Who did it better? Santa Claus edition

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?

Ho-Ho-hubris!

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.

Both these illustrations are by Nast.

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.

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
  • Manage letters
    • Reading letters
    • Sending toy requests to the workshop
    • Storing letters
  • Make presents
  • 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.

This is the Worst Santa, but the image is illustrative of the weather challenges.

Typical Challenges

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 safety
    • Air obstacles (Planes, helicopters, skyscrapers)
  • Ingress/egress into homes
  • Home security systems / guard dogs

The Contenders

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.

https://editorial.rottentomatoes.com/guide/best-christmas-movies/https://screenrant.com/best-santa-claus-holiday-movies-ranked/

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.

Santa’s hat in this story has headphones and the ball has a microphone for communicating with elves back in the workshop.

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.

The Santa Clause on imdb.com

Fred Claus (2007)

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.

The workshop has an extensive pneumatic tube system for getting letters to the right craftself.

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.

Fred Clause on imdb.com

Arthur Christmas (2011)

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 MCU S.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.

Arthur Christmas on imdb.com

The Christmas Chronicles (2018)

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 Christmas Chronicles on imdb.com

So…who did it better?

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.

The weathered surface of this camouflage button is delightful (Arthur Christmas).

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.

Gorgeous steampunkish binocular HUD from The Christmas Chronicles 2, which was not otherwise included in this post.

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.

Ho, Ho, HEH.

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.


For more Who Did it Better, see the tag.

Trivium remotes

Once a victim is wearing a Trivium Bracelet, any of Orlak’s henchmen can control the wearer’s actions. The victim’s expression is blank, suggesting that their consciousness is either comatose, twilit, or in some sort of locked in state. Their actions are controlled via a handheld remote control.

We see the remote control in use in four places in Las Luchadoras vs El Robot Asesino.

  1. One gets clapped on Dr. Chavez to test it.
  2. One goes on Gemma to demonstrate it.
  3. One is removed from the robot.
  4. One goes on Berthe to transform her to Black Electra.
Continue reading

The Cookie: Matt’s controls

When using the Cookie to train the AI, Matt has a portable translucent touchscreen by which he controls some of virtual Greta’s environment. (Sharp-eyed viewers of the show will note this translucent panel is the same one he uses at home in his revolting virtual wingman hobby, but the interface is completely different.)

Black_Mirror_Cookie_18.png

The left side of the screen shows a hamburger menu, the Set Time control, a head, some gears, a star, and a bulleted list. (They’re unlabeled.) The main part of the screen is a scrolling stack of controls including Simulated Body, Control System, and Time Adjustment. Each has an large icon, a header with “Full screen” to the right, a subheader, and a time indicator. This could be redesigned to be much more compact and context-rich for expert users like Matt. It’s seen for maybe half a second, though, and it’s not the new, interesting thing, so we’ll skip it.

The right side of the screen has a stack of Smartelligence logos which are alternately used for confirmation and to put the interface to sleep.

Mute

When virtual Greta first freaks out about her circumstance and begins to scream in existential terror, Matt reaches to the panel and mutes her. (To put a fine point on it: He’s a charming monster.) In this mode she cannot make a sound, but can hear him just fine. We do not see the interface he uses to enact this. He uses it to assert conversational control over her. Later he reaches out to the same interface to unmute her.

The control he touches is the one on his panel with a head and some gears reversed out of it. The icon doesn’t make sense for that. The animation showing the unmuting shows it flipping from right to left, so does provide a bit of feedback for Matt, but it should be a more fitting icon and be labeled.

Cookie_mute
Also it’s teeny tiny, but note that the animation starts before he touches it. Is it anticipatory?

It’s not clear though, while she is muted, how he knows that she is trying to speak. Recall that she (and we) see her mouthing words silently, but from his perspective, she’s just an egg with a blue eye. The system would need some very obvious MUTE status display, that increases in intensity when the AI is trying to communicate. Depending on how smart the monitoring feature was, it could even enable some high-intensity alert system for her when she needs to communicate something vital. Cinegenically, this could have been a simple blinking of the blue camera light, though this is currently used to indicate the passage of time during the Time Adjustment (see below.)

Simulated Body

Matt can turn on a Simulated Body for her. This allows the AI to perceive herself as if she had her source’s body. In this mode she perceives herself as existing inside a room with large, wall-sized displays and a control console (more on this below), but is otherwise a featureless white.

Black_Mirror_Cookie_White_Room.png

I presume the Simulated Body is a transitional model—part of a literal desktop metaphor—meant to make it easy for the AI (and the audience) to understand things. But it would introduce a slight lag as the AI imagines reaching and manipulating the console. Presuming she can build competence in directly controlling the technologies in the house, the interface should “scaffold” away and help her gain the more efficient skills of direct control, letting go of the outmoded notion of having a body. (This, it should be noted, would not be as cinegenic since the story would just feature the egg rather than the actor’s expressive face.)

Neuropsychology nerds may be interested to know that the mind’s camera does, in fact, have spatial lags. Several experiments have been run where subjects are asked to imagine animals as seen from the side and then timed how long it took them to imagine zooming into the eye. It takes longer, usually, for us to imagine the zoom to a elephant’s eye than a mouse’s because the “distance” is farther. Even though there’s no physicality to the mind’s camera to impose this limit, our brain is tied to its experience in the real world.

Black_Mirror_Cookie_Simulated_Body.png

The interface Matt has to turn on her virtual reality is confusing. We hear 7 beeps while the camera is on his face. He sees a 3D rendering of a woman’s body in profile and silhouette. He taps the front view and it fills with red. Then he taps the side view and it fills with red. Then he taps some Smartelligence logos on the side with a thumb and then *poof* she’s got a body. While I suspect this is a post-actor interface, (i.e. Jon Hamm just tapped some things on an empty screen while on camera and then the designers had to later retrofit an interface that fit his gestures) this multi-button setup and three-tap initialization just makes no sense. It should be a simple toggle with access to optional controls like scaffolding settings (discussed above.)

Time “Adjustment”

The main tool Matt has to force compliance is a time control. When Greta initially says she won’t comply, (specifically and delightfully, she asserts, “I’m not some sort of push-button toaster monkey!”) Then he uses his interface to make it seem like 3 weeks pass for her inside her featureless white room. Then again for 6 months. The solitary confinement makes her crazy and eventually forces compliance.

Cookie_settime.gif

The interface to set the time is a two-layer virtual dial: Two chapter rings with wide blue arcs for touch targets. The first time we see him use it, he spins the outer one about 360° (before the camera cuts away) to set the time for three weeks. While he does it, the inner ring spins around the same center but at a slower rate. I presume it’s months, though the spatial relationship doesn’t make sense. Then he presses the button in the center of the control. He sees an animation of a sun and moon arcing over an illustrated house to indicate her passage of time, and then the display. Aside: Hamm plays this beat marvelously by callously chomping on the toast she has just help make.

Toast.gif

Improvements?

Ordinarily I wouldn’t speak to improvements on an interface that is used for torture, but as this could only affect a general AI that is as yet speculative, and it couldn’t be co-opted to torture real people since time travel doesn’t exist, so I think this time it’s OK. Discussing it as a general time-setting control, I can see three immediate improvements.

1. Use fast forward models

It makes most sense for her time sentence to end automatically and automatically return to real-world speed. But each time we see the time controls used, the following interaction happens near the end of the time sentence:

  • Matt reaches up to the console
  • He taps the center button of the time dial
  • He taps the stylized house illustration. In response it gets a dark overlay with a circle inside of it reading “SET TIME.” This is the same icon seen 2nd down  in the left panel.
  • He taps the center button of the time dial again. The dark overlay reads “Reset” with a new icon.
  • He taps the overlay.

Please tell me this is more post-actor interface design. Because that interaction is bonkers.

Cookie_stop.gif

If the stop function really needs a manual control, well, we have models for that that are very readily understandable by users and audiences. Have the whole thing work and look like a fast forward control rather than this confusing mess. If he does need to end it early, as he does in the 6 months sentence, let him just press a control labeled PLAY or REALTIME.

2. Add calendar controls

A dial makes sense when a user is setting minutes or hours, but a calendar-like display should be used for weeks or months. It would be immediately recognizable and usable by the user and understandable to the audience. If Hamm had touched the interface twice, I would design the first tap to set the start date and the second tap to set the end date. The third is the commit.

3. Add microinteraction feedback

Also note that as he spins the dials, he sees no feedback showing the current time setting. At 370° is it 21 or 28 days? The interface doesn’t tell him. If he’s really having to push the AI to its limits, the precision will be important. Better would be to show the time value he’s set so he could tweak it as needed, and then let that count down as time remaining while the animation progresses.

Cookie_settime.gif

Effectiveness subtlety: Why not just make the solitary confinement pass instantly for Matt? Well, recall he is trying to ride a line of torture without having the AI wig out, so he should have some feedback as to the duration of what he’s putting her through. If it was always instant, he couldn’t tell the difference between three weeks and three millennia, if he had accidentally entered the wrong value. But if real-world time is passing, and it’s taking longer than he thinks it should be, he can intervene and stop the fast-forwarding.

That, or of course, show feedback while he’s dialing.

Near the end of the episode we learn that a police officer is whimsically torturing another Cookie, and sets the time-ratio to “1000 years per minute” and then just lets it run while he leaves for Christmas break. The current time ratio should also be displayed and a control provided. It is absent from the screen.

Black_Mirror_Cookie_31.png

Add psychological state feedback

There is one “improvement” that does not pertain to real world time controls, and that’s the invisible effect of what’s happening to the AI during the fast forward. In the episode Matt explains that, like any good torturer, “The trick of it is to break them without letting them snap completely,” but while time is passing he has no indicators as to the mental state of the sentience within. Has she gone mad? (Or “wigged out” as he says.) Does he need to ease off? Give her a break?

I would add trendline indicators or sparklines showing things like:

  • Stress
  • Agitation
  • Valence of speech

I would have these trendlines highlight when any of the variables are getting close to known psychological limits. Then as time passes, he can watch the trends to know if he’s pushing things too far and ease off.

Tibet mode: Display for interestingness (2 of 5)

Without a display, the Eye asks Strange to do all the work of exploring the range of values available through it to discover what is of interest. (I am constantly surprised at how many interfaces in the real world repeat this mistake.) We can help by doing a bit of “pre-processing” of the information and provide Strange a key to what he will find, and where, and ways to recover exactly where interesting things happen.

watch.png
The watch from the film, for reasons that will shortly become clear.

To do this, we’ll add a ring outside the saucer that will stay fixed relative to the saucer’s rotation and contain this display. Since we need to call this ring something, and we’re in the domain of time, let’s crib some vocabulary from clocks. The fixed ring of a clock that contains the numbers and minute graduations is called a chapter ring. So we’ll use that for our ring, too.

chapter-rings.png

What chapter ring content would most help Strange?

Good: A time-focused chapter ring

Both the controlled-extents and the auto-extents shown in the prior post presume a smooth display of time. But the tome and the speculative meteorite simply don’t change much over the course of their existence. I mean, of course they do, with the book being pulled on and off shelves and pages flipped, and the meteorite arcing around the sun in the cold vacuum of space for countless millennia, but the Eye only displays the material changes to an object, not position. So as far as the Eye is concerned, the meteoroid formed, then it stays the same for most of its existence, then it has a lot of activity as it hits Earth’s atmosphere and slams into the planet.

A continuous display of the book shows little of interest for most of its existence, with a few key moments of change interspersed. To illustrate this, lets make up some change events for the tome.

Eye-of-Agamotto-event-view.png

Now let’s place those along an imaginary timeline. Given the Doctor Strange storyline, Page Torn would more likely be right next to Now, but making this change helps us explore a common boredom problem, see below. OK. Placing those events along a timeline…

Eye-of-Agamotto-time-view.png

And then, wrapping that timeline around the saucer. Much more art direction would have to happen to make this look thematically like the rest of the MCU magic geometries, but following is a conceptual diagram of how it might look.

Eye-of-Agamoto-dial.png
With time flowing smoothly, though at different speeds for the past and the future.

On the outside of the saucer is the chapter ring with the salient moments of change called out with icons (and labels). At a glance Strange would know where the fruitful moments of change occur. He can see he only has to turn his hand about 5° to the left to get to the spot where the page was ripped out.

Already easier on him, right? Some things to note.

  1. The chapter ring must stay fixed relative to the saucer to work as a reference. Imagine how useless a clock would be if its chapter ring spun in concert with any of its hands. The center can still move with his palm as the saucer does.
  2. The graduations to the left and right of “now” are of a different density, helping Strange to understand that past and future are mapped differently to accommodate the limits of his wrist and the differing time frames described.
  3. When several events occur close together in time, they could be stacked.
  4. Having the graduations evenly spaced across the range helps answer roughly when each change happened relative to the whole.
  5. The tome in front of him should automatically flip to spreads where scrubbed changes occur, so Strange doesn’t have to hunt for them. Without this feature, if Strange was trying to figure out what changed, he would have to flip through the whole book with each degree of twist to see if anything unknown had changed.

Better: A changes-focused chapter ring

If, as in this scene, the primary task of using the Eye is to look for changes, a smooth display of time on the chapter ring is less optimal than a smooth display of change. (Strange doesn’t really care when the pages were torn. He just wants to see the state of the tome before that moment.) Distribute the changes evenly around the chapter ring, and you get something like the following.

Eye-of-Agamoto-event.png

This display optimizes for easy access to the major states of the book. The now point is problematic since the even distribution puts it at the three o’clock point rather than the noon, but what we buy in exchange is that the exact same precision is required to access any of the changes and compare them. There’s no extra precision needed to scrub between the book made and the first stuff added moments. The act of comparison is made simpler. Additionally, the logarithmic time graduations help him scrub detail near known changes and quickly bypass the great stretches of time when nothing happens. By orienting our display around the changes, the interesting bits are made more easy to explore, and the boring bits are more easy to bypass.

In my comp, more white areas equal more time. Unfortunately, this visual design kind of draws attention to the empty stretches of time rather than the moments of change, so would need more attention; see the note above about needing a visual designer involved.

So…the smooth time and the distributed events display each has its advantages over the other, but for the Tibet scene, in which he’s looking to restore the lost pages of the tome, the events-focused chapter ring gets Strange to the interesting parts more confidently.


Note that all the events Strange might be scrubbing through are in the past, but that’s not all the Eye can do in the Tibet mode. So next up, let’s talk a little about the future.

R. S. Revenge Comms

Note: In honor of the season, Rogue One opening this week, and the reviews of Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series behind us, I’m reopening the Star Wars Holiday Special reviews, starting with the show-within-a-show, The Faithful Wookie. Refresh yourself of the plot if it’s been a while.

Faithful-Wookiee-02

On board the R.S. Revenge, the purple-skinned communications officer announces he’s picked up something. (Genders are a goofy thing to ascribe to alien physiology, but the voice actor speaks in a masculine register, so I’m going with it.)

faithful-wookiee-01-surrounds

He attends a monitor, below which are several dials and controls in a panel. On the right of the monitor screen there are five physical controls.

  • A stay-state toggle switch
  • A stay-state rocker switch
  • Three dials

The lower two dials have rings under them on the panel that accentuate their color.

Map View

The screen is a dark purple overhead map of the impossibly dense asteroid field in which the Revenge sits. A light purple grid divides the space into 48 squares. This screen has text all over it, but written in a constructed orthography unmentioned in the Wookieepedia. In the upper center and upper right are unchanging labels. Some triangular label sits in the lower-left. In the lower right corner, text appears and disappears too fast for (human) reading. The middle right side of the screen is labeled in large characters, but they also change too rapidly to make much sense of it.

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Lumpy’s Brilliant Cartoon Player

I am pleased to report that with this post, we are over 50% of the way through this wretched, wretched Holiday Special.

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Description

After Lumpy tries to stop stormtroopers from going upstairs, an Imperial Officer commands Malla to keep him quiet. To do so, she does what any self-respecting mother of a pre-teen in the age of technology does, and sits him down to watch cartoons. The player is a small, yellow device that sits flat on an angled tabletop, like a writing desk.

Two small silver buttons stack vertically on the left, and an upside down plug hole strainer on the right. A video screen sits above these controls. Since no one in the rest of his family wants to hear the cartoon introduction of Boba Fett, he dons a pair of headphones, which are actually kind of stylish in that the earpieces are square and perforated, but not beveled. There are some pointless animations that start up, but then the cartoon starts and Lumpy is, in fact, quiet for the duration. So, OK, point one Malla.

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Why no budding DJ has glommed onto this for an album cover is beyond me.

Analysis

Continue reading

Is serial presentation a problem in The Circuit?

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

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

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

The face-to-face nature of the system also puts a strange social pressure on both the rider and the tuner. In trying to maximize pleasure for the populace, the Übercomputer doesn’t want anyone settling out of politeness, especially if there’s a better combination for each party somewhere. Sure he’s probably practiced at this, but how is Carl supposed to feel after the rejection? Ideally we’d save him from rejection in the first place, but if we can’t do that is there a way to minimize having to look at the guy in the face as he’s twisting the knob to the next channel? Because ouch.

Tableau

Would tableau be better?

These arguments would seem to argue for a tableau layout of available riders, where Logan can pick favorites from among them, select some to get a closer look at, and initiate contact with his favorite candidates in parallel to see the best or first deal he could get. And if you were designing to optimize for individual users, this might be the best design choice.

Maximizing for everyone

But in Dome City, the Übercomputer has a goal to not just maximize pleasure for only the most beautiful. It’s not just a hedonist-dystopia or Battle of the Beauties. It’s more of a socialist-hedonist-dystopia. It wants to maximize pleasure for everyone. How can it systemically encourage that?

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Of course it encourages everyone to try and be as fit and attractive as they can be. Gyms and saunas are everywhere. (Interesting digression: Would a fetish arise for less-fit people?) Citizens even have access to fast and painless cosmetic surgery to try out new appearances. Over and above these tools available to individual citizens, the Übercomputer has a design tool it can use to maximize matches, and it has to do with a weird little social experiment called the 11th Person Game.

The 11th person game

In this admittedly objectifying game, ask a friend to select a doorway and a point in time. From that starting point, they much watch for the next person to pass through the doorway, and decide in a moment whether they would like to marry them or not. (There is a more lascivious version of the game where marriage is not the decision, but I’ll let your imagination fill in that blank.)

When playing, you can’t undo a decision. If you decide yes, you can’t change your mind for someone better who comes along later. Once you say “no,” you’re stuck with that no even if they turned out be your favorite. If another person passes through the doorway while you’re still making up your mind about the prior person, tough luck. The prior person automatically becomes a “no.” The kicker is that if you don’t select someone by the 10th person, you “have” to marry the 11th and others watching you play the game will almost certainly rib you for the forced marriage, especially it’s a terrible match (like a homosexual having to “marry” someone of the opposite sex.)

When people begin to play the 11th person game, they most often have a strategy of finding flaws in people and holding out for a better looking candidate (since that’s pretty much all the information they have to go on in this toy experiment) until time’s up and they find that as of the 11th, they would have been much happier with one of the prior 10.

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Over time, to start “winning” this game, players shift strategies from this flaw-finding and holding out to one of in-the-moment appreciation, of looking for what’s right about a given person and caring much less about the “opportunity” cost of subsequent choices.

Notably, to get the effect, the game depends on, you guessed it, serial presentation of candidates and irrevocable decisions. This is what’s happening in The Circuit. A Green will hop on The Circuit with a mindset of looking to maximize, and after a few nights of winding up alone, feeling like they’re settling, and/or frustrated at lost opportunities, they will slowly shift to one of appreciation. That makes them genuinely happier and moreover, increases the number of matches in the total system. It’s not perfect of course. Logan did reject Carl for whatever reason. But this presentation technique would help maximize pleasure and happiness, which is what the Übercomputer is tasked to do.

Even all the other little unusabilities that go along with it like memory burden, the delay between candidates, and maybe even the social awkwardness, help create a design friction that additionally discourages best-of-all strategies and encourages a shift to appreciation strategies. More people win.

So, serial presentation is not a bug but a feature. Let’s see if we can keep it. Still, given the other massive and unresolvable problems in the design of The Circuit like lousy controls, unilateral control, and a complete lack of preferences, we need a complete rethink of those other parts to make this thing better. In the next post I’ll get into the principles involved and walk through the thinking of a better design. You know, for that coming reboot. (They’re reading and taking notes, right?)

The Circuit

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

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

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

Description

Early in the film, after a hard day of liquefying runners, Logan-6 comes home to his apartment and wants to add a little sex to his evening. He slips into a robe, grabs a remote control, and begins to twist dials on its surface. In response, we hear frequencies swooping to and fro like someone is tuning an AM radio but never quite finding a station. Meanwhile an alcove on one side of his living room displays a blinking, wispy texture of multicolored light. (It bears a passing resemblance to Star Trek TOS teleporters, for those interested in tracing SFX similarities.)

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It takes about 10 seconds of Logan’s tuning, but eventually a figure appears in the lights. It coalesces into a man wearing

  • A lot of gold swag
  • Red velour hip huggers
  • A gold belt buckle that would do the WWE proud
  • A tan worthy of Jersey Shore
  • Nothing else

This fellow is never named in the movie or the credits or the internet, so I’ll just call him Carl-4. Carl likes what he sees in Logan, and so gives him a showy pose and a winsome smile.

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Logan smiles and shakes his head “no,” looks down, and resumes fiddling with his remote control. Carl vanishes quickly in the texture of light. A few seconds of tuning later and Jessica-5 coalesces in the alcove. She looks around a little doe-eyed and dumbfounded, almost as if she stumbled onto the Circuit by accident and is now a little perplexed about how she got here. Nonetheless, she accepts Logan’s extended hand and steps out of the alcove into his apartment where hijinks might have ensued, if it weren’t for her learning he was a Sandman.

Problems

It’s a quick, 50-second scene, meant to wow the audience with futuristic technology, shock and titillate with how casual the sex is in Dome City, and, for purposes of the plot, get the sandman Logan and the revolutionary Jessica in contact for the first time so he can meet her and see her ankh necklace.

I have the distinct impression that this device was first conceived between a pair of roommate movie producers sitting around in their apartment one Saturday in bathrobes, high off their asses, with one of them thumbing through a copy of Penthouse while the other one practiced feathering his hair or whatever they did while they were high in the 70s. The one with the magazine takes a huge hit off his bong and says to the other while blowing out smoke, “Dude. Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could just reach in to this magazine, and pull one of these girls out of here?” The other of course agrees, pauses with his hairbrush midair to think, and then says, “Dude. We’re movie producers. We can make. That. Shit. Happen.” Because really, that’s the only way something this goofball could have come about.

Mismatched Controls

What the hell is Logan tuning? The 1970s were certainly operating with radio metaphors, but it just doesn’t make sense in this context. Is Jessica being broadcast on a channel? Can two tuners tune her in at the same time? Are there multiple copies of Jessica? That makes no sense unless she’s virtual, which we know she’s not, or instantly/infinitely replicable, which isn’t part of this diegesis.

Why would he have to tune at all? Is he actually trying to get something “right” in the system in order to summon the next candidate? What if he gets it wrong? What if he only tunes a partner in 95%? Can he leave her there indefinitely? What if she steps off at 99.5%? Where does that extra mass go? Instant weight loss, sure, but also the possibility of a teleporter lobotomy.

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Is he dialing the preferences for what he’s interested in at that moment? If so, why does he keep tuning even as someone is appearing? If it’s some kind of live results, like Google’s live search, why are the “travelers” of the circuit summoned before he’s done? It’s premature, and premature is bad in casual sex.

As you can tell, I’ve tried to come up with some apologetic answer, and I just can’t think of any way this control makes sense. It’s a sci-fi interface fail.

Lopsided control

For purposes of the description, let’s call Logan a “tuner,” and Carl and Jessica “travelers.” These terms are derived from the scene, not meant to describe some ideal. Note that Logan gets a remote control, but the travelers don’t. They don’t have any controls. It’s tempting to want to imagine that the interior walls of the alcove have some interface that we can’t see, but really the space is too shallow and they are too far away from its walls for that to make any sense. No, this system privileges the tuners with control, and the travelers are just passive participants.

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Think about this from the traveler’s perspective. Once Jessica hops on, she gets zapped away from the start location, only to appear in stranger-after-strangers homes, where her choices are to

  • Accept an offer from a tuner.
  • Express disinterest in a tuner and get zapped to the next location.
  • Or…what? What if she gets tired of riding the circuit? Is she stuck? Does she have to just walk into the stranger’s apartment and make awkward small talk, explaining that she’s tired, find the front door as the tuner frustratedly keeps tuning to find someone new, and then step out into a hallway in a random point in Dome City and then find her way home? It would be a terrible experience. She’d never do it.
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I spoke with an attendee to the BoingBoing conference about the possibility that this privilege of control might be part of Logan’s job as a Sandman, but we reasoned our way out of that. It’s not mentioned anywhere in the movie, and if riders were simply on a conveyor belt for selection by Sandmen, why is Jessica surprised and flustered to wind up in the apartment of one?

If you’ve studied film theory, you’re probably familiar with a criticism called the male gaze, developed by Laura Mulvey. This interface is lousy with it. If you’re not familar, realize that this was created just to satisfy things from Logan’s perspective, of what would be pleasing for him. No thought at all has been given any of the other participants except as objects to be considered in his whim of instant sex.

When rethinking this, we should consciously redesign the system with less “stoner Penthouse” and more Chatroulette, where at least both participants have control: options to keep going, skip to the next candidate, or bow out at any time.

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It’s entirely possible of course that this is just a power exchange, with subs as riders and doms as tuners. After all, they don’t have to ride The Circuit for sex. They have places in Dome City like the Love Shop and the gym where they can go to find a partner in other ways. While this dom-sub possibility might propose some interesting challenges, there’s not a lot of corroborating evidence in the film that this is the case.

Preferences

Finally there’s the notion of preferences. Logan rejects Carl, and his expression as he does so is really bothersome. The smile and head shake say less “Thanks, but not a match,” and more of an offensive “Oh, those silly, silly fags.” (I’m ಠ_ಠ at you, Michael York.) I’m sure in the 1970s, the ambiguity of what Logan was thinking was quite useful. It let both the uptight and queer members in the audience imagine the most palatable reason for the rejection. For our purposes, the rejection of Carl raises the question of preferences.

From the vantage of the 2010s, anyone who’s tried their hand at a matchmaking system knows that preferences are a pretty big deal. There are simply too many candidates out there to consider them one by one, and so expressing preferences helps focus your efforts on a smaller set of more-likely hits. These can either be simple, like the one-time Japanese key fob experiment LoveGety, to systems that let the numbers speak for themselves, like OKCupid, to those that profess the ability to do deep psychological profiling that in turn require hours of your time to answer a battery of questions. Knowing how crucial they are, it’s odd that preferences don’t appear to be part of The Circuit. Why not?

No preferences

One possible reason is that the system didn’t have any preferences. In the 1970s, not even “video (tape) dating” had been invented yet, so preferences may not have been on anyone’s mind in a computational sense. Had the designers given it a bit of thought, they would realize that even then people were expressing some preferences by the choice of party or bar they went to, as they could count on a certain type of person being there. Even the way they dressed and carried themselves was expressing something about who they wanted to be and even do that night. But it’s more likely (if less instructive) that preferences were just not a part of the Circuit.

Logan ain’t feeling it

Another interpretation is that Logan’s rejection of Carl is circumstantial. In this interpretation, Logan is omnisexual, and just happens to be not in the mood for a heaping helping of dude that night. Or maybe Logan would have been fine with a guy, just rejecting this particular one, unwilling to face the challenge of unbuckling all that bling amidst the slipperiness of still-drying tanning butter. That only raises the question of scope: Why can’t Logan capture categorical preferences well in advance, and express circumstantial exceptions or additional preferences in the moment? It’s not a requirement, but it sure would help Logan find what he’s looking for with less of the awkwardness and wasted time of face-to-face rejection.

The system pretends it’s a bit janky to influence him

A final interpretation is that the computer knows Logan’s preferences, but ignores them, on purpose, from time to time. It could be a simple attempt to open his mind to new experiences. It could also be an attempt at persuasion. Similar to how accountants for a publically traded company will make a kind-of bad quarter seem really bad so that the next quarter, even if it’s just a little bit good feel great by comparison, presenting Logan with one choice that’s totally wrong (Carl) may increase his appreciation of the next choice (Jessica). This presumes that the computer has an agenda, is smart about making it happen, is in the business of persuasion, and the system has a serial presentation of candidates, and that’s not all a given in this case. But let’s keep that possibility in mind.

Not a problem: Casualness

Just so it’s clear, I’m not getting on any high horse about casual sex. They’ve cured sexually transmitted infections and birth control is the default. Casual sex a given in this diegesis, and as long as it’s between consenting adults, get over it.

Not a problem: Teleportation

Similarly I’m not going to get into the scientific possibility of teleportation. As far as Logan’s Run is concerned, that’s just a part of his world and the science of it just happens. I’m concerned about the interface that allows use of the tech.

There’s one more potential problem, but it’s extensive enough to warrant it’s own post, so come back tomorrow when I’ll talk about presentation strategies for hooking up in Dome City.

Mangalore Bomb

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Sadly for Zorg, just after he deactivates his bomb, a fallen Mangalore warrior remotely activates his own bomb in Plavalaguna’s suite. The remote control is made from a combination lock. The Mangalore twists the dial to the right numbers, and on reaching the last number, a red LED lights in the center. In the diva’s suite, the box that secretly housed the bomb opens, and the bomb rises like a small metallic ziggurat, accentuated in places with red LEDs. A red, 7-segment countdown timer begins ticking down its final 5 seconds.

Aggression

Mangalores are warlike, as in they really like war. They breathe war. They sleep war. They eat war for breakfast, then poop war, then root around in their couches for war scraps and snack on that. The detonation device isn’t very sophisticated, and that’s just fine by Mangalores. If a Mangalore declared a Design major instead of War in college, they’d have been killed on the spot. This device is perfect for a species that just wants to grab something cheap and convenient, make a few modifications, and get to the boom.

We don’t see a deactivation mechanism. And while you can imagine that a nice safety would be to deactivate if the dial drifted more than, say, 5 clicks from the final activation number, Mangalores wouldn’t have it. They’d “liberate” your mother’s homeland merely for having suggesting it.

If I had to improve it in any way, it’s that it places a burden on memory, and there’s not a lot of indication that Mangalores excel in the thinking skills department, c.f. warlike. Do they have the capacity to memorize a series of numbers in order? And it is easy to recall the series in the middle of a war zone? If not, what would be better? They have their weapons with them nearly at all times, so how about a little glowing, red button on the forestock?

Ha. Joke’s on you, Mangalores. As we know from earlier in the movie, you couldn’t resist pressing it, long before you made it to ocean liners. I think if you’re that warlike and stupid, this would be best for everyone.

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The Positronic Ray

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To combat the Resistance uprising, Durand-Durand unleashes his dread Positronic Ray. To control it, he approaches a high backed chair and touches a spot on the back. The curved tip of the chair extends upwards a bit allowing him to sit down. As soon as he sits, the tip retracts to rest just above his head and the video panel slides close to him. The ray itself is mounted on a two-axis swivel just behind him, with the barrel pointing out of a horizontal window.

The interface consists of a complex array of transparent knobs mounted on a glowing flat panel, set beneath a large rectangular video screen. While he is using the weapon, we see his hands twiddling some of the shapes clockwise and counterclockwise.

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The chair interface seems fine, if technically unnecessary, giving the gunner a small ritual feeling of power. The weapons interface, on the other hand, is a disaster. It has around 50 visible controls, none labeled for what they control or their extents, none have the slightest ergonomic consideration, and few are differentiated from the others in shape or placement. Also they’re all transparent, so add a lot of visual noise to the difficultly of use.

From his video screen we can tell that there are only a number of things to control: target (coupled to the camera), beam size (coupled to the camera zoom), and a trigger. Control for these simple variables could be accomplished with a joystick for targeting, a thumb button for triggering, and a slider at his left hand for zoom/beam size. Three controls which Durand-Durand could really think of as two.

Additionally, the screen only shows him what he’s currently focused on, failing to grant any of the field awareness that he’d need to keep the enemy at bay. Ultimately it’s a weapons interface that only a pacifist could love. Admittedly, he’s a mad engineer, and not a mad interaction designer, so maybe it’s just his insanity that explains this fiddly spread of extraneous controls with poor mapping and myopic feedback.

I’d love to credit this bad interface with saving the people of the city of SoGo, but unfortunately if its destruction hadn’t come from the Positronic Ray, it would have come from being swallowed by the Mathmos. Ultimately, they were doomed.

SoGo, destroyed