The Thanatorium: Usher Panel

The thanatorium is a speculative device for assisted suicide in Soylent Green. Suicide and death are not easy topics and I will do my best to address them seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.

There are four experiences to look at in the interface and service design of the Thanatorium: The patient, their beneficiaries, the usher to the beneficiaries, and the attendants to the patient. This post is about the interface for the usher. This Thanatorium personnel is there as a stage manager of sorts, both to help the patient and the beneficiaries go where they need to go, ensure the beneficiaries do not do what they must not, and run the tech aspects of the ceremony.

The usher, left, ushing.

Note that—as I backworlded in the last post—these notes presume that the reason the beneficiaries are separated from the patients are to prevent them from trying to stop the event, and to minimize distractions during the cinerama display for gross biochemical reasons. Also recall that we’re having to go with a best-guess as to what the usual experience is, since we only see Thorn’s tardy thuggery in the film.

The usher’s tasks

Based on what we see in the film, the usher has a lot to do for each event…

  • Receive the patient’s preferences (music category, color, whatever other questions intake asked before we join that scene) from the intake personnel 
  • Escort the patient to the “theater” and the beneficiaries to the observation room
  • Set the color of the light and the music to the patient’s preferences
  • Close the portal for the hemlock drinking
  • Open the portal for last farewells
  • Close the portal for the cinerama display
  • Start the cinerama display
  • Get help if the patient gets up or otherwise interrupts the ceremony
  • Wait for when the patient dies
  • Open the portal to view the body’s being shuttled away
  • Ensure the beneficiaries behave, answer any questions
  • Escort the beneficiaries back to the lobby
A screen shot from the movie showing the existing usher panel.

The interface barely touches on any of this

With all that in mind, we can see that this interface is woefully ill-equipped for any of his tasks. In the prior post I argue that the features for speaking to the patient—the speaker, the audio jack, and the SPEAKING PERMITTED indicator—should be separated from the usher’s stage manager functions. So we’re only going to pay attention in this post to the row of backlit rocker toggles labeled PORTAL, EFFECTS, CHAMBER 2, AUDIO, VISUAL, CHAMBER 1 and a little bit of the authorization key that looks like a square metal button in the screen cap above. And note I’m going to make suggestions that are appropriate to the early 1970s rather than use either modern real-world or speculative interface technologies.

First, that authorization key is pretty cool

The fact that it’s a featureless, long metal cuboid is so simple it feels sci-fi. Even the fact that its slot is unlabeled is good—it would help prevent a malicious or grief-panicked user from figuring out how to take control. You could even go one step further and have a hidden magnetic switch, so there’s not even a slot to clue in users. Production designer note, though, this means that the panel needs to be wood (or something non-magnetic) rather than a ferromagnetic metal. Aluminum, maybe, since it’s paramagnetic, but you also don’t want anything that can scratch or wear easily and give away the position of the secret spot.

A side view of a magnetic cabinet lock. When the magnet gets close to the right spot on the cabinet door, it pulls the latching mechanism open, allowing the door to be opened.
This is a cabinet lock, but the same principle would apply.

But, the buttons don’t match the scene

The PORTAL button never changes state, though we see the portal open and close in the scene. AUDIO is dim though we hear the audio. Maybe dim equals on? No, because VISUAL is lit. There’s some gymnastics we could do to apologize for this, but Imma give up and just say it’s just a moviemaking error.

And they are poorly clustered

Why is CHAMBER 2 before CHAMBER 1? Why are the three AV buttons split up by CHAMBER 2? A more reasonable chunking of these would be PORTAL on its own, CHAMBER 1 & CHAMBER 2 together, and the remaining A/V buttons together. These groups should be separated to make them easier to identify and help avoid accidental activation (though the stakes here are pretty low.)

One square by itself labeled PORTAL. Two squares side-by-side labeled CHAMBER 1 and CHAMBER 2. And three squares together labeled AUDIO, VISUAL, and EFFECTS.
If we were just dealing with these 6 buttons, this might be a reasonable clustering. But, read on…

The PORTAL button is the wrong type and orientation

Look close at the screen shot and you’ll see that each button consists of three parts. A white, back-lit square which bears the label, and two black pushbuttons that act like rocker switches. That is, press the upper one in, and the lower one pops out. Press that popped-out lower one in, and the upper one pops out again. When the lower button is pressed in, the button is “on,” which you can tell because those are the only ones with the upper button popped out and the back light illuminated.

Rocker switches are good for things with two mutually exclusive states, like ON and OFF. The PORTAL button is the only one for which this makes unambiguous sense, with its two states being OPEN and CLOSED. But, we have to note that it is poorly mapped. The button has a vertical orientation, but the portal closes from right to left. It means the usher has to memorize which toggle state is open and which one is closed. It would more usable to have an inferrable affordance. Cheapest would be to turn the button sideways so it maps more clearly, but an even tighter mapping would be a slider mounted sideways with OPEN and CLOSED labels. I don’t think the backlit status indicator is necessary here because there’s already a giant signal of the state of the portal, and that’s the adjacent portal.

An image of a slider switch.

What do EFFECTS and CHAMBER even do?

What does the EFFECTS button do? I mean, if AUDIO and VISUAL have their own controls, what’s left? Lasers? A smoke machine? Happiness pheromones? (I’m getting The Cabin in the Woods vibes here.) Whatever it is, if there are multiple, they should have individual controls, in case the patient wants one but not the other, or if there’s any variability that needs controlling.

Also what do CHAMBER 1 and CHAMBER 2 do? It’s very poor labeling. What chambers do they refer to? Maybe the observation room is chamber 1 and the theater is chamber 2? If so, different names could save the usher’s having to memorize them. Also, what do these switches control? Lights? Door locks? We would need to know to really make design recommendations for these.

The AV controls are incomplete

Which takes us to AUDIO, and VISUAL. Each of these is missing something.

Sure, they might need ON/OFF controls as we see here. But how about a volume control to accommodate the hard-of-hearing and the sound-sensitive? How about a brightness control for the video? These could have an OFF state and replace the toggle switches.

We know from the movie itself that the service has offered Sol his choice of music genre. Where is the genre selector? This is a non-trivial problem since the number of genres is on the order of 1000. They probably don’t offer all of them, but at intake they do ask Sol his preference as an open-ended question, so it implies a huge selection. Radio band selectors would have made sense to audiences in the 1970s, and signal a huge number of options, but risk being “out of tune” and imply that it’s broadcast. So either have a small number of options with a 15° rotary switch (and rewrite the intake scene so Sol selects from a menu) or three 10-digit rotary switches with a “commit” momentary button, and have a small reference booklet hanging there.

I also want to believe that the theme of the video can be selected. Sol has chosen “nature” but you could imagine patients requesting for their end-of-life ceremony something else like “family,” “celestial,” “food” (given the diegesis, this should be first) or even “religious” (with a different one for each of the world’s twelve major religions). So it would make sense to have a video theme selector as well, say, on the order of 20 options. That could be a 15° rotary switch. Labeling gets tough, but it could just be numbers with an index label to the side.

An image showing the components of such a video selector, including the label.

I’m going to presume that they never need scrubbing controls (REWIND or FAST FORWARD) for the AV. The cinerama plays through once and stops. Sudden rewinding or fast forwarding would be jarring for the patient and ruin the immersion. Have a play button that remains depressed while the cinerama is ongoing. But if the patient passes more quickly than expected, a RESET button would make sense. So would a clock or a countdown timer, since Sol had confirmed at intake that it would be at least 20 minutes, and to let the usher know how much time they have left to get those neurotransmitter numbers up up up.

Some controls are straight up missing

How does an usher set the lights according to the patient’s preferences? They ask at intake, and we see Sol’s face washed with a soothing amber color once the attendants leave, so there should be a color selector. Three RGB slide potentiometers would provide perfect control, but I doubt anyone would quibble that the green they’d asked for was #009440 and not #96b300, so you could go with a selector. The XKCD color survey results show that there are on the order of about 30 colors, so something similar to the video-theme selector above would work, with a brightness potentiometer to the side.

XKCD color graph showing the outlines with crowdsourced regions and labels. But please check out the full post as linked in the image caption. It’s so much more awesome than just this.
I will always be in awe of this undertaking and visualization, Randall Monroe.

These controls ought to be there

The patient experience is a bit of a show, so to signal its beginning and end, there should be lighting controls for the usher to dim and raise the lights, like in a theater. So let’s add those.

Also, the usher has a minor medical task to accomplish: Monitoring the health of the patient to know when they’ve passed. The three metrics for clinical death are a cessation of all three of…

  1. breath
  2. blood flow
  3. brain activity

…so there should be indicators for each of these. As discussed in the medical chapter of the book, this is ideally a display of values over time, but in the resource-poor and elecromechanical world of Soylent Green, it might have to be a collection of gauges, with an indicator bulb near the zero for when activity has stopped. A final, larger indicator bulb should light when all three gauges are still. To really underscore the morbidness of this interface, all those indicators should be green.

A comp showing the three clinical death gauges and incdicators, as described.

If you buy my backworlding, i.e. that part of the point of preventing interruptions is to maximize the dopamine and serotonin being released into the patient’s body, there should also be status indicators showing the level of these neurotransmitters in the patient’s bloodstream. They can be the same style of gauges, but I’d add a hand drawn arrow to some point along the chapter ring that reads “quota.” Those indicators should be larger than the clinical death indicators to match their importance to Soylent’s purposes.

Lastly, thinking of Thorn’s attack, the usher should have a panic button to summon help if the patient or the beneficiaries are getting violent (especially once they discover they’re locked in.) This should be hidden under the panel so it can be depressed secretly.

Where should this panel go?

As described in the beneficiaries post we’re going to leave the communication interface just below the portal, where they are now for those fleeting moments when they can wish the patient goodbye.

A screen shot of the movie showing Thorn at the portal addressing the usher, angrily, as usual.

And there’s no need to put the usher’s controls under the nose of the beneficiaries. (In fact with the medical monitoring it would be kind of cruel.) So let the usher have a lectern beside the door, in a dim pool of light, and mount the controls to the reading top. (Also give them a stool to rest on, have we learned nothing?) Turn the lectern such that the interface is not visible to beneficiaries in the room. This lets the usher remain respectfully out of the center of attention, but in a place where they can keep an eye on both the patient when the portal is open, and the beneficiaries throughout.

An image of a lectern
Looks cheap? Perfect.

In total, the lectern panel would look something like this…

The “READY” indicators are explained in the attendant’s post.

…and the scene could go something like this…

  • Interior. Thanatorium observation room.
  • The Usher escorts Thorn into the room. Thorn rushes to the portal. The usher steps behind a lectern near the door.
  • Usher
  • It’s truly a shame you missed the overture.
  • The Usher slides a switch on the lectern panel, and the portal closes.
  • Thorn
  • I want to see him.
  • Usher, looking down at his interface
  • That is prohibited during the ceremony.
  • Worm’s eye view. Thorn takes a few steps toward him and knocks the lectern to the ground. It falls with its interface in the foreground. In the background, we see Thorn slam the usher against the wall.
  • Thorn
  • Well I can assure you, open that damned thing right now, or I swear to God you’ll die before he does!
  • Usher
  • OK, OK!
  • The usher falls to his hands and knees and we see him slide the switch to open the portal. Thorn steps back to it, and the usher gets on his feet to right the lectern

Escape door



There is one last interface in The Faithful Wookiee we see in use. It’s one of those small interfaces, barely seen, but that invites lots of consideration. In the story, Boba and Chewie have returned to the Falcon and administered to Luke and Han the cure to the talisman virus. Relieved, Luke (who assigns loyalty like a puppy at a preschool) says,

“Boba, you’re a hero and a faithful friend. [He isn’t. —Editor] You must come back with us. [He won’t.What’s the matter with R2?”

C3PO says,“I’m afraid sir, it’s because you said Boba is a faithful friend and faithful ally. [He didn’t.] That simply does not feed properly into R2’s information banks.”

Luke asks, “What are you talking about?”

“We intercepted a message between Boba and Darth Vader, sir. Boba Fett is Darth Vader’s right-hand man. I’m afraid this whole adventure has been an Imperial plot.”

Luke did not see this coming.

Luke gapes towards Boba, who has his blaster drawn and is backing up into an alcove with an escape hatch. Boba glances at a box on the wall, slides some control sideways, and a hatch opens in the ceiling. He says, deadpan, “We’ll meet again…friend,” before touching some control on his belt that sends him flying into the clear green sky, leaving behind a trail of smoke.


A failure of door

Let’s all keep in mind that the Falcon isn’t a boat or a car. It is a spaceship. On the other side of the hatch could be breathable air at the same pressure as what’s inside the ship, or it could also be…

  • The bone-cracking 2.7° Kelvin emptiness of space
  • The physics-defying vortex of hyperspace
  • Some poisonous atmosphere like Venus’, complete with sulfuric acid clouds
  • A hungry flock of neebrays.

There should be no easy way to open any of its external doors.

Think of an airplane hatch. On the other side of that thing is an atmosphere known to support human life, and it sure as hell doesn’t open like a gen-1 iPhone. For safety, it should take some doing.


If we’re being generous, maybe there’s some mode by which each door can be marked as “safe” and thereby made this easy to open. But that raises issues of security and authorizations and workflow that probably aren’t worth going into without a full redesign and inserting some new technological concepts into the diegesis.

Let’s also not forget that to secure that most precious of human biological needs, i.e. air, there should be an airlock, where the outer door and inner door can’t be opened at the same time without extensive override. But that’s not a hindrance. It could have made for an awesome moment.

  • LUKE gapes at Boba. Cut to HAN.
  • HAN
  • You won’t get any information out of us, alive or dead. Even the droids are programmed to self-destruct. But there’s a way out for you.
  • HAN lowers his hand to a panel, and presses a few buttons. An escape hatch opens behind Boba Fett.
  • We’ll meet again…friend.

That quick change might have helped explain why Boba didn’t just kill everyone and steal the Falcon and the droids (along with their information banks) then and there.

Security is often sacrificed to keep narrative flowing, so I get why makers are tempted to bypass these issues. But it’s also worth mentioning two other failures that this 58-second scene illustrates.


A failure to droid

Why the hell did C3PO and R2D2 wait to tell Luke and Han of this betrayal until Luke happened to say something that didn’t fit into “information banks?” C3PO could have made up some bullshit excuse to pull Luke aside and whisper the news. But no, he waits, maybe letting Luke and Han spill vital information about the Rebellion, and only when something doesn’t compute, blurt out that the only guy in the room with the blaster happens to be in bed with Space Voldemort.

I can’t apologize for this. It’s a failure of writing and an unimaginative mental model. If you are a writer wondering how droids would behave, think of them less as stoic gurus and more as active academies.

A failure of plot

Worse, given that C3PO says this is all an Imperial plot, we’re meant to understand that in an attempt to discover the Rebel base, the Empire…

  • Successfully routed rumors of a mystical talisman, which the Empire was just about to find, to the Rebels in a way they would trust it
  • Actually created a talisman
  • Were right on their long shot bet that the Rebels would bite at the lure
  • Bioengineered a virus that
    • Caused a sleeping sickness that only affects humans
    • Survived on the talisman indefinitely
  • Somehow protected Boba Fett from the virus even though he is human
  • Planted a cure for the virus on a planet near to where Han and Chewie would find the talisman
  • Successfully routed the location of the cure to Chewbacca so he would know where to go
  • Got Boba Fett—riding an ichthyodont—within minutes, to the exact site on the planet where Chewie would crash-land the Falcon.

Because without any of these points, the plan would not have worked. Yet despite the massive logistics, technological, and scientific effort, this same Empire had to be stupid enough to…

  • Bother to interrupt the mission in progress to say that the mission was on track
  • Use insecure, unencrypted, public channels to for this report

Also note that despite all this effort (and buffoonery) they never, ever used this insanely effective bioweapon against the Rebels, again.

I know, you’re probably thinking this is just some kid’s cartoon in the Star Wars diegesis, but that only raises more problems, which I’ll address in the final post on this crazy movie within a crazy movie.

Microfiche reader

One other portable device that bears mention is Lt. Farman’s microfiche reader.

Farman checks Morbius’’ information.

When the officers originally learn Morbius’’ name, Farman fetches the device from a drawer. It is a small, metallic square box about the size of a pack of playing cards. He withdraws one of a set of thin transparent sheets of microfiche held in a pocket on the back, and inserts it to a slot at the top of the device. The device magnifies the contents of the sheet for the viewer, who can scroll by pulling the microfiche up and down. The particular microfiche displays all of the manifest information from the Bellerophon expedition, which Farman uses to verify Morbius’ information.

Farman looks for Julia Marsin on the Bellerephon’s manifest.

Farman uses an even smaller version of this device in the field, which consists of a small, lipstick-sized cylinder with a slit, through which he passes the same film to check for a “Mrs. Morbius.”

Though this seems like miniaturization that is far ahead of its time, microforms and optical magnification had been around and used to compactly store data since the mid 1800s. This device is an extension of these optical concepts, rather than modern digital media which only reached similar portable sizes in the early 2000s.

Military communication

All telecommunications in the film are based on either a public address or a two-way radio metaphor.

Commander Adams addresses the crew.

To address the crew from inside the ship, Commander Adams grabs the microphone from its holder on the wall. Its long handle makes it easy to grab. By speaking into the lit, transparent circle mounted to one end, his voice is automatically broadcast across the ship.

Commander Adams lets Chief Quinn know he’s in command of the ship.

Quinn listens for incoming signals.

The two-way radio on his belt is routed through the communications officer back at the ship. To use it, he unclips the small cylindrical microphone from its clip, flips a small switch at the base of the box, and pulls the microphone on its tether close to his mouth to speak. When the device is active, a small array of lights on the box illuminates.

Confirming their safety by camera, Chief Quinn gets an eyeful of Alta.

The microphone also has a video camera within it. When Chief Quinn asks Commander Adams to “activate the viewer,” he does so by turning the device such that its small end faces outwards, at which time it acts as a camera, sending a video signal back to the ship, to be viewed on the “view plate.”

The Viewplate is used frequently to see outside the ship.

Altair IV looms within view.

The Viewplate is a large video screen with rounded edges that is mounted to a wall off the bridge. To the left of it three analog gauges are arranged in a column, above two lights and a stack of sliders. These are not used during the film.

Commander Adams engages the Viewplate to look for Altair IV.

The Viewplate is controlled by a wall mounted panel with a very curious placement. When Commander Adams rushes to adjust it, he steps to the panel and adjusts a few horizontal sliders, while craning around a cowling station to see if his tweaks are having the desired effect. When he’’s fairly sure it’’s correct, he has to step away from the panel to get a better view and make sure. There is no excuse for this poor placement.