The Gatekeeper

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After the security ‘bot brings Eve across the ship (with Wall-e in tow), he arrives at the gatekeeper to the bridge. The Gatekeeper has the job of entering information about ‘bots, or activating and deactivating systems (labeled with “1”s and “0”s) into a pedestal keyboard with two small manipulator arms. It’s mounted on a large, suspended shaft, and once it sees the security ‘bot and confirms his clearance, it lets the ‘bot and the pallet through by clicking another, specific button on the keyboard.

The Gatekeeper is large. Larger than most of the other robots we see on the Axiom. It’s casing is a white shell around an inner hardware. This casing looks like it’s meant to protect or shield the internal components from light impacts or basic problems like dust. From the looks of the inner housing, the Gatekeeper should be able to move its ‘head’ up and down to point its eye in different directions, but while Wall-e and the security ‘bot are in the room, we only ever see it rotating around its suspension pole and using the glowing pinpoint in its red eye to track the objects its paying attention to.

When it lets the sled through, it sees Wall-e on the back of the sled, who waves to the Gatekeeper. In response, the Gatekeeper waves back with its jointed manipulator arm. After waving, the Gatekeeper looks at its arm. It looks surprised at the arm movement, as if it hadn’t considered the ability to use those actuators before. There is a pause that gives the distinct impression that the Gatekeeper is thinking hard about this new ability, then we see it waving the arm a couple more times to itself to confirm its new abilities.

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The Gatekeeper seems to exist solely to enter information into that pedestal. From what we can see, it doesn’t move and likely (considering the rest of the ship) has been there since the Axiom’s construction. We don’t see any other actions from the pedestal keys, but considering that one of them opens a door temporarily, it’s possible that the other buttons have some other, more permanent functions like deactivating the door security completely, or allowing a non-authorized ‘bot (or even a human) into the space.

An unutilized sentience

The robot is a sentient being, with a tedious and repetitive job, who doesn’t even know he can wave his arm until Wall-e introduces the Gatekeeper to the concept. This fits with the other technology on board the Axiom, with intelligence lacking any correlation to the robot’s function. Thankfully for the robot, he (she?) doesn’t realize their lack of a larger world until that moment.

So what’s the pedestal for?

It still leaves open the question of what the pedestal controls actually do. If they’re all connected to security doors throughout the ship, then the Gatekeeper would have to be tied into the ship’s systems somehow to see who was entering or leaving each secure area.

The pedestal itself acts as a two-stage authentication system. The Gatekeeper has a powerful sentience, and must decide if the people or robots in front of it are allowed to enter the room or rooms it guards. Then, after that decision, it must make a physical action to unlock the door to enter the secure area. This implies a high level of security, which feels appropriate given that the elevator accesses the bridge of the Axiom.

Since we’ve seen the robots have different vision modes, and improvements based on their function, it’s likely that the Gatekeeper can see more into the pedestal interface than the audience can, possibly including which doors each key links to. If not, then as a computer it would have perfect recall on what each button was for. This does not afford a human presence stepping in to take control in case the Gatekeeper has issues (like the robots seen soon after this in the ‘medbay’). But, considering Buy-N-Large’s desire to leave humans out of the loop at each possible point, this seems like a reasonable design direction for the company to take if they wanted to continue that trend.

It’s possible that the pedestal was intended for a human security guard that was replaced after the first generation of spacefarers retired. Another possibility is that Buy-N-Large wanted an obvious sign of security to comfort passengers.

What’s missing?

We learn after this scene that the security ‘bot is Otto’s ‘muscle’ and affords some protection. Given that the Security ‘bot and others might be needed at random times, it feels like he would want a way to gain access to the bridge in an emergency. Something like an integrated biometric scanner on the door that could be manually activated (eye scanner, palm scanner, RFID tags, etc.), or even a physical key device on the door that only someone like the Captain or trusted security officers would be given. Though that assumes there is more than one entrance to the bridge.

This is a great showcase system for tours and commercials of an all-access luxury hotel and lifeboat. It looks impressive, and the Gatekeeper would be an effective way to make sure only people who are really supposed to get into the bridge are allowed past the barriers. But, Buy-N-Large seems to have gone too far in their quest for intelligent robots and has created something that could be easily replaced by a simpler, hard-wired security system.

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Pneumatic Mail

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Korben receives physical mail to a transparent, flat pneumatic tube in his apartment. When new mail arrives, he hears a whoosh, the envelope drops into place, and the plastic material that the tube is made of becomes edge-lit with the film’s signature orange color.

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To retrieve the letter, Korben lifts a hinged side and slides the letter out. The tube hangs at from the ceiling about waist high, to the left of his window desk on the far side of his apartment from the door.

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The positioning of the tube is nice as the desk is one place he’s likely to put information received there to use: reading and storing if necessary. Another location might have been near the door, to catch his attention in a physical location that he frequents. But infrequent use is not too much of a problem since the edge lighting should catch his attention.

His attention could be drawn more aggressively to the tube by having the light blink a few times at the arrival of new mail, or when he enters the apartment. Presuming the system knows the importance of a given letters—such as when he is fired from Zorg industries—it could offer an additional audio cue, such as a simple statement of "urgent" using the same voice that announces his allotment of cigarettes in the morning.

Another tiny improvement might be to remove the flap entirely, but adding a grip gap at the edge, on the apartment-facing side of the tube. Presuming this wouldn’t mess with the pneumatic or stability of the letter in place, it would save Korben from having to target and raise the flap. Grabbing mail would just be easier.

Oddly, the edge lighting does not disappear when Korben retrieves letters, which is odd given the slight context-awareness that the rest of the apartment displays. The light should turn off or fade once the letter is removed.

Headsets

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On duty military personnel—on the ship and attending the President—all wear headsets. For personnel talking to others on the bridge, this appears to be a passive mechanism with no controls, perhaps for having an audio record of conversations or ensuring that everyone on the bridge can hear one another perfectly at all times.

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Personnel communicating with people both on the ship’s bridge and the president have a more interesting headset.

Signaling dual-presence

The headsets have antennas rising from the right ear, and each is tipped with a small glowing red light. This provides a technological signal that the device is powered, but also a social signal that the wearer may be engaged in remote conversations. Voice technologies that are too small and don’t provide the signal risk the speaker seeming crazy. Unfortunately this signal as it’s designed is only visible from certain directions. A few extra centimeters of height would help this be more visible. Additionally, if the light could have a state to indicate when the wearer is listening to audio input that others can’t hear, it would provide a person in the same room a cue to wait a moment before getting his attention.

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Secondary conversants

Each headset has a default open connection, which is always on, sending and receiving to one particular conversant. In this way General Staedert can just keep talking and listening to the President. Secondary parties are available by means of light gray buttons on the earpieces. We see General Munro lift his hand and press (one/both of?) these buttons while learning about the growth rate of the evil planet.

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The strategy of having one default and a few secondary conversants within easy access makes a great deal of sense. Quick question and answer transactions can occur across a broad network of experts this way and get information to a core set of decision makers.

The design tactic of having buttons to access them is OK, but perhaps not optimal. Having to press the buttons means the communicator ends up mashing his ear. The easiest to “press” wouldn’t be a button at all but a proximity switch, that simply detects the placement of the hand. This has some particular affordance challenges, but we can presume military personnel are well trained and expert users.

Dianthus calling

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Alphy’’s first action in the film is to announce a call from Dianthus, President of Earth and Rotating Premier of the Sun System. During Alphy’’s announcement, a free-standing mock-classical sculpture of a woman shifts to enlarge the crescent frame she holds above her shoulder. This becomes the organically-shaped view screen for the videophone conference between Barbarella and the President.

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When it is fully extended, the frame fills with the video feed from Dianthus. No camera mechanism is seen. The gaze matching (see Chapter 4, Volumetric Projection) is handled somewhat mysteriously. For an early part of the conversation Dianthus is looking directly at her breasts rather than her eyes. Barbarella was steeped in the sexual freedom utopia tropes of its day, but this actually seems to be an error in presentation, since neither acknowledges it. Also Dianthus appears at several distances and heights during the course of the fall, sometimes sitting and sometimes standing. He must have had a cameraman. This isn’t inconceivable for a President of Earth, but not yet scalable for mass market use.

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When during the call Barbarella gets upset at the possibility of “archaic insecurity,” she crosses to the far side of the statue. This reveals that the display surface is two-dimensional, and displays perfectly from both sides. During her movement, Dianthus follows her and turns around to talk with her from the other side of the statue. We do see at the beginning of the conversation that his camera moves, so he has some kind of different setup than hers. This raises some curious questions about what Dianthus is seeing from his side of the exchange, but alas, we are never shown, so it is an exercise left for the designer/fan.

As with the Purple Drank, controls are never seen for this communication. Alphy handles absolutely everything.

Neuro-Visor

The second interface David has to monitor those in hypersleep is the Neuro-Visor, a helmet that lets him perceive their dreams. The helmet is round, solid, and white. The visor itself is yellow and back-lit. The yellow is the same greenish-yellow underneath the hypersleep beds and clearly establishes the connection between the devices to a new user. When we see David’s view from inside the visor, it is a cinematic, fully-immersive 3D projection of events in her dreams, that is presented in the “spot elevations” style that is predominant throughout the film (more on this display technique later).

Later in the movie we see David using this same helmet to communicate with Weyland who is in a hypersleep chamber, but Weyland is somehow conscious enough to have a back-and-forth dialogue with David. We don’t see either David’s for Weyland’s perspective in the scene.

David communicated with Weyland.

As an interface, the helmet seems straightforward. He has one Neuro-Visor for all the hypersleep chambers, and to pair the device to a particular one, he simply touches the surface of the chamber near the hyper sleeper’s head. Cyan interface elements on that translucent interface confirm the touch and presumably allow some degree of control of the visuals. To turn the Neuro-Visor off, he simply removes it from his head. These are simple and intuitive gestures that makes the Neuro-Visor one of the best and most elegantly designed interfaces in the movie.

The Other Users

There is another set of users of the Global Sacrifice System who bear a bit of consideration, and they are the Old Ones. They are users in the sense that this is an agreement into which they’ve entered with humanity, in order to get a continuing IV drip of (to them) pleasurable abject suffering and death. This isn’t an imposed frame on the story. The ritual spoken by Sitterson are not the words of a zookeeper managing a downed animal’s Ketamine. They’re the words of a supplicant.

As long as the organization keeps the sacrifices coming, providing the tasty intravenous drip of human suffering, the world is allowed to continue as it is for another year. With this in mind, we can analyze how the system works for those users, i.e. the Old Ones.

The outputs that the Old Ones read from the system are unavailable to us, but we can tell it’s kind of precise. There are allusions midway through the film that the titan below the cabin is somehow “watching” the sex scene. (Though that ambiguous line could refer to the ravenous horror-movie audience as well.) It can also somehow sense the suffering of the victims, and whether the details of the ritual are being carried out in the proper order. The way we know this is that when Marty’s “death” vial is inappropriately shattered, the titan causes an earthquake that rocks the complex and the cabin.

This, then, is the input that the Old Ones have: shaking the ground in their displeasure. But as a signal, it’s far too vague. Hadley and Sitterson feel the quake, but disregard it. Hadley shouts, “They must be getting excited downstairs!” and Sitterson replies somewhat jadedly, “Greatest show on earth.” Had they had any inkling that they had actually messed up (even absent of what precisely was messed up) they would have pulled out the stops to find the error and correct it.

So while we as an audience are all in favor of resetting of a world that has accepted annual ritual sacrifice of young people, neither party to the agreement—the Old Ones nor the humans—set in place a system of communication that is precise enough to keep the agreement going. And that’s a failing of the interface.

Joh’s Videophone

One of the most impressive interfaces seen in the film is Joh’’s wall-mounted videophone. It is a marvel of special effects for 1927, and an ideal example that no matter how far sci-fi wants to look into the future, it must base its interfaces on the paradigms familiar to the audiences. Note in Joh’’s use of the interface how the videophone is an awkward blend of early 20th century technology metaphors.

The videophone is a large device, easily as tall as Joh himself, mounted to the wall of his office. At its center is a large vertically-oriented video screen that is angled upwards for easy downward viewing. To the right and left of the screen are large tuning dials. A series of knobs and controls sit below the dials.

Joh checks the recent activity of the video phone.

When he first approaches the device, he checks the tickertape dangling from an overhung box on the left. Not seeing anything of interest, he drops the paper and approaches the screen.

Joh tunes in the channel he needs to speak to Grot.

Reaching up to the right dial, he turns its hand counterclockwise from pointing at the number 10 to the number 6. Then he turns the left hand dial to 4, and the screen comes to life. It first displays the legend “HM 2” at the top. Some video appears below this, but rather than a clear feed of a single camera, it is a shifting blend of different cameras. Joh must fiddle with a few controls to clear the reception.

This moment seems quite strange to viewers familiar with modern video technology, since their experience is rooted in VHF broadcast, cable television, or online video. With these technology metaphors, channels are discrete. But it is important to recall that television was not popularized at the time, and the media metaphor most familiar to that audience would be radio, which users do in fact have to “tune” to get a clear signal.

Joh picks up the phone and calls Grot.

Joh verifies that he’s seeing the right channel visually, by seeing Grot’s nervous pacing in camera view. Confident that he’’s calling the right place, Joh picks up a telephone handset from the device, and reaches across to repeatedly press a button on the right. In response, the light bulbs on Grot’’s videophone begin to blink and (presumably) make a sound.

Joh tells Grot to destroy the Heart Machine.

Grot rushes to his device, looks into the screen and lifts his handset. The two have a conversation, each looking directly at the face on the screen.

This moment is another telling one. Lang was familiar with cameras, and could have had his actors talking to a lens. But instead he had them do what felt right and would make sense to the audience, i.e. talking to the other “person,” not the machine. In this way Lang is involved in “bodystorming” the right feel of technology, and in so doing is setting expectations for the way the real technology——should it ever get here—should work.

His command issued, Joh hangs up on an incredulous Grot.

A final note on the interaction is that, to end the call, Joh returns the handset to its resting position, and, much like a telephone, this ends the call for both parties.

This seems to us like an overcomplicated mash-up of technology metaphors: telegraph, film, radio, and telephone. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but it’’s not that Lang lacked the vision. He easily could have made the device more “magic,” by omitting the telephone handset and have Joh speak directly to the image of Grot. But Lang was not a technologist. He was a filmmaker, and needed to take his audience on the journey with him. He spoke to them in their shared language, using understandable cues to the individual components that, when added together add up to the something new that is one of the delights and promises of science fiction.