The Fermi Paradox

For its 60th anniversary I hosted a sci-if movie night at the Roxie cinema in San Francisco of the 1951 classic Forbidden Planet. It was delightful to see it on the big screen with the Roxie’s gorgeous projection system and hear that crazy soundtrack through their audio system.

After the show, I broke with my usual tradition of discussing any of the interfaces (after all, I’d already reviewed all of them on the blog years ago, and recently discussed the film in depth with the guys at Decipher Sci-fi) and instead discussed an idea that’s present in the film. In this handful of posts, I’m going to represent that content, but also add some additional content that there just wasn’t time for before we had to leave the cinema to make way for the next show.

Necessary Spoilers: In Forbidden Planet, a platoon travels to Altair IV to figure out why a 19-year old colony of scientists has gone silent. They meet Morbius, the only survivor of the original colony, and his daughter Altaira. They learn that Morbius has discovered the complete knowledge and technological remains of a long-dead, highly advanced civilization called the Krell. Through the Krell’s still-working machines Morbius has greatly enhanced his intelligence, but unwittingly unleashed an invisible “monster from the id” that has violently destroyed everyone but him and his family. Morbius refuses to return to Earth with Captain Adams, and so Adams grounds the mission while his crew uses parts of the ship to construct a communication device to ask for orders. During the downtime, with some truly wince-worthy 1950s slut-shaming courtship, Captain Adams somehow wins the heart of Altaira, who falls for it and defies her father and becomes engaged to the captain. Crushed by the betrayal, Morbius’ control of the monster wanes, and it attacks and defeats him. His world asunder, Morbius decides in his dying moments to scuttle the entire planet, including all traces of the Krell. From a safe observing distance in space, Adams, Altaira, and the surviving crew watch the explosion before heading back to Earth.

The movie presents one answer to a long-standing astronomical question,

“With 400 billion stars in our galaxy, and 400 billion galaxies in the observable universe, and billions of years of time since the start of the universe, even if only a very small fraction of stars produced advanced civilizations, where the hell is everybody? Why does space seem so devoid of life?

This question is commonly known as the Fermi Paradox. It’s not really a paradox in the logical sense, so it works better in discussions to call it the Fermi question. Continue reading

8 reasons you (yes, you) should study sci-fi interfaces

In a recent email exchange, Olli Sulopuisto of Nonfiktio (trigger warning: Finnish) asked me a damned fine question. I’m a fan of damned fine questions, and occasionally my answers make it out into the world.

His damned fine question(s) follow(s).

…is studying movie UIs, I dunno, useful? As in—does it function as an exercise, the same as breaking down and analyzing any UI would? Have you learned something from sci-fi interfaces that would’ve been more difficult or impossible to gain by other means?

What follows is a slightly edited version of my response to him. If you’re short on time, the short answer is “Yes,” but the fun comes in the form of this longer answer.

1. You build necessary skepticism.

Scifi is so very cool that—if we watch it but don’t study it—our stupid brains want to believe because it’s so cool that it also must be good and desirable. You might want the stuff you design to be like the stuff you’ve seen in the movies, when in fact even the cool stuff (maybe especially the cool stuff) would cause disasters in the real world. So studying it critically is important to build up your design immune system, your critical eye, so you are not led astray.

I speak about this in the Gorgeous+Catastrophic talk.

Continue reading

Iron Man HUD: A Breakdown

So this is going to take a few posts. You see, the next interface that appears in The Avengers is a video conference between Tony Stark in his Iron Man supersuit and his partner in romance and business, Pepper Potts, about switching Stark Tower from the electrical grid to their independent power source. Here’s what a still from the scene looks like.

Avengers-Iron-Man-Videoconferencing01

So on the surface of this scene, it’s a communications interface.

But that chat exists inside of an interface with a conceptual and interaction framework that has been laid down since the original Iron Man movie in 2008, and built upon with each sequel, one in 2010 and one in 2013. (With rumors aplenty for a fourth one…sometime.)

So to review the video chat, I first have to talk about the whole interface, and that has about 6 hours of prologue occurring across 4 years of cinema informing it. So let’s start, as I do with almost every interface, simply by describing it and its components. Continue reading

In case of evasion, BREAK GLASS

  • INT. FEDERATION ADVANCED RESEARCH & DESIGN
  • WOODS
  • You sent for me, sir?
  • ORTEGA
  • Yes I did…I did not, however, invite you to sit, Lieutenant.
  • WOODS
  • Sorry, sir.
  • ORTEGA
  • Are you aware that we have just lost contact with the Rodger Young?
  • WOODS
  • Everyone’s talking about it, sir.
  • ORTEGA
  • Well, I have the video feed from the bridge here. I understand you are the designer of the emergency evasion panel, and the footage raises some fundamental questions about that design. Watch with me now, Lieutenant.
  • ORTEGA PRESSES A BUTTON ON A CONSOLE ON HIS DESK. F/X: VIDEO WALL

StarshipTroopers-BreakGlass-01

Continue reading

Course optimal, the Stoic Guru, and the Active Academy

After Ibanez explains that the new course she plotted for the Rodger Young (without oversight, explicit approval, or notification to superiors) is “more efficient this way,” Barcalow walks to the navigator’s chair, presses a few buttons, and the computer responds with a blinking-red Big Text Label reading “COURSE OPTIMAL” and a spinning graphic of two intersecting grids.

STARSHIP_TROOPERS_Course-Optimal

Yep, that’s enough for a screed, one addressed first to sci-fi writers.

A plea to sci-fi screenwriters: Change your mental model

Think about this for a minute. In the Starship Troopers universe, Barcalow can press a button to ask the computer to run some function to determine if a course is good (I’ll discuss “good” vs. “optimal” below). But if it could do that, why would it wait for the navigator to ask it after each and every possible course? Computers are built for this kind of repetition. It should not wait to be asked. It should just do it. This interaction raises the difference between two mental models of interacting with a computer: the Stoic Guru and the Active Academy.

A-writer Continue reading

OS1 as a product (5/8)

Sure, Samantha can sort thousands of emails instantly and select the funny ones for you. Her actual operating system functions are kind of a given. But she did two things that seriously undermined her function as an actual product, and interaction designers as well as artificial intelligence designers (AID? Do we need that acronym now?) should pay close attention. She fell in love with and ultimately abandoned Theodore.

love

There’s a pre-Samantha scene where Theodore is having anonymous phone sex with a girl, and things get weird when she suddenly imposes some weird fantasy where he chokes her with a dead cat. (Pro Tip: This is the sort of thing one should be upfront about.) I suspect the scene is there to illustrate one major advantage that OSAIs have over us mere real humans: humans have unpredictable idiosyncrasies, whereas with four questions the OSAI can be made to be the perfect fit for you. No dead cat unless that’s your thing. (This makes me a think a great conversation should be had about how the OSAI would deal with psychopathic users.) But ultimately, the fit was too good, and Theodore and Samantha fell in love. Continue reading

Her interface components (2/8)

Depending on how you slice things, the OS1 interface consists of five components and three (and a half) capabilities.

Her-earpiece

1. An Earpiece

The earpiece is small and wireless, just large enough to fit snugly in the ear and provide an easy handle for pulling out again. It has two modes. When the earpiece is in Theodore’s ear, it’s in private mode, hearable only by him. When the earpiece is out, the speaker is as loud as a human speaking at room volume. It can produce both voice and other sounds, offering a few beeps and boops to signal needing attention and changes in the mode.

Her-cameo

2. Cameo phone

I think I have to make up a name for this device, and “cameo phone” seems to fit. This small, hand-sized, bi-fold device has one camera on the outside an one on the inside of the recto, and a display screen on the inside of the verso. It folds along its long edge, unlike the old clamshell phones. The has smartphone capabilities. It wirelessly communicates with the internet. Theodore occasionally slides his finger left to right across the wood, so it has some touch-gesture sensitivity. A stripe around the outside-edge of the cameo can glow red to act as a visual signal to get its user’s attention. This is quite useful when the cameo is folded up and sitting on a nightstand, for instance. Continue reading