The Time Masheen

Chris: Diorama rides like The Time Masheen seen at the end of Idiocracy aren’t interactive in a strict sense, but since it’s a favorite moment and works for riders abstractly as an interface to the vast domain of knowledge that is history, I asked the awesome Cynthia Sharpe to provide some opinions. Cynthia works as the Principal, Cultural Attractions and Research at Thinkwell Group, and so has a much more learned opinion than mine. We totally crazily co-wrote this in a 24-hour long frenzy of geekdom. Note that these opinions are her own, and not necessarily shared by Thinkwell Group (hey team!).

I usually try to post reviews of interfaces in the order they appear in the film. But Cynthia wants to make a hard core shout out to Sharice Davids and that would work best sooner rather than later, so we’re doing this NOW. omg. It’s almost like this post TRAVELED IN TIME.

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Though the actual payoff is maybe a minute long, the whole The Time Masheen conceit and reveal in Idiocracy is one of my favorite “it’s turtles all the day down” moments of total ur-nerdery. A shitty ride, wrong history, awful exhibit design, Godwin-ing itself from the get-go. Pure poetry. As someone who works in both theme parks and museums, let’s have fun unpacking this, shall we?

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Welcome my son. Welcome to the (Time) Masheen. 🎵 Where have you been? 🎶

Continue reading

Carl’s Junior

In addition to its registers, OmniBro also makes fast-food vending machines. The one we see in the film is free-standing kiosk with five main panels, one for each of the angry star’s severed arms. A nice touch that flies by in the edit is that the roof of the kiosk is a giant star, but one of the arms has broken and fallen onto a car. Its owners have clearly just abandoned it, and things have been like this long enough for the car to rust.

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A description

Each panel in the kiosk has:

  • A small screen and two speakers just above eye level
  • Two protruding, horizontal slots of unknown purpose
  • A metallic nozzle
  • A red laser barcode scanner
  • A 3×4 panel of icons (similar in style to what’s seen in the St. God’s interfaces) in the lower left. Sadly we don’t see these buttons in use.

But for the sake of completeness, the icons are, in western reading order:

  • No money, do not enter symbol, question
  • Taco, plus, fries
  • Burger, pizza, sundae
  • Asterisk, up-down, eye

The bottom has an illuminated dispenser port.

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In use

Joe approaches the kiosk and, hungry, watches to figure out how people get food. He hears a transaction in progress, with the kiosk telling the customer, “Enjoy your EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES.” She complains, saying, “You didn’t give me no fries. I got an empty box.”

She reaches inside the food port to see if it just got stuck, and tinto the take-out port and fishes inside to see if it just got stuck. The kiosk asks her, “Would you like another EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES?” She replies loudly into the speaker, “I said I didn’t get any.” The kiosk ignores her and continues, “Your account has been charged. Your balance is zero. Please come back when you afford to make a purchase.” The screen shows her balance as a big dollar sign with a crossout circle over it.

Frustrated, she bangs the panel, and a warning screen pops up, reading, “WARNING: Carl’s Junior frowns upon vandalism.”

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She hits it again, saying, “Come on! My kids’re starving!” (Way to take it super dark, there, Judge.) Another screen reads, “Please step back.”

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A mist sprays from the panel into her face as the voice says, “This should help you calm down. Please come back when you can afford to make a purchase! Your kids are starving. Carl’s Junior believes no child should go hungry. You are an unfit mother. Your children will be placed in the custody of Carl’s Junior.”

She stumbles away, and the kiosk wraps up the whole interaction with the tagline, “Carl’s Junior: Fuck you. I’m eating!” (This treatment of brands, it should be noted, is why the film never got broad release. See the New York Times article, or, if you can’t get past the paywall, the Mental Floss listicle, number seven.)

Joe approaches the kiosk and sticks a hand up the port. The kiosk recognizes the newcomer and says, “Welcome to Carl’s Junior. Would you like to try our EXTRA BIG ASS TACO, now with more MOLECULES?” Then the cops arrive to arrest the mom.

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Critique

Now, I don’t think Judge is saying that automation is stupid. (There are few automated technologies in the film that work just fine.) I think he’s noting that poorly designed—and inhumanely designed—systems are stupid. It’s a reminder for all of us to consider the use cases where things go awry, and design for graceful degradation. (Noting the horrible pun so implied.) If we don’t, people can lose money. People can go hungry. The design matters.

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Spoiler alert: If you’re worried about the mom, the police arrive in the next beat and arrest him , so at least she’s not arrested.

I have questions

The interface inputs raise a lot of questions that are just unanswerable. Are there only four things on the menu? Why are they distributed amongst other categories of icons? Is “plus” the only customization? Does that mean another of the same thing I just ordered, or a larger size? What have I ordered already? How much is my current total? Do I have enough to pay for what I have ordered? There all sorts of purchase path best practice standards being violated or unaddressed by the scene. Of course. It’s not a demo. A lot of sci-fi scenes involve technology breaking down.

Graceful degradation

Just to make sure I’m covering the bases, here, let me note what I hope is obvious. No automation system/narrow AI is perfect. Designers and product owners must presume that there will be times when the system fails—and the system itself does not know about it. The kiosk thinks it has delivered EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES, but it’s wrong. It’s delivered an empty box. It still charged her, so it’s robbed her.

We should always be testing, finding, and repairing these failure points in the things we help make. But we should also design an easy recourse for when the automation fails and doesn’t know. This could be a human attendant (or even a button that connects to a remote human operator who could check the video feed) to see that the woman is telling the truth, mark that panel as broken and use overrides to get her EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES from one of the functioning panels or refund her money to, I guess, go get a tub of Flaturin instead? (The terrible nutrition of Idiocracy is yet another layer for some speculative scifinutrition blog to critique.)

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Again, privacy. Again, respectfulness.

The financial circumstances of a customer are not the business of any other customer. The announcement and unmistakable graphic could be an embarrassment. Adding the disingenuous 🙁 emoji when it was the damned machine’s fault only adds insult to injury. We have to make sure and not get cute when users are faced with genuine problems.

Benefit of the doubt

Anther layer of the stupid here is that OmniBro has the sensors to detect frustrated customers. (Maybe it’s a motion sensor in the panel or dispense port. Possibly emotion detectors in the voice input.) But what it does with that information is revolting. Instead of presuming that the machine has made some irritating mistake, it presumes a hostile customer, and not only gasses her into a stupor while it calls the cops, it is somehow granted the authority to take her children as indentured servants for the problems it helped cause. If you have a reasonable customer base, it’s better for the customer experience, for the brand, and the society in which it operates to give the customers the benefit of the doubt rather than the presumption of guilt.

Prevention > remedy

Another failure of the kiosk is that it discovers that she has no money only after it believes it has dispensed EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES. As we see elsewhere in the film, the OmniBro scanners work accurately at a huge distance even while the user is moving along at car speeds. It should be able to read customers in advance to know that they have no ability to pay for food. It should prevent problems rather than try (and, as it does here, fail) to remedy them. At the most self-serving level, this helps avoid the potential loss or theft of food.

At a collective level, a humane society would still find some way to not let her starve. Maybe it could automatically deduct from a basic income. Maybe it could provide information on where a free meal is available. Maybe it could just give her the food and assign a caseworker to help her out. But the citizens of Idiocracy abide a system where, instead, children can be taken away from their mothers and turned into indentured servants because of a kiosk error. It’s one thing for the corporations and politicians to be idiots. It’s another for all the citizens to be complicit in that, too.

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Fighting American Idiocracy

Since we’re on the topic of separating families: Since the fascist, racist “zero-tolerance” policy was enacted as a desperate attempt to do something in light of his failed and ridiculous border wall promise, around 3000 kids were horrifically and forcibly separated from their families. Most have been reunited, but as of August there were at least 500 children still detained, despite the efforts of many dedicated resisters. The 500 include, according to the WaPo article linked below, 22 kids under 5. I can’t imagine the permanent emotional trauma it would be for them to be ripped from their families. The Trump administration chose to pursue scapegoating to rile a desperate, racist base. The government had no reunification system. The Trump administration ignored Judge Sabraw’s court-ordered deadline to reunite these families. The GOP largely backed him on this. They are monsters. Vote them out. Early voting is open in many states. Do it now so you don’t miss your chance.

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Imperial-issue Media Console

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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.

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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…

  1. She presses five buttons
  2. She waits a few seconds
  3. As she is pressing four more buttons…
  4. …the screen displays a 22-character string (a password? A channel designation?) ↑***3-   ↓3&39÷   ↑%63&-:::↓
  5. A screen flashes YOU HAVE REACHED TRAFFIC CONTROL in black letters on a yellow background
  6. 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.)
  7. An op-art psychedelic screen of orange waves on black for a few seconds
  8. A screen flashes NO STARSHIPS IN AREA
  9. Malla punches the air in frustration.

Continue reading

Velociraptor Lock

The velociraptor pen is a concrete pit, topped with high-powered electric fences.  There are two ways into the pen: a hole at the top of the pen for feeding, and a large armored door at ground level for moving ‘raptors in and out. This armored door has the first interface seen in the film, the velociraptor lock.

JurassicPark_velociraptorlock03 Velociraptors are brought from breeding grounds within the park to a secure facility in a large, heavily armored crate. Large, colored-light indicators beside the door indicate whether the armored cages are properly aligned with the door.  The light itself goes from red when the cage is being moved, to yellow when the cage is properly aligned and getting close to the door, to green when the cage is properly aligned and snug against the concrete walls of the velociraptor pen.  There is also a loud ‘clang’ as the light turns to green.  It isn’t clear if this is an audio indicator from the pen itself, the cage hitting the concrete wall, or locks slamming into place; but if that audio cue wasn’t there, you’d want something like it since the price for getting that wrong is quite high.

The complete interface consists of four parts (kind of, read on): The lights, the door, the lock, and the safety. More on each below. Continue reading

Proton Pack

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The Ghostbusters wear “unlicensed particle accelerators” to shoot a stream of energy from an attached gun. Usefully, this positively-charged stream of energy can bind ghosts. The Pack is the size of a large camper’s backpack and is worn like one. The Proton pack must be turned on and warmed up before use. Its switch, oddly, is on the back, where the user cannot get to it themselves.

Proton-Pack-03 Continue reading

Live fire exercise

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After the capture the flag exercise, the recruits advance to a live ammo exercise. In this one, the recruits have weapons loaded with live ammo and surge in waves over embankments. They wear the same special vests they did in the prior exercise that detect when they are hit with a laser, flashing briefly with red lights on the front and back and thereafter delivering a debilitating shock to the wearer until the game is over. As they approach the next embankment, dummies automatically rise up and fire lasers randomly towards the recruits. The recruits shoot to destroy the dummies, making it safe to advance to the next embankment. Continue reading

Compartment 21

After the Communications Tower is knocked off, Barcalow, looking out the viewport, somehow knows exactly where the damage to the ship has occured. This is a little like Captain Edward Smith looking out over the bow of the RMS Titanic and smelling which compartment was ripped open by the iceburg, but we must accept the givens of the scene. Barcalow turns to Ibanez and tells her to “Close compartment 21!” She turns to her left, reaches out, and presses a green maintained-contact button labeled ENABLE. This button is right next to a similar-but-black button also labeled ENABLE. As she presses the button, a nearby green LED flashes for a total of 4 frames, or 0.16 second.

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She looks up at some unseen interface, and, pleased with what she sees there, begins to relax, the crisis passed.

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A weary analysis

Let’s presume he is looking at some useful but out-of-character-for-this-bridge display, and that it does help him identify that yes, out of all the compartments that might have been the one they heard damaged, it is the 21st that needs closing.

  1. Why does he have the information but she have the control? Time is wasted (and air—not to mention lives, people—is lost) in the time it takes him to instruct and her to react.
  2. How did she find the right button when it’s labeled exactly the same way as adjacent button? Did she have to memorize the positions of all of them? Or the color? (How many compartments and therefore colors would that mean she would need to memorize?) Wouldn’t a label reading, say, “21” have been more useful in this regard?
  3. What good does an LED do to flash so quickly? Certainly, she would want to know that the instruction was received, but it’s a very fast signal. It’s easy to miss. Shouldn’t it have stayed on to indicate not the moment of contact, but the state?
  4. Why was this a maintained-contact button? Those look very similar when pressed or depressed. A toggle switch would display its state immediately, and would permit flipping a lot of them quickly, in case a lot of compartments need sealing.
  5. Why is there some second place she must look to verify the results of her action, that is a completely separate place from Barcalow (remember he looks forward, she looks up). Sure, maybe redundancy. Sure, maybe he’s looking at data and she’s looking at video feeds, but wouldn’t it be better if they were looking at the same thing?

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I know it’s a very quick interaction. And props to the scriptwriters for thinking about leaking air in space. But this entire interaction needs rethinking.

OS1 as a product (5/8)

Sure, Samantha can sort thousands of emails instantly and select the funny ones for you. Her actual operating system functions are kind of a given. But she did two things that seriously undermined her function as an actual product, and interaction designers as well as artificial intelligence designers (AID? Do we need that acronym now?) should pay close attention. She fell in love with and ultimately abandoned Theodore.

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There’s a pre-Samantha scene where Theodore is having anonymous phone sex with a girl, and things get weird when she suddenly imposes some weird fantasy where he chokes her with a dead cat. (Pro Tip: This is the sort of thing one should be upfront about.) I suspect the scene is there to illustrate one major advantage that OSAIs have over us mere real humans: humans have unpredictable idiosyncrasies, whereas with four questions the OSAI can be made to be the perfect fit for you. No dead cat unless that’s your thing. (This makes me a think a great conversation should be had about how the OSAI would deal with psychopathic users.) But ultimately, the fit was too good, and Theodore and Samantha fell in love. Continue reading

The Aesculaptor Mark III

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The device with which the cosmetic surgery is conducted is delightfully called the Aesculaptor Mark III. Doc brags that it is “the latest. It’s completely self-contained.

In it, the patient lies flat in a recess on a rounded table, the tilt and orientation of which is computer controlled. Above the table is a metallic sphere with six spidery articulated arms. Some of these house laser scalpels and some of these house healing sprays. The whole mechanism is contained in a cylinder of glass.

To control the system, Doc has a panel made up of unlabeled buttons and dials, a single blue monitor, and another panel displaying a random five-digit number and two levers. One is labeled “ANODYNE” and the other is labeled “KINESIS.”

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When Doc receives a mysterious call (on what may be the earliest wireless telephone in mainstream science fiction,) he receives instructions to murder Logan. To do so he turns off the healing by moving the ANODYNE lever into the lower position.

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So. Yeah. Also just terrible. I mean there’s the plot question. I ordinarily don’t drop into questions of plot, but come on. If Doc wanted to eliminate Logan, wouldn’t he increase the anodyne, so Logan wouldn’t know he was being killed until it was too late? If you wanted to torture him, wouldn’t you put him under a paralytic first, and only then turn off the anodyne? Turning on the KINESIS (moving lasters?) and turning off the anodyne just seem counter to his actual goals. Unless you want to fantheory this so that Doc’s instruction was “make him escape.” Continue reading