The combadge & ideal wearables

There’s one wearable technology that, for sheer amount of time on screen and number of uses, eclipses all others, so let’s start with that. Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced a technology called a combadge. This communication device is a badge designed with the Starfleet insignia, roughly 10cm wide and tall, that affixes to the left breast of Starfleet uniforms. It grants its wearer a voice communication channel to other personnel as well as the ship’s computer. (And as Memory Alpha details, the device can also do so much more.)

Chapter 10 of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction covers the combadge as a communication device. But in this writeup we’ll consider it as a wearable technology.

Enterprise-This-is-Riker Continue reading

The Hover Chair


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.

But not a perfect interaction

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A better Circuit

The prior posts described The Circuit, critiqued it, investigated the salient aspects of matchmaking in Dome City, and threw up its hands saying that I’m going to have to rethink this one from scratch. In this post, I provide that redesign with the design rationale.

The scenario


Logan is out and about doing his (admittedly horrible) Sandman job. While riding in a transport across the city, his attention drifts to a young lady waiting with a friend on a platform. He thinks she’s lovely and smiles. She catches his eye and smiles, too, before looking away. In the transport, he looks up at a glowing blue point on the ceiling near the windshield. It pulses in response.

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Matchmaking in Dome City


So in prior posts I spent a lot of pixels describing and discussing the critical failures of the interaction design of the Circuit. The controls don’t make any sense. It is seriously one-sided. It doesn’t handle a user’s preferences. In this post we’re going to go over some of the issues involved in rethinking this design.

Circuit goals

As I express time and again in design projects—and teach in classes on interaction design—to design a system right you need to understand the goals of each actor. In a real-world project we might get more into it, but our “tuners” and “travelers” have some pretty simple goals to achieve in using The Circuit.

Goals of our users

  • Find a compatible partner for satisfying sexytimes™
  • Minimize social awkwardness
  • Have an easy way to opt out of mismatches and, if they’re just tired of it, of the whole matchmaking process for the evening


For Jessica, social awkwardness entails not getting matched with an authority, since she’s a resistance fighter. Continue reading

Is serial presentation a problem in The Circuit?


In the prior post I described the wonky sex teleporter known as The Circuit and began a critique. Today I go deep into a particular issue to finish the critque.

We only see Logan encounter two riders when using The Circuit, but we can presume that there are a lot of people on there. Why does it only show Logan a single choice at a time? If he actually has, say, 12 candidates that are a match, a serial presentation like this puts a significant burden on his memory. Once he gets to #12 and thinks he’s seen enough candidates, was it #3 or #5 he liked best?

The serial presentation also looks like it might make extra work. If he gets to #12 and decides he was most fond of #2, does he have to jump back through 10 people to get there? What does he say to each of them in turn? Does he have to reject them each again? How awkward is that? If not, and he can jump back to #2, what’s the control for that? Does he have to remember what station they were on and retune them in again? Continue reading

The Circuit


One of my favorite interfaces in Logan’s Run is one of the worst in the survey. It’s called The Circuit, and it’s a system for teleporting partners for casual sex right into your living room. ZOMGEVERYBODYSIGNUP.

Credit where it’s due: I first explored this interface in Issue 04 of Raymond Cha’s awesome print zine FAQNP in 2012. I’m going to go into even more nerdly depth on some of the topics here, but it was in that publication that I first got riled up about it. If you want to read those thoughts, you’ll need to go find a back issue and you totally should because the whole zine rocks.

Anyway, this interface is such a hot, hot mess that I have to break it up into a couple of posts. This first one is a description and the first part of a critique. Continue reading

The secret of the tera-keyboard


Many characters in Ghost in the Shell have a particular cybernetic augmentation that lets them use specially-designed keyboards for input.


To control this input device, the user’s hands are replaced with cybernetic ones. Normally they look and behave like normal human hands. But when needed, the fingers of these each split into three separate mini-fingers, which can move independently. These 30 spidery fingerlets triple the number of digits at play, dancing across the keyboard at a blinding 24 positions per second.


The tera-keyboard

The keyboards for which these hands were built have eight rows. The five rows nearest the user have single symbols. (QWERTY English?) Three rows farthest from the user have keys labeled with individual words. Six other keys at the top right are unlabeled. Each key glows cyan when pressed and is flush with the board itself. In this sense it works more like a touch panel than a keyboard. The board has around 100 keys in total.


What’s nifty about the keyboard itself is not the number of keys. Modern keyboards have about that many. What’s nifty is that you can see these keyboards are massively chorded, with screen captures from the film showing nine keys being pressed at once.


Let’s compare. (And here I owe a great mathematical debt of thanks to Nate Clinton for his mastery of combinatorics.) The keyboard I’m typing this blog post on has 104 keys, and can handle five keys being pressed at once, i.e, a base key like “S” and up to four modifier keys: shift, control, option, and command. If you do the math, this allows for 1600 different keypresses. That’s quite a large range of momentary inputs.

But on the tera-keyboard you’re able to press nine keys at once, and more importantly, it looks like any key can be chorded with any other key. If we’re conservative in the interpretation and presume that 9 keys must be pressed at once—leaving 6 fingerlets free to move into position for the next bit of input—that still adds up to a possible 2,747,472,247,520 possible keypresses (≈2.7 trillion). That’s about nine orders of magnitude more than our measley 1600. At 24 keypresses per second, that’s a data rate of 6.5939334e+13 per second.


So, ok, yes, fast, but it only raises the question:

What exactly is being input?

It’s certainly more than just characters. Unicode‘s 110,000 characters is a fraction of a fraction of this amount of data, and it covers most of the world’s scripts.

Is it words? Steven Pinker in his book The Language Instinct cites sources estimating the number of words in an educated person’s vocabulary is around 60,000. This excludes proper names, numbers, foreign words, any scientific terms, and acronyms, so it’s pretty conservative. Even if we double it, we’re still around the number of characters in Unicode. So even if the keyboard had one keypress for every word the user could possibly know and be thinking at any particular moment, the typist would only be using a fragment of its capacity.


The only thing that nears this level of data on a human scale is the human brain. With a common estimate of 100 billion neurons, the keyboard could be expressing the state of it’s users brain, 24 times a second, distinguishing between 10 different states of each neuron.

This also bypasses one of the concerns of introducing an input mechanism like this that requires active manipulation: The human brain doesn’t have the mechanisms to manage 30 digits and 9-key-chording at this rate. To get it to where it could manage this kind of task would need fairly massive rewiring of the brain of the user. (And if you could do that, why bother with the computer?)

But if it’s a passive device, simply taking “pictures” of the brain and sharing those pictures with the computer, it doesn’t require that the human be reengineered, just re-equipped. It requires a very smart computer system able to cope with and respond to that kind of input, but we see that exact kind of artificial intelligence elsewhere in the film.

The “secret”

Because of the form factor of hands and keyboard, it looks like a manual input device. But looking at the data throughput, the evidence suggests that it’s actually a brain interface, meant to keep the computer up to date with whatever the user is thinking at that exact moment and responding appropriately. For all the futurism seen in this film, this is perhaps the most futuristic, and perhaps the most surprising.