The key system in The Cabin in the Woods is a public service, and all technological components can be understood as part of this service. It is, of course, not a typical consumer service for several reasons. Like the CIA, FBI, and CDC, the people who most benefit from this service—humanity at large—are aware of it barely, if at all. These protective services only work by forestalling a negative event like a terrorist action or plague. Unlike these real-world threats, if Control fails in their duties, there is no crisis management as a next step. There’s only the world ending. Additionally, it is not typical in that it is an ancient service that has built itself up over ages around a mystical core.
So who are the users of the service? The victims are not. They are intentionally kept in the dark, and it is seen as a crisis when Marty learns the truth.
Given that interaction design requires awareness of the service in question, as well as inputs and outputs to steer variables towards a goal, it stands that the organization in the complex are the primary users. Even more particularly it is Sitterson and Hadley, the two “stage managers” in charge of the control room for the event, who are the real users. Understanding their goals we can begin an analysis. Fittingly, it’s complex:
Forestall the end of the world…
by causing the (non-Virgin) victims to suffer and die before Dana (who represents the Virgin archetype)…
at the hand of a Horrible Monster selected by the victims themselves…
marking each successful sacrifice with a blood ritual…
while keeping the victims unaware of the behind-the-scenes truth.
Sitterson and Hadley dance in the control room.
Part of a larger network with similar goals
This operation is not the only one operating at the same time. There are at least six other operations, working with their particular archetypes and rituals around the world: Berlin, Kyoto, Rangoon, Stockholm, Buenos Aires, and Madrid.
To monitor these other scenarios, there are two banks of CRT monitors high up on the back wall, each monitor dedicated to a different scenario. Notably, these are out of the stage manager’s line of attention when their focus is on their own.
The CRT monitors display other scenarios around the world.
The digital screens on the main console are much more malleable, however, and can be switched to display any of the analog video feeds if any special attention needs to be paid to it.
The amount of information that the stage managers need about any particular scenario is simple: What’s the current state of an ongoing scenario, and whether it has succeeded or failed for a concluded one. We don’t see any scenario succeed in this movie, so we can’t evaluate that output signal. Instead, they all fail. When they fail, a final image is displayed on the CRT with a blinking red legend “FAIL” superimposed across it, so it’s clear when you look at the screen (and catch it in the “on” part of the blink) what it’s status is.
Sitterson watches the Kyoto scenario fail.
Hadley sees that other scenarios have all failed.
One critique of this simple pass-fail signal is that it is an important signal that might be entirely missed, if the stage managers’ attentions were riveted forward, to problems in their own scenario. Another design option would be to alert Sitterson and Hadley to the moment of change with a signal in their peripheral attention, like a flash or a brief buzz. But signaling a change of state might not be enough. The new state, i.e. 4 of 7 failed, ought to be persistent in their field of vision as they continue their work, if the signal is considered an important motivator.
The design of alternate, persistent signals depend on rules we do not have access to. Are more successful scenarios somehow better? Or is it a simple OR-chain, with just one success meaning success overall? Presuming it’s the latter, strips of lighting around the big screens could become increasingly bright red, for instance, or a seven-sided figure mounted around the control room could have wedges turn red when those scenarios failed. Such environmental signals would allow the information to be glanceable, and remind the stage managers of the increasing importance of their own scenario. These signals could turn green at the first success as well, letting them know that the pressure is off and that what remains of their own scenario is to be run as a drill.
There is a Prisoner’s Dilemma argument to be made that stage managers should not have the information about the other scenarios at all, in order to keep each operation running at peak efficiency, but this would not have served the narrative as well.
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.
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.)
It takes about 10 seconds of Logan’s tuning, but eventually a figure appears in the lights. It coalesces into a man wearing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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 →
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.
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 →
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.
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 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 →