Alien head sterilizer

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In the lab, Shaw and Ford investigate the alien head from the complex. They first seek to sterilize it. Though we don’t see how the process is initiated, after it is, a “dumb waiter” raises the head from some storage space to a glass-walled chamber where it is sprayed with some white mist. A screen displays an animation of waves passing along the surface of the head.

When the mist clears, a screen reads “SAMPLE STERILE. NO CONTAGION PRESENT,” which Ford dutifully repeats even though Shaw has a screen that says the exact same thing. Obscure metrics and graphs fill the edges of the screen.

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It might have been tempting for the designers to simply supply the analysis, i.e., “no contagion,” but by providing the data from which the analysis derives, the scientists can check and verify the data for themselves, so the combination is well considered.

There are several problems with this sterilization system.

The text of the analysis reads well and unambiguously, but the graphics would be more informative if they indicated their values within clear ranges. As they are, they push the burden of understanding the context of the values onto the scientists’ memories. If this was a very commonplace activity, this might not be much of an issue.

More importantly are the problems with the industrial design. First, this device seems surprisingly head-sized. Wouldn’t a crewmember be the most likely thing they’d have to sterilize? Shouldn’t it be bigger? But moreover, this device is in the wrong place on the ship. If it was infected with an alien pathogen, sterilizing it here is already too late. The pathogen has already spread everywhere between the airlock, the storage space, and on the hands of whoever had to move it between. It would be better if possibly unsterile material could be loaded into a decontamination system outside the ship, and then only once sterilized then pass through to the interior.

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Prometheus’ Flight instrument panels

There are a great many interfaces seen on the bridge of the Prometheus, and like most flight instrument panels in sci-fi, they are largely about storytelling and less about use.

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The captain of the Prometheus is also a pilot, and has a captain’s chair with a heads-up display. This HUD has with real-time wireframe displays of the spaceship in plan view, presumably for glanceable damage feedback.

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He also can stand afore at a waist-high panel that overlooks the ship’s view ports. This panel has a main screen in the center, grouped arrays of backlit keys to either side, a few blinking components, and an array of red and blue lit buttons above. We only see Captain Janek touch this panel once, and do not see the effects.

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Navigator Chance’s instrument panel below consists of four 4:3 displays with inscrutable moving graphs and charts, one very wide display showing a topographic scan of terrain, one dim panel, two backlit reticles, and a handful of lit switches and buttons. Yellow lines surround most dials and group clusters of controls. When Chance “switches to manual”, he flips the lit switches from right to left (nicely accomplishable with a single wave of the hand) and the switches lights light up to confirm the change of state. This state would also be visible from a distance, useful for all crew within line of sight. Presumably, this is a dangerous state for the ship to be in, though, so some greater emphasis might be warranted: either a blinking warning, or a audio feedback, or possibly both.

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Captain Janek has a joystick control for manual landing control. It has a line of light at the top rear-facing part, but its purpose is not apparent. The degree of differentiation in the controls is great, and they seem to be clustered well.

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A few contextless flight screens are shown. One for the scientist known only as Ford features 3D charts, views of spinning spaceships, and other inscrutable graphs, all of which are moving.

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A contextless view shows the points of metal detected overlaid on a live view from the ship.

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There is a weather screen as well that shows air density. Nearby there’s a push control, which Chance presses and keeps held down when he says, “Boss, we’ve got an incoming storm front. Silica and lots of static. This is not good.” Thought we never see the control, it’s curious how such a thing could work. Would it be an entire-ship intercom, or did Chance somehow specify Janek as a recipient with a single button?

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Later we see Chance press a single button that illuminates red, after which the screens nearby change to read “COLLISION IMMINENT,” and an all-ship prerecorded announcement begins to repeat its evacuation countdown.

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This is single button is perhaps the most egregious of the flight controls. As Janek says to Shaw late in the film, “This is not a warship.” If that’s the case, why would Chance have a single control that automatically knows to turn all screens red with the Big Label and provide a countdown? And why should the crew ever have to turn this switch on? Isn’t a collision one of the most serious things that could happen to the ship? Shouldn’t it be hard to, you know, turn off?

Destination threshold

As David is walking through a ship’s hallway, a great clanging sounds from deep in the ship, as the colored lights high in the walls change suddenly from a purple to a flashing red, and a slight but urgent beeping begins. He glances at a billiards table in an adjacent room, sees the balls and cue sliding, and understands that it wasn’t just him: gravity has definitely changed.

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There are questions about what’s going on with the ship that the gravity changed so fast, but our interest must be in the interfaces.

Why did David not expect this? If they’re heading to a planet and the route is known, David should know well in advance. The ship should have told him, especially if the event is going to be one that could potentially topple him. Presuming the ship has sensors to monitor all of this, it should not have come as a surprise.

The warning itself seems mostly well designed, using multiple modes of signal and clear warning signs:

  • Change in color from a soft to intense color (They even look like eyes squinting and concentrating in the thumbnails.)
  • A shift to red, commonly used for warning or crisis
  • Blinking red is a hugely attention-getting visual signal
  • Beeping is a auditory signal that is also a common warning signal, and hard to ignore

After David sees these signals, he walks to wall panel and presses a few offscreen buttons which beep back at him and silence the beeping, replacing it with overhead pulses of light that race up and down the hallway. Over the sound system a male voice announces “Attention. Destination threshold.”

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Why should David have to go find out what the crisis is at the wall interface? If he had been unable to get to the wall interface, how would he know what happened? Or if it required split-second action, why require of him to waste his time getting there and pressing buttons? In a crisis, the system should let you know what the crisis is quickly and intrusively if it’s a dire crisis in need of remedy. The audio announcement should have happened automatically.

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The overhead lights are almost a nice replacement for beeping. It still says, “alert” without the grating annoyance that audio can sometimes be. (There’s still a soft “click” with each shifting light, just not as bad.) But if he’s able to silence the audio at this wall panel, why wasn’t he able to silence the race lights as well? And why do they “race” up and down the hallway rather than just blink? The racing provides an inappropriate sense of motion. Given that this signal is for when the crew is in an unusual and potentially dangerous situation, it would be better to avoid the unhelpful motion cue by simply blinking, or to use the sense of direction they provide to signal to David where he ought to be. A simple option would be to have the hallway lights race continuously in the direction of the bridge, leading the crew to where they would be most effective. Even better is if the ship has locational awareness of individual crew members, then you can cut all overhead illumination by 20% and pulse a light a few feet away in the desired direction between 80 and 100 percent, while darkening the hallway in the opposite direction. Then, as David walks towards the blinking light, the ship can lead him, even around corners, to get him where he needs to be. In a real crisis, this would be an easy and intuitive way to lead people where they’re need to be. It would of course need simple overrides in case the crew knew something about the situation that the ship did not.

After walking through the racing-light hallways, he turns just past the door and into the bridge, where we can see the legend “DESTINATION THRESHOLD” across the pilots HUD. He turns on a light, licks a finger, and presses another button to activate all of the interfaces on the bridge. He walks to the pilot’s panel, presses a button to open the forward viewscreen, observing LV223 with wide-eyed wonder.

This entire sequence seems strange from an interface perspective. We’re going to presume that licking his fingers was just a character tic and not required by the system. But in addition to the fact, raised above, that David seems somewhat surprised by it all, that he should have to open doors and manually turn on lights and interfaces during a crisis seems pointless. It’s either not a crisis and these signals should diminish, or it is a crisis and more of this technology should be automated.

The breach

The breach is not well-handled by the systems around the control room. Not only do the lights not have a local backup power source, but the screens on the background display Big Labels saying unhelpful things like, “ESCAPE ALERT – UNKNOWN SECURITY BREACH.” If you were designing a system specifically to control nightmare monsters to sacrifice helpless victims, I think the first thing your risk officer should work out is a system that can recognize and withstand when one of those two things (monsters or victims) was out of place. The least you could do is provide users with extremely clear status messages about them.

Sitterson and Truman scan the video monitors for Dana and Marty.

Escape hatch

After the breach, we see one more interface for the stage managers: an old escape route. Even though Control is world-critical, its designers imagined that things could go haywire. Presuming that other scenarios are going fine, if all hope is lost in this one, the stage managers have a way out of the control room. We only get a few glimpses of this interface, but it looks to be a computer-controlled security access lock whose 8-bit graphics imply that it was implemented in the early 1990s, around the time when Microsoft Windows 3.1 was the dominant computing paradigm.

Sitterson desperately enters his PID.

After working desperately a bit, Sitterson is able to get the system to a screen that asks for his PID. He uses a rubber-key keypad below the screen to enter it, and is told “SECURITY OVERRIDE GRANTED.” In this way he is able to open the trap door and escape the monsters swarming the control room.

Especially given the amount of stress that a user is likely to be under while using this interface, and the infrequency with which it must be used, it seems absolutely cruel to secure the door by a memorized identification number. Unless that PID is used frequently enough to become habit, it’s unlikely to be remembered when the user is trying to escape death. Better is to use the ID cards already seen in the film in combination with some biometric scan like retina or finger print.

The “Resources”

There is a system in place to manage the “resources,” the nightmare creatures available to be chosen by the victims for their sacrifice. This management includes letting them out to the surface, putting them back in place safely, and containment throughout the intervening year between sacrifices.

Dana and Marty experience the cages from the perspective of a monster

The one interface element that we do see in use is the one that Dana and Marty use to release the imprisoned nightmare monsters throughout the complex. It is a single kill-switch button labeled “SYSTEM PURGE”, located on a panel in the security booth that overlooks the main elevator bank. While hiding from approaching security forces, Dana notices the switch beneath the monitoring screens. She flips a protective switch cover to enable it, sees a confirming amber light, and then slams down on the kill switch. Moments later, the first of several waves of nightmare monsters are released through the elevator doors into the complex.

Dana slams the System Purge kill switch.

From a story viewpoint, this is an awesome moment where the story becomes utter chaos and the workforce of jaded sacrificers get their horrible, horrible come-uppance. But from a design standpoint, it’s utter nonsense. Imagine a nuclear power plant where the kill switch, which is accessible through an unlocked door and labeled clearly for any saboteur to read, dumps live fuel rods and heavy water onto the heads of the plant operators. Or a zoo where the animals-are-furious-and-hungry switch dumps the animals right onto the grounds. A system like Control, with global reach and resources, would find some other space into which this murderous tsunami can be vented, and ensure proper security around the activation mechanism. Still, this makes for hilarious chaos and the “happy” ending, so as audience members we’re glad Control messed up on its design strategy.

Marty had already been shown to be able to hack Control’s electronics upstairs, so I suspect the narrative decision about the purge switch was made to give Dana some additional agency in this part of the story, and add some punch to the onset of the final act, so we’ll count that as a minor quibble, too.

Security and Control’s control

The mission is world-critical, so like a cockpit, the two who are ultimately in control are kept secure. The control room is accessible (to mere humans, anyway) only through a vault door with an armed guard. Hadley and Sitterson must present IDs to the guard before he grants them access.

Sitterson and Hadley pass security.

Truman, the guard, takes and swipes their cards through a groove in a hand-held device. We are not shown what is on the tiny screen, but we do hear the device’s quick chirps to confirm the positive identity. That sound means that Truman’s eyes aren’t tied to the screen. He can listen for confirmation and monitor the people in front of him for any sign of nervousness or subterfuge.

Hadley boots up the control room screens.

The room itself tells a rich story through its interfaces alone. The wooden panels at the back access Bronze Age technology with its wooden-handled gears, glass bowls, and mechanical devices that smash vials of blood. The massive panel at which they sit is full of Space Age pushbuttons, rheostats, and levers. On the walls behind them are banks of CRT screens. These are augmented with Digital Age, massive, flat panel displays and touch panel screens within easy reach on the console. This is a system that has grown and evolved for eons, with layers of technology that add up to a tangled but functional means of surveillance and control.

The interfaces hint at the great age of the operation.

Utter surveillance

In order for Control to do their job, they have to keep tabs on the victims at all times, even long before the event: Are the sacrifices conforming to archetype? Do they have a reason to head to the cabin?

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To these ends, there are field agents in the world reporting back by earpiece, and everything about the cabin is wired for video and audio: The rooms, the surrounding woods, even the nearby lake.

Once the ritual sacrifice begins, they have to keep an even tighter surveillance: Are they behaving according to trope? Do they realize the dark truth? Is the Virgin suffering but safe? A lot of the technology seen in the control room is dedicated to this core function of monitoring.

The stage managers monitor the victims.

There are huge screens at the front of the room. There are manual controls for these screens on the big panel. There is an array of CRTs on the far right.

The small digital screens can display anything, but a mode we often see is a split in quarters, showing four cameras in the area of the stage. For example, all the cameras fixed on the rooms are on one screen. This provides a very useful peripheral signal in Sitterson and Hadley’s visual field. As they monitor the scenario, motion will catch their eyes. If that motion is not on a monitor they expect it to be, they can check what’s happening quickly by turning their head and fixating. This helps keep them tightly attuned to what’s happening in the different areas on “stage.”

For internal security, the entire complex is also wired for video, including the holding cages for the nightmare monsters.

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The control room watches the bloody chaos spread.

One screen that kind of confuses us appears to be biometrics of the victims. Are the victims implanted with devices for measuring such things, or are sophisticated non-invasive environmental sensors involved? Regardless of the mechanisms, if Control has access to vital signs, how are they mistaken about Marty’s death? We only get a short glance at the screen, so maybe it’s not vital signs, but simple, static biometrics like height, and weight, even though the radiograph diagram suggests more.

Sitterson tries to avoid talking to Mordecai.

Communications

Sitterson and Hadley are managing a huge production. It involves departments as broad ranging as chemistry, maintenance, and demolitions. To coordinate and troubleshoot during the ritual, two other communications options are available beyond the monitors; land phone lines and direct-connection, push-to-talk microphones.

Hadley receives some bad news.

A disaster-avoidance service

The key system in The Cabin in the Woods is a public service, and all technological components can be understood as part of this service. It is, of course, not a typical consumer service for several reasons. Like the CIA, FBI, and CDC, the people who most benefit from this service—humanity at large—are aware of it barely, if at all. These protective services only work by forestalling a negative event like a terrorist action or plague. Unlike these real-world threats, if Control fails in their duties, there is no crisis management as a next step. There’s only the world ending. Additionally, it is not typical in that it is an ancient service that has built itself up over ages around a mystical core.

So who are the users of the service? The victims are not. They are intentionally kept in the dark, and it is seen as a crisis when Marty learns the truth.

Given that interaction design requires awareness of the service in question, as well as inputs and outputs to steer variables towards a goal, it stands that the organization in the complex are the primary users. Even more particularly it is Sitterson and Hadley, the two “stage managers” in charge of the control room for the event, who are the real users. Understanding their goals we can begin an analysis. Fittingly, it’s complex:

  • Forestall the end of the world…
  • by causing the (non-Virgin) victims to suffer and die before Dana (who represents the Virgin archetype)…
  • at the hand of a Horrible Monster selected by the victims themselves…
  • marking each successful sacrifice with a blood ritual…
  • while keeping the victims unaware of the behind-the-scenes truth.

Sitterson and Hadley dance in the control room.

Part of a larger network with similar goals

This operation is not the only one operating at the same time. There are at least six other operations, working with their particular archetypes and rituals around the world: Berlin, Kyoto, Rangoon, Stockholm, Buenos Aires, and Madrid.

To monitor these other scenarios, there are two banks of CRT monitors high up on the back wall, each monitor dedicated to a different scenario. Notably, these are out of the stage manager’s line of attention when their focus is on their own.

The CRT monitors display other scenarios around the world.

The digital screens on the main console are much more malleable, however, and can be switched to display any of the analog video feeds if any special attention needs to be paid to it.

The amount of information that the stage managers need about any particular scenario is simple: What’s the current state of an ongoing scenario, and whether it has succeeded or failed for a concluded one. We don’t see any scenario succeed in this movie, so we can’t evaluate that output signal. Instead, they all fail. When they fail, a final image is displayed on the CRT with a blinking red legend “FAIL” superimposed across it, so it’s clear when you look at the screen (and catch it in the “on” part of the blink) what it’s status is.

Sitterson watches the Kyoto scenario fail.

Hadley sees that other scenarios have all failed.

One critique of this simple pass-fail signal is that it is an important signal that might be entirely missed, if the stage managers’ attentions were riveted forward, to problems in their own scenario. Another design option would be to alert Sitterson and Hadley to the moment of change with a signal in their peripheral attention, like a flash or a brief buzz. But signaling a change of state might not be enough. The new state, i.e. 4 of 7 failed, ought to be persistent in their field of vision as they continue their work, if the signal is considered an important motivator.

The design of alternate, persistent signals depend on rules we do not have access to. Are more successful scenarios somehow better? Or is it a simple OR-chain, with just one success meaning success overall? Presuming it’s the latter, strips of lighting around the big screens could become increasingly bright red, for instance, or a seven-sided figure mounted around the control room could have wedges turn red when those scenarios failed. Such environmental signals would allow the information to be glanceable, and remind the stage managers of the increasing importance of their own scenario. These signals could turn green at the first success as well, letting them know that the pressure is off and that what remains of their own scenario is to be run as a drill.

There is a Prisoner’s Dilemma argument to be made that stage managers should not have the information about the other scenarios at all, in order to keep each operation running at peak efficiency, but this would not have served the narrative as well.