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.



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? 🎶

The ride itself

The entry to The Time Masheen is most assuredly not Disney-esque in design or form. It’s garish, cheap, a visual cross of a 60s-era game show sign and the ride at the strange pop-up carnival that makes you think twice about its safety record. The ride vehicle—with our three, uh, heroes, jammed in it—is classic and old school (think Doom Buggies from Haunted Mansion but…sadder). But these are mere appetizers before the actual experience of the ride in all its majesty: dioramas with breathless voice-over featuring Charlie Chaplin as the leader of the Nazi Party in 1939, and the UN, which “un-nazied the world.” And T-rexes.


It’s played for laughs—how moronic do people need to be in order to believe this stuff?—but in form and content, it’s actually pretty believable. The Carousel of Progress and It’s a Small World, both iconic Disney experiences, first debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair. When we look at the Carousel of Progress from 50 years in the future, it seems almost as dorky and unbelievable as The Time Masheen. These two real-world rides are not conceptual one-offs, either: when you get right down to it, the ride experience of Spaceship Earth at Epcot is remarkably similar: you proceed through multiple scenes, as “history” is dully (Dame Judi Dench can do only so much) dictated to you.

But whose history? Who’s telling this? This issue of voice and narrative control is not unique to theme parks. Museums have a far longer, bigger, and more powerful history in controlling historical narrative than two-bit carney rides or even lovely immersive experiences like the best of the theme parks.

Pictured: Propagandist?

Narrative or Discourse?

It’s only in the recent past that museums to any significant extent have embraced the idea of visitors actually bringing something to the table and participating. Think of the museums of your youth: You and your school group probably dutifully shuffled past rows of taxidermied animals, dioramas, or stultifying art with label copy that told you what to make of it.

Even the best science museums of a few decades ago had interactivity that wasn’t really collaborative—push a button, turn a crank. In most cases, museums were about a one-way transmission of information: They knew the Truth, and your job as visitor was to absorb it, pretty much in the order they dictated. Kind of like listening to an album in the 70s. And just like sitting there and learning that Charlie Chaplin led the Nazi Party in Germany.

Nowadays, more and more museums are actively designing experiences that visitors can participate in and derive meaning from, and also providing avenues for visitors to co-create the experience. They can contribute to art installations, collect data in citizen science experiments, record their own stories, and more – all hail the new museum order. But for a really long time, museums were one-way streets of content delivery and curation, believed by the public to be accurate and true simply because they’re museums. You know. Perfect for communicating systemically biased narratives.

Fake History

The oldest known museum was founded in 530 BCE by Princess Ennigaldi of the Neo-Babylonian empire, complete with object labels and interpretation. The artifacts, their organization, and interpretation reveal the museum as a narrative: A history of the region and the importance of her familial dynasty.

The British Museum used to label this a “trophy” rather than the much more accurate “loot.” Photo: British Museum, London © Michel Wal, 2009

This use of a museum as a means to establish, communicate, or assert power and validity wasn’t a one-time-only thing. Particularly from the 15th to 19th century, a wide swath of rulers established museums based on their private or national collections of loot. Many of these early museums weren’t public—a purposeful display of control and power. Moreover, when you get down to it, the stuff and stories in a museum are a way of saying ‘look how awesome I am/we are, I/we could buy/steal/smuggle/claim all this stuff. Rulership is our right and destiny.’ Inherent in that is an othering, diminishing, and marginalizing of those cultures that stuff was taken from, and the dissemination of a very specific point of view. History is told by the victors, and museums are a key part of that.

We’re not free of it today. Art and history museums around the world are currently wrestling with this legacy, as they confront ‘decolonizing’ not just their collections, but the way they interpret them and whose voices they center. The old label copy on the Benin bronzes (see above) in the British Museum was some of the most jaw-dropping colonialist pablum around, and generations of school children, tourists, and museum members read and nodded and internalized the implication that the British had every right to take what they wanted by force and subjugate the Edo people (there’s a reason ‘that scene’ in Black Panther was a super-thinly-veiled reference to the British Museum.)

Seriously, my biggest problem with this scene BY FAR is that any curator would take a latte on the exhibit floor

Until recently, museums specialized in barely-questioned mythologizing, in creating and perpetuating narratives of the conquerors about the conquered (see: American-flag emblazoned T-rexes defeating the Nazis!) This isn’t the province solely of history and art museums. For entirely too long a delightfully cringe-inducing paean to the glories of pesticides and herbicides and how they transformed their state’s agriculture endured as a 1950s-hued diorama in a major American natural history museum, as an example—corporate money shapes the stories we tell in museums, too, and that has really impacted science museums, visitors, and cultures for the worse.

Not pictured, I guess: the Soviet Union Estemmenosuchus, the United Kingdom Iguanodon, and the China Caudipteryx.

Avoiding Idiocracy

So what’s the point of The Time Masheen, since it really doesn’t work and was full of, you know, lies? Compare it to the story told in Spaceship Earth at Epcot; the moments selected (Chaplin, the U.N.) are elevated to moments of history as powerful and crucial as the invention of papyrus, the printing press, and the computer. At its core, it’s about consolidating power, inventing and reinforcing a narrative that elevates and celebrates the ruling class, in this case, the Idiocracy—even if that narrative was made decades, even centuries, prior and is now just mindlessly being parroted. Other moments in the film point to a desire to maintain the status quo, i.e., the power balance, and narratives like The Time Masheen support that status quo. No one in Idiocracy says ‘wait a minute’ and holds the creators of The Time Masheen, much less the government itself, accountable for this insane, incorrect history which apparently is being cheerfully promulgated. It begs the question—if one pauses to reflect on admittedly one minute in the entire movie—who is responsible for combating this kind of misinformation? What about when the misinformation is in a museum and not a movie?


I get it. When I go to a museum, a movie, a theme park, I (generally speaking) want to have a good time. I do not want to have to drag a soapbox with me. But who’s responsible for correcting bad content? I’d argue that while obviously, the museum bears the bulk of the burden (…it’s their museum after all), we have a responsibility to hold them accountable and also help them. These are places in and of our communities: we are stakeholders. Museum staff, with few exceptions, are stretched thin. They don’t have time, dollars, or people power to redo every shitty exhibit from years and years ago. But many are trying. There’s a shift towards re-centering marginalized voices, ceding authority and examining old narratives when redoing old exhibits or developing new ones. It’s not universal by far, but it is happening. (If you’d like to know more about this, an example of this is happening right now, at MASS Action. See How MASS Action could transform museums like Mia for more info.)

But just as we see media outlets giving oxygen to white supremacists out of some notion of ‘fairness’, for a long while many museums engaged in a sort of ‘everyone is entitled to their own view’. Creationists came in and disparaged exhibits that even mentioned evolution, or offered their own guided tours through natural history museums through an anti-evolution lens (and in fact, they still do this at several museums). Some museum boards are scared to engage with these visitors, leaving their staffs to do the best they can with an angry guest.

Pictured: Historically speaking, NOT Nikki Haley.

Multiply this across numerous hot topics – global warming, vaccination, fracking, alternative energy, civil rights, racism. Pretty much think of every eyeroll-inducing-bad-science-revisionist-history bullshit that your Great-Aunt Patty reposts breathlessly on Facebook and will inevitably raise over gravy at Thanksgiving, there’s a museum somewhere which has tried to do an exhibit on it and caught hell—from extremists on either end, from donors, from board members concerned about blowback. Uncritical eyes don’t just give your favorite history museum shit for reframing the narrative to include authentic voices of African Americans or your science museum grief for daring to assert global climate change is real: they co-created the fake news crisis.

We must stand up. We must hold not just museums, but also news media and popular media accountable when they perpetuate racist, heteronormative, ableist, or sexist narratives. We also have to help them stand up to blowback. When it comes to museums, visit. Visit. Get their visitorship numbers up. Write polite letters when you see something wrong, or ask a floor staffer who you can talk to. Help them fundraise if you can. Find out how you can help them secure better local and state support – yeah, maybe show up at that city council meeting where they’re debating supporting your local museum or send a letter detailing the value you see the museum bringing to your community. If they add in a gender-neutral bathroom, write a letter or email thanking them (yes they track that stuff). Volunteer if you can. Confront museums when they are failing their duties, but also do your part to help combat the creeping tide of idiocracy lapping at our cultural centers.

EDITOR’S INTERJECTION: This is where it becomes expressly an issue for interaction design. We can make it easy for visitors to find and use these feedback channels. We can make it easy for museum staff to understand and discuss the feedback. —Chris

I smell crossover!

Theme Parks

Theme Parks are different in terms of how you engage with them. But when the clamoring gets loud enough and the threat to the bottom line dire, hey guess what! Change can happen! So rather than just instagramming ‘omg so sexist’ something offensive at a theme park, write a letter. Make a blog post. Blah blah parable of a pebble and an avalanche. But the inverse is true: when a theme park or brand does something respectful or inclusive, heap praise on them and vote with your dollar. You want to know why Doc McStuffins persists? Because, in part, Disney moved a half billion dollars of product in the first year of the show. Consumers were and are hungry for an inclusive, representational hero character that’s not blonde and has STEM-related career aspirations: Disney was rewarded handsomely for centering a young African-American girl – and the show now has an interracial lesbian mom couple. (Which of course got protested all to heck, making it that much more important to write into Disney and thank them for their inclusive representation, lest they get browbeaten into a retreat.)

Crisis Time

We are in a crisis where a large swath of our society is absolutely unable to assess sources and validity of content, doesn’t understand basic science or stats, or even that correlation is not causation (and I’m not saying this is just on one side of the political spectrum—far from it). Museums, as they plan for the future, are asking themselves and each other what they can do to improve critical thinking skills, historical understanding, and science literacy. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Many museums kinda failed at that for a damn long time, with their roots in structures of systemic bias and racism, and their fear of confrontation with angry donors and visitors (read: jeopardizing funding and support). Theme parks presented a sanitized and beautiful take on the world, but for whom? (The history of racism and exclusion in theme and amusement parks is long and painful. For a light and happy read, see Victoria Wolcott’s book Race, Riots, and Rollercoasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America.) Theme parks aren’t about critical thinking and inspiring guests to engage with science or history, but they are about crafting narratives around heroes, ideal worlds, aspirational goals. And when they aren’t inclusive or perpetuate harmful stereotypes, they’re harmful to society. They lull us into complacency.


When we – the collective we, as voters, media, museum designers, or theme park designers – don’t call out what’s factually incorrect or morally repugnant (see also: Walt Disney World’s rework of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride to remove the “Wench Auction,” depicting the literal sale of captured and, in some cases, weeping women as wives) and push back against these narratives of jingoistic power, we’re contributing to our own Idiocracy. Just without the glorious, cheese-tastic Time Masheen.

Bonus Track: Fighting Kansan Idiocracy

I live in KS-03 district, the land of Representative Kevin Yoder. To say he’s gone hard right-wing and aligns himself with 45 is an understatement. Sharice Davids is the Democratic challenger: she’s Native American (Ho-Chunk Nation), a former MMA fighter (no really), a Cornell University-trained lawyer, and an out and proud lesbian. Yup.


So in honor of her epic KS-03 battle, I’d love it if you:

  • Live here, vote for her.
  • Find out how to help disenfranchised voters get to the polls in November. I guarantee you there’s a boots on the ground group where you are working on this. Contact local campaigns and ask who’s organizing; if you have a local NAACP group they may be working on this too. KS-03 is comprised of very wealthy Kansas suburbs and parts of Kansas City, KS- which is 40% minority and way, way less wealthy. Want to know why Kris Kobach has fought so hard to disenfranchise poorer voters and people of color? This district right here is a prime reason. If we succeed in getting out more of the vote in KCK, it’ll hurt Yoder. We see this happening across the country in district after district. Help get voters to the polls.
  • Phone bank for a candidate. In a ‘safe’ district where your candidate doesn’t need your help? Phone bank long distance. Check out MobilizeAmerica to make calls for Sharice.
  • Or hey. Throw some $$ her way.

Chris: I just did. Thank you, Sharice, and thank you, Cynthia.

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.


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.


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.”

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.”


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.


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.

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.)


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.


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.


Imperial-issue Media Console


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…

  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.

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.

Video calls

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.

  1. She taps a few keys (a macro?)
  2. A new code appears: ↑***C-   ↓&&&0-   446B°-   TP%C
  3. 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.)
  4. She presses a few more keys
  5. The screen displays STAND BY for a few seconds
  6. Then the word CONNECT flashes a few times
  7. She presses a single button
  9. 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).


Public Addresses

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.

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


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


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.


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.

  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?


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.


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


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.”

But yes, back to the interface. There’s almost nowhere to start. Undifferentiated controls? Unlabeled controls? No visual hierarchy? Only the device itself and an oscilloscope to monitor the system and the patient’s trending state? Un-safeguarded knife switches for the primary controls? And note that the fail state is in the direction of gravity. If that knife switch gets loose, oops, you’re screwed.

Image of the Therac-25 from
Image from

Logan’s Run took place long before the lessons of the Therac-25, with its tragic interface and programming problems that resulted in the deaths of several cancer patients, but even audiences in 1976 would not believe that any medical device would have such an easy means of disabling the only aspect of it that keeps it from becoming an abattoir.