Colossus Computer Center

As Colossus: The Forbin Project opens, we are treated to an establishing montage of 1970’s circuit boards (with resistors), whirring doodads, punched tape, ticking Nixie tube numerals, beeping lights, and jerking control data tapes. Then a human hand breaks into frame, and twiddles a few buttons as an oscilloscope draws lines creepily like an ECG cardiac cycle. This hand belongs to Charles Forbin, who walks alone in this massive underground compound, making sure final preparations are in order. The matte paintings make this space seem vast, inviting comparisons to the Krell technopolis from Forbidden Planet.

Forbidden Planet (1956)
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1976)

Forbin pulls out a remote control and presses something on its surface to illuminate rows and rows of lights. He walks across a drawbridge over a moat. Once on the far side, he uses the remote control to close the massive door, withdraw the bridge and seal the compound.

The remote control is about the size of a smartphone, with a long antenna extending out the top. Etched type across the top reads “COLOSSUS COMPUTER SYSTEMS.” A row of buttons is labeled A–E. Large red capital letters warn DANGER RADIATION above a safety cover. The cover has an arrow pointing right. Another row of five buttons is labeled SLIDING WALLS and numbered 1–5. A final row of three buttons is labeled RAMPS and numbered 1–3.

Forbin flips open the safety cover. He presses the red button underneath, and a blood-red light floods the bottom of the moat and turns blue-white hot, while a theremin-y whistle tells you this is no place a person should go. Forbin flips the cover back into place and walks out the sealed compound to the reporters and colleagues who await him. 

I can’t help but ask one non-tech narrative question: Why is Forbin turning lights on when he is about to abandon the compound? It might be that the illumination is a side-effect of the power systems, but it looks like he’s turning on the lights just before leaving and locking the house. Does he want to fool people into thinking there’s someone home? Maybe it should be going from fully-lit to an eerie, red low-light kinda vibe.

The Remote Control

The layout is really messy. Some rows are crowded and others have way too much space. (Honestly, it looks like the director demanded there be moar buttins make tecc! and forced the prop designer to add the A–E.) The crowding makes it tough to immediately know what labels go with what controls. Are A–E the radiation bits, and the safety cover control sliding walls? Bounding boxes or white space or some alternate layout would make the connections clear.

You might be tempted to put all of the controls in strict chronological order, but the gamma shielding is the most dangerous thing, and having it in the center helps prevent accidental activation, so it belongs there. And otherwise, it is in chronological order.

The labeling is inconsistent. Sure, maybe A–E the five computer systems that comprise Colossus. Sliding walls and ramps are well labeled, but there’s no indication about what it is that causes the dangerous radiation. It should say something like “Gamma shielding: DANGER RADIATION.” It’s tiny, but I also think the little arrow is a bad graphic for showing which way the safety cover flips open. Existing designs show that the industrial design can signal this same information with easier-to-understand affordances. And since this gamma radiation is an immediate threat to life and health, how about foregoing the red lettering in favor of symbols that are more immediately recognizable by non-English speakers and illiterate people. The IAEA hadn’t invented its new sign yet, but the visual concepts were certainly around at the time, so let’s build on that. Also, why doesn’t the door to the compound come with the same radiation warning? Or any warning?

The buttons are a crap choice of control as well. They don’t show what the status of the remotely controlled thing is. So if Charles accidentally presses a button, and, say, raises a sliding wall that’s out of sight, how would he know? Labeled rocker switches help signal the state and would be a better choice.

But really, why would these things be controlled remotely? It be more secure to have two-handed momentary buttons on the walls, which would mean that a person would be there to visually verify that the wall was slid or the ramp retracted or whatever it is national security needed them to be.

There’s also the narrative question about why this remote control doesn’t come up later in the film when Unity is getting out of control. Couldn’t they have used this to open the fortification and go unplug the thing?

So all told, not a great bit of design, for either interaction or narrative, with lots of improvement for both.

Locking yourselves out and throwing away the key

At first glance, it seems weird that there should be interfaces in a compound that is meant to be uninhabited for most of its use. But this is the first launch of a new system, and these interfaces may be there in anticipation of the possibility that they would have to return inside after a failure.  We can apologize these into believability.

But that doesn’t excuse the larger strategic question. Yes, we need defense systems to be secure. But that doesn’t mean sealing the processing and power systems for an untested AI away from all human access. The Control Problem is hard enough without humans actively limiting their own options. Which raises a narrative question: Why wasn’t there a segment of the film where the military is besieging this compound? Did Unity point a nuke at its own crunchy center? If not, siege! If so, well, maybe you can trick it into bombing itself. But I digress.

“And here is where we really screw our ability to recover from a mistake.”

Whether Unity should have had its plug pulled is the big philosophical question this movie does not want to ask, but I’ll save that for the big wrap up at the end.

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R. S. Revenge Comms

Note: In honor of the season, Rogue One opening this week, and the reviews of Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series behind us, I’m reopening the Star Wars Holiday Special reviews, starting with the show-within-a-show, The Faithful Wookie. Refresh yourself of the plot if it’s been a while.

Faithful-Wookiee-02

On board the R.S. Revenge, the purple-skinned communications officer announces he’s picked up something. (Genders are a goofy thing to ascribe to alien physiology, but the voice actor speaks in a masculine register, so I’m going with it.)

faithful-wookiee-01-surrounds

He attends a monitor, below which are several dials and controls in a panel. On the right of the monitor screen there are five physical controls.

  • A stay-state toggle switch
  • A stay-state rocker switch
  • Three dials

The lower two dials have rings under them on the panel that accentuate their color.

Map View

The screen is a dark purple overhead map of the impossibly dense asteroid field in which the Revenge sits. A light purple grid divides the space into 48 squares. This screen has text all over it, but written in a constructed orthography unmentioned in the Wookieepedia. In the upper center and upper right are unchanging labels. Some triangular label sits in the lower-left. In the lower right corner, text appears and disappears too fast for (human) reading. The middle right side of the screen is labeled in large characters, but they also change too rapidly to make much sense of it.

revengescreen Continue reading

Time circuits (which interface the Flux Capacitor)

BttF_137Time traveling in the DeLorean is accomplished in three steps. In the first, he traveler turns on the “time circuits” using a rocking switch in the central console. Its use is detailed in the original Back to the Future, as below.

In the second, the traveler sets the target month, day, year, hour, and minute using a telephone keypad mounted vertically on the dashboard to the left, and pressing a button below stoplight-colored LEDs on the left, and then with an extra white status indicator below that before some kind of commit button at the bottom.
BttF_135

In the third, you get the DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour and flood the flux capacitor with 1.21 gigawatts of power.

Seems simple.

It’s not… Continue reading

Course-correction

The stage managers’ main raison d’être is to course-correct if and when victims begin to deviate from the path required of the ritual.

This begins with the Prep team, long before the victims enter the stage. For example, Jules’ hair dye and Marty’s laced pot. These corrections become more necessary and intense once the victims go on stage.

Making sure there are sexy times

The ritual requires that a sexy young couple have sexy times on stage before they suffer and die. “The mood” can be ruined by many things, but control has mechanisms to cope with most of them. We see three in the movie.

Temperature

The temperature can’t be too hot or too cold, but this isn’t something that can be set and forgot. What counts as the right temperature is a subjective call for the people involved and their circumstances, such as being drunk, or amount and type of clothes worn. Fortunately, the video-audio panopticon lets the stage managers know when a victim speaks about this directly, and do something about it. The moment Jules complains, for instance, Sitterson is able to reach over to a touch-screen display and tap the temperature a few degrees warmer.

Sitterson heats things up.

The gauge is an interesting study. It implies a range possible between 48 and 92 degrees Fahrenheit, each of which is uncomfortable enough to encourage different behaviors in the victims, without the temperature itself being life-threatening.

Moreover, we see that it’s a “blind” control. Before Sitterson taps it, he is only shown the current temperature as a blue rectangle that fills up four bars and that it is exactly 64 degrees. But if he knew he wanted it to be 76 degrees, what, other than experience or training, tells him where he should touch to get to that desired new temperature? Though the gauge provides immediate feedback, it still places a burden on his long-term memory. And for novice users, such unlabeled controls require a trial-and-error method that isn’t ideal. Even the slim area of white coloring at the top, which helpfully indicates temperatures warmer than cooler, appears too late to be useful.

Better would be to have the color alongside or under the gauge with smaller numbers indicated along its length such that Sitterson could identify and target the right temperature on the first try.

Libido

The next thing that can risk the mood is a lack of a victim’s amorous feelings. Should someone not be “feeling it,” Control can pipe sex pheromones to areas on stage. We see Hadley doing this by operating a throttle lever on the electronic-era control panel. After Hadley raises this lever, we see small plumes of mist erupt from the mossy forest floor that Jules and Curt are walking across.

Hadley introduces pheromones to the forest air.

This control, too, is questionable. Let’s first presume it’s not a direct control, like a light switch, but more of a set-point control, like a thermostat. Similar to the temperature gauge above, this control misses some vital information for Hadley to know where to set the lever to have the desired amount of pheromone in the air, like a parts-per-million labeling along the side. Perhaps this readout occurs on a 7-segment readout nearby or a digital reading on some other screen, but we don’t see it.

There is also no indication about how Hadley has specified the location for the pheromone release. It’s unlikely that he’s releasing this everywhere on stage, lest this become a different sort of ritual altogether. There must be some way for him to indicate where, but we don’t see it in use. Perhaps it is one of the lit square buttons to his right.

An interesting question is why the temperature gauge and pheromone controls, which are similar set-point systems, use not just different mechanisms, but mechanisms from different eras. Certainly such differentiation would help the stage managers’ avoid mistaking one for the other, and inadvertently turn a cold room into an orgy, so perhaps it is a deliberate attempt to avoid this kind of mistake.

Lights

The final variable that stands in the way of Jules’ receptiveness (the authors here must acknowledge their own discomfort in having to write about this mechanistic rape in our standard detached and observational tone) is the level of light. After she complains that it is too dark, Hadley turns a simple potentiometer and the “moonlight” on a soft bed of moss behind them grows brighter.

Control responds to Jules’ objection to the darkness.

This, too, is a different control than the others; though it controls what is essentially a floating-point variable. But since it is more of a direct control than the other two, its design as a hard-stop dial makes sense, and keeps it nicely differentiated from the others.

Marty’s Subliminal Messages

Over the course of the movie, several times we hear subliminal messages spoken to directly control Marty. We never see the inputs used by Control, but they do, at least on one occasion, actually influence him, and is one of the ways the victims are nudged into place.

Marty breaks the fourth wall

In addition to Dana & Curt’s almost not getting it on, another control-room panic moment comes when Marty accidentally breaks a lamp and finds one of the tiny spy cameras embedded throughout the cabin. Knowing that this level of awareness or suspicion could seriously jeopardize the scenario, Hadley bolts to a microphone where he says, “Chem department, I need 500 ccs of Thorazine pumped into room 3!”

Marty finds a spy camera

Hadley speaks a command to the Chem department

Careful observers will note while watching the scene that a menu appears on a screen behind him as he’s stating this. The menu lists the following four drugs.

  • Cortisol (a stress hormone)
  • Pheromones (a category of hormonal social signals, most likely sex pheromones)
  • Thorazine (interestingly, an antipsychotic known to cause drowsiness and agitation)
  • Rhohyptase (aka Rhohypnol, the date rape drug)

Given that content, the timing of the menu is curious. It appears, overlaid on the victim monitoring screen, the moment that Hadley says “500.” (Before he can even specify “Thorazine.”) How does it appear so quickly? Either there’s a team in the Chem department also monitoring the scene, and who had already been building a best-guess menu for what Hadley might want in the situation and they just happened to push it to Hadley’s screen at that moment; Or there’s an algorithmic voice- and goal-awareness system that can respond quickly to the phrase “500 ccs” and provide the top four most likely options. That last one is unlikely, since…

  • We don’t see evidence of it anywhere else in the movie
  • Hadley addresses the Chem department explicitly
  • We’d expect him to have his eyes on the display, ready to make a selection on its touch surface, if this was something that happened routinely

But, if we were designing the system today with integrated voice recognition capabilities, it’s what we’d do.

Curt suggests they stick together

After the attack begins on the cabin itself, Curt wisely tells the others, “Look, we’ve got to lock this place down…We’ll go room by room, barricade every window and every door. We’ve got to play it safe. No matter what happens, we have to stay together.” Turns out this is a little too wise for Hadley’s tastes. Sitterson presses two yellow, back-lit buttons on his control panel to open vents in the hallway, that emit a mist. As Curt passes by the vents and inhales, he pauses, turns to the others and says, “This isn’t right…This isn’t right, we should split up. We can cover more ground that way.”

Sitterson knocks some sense out of Curt.

This two-button control seems to indicate drug (single dose) and location, which is sensible. But if you are asking users to select from different variables, it’s a better idea to differentiate them by clustering and color, to avoid mistakes and enable faster targeting.

Locking the doors

Once the victims are in their rooms, Hadley acknowledges it’s time to, “Lock ‘em in.” Sitterson flips a safety cover and presses a back-lit rocker switch, which emits a short beep and bolts the doors to all the victims’ rooms at the same time.

Sitterson bolts the victims’ doors.

Marty in particular notices the loud “clunk” as the bolts slide into place. He tests the door and is confounded when he finds it is, in fact, locked tight. Control’s earlier concern about tipping their hand seems to matter less and less, since this is a pretty obvious manipulation.

The edge of the world

Bolted doors pale in comparison to the moment when Curt, Dana, and Holden violently encounter the limits of the stage. After the demolition team seals the tunnel to prevent escape that way, Curt tries to jump the ravine to the other side so he can fetch help. Unfortunately for him, the ravine is actually an electrified display screen, showing a trompe-l’œil illusion of the far side. By trying to jump the ravine, Curt unwittingly commits suicide by slamming into it.

Curt slams into the edges of the “world” of the cabin.

The effect of the screen is spectacular, full of arcs zipping along hexagonal lines and sparks flying everywhere. Dana and Holden rush to the edge of the cliff to watch him tumble down its vast, concave surface. It seems that if you’ve come this far, Control isn’t as concerned about tipping its hand as it is finishing the job.