The multipass is the all-purpose card of 2263. It’s a driver’s license, work authorization record, proof of identity, emergency medical information, phone card, plus all your credit cards in one. There is a white rectangle and yellowish, rounded-bevel shape on the lower left, each of which may be a button, but that we don’t see in use.
Often just showing it is enough for a human’s satisfaction, but sometimes it must be read by a machine. To do this, the holder inserts it into a slot, where the machine verifies its authenticity and registers the user locally. In Korben’s taxi, he has to leave it in as he operates the vehicle. At the Fhloston Paradise check-in booth, travelers dip it in and out of the reader.
The act of inserting the card to authenticate may seem a bit old-fashioned in the days of RFID and read-at-a-distance technology, but it’s also nice to see that whatever agency was able to get the various corporations and government agencies to cooperate has also got privacy in mind. If it needs to be dipped to be read, maybe it can’t be read at a distance. That means the holder has more control over when and how it’s accessed.
As far as convenience, hot damn. It’s practically a wallet in and of itself. But there are security concerns to having all of this in one place. There are many cards that work like this in the world. Bus passes, skeeball tickets, gift cards. They’re generally low-cost. If you steal or forge Korben Dallas’ multipass, though, do you suddenly have his charge accounts, his taxi, and his phone card all at once? Seems high-cost, especially since the one forgery we see in the movie actually works.
This returns us, as so many things do, to multifactor authentication. This security philosophy requires that the user presents three factors: something they have, something they are, and something they know. The multipass covers only the first two.
The multipass itself is the thing they have.
The picture is something they are, i.e., what they look like.
It could be improved by requiring something they know, like a PIN or a password.
We don’t know what kind of power Cornelius’ order wielded in the world, but since it wasn’t enough to sway the president or purchase tickets to Paradise, let’s presume it wouldn’t have been enough to uncover Korben’s password, and in that case, the PIN would have foiled the attempted forgery.
Sadly for Zorg, just after he deactivates his bomb, a fallen Mangalore warrior remotely activates his own bomb in Plavalaguna’s suite. The remote control is made from a combination lock. The Mangalore twists the dial to the right numbers, and on reaching the last number, a red LED lights in the center. In the diva’s suite, the box that secretly housed the bomb opens, and the bomb rises like a small metallic ziggurat, accentuated in places with red LEDs. A red, 7-segment countdown timer begins ticking down its final 5 seconds.
Mangalores are warlike, as in they really like war. They breathe war. They sleep war. They eat war for breakfast, then poop war, then root around in their couches for war scraps and snack on that. The detonation device isn’t very sophisticated, and that’s just fine by Mangalores. If a Mangalore declared a Design major instead of War in college, they’d have been killed on the spot. This device is perfect for a species that just wants to grab something cheap and convenient, make a few modifications, and get to the boom.
We don’t see a deactivation mechanism. And while you can imagine that a nice safety would be to deactivate if the dial drifted more than, say, 5 clicks from the final activation number, Mangalores wouldn’t have it. They’d “liberate” your mother’s homeland merely for having suggesting it.
If I had to improve it in any way, it’s that it places a burden on memory, and there’s not a lot of indication that Mangalores excel in the thinking skills department, c.f. warlike. Do they have the capacity to memorize a series of numbers in order? And it is easy to recall the series in the middle of a war zone? If not, what would be better? They have their weapons with them nearly at all times, so how about a little glowing, red button on the forestock?
Ha. Joke’s on you, Mangalores. As we know from earlier in the movie, you couldn’t resist pressing it, long before you made it to ocean liners. I think if you’re that warlike and stupid, this would be best for everyone.
As far as Carmen is concerned, the shuttle is small fries. Her real interest is in piloting a big ship, like the Rodger Young.
On her first time at the helm as Pilot Trainee, she enters the bridge, reports for duty, and takes the number 2 chair. As she does, she reaches out to one of two panels and flips two green toggle switches simultaneously down, and immediately says, “Identify.”
In response her display screen (a cathode ray tube, guys, complete with bowed-glass surface!)—which had been reading STATION STANDBY in alternating red and yellow capitals—very quickly flashes the legend VOICE IDENTITY CONFIRMED in white letters before displaying a waveform with the label ANALYZING VOICEPRINT, ostensibly of her voice input. Then, having confirmed her identiy, it displays her IDENTIFICATION RECORD, including her name, portrait, mission status, current assignment, and a shouty all-caps red-letter welcome message at the bottom: WELCOME ABOARD ENSIGN. There are tables of tubles along the bottom and top of these screens but they’re unreadable in my copy.
She then reaches to the panel of physical controls again, and flips a red toggle switch before pressing two out of a 4×4 grid of yellow-orange momentary buttons. She sits back in her seat, and turns to see the ridiculously-quaffed Zander in the adjacent chair. Plot ensues.
Some challenges with this setup.
It looks like those vertical panels of unlabeled switches and buttons are all she’s got for input. Not the most ergonomic, if she’s expected to be entering data for any length of time or under any duress.
Having the display in front of her makes a great deal of sense, since most of the things she’s dealing with as either a pilot or navigator are not just out the front viewport.
The workflow for authentication is a little strange, and mismatched for the screens we see.
A toggle switch might make sense if it’s meaning was “I am present.” But we can imagine lots of other ways the system might sense that she is present passively, and not require her to flip the switch manually.
Why would it analyze the voiceprint after the voice identity was confirmed? It would have made more sense to have the first screen prompt her to provide a voice print, like “Provide voiceprint” with some visual confirmation that it’s currently recording and sensitive to her voice. Then when she finishes speaking the sample, then the next can say Analyzing voiceprint with the recorded waveform, and the final screen can read Voice identity confirmed, before moving on. I can’t readily apologize for the way it’s structured now. Fortunately it zips by so that most folks will just get it.
That waveform, by the way, is not for the word “identify.”. I opened the screen cap, isolated the “waveform”, tweaked it in Photoshop for levels, and expanded it.
I ran this image through the demo of a program called PhotoSounder. What played from my speakers was more like astronomy recordings than a voice. Admittedly, it’s audio interpreted from a very low-rez version of the waveform, but seriously, more data is not going to help resolve that audio spookiness into human language.
Props to the interface designers for NOT showing the waveform of sounds in the Rodger Young’s database. It would be explanatory, of course, to immediately see the freshly recorded one being compared against the one in the database. But it would not be very secure. A malefactor would just be able to screen cap or photograph the database version, interpret the waveform like I did for the sound above, and play it back for the system for a perfect match.
Additional props to whoever specced the password button presses after the login. She might be setting a view she wants to see, but I prefer it to mean the system is using multifactor authentication. She’s providing a password. Sure, it’s a weak one—2 hexadecimal characters—but it’s better than nothing, and would even help with the hacking I described in the above section.
The welcome message
Finally, the welcome message feels a little out of place. Is this the only place she encounters the computer system? The literal sense of “welcome aboard” is to welcome someone aboard, which would be most appropriate only when they, you know, come aboard, which surely was some time ago. Carmen at least had to drop her stuff off in quarters. It’s also used by individuals who have been aboard welcoming newcomers the first time they greet them. But that anthropomorphizes this interface, which through this interaction and the several we’ll see next, would be dangerously overpromising.
When officers Foley and Reese find the sleeping Jennifer, they thumbprint her on a wireless handheld device, and Officer Foley looks up the young girls information. Looking at the screen she retrieves Jennifer(2015)’s address and age.
Thumbprint is a fine unimodal authenticator, but much better is multimodal biometric or multifactor authenticator to be certain of identity.
To get Jennifer into her home, the police take her to the front door of her home. They place her thumb on a small circular reader by the door. Radial LEDs circle underneath her thumb for a moment as it reads. Then a red light above the reader turns off and a green light turns on. The door unlocks and a synthesized voice says, Welcome home, Jennifer!
Similarly to the Thumbdentity, a multifactor authentication would be much more secure. The McFly family is struggling, so you might expect them to have substandard technology, but that the police are using something similar casts that in doubt.
When Coulson hands Tony a case file, it turns out to be an exciting kind of file. For carrying, it’s a large black slab. After Tony grabs it, he grabs the long edges and pulls in opposite directions. One part is a thin translucent screen that fits into an angled slot in the other part, in a laptop-like configuration, right down to a built-in keyboard.
The grip edge
The grip edge of the screen is thicker than the display, so it has a clear, physical affordance as to what part is meant to be gripped and how to pull it free from its casing, and simultaneously what end goes into the base. It’s simple and obvious. The ribbing on the grip unfortunately runs parallel to the direction of pull. It would make for a better grip and a better affordance if the grip was perpendicular to the direction of pull. Minor quibble.
I’d be worried about the ergonomics of an unadjustable display. I’d be worried about the display being easily unseated or dislodged. I’d also be worried about the strength of the join. Since there’s no give, enough force on the display might snap it clean off. But then again this is a world where “vibrium steel” exists, so material critiques may not be diegetically meaningful.
Once he pulls the display from the base, the screen boops and animated amber arcs spin around the screen, signalling him to login via a rectangular panel on the right hand side of the screen. Tony puts his four fingers in the spot and drags down. A small white graphic confirms his biometrics. As a result, a WIMP display appears in grays and amber colors.
One window on the left hand side shows a keypad, and he enters 1-8-5-4. The keypad disappears and a series of thumbnail images—portraits of members of the Avengers initiative—appear in its place. Pepper asks Tony, “What is all this?” Tony replies, saying, “This is, uh…” and in a quick gesture, places his ten fingertips on the screen at the portraits, and then throws his hands outward, off the display.
The portraits slide offscreen to become ceiling-height volumetric windows filled with rich media dossiers on Thor, Steve Rogers, and David Banner. There are videos, portraits, schematics, tables of data, cellular graphics, and maps. There’s a smaller display near the desktop where the “file” rests about the tesseract. (More on this bit in the next post.)
Insert standard complaint here about the eye strain that a translucent display causes, and the apology that yes, I understand it’s an effective and seemingly high-tech way to show actors and screens simultaneously. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.
The two-part login shows an understanding of multifactor authentication—a first in the survey, so props for that. Tony must provide something he “is”, i.e. his fingerprints, and something he knows, i.e. the passcode. Only then does the top secret information become available.
I have another standard grouse about the screen providing no affordances that content has an alternate view available, and that a secret gesture summons that view. I’d also ordinarily critique the displays for having nearly no visual hierarchy, i.e. no way for your eyes to begin making sense of it, and a lot of pointless-motion noise that pulls your attention in every which way.
But, this beat is about the wonder of the technology, the breadth of information SHIELD in its arsenal, and the surprise of familiar tech becoming epic, so I’m giving it a narrative pass.
Also, OK, Tony’s a universe-class hacker, so maybe he’s just knowledgeable/cocky enough to not need the affordances and turned them off. All that said, in my due diligence: Affordances still matter, people.
When she wonders about Chewbacca’s whereabouts, Malla first turns to the Imperial-issue Media Console. The device sits in the living space, and consists of a personal console and a large wall display. The wall display mirrors the CRT on the console. The console has a QWERTY keyboard, four dials, two gauges, a sliding card reader, a few red and green lights on the side, and a row of randomly-blinking white lights along the front.
Public Service Requests
As Malla approaches it, it is displaying an 8-bit kaleidoscope pattern and playing a standard-issue “electronics” sound. Malla presses a handful of buttons—here it’s important to note the difficulty of knowing what is being pressed when the hand we’re watching is covered in a mop—and then moves through a confusing workflow, where…
She presses five buttons
She waits a few seconds
As she is pressing four more buttons…
…the screen displays a 22-character string (a password? A channel designation?) ↑***3- ↓3&39÷ ↑%63&-:::↓
A screen flashes YOU HAVE REACHED TRAFFIC CONTROL in black letters on a yellow background
She presses a few more buttons, and another 23-character string appears on screen ↑***3- XOXOO OXOOX XOOXO-↑ (Note that the first six characters are identical to the first six characters of the prior code. What’s that mean? And what’s with all the Xs and Os? Kisses and hugs? A binary? I checked. It seems meaningless.)
An op-art psychedelic screen of orange waves on black for a few seconds
A screen flashes NO STARSHIPS IN AREA
Malla punches the air in frustration.
So the first string is, what, a channel? And how do the five buttons she pressed map to that 22 character string? A macro? Why drop to a semi-binary for one command? And are the hugs-and-kisses an instruction? Is that how you write Shyriiwook? Why would it be Latin letters and Unicode characters rather than, say, Aurebesh? Who designed this command language? This orthography? This interface? Maybe it was what this guy was assigned to do after he was relieved of duty.
When technology fails to find her sweetheart, Malla turns to her social network. She first uses her Illegal Rebel Comms device to talk to Luke and R2-D2 (next post), and afterwards, returns to the Media Console, which is back to its crappy TSR-80 BASIC-coded screen saver mode.
She taps a few keys (a macro?)
A new code appears: ↑***C- ↓&&&0- 446B°- TP%C↓
The display reads: SUB TERMINAL 4468 (or 446E or maybe 446B. It’s a square font and Malla’s hairy arm is in the way.)
She presses a few more keys
The screen displays STAND BY for a few seconds
Then the word CONNECT flashes a few times
She presses a single button
TRADING POST WOOKIE PLANET C flashes
A live camera feed displays of the trading post
So it’s actually nice to see the first 5 characters of the string be different since this is a different mode: public function (↑***3-) versus video phone (↑***C-). It made me wonder if the codes were some sort of four part IP address, but then I saw the traffic control command is only three lines, so it’s not a consistent enough pattern. So I was hoping to find some secret awesomeness, but no.
Here’s the flow chart as completed by the demoted Stormtrooper designer (translated from the Aurebesh).
Not only is the interaction terrible, but it’s not really your device anyway. The Empire can take control of these screens for government business, like paging errant Stormtroopers. In these cases, an alarm sounds in the house, and then the Empire Video Feed comes online. No bizarre character strings. No flashing text. No arbitrary key presses.
After all that, an Easy Mode
As if that wasn’t enough, the thing works differently later in the show. After he returns to the tree house, Saun uses the system to call the Imperial Officer to cover Han and Chewie’s murderous tracks with a lie. To make the call, all Saun has to do is insert an identification card, press the same key on the keyboard six times, and with no weird codes or substation identification interstitials, he is connected immediately to the Imperial officer. After the officer terminates their call, Saun presses another button a few times and removes his card. That’s it. It was almost easy.
This tells us that the system can work fairly simply. If you’re calling the Empire. Or if you’re high enough social status and have the card to prove it. This technology just sucks. Maybe this is why the rebellion started.
After ditching Chewie, Boba Fett heads to a public video phone to make a quick report to his boss who turns out to be…Darth Vader (this was a time long before the Expanded Universe/Legends, so there was really only one villain to choose from).
To make the call, he approaches an alcove off an alley. The alcove has a screen with an orange bezel, and a small panel below it with a 12-key number panel to the left, a speaker, and a vertical slot. Below that is a set of three phone books. For our young readers, phone books are an ancient technology in which telephone numbers were printed in massive books, and copies kept at every public phone for reference by a caller.
After Joe confronts Beth and she calls for help, Joe is taken to a police station where in addition to the block, he now has a GPS-informed restraining order against him.
To confirm the order, Joe has to sign is name to a paper and then press his thumbprints into rectangles along the bottom. The design of the form is well done, with a clearly indicated spot for his signature, and large touch areas in which he might place his thumbs for his thumbprints to be read.
A scary thing in the interface is that the text of what he’s signing is still appearing while he’s providing his thumbprints. Of course the page could be on a loop that erases and redisplays the text repeatedly for emphasis. But, if it was really downloading and displaying it for the first time to draw his attention, then he has provided his signature and thumbprints too early. He doesn’t yet know what he’s signing.
Government agencies work like this all the time and citizens comply because they have no choice. But ideally, if he tried to sign or place his thumbprints before seeing all the text of what he’s signing, it would be better for the interface to reject his signature with a note that he needs to finish reading the text before he can confirm he has read and understands it. Otherwise, if the data shows that he authenticated it before the text appeared, I’d say he had a pretty good case to challenge the order in court.
The OmniBro is the ubiquitous payment and identification system in Idiocracy. We see it four times in the movie.
Dr. Lexus asks Joe to pay for his visit, “…if you could just go ahead and, like, put your tattoo in that shit.” In this case, that shit is a barcode scanner mounted to the back of a desktop register. We don’t get to see it in use, because as described in the prior post, Dr. Lexus freaks out, realizing Joe is unscannable and hitting the panic button.
Another time we see the OmniBro is in the prison. After talking his way past the guard, another guard at a checkout counter has him scan his new tattoo. The guard checks the screen and tells him, “Uh. Yeah, I don’t see you in here. So you’re going to have to…uh…stay in prison.” Joe says, “Could you check again, because I was definitely in prison. OK. I got sat on my face and everything. Maybe check those files back there?” The guard turns, and Joe runs. There’s admittedly a post in there about prison security and release (and America has a lot to improve, especially in its reprehensible prison-for-profit systems), but this post is about the OmniBro.
The third time we see it is at the Carl’s Junior kiosk. (More on the whole system in the next post.) Though the customer appears to have already scanned, it is how anyone ordering food pays for it.
If I had to note the positives of the OmniBro system, it is that it seems easy for even morons to explain, understand, and use. Wrists are more commonly pointed down, so it’s a little more deliberate to have to turn the wrist up to pay. So adding to its ease-of-use is some measure of biology against accidental activation.
And it’s ubiquitous, so a citizen of Idiocracy doesn’t need a credit card totem to know whether or not a vendor accepts their money. There are airlines and even a restaurant that I know of in San Francisco that only accept credit cards, and it’s disgusting. (Yes, yes, I know what the Department of the Treasury says, but I think it’s gross, classist, and corporatist to require your customers first have a relationship with a credit card company before you’ll do business with them.) So I suppose that aspect encourages an easy-to-access marketplace.
So, the good: It’s usable, sterile, and ubiquitous.
Where to start? Well, certainly it’s horrible that participation in the economy requires a permanent body modification. I’m not at all religious, but I agree wholeheartedly with the admonishment against any totalitarian “mark of the beast” just to participate in culture, for all the body autonomy and social justice reasons that one should be against it. (Before anyone gets their apophenia into an uproar about biblical meanings, you can relax. Idiocracy’s tattoos are on the wrong hand.)
You might imagine that the mark signals some sort of ingroup membership, but if everyone in Idiocracy has one, there’s no real outgroup.
Still, it raises lots of questions about the choice of a tattoo:
Skin stretches and changes as time wears on. Tattoos get sun blurred (and the wrist gets a lot more sun exposure than other areas.) What happens to a citizen when their barcode no longer works? The tattoo machine (a post on this later) looks like it only tattoos in one place, so another visit won’t fix it, and likely would make matters worse. Is there some do-over machine?
What about people who don’t have a left wrist? (The machine can only work on left arms.) What about people who get the tattoo but later lose their left arm?
Where’s any other factor for multifactor authentication? Cash fails this as well, but if you are robbed of your cash, at least you still have an arm left to try and acquire some more.
What’s awful, though, is the fourth time we see it in the movie.
Rando vending surveillance
When fleeing the police with Freeto and Rita in Frito’s car, Joe accidentally makes the mistake of raising his tattooed wrist above the door frame, where it is scanned through the window by a vending machine he happens to be passing. The scan identifies Joe and the car he’s in, and something sends a shutdown signal to Frito’s car. (More on the car interface a later post.)
Ease-to-consume is concomitant with ease-to-surveil. Sure, the citizen doesn’t have to carry cash, do rudimentary math, or remember their bank balance, but in exchange they leave themselves open to constant tracking and identification. In the movie this just means it’s easy to find Joe. They’re comparatively dumb enough to make his escape the stuff of comedy.
But in our world, where the forces that market you away from your money are vastly more funded, equipped, and dedicated to their task than you, this tradeoff winds up putting Americans in a terrible debt load that may be *gasp* worse than Italy’s by 2023. (Sorry, dear Italian friends.) Combine this debt load with the health gamble and 40-year stagnant wages, and it seems like the tradeoff only an idiot would take. But hey, it’s easy to wave your phone for a fix at Starbucks, so what am I going on about, right?
Fight the Idiocracy
The Bloomberg article about American debt load includes this tasty paragraph, “While Trump and congressional Republicans raised alarms about the debt and deficit when Democrat Barack Obama was president, spending hasn’t abated with the GOP in control of the White House and Congress.”
I wanted with this post to convince you to give out Cards Against Humanity’s Vote Worms, but they’re already sold out. So instead I’ll point you to their smart Hacks the Election campaign, which did not do as well on launch, but would definitely have more effect if it sold out. If you are in or know someone in one of the following swing districts, definitely check this out.