Zorg bomb

TheFifthElement-ZorgBomb-001

When Zorg believes he has recovered the sacred stones, he affixes a bomb to the door of Plavalaguna’s suite. The bomb is a little larger than a credit card, with a slot at the top for a key card to be dropped in. The front of the bomb houses all the buttons and lights. The bottom and top edges are rounded back.

The interface for the bomb is quite simple. Zorg presses three large, transparent buttons along the top in order from left to right to activate the bomb. These buttons glow bright red during the countdown. Below these buttons, four red LEDs blink in succession counting off quarter seconds. At the bottom of the display a 4-character, 7-segment timer counts down from the time set: 20 minutes. The device audibly ticks off each second as it passes.

timebomb

Activation

An (adhesive? magnetic?) backing lets Zorg simply place the bomb on the wall to affix it there. Zorg presses the three large buttons in order from left to right to activate it and start the countdown.

Activation analysis

The bomber is after simple activation, but also wants very much to avoid accidental activation. Pressing the buttons in order might happen accidentally, for example from a tire or foot rolling across it. Better would be to have the activation code something much less likely to happen accidentally, like 1-3-2 or 2-3-1.

There’s also a question of whether a bomber would put giant glowing lights, reflective yellow tape, or an audible tick on the bomb (LEDs, if you didn’t know, don’t come with a ticking sound built in.) Each of these draws attention to the bomb, giving helpless victims time to evacuate, alert the authorities, or inform any explosive ordnance disposal personnel that happen to be wandering by. Yes, Zorg wants the bomb to explode, but only after a certain time, so he can get away. He should affix the bomb in some hidden place and design it with a less attention-getting display to suit his fiendish goals.

TheFifthElement-ZorgBomb-003

Deactivation

Once Zorg realizes that the box he stole was empty, he returns to the Fhloston Paradise liner to look for the stones. His first task is to deactivate the bomb. To do this he pulls out a keycard, and gingerly holds it above the bomb. His caution and nervousness implies that it has a jostle-sensitive anti-handling sensors, and that if he bumped it, it would go off. Fortunately for him, he manages to slip the card in without jostling the bomb, and sure enough, it stops with five seconds to go.

TheFifthElement-ZorgBomb-006

Deactivation analysis

The keycard is a mostly-smart deactivation strategy. As we can see, Zorg is quite nervous during the deactivation, and in such high-stress times, it’s better to rely on an object than a stressed villain’s memory for something like a password. The card is thin like a credit card and can fit in a wallet, so it’s easy to carry around. There’s a risk that the card could be misplaced, but the importance of the key will ensure that Zorg will keep track of it. There’s a risk it could be ruined and become useless, but we can presume Zorg made it with tough, ruggedized materials.

The problem with the shape is one of orientation. There are four ways a card can be oriented to a slot, and looking at the card, there is no clear indication of the correct one. The copper circuitry printed on both sides is asymmetrical, so it’s at least possible to tell the current orientation. Perhaps this is the “password” that the system requires, and the random stranger picking it up only has a one in four chance of getting it right.

Fortunately for Zorg, he remembers the correct orientation, and is able to stop the bomb.

TheFifthElement-ZorgBomb-007

Or, this bomb, anyway.

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Chat follow-up: Ultimate Weapon Against Evil & Constraints

The live chat of the O’Reilly webinar that Christopher delivered on 18 April 2013 had some great questions, but not all of them made it out of the chat room and onto the air. I’m taking a short break from the release of the sci-fi survey to answer some of those questions.

Q: Dennis Ward asks: There’s a gaff in The Fifth Element scene referenced—Corbin Dallas places one of the stones upsidedown relative to the other three. Is that a constraint issue?

5E-up

Yes and no.

Yes, if the stones could be placed on their pedestals in the wrong way. You wouldn’t want to design the weapon such that that were possible. As we saw, seconds count, and the stakes are pretty high. (c.f. Ultimate Evil.) Constraints, as Don Norman defined them in The Design of Everyday Things, would be one way to fix that. For example, you could widen one end of the stones so they were too large to fit in the pedestal the wrong way.

But (and here’s the “no”) it turns out that in The Ultimate Weapon Against Evil, the stones work whichever way they’re inserted. Take a look at the scene and though the stones aren’t all oriented the same way, i.e. pattern- or smooth-side up, they all work. (There is a third possibility, that orientation does matter, but they just got lucky in orienting them correctly. The odds of getting this right the first time is just over 6%, so we can discount this.)

5E-down

This is a superior design solution since it eliminates the need for the user to worry about orientation. Let’s call the pattern Make Orientation a Non-Issue.

But wait, we’re not done. We shouldn’t disregard the fact that you perceived it as a gaff. The design of the object signaled to you that there was an orientation that mattered. So yes, let’s keep the stones the same basic shape such that orientation is a non-issue, but one small improvement would be to have the visual design match the interaction design: The patterns should be symmetrical, perhaps completely covering each long side of the stones. That way, anyone wondering how they fit the pedestals wouldn’t falsely perceive that there is an orientation issue when there really isn’t one.

Thanks for this question, by the way. The Fifth Element is one of the first I reviewed for the Make It So survey since it’s one of my favorite sci-fi movies of all time. It makes me want to post that one next. I’ve got other plans, though, so perhaps after that. 🙂

UPDATE ————————————–

Since writing this post, I’ve done deeper analysis on this topic. See the Pilot episode of Sci Fi University for an even better and more thorough answer to this question.

HYPSP>S020

In addition to the biometric readout at the foot of the hypersleep chamber, David can also check on the humans in hypersleep via direct visual contact. Though the walls of these chambers are ordinarily opaque, by placing his hand on a corner, David can cause the walls become translucent and the top becomes transparent. This allows him to directly view the body to check on a hypersleeper’s appearance, while maintaining some privacy for the hypersleeper from other straying eyes in the area.

The topmost surface of the chamber also has a translucent interface displaying such information as the sleeper’s name, labeled CRYO SLEEP; something called DREAM STATE, which is numerical (Shaw’s is 0560-09797?); and a few other pieces of inscrutable data.

There are a number of problems with this interface. The translucent interface might be a good idea because it would reduce the time between looking at abstractions of data and looking at a subject. But the data shown on the interface is not clearly biometric. (A solid argument can be made that it would be better to swap the data found on this screen and the data seen in the HYP.SL screen at the head of the bed.) In this case, since the data is not biometric, the overlay might actually occlude important outward signs and is therefore a bit misplaced.

Additionally, since the chambers are situated with their feet towards the wall, the orientation of the typography seems to have poor usability as well. For optimal reading in this portrait orientation, a viewer would have to go as far out of his way as possible in the space. This information should have been laid out along the landscape orientation of the pane, and the information moved to the edge such that an unhindered visual scan of the sleeper is possible.

I was at first confused about a feature of the chambers seen later in the movie, when David is surprised to find evidence that Meredith has exited her chamber and walked to her quarters, long ahead of the others. Why was he surprised? If you were designing a system for a caretaker, wouldn’t you want him to know when something as major as that occurs? Then I realized that Meredith outranks and is resentful of David, so it’s entirely likely that if she could, she would enjoy configuring her personal program to wake her ahead of the others and disable any notification that David would ordinarily receive.