When Imperial troopers intrude to search the house, one of the bullying officers takes interest in a device sitting on the dining table. It’s the size of a sewing machine, with a long handle along the top. It has a set of thumb toggles along the top, like old cassette tape recorder buttons.
Saun convinces the officer to sit down, stretches the thin script with a bunch of pointless fiddling of a volume slider and pantomimed delays, and at last fumbles the front of the device open. Hinged at the bottom like a drawbridge, it exposes a small black velvet display space. Understandably exasperated, the officer stands up to shout, “Will you get on with it?” Saun presses a button on the opened panel, and the searing chord of an electric guitar can be heard at once.
Inside the drawbridge-space a spot of pink light begins to glow, and mesmerized officer who, moments ago was bent on brute intimidation, but now spends the next five minutes and 23 seconds grinning dopily at the volumetric performance by Jefferson Starship.
During the performance, 6 lights link in a pattern in the upper right hand corner of the display. When the song finishes, the device goes silent. No other interactions are seen with it.
Many questions. Why is there a whole set of buttons to open the thing? Is this the only thing it can play? If not, how do you select another performance?Is it those unused buttons on the top? Why are the buttons unlabeled? Is Jefferson Starship immortal? How is it that they have only aged in the long, long time since this was recorded? Or was this volumetric recording somehow sent back in time? Where is the button that Saun pressed to start the playback? If there was no button, and it was the entire front panel, why doesn’t it turn on and off while the officer taps (see above)? What do the little lights do other than distract? Why is the glow pink rather than Star-Wars-standard blue? Since volumetric projections are most often free-floating, why does this appear in a lunchbox? Since there already exists ubiquitous display screens, why would anyone haul this thing around? How does this officer keep his job?
Perhaps it’s best that these questions remain unanswered. For if anything were substantially different, we would risk losing this image, of the silhouette of the lead singer and his microphone. Humanity would be the poorer for it.
Jack flies the airship most of the way to the TET when he decides to listen the recordings of the Odyssey. He presses the play button on the recorder, it makes a beep and an electronic voice says, “Flight recorder playback for the Odyssey mission, 3 May 2017.” Then the playback starts.
First, real flight recorders
Before starting the analysis of the black box in Oblivion I thought it could be helpful to do some research on real-word black boxes. That way I had a reference point, something to compare this to. Oddly enough, there is a lot of information on the internet about the required recording and survival aspects of the device, but not much about means to find it after a crash. Beacons and transmitters are mentioned, but not many requirements to facilitate a person actually spotting it. Anyway, after that research I came up with a list of requirements for the device. It must…
Survive extreme temperature, pressure, and water conditions.
Record both ship and crew´s data on the flight.
Be easy to find in a crash site.
Provide quick access to the stored data.
You can think of modern flight recorders as big and tough hard drives that make digital recordings of both ship data and cockpit voice. Most modern commercial jets use a “quick access recorder” that stores data in a removable memory that can be plugged in to a common computer. And some recorders can also have an USB or Ethernet port for quick access, too. But often the device is damaged by the crash, and the full data needs to be accessed with special equipment.
So it’s against these requirements that we can analyze the real-world design of the flight recorder.
And really, this thing is like a Christmas tree of attention getting lights and sounds in comparison.
Great: Commanding attention
I have to give it to them here, they did a really good job. Aside from the normal design patterns for black boxes, the flight recorder in the movie provides other ways to find the device. The flashing white light can be easily spotted in the dark —and also on the day if bright enough. Even more, flashing is one of the most attention-getting signals that there are, neurologically speaking. And it can be instantly associated with an electronic device, while a fixed flight could be taken as a reflection on some debris.
Irregular flashing is even more powerful: A pattern that is semi random (or stochastic in the literature), with some flashes slightly offset from the main pattern. That difference in the flashing is even more attention getting that a regular one. This too would be really helpful in a crash site where you have an important amount of flashes going on as well: police cars, ambulances and fire cars. In that situation, the randomness of the flashing can help in distinguishing the device from the surroundings.
Julia was wandering through the Odyssey´s wreckage when she heard a soft and repeating sound. She pulled out some wreckage to find the flight recorder. These sound signals help her to locate the device more precisely when at close distance, even when it´s covered by debris if the sound is strong enough.
She takes it out to give it a look, and it´s here when we see the device.
When Julia finds the recorder, she knows that she and Jack need to carry it back to the Tower to better examine it. And as the recorder is kind of heavy, Julia folds out an small handler and uses it to lift up the recorder.
Great: Even better than a flash memory
The recorder in the movie also provides a way to instantly access the voice recordings of the crew. It uses a display and several buttons in a way that is similar to a music player, and building on a known mental model means that anyone looking for the device is going to be able to use it.
Assistive tools for the emergency mode
The recorder in the movie also seems to have two different modes or settings, an “emergency” mode when it has to be found and another mode to play the recordings. As with real flight recorders, the emergency mode could be activated by internal sensors. These could detect the crash via a sudden and/or significant change in velocity, for example. But it ought to have a manual control of some sort to return to normal mode.
When Julia finds the recorder, the device was beeping and using a light as beacon. It also had two status LEDs turned on and the small display was showing a graph curve in red. In contrast, when Jack is hearing the playbacks, the recorder doesn´t show any of those functions. Both the beeping, the lights, and the small screen display are all turned off, and the graph isn´t showing anymore.
What is that red graph supposed to mean anyway?
It´s not very clear what the purpose of the small screen display is. What is it meant to communicate? Additionally the display is oddly placed next to the controls of the recorder, which implies a mapping that doesn’t really seem logical. But mapping is not the only issue, because when the recorder is actually playing, this display is always off.
Given that It´s only on when Julia finds the recorder and the device is capable of playing the recordings by itself, it might be a way to tell the amount of battery life of the device. Although even then, a graph is something that shows change through time. When you need to know the energy levels at one specific moment, using a common battery indicator, or even a depletion bar would work better.
So maybe the graph is telling us that the device has some way of recharging itself. In that case, the graph could be showing charge and discharge cycles—or energy consumption rates—and by association also telling about some problem with the charging system. Even assuming this is the case, it´s odd that the display is always off during playback so it probably has some control to turn it on and off.
A screen dedicated to sound.
The recorder uses another, bigger display to show a number that indicates some time value, like recording or playback time. The bottom half of the display shows a spectrum analyzer of the recording playing at the moment, but when the recorder is not working this part of the display remains empty. During the movie we see that the recorder plays only sound, i.e. the voice recordings during the mission.
This screen offers some visualization but showing the spectrum analysis of the playback seems like a secondary feature. You know, given that it´s not necessary to actually hear the playback. But the display has a MODE button, so maybe the recorder can also record video to take advantage of the full size of the screen. In that case maybe the crew of the Odyssey just chose to only record audio, be it for privacy or to save storage space for the rest of the mission.
Jack was already in space and closing in to the Tet. And as he has to maintain his cover until he gets inside the Tet with the bomb, he stops the recording of the Odyssey.
After getting permission to dock in the Tet, Jack the returns to the playback. But the recording suddenly stops when the command module of the Odyssey got inside the Tet, then there´s only static and an—end of recording—message.
But again, we never actually see the recorder playing video. And the display has a low resolution, monochrome screen—like some early PDAs. So making sense of any video playing from there would definitely be a challenge.
When they are in basic training, Carmen and Johnny exchange video messages to stay in touch. Videos are recorded locally to small discs and sent to the other through the Fed post. Carmen has her own computer station in her berth for playing Johnny’s messages. Johnny uses the single player available on the wall in the barracks. Things are different in the roughnecks than on the Rodger Young.
To play her message, he inserts the small compact disk she sent him into a vertical holder, closes the hinged cover, and presses the rightmost of five similar metal buttons below the screen to play it. After the (sad breakup) message is done, the player displays an END OF MESSAGE screen that includes the message ID. Three lights sit in the lower left hand part of the interface. An amber light glows in the lower right near text reading, “P3.” There is a large dial on the left (a frustum of a cone, to be all geometric about it) with some debossed shapes on it that is likely a dial, but we never see these controls in use. In fact, there’s not a lot of interaction there at all for us to evaluate.
Usually you’d expect a dial to operate volume (useful in the noisy narracks), with controls for play, pause, and some controls for either fast forward / reverse, or non-linear access of chapters in the message. The number of controls certainly could accommodate either of those structures, even if it was an old two-button model of play and stop rather than the more modern toggle. Certainly these could use better affordance, as they do not convey their behavior at this distance. Even at Rico’s distance, it’s faster for him to be able to see than to read the controls.
We could also ask what good the message ID is since it’s on screen and not very human-readable or human-memorable, but it does help remind Rico that his messages are being monitored by the fascism that is the Federation. So that’s a helpful reminder, if not useful data.
For the larger interaction, most of the complexities in sending a message—initiating a recording, editing, encoding, specifying a recipient, and sending it—are bypassed offscreen by the physical medium, so it’s not worth speculating on how well this is from a larger standpoint. Of course we could ding them for not thinking that video could be sent faster and cheaper digitally via interstellar transmission than a fragile little disc, but that’s a question for which we just don’t have enough information. (And in which the filmmakers would have had a little trouble explaining how it wasn’t an instant video call.)
When David is exploring the ancient alien navigation interfaces, he surveys a panel, and presses three buttons whose bulbous tops have the appearance of soft-boiled eggs. As he presses them in order, electronic clucks echo in in the cavern. After a beat, one of the eggs flickers, and glows from an internal light. He presses this one, and a seat glides out for a user to sit in. He does so, and a glowing pollen volumetric projection of several aliens appears. The one before David takes a seat in the chair, which repositions itself in the semicircular indentation of the large circular table.
The material selection of the egg buttons could not be a better example of affordance. The part that’s meant to be touched looks soft and pliable, smooth and cool to the touch. The part that’s not meant to be touched looks rough, like immovable stone. At a glance, it’s clear what is interactive and what isn’t. Among the egg buttons there are some variations in orientation, size, and even surface texture. It is the bumpy-surfaced one that draws David’s attention to touch first that ultimately activates the seat.
The VP alien picks up and blows a few notes on a simple flute, which brings that seat’s interface fully to life. The eggs glow green and emit green glowing plasma arcs between certain of them. David is able to place his hand in the path of one of the arcs and change its shape as the plasma steers around him, but it does not appear to affect the display. The arcs themselves appear to be a status display, but not a control.
After the alien manipulates these controls for a bit, a massive, cyan volumetric projection appears and fills the chamber. It depicts a fluid node network mapped to the outside of a sphere. Other node network clouds appear floating everywhere in the room along with objects that look like old Bohr models of atoms, but with galaxies at their center. Within the sphere three-dimensional astronomical charts appear. Additionally huge rings appear and surround the main sphere, rotating slowly. After a few inputs from the VP alien at the interface, the whole display reconfigures, putting one of the small orbiting Bohr models at the center, illuminating emerald green lines that point to it and a faint sphere of emerald green lines that surround it. The total effect of this display is beautiful and spectacular, even for David, who is an unfeeling replicant cyborg.
At the center of the display, David observes that the green-highlighted sphere is the planet Earth. He reaches out towards it, and it falls to his hand. When it is within reach, he plucks it from its orbit, at which point the green highlights disappear with an electronic glitch sound. He marvels at it for a bit, turning it in his hands, looking at Africa. Then after he opens his hands, the VP Earth gently returns to its rightful position in the display, where it is once again highlighted with emerald, volumetric graphics.
Finally, in a blinding flash, the display suddenly quits, leaving David back in the darkness of the abandoned room, with the exception of the small Earth display, which is floating over a small pyramid-shaped protrusion before flickering away.
After the Earth fades, david notices the stasis chambers around the outside of the room. He realizes that what he has just seen (and interacted with) is a memory from one of the aliens still present.
Hilarious and insightful Youtube poster CinemaSins asks in the video “Everything Wrong with Prometheus in 4 minutes or Less,” “How the f*ck is he holding the memory of a hologram?” Fair question, but not unanswerable. The critique only stands if you presume that the display must be passive and must play uninterrupted like a television show or movie. But it certainly doesn’t have to be that way.
Imagine if this is less like a YouTube video, and more like a playback through a game engine like a holodeck StarCraft. Of course it’s entirely possible to pause the action in the middle of playback and investigate parts of the display, before pressing play again and letting it resume its course. But that playback is a live system. It would be possible to run it afresh from the paused point with changed parameters as well. This sort of interrupt-and-play model would be a fantastic learning tool for sensemaking of 4D information. Want to pause playback of the signing of the Magna Carta and pick up the document to read it? That’s a “learning moment” and one that a system should take advantage of. I’d be surprised if—once such a display were possible—it wouldn’t be the norm.
The only thing I see that’s missing in the scene is a clear signal about the different state of the playback:
As it happened
Paused for investigation
Playing with new parameters (if it was actually available)
David moves from 1 to 2, but the only change of state is the appearance and disappearance of the green highlight VP graphics around the Earth. This is a signal that could easily be missed, and wasn’t present at the start of the display. Better would be some global change, like a global shift in color to indicate the different state. A separate signal might compare As it Happened with the results of Playing with new parameters, but that’s a speculative requirement of a speculative technology. Best to put it down for now and return to what this interface is: One of the most rich, lovely, and promising examples of sensemaking interactions seen on screen. (See what I did there?)
For more about how VP might be more than a passive playback, see the lesson in Chapter 4 of Make It So, page 84, VP Systems Should Interpret, Not Just Report.
In the volumetric projection chapter of Make It So, we note that sci-fi makers take pains to distinguish the virtual from the real most often with a set of visual treatments derived from the “Pepper’s Ghost” parlor trick, augmented with additional technology cues: translucency, a blue tint, glowing whites, supersaturated colors for wireframed objects, clear pixels and/or flicker, with optional projection rays.
Prometheus has four types of VPs that adhere to this style in varying degrees. Individual displays (with their interactions) are discussed in other posts. This collection of posts compares their styles. This particular post describes the alien VPs.
The two alien VPs are quite different from the human VPs in appearance and behavior. The first thing to note is that they adhere to the Pepper’s Ghost style more readily, with glowing blue-tinted whites and transparency. Beyond that they differ in precision and implied technology.
The first style of alien VP appears in the bridge of the alien vessel, where projection technology can be built into the architecture. The resolution is quite precise. When the grapefruit-sized Earth gets close to the camera in one scene, it appears to have infinite resolution, even though this is some teeny tiny percentage of the whole display.
The other alien VP tech is made up of small, blue-white voxels that float, move in space, obey some laws of physics, and provide a crude level of resolution. These appear in the caves of the alien complex where display tech is not present in the walls, and again as “security footage” in the bridge of the alien ship. Because the voxels obey some laws of physics, it’s easier to think of them as glowing bits of pollen.
These voxels appear to not be projections of light in space, but actual motes that float through the air. When David activates the “security footage” in the alien complex, a wave of this pollen appears and flows past him. It does not pass through him, but collides with him, each collided mote taking a moment to move around him and regain its roughly-correct position in the display. (How it avoids getting in his mouth is another question entirely.) The motes even produce a gust of wind that disturb David’s bleached coif.
The individual lines of pollen follow smooth arcs through the air, but lines appear to be slightly off from one another.
This style is beautiful and unique, and conveys a 3D display technology that can move to places even where there’s not a projector in line of sight. The sci-fi makers of this speculative technology use this inaccuracy to distinguish it from other displays. But if a precise understanding of the shapes being described is useful to its viewers, of course it would be better if the voxels were more precisely positioned in space. That’s a minor critique. The main critique of this display is when it gets fed back into the human displays as an arbitrary style, as I’ll discuss in the next post about the human-tech, floating-pixel displays.
Morbius is the inheritor of a massive underground complex of technology once belonging to a race known as the Krell. As Morbius explains, “In times long past, this planet was the home of a mighty and noble race of beings which called themselves the Krell .”
Morbius tours Adams and Doc through the Krell technopolis.
“Ethically as well as technologically, they were a million years ahead of humankind; for in unlocking the mysteries of nature they had conquered even their baser selves seemingly on the threshold of some supreme accomplishment which was to have crowned their entire history, this all but divine race perished in a single night.
“In the centuries since that unexplained catastrophe even their cloud-piercing towers of glass and porcelain and adamantine steel have crumbled back into the soil of Altair, and nothing—absolutely nothing—remains above ground.”
Despite this advancement, unless we ascribe to the Krell some sort of extra sensory perception and control, much of the technology we see has serious design flaws.
Morbius plays half-a-million-year-old Krell music.
The first piece of technology is a Krell recorded-music player, which Morbius keeps on the desk in his study. The small cylindrical device stands upright, bulging slighty around its middle. It is made of a gray metal, with a translucent pink band just below the middle. A hollow button sits on top.
The cylinder rests in a clear plastic base, with small, identical metal slugs sitting upright in recessions evenly spaced around it. To initiate music playback, Morbius picks one of the slugs and inserts it into the hollow of the button. He then depresses the momentary button once. The pink translucent band illuminates, and music begins to flow from unseen speakers around the office.
Modern audiences have a good deal of experience with music players, and so the device raises a great many questions. How does a user know which slug relates to what music? The slugs all look the same so this seems difficult at best. How does a user eject the slug? If by upending the device, one hopes that the cylinder comes free from the base easily, or the other slugs will all fall out as well. It must have impressed audiences to see music contained in such small containers, but otherwise the device is more attractive than usable.
Morbius inputs the combination to open the door.
Many Krell doors are protected by a combination lock. The mechanism stands high enough that Morbius can easily reach out and operate it. Its large circular face has four white triangles printed on its surface at the cardinal points, and other geometric red and yellow markings around the remainder. A four-spoke handle is anchored to a swivel joint at the center of the face. To unlock the door, a user twists the handle such that one of its spokes lines up with the north point, and then angles the handle to touch the spoke to the triangle there, before returning the handle to a neutral angle and twisting to the next position in the combination. When the sequence is complete, the triangles, the tips of the spokes, and a large ring around the face all light up and blink as the two-plane aperture doors slide open.
Even Walter Pigeon has trouble making sense of this awkward device. There appear to be no snap-to affordances for the neutral angle of the handle or the cardinal orientations, leaving the user unsure if each step in the sequence has been received correctly. Additionally, if the combination consists of particular spokes at this one point, why are the spokes undifferentiated? If the combination consists of pointing to different triangles, why are there four spokes instead of one? Is familiarity with some subtle cue part of the security measures?
Morbius shares operation of the Krell encyclopedia.
All of Krell wisdom and knowledge is contained in a device that Morbius shows to Adams and Doc. It consists of an underlit scroll of material sliding beneath a rectangular hole cut in the surface of a table. To illuminate it, Morbius turns one of the two ridged green dials located to the left of the screen about 45 degrees clockwise. To move the scroll, Morbius turns the other green dial clockwise as well.
Why is the least frequently used dial, i.e. the power button, closer than the more frequently used button, i.e. the scroll wheel? This requires the reader to be stretched awkwardly. Why is the on-off dial free spinning? There appear to be only two states: lit and unlit. The dial should have two states as well. If the content of the pages is discretely chunked into pages, it would also argue for a click-stop rather than free-spinning dial as well, but we do not get a good look at the scroll contents. One might also question the value of a scroll as the organizing method for a vast body of information, since related bits of information may be distractingly far apart.