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.

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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: Continue reading

The Cookie: Matt’s controls

When using the Cookie to train the AI, Matt has a portable translucent touchscreen by which he controls some of virtual Greta’s environment. (Sharp-eyed viewers of the show will note this translucent panel is the same one he uses at home in his revolting virtual wingman hobby, but the interface is completely different.)

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The left side of the screen shows a hamburger menu, the Set Time control, a head, some gears, a star, and a bulleted list. (They’re unlabeled.) The main part of the screen is a scrolling stack of controls including Simulated Body, Control System, and Time Adjustment. Each has an large icon, a header with “Full screen” to the right, a subheader, and a time indicator. This could be redesigned to be much more compact and context-rich for expert users like Matt. It’s seen for maybe half a second, though, and it’s not the new, interesting thing, so we’ll skip it.

The right side of the screen has a stack of Smartelligence logos which are alternately used for confirmation and to put the interface to sleep.

Mute

When virtual Greta first freaks out about her circumstance and begins to scream in existential terror, Matt reaches to the panel and mutes her. (To put a fine point on it: He’s a charming monster.) In this mode she cannot make a sound, but can hear him just fine. We do not see the interface he uses to enact this. He uses it to assert conversational control over her. Later he reaches out to the same interface to unmute her.

The control he touches is the one on his panel with a head and some gears reversed out of it. The icon doesn’t make sense for that. The animation showing the unmuting shows it flipping from right to left, so does provide a bit of feedback for Matt, but it should be a more fitting icon and be labeled.

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Also it’s teeny tiny, but note that the animation starts before he touches it. Is it anticipatory?

Continue reading

Ship Console

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The only flight controls we see are an array of stay-state toggle switches (see the lower right hand of the image above) and banks of lights. It’s a terrifying thought that anyone would have to fly a spaceship with binary controls, but we have some evidence that there’s analog controls, when Luke moves his arms after the Falcon fires shots across his bow.

Unfortunately we never get a clear view of the full breadth of the cockpit, so it’s really hard to do a proper analysis. Ships in the Holiday Special appear to be based on scenes from A New Hope, but we don’t see the inside of a Y-Wing in that movie. It seems to be inspired by the Falcon. Take a look at the upper right hand corner of the image below.

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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.

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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.)

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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

Sleep Pod—Wake Up Countdown

On each of the sleep pods in which the Odyssey crew sleep, there is a display for monitoring the health of the sleeper. It includes some biometric charts, measurements, a body location indicator, and a countdown timer. This post focuses on that timer.

To show the remaining time of until waking Julia, the pod’s display prompts a countdown that shows hours, minutes and seconds. It shows in red the final seconds while also beeping for every second. It pops-up over the monitoring interface.

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Julia’s timer reaches 0:00:01.

The thing with pop-ups

We all know how it goes with pop-ups—pop-ups are bad and you should feel bad for using them. Well, in this case it could actually be not that bad.

The viewer

Although the sleep pod display’s main function is to show biometric data of the sleeper, the system prompts a popup to show the remaining time until the sleeper wakes up. And while the display has some degree of redundancy to show the data—i.e. heart rate in graphics and numbers— the design of the countdown brings two downsides for the viewer.

  1. Position: it’s placed right in the middle of the screen.
  2. Size: it’s roughly a quarter of the whole size of the display

Between the two, it partially covers both the pulse graphics and the numbers, which can be vital, i.e. life threatening—information of use to the viewer. Continue reading

Ghost trap

Once ghosts are bound by the streams from the Proton Packs, they can be trapped by a special trap. It has two parts: The trap itself, that is roughly the size of a toaster, and the foot pedal activation switch, which connects to the trap box by a long black cord.

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To open the trap, a ghostbuster simply steps on the foot pedal. For a second the trap sparks with some unknown energy and opens to reveal a supernatural light within. Once open, the bound ghost can be manipulated down towards the trap.

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Continue reading

Reckless undocking

After logging in to her station, Ibanez shares a bit of flirty dialog with mushroom-quaffed Zander Barcalow, and Captain Deladier says, “All right, Ibanez. Take her out.” Ibanez grasps the yoke, pulls back, and the ship begins to pull back from the docking station while still attached by two massive cables. Daladier and Barcalow keep silent but watch as the cables grow dangerously taut. At the last minute Ibanez flips a toggle switch on her panel from 0 to 1 and the cables release.

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There’s a lot of wrong in just this sequence. I mean, I get narratively what’s happening here: Check her out, she’s a badass maverick (we’re meant to think). But, come on…

  1. Where is the wisdom of letting a Pilot Trainee take the helm on her first time ever aboard a vessel? OK. Sorry. This is an interface blog. Ignore that one.
  2. The 1 and 0 symbols are International Electrotechnical Commission 60417 standards for on and off, respectively. How is the cable’s detachment caused by something turning on? If it was magnetic, shouldn’t you turn the magnetism off to release the cables?
  3. Why use the symbols for ON and OFF for an infrequent, specific task? Shouldn’t this be reserved for a kill switch or power to the station or something major? Or shouldn’t it bear a label reading “Power Cable Magnets” or something to make it more intelligible?
  4. Why is there no safety mechanism for this switch? A cover? A two-person rule? A timed activation? It’s fairly consequential. The countersink doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
  5. Where is the warning klaxon to alert everyone to this potentially disastrous situation?
  6. Why isn’t she dishonorably discharged the moment she started to maneuver the ship while it was still attached to the dock? Oh, shit. Sorry. Interfaces. Right. Interfaces.

Rhod’s rod

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One of the most delightfully flamboyant characters in sci-fi is the radio star in The Fifth Element, Ruby Rhod. He wears a headpiece to hear his producers as well as to record his own voice. But to capture the voices of others, he has a technological staff that he carries.

Function

The handle of the device has a microphone built into it. Because of the length of the staff, his reach to potential interviewees is extended. The literal in-your-face nature of the microphone matches Ruby’s in-your-face show.

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To let interviewees know when they’re being recorded, a red light in the handle illuminates. This also lets others nearby know that the interviewee is “on air” and not to interrupt.

Ruby also has a single switch on the handle. It’s a small silver toggle. It’s likely that he can set this switch to function as he likes. The one time we see it in action, he has set it to play back an “audio cut,” (the sound clips morning radio talk show hosts insert into their programs) in this case an intimate recording of the Princess of Kodar Japhet. He flips the toggle to play the cut, and flips it back when it’s done.

Here, a different input would have worked better. The toggle switch is too easy to bump and kind of ruins the design of the handle. Better would be a billet button. This sort of momentary button sits flush with a bezel, which prevents accidental activation from, say, a finger laying across it, or resting the button against a flat surface. If Ruby wants the recorded sound to play out completely, and the button press only starts or stops the playback, it would be good to know the state of the playback, and using a billet button with a LED ring would be best.

We also know that Ruby is a performer. He would be happier if he had more than a play button, but a way to express himself. His hand is already in a grip to hold the staff, so the control should fit that—If you could outfit the billet button with directional pressure sensitivity, he could assign each direction to a control. So, for instance, while he was pressing the button, the audio would play, and the harder he pressed up, the volume for each echo would increase. Or pressing down could lower the sample in tone, etc. This would allow him to not just play the audio cut, but perform it.

Fashion

To work as a device that the character would want to carry, it has to match his sense of style. I mean this first in a general sense, and the device does that, with its handle of ornately carved silver. Ruby’s necklaces, bracelets, and rings are all silver, and they work together. The staff also works in his hand like a drum major’s baton, augmenting his larger-than-life presence with an attention-commanding object.

It has to fit his daily fashion as well, and the staff does that, too. The shaft can change appearance. I don’t know if it’s an e-ink-type surface, replaceable staves, or fabric sleeves that change out, but when Ruby’s in leopard print, the staff is in leopard print, too. When Ruby’s decked out in rose-adorned tuxedo black, the staff matches.

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Though this is more a portable than a wearable technology, the fact that it can change to match the personal style of the wearer makes it not only functional, but since it fits his persona, desirable as well.