The SandPhone

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Not everyone is comfortable giving over to the flimsy promise of Carrousel [sic]. Some citizens run, and Sandmen find and terminate these cultural heretics.

Sandmen carry a device with them that has many different uses. It goes unnamed in the movie, so let’s just call it the SandPhone. It is a thick black rectangle about 20cm at its long edge, about the size of a very large cell phone. Near the earpiece on one broad side is a small screen for displaying text and images. Below that is a white line. The lower half of this face is metallic grill that covers a microphone. On the left edge is a momentary button that allows talking. Just above this is a small red button. When not in use, the device is holstered on the sandman’s belt.

The SandPhone lets the Sandman receive information through a display that can show both image and text. The Sandman sends back information and requests by voice in a CB radio metaphor.

Notifications

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Slow Police

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Wrapping up our week of The Fifth Element police interfaces…

When the police chase Korben into the permanent fog bank at street level of the city, the exciting car chase must stop. They must slow down and undergo a careful search. The front of the car has an LED scrolling sign between its beacon lights that cuts back and forth between displaying “SLOW” and “POLICE.”

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From a citizen standpoint, having such text can certainly make the police’s circumstances and desires quite clear. Then again, language can be quite ambiguous. What would you do if you saw a police car that read, “CELLAR DOOR” as it passed? How are you meant to comply?

Though we never actually see the sign change to display any other text, the fact that it’s LED implies that it can and does. Sure, I get the movie’s joke of the police calling themselves “slow,” but there are lots of interaction questions left unanswered. Can the officers in the car change the sign? If so, how? Does the passenger have a keyboard? Or is it voice command? If there’s a control available to the driver, how is it made safe, and not as deadly as a driver trying to compose a text message today? And to what degree can the message be changed? Can they create anything, or do they select from a commissioner-approved menu of options? Or can they not control it at all—is the sign completely controlled from dispatch, or from some context-aware algorithm?

The film gives no clues, so it’s left as an exercise for the design viewer. Which, sometimes, is just the way I like it.

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Yellow circles everywhere

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Korben (and his poor neighbor) aren’t the only ones to deal with the yellow circles. Apparently they appear everywhere.

When Right Arm fails to convince the counter staff for Fhloston Paradise that he is Korben Dallas. Knowing that he works for a sociopathic killer, he gets upset. As the doors to gate 18 close behind her, the ticket taker smiles and says, “Sorry, sir, boarding is finished!” and the platform on which she stands lowers her out of sight. At the same time a pane of glass with the familiar two yellow circles rises up. In his frustration, Right Arm shouts, “I don’t believe this!” and pounds the glass(?) around the booth.

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Instantly, a whooping warning is heard, and three columns of computer-controlled guns drop from the ceiling, clacking into place as if they were being armed. Two columns are behind him and one directly in front, each with two guns, pointing a total of six automatic weapons at him. Red LEDs blink on the column in front near a camera and a voice sternly warns him, “This is not an exercise. This is a police control. Put your hands in the yellow circles…”

The scene is played for laughs, as an example of an inappropriately harsh reaction to an expression of frustration. But the design of the system is worth noting. The compliance technique is designed to be easy to communicate and comprehend. The recorded voice could have said something like “stand in a spread-eagle position against the glass” but that is too wordy and leaves lots to interpretation. Giving the user very basic signals, i.e. yellow circles, and a very unambiguous task, i.e. putting your hands in the circles, is as clear as it could be. (Though I’m not sure what would happen if you were someone with only one hand, or no hands, or a prosthetic hand.)

The red lights, stern recorded audio, mechanical sounds, and whooping sound all let Right Arm know the gravity of the situation he’s in. Even the fact that they drop and swivel toward him give him the clear signal that if he tried to run, these weapons could track him. The sound appears behind him first, causing him to swivel, where he’s met with the four menacing barrels. He is first disoriented and then cowed.

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Sure, I’d really hate to live in such an oppressive police state where expressing frustration in public is met with possible death from a robot, but looking at it purely from the perspective of the signals and instructions, it’s well done.

Apartment Lockdown

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Zorg issues orders to the police to arrest Korben Dallas. A squad of 8 officers arrive to his apartment block. They know what apartment number he’s supposed to be in, but Korben’s number has been removed by Cornelius, and the neighbor has blacked his out.

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To authorize the lockdown, the squad leader opens a police box mounted on the wall in the hallway by placing the top edge of a transparent warrant into a slot on its side. The box verifies the warrant and slides open. The squad leader presses a red button within.

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During lockdown a klaxon sounds, red beacon lights descend from the hallway ceiling, and a loud, clear voiceover is heard in the hallway and in the apartments themselves.

THIS IS A POLICE PATROL. THIS IS NOT AN EXERCISE…THIS IS A POLICE PATROL. THIS IS NOT AN EXERCISE. CAN YOU PLEASE SPREAD YOUR LEGS AND PLACE YOUR HANDS IN THE YELLOW CIRCLES.

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The circles in question are painted at chest height on the walls inside of each apartment, a little wider than shoulder width. There is a small intercom interface mounted in the wall directly between the yellow circles. The police use different interfaces for peering inside apartments and this intercom for communicating with citizens, but these will be discussed separately in the next post.

Analysis

There are a few sets of users for this particular set of interfaces: The police, Zorg, and Korben. To evaluate the system, we need to look at each user independently.

  1. For the police, this interface seems to work well. Since the lockdown is part of the infrastructure, they don’t have to bring anything but their standard gear and the warrant. They save energy and the tedium of alerting the citizens and issuing standard compliance instructions. In a fully networked world, you might think to simply have him or her authorize themselves using biometrics, but in keeping with the principles of multifactor authentication, you might require the officer to carry something anyway. Since you’d want a physical warrant for a poor or luddite citizen to be able to see and verify, it’s going to be there, might as well use it.
  2. For Zorg and issuing authorities like him, he kind-of wants to minimize danger to his people and certainly his equipment, which this helps do. He also wants to cover his ass from citizen lawsuits, and having the traceability of the warrant-scan means he will have a record that due process has been followed. As we’ll see tomorrow, ultimately he doesn’t get what he needs, but as far as this lockdown interface, it seems like it would work just fine.
  3. For the citizen Korben, the interface provides a clear signal and easy-to-follow instructions, so the proximal part “works.” What doesn’t work is that the whole system is horribly demeaning, authoritarian, and—fully risking Godwin’s Law, here—fascist.

Security is almost always at odds with usability, and this interface proves no different. To improve the experience for the good citizen, you might want to provide some warning, some ability to finish what they’re doing, or some less demeaning way to show that they are cooperating. But any concessions made for the good citizens will be taken advantage of by the bad ones, and so I don’t know that design can really fix that tension.

P.S. As of this writing my Minority Report review is not posted, but readers interested to compare and contrast a similar scene done with more seriousness some 5 years later should check it out.