Routing Board

When the two AIs Colossus and Guardian are disconnected from communicating with each other, they try and ignore the spirit of the human intervention and reconnect on their own. We see the humans monitoring Colossus’ progress in this task on big board in the U.S. situation room. It shows a translucent projection map of the globe with white dots representing data centers and red icons representing missiles. Beneath it, glowing arced lines illustrate the connection routes Colossus is currently testing. When it finds that a current segment is ineffective, that line goes dark, and another segment extending from the same node illuminates.

For a smaller file size, the animated gif has been stilled between state changes, but the timing is as close as possible to what is seen in the film.

Forbin explains to the President, “It’s trying to find an alternate route.”

A first in sci-fi: Routing display 🏆

First, props to Colossus: The Forbin Project for being the first show in the survey to display something like a routing board, that is, a network of nodes through which connections are visible, variable, and important to stakeholders.

Paul Baran and Donald Davies had published their notion of a network that could, in real-time, route information dynamically around partial destruction of the network in the early 1960s, and this packet switching had been established as part of ARPAnet in the late 1960s, so Colossus was visualizing cutting edge tech of the time.

This may even be the first depiction of a routing display in all of screen sci-fi or even cinema, though I don’t have a historical perspective on other genres, like the spy genre, which is another place you might expect to see something like this. As always, if you know of an earlier one, let me know so I can keep this record up to date and honest.

A nice bit: curvy lines

Should the lines be straight or curvy? From Colossus’ point of view, the network is a simple graph. Straight lines between its nodes would suffice. But from the humans’ point of view, the literal shape of the transmission lines are important, in case they need to scramble teams to a location to manually cut the lines. Presuming these arcs mean that (and not just the way neon in a prop could bend), then the arcs are the right display. So this is good.

But, it breaks some world logic

The board presents some challenges with the logic of what’s happening in the story. If Colossus exists as a node in a network, and its managers want to cut it off from communication along that network, where is the most efficient place to “cut” communications? It is not at many points along the network. It is at the source.

Imagine painting one knot in a fishing net red and another one green. If you were trying to ensure that none of the strings that touch the red knot could trace a line to the green one, do you trim a bunch of strings in the middle, or do you cut the few that connect directly to the knot? Presuming that it’s as easy to cut any one segment as any other, the fewer number of cuts, the better. In this case that means more secure.

The network in Colossus looks to be about 40 nodes, so it’s less complicated than the fishing net. Still, it raises the question, what did the computer scientists in Colossus do to sever communications? Three lines disappear after they cut communications, but even if they disabled those lines, the rest of the network still exists. The display just makes no sense.

Before, happy / After, I will cut a Prez

Per the logic above, they would cut it off at its source. But the board shows it reaching out across the globe. You might think maybe they just cut Guardian off, leaving Colossus to flail around the network, but that’s not explicitly said in the communications between the Americans and the Russians, and the U.S. President is genuinely concerned about the AIs at this point, not trying to pull one over on the “pinkos.” So there’s not a satisfying answer.

It’s true that at this point in the story, the humans are still letting Colossus do its primary job, so it may be looking at every alternate communication network to which it has access: telephony, radio, television, and telegraph. It would be ringing every “phone” it thought Guardian might pick up, and leaving messages behind for possible asynchronous communications. I wish a script doctor had added in a line or three to clarify this.

  • FORBIN
  • We’ve cut off its direct lines to Guardian. Now it’s trying to find an indirect line. We’re confident there isn’t one, but the trouble will come when Colossus realizes it, too.

Too slow

Another thing that seems troubling is the slow speed of the shifting route. The segments stay illuminated for nearly a full second at a time. Even with 1960s copper undersea cables and switches, electronic signals should not take that long. Telephony around the world was switched from manual to automatic switching by the 1930s, so it’s not like it’s waiting on a human operating a switchboard.

You’re too slow!

Even if it was just scribbling its phone number on each network node and the words “CALL ME” in computerese, it should go much faster than this. Cinematically, you can’t go too fast or the sense of anticipation and wonder is lost, but it would be better to have it zooming through a much more complicated network to buy time. It should feel just a little too fast to focus on—frenetic, even.

This screen gets 15 seconds of screen time, and if you showed one new node per frame, that’s only 360 states you need to account for, a paltry sum compared to the number of possible paths it could test across a 38 node graph between two points.

Plus the speed would help underscore the frightening intelligence and capabilities of the thing. And yes I understand that that is a lot easier said than done nowadays with digital tools than with this analog prop.

Realistic-looking search strategies

Again, I know this was a neon, analog prop, but let’s just note that it’s not testing the network in anything that looks like a computery way. It even retraces some routes. A brute force algorithm would just test every possibility sequentially. In larger networks there are pathfinding algorithms that are optimized in different ways to find routes faster, but they don’t look like this. They look more like what you see in the video below. (Hat tip to YouTuber gray utopia.)

This would need a lot of art direction and the aforementioned speed, but it would be more believable than what we see.

What’s the right projection?

Is this the right projection to use? Of course the most accurate representation of the earth is a globe, but it has many challenges in presenting a phenomenon that could happen anywhere in the world. Not the least of these is that it occludes about half of itself, a problem that is not well-solved by making it transparent. So, a projection it must be. There are many, many ways to transform a spherical surface into a 2D image, so the question becomes which projection and why.

The map uses what looks like a hand-drawn version of Peirce quincuncial projection. (But n.b. none of the projection types I compared against it matched exactly, which is why I say it was hand-drawn.) Also those longitude and latitude lines don’t make any sense; though again, a prop. I like that it’s a non standard projection because screw Mercator, but still, why Peirce? Why at this angle?

Also, why place time zone clocks across the top as if they corresponded to the map in some meaningful way? Move those clocks.

I have no idea why the Peirce map would be the right choice here, when its principle virtue is that it can be tessellated. That’s kind of interesting if you’re scrolling and can’t dynamically re-project the coastlines. But I am pretty sure the Colossus map does not scroll. And if the map is meant to act as a quick visual reference, having it dynamic means time is wasted when users look to the map and have to orient themselves.

If this map was only for tracking issues relating to Colossus, it should be an azimuthal map, but not over the north pole. The center should be the Colossus complex in Colorado. That might be right for a monitoring map in the Colossus Programming Office. This map is over the north pole, which certainly highlights the fact that the core concern of this system is the Cold War tensions between Moscow and D.C. But when you consider that, it points out another failing. 

Later in the film the map tracks missiles (not with projected paths, sadly, but with Mattel Classic Football style yellow rectangles). But missiles could conceivably come from places not on this map. What is this office to do with a ballistic-missile submarine off of the Baja peninsula, for example? Just wait until it makes its way on screen? That’s a failure. Which takes us to the crop.

Crop

The map isn’t just about missiles. Colossus can look anywhere on the planet to test network connections. (Even nowadays, near-earth orbit and outer space.) Unless the entire network was contained just within the area described on the map, it’s excluding potentially vital information. If Colossus routed itself through through Mexico, South Africa, and Uzbekistan before finally reconnecting to Guardian, users would be flat out of luck using that map to determine the leak route. And I’m pretty sure they had a functioning telephone network in Mexico, South Africa, and the Balkan countries in the 1960s.

This needs a complete picture

SInce the missiles and networks with which Colossus is concerned are potentially global, this should be a global map. Here I will offer my usual fanboy shout-outs to the Dymaxion and Pacific-focused Waterman projection for showing connectedness and physical flow, but there would be no shame in showing the complete Peirce quincuncial. Just show the whole thing.

Maybe fill in some of the Pacific “wasted space” with a globe depiction turned to points of interest, or some other fuigetry. Which gives us a new comp something like this.

I created this proof of concept manually. With more time, I would comp it up in Processing or Python and it would be even more convincing. (And might have reached London.)

All told, this display was probably eye-opening for its original audience. Golly jeepers! This thing can draw upon resources around the globe! It has intent, and a method! And they must have cool technological maps in D.C.! But from our modern-day vantage point, it has a lot to learn. If they ever remake the film, this would be a juicy thing to fully redesign.

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Life Day Orbs

The last interface in The Star Wars Holiday Special is one of the handful of ritual interfaces we see in the scifiinterfaces survey. After Saun Dann leaves, the Wookiee family solemnly proceeds to a shelf in the living room. One by one they retrieve hand-sized transparent orbs with a few lights glowing inside of each. They gather together in the center of the living room, and a watery light floods them from stage right while the rest of the house lights dim. They hold the orbs up, with heads tilted reverently. Then they go blurry before refocusing again, and now they’re wearing blood red robes and floating in a sea of stars.

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Then we cut to a long procession of Wookiees walking single file across an invisible space bridge into a glowing ball of space light, which explodes in sparkles at no particular time, and to which no one in the procession reacts in any way.

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Break for commercial.

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Lights up, and dozens of blood robed Wookiees are gathered in a dark space at the foot of a great, uplit tree called The Tree of Life. Stars occasionally, but not consistently, appear behind the tree. Fog hugs the floor and covers randomly distributed strings of fairy lights. Everyone carries the glowing orbs. They greet newcomers arriving from the star bridge with moans and bows (n.b. sloppy seiritsu form). Then C3PO and R2D2 appear from behind the Tree and walk out onto an elevated platform to greet Chewbacca (who seems to be some sort of spiritual leader in addition to being a Rebel Leader) with a “Happy Life Day!” An unholy chorus of Wookiee howls emerges from the gathered crowd. C3PO turns to the audience and says, “Happy Life Day, everyone!” C3PO expresses his and R2’s Pinnochio Syndrome to the crowd, though no one asked. Then Leia, Luke, and Han arrive.

Leia speaks (in English) explaining to the Wookiee gathered there the meaning of their own, dearest holiday. She then sings the Life Day Carol. (Again, in English.) No Wookiee has the biological morphology to participate, so they just watch. As a public service, I have transcribed these lyrics. Posthumus props to Carrie Fisher for delivering this with complete earnestness.

Life Day Carol

Sung by Princess Leia

SWHS_orbs_15.png

We celebrate a day of peace
A day of har-moh-neeeee
A day of joy we all can share
Together joyously [thx to scifihugh for this line]
A day that takes us through the darkness
A day that leads into light
A day that makes us want to celebrate
The light

[Horn section gets exuberant]

A day that brings the promise
That one day we’ll be free
To live
To laugh
To dream
To grow
To trust
To know
To be

Once the song is done, the Wookiees gather to file up a ramp and past the humans, greeting them each in turn with nods and exit back over the star bridge.

Then Chewbacca has a sudden dissociative fugue episode, where he relives moments from his recent past. (I’m going to sidestep the troubling but wholly possible implication that he has PTSD from his experiences with the Rebellion.) When he finally recovers, his family is back in their living room, staring at their glowing orbs, which sit in a basket in the center of the dining room table. The robes are gone. They are gathered for a family meal of fruit. (Since Mala’s actual cooking would probably not go down well.) They gather hands and bow their heads reverently in a deeply disturbing, ethnocentric gesture. Fade to black.

SWHS_orbs_12.png

Analysis

The design of ritual is a fascination of mine. So if there’s ever a sci-fi movie showing of The Star Wars Holiday Special, that should be one topic for the hangout afterward. What does it purport to mean? Why do non-Wookiees get the starring role? Why the robes? What’s with the unsettling self-centeredness of having essentially North-American Christian rites?

But in this house we talk interface, and that means those orbs.

Physical Interface

The orbs’ physical interface is fit to task. Because they’re spherical, they can’t be easily set on a surface and put “out of mind.” (Kind of like a drinking horn, but no one gets inebriated in the Star Wars diegesis.) The orbs must be held and cared for, which is a nice way to get participants into a reverent mood. It also means that at least one hand is dedicated to holding it throughout the ceremony, which might put participants into a bit of active meditation, to free the body so the mind can focus and contemplate: Life and Days.

Visual design

The transparency and little lights within are also nice. Like the fairy lights common to many winter celebrations, they engage a sense of wonder and spectacle. Like holding fireflies, or stars in the palm of your hand. They speak a bit to the Pareto Principle, related to the notion that life is rare, precious, and valuable. The transparency also brings the color and motion of the surrounding environment into attention as well, speaking of the connectedness of all things.

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Turning them on

I presume this is automatic, i.e. the lights illuminate just ahead the datetime of the ritual. They either have a calendar or some technology in the home automatically broadcasts the signal to come on. They could even slowly warm up as the ritual approached to help with a sense of anticipation. This automation would make them seem more natural, like a blossoming flower or budding fruit. You know, life.

Activation: Go there

If part of the celebration of Life Day is about togetherness, well then having the activation require literally gathering the family together with the spheres in hand is pretty on point. There’s even feedback for the family that they’re close enough together when the orbs signal the family’s Hue lights to dim and turn on the watery-reflection projection.

Note it also has to have some pretty sophisticated contextual awareness. Note that it only started once all four Wookiees were close together. Recall that Chewie almost didn’t make it home for Life Day. Would they have just been unable to participate without him? Doubtful. More likely they somehow know, like a Nest Thermostat, who’s home and waits for all of them to be in proximity to kick things off.

Note also that it did not start when they were in their storage basket, but only when they’re held up in the living room. So it also has some precise location awareness, to.

Sidenote: Where is there?

Where is the Tree of Life and how does the orb help them get there?

Literal

The Tree of Life is real, on Kazook/Kashyyyk and the orbs provide a trippy means of teleportation to this site. This would mean the Wookiees have access to teleportation tech that they don’t use in any other way—like, say, in their struggle against the Empire. So, this seems unlikely.

Virtual

Since it’s not literal, and I can’t imagine the whole thing being some sort of metaphor, the other possibility is that the tree is virtual. This would help explain why there are only a few dozen Wookiees around this single sacred tree on its high holy day: It’s not bound by actual physical constraints. This raises a whole host of other questions, such as how does it project the perceptual data into the Wookiee’s senses that they’re robed, and walking the star bridge, and at the tree?

SWHS_orbs_13.png

So…pretty nice

All told, the orbs design helps reinforce the themes of Life Day, cheesy and creepy as they are.

You know, when The Star Wars Holiday Special came out, this “technology” was pure fancy. But that now we have cheap, ultrabright LEDs, tiny processors, WIFI chips, identity servers, all sorts of sensors, and Hue lights. If anyone wanted to build working models of these as an homage to an obscure sci-fi interface, it’s entirely possible now.

The Cookie

In one of the story threads, Matt uses an interface as part of his day job at Smartelligence to wrangle an AI that is the cloned a mind of a client named Greta. Matt has three tasks in this role. 

  1. He has to explain to her that she is an artificial intelligence clone of a real world person’s mind. This is psychologically traumatic, as she has decades of memories as if she were a real person with a real body and full autonomy in the world.
  2. He has to explain how she will do her job: Her responsibilities and tools.
  3. He has to “break” her will and coerce her to faithfully serve her master—who is the the real-world Greta. (The idea is that since virtual Greta is an exact copy, she understands real Greta’s preferences and can perform personal assistant duties flawlessly.)

The AI is housed in a small egg-shaped device with a single blue light camera lens. The combination of the AI and the egg-shaped device is called “The Cookie.” Why it is not called The Egg is a mystery left for the reader, though I hope it is not just for the “Cookie Monster” joke dropped late in the episode. Continue reading

Syd’s dash display

childrenofmen-028

If Jasper’s car is aftermarket, Syd’s built-in display seems to be more consumer-savvy. It is a blue electroluminescent flat display built into the dashboard. It has more glanceable information with a cleaner information hierarchy. It has no dangerous keyboard entry. All we see of the display in these few glimpses is the speedometer, but even that’s enough to illustrate these differences.

Door Bomb and Safety Catches

Johnny leaves the airport by taxi, ending up in a disreputable part of town. During his ride we see another video phone call with a different interface, and the first brief appearance of some high tech binoculars. I’ll return to these later, for the moment skipping ahead to the last of the relatively simple and single-use physical gadgets.

Johnny finds the people he is supposed to meet in a deserted building but, as events are not proceeding as planned, he attaches another black box with glowing red status light to the outside of the door as he enters. Although it looks like the motion detector we saw earlier, this is a bomb.

jm-12-doorbomb-a-adjusted

This is indeed a very bad neighbourhood of Newark. Inside are the same Yakuza from Beijing, who plan to remove Johnny’s head. There is a brief fight, which ends when Johnny uses his watch to detonate the bomb. It isn’t clear whether he pushes or rotates some control, but it is a single quick action. Continue reading

Brain Upload

Once Johnny has installed his motion detector on the door, the brain upload can begin.

3. Building it

Johnny starts by opening his briefcase and removing various components, which he connects together into the complete upload system. Some of the parts are disguised, and the whole sequence is similar to an assassin in a thriller film assembling a gun out of harmless looking pieces.

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It looks strange today to see a computer system with so many external devices connected by cables. We’ve become accustomed to one piece computing devices with integrated functionality, and keyboards, mice, cameras, printers, and headphones that connect wirelessly.

Cables and other connections are not always considered as interfaces, but “all parts of a thing which enable its use” is the definition according to Chris. In the early to mid 1990s most computer user were well aware of the potential for confusion and frustration in such interfaces. A personal computer could have connections to monitor, keyboard, mouse, modem, CD drive, and joystick – and every single device would use a different type of cable. USB, while not perfect, is one of the greatest ever improvements in user interfaces. Continue reading

The Memory Doubler

In Beijing, Johnny steps into a hotel lift and pulls a small package out his pocket. He unwraps it to reveal the “Pemex MemDoubler”.

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Johnny extends the cable from the device and plugs it into the implant in his head. The socket glows red once the connection is made.

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Continue reading

Grabby hologram

After Pepper tosses off the sexy bon mot “Work hard!” and leaves Tony to his Avengers initiative homework, Tony stands before the wall-high translucent displays projected around his room.

Amongst the videos, diagrams, metadata, and charts of the Tesseract panel, one item catches his attention. It’s the 3D depiction of the object, the tesseract itself, one of the Infinity Stones from the MCU. It is a cube rendered in a white wireframe, glowing cyan amidst the flat objects otherwise filling the display. It has an intense, cold-blue glow at its center.  Small facing circles surround the eight corners, from which thin cyan rule lines extend a couple of decimeters and connect to small, facing, inscrutable floating-point numbers and glyphs.

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Wanting to look closer at it, he reaches up and places fingers along the edge as if it were a material object, and swipes it away from the display. It rests in his hand as if it was a real thing. He studies it for a minute and flicks his thumb forward to quickly switch the orientation 90° around the Y axis.

Then he has an Important Thought and the camera cuts to Agent Coulson and Steve Rogers flying to the helicarrier.

So regular readers of this blog (or you know, fans of blockbuster sci-fi movies in general) may have a Spidey-sense that this feels somehow familiar as an interface. Where else do we see a character grabbing an object from a volumetric projection to study it? That’s right, that seminal insult-to-scientists-and-audiences alike, Prometheus. When David encounters the Alien Astrometrics VP, he grabs the wee earth from that display to nuzzle it for a little bit. Follow the link if you want that full backstory. Or you can just look and imagine it, because the interaction is largely the same: See display, grab glowing component of the VP and manipulate it.

Prometheus-229 Two anecdotes are not yet a pattern, but I’m glad to see this particular interaction again. I’m going to call it grabby holograms (capitulating a bit on adherence to the more academic term volumetric projection.) We grow up having bodies and moving about in a 3D world, so the desire to grab and turn objects to understand them is quite natural. It does require that we stop thinking of displays as untouchable, uninterruptable movies and more like toy boxes, and it seems like more and more writers are catching on to this idea.

More graphics or more information?

Additionally,  the fact that this object is the one 3D object in its display is a nice affordance that it can be grabbed. I’m not sure whether he can pull the frame containing the JOINT DARK ENERGY MISSION video to study it on the couch, but I’m fairly certain I knew that the tesseract was grabbable before Tony reached out.

On the other hand, I do wonder what Tony could have learned by looking at the VP cube so intently. There’s no information there. It’s just a pattern on the sides. The glow doesn’t change. The little glyph sticks attached to the edges are fuigets. He might be remembering something he once saw or read, but he didn’t need to flick it like he did for any new information. Maybe he has flicked a VP tesseract in the past?

Augmented “reality”

Rather, I would have liked to have seen those glyph sticks display some useful information, perhaps acting as leaders that connected the VP to related data in the main display. One corner’s line could lead to the Zero Point Extraction chart. Another to the lovely orange waveform display. This way Tony could hold the cube and glance at its related information. These are all augmented reality additions.

Augmented VP

Or, even better, could he do some things that are possible with VPs that aren’t possible with AR. He should be able to scale it to be quite large or small. Create arbitrary sections, or plan views. Maybe fan out depictions of all objects in the SHIELD database that are similarly glowy, stone-like, or that remind him of infinity. Maybe…there’s…a…connection…there! Or better yet, have a copy of JARVIS study the data to find correlations and likely connections to consider. We’ve seen these genuine VP interactions plenty of places (including Tony’s own workshop), so they’re part of the diegesis.

Avengers_PullVP-05.pngIn any case, this simple setup works nicely, in which interaction with a cool media helps underscore the gravity of the situation, the height of the stakes. Note to selves: The imperturbable Tony Stark is perturbed. Shit is going to get real.

 

Nike MAGs

BttF_026Dr. Brown gives Marty some 21st century clothes in order to blend in. The first of these items are shoes. Marty is surprised to see no laces. To activate them, he pushes his foot into the shoe. When his heel makes contact, the main strap constricts to hold his heel in place. Then the laces constrict to hold the ball of the heel down. Finally, the tongue of the shoe and the “Nike” logo glow.

Yep. Perfect. The activation is natural to the act of putting on the device. The glow acts as a status indicator and symbol. No wonder everyone wanted them.

Skyways

BttF_013When driving in the sky along with other flying cars that fill the skies in 2015, Doc follows a proscribed path in the sky called a “skyway.” Lanes are distinguished by floating lightposts, which the pilot keeps to his left. It all seems a little chaosy, but so does driving in Mumbai to the outsider, and it works if you know how. The other brilliance of the skyway is that suddenly flying cars make some sense systemically. Before this, I certainly thought of flying cars as personal helicopters, taking you from point to point. But of course that becomes an air traffic control nightmare. Much better to adapt a known system that puts the onus of control to the operators.

Less successful are the road signs. Continue reading