Hover technology is a thing in 2015(1985) and it appears many places.
When Marty has troubles with Griff Tannan he borrows a young girl’s hover scooter and breaks off its handlebar. Hes able to put his skateboarding skills to use on the resulting hover board.
Griff and his gang chases Marty on their own hover boards. Griffs has a top of the line hover board labeled a Pit Bull. Though Marty clearly has to manually supply forward momentum to his, Griffs has miniature swivel-mount jet engines that (seem to) respond to the way he shifts his weight on the board.
George requires traction for a back problem, but this doesn’t ground him. A hover device clamps his ankles in place and responds to foot motions to move him around.
Hover tech is ideal for leaning control, like what controls a Segway. That’s just what seems to be working in the hoverboard and hovertraction devices. Lean in the direction you wish to travel, just like walking. No modality, just new skills to learn.
The other major benefit to the users of the chair (besides the ease of travel and lifestyle) is the total integration of the occupant’s virtual social life, personal life, fashion (or lack-thereof), and basic needs in one device. Passengers are seen talking with friends remotely, not-so-remotely, playing games, getting updated on news, and receiving basic status updates. The device also serves as a source of advertising (try blue! it’s the new red!).
A slight digression: What are the ads there for? Considering that the Axiom appears to be an all-inclusive permanent resort model, the ads could be an attempt to steer passengers to using resources that the ship knows it has a lot of. This would allow a reprieve for heavily used activities/supplies to be replenished for the next wave of guests, instead of an upsell maneuver to draw more money from them. We see no evidence of exchange of money or other economic activity while on-board the Axiom…
OK, back to the social network.
It isn’t obvious what the form of authentication is for the chairs. We know that the chairs have information about who the passenger prefers to talk to, what they like to eat, where they like to be aboard the ship, and what their hobbies are. With that much information, if there was no constant authentication, an unscrupulous passenger could easily hop in another person’s chair, “impersonate” them on their social network, and play havoc with their network. That’s not right.
It’s possible that the chair only works for the person using it, or only accesses the current passenger’s information from a central computer in the Axiom, but it’s never shown. What we do know is that the chair activates when a person is sitting on it and paying attention to the display, and that it deactivates as soon as that display is cut or the passenger leaves the chair.
We aren’t shown what happens when the passenger’s attention is drawn away from the screen, since they are constantly focused on it while the chair is functioning properly.
If it doesn’t already exist, the hologram should have an easy to push button or gesture that can dismiss the picture. This would allow the passenger to quickly interact with the environment when needed, then switch back to the social network afterwards.
And, for added security in case it doesn’t already exist, biometrics would be easy for the Axiom. Tracking the chair user’s voice, near-field chip, fingerprint on the control arm, or retina scan would provide strong security for what is a very personal activity and device. This system should also have strong protection on the back end to prevent personal information from getting out through the Axiom itself.
Social networks hold a lot of very personal information, and the network should have protections against the wrong person manipulating that data. Strong authentication can prevent both identity theft and social humiliation.
Taking the occupant’s complete attention
While the total immersion of social network and advertising seems dystopian to us (and that’s without mentioning the creepy way the chair removes a passenger’s need for most physical activity), the chair looks genuinely pleasing to its users.
They enjoy it.
But like a drug, their enjoyment comes at the detriment of almost everything else in their lives. There seem to be plenty of outlets on the ship for active people to participate in their favorite activities: Tennis courts, golf tees, pools, and large expanses for running or biking are available but unused by the passengers of the Axiom.
Work with the human need
In an ideal world a citizen is happy, has a mixture of leisure activities, and produces something of benefit to the civilization. In the case of this social network, the design has ignored every aspect of a person’s life except moment-to-moment happiness.
This has parallels in goal driven design, where distinct goals (BNL wants to keep people occupied on the ship, keep them focused on the network, and collect as much information as possible about what everyone is doing) direct the design of an interface. When goal-driven means data driven, then the data being collected instantly becomes the determining factor of whether a design will succeed or fail. The right data goals means the right design. Wrong data goals mean the wrong design.
Instead of just occupying a person’s attention, this interface could have instead been used to draw people out and introduce them to new activities at intervals driven by user testing and data. The Axiom has the information and power, perhaps even the responsibility, to direct people to activities that they might find interesting. Even though the person wouldn’t be looking at the screen constantly, it would still be a continuous element of their day. The social network could have been their assistant instead of their jailer.
One of the characters even exclaims that she “didn’t even know they had a pool!”. Indicating that she would have loved to try it, but the closed nature of the chair’s social network kept her from learning about it and enjoying it. By directing people to ‘test’ new experiences aboard the Axiom and releasing them from its grip occasionally, the social network could have acted as an assistant instead of an attention sink.
Moment-to-moment happiness might have declined, but overall happiness would have gone way up.
The best way for designers to affect the outcome of these situations is to help shape the business goals and metrics of a project. In a situation like this, after the project had launched a designer could step in and point out those moments were a passenger was pleasantly surprised, or clearly in need of something to do, and help build a business case around serving those needs.
The obvious moments of happiness (that this system solves for so well) could then be augmented by serendipitous moments of pleasure and reward-driven workouts.
We must build products for more than just fleeting pleasure
As soon as the Axiom lands back on Earth, the entire passenger complement leaves the ship (and the social network) behind.
It was such a superficial pleasure that people abandoned it without hesitation when they realized that there was something more rewarding to do. That’s a parallel that we can draw to many current products. The product can keep attention for now, but something better will come along and then their users will abandon them.
A company can produce a product or piece of software that fills a quick need and initially looks successful. But, that success falls apart as soon as people realize that they have larger and tougher problems that need solving.
Ideally, a team of designers at BNL would have watched after the initial launch and continued improving the social network. By helping people continue to grow and learn new skills, the social network could have kept the people aboard the Axiom it top condition both mentally and physically. By the time Wall-E came around, and life finally began to return to Earth, the passengers would have been ready to return and rebuild civilization on their own.
To the designers of a real Axiom Social Network: You have the chance to build a tool that can save the world.
The Hover Chair is a ubiquitous, utilitarian, all-purpose assisting device. Each passenger aboard the Axiom has one. It is a mix of a beach-side deck chair, fashion accessory, and central connective device for the passenger’s social life. It hovers about knee height above the deck, providing a low surface to climb into, and a stable platform for travel, which the chair does a lot of.
A Universal Wheelchair
We see that these chairs are used by everyone by the time that Wall-E arrives on the Axiom. From BNL’s advertising though, this does not appear to be the original. One of the billboards on Earth advertising the Axiom-class ships shows an elderly family member using the chair, allowing them to interact with the rest of the family on the ship without issue. In other scenes, the chairs are used by a small number of people relaxing around other more active passengers.
At some point between the initial advertising campaign and the current day, use went from the elderly and physically challenged, to a device used 24/7 by all humans on-board the Axiom. This extends all the way down to the youngest children seen in the nursery, though they are given modified versions to more suited to their age and disposition. BNL shows here that their technology is excellent at providing comfort as an easy choice, but that it is extremely difficult to undo that choice and regain personal control.
Sandmen have a clean-up crew to quickly rid the city’s floors of the unsightly corpses they create when they terminate runners. Logan summons one through the CB function of his SandPhone, telling dispatch, “Runner terminated, 0.31, ready for cleanup.”
Minutes later, Cleanup arrives. This crew floats around the city in a slow-moving hover platforms, that look a little like a vertical knee raise machine with anti-gravity pads and a faulty muffler. The controls aren’t apparent, but the operator maneuvers the platform over the cadaver to spray it with a fast-acting solvent that emits out the base.
This is the surface question of the Cleanup platform interface. If the operators don’t move, how are they controlling the platform? Of course it could be a brain interface, but that’s an easy answer. There are at least three alternative types of input that could explain what we see on screen.
Force-sensing resistors or strain gauge that read the amount of force being applied to a stationary surface and act accordingly. The grips could be outfitted with force strips for each finger giving a high degree of complex input.
Gaze interactions, where eye tracking equipment registers glances, blinks, pupil dilation, and eyelid spread over time as controls.
Subvocal recognition allow a user to move their throat and mouth as if they were speaking, and even without actually producing any sound, register it as speech input.
Each of these technologies permit input via movements that are difficult to detect through observation, but facilitate rich enough input to pilot a personal vehicle through 3D space. Sadly, this level of sensory sophistication is not in evidence anywhere else in the film, so we’ll just have to chalk it up to a nifty tech for our real world toolboxes.
And though these technologies are cool, they don’t answer any of the experience or service design questions from the perspective of the Übercomputer. Why it is good for the operator to appear perfectly still in the first place? Is there some reason why they need to be dehumanized or robotic? It can’t be that they’re doing something horrible. Sandmen do the actual killing (and as we see do it gleefully, cruelly) and are highly visible, clearly human participants in the system?