VID-PHŌN

At around the midpoint of the movie, Deckard calls Rachel from a public videophone in a vain attempt to get her to join him in a seedy bar. Let’s first look at the device, then the interactions, and finally take a critical eye to this thing.

The panel

The lower part of the panel is a set of back-lit instructions and an input panel, which consists of a standard 12-key numeric input and a “start” button. Each of these momentary pushbuttons are back-lit white and have a red outline.

In the middle-right of the panel we see an illuminated orange logo panel, bearing the Saul Bass Bell System logo and the text reading, “VID-PHŌN” in some pale yellow, custom sans-serif logotype. The line over the O, in case you are unfamiliar, is a macron, indicating that the vowel below should be pronounced as a long vowel, so the brand should be pronounced “vid-phone” not “vid-fahn.”

In the middle-left there is a red “transmitting” button (in all lower case, a rarity) and a black panel that likely houses the camera and microphone. The transmitting button is dark until he interacts with the 12-key input, see below.

At the top of the panel, a small cathode-ray tube screen at face height displays data before and after the call as well as the live video feed during the call. All the text on the CRT is in a fixed-width typeface. A nice bit of worldbuilding sees this screen covered in Sharpie graffiti.

The interaction

His interaction is straightforward. He approaches the nook and inserts a payment card. In response, the panel—including its instructions and buttons—illuminates. A confirmation of the card holder’s identity appears in the in the upper left of the CRT, i.e. “Deckard, R.,” along with his phone number, “555-6328” (Fun fact: if you misdialed those last four numbers you might end up talking to the Ghostbusters) and some additional identifying numbers.

A red legend at the bottom of the CRT prompts him to “PLEASE DIAL.” It is outlined with what look like ASCII box-drawing characters. He presses the START button and then dials “555-7583” on the 12-key. As soon as the first number is pressed, the “transmitting” button illuminates. As he enters digits, they are simultaneously displayed for him on screen.

His hands are not in-frame as he commits the number and the system calls Rachel. So whether he pressed an enter key, #, or *; or the system just recognizes he’s entered seven digits is hard to say.

After their conversation is complete, her live video feed goes blank, and TOTAL CHARGE $1.25, is displayed for his review.

Chapter 10 of the book Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction is dedicated to Communication, and in this post I’ll use the framework I developed there to review the VID-PHŌN, with one exception: this device is public and Deckard has to pay to use it, so he has to specify a payment method, and then the system will report back total charges. That wasn’t in the original chapter and in retrospect, it should have been.

Ergonomics

Turns out this panel is just the right height for Deckard. How do people of different heights or seated in a wheelchair fare? It would be nice if it had some apparent ability to adjust for various body heights. Similarly, I wonder how it might work for differently-abled users, but of course in cinema we rarely get to closely inspect devices for such things.

Activating

Deckard has to insert a payment card before the screen illuminates. It’s nice that the activation entails specifying payment, but how would someone new to the device know to do this? At the very least there should be some illuminated call to action like “insert payment card to begin,” or better yet some iconography so there is no language dependency. Then when the payment card was inserted, the rest of the interface can illuminate and act as a sort of dial-tone that says, “OK, I’m listening.”

Specifying a recipient: Unique Identifier

In Make It So, I suggest five methods of specifying a recipient: fixed connection, operator, unique identifier, stored contacts, and global search. Since this interaction is building on the experience of using a 1982 public pay phone, the 7-digit identifier quickly helps audiences familiar with American telephone standards understand what’s happening. So even if Scott had foreseen the phone explosion that led in 1994 to the ten-digit-dialing standard, or the 2053 events that led to the thirteen-digital-dialing standard, it would have likely have confused audiences. So it would have slightly risked the read of this scene. It’s forgivable.

Page 204–205 in the PDF and dead tree versions.

I have a tiny critique over the transmitting button. It should only turn on once he’s finished entering the phone number. That way they’re not wasting bandwidth on his dialing speed or on misdials. Let the user finish, review, correct if they need to, and then send. But, again, this is 1982 and direct entry is the way phones worked. If you misdialed, you had to hang up and start over again. Still, I don’t think having the transmitting light up after he entered the 7th digit would have caused any viewers to go all hruh?

There are important privacy questions to displaying a recipient’s number in a way that any passer-by can see. Better would have been to mount the input and the contact display on a transverse panel where he could enter and confirm it with little risk of lookie-loos and identity theives.

Audio & Video

Hopefully, when Rachel received the call, she was informed who it was and that the call was coming from a public video phone. Hopefully it also provided controls for only accepting the audio, in case she was not camera-ready, but we don’t see things from her side in this scene.

Gaze correction is usually needed in video conversation systems since each participant naturally looks at the center of the screen and not at the camera lens mounted somewhere next to its edge. Unless the camera is located in the center of the screen (or the other person’s image on the screen), people would not be “looking” at the other person as is almost always portrayed. Instead, their gaze would appear slightly off-screen. This is a common trope in cinema, but one which we’re become increasingly literate in, as many of us are working from home much more and gaining experience with videoconferencing systems, so it’s beginning to strain suspension of disbelief.

Also how does the sound work here? It’s a noisy street scene outside of a cabaret. Is it a directional mic and directional speaker? How does he adjust the volume if it’s just too loud? How does it remain audible yet private? Small directional speakers that followed his head movements would be a lovely touch.

And then there’s video privacy. If this were the real world, it would be nice if the video had a privacy screen filter. That would have the secondary effect of keeping his head in the right place for the camera. But that is difficult to show cinemagentically, so wouldn’t work for a movie.

Ending the call

Rachel leans forward to press a button on her home video phone end her part of the call. Presumably Deckard has a similar button to press on his end as well. He should be able to just yank his card out, too.

The closing screen is a nice touch, though total charges may not be the most useful thing. Are VID-PHŌN calls a fixed price? Then this information is not really of use to him after the call as much as it is beforehand. If the call has a variable cost, depending on long distance and duration, for example, then he would want to know the charges as the call is underway, so he can wrap things up if it’s getting too expensive. (Admittedly the Bell System wouldn’t want that, so it’s sensible worldbuilding to omit it.) Also if this is a pre-paid phone card, seeing his remaining balance would be more useful.

But still, the point was that total charges of $1.25 was meant to future-shocked audiences of the time, since public phone charges in the United States at the time were $0.10. His remaining balance wouldn’t have shown that and not had the desired effect. Maybe both? It might have been a cool bit of worldbuilding and callback to build on that shock to follow that outrageous price with “Get this call free! Watch a video of life in the offworld colonies! Press START and keep your eyes ON THE SCREEN.”

Because the world just likes to hurt Deckard.

St. God’s: Healthmaster Inferno

After Joe goes through triage, he is directed to the “diagnosis area to the right.” He waits in a short queue, and then enters the diagnosis bay.

The attendant wears a SMARTSPEEK that says, “Your illness is very important to us. Welcome to the Healthmaster Inferno.”

The attendant, DR. JAGGER, holds three small metal probes, and hands each one to him in turn saying, “Uh, this one goes in your mouth. This one goes in your ear. And this one goes up your butt.” (Dark side observation about the St. God’s: Apparently what it takes to become a doctor in Idiocracy is an ability to actually speak to patients and not just let the SMARTSPEEK do all the talking.)

Joe puts one in his mouth and is getting ready to insert the rest, when a quiet beeping causes the attendant to pause and correct himself. “Shit. Hang on a second.” He takes the mouth one back and hands him another one. “This one…No.” He gathers them together, and unable to tell them apart, he shuffles them trying to figure it out, saying “This one. This one goes in your mouth.” Joe reluctantly puts the offered probe into his mouth and continues.

The diagnosis is instant (and almost certainly UNKNOWN). SMARTSPEEK says, “Thank you for waiting. Dr. Lexus will be with you shortly.”

Idiocracy_diagnosis01

The probes

The probes are rounded, metal cylinders, maybe a decimeter in length. They look like 3.6mm audio plugs with the tips ground off. The interface-slash-body-horror joke is that we in the audience know that you shouldn’t cross-contaminate between those orifices in a single person, much less between multiple people, and the probes look identical. (Not only that, but they aren’t cleaned or used with a sterile disposable sheath, etc.) So Joe’s not sure what he’s about to have to put in his mouth, and DR. JAGGER is too dumb to know or care.

IDIOCRACY_diagnostic-and-carwash-ref.jpg

The bay

Modeled on car wash aethetics, the bay is a molded-plastic arch, about 4 meters to a side. The inside has a bunch of janky and unsanitary looking medical probes and tools. Around the entrance of the bay are an array of backlit signs, clockwise from 7 o’ clock:

  • Form one line | Do not push
  • (Two right-facing arrows, one blue, one orange)
  • (A stop sign)
  • (A hepatitis readout, from Hepatitis A to Hepatitis F, which does not exist.)
  • Tumor | E-Coli | Just gas | Tapeworm | Unknown
  • Gout | Lice | Leprosy | Malaria
  • (Three left-facing arrows, orange, blue, and magenta)
  • (The comp created for the movie tells…) Be probe ready | Thank you!

Theoretically, the lights help patients understand what to do and what their diagnosis is. But the instruction panels don’t seem to change, and once the patient is inside the bay, they can no longer see the diagnosis panels. The people in the queue and the lobby, however, can. So not only does it rob the patients of any bodily privacy (as they’re having to ram a probe up their rears), but it also robs them of any privacy about their diagnosis. HIPPA and GDPR are rolling around in their then-500 year old graves.

Hygiene

A better solution would of course focus on hygiene first, offering a disposable sheath for the probes. They should still be sterilized between patients.

Idiocracy_diagnosis05
Because this is such as visceral reminder, I’m nominating this as the top anti-example of affordances and constraints for new designers.

Better affordances

Second would be changing the design of the probes such that they were easy to distinguish between them. Color, shape, and labeling are initial ideas.

Better constraints

Third would be to constrain the probes so that…

  • The butt probe can’t reach up beyond the butt (maybe tying the cable to the floor? Though that means it’s likely to drop to the ground, which is clearly not sterile in this place, so maybe tying it the wall and having it klaxon loudly if it’s above butt height.)
  • The mouth probe can’t reach below the head (maybe tying the cable to the ceiling)
  • The ear probe should be smaller and ear-shaped rather than some huge eardrum-piercing thing.

And while modesty is clearly not an issue for people of Idiocracy, convention, modesty, and the law require us in our day to make this a LOT more private.

Prevention > remedy

Note that there is an error beep when Joe puts the wrong probe in his butt. Like many errors, by that time it is too late. It makes engineering sense for the machine to complain when there is a problem. It makes people sense to constrain so that errors are not possible, or at the very least, put the alarm where it will dissuade from error.

Also, can we turn the volume up on those quiet beeps to, say, 80 decibels? I think everyone’s interested in more of an alarm than a whisper for this.

Idiocracy_diagnosis06

A hidden, eviscerating joke

In addition to the base comedy—of treating diagnosis like a carwash, the interaction design of the missing affordances and constraints, and the poop humor of sticking a butt probe in your mouth—there is yet another layer of stupid evident here. Many of the diseases listed on the “proscenium” of the bay are ones that can be caused by, yep, ingesting feces. (Hepatitis A, Hepatitis E, tapeworm, E. “boli.”) Enjoy the full, appetizing list on Wikipedia. It’s a whole other layer of funny, and hearkens back to stories of when late-1800s doctors took umbrage at Ignaz Semmelweis’ suggestions that they wash their hands. (*huffgrumble* But we’re gentlemen! *monocle pop*) This is that special kind of stupid when people are the cause of their own problems, and refuse to believe it because they are either proud…or idiots.

But of course, we’re so much wiser today. People are never, say, duped into voting for some sense of tribal identity despite mountains of evidence that they are voting against their community, or even their own self-interest.

Fighting the unsanitary butt plugs of the Idiocracy

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Donate or join the phone bankers at Indivisible to talk people into voting, and perhaps some sanity into Idiocrats. Indivisible’s mission is “to cultivate and lift up a grassroots movement of local groups to defeat the Trump agenda, elect progressive leaders, and realize bold progressive policies.”