Profiling “CAT” scan

fifthelement-122

After her escape from the nucleolab, Leeloo ends up on a thin ledge of a building, unsure where to go or what to do. As a police car hovers nearby, the officers use an onboard computer to try and match her identity against their database. One officer taps a few keys into an unseen keyboard, her photograph is taken, and the results displays in about 8 seconds. Not surprisingly, it fails to find a match, and the user is told so with an unambiguous, red “NO FILE” banner across the screen.

fifthelement-128

This interface flies by very quickly, so it’s not meant to be read screen by screen. Still, the wireframes present a clear illustration of what the system doing, and what the results are.

The system shouldn’t just provide dead ends like this, though. Any such system has to account for human faces changing over the time since the last capture: aging, plastic surgery, makeup, and disfiguring accidents, to name a few. Since Leeloo isn’t inhuman, it could provide some results of “closest matches,” perhaps with a confidence percentage alongside individual results. Even if the confidence number was very low, that output would help the officers understand it was an issue with the subject, and not an issue of an incomplete database or weak algorithm.

One subtle element is that we don’t see or hear the officer telling the system where the perp is, or pointing a camera. He doesn’t even have to identify her face. It automatically finds her in the camera few, identifies her face, and starts scanning. The sliding green lines tell the officer what it’s finding, giving him confidence in its process, and offering an opportunity to intervene if it’s getting things wrong.

Dust Storm Alert

WallE-DustStorm04

While preparing for his night cycle, Wall-E is standing at the back of his transport/home. On the back drop door of the transport, he is cleaning out his collection cooler. In the middle of this ritual, an alert sounds from his external speakers. Concerned by the sound, Wall-E looks up to see a dust storm approaching. After seeing this, he hurries to finish cleaning his cooler and seal the door of the transport.

A Well Practiced Design

The Dust Storm Alert appears to override Wall-E’s main window into the world: his eyes. This is done to warn him of a very serious event that could damage him or permanently shut him down. What is interesting is that he doesn’t appear to register a visual response first. Instead, we first hear the audio alert, then Wall-E’s eye-view shows the visual alert afterward.

Given the order of the two parts of the alert, the audible part was considered the most important piece of information by Wall-E’s designers. It comes first, is unidirectional as well as loud enough for everyone to hear, and is followed by more explicit information.

WallE-DustStorm01

Equal Opportunity Alerts

By having the audible alert first, all Wall-E units, other robots, and people in the area would be alerted of a major event. Then, the Wall-E units would be given the additional information like range and direction that they need to act. Either because of training or pre-programmed instructions, Wall-E’s vision does not actually tell him what the alert is for, or what action he should take to be safe. This could also be similar to tornado sirens, where each individual is expected to know where they are and what the safest nearby location is.

For humans interacting alongside Wall-E units each person should have their own heads-up display, likely similar to a Google-glass device. When a Wall-E unit gets a dust storm alert, the human could then receive a sympathetic alert and guidance to the nearest safe area. Combined with regular training and storm drills, people in the wastelands of Earth would then know exactly what to do.

Why Not Network It?

Whether by luck or proper programming, the alert is triggered with just enough time for Wall-E to get back to his shelter before the worst of the storm hits. Given that the alert didn’t trigger until Wall-E was able to see the dust cloud for himself, this feels like very short notice. Too short notice. A good improvement to the system would be a connection up to a weather satellite in orbit, or a weather broadcast in the city. This would allow him to be pre-warned and take shelter well before any of the storm hits, protecting him and his solar collectors.

Other than this, the alert system is effective. It warns Wall-E of the approaching storm in time to act, and it also warns everyone in the local vicinity of the same issue. While the alert doesn’t inform everyone of what is happening, at least one actor (Wall-E) knows what it means and knows how to react. As with any storm warning system, having a connection that can provide forecasts of potentially dangerous weather would be a huge plus.

DuoMento

Carl, a young psychic, has an application at home to practice and hone his mental powers. It’s not named in the film, so I’m going to call it DuoMento. We see DuoMento in use when Carl uses it to try and help Johnny find if he has any latent psyhic talent. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work.)

StarshipT_035

Setup

DuoMento challenges its users with blind matching tests. For it, the “thought projector” (Carl) sits in a chair at a desk with a keyboard and a desktop monitor before him. The “thought receiver” (Johnny) sits in a chair facing the thought projector, unable to see either the desktop monitor or the large, wall-mounted screen behind him, which duplicates the image from the desktop monitor. To the receiver’s right hand is a small elevated panel of around 20 white push buttons.

StarshipT_036StarshipT_037

Blind matching

For the test, two Hoyle playing cards appear on the screen side-by-side, face down. Carl presses a key on his keyboard, and one card flips over to reveal its face. Carl concentrates on the face-up card, attempting to project the identity of the card to Johnny. Johnny tries his best to receive the thought. It’s intense.

intense_520

When Johnny feels he has an answer, he says, “I see…Ace of Spades,” and reaches forward and presses a button on the elevated panel. In response, the hidden card flips over as the ace of spades. An overlay appears on top of the two cards indicating if it was a match. Lacking any psychic abilities, Johnny gets a big label reading “NO MATCH,” accompanied by a buzzer sound. Carl resets it to a new card with three clicks on his keyboard.

StarshipT_033

Not very efficient

Why does it take Carl three clicks to reset the cards? You’d think on such a routine task it would be as simple as pressing [space bar]. Maybe you want to prevent accidental activation, but still that’s a key with a modifer, like shift+[space bar]. Best would be if Carl was also a telekinetic. Then he could just mentally push a switch and get some of that practice in. If that switch offered variable resistance it could increase with each…but I digress since he’s just a telepath.

A semi-questionable display

I get why there’s a side-by-side pair of cards. People are much better at these sorts of comparison tasks when objects are side-by-side. But ultimately, it conveys the wrong thing. Having a face down card that flips over implies that that face-down card is the one that Johnny’s trying to guess. But it’s not. The one that’s already turned over is the one he’s trying to guess. Better would be a graphic that implies he’s filling in the blank.

better_duomento_520

Better still are two separate screens: One for the projector with a single card displayed, and a second for the receiver with this same graphic prompting him to guess. This would require a little different setup when shooting the scene, with over-the-shoulder shots for each showing the different screen. But audiences are sophisticated enough to get that now. Different screens can show different things.

Mismatched inputs?

At first it seems like Johnny’s input panel is insufficient for the task. After all, there are 52 cards in a standard deck of cards and only 20 buttons. But having a set of 13 keys for the card ranks and 4 for the suit is easy enough, reduces the number of keys, and might even let him answer only the part he’s confident in if the image hasn’t quite come through.

StarshipT_039

Does it help test for “sensitivity”?

Psychic powers are real in the world of Starship Troopers, so we’re going not going to question that. Instead the question at hand will be: Is this the best test for psychic sensitivity?

Visual cheating

I do wonder that having a lit screen gives the receiver a reflection in the projector’s eyes to detect, even if unconsciously. An eagle-eyed receiver might be able to spot a color, or the difference between a face card and a number card. Better would be some way for the projector to cover his eyes while reading the subject, and dim that screen afterward.

The risk of false positives

More importantly, such a test would want to eliminate the chance that the receiver guessed correctly by chance. The more constrained and familiar the range of options, the more likely they are to get a false positive, which wouldn’t help anything except confidence, and even that would be false. I get that when designing skills-building interfaces, you want to start easy and get progressively more challenging. But it makes more sense to constrain the concepts being projected to things that are more concrete and progress to greater abstraction or more nuance. Start with “fire,” perhaps, and advance to “flicker” or “warmth.” For such thoughts, a video cue of a word randomly selected from that pool of concepts would make the most sense. And for cinematic directness (Starship Troopers was nothing if not direct) you should overlay the word onto the video cue as well.

fireloop1

Better input

The next design challenge then becomes how does the receiver provide to the system what, if anything, they’re receiving. Since the concepts would be open-ended, you need a language-input mechanism: ANSI keyboard for typing, or voice recognition.

Additionally, I’d add a brain-reading interface that was able to read his brain as he was attempting to receive. Then it could detect for the right state of mind, e.g. an alpha state, as well as areas of the brain that are being activated. Cinematically you could show a brain map, indicating the brain state in a range, the areas of the brain being activated. Having the map on hand for Johnny would let him know to relax and get into a receptive state. If Carl had the same map he could help prompt him.

In a movie you’d probably also want a crude image feed being “read” from Johnny’s thoughts. It might charmingly be some dumb, non-fire things, like scenes from his last jump ball game, Carmen’s face and cleavage, and to Carl’s shame, a recollection of the public humilation suffered recently at his hand.

But if this interface (and telepathy) was real, you wouldn’t want to show that to Johnny, as it might cause distracting feedback loops, and you wouldn’t want to show it to Carl less he betray when Johnny is getting close, and encourage Johnny’s zeroing in on the concept through subtle social cues instead of the desired psychic ones. Since it’s not real, let’s comp it up next more cinematically.

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

Stoic Guru vs. Active Academy

This movie was written when computation cycles may have seemed to be a scarce resource. (Around 1997 only IBM could afford a computer and program combination to outthink Kasparov.) Even if computation cycles were scarce, navigating the ship safely would be the second most important non-combat function it could possibly do, losing out only to safekeeping its inhabitants. So I can’t see an excuse for the stoic-guru-on-the-hill model of interaction here. In this model, the guru speaks great truth, but only when asked a direct question. Otherwise it sits silently, contemplating whatever it is gurus contemplate, stoically. Computers might have started that way in the early part of the last century, but there’s no reason they should work that way today, much less by the time we’re battling space bugs between galaxies.

A better model for thinking about interaction with these kinds of problems is as an active academy, where a group of learned professors is continually working on difficult questions. For a new problem—like “which of the infinite number of possible courses from point A to point B is optimal?”—they would first discuss it among themselves and provide an educated guess with caveats, and continue to work on the problem afterward, continuously, contacting the querant when they found a better answer or when new information came in that changed the answer. (As a metaphor for agentive technologies, the active academy has some conceptual problems, but it’s good enough for purposes of this article.)

guruacademy

Consider this model as you write scenes. Nowadays computation is rarely a scarce resource in your audience’s lives. Most processors are bored, sitting idly and not living up to their full potential. Pretending computation is scarce breaks believability. If ebay can continuously keep looking on my behalf for a great deal on a Ted Baker shirt, the ship’s computer can keep looking for optimal courses on the mission’s behalf.

In this particular scene, the stoic guru has for some reason neglected up to this point to provide a crucial piece of information, and that is the optimal path. Why was it holding this information back if it knew it? How does it know that now? “Well,” I imagine Barcalow saying as he slaps the side of the monitor, “Why didn’t you tell me that the first time I asked you to navigate?” I suspect that, if it had been written with the active academy in mind, it would not end up in the stupid COURSE OPTIMAL zone.

Optimal vs. more optimal than

Part of the believability problem of this particular case may come from the word “optimal,” since that word implies the best out of all possible choices.

But if it’s a stoic guru, it wouldn’t know from optimal. It would just know what you’d asked it or provided it in the past. It would only know relative optimalness amongst the set of courses it had access to. If this system worked that way, the screen text should read something like “34% more optimal than previous course” or “Most optimal of supplied courses.” Either text could show some fuigetry that conveys a comparison of compared parameters below the Big Text Label. But of course the text conveys how embarrassingly limited this would be for a computer. It shouldn’t wait for supplied courses.

If it’s an active academy model, this scene would work differently. It would have either shown him optimal long ago, or show him that it’s still working on the problem and that Ibanez’ is the “Most optimal found.” Neither is entirely satisfying for purposes of the story.

Hang-on-idea

How could this scene have gone?

We need a quick beat here to show that in fact, Ibanez is not just some cocky upstart. She really knows what’s up. An appeal to authority is a quick way to do it, but then you have to provide some reason the authority—in this case the computer—hasn’t provided that answer already.

A bigger problem than Starship Troopers

This is a perennial problem for sci-fi, and one that’s becoming more pressing as technology gets more and more powerful. Heroes need to be heroic. But how can they be heroic if computers can and do heroic things for them? What’s the hero doing? Being a heroic babysitter to a vastly powerful force? This will ultimately culminate once we get to the questions raised in Her about actual artificial intelligence.

Fortunately the navigator is not a full-blown artificial intelligence. It’s something less than A.I., and that’s an agentive interface, which gives us our answer. Agentive algorithms can only process what they know, and Ibanez could have been working with an algorithm that the computer didn’t know about. She’s just wrapped up school, so maybe it’s something she developed or co-developed there:

  • Barcalow turns to the nav computer and sees a label: “Custom Course: 34% more efficient than models.”
  • BARCALOW
  • Um…OK…How did you find a better course than the computer could?
  • IBANEZ
  • My grad project nailed the formula for gravity assist through trinary star systems. It hasn’t been published yet.

BAM. She sounds like a badass and the computer doesn’t sound like a character in a cheap sitcom.

So, writers, hopefully that model will help you not make the mistake of penning your computers to be stoic gurus. Next up, we’ll discuss this same short scene with more of a focus on interaction designers.

KLENDATHU CASUALTIES: 308,563

The initial invasion of Klendathu is disastrous, and our hero Rico suffers a massive penetration wound in combat, with an Arachnid digging its massive, thorn-like pincer straight through his thigh.

StarshipTroopers-deathroll-01

Rico is (spoiler alert) mistakenly reported as deceased. (There’s perhaps some argument for outfitting soldiers with networked biometrics so this sort of mistake can’t be made, but that’s another post.)

StarshipTroopers-deathroll-02

After returning to dock, Ibanez hears reports about the military disaster, and sees a death roll scrolling by on a large wall display. Three columns of off-white names tick along, surname first, with an initialism indicating whether the soldier was killed, wounded, or missing in action. At the very top three legends summarize key information, WOUNDED IN ACTION 2,548; KILLED IN ACTION 205,515; and MISSING IN ACTION 105,753. Largest of all is the KLENDATHU CASUALTIES: 308,563. (I know, the math doesn’t add up. It’s possible I misread the blurry numbers.) But the screen could use some more deliberate graphic design. Continue reading

Frito’s F’n Car interface

When Frito is driving Joe and Rita away from the cops, Joe happens to gesture with his hand above the car window, where a vending machine he happens to be passing spots the tattoo. Within seconds two harsh beeps sound in the car and a voice says, “You are harboring a fugitive named NOT SURE. Please, pull over and wait for the police to incarcerate your passenger.”

Frito’s car begins slowing down, and the dashboard screen shows a picture of Not Sure’s ID card and big red text zooming in a loop reading “PULL OVER”

IDIOCRACY-fncar

The car interface has a column of buttons down the left reading:

  • NAV
  • WTF?
  • BEER
  • FART FAN
  • HOME
  • GIRLS

At the bottom is a square of icons: car, radiation, person, and the fourth is obscured by something in the foreground. Across the bottom is Frito’s car ID “FRITO’S F’N CAR” which appears to be a label for a system status of “EVERYTHING’S A-OK, BRO”, a button labeled CHECK INGN [sic], another labeled LOUDER, and a big green circle reading GO.

idiocracy-pullover

But the car doesn’t wait for him to pull over. With some tiny beeps it slows to a stop by itself. Frito says, “It turned off my battery!” Moments after they flee the car, it is converged upon by a ring of police officers with weapons loaded (including a rocket launcher pointed backward.)

Visual Design

Praise where it’s due: Zooming is the strongest visual attention-getting signals there is (symmetrical expansion is detected on the retina within 80 milliseconds!) and while I can’t find the source from which I learned it, I recall that blinking is somewhere in the top 5. Combining these with an audio signal means it’s hard to miss this critical signal. So that’s good.

comingrightatus.png
In English: It’s comin’ right at us!

But then. Ugh. The fonts. The buttons on the chrome seem to be some free Blade Runner font knock off, the text reading “PULL OVER” is in some headachey clipped-corner freeware font that neither contrasts nor compliments the Blade Jogger font, or whatever it is. I can’t quite hold the system responsible for the font of the IPPA licence, but I just threw up a little into my Flaturin because of that rounded-top R.

bladerunner

Then there’s the bad-90s skeuomorphic, Bevel & Emboss buttons that might be defended for making the interactive parts apparent, except that this same button treatment is given to the label Frito’s F’n Car, which has no obvious reason why it would ever need to be pressed. It’s also used on the CHECK INGN and LOUDER buttons, taking their ADA-insulting contrast ratios and absolutely wrecking any readability.

I try not to second-guess designer’s intentions, but I’m pretty sure this is all deliberate. Part of the illustration of a world without much sense. Certainly no design sense.

In-Car Features

What about those features? NAV is pretty standard function, and having a HOME button is a useful shortcut. On current versions of Google Maps there’s an Explore Places Near You Function, which lists basic interests like Restaurants, Bars, and Events, and has a more menu with a big list of interests and services. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Frito has pressed GIRLS and BEER enough that it’s floated to the top nav.

explore_places_near_you

That leaves only three “novel” buttons to think about: WTF, LOUDER, and FART FAN. 

WTF?

If I have to guess, the WTF button is an all-purpose help button. Like a GM OnStar, but less well branded. Frito can press it and get connected to…well, I guess some idiot to see if they can help him with something. Not bad to have, though this probably should be higher in the visual hierarchy.

LOUDER

This bit of interface comedy is hilarious because, well, there’s no volume down affordance on the interface. Think of the “If it’s too loud, you’re too old” kind of idiocy. Of course, it could be that the media is on zero volume, and so it couldn’t be turned down any more, so the LOUDER button filled up the whole space, but…

  • The smarter convention is to leave the button in place and signal a disabled state, and
  • Given everything else about the interface, that’s giving the diegetic designer a WHOLE lot of credit. (And our real-world designer a pat on the back for subtle hilarity.)

FART FAN

This button is a little potty humor, and probably got a few snickers from anyone who caught it because amygdala, but I’m going to boldly say this is the most novel, least dumb thing about Frito’s F’n Car interface.

Heart_Jenkins_960.jpg
Pictured: A sulfuric gas nebula. Love you, NASA!

People fart. It stinks. Unless you have active charcoal filters under the fabric, you can be in for an unpleasant scramble to reclaim breathable air. The good news is that getting the airflow right to clear the car of the smell has, yes, been studied, well, if not by science, at least scientifically. The bad news is that it’s not a simple answer.

  • Your car’s built in extractor won’t be enough, so just cranking the A/C won’t cut it.
  • Rolling down windows in a moving aerodynamic car may not do the trick due to something called the boundary layer of air that “clings” to the surface of the car.
  • Rolling down windows in a less-aerodynamic car can be problematic because of the Helmholtz effect (the wub-wub-wub air pressure) and that makes this a risky tactic.
  • Opening a sunroof (if you have one) might be good, but pulls the stench up right past noses, so not ideal either.

The best strategy—according to that article and conversation amongst my less squeamish friends—is to crank the AC, then open the driver’s window a couple of inches, and then the rear passenger window half way.

But this generic strategy changes with each car, the weather (seriously, temperature matters, and you wouldn’t want to do this in heavy precipitation), and the skankness of the fart. This is all a LOT to manage when one’s eyes are meant to be on the road and you’re in an nauseated panic. Having the cabin air just refresh at the touch of one button is good for road safety.

If it’s so smart, then, why don’t we have Fart Fan panic buttons in our cars today?

I suspect car manufacturers don’t want the brand associations of having a button labeled FART FAN on their dashboards. But, IMHO, this sounds like a naming problem, not some intractable engineering problem. How about something obviously overpolite, like “Fast freshen”? I’m no longer in the travel and transportation business, but if you know someone at one of these companies, do the polite thing and share this with them.

Idiocracy-car
Another way to deal with the problem, in the meantime.

So aside from the interface considerations, there are also some strategic ones to discuss with the remote kill switch, but that deserves it’s own post, next.