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.
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?
Welcome my son. Welcome to the (Time) Masheen. 🎵 Where have you been? 🎶
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.
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’sinterfaces) 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.
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.”Continue reading →
When she wonders about Chewbacca’s whereabouts, Malla first turns to the Imperial-issue Media Console. The device sits in the living space, and consists of a personal console and a large wall display. The wall display mirrors the CRT on the console. The console has a QWERTY keyboard, four dials, two gauges, a sliding card reader, a few red and green lights on the side, and a row of randomly-blinking white lights along the front.
Public Service Requests
As Malla approaches it, it is displaying an 8-bit kaleidoscope pattern and playing a standard-issue “electronics” sound. Malla presses a handful of buttons—here it’s important to note the difficulty of knowing what is being pressed when the hand we’re watching is covered in a mop—and then moves through a confusing workflow, where…
She presses five buttons
She waits a few seconds
As she is pressing four more buttons…
…the screen displays a 22-character string (a password? A channel designation?) ↑***3- ↓3&39÷ ↑%63&-:::↓
A screen flashes YOU HAVE REACHED TRAFFIC CONTROL in black letters on a yellow background
She presses a few more buttons, and another 23-character string appears on screen ↑***3- XOXOO OXOOX XOOXO-↑ (Note that the first six characters are identical to the first six characters of the prior code. What’s that mean? And what’s with all the Xs and Os? Kisses and hugs? A binary? I checked. It seems meaningless.)
An op-art psychedelic screen of orange waves on black for a few seconds
A screen flashes NO STARSHIPS IN AREA
Malla punches the air in frustration.
So the first string is, what, a channel? And how do the five buttons she pressed map to that 22 character string? A macro? Why drop to a semi-binary for one command? And are the hugs-and-kisses an instruction? Is that how you write Shyriiwook? Why would it be Latin letters and Unicode characters rather than, say, Aurebesh? Who designed this command language? This orthography? This interface? Maybe it was what this guy was assigned to do after he was relieved of duty.
When technology fails to find her sweetheart, Malla turns to her social network. She first uses her Illegal Rebel Comms device to talk to Luke and R2-D2 (next post), and afterwards, returns to the Media Console, which is back to its crappy TSR-80 BASIC-coded screen saver mode.
She taps a few keys (a macro?)
A new code appears: ↑***C- ↓&&&0- 446B°- TP%C↓
The display reads: SUB TERMINAL 4468 (or 446E or maybe 446B. It’s a square font and Malla’s hairy arm is in the way.)
She presses a few more keys
The screen displays STAND BY for a few seconds
Then the word CONNECT flashes a few times
She presses a single button
TRADING POST WOOKIE PLANET C flashes
A live camera feed displays of the trading post
So it’s actually nice to see the first 5 characters of the string be different since this is a different mode: public function (↑***3-) versus video phone (↑***C-). It made me wonder if the codes were some sort of four part IP address, but then I saw the traffic control command is only three lines, so it’s not a consistent enough pattern. So I was hoping to find some secret awesomeness, but no.
Here’s the flow chart as completed by the demoted Stormtrooper designer (translated from the Aurebesh).
Not only is the interaction terrible, but it’s not really your device anyway. The Empire can take control of these screens for government business, like paging errant Stormtroopers. In these cases, an alarm sounds in the house, and then the Empire Video Feed comes online. No bizarre character strings. No flashing text. No arbitrary key presses.
After all that, an Easy Mode
As if that wasn’t enough, the thing works differently later in the show. After he returns to the tree house, Saun uses the system to call the Imperial Officer to cover Han and Chewie’s murderous tracks with a lie. To make the call, all Saun has to do is insert an identification card, press the same key on the keyboard six times, and with no weird codes or substation identification interstitials, he is connected immediately to the Imperial officer. After the officer terminates their call, Saun presses another button a few times and removes his card. That’s it. It was almost easy.
This tells us that the system can work fairly simply. If you’re calling the Empire. Or if you’re high enough social status and have the card to prove it. This technology just sucks. Maybe this is why the rebellion started.
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.
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 →
When the Roughnecks respond to a distress call from an outpost on Planet P, they quickly learn that it is a trap. Rasczak tells Dizzy to immediately summon an evacuation. To do so she uses this “uplink” interface. It has five components. Continue reading →
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.
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 →
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.
She looks up at some unseen interface, and, pleased with what she sees there, begins to relax, the crisis passed.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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 lasers?) 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 →