Colossus Computer Center

As Colossus: The Forbin Project opens, we are treated to an establishing montage of 1970’s circuit boards (with resistors), whirring doodads, punched tape, ticking Nixie tube numerals, beeping lights, and jerking control data tapes. Then a human hand breaks into frame, and twiddles a few buttons as an oscilloscope draws lines creepily like an ECG cardiac cycle. This hand belongs to Charles Forbin, who walks alone in this massive underground compound, making sure final preparations are in order. The matte paintings make this space seem vast, inviting comparisons to the Krell technopolis from Forbidden Planet.

Forbidden Planet (1956)
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1976)

Forbin pulls out a remote control and presses something on its surface to illuminate rows and rows of lights. He walks across a drawbridge over a moat. Once on the far side, he uses the remote control to close the massive door, withdraw the bridge and seal the compound.

The remote control is about the size of a smartphone, with a long antenna extending out the top. Etched type across the top reads “COLOSSUS COMPUTER SYSTEMS.” A row of buttons is labeled A–E. Large red capital letters warn DANGER RADIATION above a safety cover. The cover has an arrow pointing right. Another row of five buttons is labeled SLIDING WALLS and numbered 1–5. A final row of three buttons is labeled RAMPS and numbered 1–3.

Forbin flips open the safety cover. He presses the red button underneath, and a blood-red light floods the bottom of the moat and turns blue-white hot, while a theremin-y whistle tells you this is no place a person should go. Forbin flips the cover back into place and walks out the sealed compound to the reporters and colleagues who await him. 

I can’t help but ask one non-tech narrative question: Why is Forbin turning lights on when he is about to abandon the compound? It might be that the illumination is a side-effect of the power systems, but it looks like he’s turning on the lights just before leaving and locking the house. Does he want to fool people into thinking there’s someone home? Maybe it should be going from fully-lit to an eerie, red low-light kinda vibe.

The Remote Control

The layout is really messy. Some rows are crowded and others have way too much space. (Honestly, it looks like the director demanded there be moar buttins make tecc! and forced the prop designer to add the A–E.) The crowding makes it tough to immediately know what labels go with what controls. Are A–E the radiation bits, and the safety cover control sliding walls? Bounding boxes or white space or some alternate layout would make the connections clear.

You might be tempted to put all of the controls in strict chronological order, but the gamma shielding is the most dangerous thing, and having it in the center helps prevent accidental activation, so it belongs there. And otherwise, it is in chronological order.

The labeling is inconsistent. Sure, maybe A–E the five computer systems that comprise Colossus. Sliding walls and ramps are well labeled, but there’s no indication about what it is that causes the dangerous radiation. It should say something like “Gamma shielding: DANGER RADIATION.” It’s tiny, but I also think the little arrow is a bad graphic for showing which way the safety cover flips open. Existing designs show that the industrial design can signal this same information with easier-to-understand affordances. And since this gamma radiation is an immediate threat to life and health, how about foregoing the red lettering in favor of symbols that are more immediately recognizable by non-English speakers and illiterate people. The IAEA hadn’t invented its new sign yet, but the visual concepts were certainly around at the time, so let’s build on that. Also, why doesn’t the door to the compound come with the same radiation warning? Or any warning?

The buttons are a crap choice of control as well. They don’t show what the status of the remotely controlled thing is. So if Charles accidentally presses a button, and, say, raises a sliding wall that’s out of sight, how would he know? Labeled rocker switches help signal the state and would be a better choice.

But really, why would these things be controlled remotely? It be more secure to have two-handed momentary buttons on the walls, which would mean that a person would be there to visually verify that the wall was slid or the ramp retracted or whatever it is national security needed them to be.

There’s also the narrative question about why this remote control doesn’t come up later in the film when Unity is getting out of control. Couldn’t they have used this to open the fortification and go unplug the thing?

So all told, not a great bit of design, for either interaction or narrative, with lots of improvement for both.

Locking yourselves out and throwing away the key

At first glance, it seems weird that there should be interfaces in a compound that is meant to be uninhabited for most of its use. But this is the first launch of a new system, and these interfaces may be there in anticipation of the possibility that they would have to return inside after a failure.  We can apologize these into believability.

But that doesn’t excuse the larger strategic question. Yes, we need defense systems to be secure. But that doesn’t mean sealing the processing and power systems for an untested AI away from all human access. The Control Problem is hard enough without humans actively limiting their own options. Which raises a narrative question: Why wasn’t there a segment of the film where the military is besieging this compound? Did Unity point a nuke at its own crunchy center? If not, siege! If so, well, maybe you can trick it into bombing itself. But I digress.

“And here is where we really screw our ability to recover from a mistake.”

Whether Unity should have had its plug pulled is the big philosophical question this movie does not want to ask, but I’ll save that for the big wrap up at the end.

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Control Room Power Board

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Once Dr. Sattler restores power to the park, Arnold needs to reboot the computer systems. To do this, he must switch off the circuits (C1–C3 in the screenshot above), and then switch off-and-on a circuit labeled “Main”.

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It’s a good thing Arnold knows what he’s doing, since these switches are only labeled C1-3, and we don’t see any documentation in the camera frame.  As he turns off each circuit, different parts of the computer terminals in the Control Room shut down.  This implies that different computer banks are tied to the same power circuits as the systems they control.

So, since this is a major interface for the park, let’s make this bit explicit: When designing infrequently-used but mission-critical interfaces, take great care to explain use, using clear affordances and constraints so that mistakes are very, very difficult to make. 

It might look like a mistake to have all the little electrical labeling to the sides, since this cover would have to be removed to get the components where this information would be of use. But that’s perfect. A user needing to remove this panel must encounter this reference information to get to those components, and so would know where to find them. This is a brilliant example of the pattern Put the Signal in the Path. Let’s hope there are similar signs on other access panels.

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Wait…where are the backups?

These are the central computer terminals that run Jurassic Park, and keep visitors safe from the “attractions.”  And there is no backup power.

When Arnold turns off the main circuit breaker, the computers (and servers behind them) turn off immediately.  The purpose and effect of the power switch deactivates all the systems in Jurassic Park, without any kind of warning or backup system.

For something as dangerous as deadly deadly dinosaurs—raised from the 65 million-year deep grave of extinction—the system deactivation should at least trigger some kind of warning.

Tornado sirens have backup batteries in case the city power goes out.  They are a solid example of a backup system that should exist, at minimum, to warn park-goers to move quickly towards shelter.  A better backup system would be a duplicate server system that automatically activates all the fences in the park.

Redundant Systems

When Arnold cycles the visitor center’s power system, it also trips the breakers for all of the other power systems in the park.  Primary safety systems like that should be on their own circuit.  It’s ok if the fridges turn off and melt the ice cream (though it may be an inconvenience), but that same event shouldn’t also deactivate the velociraptor pen security.  Especially when the ‘raptor pen is right next to the visitor center and is a known, aforementioned, deadly deadly threat.

Ford Explorer Status

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One computer in the control room is dedicated to showing the status of the Jeeps out on tour, and where they currently are on the island.

Next to the vehicle outline, we see the words “Vehicle Type: Ford Explorer” (thank you, product placement) along with “EXP” 4–7.  EXP 4 & 5 look unselected, but have green dots next to them, while EXP 6 & 7 look selected with red dots next to them.  No characters interact with this screen. Mr. Arnold does tap on it with a pen (to make a point though, not to interact with it).

On the right hand side of the screen also see a top-down view of the car with the electric track shown underneath, and little red arrows pointing forward.  Below the graphic are the words “13 mph”.  The most visible and obvious indicator on the screen is the headlights.  A large “Headlights On” indicator is at the top of the screen, with highlighted cones coming out of the Jeep where the headlights are on the car. Continue reading

The Drone

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Each drone is a semi-autonomous flying robot armed with large cannons, heavy armor, and a wide array of sensor systems. When in flight mode, the weapon arms retract. The arms extend when the drone senses a threat.

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Each drone is identical in make and temperament, distinguishable only by large white numbers on its “face”. The armored shell is about a meter in diameter (just smaller than Jack). Internal power is supplied by a small battery-like device that contains enough energy to start a nuclear explosion inside of a sky-scraper-sized hydrogen distiller. It is not obvious whether the weapons are energy or projectile-based.

The HUD

The Drone Interface is a HUD that shows the drone’s vision and secondary information about its decision making process. The HUD appears on all video from the Drone’s primary camera. Labels appear in legible human English.

Video feeds from the drone can be in one of several modes that vary according to what kind of searching the drone is doing. We never see the drone use more than one mode at once. These modes include visual spectrum, thermal imaging, and a special ‘tracking’ mode used to follow Jack’s bio signature.

Occasionally, we also see the Drone’s primary objective on the HUD. These include an overlay on the main view that says “TERMINATE” or “CLEAR”.

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Taxi shield

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The taxi panel has one weak moment. When Korben has the taxi in hiding from the police, he wants to lower the taxi shield to check on Leeloo. To lower the shield, he presses on the “DOCKING LOCK” button on the panel, which doesn’t quite make sense. We saw this button used earlier to actually do what it says. Why does its function change now?

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It might be that the button has two modes, i.e. in a garage it anchors the vehicle and elsewhere it lowers the shield. Modal buttons aren’t great. What if Korben is in the garage and needs to lower the shield? Just say no to modal buttons. If the functions can be operated independently, they should have separate buttons.

Additionally, if it’s going to have to be modal and have a secondary function, it should be labeled as such. Even if the shield was aftermarket, the installing mechanic could have taken a sharpie to the button to note which of the dozens of buttons on the dashboard is the one that activates it. Mechanics, you now have no excuse.

Of course leaving behind my New Criticism stance on authorial intent, it’s entirely possible that Willis just pressed the wrong button, or that the prop he was faced with on set didn’t have a button that worked, and he just picked one at hand. But I like Willis, and I like not having to second guess film makers, so I’m going to cut him some slack for this detail that most probably, nobody but me ever noticed. Until, you know, now.