House of Representin’

The U.S. House of Representin’ in Idiocracy is a madhouse. When Joe is sworn in as the Secretary of the Interior, he takes his seat in the balcony with the other Cabinet members. He looks down into the gallery. It is dimly lit. When Joe is sworn in as the Secretary of the Interior, he enters the chamber and sits in the balcony with the rest of the Cabinet. He looks down into the gallery. It is dimly lit. There are spotlights roving across the Representatives, who don’t sit at desks but stand in a mosh pit. There is even a center-hung video display like you’d see at an indoor sports area. Six giant LED screens. Ring displays showing weird ASCII characters.

Idiocracy_house-of-representin03
Sadly, we do not get to The Sennit for a comparison.

Someone plays an entrance theme consisting mostly of a cowbell and grunts. Strobe lights flash. An announcer says, like he was announcing a World Wrestling Entertainment performer, “Ladies and gentlemen…the President of America!” Camacho comes out of a side door screaming. He’s dressed in lots of red and white stripes with a cape made of the union blue. (n.b. The federal code forbids the wearing the flag as apparel.) He does some made-up karate poses. There are logos on the rostrum and currency sheets for wallpaper. He stands at the lectern and begins his address to the Representatives by saying, “Shut up.”

money-wallpaper.jpg

There’s a kind of ritual to his entrance, but the proceedings are all chaos. I think if you mentioned the Jefferson’s Manual you’d be accused of talking like a fag. (Jefferson’s Manual was penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and still stands as a guideline for how the House and to a lesser extent the Senate runs its…but there I go talking faggy again.) When the delegation from South Carolina start talking smack, he grabs a semi-automatic and shoots it into the ceiling to get everyone’s attention again.

IDIOCRACY-governance.png
He tells it like it is.

Ordinarily I might try and critique this as some abstract interface for the task of vetting a Cabinet member or legislating, since it is meant to be that, but Idiocracy is just too far gone. Plus, tomorrow is the midterm elections, and it’s more instructive to talk about its tone.

What makes this scene so marvelous is how un-governmental it all is. It’s macho posing and buzz words. Insults and tribalism. It’s a circus (without, in this case, the bread). Empty promises and showmanship.

Come with me now to walk far, far back from it all, to try to get it all into view and really think hard about the scope of the institution we call government. We grant this thing the highest authority that we possibly can. It has power over our life and death, war and money, our children and our environment—and it is only right that this trust be met by the occupants of that government with gravity, some serious consideration for the power with which they have been entrusted. It is grotesque for it to become a show. When people think corporations and government should be best buds, and the highest offices of the land become a shill for product. When the participants conceive it as a high-school parking lot gang fight where scoring insults against the other team counts as some beer-swilling victory while, you know, actual human suffering and violent death occurs as collateral damage. When they justify horrible things by saying, “You had your turn.” When demagogues keep you stupidly, stupidly distracted.

Idiocracy_house-of-representin02
Yet here we are.

If this is government, we shout at the screen, those morons in the electorate should replace it with something better.

Replace it with something better

We’re not done with reviews of Idiocracy, but tomorrow is the 2018 midterm election in the USA.

If you’ve stayed with me this far it means you’re probably not a supporter of The Tire Fire in Chief, since, as fascists, they tend to be fanatical and abhor dissent, and would have left the blog long ago. (They will not be missed.) So you’re probably not one of them.

If you’re a progressive or even a moderate, you’ve been as shocked as I have over the past two years, and you realize how much of a disaster this administration has been. Your mind has hopefully already been made up. In early voting or by mail you may have even already voted. Rock on.
Some of my readers may have genuine hardships that prevent them from voting, even in early voting states or by mail. Please do everything you can. Remember Uber and Lyft are offering free and discounted trips to polls (there are even carpool sites), and in most states your employer is required by law to give you paid time off to vote. (Check here.) Some voters will be victims of suppression efforts and holy shit I’m sorry about that.
But let’s presume that there are yet a few undecideds, or who are choosing not to vote out of some sense of hopelessness or protest. Maybe you have some Russian troll farm meme in your head that is preventing you from voting. Not voting may feel like resistance, but it’s actually surrender. With all the voter suppression underway, you’re letting the oppressors win. With all the wrong in the world, you would be complicit. So get over yourself. Stop the decline into Idiocracy. Our choices aren’t perfect. They never are. They never will be. But even if this choice is not perfect, it is clear. The GOP is wrecking democracy, ruining the environment, and making people suffer for the benefit of the ultra-wealthy and their old, white cronies. Broadcast Democrats may not be the answers we need in the long run, but they are the only thing that can stop this Idiocracy, right here, right now.

Vote.

Let me close with a great screed by Lori Gallagher Witt about why she is a liberal. You are a sci-fi fan. You’re used to entertaining the notion of alternate realities. Imagine a world where the following becomes true.

  1. “I’ve always been a liberal, but that doesn’t mean what a lot of you apparently think it does. Let’s break it down, shall we? Because quite frankly, I’m getting a little tired of being told what I believe and what I stand for. Spoiler alert: Not every liberal is the same, though the majority of liberals I know think along roughly these same lines:
  2. I believe a country should take care of its weakest members. A country cannot call itself civilized when its children, disabled, sick, and elderly are neglected. Period.
  3. I believe healthcare is a right, not a privilege. Somehow that’s interpreted as “I believe Obamacare is the end-all, be-all.” This is not the case. I’m fully aware that the ACA has problems, that a national healthcare system would require everyone to chip in, and that it’s impossible to create one that is devoid of flaws, but I have yet to hear an argument against it that makes “let people die because they can’t afford healthcare” a better alternative. I believe healthcare should be far cheaper than it is, and that everyone should have access to it. And no, I’m not opposed to paying higher taxes in the name of making that happen.
  4. I believe education should be affordable and accessible to everyone. It doesn’t necessarily have to be free (though it works in other countries so I’m mystified as to why it can’t work in the US), but at the end of the day, there is no excuse for students graduating college saddled with five- or six-figure debt.
  5. I don’t believe your money should be taken from you and given to people who don’t want to work. I have literally never encountered anyone who believes this. Ever. I just have a massive moral problem with a society where a handful of people can possess the majority of the wealth while there are people literally starving to death, freezing to death, or dying because they can’t afford to go to the doctor. Fair wages, lower housing costs, universal healthcare, affordable education, and the wealthy actually paying their share would go a long way toward alleviating this. Somehow believing that makes me a communist.
  6. I don’t throw around “I’m willing to pay higher taxes” lightly. If I’m suggesting something that involves paying more, well, it’s because I’m fine with paying my share as long as it’s actually going to something besides lining corporate pockets or bombing other countries while Americans die without healthcare.
  7. I believe companies should be required to pay their employees a decent, livable wage. Somehow this is always interpreted as me wanting burger flippers to be able to afford a penthouse apartment and a Mercedes. What it actually means is that no one should have to work three full-time jobs just to keep their head above water. Restaurant servers should not have to rely on tips, multibillion-dollar companies should not have employees on food stamps, workers shouldn’t have to work themselves into the ground just to barely make ends meet, and minimum wage should be enough for someone to work 40 hours and live.
  8. I am not anti-Christian. I have no desire to stop Christians from being Christians, to close churches, to ban the Bible, to forbid prayer in school, etc. (BTW, prayer in school is NOT illegal; compulsory prayer in school is—and should be—illegal). All I ask is that Christians recognize my right to live according to my beliefs. When I get pissed off that a politician is trying to legislate Scripture into law, I’m not “offended by Christianity”—I’m offended that you’re trying to force me to live by your religion’s rules. You know how you get really upset at the thought of Muslims imposing Sharia law on you? That’s how I feel about Christians trying to impose biblical law on me. Be a Christian. Do your thing. Just don’t force it on me or mine.
  9. I don’t believe LGBT people should have more rights than you. I just believe they should have the same rights as you.
  10. I don’t believe illegal immigrants should come to America and have the world at their feet, especially since THIS ISN’T WHAT THEY DO (spoiler: undocumented immigrants are ineligible for all those programs they’re supposed to be abusing, and if they’re “stealing” your job it’s because your employer is hiring illegally). I’m not opposed to deporting people who are here illegally, but I believe there are far more humane ways to handle undocumented immigration than our current practices (i.e., detaining children, splitting up families, ending DACA, etc).
  11. I don’t believe the government should regulate everything, but since greed is such a driving force in our country, we NEED regulations to prevent cut corners, environmental destruction, tainted food/water, unsafe materials in consumable goods or medical equipment, etc. It’s not that I want the government’s hands in everything—I just don’t trust people trying to make money to ensure that their products/practices/etc. are actually SAFE. Is the government devoid of shadiness? Of course not. But with those regulations in place, consumers have recourse if they’re harmed and companies are liable for medical bills, environmental cleanup, etc. Just kind of seems like common sense when the alternative to government regulation is letting companies bring their bottom line into the equation.
  12. I believe our current administration is fascist. Not because I dislike them or because I can’t get over an election, but because I’ve spent too many years reading and learning about the Third Reich to miss the similarities. Not because any administration I dislike must be Nazis, but because things are actually mirroring authoritarian and fascist regimes of the past.
  13. I believe the systemic racism and misogyny in our society is much worse than many people think, and desperately needs to be addressed. Which means those with privilege—white, straight, male, economic, etc.—need to start listening, even if you don’t like what you’re hearing, so we can start dismantling everything that’s causing people to be marginalized.
  14. I am not interested in coming after your blessed guns, nor is anyone serving in government. What I am interested in is sensible policies, including background checks, that just MIGHT save one person’s, perhaps a toddler’s, life by the hand of someone who should not have a gun. (Got another opinion? Put it on your page, not mine).
  15. I believe in so-called political correctness. I prefer to think it’s social politeness. If I call you Chuck and you say you prefer to be called Charles I’ll call you Charles. It’s the polite thing to do. Not because everyone is a delicate snowflake, but because as Maya Angelou put it, when we know better, we do better. When someone tells you that a term or phrase is more accurate/less hurtful than the one you’re using, you now know better. So why not do better? How does it hurt you to NOT hurt another person?
  16. I believe in funding sustainable energy, including offering education to people currently working in coal or oil so they can change jobs. There are too many sustainable options available for us to continue with coal and oil. Sorry, billionaires. Maybe try investing in something else.
  17. I believe that women should not be treated as a separate class of human. They should be paid the same as men who do the same work, should have the same rights as men and should be free from abuse. Why on earth shouldn’t they be?

I think that about covers it. Bottom line is that I’m a liberal because I think we should take care of each other. That doesn’t mean you should work 80 hours a week so your lazy neighbor can get all your money. It just means I don’t believe there is any scenario in which preventable suffering is an acceptable outcome as long as money is saved.”

Cyberspace: the hardware

And finally we come to the often-promised cyberspace search sequence, my favourite interface in the film. It starts at 36:30 and continues, with brief interruptions to the outside world, to 41:00. I’ll admit there are good reasons not to watch the entire film, but if you are interested in interface design, this will be five minutes well spent. Included here are the relevant clips, lightly edited to focus on the user interfaces.

Click to see video of The cyberspace search.

Click to see Board conversation, with Pharmakom tracker and virus

First, what hardware is required?

Johnny and Jane have broken into a neighbourhood computer shop, which in 2021 will have virtual reality gear just as today even the smallest retailer has computer mice. Johnny clears miscellaneous parts off a table and then sits down, donning a headset and datagloves.

jm-30-hardware-a

Headset

Headsets haven’t really changed much since 1995 when this film was made. Barring some breakthrough in neural interfaces, they remain the best way to block off the real world and immerse a user into the virtual world of the computer. It’s mildly confusing to a current day audience to hear Johnny ask for “eyephones”, which in 1995 was the name of a particular VR headset rather than the popular “iPhone” of today. Continue reading

Video Phone Calls

The characters in Johnny Mnemonic make quite a few video phone calls throughout the film, enough to be grouped in their own section on interfaces.

The first thing a modern viewer will note is that only one of the phones resembles a current day handheld mobile. This looks very strange today and it’s hard to imagine why we would ever give up our beloved iPhones and Androids. I’ll just observe that accurately predicting the future is difficult (and not really the point) and move on.

More interesting is the variety of phones used. In films from the 1950s to the 1990s, everyone uses a desk phone with a handset. (For younger readers: that is the piece you picked up and held next to your ear and mouth. There’s probably one in your parents’ house.) The only changes were the gradual replacement of rotary dials by keypads, and some cordless handsets. In 21st century films everyone uses a small sleek handheld box. But in Johnny Mnemonic every phone call uses a different interface.

New Darwin

First is the phone call Johnny makes from the New Darwin hotel.

jm-3-phone-hotel-c-adjusted

As previously discussed, Johnny is lying in bed using a remote control to select numbers on the onscreen keypad. He is facing a large wall mounted TV/display screen, with what looks like a camera at the top. The camera is realistic but unusual: as Chapter 10 of Make It So notes, films very rarely show the cameras used in visual communication. Continue reading

Headsets

Luke, Chewie, the comms officer aboard the Revenge, and this orange lizard/cat thing wear similar headsets in the short. Each consists of headphones with a coronal headband and a microphone on a boom that holds it in front of their mouths.

FaithfulWookie-headset-pinch.png

The only time we see something resembling a control, Luke attempts to report back to the Rebel base. To do so, he uses his right hand to pinch (or hold?) the microphone as he says, “This is Y4 to base.” Then he releases the mic and continues, “He’s heading straight for a moon in…the Panna system.” Continue reading

Viper Launch Control

image02

The Galactica’s fighter launch catapults are each controlled by a ‘shooter’ in an armored viewing pane.  There is one ‘shooter’ for every two catapults.  To launch a Viper, he has a board with a series of large twist-handles, a status display, and a single button.  We can also see several communication devices:

  • Ear-mounted mic and speaker
  • Board mounted mic
  • Phone system in the background

These could relate to one of several lines of communication each:

  • The Viper pilot
  • Any crew inside the launch pod
  • Crew just outside the launch pod
  • CIC (for strategic status updates)
  • Other launch controllers at other stations
  • Engineering teams
  • ‘On call’ rooms for replacement operators

image05

Each row on the launch display appears to conform to some value coming off of the Viper or the Galactica’s magnetic catapults.  The ‘shooter’ calls off Starbuck’s launch three times due to some value he sees on his status board (fluctuating engine power right before launch).

We do not see any other data inputs.  Something like a series of cameras on a closed circuit could show him an exterior view of the entire Viper, providing additional information to the sensors.

When Starbuck is ready to launch on the fourth try, the ‘shooter’ twists the central knob and, at the same time and with the same hand, pushes down a green button.  The moment the ‘shooter’ hits the button, Starbuck’s Viper is launched into space.

image04

There are other twist knobs across the entire board, but these do not appear to conform directly to the act of launching the Viper, and they do not act like the central knob.  They appear instead to be switches, where turning them from one position to another locks them in place.

There is no obvious explanation for the number of twist knobs, but each one might conform to an electrical channel to the catapult, or some part of the earlier launch sequence.

Manual Everything

Nothing in the launch control interprets anything for the ‘shooter’.  He is given information, then expected to interpret it himself.  From what we see, this information is basic enough to not cause a problem and allow him to quickly make a decision.

Without networking the launch system together so that it can poll its own information and make its own decisions, there is little that can improve the status indicators. (And networking is made impossible in this show because of Cylon hackers.) The board is easily visible from the shooter chair, each row conforms directly to information coming in from the Viper, and the relate directly to the task at hand.

The most dangerous task the shooter does is actually decide to launch the Viper into space.  If either the Galactica or the Viper isn’t ready for that action, it could cause major damage to the Viper and the launch systems.

A two-step control for this is the best method, and the system now requires two distinct motions (a twist-and-hold, then a separate and distinct *click*).  This is effective at confirming that the shooter actually wants to send the Viper into space.

To improve this control, the twist and button could be moved far enough apart (reference, under “Two-Hand Controls” ) that it requires two hands to operate the control.  That way, there is no doubt that the shooter intends to activate the catapult.

If the controls are separated like that, it would take some amount of effort to make sure the two controls are visually connected across the board, either through color, or size, or layout.  Right now, that would be complicated by the similarity in the final twist control, and the other handles that do different jobs.

Changing these controls to large switches or differently shaped handles would make the catapult controls less confusing to use.

 

The Galactica Phone Network

image05

The phone system aboard the Galactica is a hardwired system that can be used in two modes: Point-to-point, and one-to-many.  The phones have an integrated handset wired to a control box and speaker.  The buttons on the control box are physical keys, and there are no automatic voice controls.

In Point-to-point mode, the phones act as a typical communication system, where one station can call a single other station.  In the one-to-many mode the phones are used as a public address system, where a single station can broadcast to the entire ship.

image07

The phones are also shown acting as broadcast speakers.  These speakers are able to take in many different formats of audio, and are shown broadcasting various different feeds:

  • Ship-wide Alerts (“Action Stations!”)
  • Local alarms (Damage control/Fire inside a specific bulkhead)
  • Radio Streams (pilot audio inside the launch prep area)
  • Addresses (calling a person to the closest available phone)

image06

Each station is independent and generic.  Most phones are located in public spaces or large rooms, with only a few in private areas.  These private phones serve the senior staff in their private quarters, or at their stations on the bridge.

image11

In each case, the phone stations are used as kiosks, where any crewmember can use any phone.  It is implied that there is a communications officer acting as a central operator for when a crewmember doesn’t know the appropriate phone number, or doesn’t know the current location of the person they want to reach.

Utterly Basic

There is not a single advanced piece of technology inside the phone system.  The phones act as a dirt-simple way to communicate with a place, not a person (the person just happens to be there while you’re talking).

image10

The largest disadvantage of this system is that it provides no assistance for its users: busy crewmembers of an active warship.  These crew can be expected to need to communicate in the heat of battle, and quickly relay orders or information to a necessary party.

This is easy for the lower levels of crewmembers: information will always flow up to the bridge or a secondary command center.  For the officers, this task becomes more difficult.

First, there are several crewmember classes that could be anywhere on the ship:

  • Security
  • Damage Control
  • Couriers
  • Other officers

Without broadcasting to the entire ship, it could be extremely difficult to locate these specific crewmembers in the middle of a battle for information updates or new orders.

Unconventional Enemy

The primary purpose of the Galactica was to fight the Cylons: sentient robots capable of infiltrating networked computers.  This meant that every system on the Galactica was made as basic as possible, without regard to its usability.

The Galactica’s antiquated phone system does prevent Cylon infiltration of a communications network aboard an active warship.  Nothing the phone system does requires executing outside pieces of software.

A very basic upgrade to the phone system that could provide better usability would be a near-field tag system for each crew member.  A passive near-field chip could be read by a non-networked phone terminal each time a crew member approached near the phone.  The phone could then send a basic update to a central board at the Communications Center informing the operators of where each crewmember is. Such a system would not provide an attack surface (a weakness for them to infiltrate) for the enemy, and make finding officers and crew in an emergency situation both easier and faster: major advantages for a warship.

The near field sensors would add a second benefit, in that only registered crew could access specific terminals.  As an example, the Captain and senior staff would be the only ones allowed to use the central phone system.

Brutally efficient hardware

image08

The phone system succeeds in its hardware.  Each terminal has an obvious speaker that makes a distinct sound each time the terminal is looking for a crewmember.  When the handset is in use, it is easy to tell which side is up after a very short amount of training (the cable always comes out the bottom).  

It is also obvious when the handset is active or inactive.  When a crewmember pulls the handset out of its terminal, the hardware makes a distinctive audible and physical *click* as the switch opens a channel.  The handset also slots firmly back into the terminal, making another *click* when the switch deactivates.  This is very similar to a modern-day gas pump.

With a brief amount of training, it is almost impossible to mistake when the handset activates and deactivates.

Quick Wins

For a ship built in the heat of war at a rapid pace, the designers focused on what they could design quickly and efficiently.  There is little in the way of creature comforts in the Phone interface.

Minor additions in technology or integrated functionality could have significantly improved the interface of the phone system, and may have been integrated into future ships of the Galactica’s line.  Unfortunately, we never see if the military designers of the Galactica learned from their haste.

The HoverChair Social Network

WallE-SocialNetwork03

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.

Security?

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.

WallE-SocialNetwork05

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

WallE-SocialNetwork09

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.

WallE-SocialNetwork07

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.

We know you like blue! Now it looks great in Red!

The Hover Chair

WallE-HoverChair05

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.

But not a perfect interaction

Continue reading

Red mics

TheFifthElement-redmike-001

We saw in an earlier post how the military uses communication headsets with red LEDs in the tips of the antennas that provide a social signal about the attention of its wearer. On board the spaceship to Fhloston Paradise, the same technique is used to signal functioning microphones.

TheFifthElement-redmike-002

TheFifthElement-redmike-003

The simple status signal of glowing signals to the speaker that the device is on and that their voice is being broadcast, listened to, or might be overheard.

These are two binary states: microphone recording/not, light on/off. and the relationship could be swapped such that the light illuminates when the device is not recording. But since the consequences for accidentally broadcasting the wrong thing are dire, it makes sense to associate the attention-getting signal with the costly state that requires attention and care.

The red appears elsewhere as a signal for microphone or antenna, even when it’s not glowing. We see it on Korben’s wireless phone at home, Zorg’s assistant’s headset, on Korben’s room phone aboard the Fhloston Paradise, on the handheld mic aboard Zorg’s ship, and on the President’s wireless phone. We can presume it’s a signal common pattern across all the commucication technology of this world. The commonality helps signal to anyone familiar with it the purpose of an otherwise unmarked and miniaturized component.

Rhod’s rod

TheFifthElement-Rhod-011

One of the most delightfully flamboyant characters in sci-fi is the radio star in The Fifth Element, Ruby Rhod. He wears a headpiece to hear his producers as well as to record his own voice. But to capture the voices of others, he has a technological staff that he carries.

Function

The handle of the device has a microphone built into it. Because of the length of the staff, his reach to potential interviewees is extended. The literal in-your-face nature of the microphone matches Ruby’s in-your-face show.

TheFifthElement-Rhod-004

To let interviewees know when they’re being recorded, a red light in the handle illuminates. This also lets others nearby know that the interviewee is “on air” and not to interrupt.

Ruby also has a single switch on the handle. It’s a small silver toggle. It’s likely that he can set this switch to function as he likes. The one time we see it in action, he has set it to play back an “audio cut,” (the sound clips morning radio talk show hosts insert into their programs) in this case an intimate recording of the Princess of Kodar Japhet. He flips the toggle to play the cut, and flips it back when it’s done.

Here, a different input would have worked better. The toggle switch is too easy to bump and kind of ruins the design of the handle. Better would be a billet button. This sort of momentary button sits flush with a bezel, which prevents accidental activation from, say, a finger laying across it, or resting the button against a flat surface. If Ruby wants the recorded sound to play out completely, and the button press only starts or stops the playback, it would be good to know the state of the playback, and using a billet button with a LED ring would be best.

We also know that Ruby is a performer. He would be happier if he had more than a play button, but a way to express himself. His hand is already in a grip to hold the staff, so the control should fit that—If you could outfit the billet button with directional pressure sensitivity, he could assign each direction to a control. So, for instance, while he was pressing the button, the audio would play, and the harder he pressed up, the volume for each echo would increase. Or pressing down could lower the sample in tone, etc. This would allow him to not just play the audio cut, but perform it.

Fashion

To work as a device that the character would want to carry, it has to match his sense of style. I mean this first in a general sense, and the device does that, with its handle of ornately carved silver. Ruby’s necklaces, bracelets, and rings are all silver, and they work together. The staff also works in his hand like a drum major’s baton, augmenting his larger-than-life presence with an attention-commanding object.

It has to fit his daily fashion as well, and the staff does that, too. The shaft can change appearance. I don’t know if it’s an e-ink-type surface, replaceable staves, or fabric sleeves that change out, but when Ruby’s in leopard print, the staff is in leopard print, too. When Ruby’s decked out in rose-adorned tuxedo black, the staff matches.

TheFifthElement-Rhod-002

TheFifthElement-Rhod-006

Though this is more a portable than a wearable technology, the fact that it can change to match the personal style of the wearer makes it not only functional, but since it fits his persona, desirable as well.