Without knowing what the labels are I can only guess that they could be azimuth and elevation angles, or distance and height to the centre of the reticule. (The latter implies some sort of rangefinder.) Continue reading

Bulkhead Doors

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At every major intersection, and at the entrance to each room, the Battlestar Galactica has very large pressure doors.  These doors each have a handle and a large wheel on each side.  During regular operation crewmembers open the door with the handle and close it firmly, but do not spin the wheel.  Occasionally, we see crew using the wheel as a leverage point to close the door.

 

Sealing it off

We never directly see a crewmember spin the wheel on the door after it closes.  While Chief Tyrol is acting as head of damage control, he orders all bulkheads in a section of the ship sealed off.  This order is beyond the typical door closing that we witness day-to-day.

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This implies that the door has three modes: Open, Closed, and Sealed.

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Crewmembers could use the door most of their day in an open or closed mode, where an easy pull of the handle unlatches the door and allows them to enter or leave quickly.  In an emergency, a closed door could be sealed by spinning the valve wheel on one side of the door.

 

Danger?

As with other parts of the Galactica, the doors are completely manual, and cannot be activated remotely. (Because Cylon hacking made them go network-less.) Someone has to run up to the door in an emergency and seal it off.

One worry is that, because there is a valve wheel on both sides, an untrained crewmember might panic and try to unseal the door by turning it in the wrong direction.  This would endanger the entire crew.

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The other worry is that the valve spins along a single axis (we see no evidence either way during the show), requiring the crew to know which side of the door they were on to seal it against a vacuum.  “Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey” would fail in this instance, and might cause hesitation or accidental unsealing in an actual emergency.

Ideally, the doors would have wheels that spun identically on either side, so that a clockwise spin always sealed the door, and a counter-clockwise spin always unsealed it.

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Current water-tight doors have two sides, the ‘important’ side and the ‘unimportant’ side.  The important side faces towards the ‘center’ of the vessel, or the core of the larger block of the ship, and can be sealed off quickly from that side with a wheel and heavy ‘dogs’.

Weathertight doors have a handle-latch on both sides that is connected (much like a doorknob), and can seal/unseal the door from either side.

If there is a technical limitation to that mechanism (unlikely, but possible), then a large and obvious graphic on the door (a clockwise or counterclockwise arrow) could serve to remind the crew which direction of turn sealed the door.  In this case, sealing the door is the primary action to call out because it is the action done under a panic situation, and the action most easily forgotten in the heat of the moment.

Otherwise, the doors could be a danger to the crew: the crew on the ‘safe’ side could seal the door against depressurization, but crew on the ‘unsafe’ side might try to unseal it to save themselves in a panic.

Air pressure might keep the door properly closed in this instance, but it is still a risk.

 

Effective?

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We see during the damage control incident that the doors are quickly closed and sealed by the crew, even in an emergency, making the rest of the ship airtight.  This either shows that the doors are effective at their job, or the crew is very well trained for such a situation.

Like the rest of the Galactica, the technology relies on people to work.  A couple hints or minor tweaks to that technology could make the crew’s lives much easier without putting them at danger from the Cylons or the empty void of space.

Imperial-issue Media Console

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When she wonders about Chewbacca’s whereabouts, Malla first turns to the Imperial-issue Media Console. The device sits in the living space, and consists of a personal console and a large wall display. The wall display mirrors the CRT on the console. The console has a QWERTY keyboard, four dials, two gauges, a sliding card reader, a few red and green lights on the side, and a row of randomly-blinking white lights along the front.

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Public Service Requests

As Malla approaches it, it is displaying an 8-bit kaleidoscope pattern and playing a standard-issue “electronics” sound. Malla presses a handful of buttons—here it’s important to note the difficulty of knowing what is being pressed when the hand we’re watching is covered in a mop—and then moves through a confusing workflow, where…

  1. She presses five buttons
  2. She waits a few seconds
  3. As she is pressing four more buttons…
  4. …the screen displays a 22-character string (a password? A channel designation?) ↑***3-   ↓3&39÷   ↑%63&-:::↓
  5. A screen flashes YOU HAVE REACHED TRAFFIC CONTROL in black letters on a yellow background
  6. She presses a few more buttons, and another 23-character string appears on screen ↑***3-   XOXOO   OXOOX   XOOXO-↑ (Note that the first six characters are identical to the first six characters of the prior code. What’s that mean? And what’s with all the Xs and Os? Kisses and hugs? A binary? I checked. It seems meaningless.)
  7. An op-art psychedelic screen of orange waves on black for a few seconds
  8. A screen flashes NO STARSHIPS IN AREA
  9. Malla punches the air in frustration.

So the first string is, what, a channel? And how do the five buttons she pressed map to that 22 character string? A macro? Why drop to a semi-binary for one command? And are the hugs-and-kisses an instruction? Is that how you write Shyriiwook? Why would it be Latin letters and Unicode characters rather than, say, Aurebesh? Who designed this command language? This orthography? This interface? Maybe it was what this guy was assigned to do after he was relieved of duty.

Video calls

When technology fails to find her sweetheart, Malla turns to her social network. She first uses her Illegal Rebel Comms device to talk to Luke and R2-D2 (next post), and afterwards, returns to the Media Console, which is back to its crappy TSR-80 BASIC-coded screen saver mode.

  1. She taps a few keys (a macro?)
  2. A new code appears: ↑***C-   ↓&&&0-   446B°-   TP%C
  3. The display reads: SUB TERMINAL 4468 (or 446E or maybe 446B. It’s a square font and Malla’s hairy arm is in the way.)
  4. She presses a few more keys
  5. The screen displays STAND BY for a few seconds
  6. Then the word CONNECT flashes a few times
  7. She presses a single button
  8. TRADING POST WOOKIE PLANET C flashes
  9. A live camera feed displays of the trading post

So it’s actually nice to see the first 5 characters of the string be different since this is a different mode: public function (↑***3-) versus video phone (↑***C-). It made me wonder if the codes were some sort of four part IP address, but then I saw the traffic control command is only three lines, so it’s not a consistent enough pattern. So I was hoping to find some secret awesomeness, but no.

Here’s the flow chart as completed by the demoted Stormtrooper designer (translated from the Aurebesh).

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Public Addresses

Not only is the interaction terrible, but it’s not really your device anyway. The Empire can take control of these screens for government business, like paging errant Stormtroopers. In these cases, an alarm sounds in the house, and then the Empire Video Feed comes online. No bizarre character strings. No flashing text. No arbitrary key presses.

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After all that, an Easy Mode

As if that wasn’t enough, the thing works differently later in the show. After he returns to the tree house, Saun uses the system to call the Imperial Officer to cover Han and Chewie’s murderous tracks with a lie. To make the call, all Saun has to do is insert an identification card, press the same key on the keyboard six times, and with no weird codes or substation identification interstitials, he is connected immediately to the Imperial officer. After the officer terminates their call, Saun presses another button a few times and removes his card. That’s it. It was almost easy.

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This tells us that the system can work fairly simply. If you’re calling the Empire. Or if you’re high enough social status and have the card to prove it. This technology just sucks. Maybe this is why the rebellion started.

Videoconferencing

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Marty Sr. answers a call from a shady business colleague shortly after coming home. He takes the call in the den on the large video screen there. As he approaches the screen, he sees a crop of a Renoir painting, “Dance at La Moulin de la Galette,” with a blinking legend “INCOMING CALL” along the bottom. When he answers it, the Renoir shrinks to a corner of the screen, revealing the live video feed with his correspondent. During the conversation, the Renoir disappears, and text appears near the bottom of the screen providing reminders about the speaker. This appears automatically, with no prompting from Marty Sr.

Needles, Douglas J.
Occupation: Sys Operations
Age: 47
Birthday: August 6, 1968
Address: 88 Oriole Rd, A6t
Wife: Lauren Anne
Children: Roberta, 23 Amy, 20
Food Prefence: Steak, Mex
Food Dislike: Fish, Tuna
Drinks: Scotch, Beer
Hobbies: Avid Basketball Fan
Sports: Jogging, Slamball, Tennis
Politics: None

This is an augmented reality teleconference, as mentioned in Chapter 8 of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction. See more information in that chapter. In short, it’s a particularly good example of one type of augmentation that is very useful for people having to interact with networks of people much larger than Dunbar’s number equips us for. Unfortunately, the information appears in a distracting scroll across the bottom, and is not particularly pertinent to the conversation, so could benefit from a bit of context awareness or static high-resolution display to be really useful. Continue reading