Otto’s Manual Control

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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Dome City Rail

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Citizens move between the distant parts of the city by means of a free, public transportation system. It is an ultra-light rail, featuring cars for two passengers, that move between long translucent tubes that connect the domes of the city. When one car stops at a station, its door slides open to allow exit and entry. We never see a car waiting behind another. Once seated, riders press a red button on a panel between the two seats (just visible in the screen capture below), and the car seals shut and takes off to the next station.

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A small panel inside the car alerts passengers to the name of the next stop as well as any additional information that is of use. When Logan and Jessica head to Cathedral Station, the panel blinks a red light to draw their attention. (The paired green light is never seen illuminated. What’s it there for?) A female voice says “Entering a reservation for violent delinquents. Authorized persons only.” The screen before them reads, “personal risk area.” (For those wondering why it stops there at all, anyone can get out of their car here, but Logan has to use his personal communication device with Control to have the gate to Cathedral opened.

The panel and voice output are useful to alert riders whose attention has drifted. Text could be put in the environment of course, since this information rarely changes, but it’s a bit harder to read when it’s moving and isn’t as likely to gain a distracted rider’s attention.

The last bit of interface is the LED displays on the walls of fancier stops like Arcade (the dome with the shopping mall and Caroussel.) We never see this sign change, but it makes sense that while riders are at the station, it displays the stop as a reinforcing bit of information, and can display alternate messages for citizens waiting on a car otherwise.

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The interface is incredibly simple because the system is so constrained. You have to hop on at a station, and like an airport tram or a shabbat elevator, the car runs along a fixed loop. You hop out when you’re there. The main negative issues I see are selecting a stop and perhaps safety.

Selecting a stop

It’s a waste of time and energy to have cars stopping and starting at unwanted stations. It can also be distracting to have the car tell you about all the intermediate stops when you’re not interested in them.

To solve this problem, the track system should be built with track bypasses so we have to worry less about track congestion at stops. Then riders could either ride the “local” from stop to stop, or optionally have some way to indicate their desired stop, bypassing the ones in between. What’s this indication look like? In the panopticon of Dome City, the Übercomputer can just listen to your conversations wherever you’re having them, and when you get to a car default to the stop expressed in conversation. Logan and Jessica had just spoken about Cathedral Station, so when they stepped in, it could have just asked them to confirm. If the selection was wrong, or no stop had been mentioned recently, riders should be able to speak their destination or the event to which they’re headed. As a last fallback, a screen displaying discrete options could allow them to select a destination by touch or gesture.

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Rider safety

The safety issue is subtle, but if riders have no control over the cars, why are the seats facing forward? It’s much safer in a head-on collision to be seated “backward,” like an infant’s car seat. Psychologically, people are most comfortable sitting forward to see in the direction of potential collisions, but if you lived in an UberNanny State like Dome City, the system would just force people to sit in the safest way.

It’s going to be more complicated than this

Getting public transportation experience design right is tough enough. But it’s going to get more complicated. Here at the dawn of computer-driven cars and computer-requested and computer-wayfinding “routeless” busses, the challenges will be manifold. How do you signal a stop? How does it gracefully degrade? How do you pay? How do you get to a just-in-time defined stop? How do you indicate your destination(s), willingness to share the ride, and urgency? How do you not disenfranchise people just because they have no cell phone? Dome City is small and constrained enough to ignore such problems, like a light rail in a small, wealthy, downtown core, making it almost too simple to be instructive.

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Zorg bomb

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Or, this bomb, anyway.

The Door

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The door to unit 281-53 has security and control features that make it Not Like Our Doors.

Sweetie’s Door

Korben’s white cat is named Sweetie. After a long night of carousing the 5000 block, she wants to be let back in, so she meows at the door as soon as she hears Korben’s alarm go off. He presses the lowest on the 5-button panel and a little cat-sized door opens up to let her in. After she passes through, it immediately closes behind her.

The kitty door could be improved by lessening the work it requires of Korben to zero, by automatically opening and closing for Sweetie. Even if Korben wanted her outside for certain hours of the night, we’ve seen that the apartment knows about schedules, so could accomodate another few bytes of scheduling information. To provide automatic access, though, would require some kind of identification. Low-level tokens like an RFID on her collar could work (such systems are sold today) but Korben lives in a crime-ridden area and any criminal could swipe the collar and use it to open the kitty door to “case the joint” or use some trickery to open the big door. An implanted RFID chip would be worse since it would put Sweetie’s life at risk as a “key.” More passive systems like kitty-biometrics would be much more expensive, and all the other evidence in the film tells us that this is not a wealthy man’s apartment. Ultimately, though there are other solutions for the problem, none fit the circumstances as well.

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Four out of five of the panel’s icons are clearer than those seen on the apartment’s other panels.

  • A moon (the mysterious one. Night mode?)
  • A high star (for shining a light from above the door, downward?)
  • An ajar door, for opening or closing it
  • A low star (for shining a light below on Sweetie
  • A a cat face (and cat butt?) for opening Sweetie’s door

In addition to being readable, they’re also well-mapped. The button for the human is in the middle. The cat door is lower on the panel. Let’s presume the lights are similarly well mapped.

The only difficulty this system might have is accidental activation of the wrong thing since the buttons are so similar and close together. It might not be so bad to accidentally turn on a light when you meant to open the door, but if you’d intended to turn on the light to check who’s outside and then accidentally opened the door, it could mean a home invasion. This is a Fitts’ Law problem for a doorknob. Better would be for the “knob” to be a hand’s width distant from any of the other buttons. This would also save him from having to look to target it precisely to do something as common as shutting the door.

Video peephole

Unlike adorable kittens, humans on the other side of the door may pose a threat. Korben can see who has come calling via a video monitor, located above the panel. The feed is always on. The video camera sits above the lintel and aims straight down, so Korben can see all the way to where Sweetie would be. Three buttons below the monitor are not seen in use. For most cases, the monitor would work well. Korben can glance at it from anywhere in the room and have a good idea who is there. And, since it’s a one-way system, he has time to get quick things done before answering without seeming too rude.

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That said, the camera is not foolproof. Early in the film Korben checks it and though it looks as if the hallway was empty, upon opening it finds a would-be robber who has donned a “hat” with a picture of the empty hallway from the perspective of the camera. Though he’s ultimately unsuccessful in robbing Korben his ruse to appear invisible to the door monitor worked perfectly. Multiple cameras might make it harder for this trick to be effective, but some other sensors, like a weight sensor under the floor outside or heat sensor would be harder to fool.

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As if that weren’t bad enough, the fact that the camera has a very limited field of view allows anyone to hide just off to the side. Cornelius uses this tactic when he uses Leeloo as a sort of video bait to get him to open the door.

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This latter problem could be solved with a fisheye lens on the camera (y’know, like real peepholes), which would show him more of the hallway and reduce the places where an assailant could easily hide.

Gravity (?) Scan

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The first bit of human technology we see belongs to the Federation of Territories, as a spaceship engages the planet-sized object that is the Ultimate Evil. The interfaces are the screen-based systems that bridge crew use to scan the object and report back to General Staedert so he can make tactical decisions.

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We see very few input mechanisms and very little interaction with the system. The screen includes a large image on the right hand side of the display and smaller detailed bits of information on the left. Inputs include

  • Rows of backlit modal pushbuttons adjacent to red LEDs
  • A few red 7-segment displays
  • An underlit trackball
  • A keyboard
  • An analog, underlit, grease-pencil plotting board.
    (Nine Inch Nails fans may be pleased to find that initialism written near the top.)

The operator of the first of these screens touches one of the pushbuttons to no results. He then scrolls the trackball downward, which scrolls the green text in the middle-left part of the screen as the graphics in the main section resolve from wireframes to photographic renderings of three stars, three planets, and the evil planet in the foreground, in blue.

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The main challenge with the system is what the heck is being visualized? Professor Pacoli says in the beginning of the film that, “When the three planets are in eclipse, the black hole, like a door, is open.” This must refer to an unusual, trinary star system. But if that’s the case, the perspective is all wrong on screen.

Plus, the main sphere in the foreground is the evil planet, but it is resolved to a blue-tinted circle before the evil planet actually appears. So is it a measure of gravity and event horizons of the “black hole?” Then why are the others photo-real?

Where is the big red gas giant planet that the ship is currently orbiting? And where is the ship? As we know from racing game interfaces and first-person shooters, having an avatar representation of yourself is useful for orientation, and that’s missing.

And finally, why does the operator need to memorize what “Code 487” is? That places a burden on his memory that would be better used for other, more human-value things. This is something of a throw-away interface, meant only to show the high-tech nature of the Federated Territories and for an alternate view for the movie’s editor to show, but even still it presents a lot of problems.

Krell technology

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.