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.
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The Dark Dimension mode (5 of 5)

We see a completely new mode for the Eye in the Dark Dimension. With a flourish of his right hand over his left forearm, a band of green lines begin orbiting his forearm just below his wrist. (Another orbits just below his elbow, just off-camera in the animated gif.) The band signals that Strange has set this point in time as a “save point,” like in a video game. From that point forward, when he dies, time resets and he is returned here, alive and well, though he and anyone else in the loop is aware that it happened.

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In the scene he’s confronting a hostile god-like creature on its own mystical turf, so he dies a lot.

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An interesting moment happens when Strange is hopping from the blue-ringed planetoid to the one close to the giant Dormammu face. He glances down at his wrist, making sure that his savepoint was set. It’s a nice tell, letting us know that Strange is a nervous about facing the giant, Galactus-sized primordial evil that is Dormammu. This nervousness ties right into the analysis of this display. If we changed the design, we could put him more at ease when using this life-critical interface.

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Initiating gesture

The initiating gesture doesn’t read as “set a savepoint.” This doesn’t show itself as a problem in this scene, but if the gesture did have some sort of semantic meaning, it would make it easier for Strange to recall and perform correctly. Maybe if his wrist twist transitioned from moving splayed fingers to his pointing with his index finger to his wrist…ok, that’s a little too on the nose, so maybe…toward the ground, it would help symbolize the here & now that is the savepoint. It would be easier for Strange to recall and feel assured that he’d done the right thing.

I have questions about the extents of the time loop effect. Is it the whole Dark Dimension? Is it also Earth? Is it the Universe? Is it just a sphere, like the other modes of the Eye? How does he set these? There’s not enough information in the movie to backworld this, but unless the answer is “it affects everything” there seems to be some variables missing in the initiating gesture.

Setpoint-active signal

But where the initiating gesture doesn’t appear to be a problem in the scene, the wrist-glance indicates that the display is. Note that, other than being on the left forearm instead of the right, the bands look identical to the ones in the Tibet and Hong Kong modes. (Compare the Tibet screenshot below.) If Strange is relying on the display to ensure that his savepoint was set, having it look identical is not as helpful as it would be if the visual was unique. “Wait,” he might think, “Am I in the right mode, here?

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In a redesign, I would select an animated display that was not a loop, but an indication that time was passing. It can’t be as literal as a clock of course. But something that used animation to suggest time was progressing linearly from a point. Maybe something like the binary clock from Mission to Mars (see below), rendered in the graphic language of the Eye. Maybe make it base-3 to seem not so technological.

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Seeing a display that is still, on invocation—that becomes animated upon initialization—would mean that all he has to do is glance to confirm the unique display is in motion. “Yes, it’s working. I’m in the Groundhog Day mode, and the savepoint is set.

Green Laser Scan

In a very brief scene, Theo walks through a security arch on his way into the Ministry of Energy. After waiting in queue, he walks towards a rectangular archway. At his approach, two horizontal green laser lines scan him from head to toe. Theo passes through the arch with no trouble.

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Though the archway is quite similar to metal detection technology used in airports today, the addition of the lasers hints at additional data being gathered, such as surface mapping for a face-matching algorithm.

We know that security mostly cares about what’s hidden under clothes or within bodies and bags, rather than confirming the surface that security guards can see, so it’s not likely to be an actual technological requirement of the scan. Rather it is a visual reminder to participants and onlookers that the scan is in progress, and moreover that this the Ministry is a secured space.

Though we could argue that the signal could be made more visible, laser light is very eye catching and human eyes are most sensitive at 555nm, and this bright green is the closest to the 808 diode laser at 532nm. So for being an economic, but eye catching signal, this green laser is a perfect choice.

Skyways

BttF_013When driving in the sky along with other flying cars that fill the skies in 2015, Doc follows a proscribed path in the sky called a “skyway.” Lanes are distinguished by floating lightposts, which the pilot keeps to his left. It all seems a little chaosy, but so does driving in Mumbai to the outsider, and it works if you know how. The other brilliance of the skyway is that suddenly flying cars make some sense systemically. Before this, I certainly thought of flying cars as personal helicopters, taking you from point to point. But of course that becomes an air traffic control nightmare. Much better to adapt a known system that puts the onus of control to the operators.

Less successful are the road signs. Continue reading

Escape pod and insertion windows

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When the Rodger Young is destroyed by fire from the Plasma Bugs on Planet P, Ibanez and Barcalow luckily find a functional escape pod and jettison. Though this pod’s interface stays off camera for almost the whole scene, the pod is knocked and buffeted by collisions in the debris cloud outside the ship, and in one jolt we see the interface for a fraction of a second. If it looks familiar, it is not from anything in Starship Troopers.

vlcsnap-2014-12-09-21h16m18s69 Continue reading

Ectogoggles

When the Ghostbusters are called to the Sedgewick Hotel, they track a ghost called Slimer from his usual haunt on the 12th floor to a ballroom. There Ray dons a pair of asymmetrical goggles that show him information about the “psycho-kinetic energy (PKE) valences” in the area. (The Ghostbusters wiki—and of course there is such a thing—identifies these alternately as paragoggles or ectogoggles.) He uses the goggles to peek from behind a curtain to look for Slimer.

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Far be it for this humble blog to try and reverse-engineer what PKE valences actually are, but let’s presume it generally means ghosts and ghost related activity. Here’s an animated gif of the display for your ghostspotting pleasure.

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As he scans the room, we see a shot from his perspective. Five outputs augment the ordinary view the googles offer.

1. A plan position indicator (like what you see on a radar) sweeps around and around in the upper left hand corner, but never displays anything (even when Slimer appears.)

2. A bar graph on the left side that wavers up and down until Slimer is spotted, when it jumps to maximum. The bar graph adheres to the basic visual principle of “up means more.” The bar graph is colored with a stoplight gradient, with red at the bottom, yellow in the middle, and a bright screen-green at the top. Note that the graph builds from the bottom until it hits maximum, when its glow slides to the top to fully illuminate only the uppermost block. This is a special “max” mode that strongly draws the user’s attention.

3. There is a 7-segment red LED number display just below the graph, which you might think is a numerical version of the same data, but we only see it increment steadily from 03094 to 03051 during the first scan, then after a cutaway to Ray’s face, we see it drop to 01325 and continue to increment steadily until it hits 1333, where it remains steady and begins to blink. It hits this maximum about a half a second before the graph jumps to its max.

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4. In the very lower left is a red mode label reading “KER,” which blinks until the numbers hit 01333 in the second sequence, when KER disappears and is replaced with a steadily-glowing green “MAX.”

What the heck is KER? I don’t think there’s any diegetic answer. Ker might be an extradiegetic shout-out to Rick Kerrigan, who was production supervisor for Entertainment Effects Group / Boss Film Studios for the film, but that’s just a guess. Otherwise I got nothin’. Anyone else?

5. In the lower right is a blurry light that blinks red until Slimer is spotted, when it blinks the same screen-green as the bar graph, sweep, and MAX label.

Narratively, this is a tone interface, that doesn’t add anything to the plot, and only helps us experience and understand how it is the busters do their busting. As a tone interface, making these changes would help improve believability without affecting the plot.

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How to better support busting

The immediate improvements you could make to this as a “real” ghostbusting tool are fairly obvious:

  • Make the plan position indicator, you know, work.
  • Have the numbers match the graph, or, if they’re actually measuring different things, put the LED display on the other side of the view.
  • I’d change the graph color indicating no-PKE to black or dark gray. Red often connotes danger, and really, if there’s no PKE, you’re safe from the supernatural. Plus the blackbody radiation spectrum has a more physical reference and is therefore more immediate.
  • You could even lose the bar diagram—which requires looking away from the view—and replace it with a line around the view that changes color similarly. This puts the augmentation in the periphery.
  • Lose the distracting blinking red light entirely. It draws attention at a time when the Buster’s eyes need to be on the view, and it’s just duplicating information already provided in a better way by the graph.

But we can do those improvements better. In the augmented reality chapter of the book, I identified levels of awareness for these devices. The ectogoggles are an example of the simplest type, of sensor display, with the sweep giving an unfulfilled promise of the second type, location awareness. We can make even bigger improvements by considering the other levels, i.e. context and goal awareness.

Context Awareness

Context awareness implies a more sophisticated system with image recognition and display capabilities. Could the paragoggles help draw attention to where on the view the PKE is most concentrated, and how those readings are trending? Of course this wouldn’t be so important when the ghost is actually visible, but if it could lead his eyes to where the ghost is most likely going to be, it would be more useful and save him even the microseconds of an eye saccade.

A second aspect of context awareness is object or people recognition. If the goggles could recognize individual ghosts, the display be improved with some information about this particular ghost—or its category—from a database. What’s its name? What methods have failed or worked in the past to control it? Even if it doesn’t know these things, it can provide an alert that it is an UNKNOWN ENTITY, which is spooky sounding and tells the Ghostbusters to be on high alert since anything could happen.

Goal awareness

Lastly, they could be improved with goal awareness. The Ghostbusters aren’t birdwatchers. They’re there to capture that ugly spud. Can it help guide each person as to the best time to gear up the proton packs (or do it for them), where to position themselves as well as the trap, and finally when and where to fire? Certainly someone as scatterbrained as Ray could use that kind of assistance.

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Rodger Young combat interfaces

The interfaces aboard the Rodger Young in combat are hard to take seriously. The captain’s interface, for instance, features arrays of wireframe spheres that zoom from the bottom of the screen across horizontal lines to become blinking green squares. The shapes bear only the vaguest resemblance to the plasma bolts, but don’t match what we see out the viewscreen or the general behavior of the bolts at all. But the ridiculousness doesn’t end there.

Boomdots_8fps Continue reading

Tattoo-o-matic

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After he is spurned by Carmen and her new beau in the station, Rico realizes that he belongs in the infantry and not the fleet where Carmen will be working. So, to cement this new identity, Rico decides to give in and join his fellow roughnecks in getting matching tattoos.  The tattoos show a skull over a shield and the words “Death from Above”. (Incidentally, Death From Above is the name of the documentary detailing the making of the film, a well as the title of a hilarious progressive metal video by the band Holy Light of Demons. You should totally check it out.)  Continue reading

The bug VP

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In biology class, the (unnamed) professor points her walking stick (she’s blind) at a volumetric projector. The tip flashes for a second, and a volumetric display comes to life. It illustrates for the class what one of the bugs looks like. The projection device is a cylinder with a large lens atop a rolling base. A large black plug connects it to the wall.

The display of the arachnid appears floating in midair, a highly saturated screen-green wireframe that spins. It has very slight projection rays at the cylinder and a "waver" of a scan line that slowly rises up the display. When it initially illuminates, the channels are offset and only unify after a second.

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The top and bottom of the projection are ringed with tick lines, and several tick lines runs vertically along the height of the bug for scale. A large, lavender label at the bottom identifies this as an ARACHNID WARRIOR CLASS. There is another lavendar key too small for us to read.The arachnid in the display is still, though the display slowly rotates around its y-axis clockwise from above. The instructor uses this as a backdrop for discussing arachnid evolution and "virtues."

After the display continues for 14 seconds, it shuts down automatically.

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Interaction

It’s nice that it can be activated with her walking stick, an item we can presume isn’t common, since she’s the only apparently blind character in the movie. It’s essentially gestural, though what a blind user needs with a flash for feedback is questionable. Maybe that signal is somehow for the students? What happens for sighted teachers? Do they need a walking stick? Or would a hand do? What’s the point of the flash then?

That it ends automatically seems pointlessly limited. Why wouldn’t it continue to spin until it’s dismissed? Maybe the way she activated it indicated it should only play for a short while, but it didn’t seem like that precise a gesture.

Of course it’s only one example of interaction, but there are so many other questions to answer. Are there different models that can be displayed? How would she select a different one? How would she zoom in and out? Can it display aimations? How would she control playback? There are quite a lot of unaddressed details for an imaginative designer to ponder.

Display

The display itself is more questionable.

Scale is tough to tell on it. How big is that thing? Students would have seen video of it for years, so maybe it’s not such an issue. But a human for scale in the display would have been more immediately recognizable. Or better yet, no scale: Show the thing at 1:1 in the space so its scale is immediately apparent to all the students. And more appropriately, terrifying.

And why the green wireframe? The bugs don’t look like that. If it was showing some important detail, like carapice density, maybe, but this looks pretty even. How about some realistic color instead? Do they think it would scare kids? (More than the “gee-whiz!” girl already is?)

And lastly there’s the title. Yes, having it rotate accomodates viewers in 360 degrees, but it only reads right for half the time. Copy it, flip it 180º on the y-axis, and stack it, and you’ve got the most important textual information readable at most any time from the display.

Better of course is more personal interaction, individual displays or augmented reality where a student can turn it to examine the arachnid themselves, control the zoom, or follow up on more information. (Wnat to know more?) But the school budget in the world of Starship Troopers was undoubtedly stripped to increase military budget (what a crappy world that would be amirite?), and this single mass display might be more cost effective.

Section No6’s crappy sniper tech

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Section 6 sends helicopters to assassinate Kunasagi and her team before they can learn the truth about Project 2501. We get a brief glimpse of the snipers, who wear full-immersion helmets with a large lens to the front of one side, connected by thick cables to ports in the roof of the helicopter. The snipers have their hands on long barrel rifles mounted to posts. In these helmets they have full audio access to a command and control center that gives orders and recieves confirmations.

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The helmets feature fully immersive displays that can show abstract data, such as the profiles and portraits of their targets.

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These helmets also provide the snipers an augmented reality display that grants high powered magnification views overlaid with complex reticles for targeting. The reticles feature a spiraling indicator of "gyroscopic stabilization" and a red dot that appears in the crosshairs when the target has been held for a full second. The reticles do not provide any "layman" information in text, but rely solely on simple shapes that a well-trained sniper can see rather than read. The whole system has the ability to suppress the cardiovascular interference of the snipers, though no details are given as to how.

These features seem provocative, and a pretty sweet setup for a sniper: heightened vision, supression of interference, aiming guides, and signals indicating a key status. But then, we see a camera on the bottom of the helicopter, mounted with actuators that allow it to move with a high (though not full) freedom of movement and precision. What’s this there for? It wouldn’t make sense for the snipers to be using it to aim. Their eyes are in the direction of their weapons.

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This could be used for general surveillance of course, but the collection of technologies that we see here raise the question: If Section 9 has the technology to precisely-control a camera, why doesn’t it apply that to the barrel of the weapon? And if it has the technology to know when the weapon is aimed at its target (showing a red dot) why does it let humans do the targeting?

Of course you want a human to make the choice to pull a trigger/activate a weapon, because we should not leave such a terrible, ethical, and deadly decision to an algorithm, but the other activities of targeting could clearly be handled, and handled better, by technology.

This again illustrates a problem that sci-fi has had with tech, one we saw in Section 6’s security details: How are heroes heroic if the machines can do the hard work? This interface retreats to simple augmentation rather than an agentive solution to bypass the conflict. Real-world designers will have to answer it more directly.