A special subset of spacesuit interfaces is the communication subsystems. I wrote a whole chapter about Communications in Make It So, but spacesuit comms bear special mention, since they’re usually used in close physical proximity but still must be mediated by technology, the channels for detailed control are clumsy and packed, and these communicators are often being overseen by a mission control center of some sort. You’d think this is rich territory, but spoiler: There’s not a lot of variation to study.
Every single spacesuit in the survey has audio. This is so ubiquitous and accepted that, after 1950, no filmmaker has thought the need to explain it or show an interface for it. So you’d think that we’d see a lot of interactions.
Spacesuit communications in sci-fi tend to be many-to-many with no apparent means of control. Not even a push-to-mute if you sneezed into your mic. It’s as if the spacewalkers were in a group, merely standing near each other in air, chatting. No push-to-talk or volume control is seen. Communication with Mission Control is automatic. No audio cues are given to indicate distance, direction, or source of the sound, or to select a subset of recipients.
The one seeming exception to the many-to-many communication is seen in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. As Boomer is operating a ship above a ground crew, shining a light down on them for visibility, she has the following conversation with Tyrol.
Raptor 478, this is DC-1, I have you in my sights.
Copy that, DC-1. I have you in sight.
How’s it looking there? Can you tell what happened?
Lieutenant, don’t worry…about my team. I got things under control.
Copy that, DC-1. I feel better knowing you’re on it.
Then, when her copilot gives her a look about what she has just said, she says curtly to him, “Watch the light, you’re off target.” In this exchange there is clear evidence that the copilot has heard the first conversation, but it appears that her comment to him is addressed to him and not for the others to hear. Additionally, we do not hear chatter going on between the ground grew during this exchange. Unfortunately, we do not see any of the conversationalists touch a control to give us an idea about how they switch between these modes. So, you know, still nothing.
More recent films, especially in the MCU, has seen all sorts of communication controlled by voice with the magic of General AI…pause for gif…
…but as I mention more and more, once you have a General AI in the picture, we leave the realm of critique-able interactions. Because an AI did it.
In short, sci-fi just doesn’t care about showing audio controls in sci-fi spacesuits, and isn’t likely to start caring anytime soon. As always, if you know of something outside my survey, please mention it.
For reference, in the real world, a NASA astronaut has direct control over the volume of audio that she hears, using potentiometer volume controls. (Curiously the numbers on them are not backwards, unlike the rest of the controls.)
A spacewalker uses the COMM dial switch mode selector at the top of the DCM to select between three different frequencies of wireless communication, each of which broadcasts to each other and the vehicle. When an astronaut is on one of the first two channels, transmission is voice-activated. But a backup, “party line” channel requires push-to-talk, and this is what the push-to-talk control is for.
By default, all audio is broadcast to all other spacewalkers, the vehicle, and Mission Control. To speak privately, without Mission Control hearing, spacewalkers don’t have an engineered option. But if one of the radio frequency bands happens to be suffering a loss of signal to Mission Control, she can use this technological blind spot to talk with some degree of privacy.
I presume my readership are adults. I honestly cannot imagine this site has much to offer the 3-to-8-year-old. That said, if you are less than 8.8 years old, be aware that reading this will land you FIRMLY on the naughty list. Leave before it’s too late. Oooh, look! Here’s something interesting for you.
For those who celebrate Yule (and the very hybridized version of the holiday that I’ll call Santa-Christmas to distinguish it from Jesus-Christmas or Horus-Christmas), it’s that one time of year where we watch holiday movies. Santa features in no small number of them, working against the odds to save Christmas and Christmas spirit from something that threatens it. Santa accomplishes all that he does by dint of holiday magic, but increasingly, he has magic-powered technology to help him. These technologies are different for each movie in which they appear, with different sci-fi interfaces, which raises the question: Who did it better?
Unraveling this stands to be even more complicated than usual sci-fi fare.
These shows are largely aimed at young children, who haven’t developed the critical thinking skills to doubt the core premise, so the makers don’t have much pressure to present wholly-believable worlds. The makers also enjoy putting in some jokes for adults that are non-diegetic and confound analysis.
Despite the fact that these magical technologies are speculative just as in sci-fi, makers cannot presume that their audience are sci-fi fans who are familiar with those tropes. And things can’t seem too technical.
The sci in this fi is magical, which allows makers to do all-sorts of hand-wavey things about how it’s doing what it’s doing.
Many of the choices are whimsical and serve to reinforce core tenets of the Santa Claus mythos rather than any particular story or worldbuilding purpose.
But complicated-ness has rarely cowed this blog’s investigations before, why let a little thing like holiday magic do it now?
A Primer on Santa
I have readers from all over the world. If you’re from a place that does not celebrate the Jolly Old Elf, a primer should help. And if you’re from a non-USA country, your Saint Nick mythos will be similar but not the same one that these movies are based on, so a clarification should help. To that end, here’s what I would consider the core of it.
Santa Claus is a magical, jolly, heavyset old man with white hair, mustache, and beard who lives at the North Pole with his wife Ms. Claus. The two are almost always caucasian. He can alternately be called Kris Kringle, Saint Nick, Father Christmas, or Klaus. The Clark Moore poem calls him a “jolly old elf.” He is aware of the behavior of children, and tallies their good and bad behavior over the year, ultimately landing them on the “naughty” or “nice” list. Santa brings the nice ones presents. (The naughty ones are canonically supposed to get coal in their stockings though in all my years I have never heard of any kids actually getting coal in lieu of presents.) Children also hang special stockings, often on a mantle, to be filled with treats or smaller presents. Adults encourage children to be good in the fall to ensure they get presents. As December approaches, Children write letters to Santa telling him what presents they hope for. Santa and his elves read the letters and make all the requested toys by hand in a workshop. Then the evening of 24 DEC, he puts all the toys in a large sack, and loads it into a sleigh led by 8 flying reindeer. Most of the time there is a ninth reindeer up front with a glowing red nose named Rudolph. He dresses in a warm red suit fringed with white fur, big black boots, thick black belt, and a stocking hat with a furry ball at the end. Over the evening, as children sleep, he delivers the presents to their homes, where he places them beneath the Christmas tree for them to discover in the morning. Families often leave out cookies and milk for Santa to snack on, and sometimes carrots for the reindeer. Santa often tries to avoid detection for reasons that are diegetically vague.
There is no single source of truth for this mythos, though the current core text might be the 1823 C.E. poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore. Visually, Santa’s modern look is often traced back to the depictions by Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast, which the Coca-Cola Corporation built upon for their holiday advertisements in 1931.
There are all sorts of cultural conversations to have about the normalizing a magical panopticon, what effect hiding the actual supply chain has, and asking for what does perpetuating this myth train children; but for now let’s stick to evaluating the interfaces in terms of Santa’s goals.
Given all of the above, we can say that the following are Santa’s goals.
Sort kids by behavior as naughty or nice
Many tellings have him observing actions directly
Manage the lists of names, usually on separate lists
Sending toy requests to the workshop
Travel to kids’ homes
Find the most-efficient way there
Control the reindeer
Maintain air safety
Avoid air obstacles
Find a way inside and to the tree
Enjoy the cookies / milk
Deliver all presents before sunrise
For each child:
Know whether they are naughty or nice
If nice, match the right toy to the child
Stage presents beneath the tree
Avoid being seen
We’ll use these goals to contextualize the Santa interfaces against.
Nearly every story tells of Santa working with other characters to save Christmas. (The metaphor that we have to work together to make Christmas happen is appreciated.) The challenges in the stories can be almost anything, but often include…
Inclement weather (usually winter, but Santa is a global phenomenon)
Air obstacles (Planes, helicopters, skyscrapers)
Ingress/egress into homes
Home security systems / guard dogs
Imdb.com lists 847 films tagged with the keyword “santa claus,” which is far too much to review. So I looked through “best of” lists (two are linked below) and watched those films for interfaces. There weren’t many. I even had to blend CGI and live action shows, which I’m normally hesitant to do. As always, if you know of any additional shows that should be considered, please mention it in the comments.
After reviewing these films, the ones with Santa interfaces came down to four, presented below in chronological order.
The Santa Clause (1994)
This movie deals with the lead character, Scott Calvin, inadvertently taking on the “job” of Santa Clause. (If you’ve read Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series, this plot will feel quite familiar.)
The sleigh he inherits has a number of displays that are largely unexplained, but little Charlie figures out that the center console includes a hot chocolate and cookie dispenser. There is also a radar, and far away from it, push buttons for fog, planes, rain, and lightning. There are several controls with Christmas bell icons associated with them, but the meaning of these are unclear.
This is the oldest of the candidates. Its interfaces are quite sterile and “tacked on” compared to the others, but was novel for its time.
This movie tells the story of Santa’s n’er do well brother Fred, who has to work in the workshop for one season to work off bail money. While there he winds up helping forestall foreclosure from an underhanded supernatural efficiency expert, and un-estranging himself from his family. A really nice bit in this critically-panned film is that Fred helps Santa understand that there are no bad kids, just kids in bad circumstances.
Fred is taken to the North Pole in a sled with switches that are very reminiscent of the ones in The Santa Clause. A funny touch is the “fasten your seatbelt” sign like you might see in a commercial airliner. The use of Lombardic Capitals font is a very nice touch given that much of modern Western Santa Claus myth (and really, many of our traditions) come from Germany.
This chamber is where Santa is able to keep an eye on children. (Seriously panopticony. They have no idea they’re being surveilled.) Merely by reading the name and address of a child a volumetric display appears within the giant snowglobe. The naughtiest children’s names are displayed on a digital split-flap display, including their greatest offenses. (The nicest are as well, but we don’t get a close up of it.)
The final tally is put into a large book that one of the elves manages from the sleigh while Santa does the actual gift-distribution. The text in the book looks like it was printed from a computer.
In this telling, the Santa job is passed down patrilineally. The oldest Santa, GrandSanta, is retired. The dad, Malcolm, is the current-acting Santa one, and he has two sons. One is Steve, a by-the-numbers type into military efficiency and modern technology. The other son, Arthur, is an awkward fellow who has a semi-disposable job responding to letters. Malcolm currently pilots a massive mile-wide spaceship from which ninja elves do the gift distribution. They have a lot of tech to help them do their job. The plot involves Arthur working with Grandsanta using his old Sleigh to get a last forgotten gift to a young girl before the sun rises.
To help manage loud pets in the home who might wake up sleeping people, this gun has a dial for common pets that delivers a treat to distract them.
Elves have face scanners which determine each kids’ naughty/nice percentage. The elf then enters this into a stocking-filling gun, which affects the contents in some unseen way. A sweet touch is when one elf scans a kid who is read as quite naughty, the elf scans his own face to get a nice reading instead.
The S-1 is the name of the spaceship sleigh at the beginning (at the end it is renamed after Grandsanta’s sleigh). Its bridge is loaded with controls, volumetric displays, and even a Little Tree air freshener. It has a cloaking display on its underside which is strikingly similar to the MCUS.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier cloaking. (And this came out the year before The Avengers, I’m just sayin’.)
The north pole houses the command-and-control center, which Steve manages. Thousands of elves manage workstations here, and there is a huge shared display for focusing and informing the team at once when necessary. Smaller displays help elf teams manage certain geographies. Its interfaces fall to comedy and trope, mostly, but are germane to the story beats
One of the crisis scenarios that this system helps manage is for a “waker,” a child who has awoken and is at risk of spying Santa.
Grandsanta’s outmoded sleigh is named Eve. Its technology is much more from the early 20th century, with switches and dials, buttons and levers. It’s a bit janky and overly complex, but gets the job done.
One notable control on S-1 is this trackball with dark representations of the continents. It appears to be a destination selector, but we do not see it in use. It is remarkable because it is very similar to one of the main interface components in the next candidate movie, The Christmas Chronicles.
The Christmas Chronicles follows two kids who stowaway on Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve. His surprise when they reveal themselves causes him to lose his magical hat and wreck his sleigh. They help him recover the items, finish his deliveries, and (well, of course) save Christmas just in time.
Santa’s sleight enables him to teleport to any place on earth. The main control is a trackball location selector. Once he spins it and confirms that the city readout looks correct, he can press the “GO” button for a portal to open in the air just ahead of the sleigh. After traveling in a aurora borealis realm filled with famous landmarks for a bit, another portal appears. They pass through this and appear at the selected location. A small magnifying glass above the selection point helps with precision.
Santa wears a watch that measures not time, but Christmas spirit, which ranges from 0 to 100. In the bottom half, chapter rings and a magnifying window seem designed to show the date, with 12 and 31 sequential numbers, respectively. It’s not clear why it shows mid May. A hemisphere in the middle of the face looks like it’s almost a globe, which might be a nice way to display and change time zone, but that may be wishful thinking on my part.
Santa also has a tracking device for finding his sack of toys. (Apparently this has happened enough time to warrant such a thing.) It is an intricate filligree over a cool green and blue glass. A light within blinks faster the closer the sphere is to the sack.
Since he must finish delivering toys before Christmas morning, the dashboard has a countdown clock with Nixie tube numbers showing hours, minutes, and milliseconds. They ordinary glow a cyan, but when time runs out, they turn red and blink.
This Santa also manages his list in a large book with lovely handwritten calligraphy. The kids whose gifts remain undelivered glow golden to draw his attention.
The hard problem here is that there is a lot of apples-to-oranges comparisons to do. Even though the mythos seems pretty locked down, each movie takes liberties with one or two aspects. As a result not all these Santas are created equally. Calvin’s elves know he is completely new to his job and will need support. Christmas Chronicles Santa has perfect memory, magical abilities, and handles nearly all the delivery duties himself, unless he’s enacting a clever scheme to impart Christmas wisdom. Arthur Christmas has intergenerational technology and Santas who may not be magic at all, but fully know their duty from their youths but rely on a huge army of shock troop elves to make things happen. So it’s hard to name just one. But absent a point-by-point detailed analysis, there are two that really stand out to me.
Coverage of goals
Arthur Christmas movie has, by far, the most interfaces of any of the candidates, and more coverage of the Santa-family’s goals. Managing noisy pets? Check? Dealing with wakers? Check. Navigating the globe? Check. As far as thinking through speculative technology that assists its Santa, this film has the most.
Keeping the holiday spirit
I’ll confess, though, that extradiegetically, one of the purposes of annual holidays is to mark the passage of time. By trying to adhere to traditions as much as we can, time and our memory is marked by those things that we cannot control (like, say, a pandemic keeping everyone at home and hanging with friends and family virtually). So for my money, the thoroughly modern interfaces that flood Arthur Christmas don’t work that well. They’re so modern they’re not…Christmassy. Grandsanta’s sleigh Eve points to an older tradition, but it’s also clearly framed as outdated in the context of the story.
Compare this to The Christmas Chronicles, with its gorgeous steampunk-y interfaces that combine a sense of magic and mechanics. These are things that a centuries-old Santa would have built and use. They feel rooted in tradition while still helping Santa accomplish as many of his goals as he needs (in the context of his Christmas adventure for the stowaway kids). These interfaces evoke a sense of wonder, add significantly to the worldbuilding, and which I’d rather have as a model for magical interfaces in the real world.
Of course it’s a personal call, given the differences, but The Christmas Chronicles wins in my book.
For those that celebrate Santa-Christmas, I hope it’s a happy one, given the strange, strange state of the world. May you be on the nice list.
So the first Fritzes are now a thing. Before I went off on that awesome tangent, where were we? Oh that’s right. I was reviewing Blade Runner as part of a series on AI in sci-fi. I was just about to get to Spinners. Now vehicles are complicated things as they are, much less when they are navigating proper 3D space. Additionally, the police force is, ostensibly, a public service, which complicates things even further. So this will get lengthy. Still, I think I can get this down to eight or so subtopics.
In the distant future of 2019⸮, flying cars, called “spinners,” are a reality. They’re largely for the wealthy and powerful (including law enforcement). The main protagonist, Deckard, is only ever a passenger in a few over the course of the film. His partner Gaff flies one, though, so we have enough usage to review.
To pilot the spinner, Gaff keeps his hands on each handle of a split yoke. Within easy reach of his fingers are a few unlabeled buttons and small lights. Once we see him reach with his right thumb to press one of the buttons, but we don’t see any result, so it’s not clear what these buttons do. It’s nice that they don’t require him to take his hands off the controls. (This might seem like a prescient concept, but WP tells me the first non-horn wheel-mounted controls date back as far back as 1966.)
It is contextualizing to note the mode of agency here. That is, the controls are manual, with no AI offering assistance or acting as an agent. (The AI is in the passenger’s seat, lol fight me.) It appears to be up to Gaff to observe conditions, monitor displays, perform wayfinding, and keep the spinner on track.
Note that we never see what his feet are doing and never see him doing other things with his hands other than putting on a headset before lift-off. There are lots of other controls to the pilot’s left and in the console between seats, but we never see them in use. So, you know, approach with caution. There are a lot of unknowns here.
The spinner is more like a VTOL aircraft or helicopter than a spaceship. That is, it is constantly in the presence of planetary gravity and must overcome the constant resistance of air. So the standards I established in the piloting controls post are of only limited use to us here.
The vertical velocity, up or down. (Controlled by the angle of the control stick called the collective. The collective is to the left of the pilot’s hip when they are seated.)
The thrust. (Controlled by the twistgrip on the collective.)
Movement forward, rearward, left, and right. (Controlled with the stick in front of the pilot, called the cyclic.)
Yaw of the vehicle. (Controlled with the pair of antitorque pedals at the pilot’s feet.)
Since we don’t see Gaff when the spinner is moving up and down, let’s presume that the thing he’s gripping is like a Y-shaped cyclic, with lots of little additional controls around the handles. Then, if we presume he has a collective somewhere out of sight to his left and antitorque pedals at his feet, this interface meets modern helicopter standards for control. From the outside, those appear to be well mapped (collective up = helicopter up, cyclic right = helicopter right). Twist for thrust is a little weird, but it’s a standard and certainly learnable, as I recall from my motorcycling days. So let’s say it’s complete and convincing. Is it the best it could be? I’m not enough of an aeronautical engineer (read: not at all) to imagine better options, so let’s move along. I might have more to say if it was agentive.
There are two large screens in the dashboard. The one directly in front of Gaff shows a stylized depiction of the 3D surfaces around him as cyan highlights on a navy blue background. Approaching red shapes describe a pill-shaped tunnel-in-the-sky display. These have been tested since 1981 and found to provide higher tracking performance to ideal paths in manual flight, lower cognitive workload, and enhanced situational awareness. (https://arc.aiaa.org/doi/abs/10.2514/3.56119) So, this is believable and well done. I’m not sure that Gaff could readily use the 3D background to effectively understand the 3D terrain, but it is tertiary, after the real world and the tunnel display.
I have to say that it’s a frustrating anti-trope to run into again, but it must be said: If the spinner knows where the ship should be, and general artificial intelligence exists in this diegesis, why exactly are humans doing the piloting? Shouldn’t the spinner fly itself? But back to the interfaces…
Above the tunnel-in-the-sky display is a cyan 7-segment LED scroll display. In the gif above it displays “MAXIMUM SPEED” and later it provides some wayfinding text. I’m not sure how many different types of information it is meant to cycle through, but it sure would be a pain to wait for vital information to appear, and distracting to have to control it to get to the one you wanted.
There is also a vertical screen in the middle of the console listing cyan labels ALT, VEL, and PTCH. These match to altitude, velocity, and pitch variables, reinforcing the helicopter model. The yellow numbers below these labels change in the scene very slowly, and—remarkably for a four-second interface from 1982—do not appear to change randomly. That’s awesome.
But then, there’s a paragraph of cyan text in the middle of the screen that appears over the course of the scene, letter by letter. This animation calls unnecessary attention to itself. There are also smaller, thin screens in the pilot’s door that also continually scroll that same teeny tiny cyan text. I’m not sure WTF all this text is supposed to be, since it would be horribly distracting to a pilot. There are also a few rows of white LEDs with cylon-eye displays traveling back and forth. They are distracting, but at least they’re regular, and might be habituate-able and act as some sort of ambient display. Anyway, if we were building this thing for real, we’d want to eliminate these.
Lastly, at the bottom of the center screen are some unlabeled bar charts depicting some variables that appear to be wiggling randomly. So, like, only the top fifth of this screen can be lauded. The rest is fuigetry. *sigh* It’s hard to escape.
To help navigate the 3D space, pilots have a number of tools. First, there are windows where you expect windows to be in a car, and there are also glass panels under their feet. The movie doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but it’s clear in the scene where the spinner lifts off from the street level. These transparent panes surround pilots and passengers and allow them to track visual cues for landmarks and to identify collision threats.
The tunnel-in-the-sky display above is the most obvious wayfinding tool. Somehow Gaff has entered a destination, and the tunnel guides him where it needs to go. Since this entails a safe path through the air, it’s the most important display. Other bits of information (like the ALT, VEL, and PTCH in the center screen) should be oriented around it. This would make them glanceable, allowing Gaff glance to check them and quickly return his eyes to the windshield. In fact, we have to admit that a heads up display would allow Gaff to keep his attention where it needs to be rather than splitting it between the real world and these dashboard displays. Modern vehicle drivers are used to this split attention, and can manage it well enough. But I suspect that a HUD would be better.
There is also that crawling LED display above the tunnel-in-the-sky screen. In one scene it shows “SECTOR FOUR (4)…QUAD-” (we don’t get to see the end of this phrase) but it implies that one of the bits of information this scroll provides is a reminder of the name of the neighborhood you’re currently in. That really only helps if you’re way off course, and seems too low a fidelity for actual wayfinding assistance, but presuming the tunnel-in-the-sky is helping provide the rest of the wayfinding, this information is of secondary importance.
A special note about takeoff: ENVIRON CTR
The display sequence infamous for appearing in both Alien and Blade Runner happens as Gaff lifts off in a spinner early in the film. White all-cap letters label this blue screen “ENVIRON CTR,” above a grid of square characters. Then two 8-digit sequences “drop” down the center of the square grid: 92886599 | 95654085. Once they drop 3 rows, the background turns red, the grid disappears to be replaced by a big blinking label PURGE. Characters at the bottom read “24556 DR 5”, and don’t change.
After the spinner lifts off the display shows a complex diagram of a circle-within-a-circle, illustrating the increasing elevation from the ground below. The delightful worldbuilding thing about the sequence is that it is inscrutable, and legible only by a trained driver, yet gets full focus on screen. There’s not really enough information about the speculative engineering or functional constraints of the spinner to say why these screens would be necessary or useful. I have a suspicion that a live camera view would be more useful than the circle-within-a-circle view, but gosh, it sure is cool. Here’s the shot from Alien, by the way, for easy comparison.
Of special note is a scene just before his call to Sebastian’s apartment. Deckard is sitting in his parked vehicle in a call with Bryant. A police spinner glides by and we hear an announcement over his loudspeaker, directed to Deckard’s vehicle saying, “This sector’s closed to ground traffic. What are you doing here?” From inside his vehicle, Deckard looks towards his video phone in the console (we never see if there is video, but he’s looking in that direction rather than out the window) and without touching a thing, responds defensively, “I’m working. What are you doing?” The policeman’s reply comes through the videophone’s speakers, “Arresting you, that’s what I’m doing.”
Note that Deckard did not have to answer the call or even put Bryant on hold. We don’t know what the police officer did on their end, but this interaction implies that the police can make an instant, intrusive audio connection with vehicles it finds suspicious. It’s so seamless it will slip by you if you don’t know to look for it, but it paints quite a picture of intercar communication. Can you imagine if our cars automatically shared an audio space with the cars around it?
Another aspect of the car is that it is an interface not just for the people using the car, but for the citizens observing or near the spinner as it goes about its business. There are a number of features that helps it act as an interface to the public.
Police exist as a social service, and the 995 repeated around the outside helps remind citizens of the number they can call in case of an emergency.
Modern patrol cars have beacons and sirens to tell other drivers to get out of the way when they are on urgent business. Police spinners are gravid with beacons, having 12 of them visible from the front alone. (See below.) As the spinner is taking off, yellow and blue beacons circle as a warning. This would be of no help to a blind person nearby, but the vehicle does make some incidental noise that serves as an audible warning.
The rich light strip makes sense because it has such a greater range of movement than ground-based cars, and needs more attention grabbing power. Another nice touch is that, since the spinner can be above people, there are also beacons on the chassis.
Upshot: Spinners do well
So, all in all, the spinner fares quite well on close inspection. It builds on known models of piloting, shows mostly-relevant data, uses known best practices for assistance, and has a lot of well-considered surface features for citizens.
Now if only I could figure out why they’re called spinners.
In one of the story threads, Matt uses an interface as part of his day job at Smartelligence to wrangle an AI that is the cloned a mind of a client named Greta. Matt has three tasks in this role.
He has to explain to her that she is an artificial intelligence clone of a real world person’s mind. This is psychologically traumatic, as she has decades of memories as if she were a real person with a real body and full autonomy in the world.
He has to explain how she will do her job: Her responsibilities and tools.
He has to “break” her will and coerce her to faithfully serve her master—who is the the real-world Greta. (The idea is that since virtual Greta is an exact copy, she understands real Greta’s preferences and can perform personal assistant duties flawlessly.)
The AI is housed in a small egg-shaped device with a single blue light camera lens. The combination of the AI and the egg-shaped device is called “The Cookie.” Why it is not called The Egg is a mystery left for the reader, though I hope it is not just for the “Cookie Monster” joke dropped late in the episode. Continue reading →
The Battlestar Galactica is a twisting and interlocking series of large hallways that provide walking access to all parts of the ship. The hallways are poorly labeled, and are almost impossible for someone without experience to navigate. Seriously, look at these images and see if you can tell where you are, or where you’re supposed to head to find…well, anything.
Billy (a young political assistant steeped in modern technology) finds this out after losing the rest of his tour group.
The hallways lack even the most basic signage that we expect in our commercial towers and office buildings. We see no indication of what deck a given corridor is on, what bulkhead a certain intersection is located at, or any obvious markings on doorways.
We do see small, cryptic alphanumerics near door handles:
Based off of current day examples, the alphanumeric would mark the bulkhead the door was at, the level it was on, and which section it was in. This would let anyone who knew the system figure out where they were on the ship.Continue reading →
When she wonders about Chewbacca’s whereabouts, Malla first turns to the Imperial-issue Media Console. The device sits in the living space, and consists of a personal console and a large wall display. The wall display mirrors the CRT on the console. The console has a QWERTY keyboard, four dials, two gauges, a sliding card reader, a few red and green lights on the side, and a row of randomly-blinking white lights along the front.
Public Service Requests
As Malla approaches it, it is displaying an 8-bit kaleidoscope pattern and playing a standard-issue “electronics” sound. Malla presses a handful of buttons—here it’s important to note the difficulty of knowing what is being pressed when the hand we’re watching is covered in a mop—and then moves through a confusing workflow, where…
She presses five buttons
She waits a few seconds
As she is pressing four more buttons…
…the screen displays a 22-character string (a password? A channel designation?) ↑***3- ↓3&39÷ ↑%63&-:::↓
A screen flashes YOU HAVE REACHED TRAFFIC CONTROL in black letters on a yellow background
She presses a few more buttons, and another 23-character string appears on screen ↑***3- XOXOO OXOOX XOOXO-↑ (Note that the first six characters are identical to the first six characters of the prior code. What’s that mean? And what’s with all the Xs and Os? Kisses and hugs? A binary? I checked. It seems meaningless.)
An op-art psychedelic screen of orange waves on black for a few seconds
A screen flashes NO STARSHIPS IN AREA
Malla punches the air in frustration.
So the first string is, what, a channel? And how do the five buttons she pressed map to that 22 character string? A macro? Why drop to a semi-binary for one command? And are the hugs-and-kisses an instruction? Is that how you write Shyriiwook? Why would it be Latin letters and Unicode characters rather than, say, Aurebesh? Who designed this command language? This orthography? This interface? Maybe it was what this guy was assigned to do after he was relieved of duty.
When technology fails to find her sweetheart, Malla turns to her social network. She first uses her Illegal Rebel Comms device to talk to Luke and R2-D2 (next post), and afterwards, returns to the Media Console, which is back to its crappy TSR-80 BASIC-coded screen saver mode.
She taps a few keys (a macro?)
A new code appears: ↑***C- ↓&&&0- 446B°- TP%C↓
The display reads: SUB TERMINAL 4468 (or 446E or maybe 446B. It’s a square font and Malla’s hairy arm is in the way.)
She presses a few more keys
The screen displays STAND BY for a few seconds
Then the word CONNECT flashes a few times
She presses a single button
TRADING POST WOOKIE PLANET C flashes
A live camera feed displays of the trading post
So it’s actually nice to see the first 5 characters of the string be different since this is a different mode: public function (↑***3-) versus video phone (↑***C-). It made me wonder if the codes were some sort of four part IP address, but then I saw the traffic control command is only three lines, so it’s not a consistent enough pattern. So I was hoping to find some secret awesomeness, but no.
Here’s the flow chart as completed by the demoted Stormtrooper designer (translated from the Aurebesh).
Not only is the interaction terrible, but it’s not really your device anyway. The Empire can take control of these screens for government business, like paging errant Stormtroopers. In these cases, an alarm sounds in the house, and then the Empire Video Feed comes online. No bizarre character strings. No flashing text. No arbitrary key presses.
After all that, an Easy Mode
As if that wasn’t enough, the thing works differently later in the show. After he returns to the tree house, Saun uses the system to call the Imperial Officer to cover Han and Chewie’s murderous tracks with a lie. To make the call, all Saun has to do is insert an identification card, press the same key on the keyboard six times, and with no weird codes or substation identification interstitials, he is connected immediately to the Imperial officer. After the officer terminates their call, Saun presses another button a few times and removes his card. That’s it. It was almost easy.
This tells us that the system can work fairly simply. If you’re calling the Empire. Or if you’re high enough social status and have the card to prove it. This technology just sucks. Maybe this is why the rebellion started.
When his battalion of thralls are up and harvesting Vespene Gas working to stabilize the Tesseract, Loki sits down to check in with his boss’ two-thumbed assistant, an MCU-recurring weirdo who goes unnamed in the movie, but which the Marvel wiki assures me is called The Other.
To get into the teleconference, Loki sits down on the ground with the glaive in his right hand and the blue stone roughly in front of his heart. He closes his eyes, straightens his back, and as the stone glows, the walls around him seem to billow away and he sees the asteroidal meeting room where The Other has been on hold (listening to some annoying Chitauri Muzak no doubt).
When they are in basic training, Carmen and Johnny exchange video messages to stay in touch. Videos are recorded locally to small discs and sent to the other through the Fed post. Carmen has her own computer station in her berth for playing Johnny’s messages. Johnny uses the single player available on the wall in the barracks. Things are different in the roughnecks than on the Rodger Young.
To play her message, he inserts the small compact disk she sent him into a vertical holder, closes the hinged cover, and presses the rightmost of five similar metal buttons below the screen to play it. After the (sad breakup) message is done, the player displays an END OF MESSAGE screen that includes the message ID. Three lights sit in the lower left hand part of the interface. An amber light glows in the lower right near text reading, “P3.” There is a large dial on the left (a frustum of a cone, to be all geometric about it) with some debossed shapes on it that is likely a dial, but we never see these controls in use. In fact, there’s not a lot of interaction there at all for us to evaluate.
Usually you’d expect a dial to operate volume (useful in the noisy narracks), with controls for play, pause, and some controls for either fast forward / reverse, or non-linear access of chapters in the message. The number of controls certainly could accommodate either of those structures, even if it was an old two-button model of play and stop rather than the more modern toggle. Certainly these could use better affordance, as they do not convey their behavior at this distance. Even at Rico’s distance, it’s faster for him to be able to see than to read the controls.
We could also ask what good the message ID is since it’s on screen and not very human-readable or human-memorable, but it does help remind Rico that his messages are being monitored by the fascism that is the Federation. So that’s a helpful reminder, if not useful data.
For the larger interaction, most of the complexities in sending a message—initiating a recording, editing, encoding, specifying a recipient, and sending it—are bypassed offscreen by the physical medium, so it’s not worth speculating on how well this is from a larger standpoint. Of course we could ding them for not thinking that video could be sent faster and cheaper digitally via interstellar transmission than a fragile little disc, but that’s a question for which we just don’t have enough information. (And in which the filmmakers would have had a little trouble explaining how it wasn’t an instant video call.)
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.
How do you use it?
To activate it, the crewman reaches up with his right hand and taps the badge once. A small noise confirms that the channel has been opened and the crewman is free to speak. A small but powerful speaker provides output that can be heard against reasonable background noise, and even to announce an incoming call. To close the channel, the crewman reaches back up to the combadge and double-taps its surface. Alternately, the other party can just “hang up.”
This one device illustrates of the primary issues germane to wearable technology. It’s perfectly wearable, social, easy to access, prevents accidental activation, and utilizes apposite inputs and outputs.
The combadge is light, thin, appropriately sized, and durable. It stays in place but is casually removable. There might be some question about its hard, pointy edges, but given its standard location on the left breast, this never presents a poking hazard.
Wearable tech exists in our social space, and so has to fit into our social selves. The combadge is styled appropriately to work on a military uniform. It is sleek, sober, and dynamic. It could work as is, even without the functional aspects. That it is distributed to personnel and part of the uniform means it doesn’t suffer the vagaries of fashion, but it helps that it looks pretty cool.
As noted in the book, since it is a wireless microphone, it really should have some noticeable visual signal for others to know when it’s on, so they know that there might be an eavesdropper or when they might be recorded. Other than breaking this rule of politeness, the combadge suits Starfleet’s social requirements quite well.
I don’t recall ever seeing scenes where multiple personnel try to use their combadges near each other at the same time and having trouble as a result. I don’t recall this from the show (and Memory-Alpha doesn’t mention it) but I presume the combadges are keyed to the voice of the user to help solve this sort of problem, so it can be used socially.
Easy to access and use
Being worn on the left breast of the uniform means that it’s in an ideal position to activate with a touch from the right hand (and only a little more difficult for lefties). The wearer almost doesn’t need to even move his shoulder. This low-resistance activation makes sense since it is likely to be accessed often, and often in urgent situations.
Tough to accidentally activate
In this location it’s also difficult to accidentally activate. It’s rare that other people’s hands are near there, and when they are, its close enough to the wearers face that they know it and can avoid it if they need to.
The surface of the body is a pretty crappy place to try and implement WIMP models of interface design. Using touch for activation/deactivation and voice for commands fit most common uses of the device. It’s easy to imagine scenarios where silence might be crucial. In these cases it would be awesome if the combadge could read the musculature of its wearer to register subvocalized commands and communication.
The fact that the combadge announces an incoming call with audio could prove problematic if the wearer is in a very noisy environment, is in the middle of a conversation, or in a situation where silence is critical. Rather than use an “ring” with an audio announcement, a better approach might build in intensity: a haptic vibration for the initial or first several “rings,” and adding the announcement only later. This gives the wearer an opportunity to notice it amidst noise, silence it if noise would be unwelcome, and still provide an audible signal that told others engaged with the wearer what’s happening and that he may need to excuse himself.
So, as far as wearable tech goes, not only is it the most familiar, but it’s pretty good, and pretty illustrative of the categories of analysis applicable to all wearable interfaces. Next we’ll take a look at other wearable communications technologies in the survey, using them to illustrate these concepts, and see what new things they add.
The other major benefit to the users of the chair (besides the ease of travel and lifestyle) is the total integration of the occupant’s virtual social life, personal life, fashion (or lack-thereof), and basic needs in one device. Passengers are seen talking with friends remotely, not-so-remotely, playing games, getting updated on news, and receiving basic status updates. The device also serves as a source of advertising (try blue! it’s the new red!).
A slight digression: What are the ads there for? Considering that the Axiom appears to be an all-inclusive permanent resort model, the ads could be an attempt to steer passengers to using resources that the ship knows it has a lot of. This would allow a reprieve for heavily used activities/supplies to be replenished for the next wave of guests, instead of an upsell maneuver to draw more money from them. We see no evidence of exchange of money or other economic activity while on-board the Axiom…
OK, back to the social network.
It isn’t obvious what the form of authentication is for the chairs. We know that the chairs have information about who the passenger prefers to talk to, what they like to eat, where they like to be aboard the ship, and what their hobbies are. With that much information, if there was no constant authentication, an unscrupulous passenger could easily hop in another person’s chair, “impersonate” them on their social network, and play havoc with their network. That’s not right.
It’s possible that the chair only works for the person using it, or only accesses the current passenger’s information from a central computer in the Axiom, but it’s never shown. What we do know is that the chair activates when a person is sitting on it and paying attention to the display, and that it deactivates as soon as that display is cut or the passenger leaves the chair.
We aren’t shown what happens when the passenger’s attention is drawn away from the screen, since they are constantly focused on it while the chair is functioning properly.
If it doesn’t already exist, the hologram should have an easy to push button or gesture that can dismiss the picture. This would allow the passenger to quickly interact with the environment when needed, then switch back to the social network afterwards.
And, for added security in case it doesn’t already exist, biometrics would be easy for the Axiom. Tracking the chair user’s voice, near-field chip, fingerprint on the control arm, or retina scan would provide strong security for what is a very personal activity and device. This system should also have strong protection on the back end to prevent personal information from getting out through the Axiom itself.
Social networks hold a lot of very personal information, and the network should have protections against the wrong person manipulating that data. Strong authentication can prevent both identity theft and social humiliation.
Taking the occupant’s complete attention
While the total immersion of social network and advertising seems dystopian to us (and that’s without mentioning the creepy way the chair removes a passenger’s need for most physical activity), the chair looks genuinely pleasing to its users.
They enjoy it.
But like a drug, their enjoyment comes at the detriment of almost everything else in their lives. There seem to be plenty of outlets on the ship for active people to participate in their favorite activities: Tennis courts, golf tees, pools, and large expanses for running or biking are available but unused by the passengers of the Axiom.
Work with the human need
In an ideal world a citizen is happy, has a mixture of leisure activities, and produces something of benefit to the civilization. In the case of this social network, the design has ignored every aspect of a person’s life except moment-to-moment happiness.
This has parallels in goal driven design, where distinct goals (BNL wants to keep people occupied on the ship, keep them focused on the network, and collect as much information as possible about what everyone is doing) direct the design of an interface. When goal-driven means data driven, then the data being collected instantly becomes the determining factor of whether a design will succeed or fail. The right data goals means the right design. Wrong data goals mean the wrong design.
Instead of just occupying a person’s attention, this interface could have instead been used to draw people out and introduce them to new activities at intervals driven by user testing and data. The Axiom has the information and power, perhaps even the responsibility, to direct people to activities that they might find interesting. Even though the person wouldn’t be looking at the screen constantly, it would still be a continuous element of their day. The social network could have been their assistant instead of their jailer.
One of the characters even exclaims that she “didn’t even know they had a pool!”. Indicating that she would have loved to try it, but the closed nature of the chair’s social network kept her from learning about it and enjoying it. By directing people to ‘test’ new experiences aboard the Axiom and releasing them from its grip occasionally, the social network could have acted as an assistant instead of an attention sink.
Moment-to-moment happiness might have declined, but overall happiness would have gone way up.
The best way for designers to affect the outcome of these situations is to help shape the business goals and metrics of a project. In a situation like this, after the project had launched a designer could step in and point out those moments were a passenger was pleasantly surprised, or clearly in need of something to do, and help build a business case around serving those needs.
The obvious moments of happiness (that this system solves for so well) could then be augmented by serendipitous moments of pleasure and reward-driven workouts.
We must build products for more than just fleeting pleasure
As soon as the Axiom lands back on Earth, the entire passenger complement leaves the ship (and the social network) behind.
It was such a superficial pleasure that people abandoned it without hesitation when they realized that there was something more rewarding to do. That’s a parallel that we can draw to many current products. The product can keep attention for now, but something better will come along and then their users will abandon them.
A company can produce a product or piece of software that fills a quick need and initially looks successful. But, that success falls apart as soon as people realize that they have larger and tougher problems that need solving.
Ideally, a team of designers at BNL would have watched after the initial launch and continued improving the social network. By helping people continue to grow and learn new skills, the social network could have kept the people aboard the Axiom it top condition both mentally and physically. By the time Wall-E came around, and life finally began to return to Earth, the passengers would have been ready to return and rebuild civilization on their own.
To the designers of a real Axiom Social Network: You have the chance to build a tool that can save the world.