The “spectacular” suicide experience from Soylent Green

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 to the beneficiaries, and the attendants to the patient. This post is about the patient themselves. Since there aren’t any technological interfaces, this will be a review of the service design from the patient’s and Soylent’s perspectives. If you’re only into this blog for technological interfaces, this is a post to skip, as it’s going to be about set design, lighting, props, signage, and ritual design, among other things.

Sol’s goals

Part of how we measure the efficacy of an experience is by checking whether it helps its user achieve their goals in the ways they would like them achieved. So let’s say that Sol’s goals are to take advantage of the service to have a good death, i.e. to pass painlessly and with dignity, and to have his belongings passed along according to his wishes. He wants psychological comfort as well, which in this case means helping him psychologically transition from the world he is leaving behind by setting up a liminal space for the ceremony, pointing toward notions of eternity and away from the horrible world he is leaving.

“People,” you say? Yeah, screw that. I’m out.

We are going to completely bypass the script question here about why Sol doesn’t bother to communicate to Thorn the Dark Secret in his goodbye note, but then does tell him when he happens to join him at the Thanatorium. That is what it is.

Sol’s experience

After Sol learns that his options are cannibalism or starvation, he makes the decision to die with dignity. To enact this wish, he dresses in his Sunday best, heads to the state-sponsored Thanatorium, officed in a low-rise building at the end of a wide street in downtown New York City.

Authors Islam Abohela and Noel Lavin insightfully note in their 2020 paper, The Height of Future Architecture: Significance of High versus Low Rise Architecture in Science Fiction Films, that the horizontality of this building contrasts earlier, vertical sci-fi visions of the cityscape as lofty and aspirational. In short, the building is in a horizontal repose suitable to its purpose. Further, the bright illumination spilling out from its frosted-glass doors onto the street helps to sell its next-world-ly promise, especially as the terminus of a dark road.

Initial greeting

At Sol’s approach a young worker opens the door and welcomes him. (How did she know of his approach, given the frosted glass? Let’s presume cameras, though we see no hint of this.)

With the door open, Sol feels the air conditioning pouring from inside and says, “It feels good.” She replies, “Yes, sir. Won’t you please come in?” He hesitates a moment with the gravity of it, but proceeds. Inside he walks through a turnstile and the greeter escorts him to one of the intake queues.

Worldbuilding question: The New York City of Soylent Green is oppressively hot and overcrowded. You would imagine that people would want to feel that refreshing cool air themselves, even if they weren’t there to suicide. I would expect people to be laying on the sidewalk there near the doors on the off-chance to feel a cool breeze. But the street leading to the Thanatorium is vacant. Why is this so? You might think well, it’s an authoritarian state, and curfew is probably enforced brutally. But then why is Sol allowed to just amble his way there? It would have been a nice beat to have seen Sol approached by an angry cop and challenged, only to have Sol point up the street to the Thanatorium, to which the cop softens and nods, allowing Sol to continue. This would have signaled that, despite curfew, the Thanatorium is open 24 hours a day, 7 days for “business.”

Intake

Taking a moment to appreciate the set design, the placid blues and non-descript “plop art” backdrops sell this space as a hospital rather than, say, an airport terminal, or church. It could have gone all “heavenly gate” but that would have been too soon in the patient experience, and lacked the personalized immersion that leads to…uh…the ecstasy meat (a gross, backworlded concept introduced in the beneficiaries post). The service keeps its powder dry to maximize that main event and thereby its output. So this design wins for being both familiar to the patients and effective for Soylent.

The film cuts away to show Thorn returning home to find Sol’s goodbye letter, and then running to the Thanatorium. When we cut back to Sol, he is in the middle of answering some questions by the intake staff, i.e. His favorite color and genre of music. Sol responds and the intake personnel marks his answers on a reusable plastic form. Before signing, Sol wants to confirm that the ceremony will last, “A full 20 minutes?”

“Certainly,” comes the reply, “Guaranteed.”

This scriptwriting moment bears a mention. This comes across as a negotiation, but what is being exchanged here? And what could Sol do with a guarantee when he won’t be there in case this mustache reneges on the deal? Nothing, of course, but it really sets up the transactional nature here. One’s death is so cheap in the world of Soylent Green that one can use it as a bargaining chip. Dark.

There’s a lot that we don’t get to examine in this intake experience because the scene is cut, but per Sol’s goals identified above, we have to imagine it would include questions about his beneficiaries and privacy. Additional questions appear in the text below.

Theater 11

The usher comes and retrieves Sol, making small talk and escorting him down halls, past the beneficiaries’ observation room, to “theater 11,” which is the death chamber to which he’s been assigned, with attendants waiting there standing aside a bed in the center of the room. The inclusion of “11” reminds us that there are many such theaters in the Thanatorium. It would have been nice for the beneficiaries only room to have had a similar number, i.e. “Observation 11: beneficiaries only,” linking the two together for the users and the audience.

We’ll get back to Sol’s experience in a moment, but first a note on the floor markings and the architecture.

I first thought the red line on the floor might have been wayfinding lines like you see in some hospitals. If it was a particularly busy day, and the patient ambulatory, the intake personnel could say, “Follow the red line on the floor to theater 11.” But, a glance at the scenes that precede this show that these markings are only present in the antechamber leading into the theater and the theater itself. So it serves as more of a decoration, a red line leading to a red circle in the middle of which is a white gray, and black circle. The end of the line in two senses.

This sense of the terminus is reinforced by the design of the room. The small passageway down which Sol walks joins with the more expansive theater, creating a sort of “reverse womb” implying a balance between the beginning and end of life. It’s not critical that patients pick up on any of this, of course, but all contributes to a sense of liminality; of interest to both Sol and Soylent.

So all good, but I wish the lighting here had echoed the approach to the building. It should have been a glowing pool of light at the end of a dark passageway, rather than the even overhead lighting reminiscent of a school cafeteria that we see in the film. Pools of light in the center combined with many flickering pinpoints of light at the periphery would have increased the sense of other-worldliness and unified the approach to the building with the entrance to the theater, creating a rhythm of self-similar spectacle. It also would have let the scale of the 180° screen become apparent only once the ceremony started, adding to its thrill and overwhelming scale.

The attendant behavior

In service design, the behavior of the frontstage staff is of particular concern, as humans are good at reading other humans for cues about unfamiliar things. In this case, the attendants are silent, wear beatific expressions, and move with a dance-like deliberateness throughout their parts. It is perhaps the most effective cue-of-transition for the patient. The outfits are a little goofy, but borrow semantically from western Christian liturgy, so are kind-of appropriate. If the patient were atheist or from a different religious tradition, other costumes with different signifiers would be more appropriate.

It’s also of note that not everyone is comfortable with being touched by strangers. It signals a warmth in the scene, but might feel threatening to some patients. Another question to add to the intake questionnaire.

Disrobing

Once Sol is in the theater, the attendants greet him with silent handshakes, lead him to the bed, and begin to help him disrobe. This segment bears many questions.

Why does he need to be naked?

I get why he is disrobed here, from Soylent’s perspective. I’ve never been a mortician, but it does seem that getting the clothes off of a living person would be easier than getting it off a dead person, why make the task harder for Soylent employees down the line? Just work it into the ceremony, some product manager says. And from Sol’s perspective, he’d like to see his clothes being taken away in a nice basket with some assurances that the clothes would be washed and given back to the community; an additional assurance that he’s doing a good, selfless thing in this world with dwindling resources.

But then there are the pants. Maybe it’s me, but there is not a dignified way to remove one’s pants around other, clothed, people. Did they help him out of his pants? Did he do that and just hand the clothes to them? Is he just in his underwear? All of it seems awkward.

I think the service could take a privacy clue from hospitals, public pools, and spas: provide a small room where a patient can undress themselves and switch into a robe. This would also be an opportunity to get a shower, which the movie demonstrates is a cherished luxury in the world of Soylent Green, another reward to lure citizens. Water is in short supply in the world of Soylent Green, but the corpses that are sent en masse to The Exchange for processing don’t get otherwise cleaned, so it would be another nice, hygienic worldbuilding hint.

In the scene, the disrobing is taken as a solemn moment, but Sol is distracted from thinking too hard about it by the appearance of an orange floodlight.

That orange floodlight

During the disrobing, a floodlight of Sol’s favorite color illuminates. I complained briefly about this in the prior post, but what’s causing this light to come on? The usher is back at intake, so it’s not him. Maybe the light is on a timer, but that seems hard for the attendants to manage against the other things that need to happen.

Also, why does it come on at this moment in the ceremony? It might be a deliberate distraction for Sol, meant to focus his attention on the meaning of the ceremony rather than the mundane disrobing, but if so, you might think that the light should illuminate before the disrobing begins. But recall that it’s only happenstance that Sol’s favorite color is the warm and flattering orange. If a patient’s favorite color happened to be blue—which is the most popular color around the world—it would grant everything in theater 11 a cool, detached appearance, and give the patient’s own skin a deathly pallor. Not great for the experience.

Much better would be to keep the custom-color flood light off until the overture begins—when the patient’s attention is not drawn to themselves but focused on the chamber around them—and illuminate it with the rise of the music, in response to the usher’s controls. This would maximize the impact of the color on Sol’s emotional state while not making his own skin and the attendants look off-putting.

Getting onto the bed

Once disrobed, the attendants help Sol onto the bed. How they do this is left off-screen, but it’s a non-trivial problem since as you can see in the screen shot, Sol is 5’7″ and the bed height is well above his waist. Hopefully there’s a set of retractable steps under the bed skirt that can make this accessible to Sol without his having to be hoisted up by the attendants, which would be undignified.

Hemlock

Once in bed, the attendants provide the “hemlock,” (which is what I’m calling the deadly draught they provide in homage to the death of Socrates) and Sol drinks.

We don’t see the glass in the room prior to its being handed to him, but I imagine since this is the point of no return, it bears some attention. Should it be waiting already poured, or should he watch it being poured? Should be pour it himself? If poured, should it be from a gold, porcelain, or glass pitcher? Should there be a tray? Where should all this be staged?

For materials, gold is a good funereal symbol for never tarnishing, but might be too tempting a theft target for poverty-stricken citizens. Stoneware has a nice connotation of being of-the-earth, but is a poor choice for being opaque and here implying its contents are something to be hidden. So I’d recommend a simple glass pitcher that emphasizes clarity. The Toyo pitcher shown below has no handle and so requires two hands to operate, granting a ceremonial, human feel to the act of pouring. While we’re at it, ditch the footed highball glass for a stange or zombie glass to match the pitcher’s simplicity. Have them sitting on an end table on a tray at the side of the bed in their own pool of light and have the attendant pour and hand the glass to the patient. When they depart the chamber one attendant can take the tray out with them for cleaning, and the other can push the end table back under the bed.

Another argument for delaying the floodlight until the overture is that light can change the apparent color of the drink. It just so happens that Sol’s orange flatters the amber color of the draught, but if his favorite color had been, say, red, it might have made the drink look like a wicked ink. Keep the floodlight off to keep the apparent color of the drink something pleasant and unthreatening.

Sol makes no expression in response to the taste of the hemlock, so we have no clue how it’s flavored, but it’s in everyone’s interest that it be palatable, if not pleasant. It would have been a nice touch at intake to ask him to select from a menu of favorite flavors as well, especially to hide the taste of whatever other drugs need to be mixed in.

Once Sol has imbibed the draught, he lies back on the wedge pillow and the attendants draw a sheet up to his chest.

As the orange floodlight dims to a candlelight whisper, Sol waits for the overture to begin as the attendants depart.

Overture

Alone at last, Sol is treated to an audio overture as the drugs work through his system. The music is the principal theme from the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pathétique.” He stares up at the ceiling, bathed in his favorite color, listening to his favorite music unaware that things are about to become even more spectacular.

Cinerama

The overture complete (and, per my ecstasy meat theory, the MDMA and opiates have kicked in) the audio-visual presentation starts. The music changes to the first movement of Beethoven’s “Symphony #6 (The Pastoral),” and a very wide-angle video presentation begins on the wrap-around screen above him, starting with a verdant field of tulips blowing in a breeze.

The tiny angles in the screen edge hint that this is meant to work exactly like Cinerama with multiple projectors and stitched edges, though the lack of deformation and perspective in the images is all wrong.

It later transitions to images of fauna, other flora, wholesome livestock, and sunsets—all romantic scenes of a highly-selective-memory of Earth’s heyday. It’s important to remember that audiences in 1973 may have heard of a Cinerama display like this, but few of them had seen it. And the 180+° screen seen in the film dwarfs the original Cinerama 2.65:1 display ratio. So though folks today may yawn at this in comparison to IMAX or Oculus AR displays, at the time this would have seemed very sci-fi.

From our vantage point, it all seems a little cruel, bathing Sol in scenes of what he cannot have and what for him will never be, but maybe it points at an afterlife where the things you recall fondly will be yours again, in abundance. (Hey that seems like a formula for every afterlife story.) Mixed with the drugs in Sol’s system, it would help flood his mind and body with euphoria and all the pleasant neurotransmitters that entails.

I minimize this gif because it is so freaking distracting, as it would be to users.

At a few minutes into the presentation, the SPEAKING PERMITTED light of the beneficiaries interface begins blinking, and the patient is able to talk to their loved ones. This would interrupt the spectacle of the display, but add a flood of additional emotions (and thereby hormones) from heartfelt declarations of love and farewell. Immediately afterward “Morning Mood” from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite #1” plays as biophilic videos play: Alpine mountainscapes with grazing donkeys, tarns with floral banks. Finally it segues to scenes depicting the end-of-a-day: A sunset over waves crashing on the black rocks of a pristine West Coast beach, another sun sets through gaps in swiftly drifting clouds.

The screen fades to black as “Aase’s Death” plays from the “Peer Gynt Suite.” In the film, this is the point where Sol shares the Dark Secret and tells Thorn he must go the Exchange and provide proof to the elders. (Ugh. Screenwriters, again, if this was so important, why did he wait until this moment—which he was not sure would come—to convey this information? It makes no sense. But I digress.)

Psst…did you know the namesake of the James Webb telescope was a filthy homophobe? Now you do.

The camera is all close up in their faces for this final beat, so we don’t know what is playing on the screen, but I’d like to think it’s images of stars and nebulae to evoke not just the end of a terrestrial day, but a connection to things that by comparison seem eternal, everlasting.

Communication signals

The dialogue makes me realize another signal is missing for Sol, that is, how does he know when the audio channel to the observation room is open? Now, it would be nice if the audio channel were tied to the state of the viewing portal. That is, audio is connected when the portal is open and they can see each other; and off when the portal is closed. But, we know that Soylent wants the usher to have control of the channels to silence either party at will, so in lieu of that, let’s give some signal to Sol near the observation window to let him know when the audio channel is open. It should look akin to the interface on the other side in the observation room, but it would have to be redesigned for a 10-foot rather than 2-foot experience. It would also have to not be distracting to the patient when their attention is on the cinerama, so a dim, backlit visual might be enough for sighted users. Separate and custom-designed rooms should be built for differently abled patients.

After his plea to Thorn, Sol finally passes, marking the end of his experience with the Thanatorium.


All told, Sol’s experience suits his goals fairly well. He wants a sense of dignity, spectacle, importance, connection to his loved one, and otherworldliness that he receives. There are little things to fix throughout, as mentioned in the text.

My biggest criticism is of being physically separated from loved ones, when a held hand might take the edge off of the fear of death and add a nice dose of oxytocin to the result, but Soylent’s interest is more about maximizing control of the end product, so this, full of risk, would not make it into the final design.

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.

Persuasion.

“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.

Thorn voice: 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.

Sci-fi Spacesuits: Biological needs

Spacesuits must support the biological functioning of the astronaut. There are probably damned fine psychological reasons to not show astronauts their own biometric data while on stressful extravehicular missions, but there is the issue of comfort. Even if temperature, pressure, humidity, and oxygen levels are kept within safe ranges by automatic features of the suit, there is still a need for comfort and control inside of that range. If the suit is to be warn a long time, there must be some accommodation for food, water, urination, and defecation. Additionally, the medical and psychological status of the wearer should be monitored to warn of stress states and emergencies.

Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t reveal any interfaces being used to control temperature, pressure, or oxygen levels. There are some for low oxygen level warnings and testing conditions outside the suit, but these are more outputs than interfaces where interactions take place.

There are also no nods to toilet necessities, though in fairness Hollywood eschews this topic a lot.

The one example of sustenance seen in the survey appears in Sunshine, we see Captain Kaneda take a sip from his drinking tube while performing a dangerous repair of the solar shields. This is the only food or drink seen in the survey, and it is a simple mechanical interface, held in place by material strength in such a way that he needs only to tilt his head to take a drink.

Similarly, in Sunshine, when Capa and Kaneda perform EVA to repair broken solar shields, Cassie tells Capa to relax because he is using up too much oxygen. We see a brief view of her bank of screens that include his biometrics.

Remote monitoring of people in spacesuits is common enough to be a trope, but has been discussed already in the Medical chapter in Make It So, for more on biometrics in sci-fi.

Crowe’s medical monitor in Aliens (1986).

There are some non-interface biological signals for observers. In the movie Alien, as the landing party investigates the xenomorph eggs, we can see that the suit outgases something like steam—slower than exhalations, but regular. Though not presented as such, the suit certainly confirms for any onlooker that the wearer is breathing and the suit functioning.

Given that sci-fi technology glows, it is no surprise to see that lots and lots of spacesuits have glowing bits on the exterior. Though nothing yet in the survey tells us what these lights might be for, it stands to reason that one purpose might be as a simple and immediate line-of-sight status indicator. When things are glowing steadily, it means the life support functions are working smoothly. A blinking red alert on the surface of a spacesuit could draw attention to the individual with the problem, and make finding them easier.

Emergency deployment

One nifty thing that sci-fi can do (but we can’t yet in the real world) is deploy biology-protecting tech at the touch of a button. We see this in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Starlord’s helmet.

If such tech was available, you’d imagine that it would have some smart sensors to know when it must automatically deploy (sudden loss of oxygen or dangerous impurities in the air), but we don’t see it. But given this speculative tech, one can imagine it working for a whole spacesuit and not just a helmet. It might speed up scenes like this.

What do we see in the real world?

Are there real-world controls that sci-fi is missing? Let’s turn to NASA’s space suits to compare.

The Primary Life-Support System (PLSS) is the complex spacesuit subsystem that provides the life support to the astronaut, and biomedical telemetry back to control. Its main components are the closed-loop oxygen-ventilation system for cycling and recycling oxygen, the moisture (sweat and breath) removal system, and the feedwater system for cooling.

The only “biology” controls that the spacewalker has for these systems are a few on the Display and Control Module (DCM) on the front of the suit. They are the cooling control valve, the oxygen actuator slider, and the fan switch. Only the first is explicitly to control comfort. Other systems, such as pressure, are designed to maintain ideal conditions automatically. Other controls are used for contingency systems for when the automatic systems fail.

Hey, isn’t the text on this thing backwards? Yes, because astronauts can’t look down from inside their helmets, and must view these controls via a wrist mirror. More on this later.

The suit is insulated thoroughly enough that the astronaut’s own body heats the interior, even in complete shade. Because the astronaut’s body constantly adds heat, the suit must be cooled. To do this, the suit cycles water through a Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment, which has a fine network of tubes held closely to the astronaut’s skin. Water flows through these tubes and past a sublimator that cools the water with exposure to space. The astronaut can increase or decrease the speed of this flow and thereby the amount to which his body is cooled, by the cooling control valve, a recessed radial valve with fixed positions between 0 (the hottest) and 10 (the coolest), located on the front of the Display Control Module.

The spacewalker does not have EVA access to her biometric data. Sensors measure oxygen consumption and electrocardiograph data and broadcast it to the Mission Control surgeon, who monitors it on her behalf. So whatever the reason is, if it’s good enough for NASA, it’s good enough for the movies.


Back to sci-fi

So, we do see temperature and pressure controls on suits in the real world, which underscores their absence in sci-fi. But, if there hasn’t been any narrative or plot reason for such things to appear in a story, we should not expect them.

Wakandan Med Table

When Agent Ross is shot in the back during Klaue’s escape from the Busan field office, T’Challa stuffs a kimoyo bead into the wound to staunch the bleeding, but the wounds are still serious enough that the team must bring him back to Wakanda for healing. They float him to Shuri’s lab on a hover-stretcher.

Here Shuri gets to say the juicy line, “Great. Another white boy for us to fix. This is going to be fun.
Sorry about the blurry screen shot, but this is the most complete view of the bay.

The hover-stretcher gets locked into place inside a bay. The bay is a small room in the center of Shuri’s lab, open on two sides. The walls are covered in a gray pattern suggesting a honeycomb. A bas-relief volumetric projection displays some medical information about the patient like vital signs and a subtle fundus image of the optic nerve.

Shuri holds her hand flat and raises it above the patient’s chest. A volumetric display of 9 of his thoracic vertebrae rises up in response. One of the vertebrae is highlighted in a bright red. A section of the wall display displays the same information in 2D, cyan with orange highlights. That display section slides out from the wall to draw observer’s attentions. Hexagonal tiles flip behind the display for some reason, but produce no change in the display.

Shuri reaches her hands up to the volumetric vertebrae, pinches her forefingers and thumbs together, and pull them apart. In response, the space between the vertebrae expands, allowing her to see the top and bottom of the body of the vertebra.

She then turns to the wall display, and reading something there, tells the others that he’ll live. Her attention is pulled away with the arrival of Wakabe, bringing news of Killmonger. We do not see her initiate a treatment in the scene. We have to presume that she did it between cuts. (There would have to be a LOT of confidence in an AI’s ability to diagnose and determine treatment before they would let Griot do that without human input.)

We’ll look more closely at the hover-stretcher display in a moment, but for now let’s pause and talk about the displays and the interaction of this beat.

A lab is not a recovery room

This doesn’t feel like a smart environment to hold a patient. We can bypass a lot of the usual hospital concerns of sterilization (it’s a clean room) or readily-available equipment (since they are surrounded by programmable vibranium dust controlled by an AGI) or even risk of contamination (something something AI). I’m mostly thinking about the patient having an environment that promotes healing: Natural light, quiet or soothing music, plants, furnishing, and serene interiors. Having him there certainly means that Shuri’s team can keep an eye on him, and provide some noise that may act as a stimulus, but don’t they have actual hospital rooms in Wakanda? 

Why does she need to lift it?

The VP starts in his chest, but why? If it had started out as a “translucent skin” illusion, like we saw in Lost in Space (1998, see below), then that might make sense. She would want to lift it to see it in isolation from the distracting details of the body. But it doesn’t start this way, it starts embedded within him?!

The “translucent skin” display from Lost in Space (1998)

It’s a good idea to have a representation close to the referent, to make for easy comparison between them. But to start the VP within his opaque chest just doesn’t make sense.

This is probably the wrong gesture

In the gestural interfaces chapter of  Make It So, I described a pidgin that has been emerging in sci-fi which consisted of 7 “words.” The last of these is “Pinch and Spread to Scale.” Now, there is nothing sacred about this gestural language, but it has echoes in the real world as well. For one example, Google’s VR painting app Tilt Brush uses “spread to scale.” So as an increasingly common norm, it should only be violated with good reason. In Black Panther, Shuri uses spread to mean “spread these out,” even though she starts the gesture near the center of the display and pulls out at a 45° angle. This speaks much more to scaling than to spreading. It’s a mismatch and I can’t see a good reason for it. Even if it’s “what works for her,” gestural idiolects hinder communities of practice, and so should be avoided.

Better would have been pinching on one end of the spine and hooking her other index finger to spread it apart without scaling. The pinch is quite literal for “hold” and the hook quite literal for “pull.” This would let scale be scale, and “hook-pull” to mean “spread components along an axis.”

Model from https://justsketch.me/

If we were stuck with the footage of Shuri doing the scale gesture, then it would have made more sense to scale the display, and fade the white vertebrae away so she could focus on the enlarged, damaged one. She could then turn it with her hand to any arbitrary orientation to examine it.

An object highlight is insufficient

It’s quite helpful for an interface that can detect anomalies to help focus a user’s attention there. The red highlight for the damaged vertebrae certainly helps draw attention. Where’s the problem? Ah, yes. There’s the problem. But it’s more helpful for the healthcare worker to know the nature of the damage, what the diagnosis is, to monitor the performance of the related systems, and to know how the intervention is going. (I covered these in the medical interfaces chapter of Make It So, if you want to read more.) So yes, we can see which vertebra is damaged, but what is the nature of that damage? A slipped disc should look different than a bone spur, which should look different than one that’s been cracked or shattered from a bullet. The thing-red display helps for an instant read in the scene, but fails on close inspection and would be insufficient in the real world.

This is not directly relevant to the critique, but interesting that spinal VPs have been around since 1992. Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Ethics” (Season 5, Episode 16).

Put critical information near the user’s locus of attention

Why does Shuri have to turn and look at the wall display at all? Why not augment the volumetric projection with the data that she needs? You might worry that it could obscure the patient (and thereby hinder direct observations) but with an AGI running the show, it could easily position those elements to not occlude her view.

Compare this display, which puts a waveform directly adjacent to the brain VP. Firefly, “Ariel” (Episode 9, 2002).

Note that Shuri is not the only person in the room interested in knowing the state of things, so a wall display isn’t bad, but it shouldn’t be the only augmentation.

Lastly, why does she need to tell the others that Ross will live? if there was signifcant risk of his death, there should be unavoidable environmental signals. Klaxons or medical alerts. So unless we are to believe T’Challa has never encountered a single medical emergency before (even in media), this is a strange thing for her to have to say. Of course we understand she’s really telling us in the audience that we don’t need to wonder about this plot development any more, but it would be better, diegetically, if she had confirmed the time-to-heal, like, “He should be fine in a few hours.”

Alternatively, it would be hilarious turnabout if the AI Griot had simply not been “trained” on data that included white people, and “could not see him,” which is why she had to manually manage the diagnosis and intervention, but that would have massive impact on the remote piloting and other scenes, so isn’t worth it. Probably.

Thoughts toward a redesign

So, all told, this interface and interaction could be much better fit-to-purpose. Clarify the gestural language. Lose the pointless flipping hexagons. Simplify the wall display for observers to show vitals, diagnosis and intervention, as well as progress toward the goal. Augment the physician’s projection with detailed, contextual data. And though I didn’t mention it above, of course the bone isn’t the only thing damaged, so show some of the other damaged tissues, and some flowing, glowing patterns to show where healing is being done along with a predicted time-to-completion.

Stretcher display

Later, when Ross is fully healed and wakes up, we see a shot of of the med table from above. Lots of cyan and orange, and *typography shudder* stacked type. Orange outlines seem to indicate controls, tough they bear symbols rather than full labels, which we know is better for learnability and infrequent reuse. (Linguist nerds: Yes, Wakandan is alphabetic rather than logographic.)

These feel mostly like FUIgetry, with the exception of a subtle respiration monitor on Ross’ left. But it shows current state rather than tracked over time, so still isn’t as helpful as it could be.

Then when Ross lifts his head, the hexagons begin to flip over, disabling the display. What? Does this thing only work when the patient’s head is in the exact right space? What happens when they’re coughing, or convulsing? Wouldn’t a healthcare worker still be interested in the last-recorded state of things? This “instant-off” makes no sense. Better would have been just to let the displays fade to a gray to indicate that it is no longer live data, and to have delayed the fade until he’s actually sitting up.

All told, the Wakandan medical interfaces are the worst of the ones seen in the film. Lovely, and good for quick narrative hit, but bad models for real-world design, or even close inspection within the world of Wakanda.


MLK Day Matters

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives.

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Normally there would be huge gatherings and public speeches about his legacy and the current state of civil rights. But the pandemic is still raging, and with the Capitol in Washington, D.C. having seen just last week an armed insurrection by supporters of outgoing and pouty loser Donald Trump, (in case that WP article hasn’t been moved yet, here’s the post under its watered-down title) worries about additional racist terrorism and violence.

So today we celebrate virtually, by staying at home, re-experiening his speeches and letters, and listening to the words of black leaders and prominent thinkers all around us, reminding us of the arc of the moral universe, and all the work it takes to bend it toward justice.

With the Biden team taking the reins on Wednesday, and Kamala Harris as our first female Vice President of color, things are looking brighter than they have in 4 long, terrible years. But Trump would have gotten nowhere if there hadn’t been a voting block and party willing to indulge his racist fascism. There’s still much more to do to dismantle systemic racism in the country and around the world. Let’s read, reflect, and use whatever platforms and resources we are privileged to have, act.

Who did it better? Santa Claus edition

I presume my readership are adults. I honestly cannot imagine this site has much to offer the 3-to-8-year-old. That said, if you are less than 8.8 years old, be aware that reading this will land you FIRMLY on the naughty list. Leave before it’s too late. Oooh, look! Here’s something interesting for you.


For those who celebrate Yule (and the very hybridized version of the holiday that I’ll call Santa-Christmas to distinguish it from Jesus-Christmas or Horus-Christmas), it’s that one time of year where we watch holiday movies. Santa features in no small number of them, working against the odds to save Christmas and Christmas spirit from something that threatens it. Santa accomplishes all that he does by dint of holiday magic, but increasingly, he has magic-powered technology to help him. These technologies are different for each movie in which they appear, with different sci-fi interfaces, which raises the question: Who did it better?

Unraveling this stands to be even more complicated than usual sci-fi fare.

  • These shows are largely aimed at young children, who haven’t developed the critical thinking skills to doubt the core premise, so the makers don’t have much pressure to present wholly-believable worlds. The makers also enjoy putting in some jokes for adults that are non-diegetic and confound analysis.
  • Despite the fact that these magical technologies are speculative just as in sci-fi, makers cannot presume that their audience are sci-fi fans who are familiar with those tropes. And things can’t seem too technical.
  • The sci in this fi is magical, which allows makers to do all-sorts of hand-wavey things about how it’s doing what it’s doing.
  • Many of the choices are whimsical and serve to reinforce core tenets of the Santa Claus mythos rather than any particular story or worldbuilding purpose.

But complicated-ness has rarely cowed this blog’s investigations before, why let a little thing like holiday magic do it now?

Ho-Ho-hubris!

A Primer on Santa

I have readers from all over the world. If you’re from a place that does not celebrate the Jolly Old Elf, a primer should help. And if you’re from a non-USA country, your Saint Nick mythos will be similar but not the same one that these movies are based on, so a clarification should help. To that end, here’s what I would consider the core of it.

Santa Claus is a magical, jolly, heavyset old man with white hair, mustache, and beard who lives at the North Pole with his wife Ms. Claus. The two are almost always caucasian. He can alternately be called Kris Kringle, Saint Nick, Father Christmas, or Klaus. The Clark Moore poem calls him a “jolly old elf.” He is aware of the behavior of children, and tallies their good and bad behavior over the year, ultimately landing them on the “naughty” or “nice” list. Santa brings the nice ones presents. (The naughty ones are canonically supposed to get coal in their stockings though in all my years I have never heard of any kids actually getting coal in lieu of presents.) Children also hang special stockings, often on a mantle, to be filled with treats or smaller presents. Adults encourage children to be good in the fall to ensure they get presents. As December approaches, Children write letters to Santa telling him what presents they hope for. Santa and his elves read the letters and make all the requested toys by hand in a workshop. Then the evening of 24 DEC, he puts all the toys in a large sack, and loads it into a sleigh led by 8 flying reindeer. Most of the time there is a ninth reindeer up front with a glowing red nose named Rudolph. He dresses in a warm red suit fringed with white fur, big black boots, thick black belt, and a stocking hat with a furry ball at the end. Over the evening, as children sleep, he delivers the presents to their homes, where he places them beneath the Christmas tree for them to discover in the morning. Families often leave out cookies and milk for Santa to snack on, and sometimes carrots for the reindeer. Santa often tries to avoid detection for reasons that are diegetically vague.

There is no single source of truth for this mythos, though the current core text might be the 1823 C.E. poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore. Visually, Santa’s modern look is often traced back to the depictions by Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast, which the Coca-Cola Corporation built upon for their holiday advertisements in 1931.

Both these illustrations are by Nast.

There are all sorts of cultural conversations to have about the normalizing a magical panopticon, what effect hiding the actual supply chain has, and asking for what does perpetuating this myth train children; but for now let’s stick to evaluating the interfaces in terms of Santa’s goals.

Santa’s goals

Given all of the above, we can say that the following are Santa’s goals.

  • Sort kids by behavior as naughty or nice
    • Many tellings have him observing actions directly
    • Manage the lists of names, usually on separate lists
  • Manage letters
    • Reading letters
    • Sending toy requests to the workshop
    • Storing letters
  • Make presents
  • Travel to kids’ homes
    • Find the most-efficient way there
    • Control the reindeer
    • Maintain air safety
      • Avoid air obstacles
    • Find a way inside and to the tree
    • Enjoy the cookies / milk
  • Deliver all presents before sunrise
  • For each child:
    • Know whether they are naughty or nice
    • If nice, match the right toy to the child
    • Stage presents beneath the tree
  • Avoid being seen

We’ll use these goals to contextualize the Santa interfaces against.

This is the Worst Santa, but the image is illustrative of the weather challenges.

Typical Challenges

Nearly every story tells of Santa working with other characters to save Christmas. (The metaphor that we have to work together to make Christmas happen is appreciated.) The challenges in the stories can be almost anything, but often include…

  • Inclement weather (usually winter, but Santa is a global phenomenon)
  • Air safety
    • Air obstacles (Planes, helicopters, skyscrapers)
  • Ingress/egress into homes
  • Home security systems / guard dogs

The Contenders

Imdb.com lists 847 films tagged with the keyword “santa claus,” which is far too much to review. So I looked through “best of” lists (two are linked below) and watched those films for interfaces. There weren’t many. I even had to blend CGI and live action shows, which I’m normally hesitant to do. As always, if you know of any additional shows that should be considered, please mention it in the comments.

https://editorial.rottentomatoes.com/guide/best-christmas-movies/https://screenrant.com/best-santa-claus-holiday-movies-ranked/

After reviewing these films, the ones with Santa interfaces came down to four, presented below in chronological order.

The Santa Clause (1994)

This movie deals with the lead character, Scott Calvin, inadvertently taking on the “job” of Santa Clause. (If you’ve read Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series, this plot will feel quite familiar.)

The sleigh he inherits has a number of displays that are largely unexplained, but little Charlie figures out that the center console includes a hot chocolate and cookie dispenser. There is also a radar, and far away from it, push buttons for fog, planes, rain, and lightning. There are several controls with Christmas bell icons associated with them, but the meaning of these are unclear.

Santa’s hat in this story has headphones and the ball has a microphone for communicating with elves back in the workshop.

This is the oldest of the candidates. Its interfaces are quite sterile and “tacked on” compared to the others, but was novel for its time.

The Santa Clause on imdb.com

Fred Claus (2007)

This movie tells the story of Santa’s n’er do well brother Fred, who has to work in the workshop for one season to work off bail money. While there he winds up helping forestall foreclosure from an underhanded supernatural efficiency expert, and un-estranging himself from his family. A really nice bit in this critically-panned film is that Fred helps Santa understand that there are no bad kids, just kids in bad circumstances.

Fred is taken to the North Pole in a sled with switches that are very reminiscent of the ones in The Santa Clause. A funny touch is the “fasten your seatbelt” sign like you might see in a commercial airliner. The use of Lombardic Capitals font is a very nice touch given that much of modern Western Santa Claus myth (and really, many of our traditions) come from Germany.

The workshop has an extensive pneumatic tube system for getting letters to the right craftself.

This chamber is where Santa is able to keep an eye on children. (Seriously panopticony. They have no idea they’re being surveilled.) Merely by reading the name and address of a child a volumetric display appears within the giant snowglobe. The naughtiest children’s names are displayed on a digital split-flap display, including their greatest offenses. (The nicest are as well, but we don’t get a close up of it.)

The final tally is put into a large book that one of the elves manages from the sleigh while Santa does the actual gift-distribution. The text in the book looks like it was printed from a computer.

Fred Clause on imdb.com

Arthur Christmas (2011)

In this telling, the Santa job is passed down patrilineally. The oldest Santa, GrandSanta, is retired. The dad, Malcolm, is the current-acting Santa one, and he has two sons. One is Steve, a by-the-numbers type into military efficiency and modern technology. The other son, Arthur, is an awkward fellow who has a semi-disposable job responding to letters. Malcolm currently pilots a massive mile-wide spaceship from which ninja elves do the gift distribution. They have a lot of tech to help them do their job. The plot involves Arthur working with Grandsanta using his old Sleigh to get a last forgotten gift to a young girl before the sun rises.

To help manage loud pets in the home who might wake up sleeping people, this gun has a dial for common pets that delivers a treat to distract them.

Elves have face scanners which determine each kids’ naughty/nice percentage. The elf then enters this into a stocking-filling gun, which affects the contents in some unseen way. A sweet touch is when one elf scans a kid who is read as quite naughty, the elf scans his own face to get a nice reading instead.

The S-1 is the name of the spaceship sleigh at the beginning (at the end it is renamed after Grandsanta’s sleigh). Its bridge is loaded with controls, volumetric displays, and even a Little Tree air freshener. It has a cloaking display on its underside which is strikingly similar to the MCU S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier cloaking. (And this came out the year before The Avengers, I’m just sayin’.)

The north pole houses the command-and-control center, which Steve manages. Thousands of elves manage workstations here, and there is a huge shared display for focusing and informing the team at once when necessary. Smaller displays help elf teams manage certain geographies. Its interfaces fall to comedy and trope, mostly, but are germane to the story beats

One of the crisis scenarios that this system helps manage is for a “waker,” a child who has awoken and is at risk of spying Santa.

Grandsanta’s outmoded sleigh is named Eve. Its technology is much more from the early 20th century, with switches and dials, buttons and levers. It’s a bit janky and overly complex, but gets the job done.

One notable control on S-1 is this trackball with dark representations of the continents. It appears to be a destination selector, but we do not see it in use. It is remarkable because it is very similar to one of the main interface components in the next candidate movie, The Christmas Chronicles.

Arthur Christmas on imdb.com

The Christmas Chronicles (2018)

The Christmas Chronicles follows two kids who stowaway on Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve. His surprise when they reveal themselves causes him to lose his magical hat and wreck his sleigh. They help him recover the items, finish his deliveries, and (well, of course) save Christmas just in time.

Santa’s sleight enables him to teleport to any place on earth. The main control is a trackball location selector. Once he spins it and confirms that the city readout looks correct, he can press the “GO” button for a portal to open in the air just ahead of the sleigh. After traveling in a aurora borealis realm filled with famous landmarks for a bit, another portal appears. They pass through this and appear at the selected location. A small magnifying glass above the selection point helps with precision.

Santa wears a watch that measures not time, but Christmas spirit, which ranges from 0 to 100. In the bottom half, chapter rings and a magnifying window seem designed to show the date, with 12 and 31 sequential numbers, respectively. It’s not clear why it shows mid May. A hemisphere in the middle of the face looks like it’s almost a globe, which might be a nice way to display and change time zone, but that may be wishful thinking on my part.

Santa also has a tracking device for finding his sack of toys. (Apparently this has happened enough time to warrant such a thing.) It is an intricate filligree over a cool green and blue glass. A light within blinks faster the closer the sphere is to the sack.

Since he must finish delivering toys before Christmas morning, the dashboard has a countdown clock with Nixie tube numbers showing hours, minutes, and milliseconds. They ordinary glow a cyan, but when time runs out, they turn red and blink.

This Santa also manages his list in a large book with lovely handwritten calligraphy. The kids whose gifts remain undelivered glow golden to draw his attention.

The Christmas Chronicles on imdb.com

So…who did it better?

The hard problem here is that there is a lot of apples-to-oranges comparisons to do. Even though the mythos seems pretty locked down, each movie takes liberties with one or two aspects. As a result not all these Santas are created equally. Calvin’s elves know he is completely new to his job and will need support. Christmas Chronicles Santa has perfect memory, magical abilities, and handles nearly all the delivery duties himself, unless he’s enacting a clever scheme to impart Christmas wisdom. Arthur Christmas has intergenerational technology and Santas who may not be magic at all, but fully know their duty from their youths but rely on a huge army of shock troop elves to make things happen. So it’s hard to name just one. But absent a point-by-point detailed analysis, there are two that really stand out to me.

The weathered surface of this camouflage button is delightful (Arthur Christmas).

Coverage of goals

Arthur Christmas movie has, by far, the most interfaces of any of the candidates, and more coverage of the Santa-family’s goals. Managing noisy pets? Check? Dealing with wakers? Check. Navigating the globe? Check. As far as thinking through speculative technology that assists its Santa, this film has the most.

Keeping the holiday spirit

I’ll confess, though, that extradiegetically, one of the purposes of annual holidays is to mark the passage of time. By trying to adhere to traditions as much as we can, time and our memory is marked by those things that we cannot control (like, say, a pandemic keeping everyone at home and hanging with friends and family virtually). So for my money, the thoroughly modern interfaces that flood Arthur Christmas don’t work that well. They’re so modern they’re not…Christmassy. Grandsanta’s sleigh Eve points to an older tradition, but it’s also clearly framed as outdated in the context of the story.

Gorgeous steampunkish binocular HUD from The Christmas Chronicles 2, which was not otherwise included in this post.

Compare this to The Christmas Chronicles, with its gorgeous steampunk-y interfaces that combine a sense of magic and mechanics. These are things that a centuries-old Santa would have built and use. They feel rooted in tradition while still helping Santa accomplish as many of his goals as he needs (in the context of his Christmas adventure for the stowaway kids). These interfaces evoke a sense of wonder, add significantly to the worldbuilding, and which I’d rather have as a model for magical interfaces in the real world.

Of course it’s a personal call, given the differences, but The Christmas Chronicles wins in my book.

Ho, Ho, HEH.

For those that celebrate Santa-Christmas, I hope it’s a happy one, given the strange, strange state of the world. May you be on the nice list.


For more Who Did it Better, see the tag.

VID-PHŌN

At around the midpoint of the movie, Deckard calls Rachel from a public videophone in a vain attempt to get her to join him in a seedy bar. Let’s first look at the device, then the interactions, and finally take a critical eye to this thing.

The panel

The lower part of the panel is a set of back-lit instructions and an input panel, which consists of a standard 12-key numeric input and a “start” button. Each of these momentary pushbuttons are back-lit white and have a red outline.

In the middle-right of the panel we see an illuminated orange logo panel, bearing the Saul Bass Bell System logo and the text reading, “VID-PHŌN” in some pale yellow, custom sans-serif logotype. The line over the O, in case you are unfamiliar, is a macron, indicating that the vowel below should be pronounced as a long vowel, so the brand should be pronounced “vid-phone” not “vid-fahn.”

In the middle-left there is a red “transmitting” button (in all lower case, a rarity) and a black panel that likely houses the camera and microphone. The transmitting button is dark until he interacts with the 12-key input, see below.

At the top of the panel, a small cathode-ray tube screen at face height displays data before and after the call as well as the live video feed during the call. All the text on the CRT is in a fixed-width typeface. A nice bit of worldbuilding sees this screen covered in Sharpie graffiti.

The interaction

His interaction is straightforward. He approaches the nook and inserts a payment card. In response, the panel—including its instructions and buttons—illuminates. A confirmation of the card holder’s identity appears in the in the upper left of the CRT, i.e. “Deckard, R.,” along with his phone number, “555-6328” (Fun fact: if you misdialed those last four numbers you might end up talking to the Ghostbusters) and some additional identifying numbers.

A red legend at the bottom of the CRT prompts him to “PLEASE DIAL.” It is outlined with what look like ASCII box-drawing characters. He presses the START button and then dials “555-7583” on the 12-key. As soon as the first number is pressed, the “transmitting” button illuminates. As he enters digits, they are simultaneously displayed for him on screen.

His hands are not in-frame as he commits the number and the system calls Rachel. So whether he pressed an enter key, #, or *; or the system just recognizes he’s entered seven digits is hard to say.

After their conversation is complete, her live video feed goes blank, and TOTAL CHARGE $1.25, is displayed for his review.

Chapter 10 of the book Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction is dedicated to Communication, and in this post I’ll use the framework I developed there to review the VID-PHŌN, with one exception: this device is public and Deckard has to pay to use it, so he has to specify a payment method, and then the system will report back total charges. That wasn’t in the original chapter and in retrospect, it should have been.

Ergonomics

Turns out this panel is just the right height for Deckard. How do people of different heights or seated in a wheelchair fare? It would be nice if it had some apparent ability to adjust for various body heights. Similarly, I wonder how it might work for differently-abled users, but of course in cinema we rarely get to closely inspect devices for such things.

Activating

Deckard has to insert a payment card before the screen illuminates. It’s nice that the activation entails specifying payment, but how would someone new to the device know to do this? At the very least there should be some illuminated call to action like “insert payment card to begin,” or better yet some iconography so there is no language dependency. Then when the payment card was inserted, the rest of the interface can illuminate and act as a sort of dial-tone that says, “OK, I’m listening.”

Specifying a recipient: Unique Identifier

In Make It So, I suggest five methods of specifying a recipient: fixed connection, operator, unique identifier, stored contacts, and global search. Since this interaction is building on the experience of using a 1982 public pay phone, the 7-digit identifier quickly helps audiences familiar with American telephone standards understand what’s happening. So even if Scott had foreseen the phone explosion that led in 1994 to the ten-digit-dialing standard, or the 2053 events that led to the thirteen-digital-dialing standard, it would have likely have confused audiences. So it would have slightly risked the read of this scene. It’s forgivable.

Page 204–205 in the PDF and dead tree versions.

I have a tiny critique over the transmitting button. It should only turn on once he’s finished entering the phone number. That way they’re not wasting bandwidth on his dialing speed or on misdials. Let the user finish, review, correct if they need to, and then send. But, again, this is 1982 and direct entry is the way phones worked. If you misdialed, you had to hang up and start over again. Still, I don’t think having the transmitting light up after he entered the 7th digit would have caused any viewers to go all hruh?

There are important privacy questions to displaying a recipient’s number in a way that any passer-by can see. Better would have been to mount the input and the contact display on a transverse panel where he could enter and confirm it with little risk of lookie-loos and identity theives.

Audio & Video

Hopefully, when Rachel received the call, she was informed who it was and that the call was coming from a public video phone. Hopefully it also provided controls for only accepting the audio, in case she was not camera-ready, but we don’t see things from her side in this scene.

Gaze correction is usually needed in video conversation systems since each participant naturally looks at the center of the screen and not at the camera lens mounted somewhere next to its edge. Unless the camera is located in the center of the screen (or the other person’s image on the screen), people would not be “looking” at the other person as is almost always portrayed. Instead, their gaze would appear slightly off-screen. This is a common trope in cinema, but one which we’re become increasingly literate in, as many of us are working from home much more and gaining experience with videoconferencing systems, so it’s beginning to strain suspension of disbelief.

Also how does the sound work here? It’s a noisy street scene outside of a cabaret. Is it a directional mic and directional speaker? How does he adjust the volume if it’s just too loud? How does it remain audible yet private? Small directional speakers that followed his head movements would be a lovely touch.

And then there’s video privacy. If this were the real world, it would be nice if the video had a privacy screen filter. That would have the secondary effect of keeping his head in the right place for the camera. But that is difficult to show cinemagentically, so wouldn’t work for a movie.

Ending the call

Rachel leans forward to press a button on her home video phone end her part of the call. Presumably Deckard has a similar button to press on his end as well. He should be able to just yank his card out, too.

The closing screen is a nice touch, though total charges may not be the most useful thing. Are VID-PHŌN calls a fixed price? Then this information is not really of use to him after the call as much as it is beforehand. If the call has a variable cost, depending on long distance and duration, for example, then he would want to know the charges as the call is underway, so he can wrap things up if it’s getting too expensive. (Admittedly the Bell System wouldn’t want that, so it’s sensible worldbuilding to omit it.) Also if this is a pre-paid phone card, seeing his remaining balance would be more useful.

But still, the point was that total charges of $1.25 was meant to future-shocked audiences of the time, since public phone charges in the United States at the time were $0.10. His remaining balance wouldn’t have shown that and not had the desired effect. Maybe both? It might have been a cool bit of worldbuilding and callback to build on that shock to follow that outrageous price with “Get this call free! Watch a video of life in the offworld colonies! Press START and keep your eyes ON THE SCREEN.”

Because the world just likes to hurt Deckard.

8 Reasons The Voight-Kampff Machine is shit (and a redesign to fix it)

Distinguishing replicants from humans is a tricky business. Since they are indistinguishable biologically, it requires an empathy test, during which the subject hears empathy-eliciting scenarios and watched carefully for telltale signs such as, “capillary dilation—the so-called blush response…fluctuation of the pupil…involuntary dilation of the iris.” To aid the blade runner in this examination, they use a portable machine called the Voight-Kampff machine, named, presumably, for its inventors.

The device is the size of a thick laptop computer, and rests flat on the table between the blade runner and subject. When the blade runner prepares the machine for the test, they turn it on, and a small adjustable armature rises from the machine, the end of which is an intricate piece of hardware, housing a powerful camera, glowing red.

The blade runner trains this camera on one of the subject’s eyes. Then, while reading from the playbook book of scenarios, they keep watch on a large monitor, which shows an magnified image of the subject’s eye. (Ostensibly, anyway. More on this below.) A small bellows on the subject’s side of the machine raises and lowers. On the blade runner’s side of the machine, a row of lights reflect the volume of the subject’s speech. Three square, white buttons sit to the right of the main monitor. In Leon’s test we see Holden press the leftmost of the three, and the iris in the monitor becomes brighter, illuminated from some unseen light source. The purpose of the other two square buttons is unknown. Two smaller monochrome monitors sit to the left of the main monitor, showing moving but otherwise inscrutable forms of information.

In theory, the system allows the blade runner to more easily watch for the minute telltale changes in the eye and blush response, while keeping a comfortable social distance from the subject. Substandard responses reveal a lack of empathy and thereby a high probability that the subject is a replicant. Simple! But on review, it’s shit. I know this is going to upset fans, so let me enumerate the reasons, and then propose a better solution.

-2. Wouldn’t a genetic test make more sense?

If the replicants are genetically engineered for short lives, wouldn’t a genetic test make more sense? Take a drop of blood and look for markers of incredibly short telomeres or something.

-1. Wouldn’t an fMRI make more sense?

An fMRI would reveal empathic responses in the inferior frontal gyrus, or cognitive responses in the ventromedial prefrontal gyrus. (The brain structures responsible for these responses.) Certinaly more expensive, but more certain.

0. Wouldn’t a metal detector make more sense?

If you are testing employees to detect which ones are the murdery ones and which ones aren’t, you might want to test whether they are bringing a tool of murder with them. Because once they’re found out, they might want to murder you. This scene should be rewritten such that Leon leaps across the desk and strangles Holden, IMHO. It would make him, and other blade runners, seem much more feral and unpredictable.

(OK, those aren’t interface issues but seriously wtf. Onward.)

1. Labels, people

Controls needs labels. Especially when the buttons have no natural affordance and the costs of experimentation to discover the function are high. Remembering the functions of unlabeled controls adds to the cognitive load for a user who should be focusing on the person across the table. At least an illuminated button helps signal the state, so that, at least, is something.

 2. It should be less intimidating

The physical design is quite intimidating: The way it puts a barrier in between the blade runner and subject. The fact that all the displays point away from the subject. The weird intricacy of the camera, its ominous HAL-like red glow. Regular readers may note that the eyepiece is red-on-black and pointy. That is to say, it is aposematic. That is to say, it looks evil. That is to say, intimidating.

I’m no emotion-scientist, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re testing for empathy, you don’t want to complicate things by introducing intimidation into the equation. Yes, yes, yes, the machine works by making the subject feel like they have to defend themselves from the accusations in the ethical dilemmas, but that stress should come from the content, not the machine.

2a. Holden should be less intimidating and not tip his hand

While we’re on this point, let me add that Holden should be less intimidating, too. When Holden tells Leon that a tortoise and a turtle are the same thing, (Narrator: They aren’t) he happens to glance down at the machine. At that moment, Leon says, “I’ve never seen a turtle,” a light shines on the pupil and the iris contracts. Holden sees this and then gets all “ok, replicant” and becomes hostile toward Leon.