The Thanatorium: A beneficiary’s experience

The thanatorium is a speculative service for assisted suicide in Soylent Green. Suicide and death are not easy topics and I will do my best to address them seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.

There are four experiences to look at in the interface and service design of the Thanatorium: The patient, their beneficiaries, the usher, and the attendants to the patient. This post is about the least complicated of the bunch, the beneficiaries.

Thorn’s experience

We have to do a little extrapolation here because the way we see it in the movie is not the way we imagine it would work normally. What we see is Thorn entering the building and telling staff there to take him to Sol. He is escorted to an observation room labeled “beneficiaries only” by an usher. (Details about the powerful worldbuilding present in this label can be found in the prior post.) Sol has already drunk the “hemlock” drink by the time Thorn enters this room, so Sol is already dying and the robed room attendants have already left.

Aaand I just noticed that the walls are the same color as the Soylent. Ewww.

This room has a window view of the “theater” proper, with an interface mounted just below the window. At the top of this interface is a mounted microphone. Directly below is an intercom speaker beside a large status alert labeled SPEAKING PERMITTED. When we first see the panel this indicator is off. At the bottom is a plug for headphones to the left, a slot for a square authorization key, and in the middle, a row of square, backlit toggle buttons labeled PORTAL, EFFECTS, CHAMBER 2, AUDIO, VISUAL, and CHAMBER 1. When the Sol is mid-show, EFFECTS and VISUAL are the only buttons that are lit.

When the usher closes the viewing window, explaining that it’s against policy for beneficiaries to view the ceremony, Thorn…uh…chokes him in order to persuade him to let him override the policy.


“Persuaded,” the usher puts his authorization key back in the slot. The window opens again. Thorn observes the ceremony in awe, having never seen the beautiful Earth of Sol’s youth. He mutters “I didn’t know” and “How could I?” as he watches. Sol tries weakly to tell Thorn something, but the speaker starts glitching, with the SPEAKING PERMITTED INDICATOR flashing on and off. Thorn, helpfully, pounds his fist on the panel and demands that the usher do something to fix it. The user gives Thorn wired earbuds and Thorn continues his conversation. (Extradiegetically, is this so they didn’t have to bother with the usher’s overhearing the conversation? I don’t understand this beat.) The SPEAKING PERMITTED light glows a solid red and they finish their conversation.

Yes, that cable jumps back and forth like that in the movie during the glitch. It was a simpler time.

Sol dies, and the lights come up in the chamber. Two assistants come to push the gurney along a track through a hidden door. Some mechanism in the floor catches the gurney, and the cadaver is whisked away from Thorn’s sight.

Regular experience?

So that’s Thorns corrupt, thuggish cop experience of the thanatorium. Let’s now make some educated guesses about what this might imply for the regular, non-thug experience for beneficiaries.

  1. The patient and beneficiaries enter the building and greeted by staff.
  2. They wait in queue in the lobby for their turn.
  3. The patient is taken by attendants to the “theater” and the beneficiaries taken by the usher to the observation room.
  4. Beneficiaries witness the drinking of the hemlock.
  5. The patient has a moment to talk with the beneficiaries and say their final farewells.
  6. The viewing window is closed as the patient watches the “cinerama” display and dies. The beneficiaries wait quietly in the observation room with the usher.
  7. The viewing window is opened as they watch the attendants wheel the body into the portal.
  8. They return to the lobby to sign some documents for benefits and depart.

So, some UX questions/backworlding

We have to backworld some of the design rationales involved to ground critique and design improvements. After all, design is the optimization of a system for a set of effects, and we want to be certain about what effects we’re targeting. So…

Why would beneficiaries be separated from the patient?

I imagine that the patient might take comfort from holding the hands or being near their loved ones (even if that set didn’t perfectly overlap with their beneficiaries). So why is there a separate viewing room? There are a handful of reasons I can imagine, only one of which is really satisfying.

Maybe it’s to prevent the spread of disease? Certainly given our current multiple pandemics, we understand the need for physical separation in a medical setting. But the movie doesn’t make any fuss about disease being a problem (though with 132,000 people crammed into every square mile of the New York City metropolitan area you’d figure it would be), and in Sol’s case, there’s zero evidence in the film that he’s sick. Why does the usher resist the request from Thorn if this was the case? And why wouldn’t the attendants be in some sort of personal protective gear?

Maybe it’s to hide the ugly facts of dying? Real death is more disconcerting to see than most people are familiar with (take the death rattle as one example) and witnessing it might discourage other citizens from opting-in for the same themselves. But, we see that Sol just passes peacefully from the hemlock drink, so this isn’t really at play here.

Maybe it’s to keep the cinerama experience hidden? It’s showing pictures of an old, bountiful earth that—in the diegesis—no longer exists. Thorn says in the movie that he’s too young to know what “old earth” was like, so maybe this society wants to prevent false hope? Or maybe to prevent rioting, should the truth of How Far We’ve Fallen get out? Or maybe it’s considered a reward for patients opting-in to suicide, thereby creating a false scarcity to further incentivize people to opt-in themselves? None of this is super compelling, and we have to ask, why does the usher give in and open the viewport if any of this was the case?

That blue-green in the upper left of this still is the observation booth.

So, maybe it’s to prevent beneficiaries from trying to interfere with the suicide. This society would want impediments against last-minute shouts of, “Wait! Don’t do it!” There’s some slight evidence against this, as when Sol is drinking the Hemlock, the viewing port is wide open, so beneficiaries might have pounded on the window if this was standard operating procedure. But its being open might have been an artifact of Sol’s having walked in without any beneficiaries. Maybe the viewport is ordinarily closed until after the hemlock, opened for final farewells, closed for the cinerama, and opened again to watch as the body is sped away?

Ecstasy Meat

This rationale supports another, more horrible argument. What if the reason is that Soylent (the company) wants the patient to have an uninterrupted dopamine and seratonin hit at the point of dying, so those neurotransmitters are maximally available in the “meat” before processing? (Like how antibiotics get passed along to meat-eaters in industrialized food today.) It would explain why they ask Sol for his favorite color in the lobby. Yes it is for his pleasure, but not for humane reasons. It’s so he can be at his happiest at the point of death. Dopamine and seratonin would make the resulting product, Soylent green, more pleasurable and addictive to consumers. That gives an additional rationale as to why beneficiaries would be prevented from speaking—it would distract from patients’ intense, pleasurable experience of the cinerama.

A quickly-comped up speculative banner ad reading “You want to feel GOOD GOOD. Load up on Soylent Green today!”
Now, with more Clarendon.

For my money, the “ecstasy meat” rationale reinforces and makes worse the movie’s Dark Secret, so I’m going to go with that. Without this rationale, I’d say rewrite the scene so beneficiaries are in the room with the patient. But with this rationale, let’s keep the rooms separate.

Beneficiary interfaces

Which leads us to rethinking this interface.

Beneficiary interfaces

A first usability note is that the SPEAKING PERMITTED indicator is very confusing. The white text on a black background looks like speaking is, currently, permitted. But then the light behind it illuminates and I guess, then speaking is permitted? But wait, the light is red, so does that mean it’s not permitted, or is? And then adding to the confusion, it blinks. Is that the glitching, or some third state? Can we send this to its own interface thanatorium? So to make this indicator more usable, we could do a couple of things.

  • Put a ring of lights around the microphone and grill. When illuminated, speaking is permitted. This presumes that the audience can infer what these lights mean, and isn’t accessible to unsighted users, but I don’t think the audio glitch is a major plot point that needs that much reinforcing; see above. If the execs just have to have it crystal clear, then you could…
  • Have two indicators, one reading SPEAKING PERMITTED and another reading SILENCE PLEASE, with one or the other always lit. If you had to do it on the cheap, they don’t need to be backlit panels, but just two labeled indicator lamps would do.

And no effing blinking.


I think part of the affective purpose of the interface is to show how cold and mechanistic the thanatorium’s treatment of people are. To keep that, you could add another indicator light on the panel labeled somewhat cryptically, PATIENT. Have it illuminated until Sol passes, and then have a close up shot when it fades, indicating his death.

Ah, yes, good to have a reminder that’s why he’s a critic and not a working FUI designer.

A note on art direction. It would be in Soylent’s and our-real-world interest to make this interface feel as humane as possible. Maybe less steel and backlit toggles? Then again, this world is operating on fumes, so they would make do with what’s available. So this should also feel a little more strung together, maybe with some wires sticking out held together with electrical tape and tape holding the audio jack in place.

Last note on the accommodations. What are the beneficiaries supposed to do while the patient is watching the cinerama display? Stand there and look awkward? Let’s get some seats in here and pipe the patient’s selection of music in. That way they can listen and think of the patient in the next room.

If you really want it to feel extradiegetically heartless, put a clock on the wall by the viewing window that beneficiaries can check.

Once we simplify this panel and make the room make design sense, we have to figure out what to do with the usher’s interface elements that we’ve just removed, and that’s the next post.

Sci-fi Spacesuits: Moving around

Whatever it is, it ain’t going to construct, observe, or repair itself. In addition to protection and provision, suits must facilitate the reason the wearer has dared to go out into space in the first place.

One of the most basic tasks of extravehicular activity (EVA) is controlling where the wearer is positioned in space. The survey shows several types of mechanisms for this. First, if your EVA never needs you to leave the surface of the spaceship, you can go with mountaineering gear or sticky feet. (Or sticky hands.) We can think of maneuvering through space as similar to piloting a craft, but the outputs and interfaces have to be made wearable, like wearable control panels. We might also expect to see some tunnel in the sky displays to help with navigation. We’d also want to see some AI safeguard features, to return the spacewalker to safety when things go awry. (Narrator: We don’t.)

Mountaineering gear

In Stowaway (2021) astronauts undertake unplanned EVAs with carabiners and gear akin to mountaineers use. This makes some sense, though even this equipment needs to be modified for use by astronauts’ thick gloves.

Stowaway (2021) Drs Kim and Levinson prepare to scale to the propellant tank.

Sticky feet (and hands)

Though it’s not extravehicular, I have to give a shout out to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), where we see a flight attendant manage their position in the microgravity with special shoes that adhere to the floor. It’s a lovely example of a competent Hand Wave. We don’t need to know how it works because it says, right there, “Grip shoes.” Done. Though props to the actress Heather Downham, who had to make up a funny walk to illustrate that it still isn’t like walking on earth.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1969)
Pan Am: “Thank god we invented the…you know, whatever shoes.

With magnetic boots, seen in Destination Moon, the wearer simply walks around and manages the slight awkwardness of having to pull a foot up with extra force, and have it snap back down on its own.

Battlestar Galactica added magnetic handgrips to augment the control provided by magnetized boots. With them, Sergeant Mathias is able to crawl around the outside of an enemy vessel, inspecting it. While crawling, she holds grip bars mounted to circles that contain the magnets. A mechanism for turning the magnet off is not seen, but like these portable electric grabbers, it could be as simple as a thumb button.

Iron Man also had his Mark 50 suit form stabilizing suction cups before cutting a hole in the hull of the Q-Ship.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

In the electromagnetic version of boots, seen in Star Trek: First Contact, the wearer turns the magnets on with a control strapped to their thigh. Once on, the magnetization seems to be sensitive to the wearer’s walk, automatically lessening when the boot is lifted off. This gives the wearer something of a natural gait. The magnetism can be turned off again to be able to make microgravity maneuvers, such as dramatically leaping away from Borg minions.

Star Trek: Discovery also included this technology, but with what appears to be a gestural activation and a cool glowing red dots on the sides and back of the heel. The back of each heel has a stack of red lights that count down to when they turn off, as, I guess, a warning to anyone around them that they’re about to be “air” borne.

Quick “gotcha” aside: neither Destination Moon nor Star Trek: First Contact bothers to explain how characters are meant to be able to kneel while wearing magnetized boots. Yet this very thing happens in both films.

Destination Moon (1950): Kneeling on the surface of the spaceship.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996): Worf rises from operating the maglock to defend himself.

Controlled Propellant

If your extravehicular task has you leaving the surface of the ship and moving around space, you likely need a controlled propellant. This is seen only a few times in the survey.

In the film Mission to Mars, the manned mobility unit, or MMU, seen in the film is based loosely on NASA’s MMU. A nice thing about the device is that unlike the other controlled propellant interfaces, we can actually see some of the interaction and not just the effect. The interfaces are subtly different in that the Mission to Mars spacewalkers travel forward and backward by angling the handgrips forward and backward rather than with a joystick on an armrest. This seems like a closer mapping, but also seems more prone to error by accidental touching or bumping into something.

The plus side is an interface that is much more cinegenic, where the audience is more clearly able to see the cause and effect of the spacewalker’s interactions with the device.

If you have propellent in a Moh’s 4 or 5 film, you might need to acknowledge that propellant is a limited resource. Over the course of the same (heartbreaking) scene shown above, we see an interface where one spacewalker monitors his fuel, and another where a spacewalker realizes that she has traveled as far as she can with her MMU and still return to safety.

Mission to Mars (2000): Woody sees that he’s out of fuel.

For those wondering, Michael Burnham’s flight to the mysterious signal in that pilot uses propellant, but is managed and monitored by controllers on Discovery, so it makes sense that we don’t see any maneuvering interfaces for her. We could dive in and review the interfaces the bridge crew uses (and try to map that onto a spacesuit), but we only get snippets of these screens and see no controls.

Iron Man’s suits employ some Phlebotinum propellant that lasts for ever, can fit inside his tailored suit, and are powerful enough to achieve escape velocity.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

All-in-all, though sci-fi seems to understand the need for characters to move around in spacesuits, very little attention is given to the interfaces that enable it. The Mission to Mars MMU is the only one with explicit attention paid to it, and that’s quite derived from NASA models. It’s an opportunity for film makers should the needs of the plot allow, to give this topic some attention.

St. God’s: Intake

In their forecasting workshops, the Institute for the Future trains practitioners to sensitize themselves to “signals,” something that may seem banal but on reflection foretells great change or deep meaning. That story about the arctic penguins who accepted a furry remote controlled camera as a chick is one of mine. Still wrestling with its implications. This interface is another.

After Joe walks past the FloorMaster and Insurance Slot Machines, he finally makes it up to the triage desk. It’s labeled CHECK-IN, and the sign devotes a large portion of its space to advertising. He speaks to the employee there, named Biggiez, who blankly listens to him talk about how he’s feeling. As he talks, she looks down at a wide panel of buttons, floating her pointing finger above the unlabeled icons that kind-of describe common ailments.

When Joe says, “I don’t even know where I am,” she finally pushes an icon featuring a stick figure, shrugging, with two question marks floating in the space beside its sad face. In response, it lights up, we hear a ding, and a SMARTSPEEK device on Biggiez’ blouse says, “Please proceed to the diagnostic area on the right…and have a healthy day.” Joe moves on to the diagnosis bay, which I’ll discuss in the next post.


A shout-out to these icons

While I normally stick to the canon of what actually appears in the final edit, these are hilarious, and the designer has published the lot of them online, so feast your sense of humor on the whole smörgåsbord.

Behold them. They are, literally, 9 kinds of funny.

  1. Some are slapstick. Squirting hole in butt cheek. Hole in gut. Ow, my balls.
  2. Some point to the stupidity of the patients. Baby drop. Things-what-damaged-my-head (lightning, knife, nail, gun, bump). All the evisceration.
  3. Some point to the stupidity of the maker of the panel. Options for gender include and are limited to (rather than, say, the much more reasonable 63:
    • I cannot tell. (Alternately: They are feeling gender dysphoria.)
    • They are hermaphroditic/intersexed.
    • They are a female to male transsexual.
  4. Some point to not-hospital problems. Feeling angry.
  5. Some point to not-problems. Thinking of atoms. I recycled.
  6. Some are nigh-impossible. Hello, I am dead by decapitation. Have I drowned? I am in such pain that I have gained a third eye.
  7. Some show how slipshod the QA on this thing was. Two left/right arrows (when there’s nothing), two guns-to-head
  8. Unhelpful nuance. My arm is chopped off. My leg is chopped off. My scalp, arm, and lower leg are chopped off.
  9. Some are inscrutable. An asterisk. A takete (with no baluba). Updown.

That’s graphics carrying quite a bit of comedy load here. Readers interested in behind-the-scenes will like to know they were made by designer Ellen Lampl. (A significant portion of her portfolio is film graphics, so be sure to check it out.) In 2014 she had an interview with Phil Edwards which you can read on, where she tells more about her process.


The set is even funnier because of course how could the breadth of human problems be reduced down to 48? (And these 48.) There are 14,400 codes in IDC-10 alone. What is Biggiez supposed to do if Joe was complaining about being struck by duck? IDC can handle that. (No really.)

But aside from praising the comedy, let me do my due diligence and discuss four (off the top of my head) improvements that could be made if this was a real system. Even for morons.

How about labels?

Yeah. Not a single one of them are labeled, introducing way too much ambiguity. Labels don’t always provide the specificity they need, but not having them on icons practically assures it.

Allow multiple ailments

Another failing of the panel is that is doesn’t appear to handle multiple ailments. In fact, Joe complains about hallucinations (R443), a headache (R51), and aching joints (need some help with that one, but her finger is so close to the knee icon), but she only indicates the one about confusion. You’d hope there was some way for her to touch an icon for every ailment, and then submit them but that just doesn’t seem to be the case. Maybe patients just have to keep coming back to check-in to care of each thing, one at a time.

Rank urgency

The purpose of triage is first to rank the urgency of the need medical care. The gal with the baby dropping needs to be seen now, but the gal who just has some questions can wait over there for a while. How would this panel code urgency?


Urgency might be just part of the code (gun to head less than knife buried in head), but that would mean this panel would have to have separate icons for light scratch to the scalp and a gaping free flowing head wound, and they just don’t require the same levels of attention.

The panel seems to have a simple pain scale on the left of [happy | sad | neutral], but since Biggiez doesn’t touch them, it’s not clear that these work like a chorded button or some separate code for someone who comes in complaining about their base emotional state.


A better system would let you identify the problem and pain scale separately, as different facets of the complaint.

Chunk stuff

Just to make sure I’m saying the 101 layout principle: if you really had a panel of flat options, chunking them into groups helps the user understand, recall, and find items.


This points to an opportunity

So of course there are lots of reasons why this is funny as hell, breaking lots of fundamentals for a funny, body-horror kind of joke while Joe figures things out.

But I think the reason this interface has really stuck with me is that it would pass a usability test. As in, Biggiez finds it perfectly easy to use. She can scan the icons, tell them apart, select one with ease. Hell, the SMARTSPEEK even makes sure she can’t mess up telling the patient what to do next. This would get a very high Net Promoter Score. It would do well on any self-reporting satisfaction measure. And it still sucks.


Sure, it would fail an efficacy test, but what if we took on the hubris of rethinking the role of the interface here. To the point, this interface lets Biggiez just stay dumb. (And we have way too much of that in the world as it is.) What if it could make Biggiez smarter?

First draft: What if two nurses listened to the patient’s complaints side-by-side, and their codings were only revealed to each other when they’d both completed them. Then, as the patient went through diagnosis, a fedback loop rewarded the nurse who was most correct. The reward could be money, or rankings amongst peers, or almost anything really? Biggiez would have incentives to not just do the task (or have the task done for her.) She would have incentives to get better and smarter at her job.

This may not be the best actual design proposal, but I’m intrigued by this possibility. What if our interfaces could make everyone who used them smarter? Faster? Stronger? (Musical break.) What if every technology was like this? With technology everywhere, what if technology made us better instead of treated us like petri dishes for colonizing?

I am thinking about it.

Fighting Idiocracy

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Escape pod weapons cache

I wish that the last Starship Troopers interface wasn’t this one, but so it goes.

After piloting the escape pod through the atmosphere using the meager interfaces she has to work with, it careens off of a hill to pierce the thin wall of a mountainside and landing Ibanez and Barcalow squarely in the dangerous depths of bug burrows.

After checking on Ibanez, Barcalow exits the pod and struts around to the back of it, where he pulls open a panel to access the weapons within.

So equipped, the pair are able to defend themselves at least a few moments before being overwhelmed by superior bug numbers.


So. OK. This.

I want to ask why, in the first place, they would get out of a vehicle that can survive space, re-entry, breaking through a frakking mountainside, and crash landing without so much as a scratch. If they’d stayed there, would the bugs have been able to get at them? Couldn’t staying inside of it given them at least a fighting chance until Rico got there? The glass didn’t break when slammed at terminal velocity into stone. I think it can handle bug pincers. But I digress. that’s a question of character logic, not interfaces, so let me put that aside.

Instead, let me ask about the design rationale of putting the weapons in an exterior compartment. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put them inside the pod? If they’d landed with hostiles present outside the vehicle, what was the plan, ask them to hold on while you grabbed something from the trunk?

Additionally, it appears that there are no security features. Barcalow just opens it. Silly seeming, of course, but that’s how it should work, i.e., for the right person it just opens up. So in the spirit of apologetics—and giving it way more credit than it’s earned across this film—let’s presume that the pod has some passive authentication mechanism that biometrically checks him at a distance and unlocks the panel so that he doesn’t even have to think about it, especially in this crisis scenario.

That’s an apologetics gift from me to you, Starship Troopers, since I still have a soft spot in my heart for you.

Otto’s Manual Control



When it refused to give up authority, the Captain wrested control of the Axiom from the artificial intelligence autopilot, Otto. Otto’s body is the helm wheel of the ship and fights back against the Captain. Otto wants to fulfil BNL’s orders to keep the ship in space. As they fight, the Captain dislodges a cover panel for Otto’s off-switch. When the captain sees the switch, he immediately realizes that he can regain control of the ship by deactivating Otto. After fighting his way to the switch and flipping it, Otto deactivates and reverts to a manual control interface for the ship.

The panel of buttons showing Otto’s current status next to the on/off switch deactivates half its lights when the Captain switches over to manual. The dimmed icons are indicating which systems are now offline. Effortlessly, the captain then returns the ship to its proper flight path with a quick turn of the controls.

One interesting note is the similarity between Otto’s stalk control keypad, and the keypad on the Eve Pod. Both have the circular button in the middle, with blue buttons in a semi-radial pattern around it. Given the Eve Pod’s interface, this should also be a series of start-up buttons or option commands. The main difference here is that they are all lit, where the Eve Pod’s buttons were dim until hit. Since every other interface on the Axiom glows when in use, it looks like all of Otto’s commands and autopilot options are active when the Captain deactivates him.

A hint of practicality…

The panel is in a place that is accessible and would be easily located by service crew or trained operators. Given that the Axiom is a spaceship, the systems on board are probably heavily regulated and redundant. However, the panel isn’t easily visible thanks to specific decisions by BNL. This system makes sense for a company that doesn’t think people need or want to deal with this kind of thing on their own.

Once the panel is open, the operator has a clear view of which systems are on, and which are off. The major downside to this keypad (like the Eve Pod) is that the coding of the information is obscure. These cryptic buttons would only be understandable for a highly trained operator/programmer/setup technician for the system. Given the current state of the Axiom, unless the crew were to check the autopilot manual, it is likely that no one on board the ship knows what those buttons mean anymore.


Thankfully, the most important button is in clear English. We know English is important to BNL because it is the language of the ship and the language seen being taught to the new children on board. Anyone who had an issue with the autopilot system and could locate the button, would know which button press would turn Otto off (as we then see the Captain immediately do).

Considering that Buy-N-Large’s mission is to create robots to fill humans’ every need, saving them from every tedious or unenjoyable job (garbage collecting, long-distance transportation, complex integrated systems, sports), it was both interesting and reassuring to see that there are manual over-rides on their mission-critical equipment.

…But hidden

The opposite situation could get a little tricky though. If the ship was in manual mode, with the door closed, and no qualified or trained personnel on the bridge, it would be incredibly difficult for them to figure out how to physically turn the ship back to auto-pilot. A hidden emergency control is useless in an emergency.

Hopefully, considering the heavy use of voice recognition on the ship, there is a way for the ship to recognize an emergency situation and quickly take control. We know this is possible because we see the ship completely take over and run through a Code Green procedure to analyze whether Eve had actually returned a plant from Earth. In that instance, the ship only required a short, confused grunt from the Captain to initiate a very complex procedure.

Security isn’t an issue here because we already know that the Axiom screens visitors to the bridge (the Gatekeeper). By tracking who is entering the bridge using the Axiom’s current systems, the ship would know who is and isn’t allowed to activate certain commands. The Gatekeeper would either already have this information coded in, or be able to activate it when he allowed people into the bridge.

For very critical emergencies, a system that could recognize a spoken ‘off’ command from senior staff or trained technicians on the Axiom would be ideal.

Anti-interaction as Standard Operating Procedure


The hidden door, and the obscure hard-wired off button continue the mission of Buy-N-Large: to encourage citizens to give up control for comfort, and make it difficult to undo that decision. Seeing as how the citizens are more than happy to give up that control at first, it looks like profitable assumption for Buy-N-Large, at least in the short term. In the long term we can take comfort that the human spirit–aided by an adorable little robot–will prevail.

So for BNL’s goals, this interface is fairly well designed. But for the real world, you would want some sort of graceful degradation that would enable qualified people to easily take control in an emergency. Even the most highly trained technicians appreciate clearly labeled controls and overrides so that they can deal directly with the problem at hand rather than fighting with the interface.

The Gatekeeper


After the security ‘bot brings Eve across the ship (with Wall-e in tow), he arrives at the gatekeeper to the bridge. The Gatekeeper has the job of entering information about ‘bots, or activating and deactivating systems (labeled with “1”s and “0”s) into a pedestal keyboard with two small manipulator arms. It’s mounted on a large, suspended shaft, and once it sees the security ‘bot and confirms his clearance, it lets the ‘bot and the pallet through by clicking another, specific button on the keyboard.

The Gatekeeper is large. Larger than most of the other robots we see on the Axiom. It’s casing is a white shell around an inner hardware. This casing looks like it’s meant to protect or shield the internal components from light impacts or basic problems like dust. From the looks of the inner housing, the Gatekeeper should be able to move its ‘head’ up and down to point its eye in different directions, but while Wall-e and the security ‘bot are in the room, we only ever see it rotating around its suspension pole and using the glowing pinpoint in its red eye to track the objects its paying attention to.

When it lets the sled through, it sees Wall-e on the back of the sled, who waves to the Gatekeeper. In response, the Gatekeeper waves back with its jointed manipulator arm. After waving, the Gatekeeper looks at its arm. It looks surprised at the arm movement, as if it hadn’t considered the ability to use those actuators before. There is a pause that gives the distinct impression that the Gatekeeper is thinking hard about this new ability, then we see it waving the arm a couple more times to itself to confirm its new abilities.


The Gatekeeper seems to exist solely to enter information into that pedestal. From what we can see, it doesn’t move and likely (considering the rest of the ship) has been there since the Axiom’s construction. We don’t see any other actions from the pedestal keys, but considering that one of them opens a door temporarily, it’s possible that the other buttons have some other, more permanent functions like deactivating the door security completely, or allowing a non-authorized ‘bot (or even a human) into the space.

An unutilized sentience

The robot is a sentient being, with a tedious and repetitive job, who doesn’t even know he can wave his arm until Wall-e introduces the Gatekeeper to the concept. This fits with the other technology on board the Axiom, with intelligence lacking any correlation to the robot’s function. Thankfully for the robot, he (she?) doesn’t realize their lack of a larger world until that moment.

So what’s the pedestal for?

It still leaves open the question of what the pedestal controls actually do. If they’re all connected to security doors throughout the ship, then the Gatekeeper would have to be tied into the ship’s systems somehow to see who was entering or leaving each secure area.

The pedestal itself acts as a two-stage authentication system. The Gatekeeper has a powerful sentience, and must decide if the people or robots in front of it are allowed to enter the room or rooms it guards. Then, after that decision, it must make a physical action to unlock the door to enter the secure area. This implies a high level of security, which feels appropriate given that the elevator accesses the bridge of the Axiom.

Since we’ve seen the robots have different vision modes, and improvements based on their function, it’s likely that the Gatekeeper can see more into the pedestal interface than the audience can, possibly including which doors each key links to. If not, then as a computer it would have perfect recall on what each button was for. This does not afford a human presence stepping in to take control in case the Gatekeeper has issues (like the robots seen soon after this in the ‘medbay’). But, considering Buy-N-Large’s desire to leave humans out of the loop at each possible point, this seems like a reasonable design direction for the company to take if they wanted to continue that trend.

It’s possible that the pedestal was intended for a human security guard that was replaced after the first generation of spacefarers retired. Another possibility is that Buy-N-Large wanted an obvious sign of security to comfort passengers.

What’s missing?

We learn after this scene that the security ‘bot is Otto’s ‘muscle’ and affords some protection. Given that the Security ‘bot and others might be needed at random times, it feels like he would want a way to gain access to the bridge in an emergency. Something like an integrated biometric scanner on the door that could be manually activated (eye scanner, palm scanner, RFID tags, etc.), or even a physical key device on the door that only someone like the Captain or trusted security officers would be given. Though that assumes there is more than one entrance to the bridge.

This is a great showcase system for tours and commercials of an all-access luxury hotel and lifeboat. It looks impressive, and the Gatekeeper would be an effective way to make sure only people who are really supposed to get into the bridge are allowed past the barriers. But, Buy-N-Large seems to have gone too far in their quest for intelligent robots and has created something that could be easily replaced by a simpler, hard-wired security system.


Resistance Chutes


In order to conduct its subversions, the Resistance has a set of secret pneumatic chutes throughout SoGo. To monitor them, they have a map of the city with the chutes drawn as lines and places within the city illuminated with small lights.

The purpose of the lights is a bit vague, since just before Barbarella leaves Resistance Headquarters, Dildano glances at the map to see a red dot flashing at the very top. Gesturing at the light he remarks, “The time is right. The Queen is in her Chamber of Dreams.” But we know from the end of the film that the Queen’s Dream Chamber is on the lowest level of the city, close to Mathmos. (It would seem the Resistance has some severe information gathering issues.) So is each location able to change color to represent prominent individuals? What if two prominent people are in the same place? How does Dildano indicate which prominent person he wishes to track? We never see these controls, and per the axiom of providing inputs near outputs, we would want them to be somewhere around here.

We do get to see one interface in action, though. The chutes themselves are controlled by a set of rather rickety knife switches with large handles. A Resistance member throws one of the switches to initiate suction in a particular tube. (Fans of Futurama should note some similarities to the public transportation system in New New York.)


One the switch is thrown, a traveler extends his or her arms upwards, and then the tube handles the rest. The exits is ungraceful, tumbling travelers onto the floor in conspicuous places somewhere in SoGo.


Piranha dolls


After landing on Tau Ceti, Barbarella is captured by feral children who tie Barbarella to a set of poles and turn a set of robot dolls on her.

The dolls exhibit some crude intelligence. They walk on their own toward Barbarella. Stomoxys (or is it Glossina? It’s tough to tell with these two.) twists a knob on a control panel of four similar, unlabeled knobs, and the dolls’ piranha-toothed mouths begin to crank open and slam shut. They then attack Barbarella, clinging and biting her legs and arms.

Barbarella-062 Barbarella-063

At first the dials seem a strange choice for a killing device, but then you realize that this isn’t mean to be efficient. Rather, the choice of dials for controls fits the childrens’ awful goal. Stop dials are best for setting variables within a range of values. The dolls must have a few variables, like walking speed, biting force, and biting speed, that the horrible children will want to play with as they entertain themselves with this torture.

And of course to “improve” this interface you might want to label the dials so a new user would know what does what, but who would really want to make torture toys more usable?


Pilot seat


The reawakened alien places his hand in the green display and holds it there for a few seconds. This summons a massive pilot seat. If the small green sphere is meant to be a map to the large cyan astrometric sphere, the mapping is questionable. Better perhaps would be to touch where the seat would appear and lift upwards through the sphere.

He climbs into the seat and presses some of the “egg buttons” arrayed on the armrests and on an oval panel above his head. The buttons illuminate in response, blinking individually from within. The blink pattern for each is regular, so it’s difficult to understand what information this visual noise conveys. A few more egg presses re-illuminate the cyan astrometric display.


A few more presses on the overhead panel revs up the spaceship’s engines and seals him in an organic spacesuit. The overhead panel slowly advances towards his face. The purpose for this seems inexplicable. If it was meant to hold the alien in place, why would it do so with controls? Even if they’re just navigation controls that no longer matter since he is on autopilot, he wouldn’t be able to take back sudden navigation control in a crisis. If the armrest panels also let him navigate, why are the controls split between the two parts?



On automatic at this point, the VP traces a thin green arc from the chair to the VP earth and adds highlight graphics around it. Then the ceiling opens and the spaceships lifts up into the air.

Interior Doors

Certain doors within Prometheus require the user open them by providing input to a glowing keypad on the door. Reviewing these door panels in detail shows a great deal of variation in their design and interaction.


The first one we see has the panel to the left within arm’s reach of the door’s central seam. To open this door, David touches a black square on the interface, though its details are difficult to see. We do hear a beeping to confirm the touch before the door whooshes open.


We get a clearer view of the panel that lets him into a hallway. This door is just around a meter wide, and the panel is on the left near the frame at chest level. This vertical panel has white safety stripes at the top, with a yellow row of buttons below that. The middle of the panel has two columns on the left and right edges stacked with buttons, and a 4×3 grid of buttons, labeled with characters that look something like Braille, but that don’t translate readily from English Braille, and with some of the dots in the cells larger or brighter than others. Below that grid of buttons is a white duplication of the yellow buttons above. At the bottom is a red duplication of the safety stripes button at the top.

To gain access to the hallway (where the destination threshold event occurs), David presses two keys at once—what would be the 2 and 4 keys on a telephone keypad—and the door slides open.

Later he touches the same chord of keys to open a door for Shaw and Holloway.


There is another design for the door panel outside of Meredith’s room. This panel has the white safety stripe button, the Braille-ish panel (but with the left column colored yellow), a new yellow panel of triangles, and the red safety stripe button at the bottom.

The door is slightly open when he approaches it, but unpassable. After Meredith commands, “Robe!” he presses the “5” key on the panel and the door opens fully. This panel is on the right side of the door.


The panel to exit Weyland’s sickbay is on the door just to the left. When Shaw wants to leave the room after her traumatizing alien-abortion, she slams both hands against the panels, sliding her fingers along it and pressing what sounds like five separate buttons.


The panel that gives Shaw access back into the escape pod’s sickbay is again different, with many of the same elements from other panels, but a row of five yellow ovals outlined below the safety stripes button at the top.


This is the only time we also see the panel on the far side of the same door. We only see a corner of it, but it does not have ovals on the other side, and some circular elements below the Braille panel. It is probably the same design as on Meredith’s door.


Then when the alien breaks into the escape pod and pins her against this door, we see a close up of a panel, but this one appears identical to the one on the inside of the door, rather than the yellow-oval one we saw moments before. It also appears to be identical to the one on the inside of the door (and outside Meredith’s quarters.) A confusing detail in this panel is that while similar “Braille” cells are differentiated in other panels by a variation in the dots, in this one the the “3” and “6” keys seem to be the exact same character, highlights and all. Since we don’t know the meanings of this character, it could be a “shift” or modifier key which bears repeating, we don’t know. To activate this panel, she slams her left hand downward onto it. This opens the door, freeing the massive xenomorph alien within to grapple the architect alien.


And finally, when we see her escaping the hallway where the aliens are locked in combat, she approaches a door with an oval interface, which she opens by slamming the heel of her palm against it with a grunt.



Passing through doorways is probably one of the most common non-work activities that a crew member can do onboard a spaceship. To have crewmember key in a password every time seems like a pointless waste of everyone’s time. There are so many passive ways to check identity to authorize access that it seems silly to even bother to list them. Why not use any of these alternate technologies?

Add to that that each door panel seems to have a different one of half-dozen different designs, placed randomly on the left or right side of the door, and at least in the escape pod, multiple designs per door at several different heights. What value can there be to this chaos? It would be grossly error prone and frustrating. This level of randomness to the interface even defies the notion of it being a watchclock.

Since David and Shaw each had multiple, different-length passwords for different doors, it might seem that it’s a security measure. But when it can be opened with a punch or a hand bump, is it really security? Giving this aspect of the design the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it has some contextual awareness of Shaw’s heightened stress levels, and responds to the affective command where it might not in normal circumstances. This affective computing apology would be the way you wanted doors to work, but the film gives no evidence that this is what is at play.

Given the apparent randomness of the other panel interfaces, even apology ultimately fails us in making sense of these confusing interfaces.