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.

In case it needs saying: If you are trying to tell whether the person across from you is a murderous replicant, and you suddenly think the answer is yes, you do not tip your hand and let them know what you know. Because they will no longer have a reason to hide their murderyness. Because they will murder you, and then escape, to murder again. That’s like, blade runner 101, HOLDEN.

3. It should display history 

The glance moment points out another flaw in the interface. Holden happens to be looking down at the machine at that moment. If he wasn’t paying attention, he would have missed the signal. The machine needs to display the interview over time, and draw his attention to troublesome moments. That way, when his attention returns to the machine, he can see that something important happened, even if it’s not happening now, and tell at a glance what the thing was.

4. It should track the subject’s eyes

Holden asks Leon to stay very still. But people are bound to involuntarily move as their attention drifts to the content of the empathy dilemmas. Are we going to add noncompliance-guilt to the list of emotional complications? Use visual recognition algorithms and high-resolution cameras to just track the subject’s eyes no matter how they shift in their seat.

5. Really? A bellows?

The bellows doesn’t make much sense either. I don’t believe it could, at the distance it sits from the subject, help detect “capillary dilation” or “ophthalmological measurements”. But it’s certainly creepy and Terry Gilliam-esque. It adds to the pointless intimidation.

6. It should show the actual subject’s eye

The eye color that appears on the monitor (hazel) matches neither Leon’s (a striking blue) or Rachel’s (a rich brown). Hat tip to Typeset in the Future for this observation. His is a great review.

7. It should visualize things in ways that make it easy to detect differences in key measurements

Even if the inky, dancing black blob is meant to convey some sort of information, the shape is too organic for anyone to make meaningful readings from it. Like seriously, what is this meant to convey?

The spectrograph to the left looks a little more convincing, but it still requires the blade runner to do all the work of recognizing when things are out of expected ranges.

8. The machine should, you know, help them

The machine asks its blade runner to do a lot of work to use it. This is visual work and memory work and even work estimating when things are out of norms. But this is all something the machine could help them with. Fortunately, this is a tractable problem, using the mighty powers of logic and design.

Pupillary diameter

People are notoriously bad at estimating the sizes of things by sight. Computers, however, are good at it. Help the blade runner by providing a measurement of the thing they are watching for: pupillary diameter. (n.b. The script speaks of both iris constriction and pupillary diameter, but these are the same thing.) Keep it convincing and looking cool by having this be an overlay on the live video of the subject’s eye.

So now there’s some precision to work with. But as noted above, we don’t want to burden the user’s memory with having to remember stuff, and we don’t want them to just be glued to the screen, hoping they don’t miss something important. People are terrible at vigilance tasks. Computers are great at them. The machine should track and display the information from the whole session.

Note that the display illustrates radius, but displays diameter. That buys some efficiencies in the final interface.

Now, with the data-over-time, the user can glance to see what’s been happening and a precise comparison of that measurement over time. But, tracking in detail, we quickly run out of screen real estate. So let’s break the display into increments with differing scales.

There may be more useful increments, but microseconds and seconds feel pretty convincing, with the leftmost column compressing gradually over time to show everything from the beginning of the interview. Now the user has a whole picture to look at. But this still burdens them into noticing when these measurements are out of normal human ranges. So, let’s plot the threshold, and note when measurements fall outside of that. In this case, it feels right that replicants display less that normal pupillary dilation, so it’s a lower-boundary threshold. The interface should highlight when the measurement dips below this.

Blush

I think that covers everything for the pupillary diameter. The other measurement mentioned in the dialogue is capillary dilation of the face, or the “so-called blush response.” As we did for pupillary diameter, let’s also show a measurement of the subject’s skin temperature over time as a line chart. (You might think skin color is a more natural measurement, but for replicants with a darker skin tone than our two pasty examples Leon and Rachel, temperature via infrared is a more reliable metric.) For visual interest, let’s show thumbnails from the video. We can augment the image with degree-of-blush. Reduce the image to high contrast grayscale, use visual recognition to isolate the face, and then provide an overlay to the face that illustrates the degree of blush.

But again, we’re not just looking for blush changes. No, we’re looking for blush compared to human norms for the test. It would look different if we were looking for more blushing in our subject than humans, but since the replicants are less empathetic than humans, we would want to compare and highlight measurements below a threshold. In the thumbnails, the background can be colored to show the median for expected norms, to make comparisons to the face easy. (Shown in the drawing to the right, below.) If the face looks too pale compared to the norm, that’s an indication that we might be looking at a replicant. Or a psychopath.

So now we have solid displays that help the blade runner detect pupillary diameter and blush over time. But it’s not that any diameter changes or blushing is bad. The idea is to detect whether the subject has less of a reaction than norms to what the blade runner is saying. The display should be annotating what the blade runner has said at each moment in time. And since human psychology is a complex thing, it should also track video of the blade runner’s expressions as well, since, as we see above, not all blade runners are able to maintain a poker face. HOLDEN.

Anyway, we can use the same thumbnail display of the face, without augmentation. Below that we can display the waveform (because they look cool), and speech-to-text the words that are being spoken. To ensure that the blade runner’s administration of the text is not unduly influencing the results, let’s add an overlay to the ideal intonation targets. Despite evidence in the film, let’s presume Holden is a trained professional, and he does not stray from those targets, so let’s skip designing the highlight and recourse-for-infraction for now.

Finally, since they’re working from a structured script, we can provide a “chapter” marker at the bottom for easy reference later.

Now we can put it all together, and it looks like this. One last thing we can do to help the blade runner is to highlight when all the signals indicate replicant-ness at once. This signal can’t be too much, or replicants being tested would know from the light on the blade runner’s face when their jig is up, and try to flee. Or murder. HOLDEN.

For this comp, I added a gray overlay to the column where pupillary and blush responses both indicated trouble. A visual designer would find some more elegant treatment.

If we were redesigning this from scratch, we could specify a wide display to accomodate this width. But if we are trying to squeeze this display into the existing prop from the movie, here’s how we could do it.

Note the added labels for the white squares. I picked some labels that would make sense in the context. “Calibrate” and “record” should be obvious. The idea behind “mark” is an easy button for the blade runner to press when they see something that looks weird, like when doctors manually annotate cardiograph output.

Lying to Leon

There’s one more thing we can add to the machine that would help out, and that’s a display for the subject. Recall the machine is meant to test for replicant-ness, which happens to equate to murdery-ness. A positive result from the machine needs to be handled carefully so what happens to Holden in the movie doesn’t happen. I mentioned making the positive-overlay subtle above, but we can also make a placebo display on the subject’s side of the interface.

The visual hierarchy of this should make the subject feel like its purpose is to help them, but the real purpose is to make them think that everything’s fine. Given the script, I’d say a teleprompt of the empathy dilemma should take up the majority of this display. Oh, they think, this is to help me understand what’s being said, like a closed caption. Below the teleprompt, at a much smaller scale, a bar at the bottom is the real point.

On the left of this bar, a live waveform of the audio in the room helps the subject know that the machine is testing things live. In the middle, we can put one of those bouncy fuiget displays that clutters so many sci-fi interfaces. It’s there to be inscrutable, but convince the subject that the machine is really sophisticated. (Hey, a diegetic fuiget!) Lastly—and this is the important part—An area shows that everything is “within range.” This tells the subject that they can be at ease. This is good for the human subject, because they know they’re innocent. And if it’s a replicant subject, this false comfort protects the blade runner from sudden murder. This test might flicker or change occasionally to something ambiguous like “at range,” to convey that it is responding to real world input, but it would never change to something incriminating.

This way, once the blade runner has the data to confirm that the subject is a replicant, they can continue to the end of the module as if everything was normal, thank the replicant for their time, and let them leave the room believing they passed the test. Then the results can be sent to the precinct and authorizations returned so retirement can be planned with the added benefit of the element of surprise.

OK

Look, I’m sad about this, too. The Voight-Kampff machine is cool. It fits very well within the art direction of the Blade Runner universe. This coolness burned the machine into my memory when I saw this film the first dozen times, but despite that, it just doesn’t stand up to inspection. It’s not hopeless, but does need a lot of thinkwork and design to make it really fit to task, and convincing to us in the audience.

Tattoo surveillance

In the prior Idiocracy post I discussed the car interface, especially in terms of how it informs the passengers what is happening when it is remotely shut down. Today let’s talk about the passive interface that shuts it down: Namely, Joe’s tattoo and the distance-scanning vending machine.

It’s been a while since that prior post, so here’s a recap of what’s happening in Idiocracy in this scene:

When Frito is driving Joe and Rita away from the cops, Joe happens to gesture with his hand above the car window, where a vending machine he happens to be passing spots the tattoo. Within seconds two harsh beeps sound in the car and a voice says, “You are harboring a fugitive named NOT SURE. Please, pull over and wait for the police to incarcerate your passenger.”

Frito’s car begins slowing down, and the dashboard screen shows a picture of Not Sure’s ID card and big red text zooming in a loop reading PULL OVER.

It’s a fast scene and the beat feels more like a filmmaker’s excuse to get them out of the car and on foot as they hunt for the Time Masheen. I breezed by it in an earlier post, but it bears some more investigation.

This is a class of transaction where, like taxes and advertising, the subject is an unwilling and probably uncooperative participant. But this same interface has to work for payment, in which the subject is a willing participant. Keep this in mind as we look first at the proximate problem, i.e. locating the fugitive for apprehension; and at the ultimate goal, i.e. how a culture deals with crime.

A quick caveat: While it’s fair to say I’m an expert on interaction design, I’m Just a Guy when it comes to criminology and jurisprudence. And these are ideas with some consequence. Feel free to jump in and engage in friendly debate on any of these points.

Proximate problem: Finding the fugitive

The red scan is fast, but it’s very noticable. The sudden flash of light, the red color. This could easily tip a fugitive off and cause them to redouble efforts at evasion, maybe even covering up the tattoo, making the law’s job of apprehending them that much harder. Better would be some stealthier means of detection like RFID chips. I know, that’s not as cinegenic, so the movie version would instead use image recognition, showing the point of view from the vending machine camera (machine point of view or MPOV), with some UI clues showing it identifying, zooming in to, and confirming the barcode.

Yes, that’s a shout-out.

So we can solve stealth-detection cinematically, using tropes. But anytime a designer is asked to consider a scenario, it is a good idea to see if the problem can be more effectively addressed somewhere higher up the goal chain. Is stealth-detection really better?

Goal chain

  • Why is the system locating him? To tell authorities so they can go there and apprehend him.
  • Why are they apprehending him? He has shown an inability to regulate damaging anti-social behavior (in the eyes of the law, anyway) and the offender must be incarcerated.
  • Why do we try to incarcerate criminals? To minimize potential damage to society while the offender is rehabilitated.
  • Why do we try to rehabilitate criminals? Well, in the Idiocracy, it’s an excuse for damnatio ad vehiculum, that is, violent public spectacle based on the notion that jurisprudence is about punishment-as-deterrent. (Pro-tip: That doesn’t work. Did I say that doesn’t work? Because that doesn’t work.) In a liberal democracy like ours, it’s because we understand that the mechanisms of law are imperfect and we don’t want the state to enact irreversible capital punishment when it could be wrong, and, moreover, that human lives have intrinsic value. We should try to give people who have offended a chance to demonstrate an understanding of their crime and the willingness to behave lawfully in the future. Between incarceration and rehabilitation, we seek to minimize crime.
  • Why do we try to minimize crime? (This ought to be self-evident, but juuust in case…) Humans thrive when they do not need to guard against possible attack by every other human they encounter. They can put their resources towards the pursuit of happiness rather than the defense of encroachment. Such lawful societies benefit from network effects.

The MPOV suggestion above fixes the problem at the low level of detection, but each step in the goal chain invites design at a more effective level. It’s fun to look at each of these levels and imagine an advanced-technology solution (and even find sci-fi examples of each), but for this post, let’s look at the last one, minimizing crime, in the context of the tattoo scanner.

Ultimate problem: Preventing crime

In his paper “Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century,” Daniel Nagin reviewed state of the art criminology findings and listed five things about deterrence. Number one in his list is that the chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment.

Research shows clearly that the chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment.

Daniel S. Nagin, 2013

How might we increase the evident chance of being caught?

  1. Fund police forces well so they are well-staffed, well-trained, and have a near-constant, positive presence in communities, and impressive capture rates. Word would get around.
  2. Nagin himself suggests concentrating police presence in criminal hotspots, ensuring that they have visible handcuffs and walkie-talkies.
  3. Another way might be media: Of making sure that potential criminals hear an overwhelming number of stories through their network of criminals being captured successfully. This could involve editorial choice, or even media manipulation, filtering to ensure that “got caught” narratives appear in feeds more than “got away with it” ones. But we’re hopefully becoming more media savvy as a result of Recent Things, and this seems more deceptive than persuasive.
  4. The other way is to increase the sense of observation. And that leads us (as so many things do) to the panopticon.

The Elaboratory*

The Panopticon is almost a trope at this point, but that’s what this scene points to. If you’re not familiar, it is an idea about the design of buildings in which “a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection,” conceived in the late 1700s by Samuel Bentham and formalized by his brother James in letters to their father. Here is a useful illustration.

*Elaboratory was one of the alternate terms he suggested for the idea. It didn’t catch on since it didn’t have the looming all-seeing-eye ring of the other term.

Elevation, section, and plan as drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791

The design of the panopticon is circular, with prisoners living in isolated cells along the perimeter. The interior wall of each cell is open to view so the inmate can be observed by a person in a central tower or “inspector’s lodge.” Things are structured so the inmates cannot tell whether or not they are being observed. (Bentham suggested louvers.) Over time, the idea goes, the inmate internalizes the unseen authority as a constant presence, and begins to regulate themselves, behaving as they believe the guard would have them behave. Bentham thought this was ideal from an efficacy and economic standpoint.

“Ideal perfection, if that were the object, would require that each person should actually [be under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them], during every instant of time.”

—Jeremey Bentham

It’s an idea that has certainly enjoyed currency. If you hadn’t come across the idea via Bentham, you may have come across it via Foucault in Discipline and Punish, who regarded it not as a money-saving design, but as an illustration of the effect of power. Or maybe Orwell, who did not use the term, but extended it to all of society in 1984. Or perhaps you heard it from Shoshana Zuboff, who in The Age of the Smart Machine reconceived it for information technology in a work environment.

Umm…Carol? Why aren’t you at your centrifuge?

In Benjamen Walker’s podcast Theory of Everything, he dedicates an episode to the argument that as a metaphor it needs to be put away, since…

  1. It builds on one-way observation, and modern social media has us sharing information about ourselves willingly, all the time. The diagram is more dream catcher than bicycle wheel. We volunteer ourselves to the inspector, any inspector, and can become inspectors to anyone else any time. Sousveillance. Stalking.
  2. Most modern uses of the metaphor are anti-government, but surveillance capitalism is a more pernicious problem (here in the West), where advertising uses all the information it can to hijack your reward systems and schlorp money out of you.
  3. Bentham regarded it as a tool for behavior modification, but the metaphor is not used to talk about how surveillance changes us and our identities, but rather as a violation of privacy rights.

It’s a good series, check it out, and hat tip to Brother-from-a-Scottish-Mother John V Willshire for pointing me in its direction.

To Walker’s list I will add another major difference: Panopticon inmates must know they are being watched. It’s critical to the desired internalization of authority. But modern surveillance tries its best to be invisible despite the fact that it gathers an enormous amount of information. (Fortunately it often fails to be invisible, and social media channels can be used to expose the surveillance.)

Guns are bad.

But then, Idiocracy

In Idiocracy, this interface—of the tattoo and the vending machine—is what puts this squarely back in Bentham’s metaphor. The ink is in a place that will be seen very often by the owner, and a place that’s very difficult to casually hide. (I note that the overwhelming majority of Hillfinger [sic] shirts in the movie are even short-sleeved.) So it serves as that permanent—and permanently-visible—identifier. You are being watched. (Holy crap now I have yet another reason to love Person of Interest. It’s adding to our collective media impression the notion of AI surveillance. Anyway…) In this scene, it’s a clear signal that he and his co-offenders could see, which means they would tell their friends this story of how easily Joe was caught. It’s pretty cunningly designed as a conspicuous signal.

Imagine how this might work throughout that world. As people went around their business in the Idiocracy, stochastic flashes of light on their and other people’s wrists keep sending a signal that everyone is being watched. It’s crappy surveillance which we don’t like for all the reasons we don’t like it, but it illustrates why stealth-detection may not be the ideal for crime preventions and why this horrible tattoo might be the thing that a bunch of doomed eggheads might have designed for the future when all that was left was morons. Turns out at least for the Idiocracy, this is a pretty well-designed signal for deterrence, which is the ultimate goal of this interface.

Beep.


Frito’s F’n Car interface

When Frito is driving Joe and Rita away from the cops, Joe happens to gesture with his hand above the car window, where a vending machine he happens to be passing spots the tattoo. Within seconds two harsh beeps sound in the car and a voice says, “You are harboring a fugitive named NOT SURE. Please, pull over and wait for the police to incarcerate your passenger.”

Frito’s car begins slowing down, and the dashboard screen shows a picture of Not Sure’s ID card and big red text zooming in a loop reading “PULL OVER”

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The car interface has a column of buttons down the left reading:

  • NAV
  • WTF?
  • BEER
  • FART FAN
  • HOME
  • GIRLS

At the bottom is a square of icons: car, radiation, person, and the fourth is obscured by something in the foreground. Across the bottom is Frito’s car ID “FRITO’S F’N CAR” which appears to be a label for a system status of “EVERYTHING’S A-OK, BRO”, a button labeled CHECK INGN [sic], another labeled LOUDER, and a big green circle reading GO.

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But the car doesn’t wait for him to pull over. With some tiny beeps it slows to a stop by itself. Frito says, “It turned off my battery!” Moments after they flee the car, it is converged upon by a ring of police officers with weapons loaded (including a rocket launcher pointed backward.)

Visual Design

Praise where it’s due: Zooming is the strongest visual attention-getting signals there is (symmetrical expansion is detected on the retina within 80 milliseconds!) and while I can’t find the source from which I learned it, I recall that blinking is somewhere in the top 5. Combining these with an audio signal means it’s hard to miss this critical signal. So that’s good.

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In English: It’s comin’ right at us!

But then. Ugh. The fonts. The buttons on the chrome seem to be some free Blade Runner font knock off, the text reading “PULL OVER” is in some headachey clipped-corner freeware font that neither contrasts nor compliments the Blade Jogger font, or whatever it is. I can’t quite hold the system responsible for the font of the IPPA licence, but I just threw up a little into my Flaturin because of that rounded-top R.

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Then there’s the bad-90s skeuomorphic, Bevel & Emboss buttons that might be defended for making the interactive parts apparent, except that this same button treatment is given to the label Frito’s F’n Car, which has no obvious reason why it would ever need to be pressed. It’s also used on the CHECK INGN and LOUDER buttons, taking their ADA-insulting contrast ratios and absolutely wrecking any readability.

I try not to second-guess designer’s intentions, but I’m pretty sure this is all deliberate. Part of the illustration of a world without much sense. Certainly no design sense.

In-Car Features

What about those features? NAV is pretty standard function, and having a HOME button is a useful shortcut. On current versions of Google Maps there’s an Explore Places Near You Function, which lists basic interests like Restaurants, Bars, and Events, and has a more menu with a big list of interests and services. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Frito has pressed GIRLS and BEER enough that it’s floated to the top nav.

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That leaves only three “novel” buttons to think about: WTF, LOUDER, and FART FAN. 

WTF?

If I have to guess, the WTF button is an all-purpose help button. Like a GM OnStar, but less well branded. Frito can press it and get connected to…well, I guess some idiot to see if they can help him with something. Not bad to have, though this probably should be higher in the visual hierarchy.

LOUDER

This bit of interface comedy is hilarious because, well, there’s no volume down affordance on the interface. Think of the “If it’s too loud, you’re too old” kind of idiocy. Of course, it could be that the media is on zero volume, and so it couldn’t be turned down any more, so the LOUDER button filled up the whole space, but…

  • The smarter convention is to leave the button in place and signal a disabled state, and
  • Given everything else about the interface, that’s giving the diegetic designer a WHOLE lot of credit. (And our real-world designer a pat on the back for subtle hilarity.)

FART FAN

This button is a little potty humor, and probably got a few snickers from anyone who caught it because amygdala, but I’m going to boldly say this is the most novel, least dumb thing about Frito’s F’n Car interface.

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Pictured: A sulfuric gas nebula. Love you, NASA!

People fart. It stinks. Unless you have active charcoal filters under the fabric, you can be in for an unpleasant scramble to reclaim breathable air. The good news is that getting the airflow right to clear the car of the smell has, yes, been studied, well, if not by science, at least scientifically. The bad news is that it’s not a simple answer.

  • Your car’s built in extractor won’t be enough, so just cranking the A/C won’t cut it.
  • Rolling down windows in a moving aerodynamic car may not do the trick due to something called the boundary layer of air that “clings” to the surface of the car.
  • Rolling down windows in a less-aerodynamic car can be problematic because of the Helmholtz effect (the wub-wub-wub air pressure) and that makes this a risky tactic.
  • Opening a sunroof (if you have one) might be good, but pulls the stench up right past noses, so not ideal either.

The best strategy—according to that article and conversation amongst my less squeamish friends—is to crank the AC, then open the driver’s window a couple of inches, and then the rear passenger window half way.

But this generic strategy changes with each car, the weather (seriously, temperature matters, and you wouldn’t want to do this in heavy precipitation), and the skankness of the fart. This is all a LOT to manage when one’s eyes are meant to be on the road and you’re in an nauseated panic. Having the cabin air just refresh at the touch of one button is good for road safety.

If it’s so smart, then, why don’t we have Fart Fan panic buttons in our cars today?

I suspect car manufacturers don’t want the brand associations of having a button labeled FART FAN on their dashboards. But, IMHO, this sounds like a naming problem, not some intractable engineering problem. How about something obviously overpolite, like “Fast freshen”? I’m no longer in the travel and transportation business, but if you know someone at one of these companies, do the polite thing and share this with them.

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Another way to deal with the problem, in the meantime.

So aside from the interface considerations, there are also some strategic ones to discuss with the remote kill switch, but that deserves it’s own post, next.

Sleeping pods

Use

Joe and Rita climb into the pods and situate themselves comfortably. Officer Collins and his assistant approach and insert some necessary intravenous chemicals. We see two canisters, one empty (for waste?) and one filled with the IV fluid. To each side of the subject’s head is a small raised panel with two lights (amber and ruby) and a blue toggle switch. None of these are labeled. The subjects fall into hibernation and the lids close.

Collins and his assistant remove a cable labeled “MASTER” from the interface and close a panel which seals the inputs and outputs. They then close a large steel door, stenciled “TOP SECRET,” to the hibernation chamber.

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The external interface panel includes:

  • A red LED display
  • 3 red safety cover toggle switches labeled “SET 1” “SET 2” and “SET 3.”
  • A 5×4 keypad
    • 0-9 numbers
    • Letters A–F
    • Four unlabeled white buttons

500 years later, after the top secret lab is destroyed, the pods become part of the mountains of garbage that just pile up. Sliding down an avalanche of the stuff, the pods wind up in a downtown area. Joe’s crashes through Frito’s window. At this moment the pod decides enough is enough and it wakes him. Clamps around the edge unlock. The panel cover has fallen off somewhere, and the LED display blinks the text, “unfreezing.” Joe drowsily pushes the lids open and gets out.

Its purpose in the narrative

This is a “segue” interface, mostly useful in explaining how Joe and Rita are transported safely 500 years in the future. At its base, all it needs to convey is:

  • Scienciness (lights and interfaces, check)
  • See them pass into sleep (check)
  • See why how they are kept safe (rugged construction details, clamped lid, check)
  • See the machine wake them up (check)

Is it ideal?

The ergonomics are nice. A comfortable enough coffin to sleep in. And it seems…uh…well engineered, seeing as how it winds up lasting 500 times its intended use and takes some pretty massive abuse as it slides down the mountains of garbage and through Frito’s window into his apartment. But that’s where the goodness ends. It looks solid enough to last a long long time. But there are questions.

From Collins’ point of view:

  • Why was it engineered to last 500 years, but you know, fail to have any of its interior lights or toggle switches labeled? Or have something more informative on the toggles than “SET 1”?
  • How on earth did they monitor the health of the participants over time? (Compare Prometheus’ hibernation screens.) Did they just expect it to work perfectly? Not a lot of comfort to the subjects. Did they monitor it remotely? Why didn’t that monitoring screen arouse the suspicions of the foreclosers?
  • How are subjects roused? If the procedure is something that Collins just knows, what if something happens to him? That information should be somewhere on the pod with very clear instructions.
  • How does it gracefully degrade as it runs out of resources (power, water, nutrition, air, water storage or disposal) to keep it’s occupants alive? What if the appointed person doesn’t answer the initial cry for help?

From the hibernators’ point of view:

  • How do the participants indicate their consent to go into hibernation? Can this be used as an involuntary prison?
  • How do they indicate consent to be awakened? (Not an easy problem, but Passengers illustrates why it’s necessary.)
  • What if they wake early? How do they get out or let anyone know to release them?
  • Why does the subject have to push the lid if they’re going to be weak and woozy when they waken? Can’t it be automatic, like the hibernation lids in Aliens?
  • How does the sleeper know it’s safe to get out? Certainly Joe and Rita expected to wake up in the military laboratory. But while we’re putting in the effort to engineer it to last 500 years, maybe we could account for the possibility that it’s somewhere else.
  • Can’t you put me at ease in the disorientating hypnopompic phase? Maybe some soothing graphic on the interior lid? A big red label reading, “DON’T PANIC” with an explanation?
  • Can you provide some information to help orient me, like where I am and when I am? Why does Joe have to infer the date from a magazine cover?

From a person-in-the-future point of view

  • How do the people nearby know that it contains living humans? That might be important for safekeeping, or even to take care in case the hibernators are carrying some disease to which the population has lost resistance.
  • How do we know if they’ve got some medical conditions that will need specialized care? What food they eat? Whether they are dangerous?
  • Can we get a little warning so we can prepare for all this stuff?

Is the interface believable?

Oh yes. Prototypes tend to be minimum viable thing, and usability lags far behind basic utility. Plus, this is military, known to be tough people expecting their people to be tough people without the need for civilian niceties. Plus, Collins didn’t seem too big on “details.” So very believable.

Idiocracy_surveillance14

Note that this doesn’t equate to the thing itself being believable. I mean, it was an experiment meant to last only a year. How did it have the life support resources—including power—to run for 500 times the intended duration? What brown fluid has the 273,750,000 calories needed to sustain Luke Wilson’s physique for 500 years? (Maya Rudoph lucks out needing “only” 219,000,000.) How did it keep them alive and prevent long-term bedridden problems, like pressure sores, pneumonia, constipation, contractures, etc. etc.?
See? Comedy is hard to review.

Fight US Idiocracy: Donate to close races

Reminder: Every post in this series includes some U.S.-focused calls to action for readers to help reverse the current free fall into our own Idiocracy. In the last post I provided information about how to register to vote in your state. DO THAT.
If you accidentally missed the deadline (and triple check because many states have some way to register right up to and including election day, which is 06 NOV this year), there are still things you can do. Sadly, one of the most powerful things feels crass: Donate money to close campaigns. Much of this money is spent reaching out to undecided voters via media channels, and that means the more money the more reach.

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There are currently 68 highly competitive seats—those considered a toss up between the two parties or leaning slightly toward one. You can look at the close campaigns and donate directly, or you can donate to Act Blue, and let that organization make the call. That’s what I did. Just now. Please join me.

Ministry of Art detector gate

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Jumping back in the film a bit, we’re going to visit the Ministry of Art. When Theo goes there to visit his brother, after the car pulls to the front of the secured building, Theo steps out and walks toward a metal-detector gate.

Its quite high, about 3 meters tall. The height helps to reinforce the notion that this is a public space.

  1. This principle, that short ceilings are personal, and high ceilings are public, is I believe a well-established one in architectural design. Read the Alexandrian pattern if you’d like to read more about it.
  2. Is it a public space? It is, since it’s a Ministry. But it isn’t, since he joins his brother in what looks like a rich person’s private dining room. I was always a bit confused by what this place was meant to be. Perhaps owning to The Dark Times, Nigel has cited Minister rights and cordoned off part of the Tate Modern to live in. If anyone can explain this, please speak up.
  3. On the downside, the height makes the text more out of sight and harder to read by the people meant to be reading it.

The distance is balanced by the motion graphics of the translucent sign atop the gate. Animated red graphics point the direction of ingress, show a security stripe pattern, and provide text instructions.

Motion is a very strong attention-getting signal, and combined with the red colors, does all the attention-getting that the height risks. But even that’s not a critical issue, as there is of course a guard standing by to ensure his understanding and compliance.

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Note that there is no interaction here (which is the usual filter for this blog), but since I’m publishing an interview with the designer of this and the Kubris interface soon, I thought I’d give it a quick nod.

Jasper’s home alarm

When Theo, Kee, and Miriam flee the murderous Fishes, they take refuge in Jasper’s home for the night. They are awoken in the morning by Jasper’s sentry system.

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A loud cacophonous alarm sounds, made up of what sounds like recorded dog barks, bells clanging, and someone banging a stick on a metal trash can lid. Jasper explains to everyone in the house that “It’s the alarm! Someone’s breaking in!”

They gather around a computer screen with large speakers on either side. The screen shows four video feeds labeled ROAD A, FOREST A, FRONT DOOR, and ROAD B. Labels reading MOTION DETECTED <> blink at the bottom of the ROAD A and ROAD B feeds, where we can see members of the Fishes removing the brush that hides the driveway to Jasper’s house.

The date overlays the upper right hand corner of the screen, 06-DEC-2027, 08:10:58.

Across the bottom is a control panel of white numbers and icons on red backgrounds.

  • A radio button control for the number of video feeds to be displayed. Though we are seeing the 4-up display, the icon does not appear to be different than the rest.
  • 16 enumerated icons, the purpose for which is unclear.
  • Video control icons for reverse, stop, play, and fast forward.
  • Three buttons with gray backgrounds and icons.
  • A wide button blinking MASTER ALARM

The scene cuts to Jasper’s rushing to the car outside the home, where none of the cacophony can be heard.

Similar to his car dashoard, it makes sense that Jasper has made this alarm himself. This might explain the clunky layout and somewhat inscrutable icons. (What do the numbers do? What about that flower on the gray background?)

The three jobs of an intruder alarm

Jasper’s alarm is OK. It certainly does the job of grabbing the household’s attention, which is the first job of an alarm, and does it without alerting the intruders, as we see in the shot outside the house.

It could do a bit better at the second job of an alarm, which is to inform the household of the nature of the problem. That they have to gather around the monitor takes precious time that could be used for making themselves safer. It could be improved by removing this requirement.

  • If Jasper had added more information to the audio alarm, even so basic as a prerecorded “Motion on the road! Motion on the road!” then they might not have needed to gather around the monitor at all.
  • If the relevant video feeds could be piped to wearable devices, phones, or their car, then they can fill in their understanding at the same time that they are taking steps to getting the hell out of there.
  • Having the artificial intelligence that we have in actual-world 2017 (much less speculative 2027), we know that narrow AI can process that video to have many more details in the broadcast message. “Motion on the road! I see three cars and at least a dozen armed men!”

There is arguably a third job of an advanced alarm, and this is to help the household understand the best course of action. This can be problematic when the confidence of the recommendation is low. But if the AI can confidently make a recommendation, it can use whatever actuators it has to help them along their way.

  • It could be informational, such as describing the best option. The audio alarm could encourage them to “Take the back road!” It could even alert the police (though in the world of Children of Men, Jasper would not trust them and they may be disinclined to care.)
  • The alarm could give some parameters and best-practice recommendations like, “You have 10 minutes to be in the car! Save only yourselves, carry nothing!”
  • It could keep updating the situation and the countdown so the household does not have to monitor it.
  • It can physically help as best it can, like remotely starting and positioning cars for them.

This can get conceptually tricky as the best course of action may be conditional, e.g. “If you can get to the car in 5 minutes, then escape is your best option, but if it takes longer or you have defenses, then securing the home and alerting the police is the better bet.” But that may be too much to process in the moment, and for a household that does not rehearse response scenarios, the simpler instruction may be safer.

Cyberspace: Beijing Hotel

After selecting its location from a map, Johnny is now in front of the virtual entrance to the hotel. The virtual Beijing has a new color scheme, mostly orange with some red.

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The “entrance” is another tetrahedral shape made from geometric blocks. It is actually another numeric keypad. Johnny taps the blocks to enter a sequence of numbers.

The tetrahedral keypad

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Note that there can be more than one digit within a block. I mentioned earlier that it can be difficult to “press” with precision in virtual reality due to the lack of tactile feedback. Looking closely, here the fingers of Johnny’s “hands” cast a shadow on the pyramid, making depth perception easier. Continue reading

Luke’s predictive HUD

When Luke is driving Kee and Theo to a boat on the coast, the car’s heads-up-display shows him the car’s speed with a translucent red number and speed gauge. There are also two broken, blurry gauges showing unknown information.

Suddenly the road becomes blocked by a flaming car rolled onto the road by a then unknown gang. In response, an IMPACT warning triangle zooms in several times to warn the driver of the danger, accompanied by a persistent dinging sound.

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It commands attention effectively

Continue reading

Door Bomb and Safety Catches

Johnny leaves the airport by taxi, ending up in a disreputable part of town. During his ride we see another video phone call with a different interface, and the first brief appearance of some high tech binoculars. I’ll return to these later, for the moment skipping ahead to the last of the relatively simple and single-use physical gadgets.

Johnny finds the people he is supposed to meet in a deserted building but, as events are not proceeding as planned, he attaches another black box with glowing red status light to the outside of the door as he enters. Although it looks like the motion detector we saw earlier, this is a bomb.

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This is indeed a very bad neighbourhood of Newark. Inside are the same Yakuza from Beijing, who plan to remove Johnny’s head. There is a brief fight, which ends when Johnny uses his watch to detonate the bomb. It isn’t clear whether he pushes or rotates some control, but it is a single quick action. Continue reading