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.


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.


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.


Snitch phone

If you’re reading these chronologically, let me note here that I had to skip Bea Arthur’s marvelous turn as Ackmena, as she tends the bar and rebuffs the amorous petitions of the lovelorn, hole-in-the-head Krelman, before singing her frustrated patrons out of the bar when a curfew is announced. To find the next interface of note, we have to forward to when…

Han and Chewie arrive, only to find a Stormtrooper menacing Lumpy. Han knocks the blaster out of his hand, and when the Stormtrooper dives to retrieve it, he falls through the bannister of the tree house and to his death.


Why aren’t these in any way affiiiiixxxxxxeeeeeeddddddd?

Han enters the home and wishes everyone a Happy Life Day. Then he bugs out.


But I still have to return for the insane closing number. Hold me.

Then Saun Dann returns to the home just before a general alert comes over the family Imperial Issue Media Console.

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Jasper’s home alarm

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The three jobs of an intruder alarm

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 of 3: Brain Hacking

The hospital doesn’t have the equipment to decrypt and download the actual data. But Jane knows that the LoTeks can, so they drive to the ruined bridge that is the LoTek home base. As mentioned earlier under Door Bombs and Safety Catches the bridge guards nearly kill them due to a poorly designed defensive system. Once again Johnny is not impressed by the people who are supposed to help him.

When Johnny has calmed down, he is introduced to Jones, the LoTek codebreaker who decrypts corporate video broadcasts. Jones is a cyborg dolphin. Continue reading

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.


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.

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.


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.)


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

Brain Upload

Once Johnny has installed his motion detector on the door, the brain upload can begin.

3. Building it

Johnny starts by opening his briefcase and removing various components, which he connects together into the complete upload system. Some of the parts are disguised, and the whole sequence is similar to an assassin in a thriller film assembling a gun out of harmless looking pieces.


It looks strange today to see a computer system with so many external devices connected by cables. We’ve become accustomed to one piece computing devices with integrated functionality, and keyboards, mice, cameras, printers, and headphones that connect wirelessly.

Cables and other connections are not always considered as interfaces, but “all parts of a thing which enable its use” is the definition according to Chris. In the early to mid 1990s most computer user were well aware of the potential for confusion and frustration in such interfaces. A personal computer could have connections to monitor, keyboard, mouse, modem, CD drive, and joystick – and every single device would use a different type of cable. USB, while not perfect, is one of the greatest ever improvements in user interfaces. Continue reading

Hotel Remote

The Internet 2021 shot that begins the film ends in a hotel suite, where it wakes up lead character Johnny. This is where we see the first real interface in the film. It’s also where this discussion gets more complicated.

A note on my review strategy

As a 3D graphics enthusiast, I’d be happy just to analyze the cyberspace scenes, but when you write for Sci Fi Interfaces, there is a strict rule that every interface in a film must be subjected to inspection. And there are a lot of interfaces in Johnny Mnemonic. (Curse your exhaustive standards, Chris!)

A purely chronological approach which would spend too much time looking at trees and not enough at the forest. So I’ll be jumping back and forth a bit, starting with the gadgets and interfaces that appear only once, then moving on to the recurring elements, variations on a style or idea that are repeated during the film.


The wakeup call arrives in the hotel room as a voice announcement—a sensible if obvious choice for someone who is asleep—and also as text on a wall screen, giving the date, time, and temperature. The voice is artificial sounding but pleasant rather than grating, letting you know that it’s a computer and not some hotel employee who let himself in. The wall display functions as both a passive television and an interactive computer monitor. Johnny picks up a small remote control to silence the wake up call.


This remote is a small black box like most current-day equivalents, but with a glowing red light at one end. At the time of writing blue lights and indicators are popular for consumer electronics, apparently following the preference set by science fiction films and noted in Make It So. Johnny Mnemonic is an outlier in using red lights, as we’ll see more of these as the film progresses. Here the glow might be some kind of infrared or laser beam that sends a signal, or it might simply indicate the right way to orient the control in the hand for the controls to make sense. Continue reading

Lumpy’s Brilliant Cartoon Player

I am pleased to report that with this post, we are over 50% of the way through this wretched, wretched Holiday Special.



After Lumpy tries to stop stormtroopers from going upstairs, an Imperial Officer commands Malla to keep him quiet. To do so, she does what any self-respecting mother of a pre-teen in the age of technology does, and sits him down to watch cartoons. The player is a small, yellow device that sits flat on an angled tabletop, like a writing desk.

Two small silver buttons stack vertically on the left, and an upside down plug hole strainer on the right. A video screen sits above these controls. Since no one in the rest of his family wants to hear the cartoon introduction of Boba Fett, he dons a pair of headphones, which are actually kind of stylish in that the earpieces are square and perforated, but not beveled. There are some pointless animations that start up, but then the cartoon starts and Lumpy is, in fact, quiet for the duration. So, OK, point one Malla.


Why no budding DJ has glommed onto this for an album cover is beyond me.


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Itchy’s SFW Masturbation Chair

With the salacious introduction, “Itchy, I know what you’d like,” Saun Dann reveals himself as a peddler of not just booby trapped curling irons, but also softcore erotica! The Life Day gift he gives to the old Wookie is a sexy music video for his immersive media chair.


The chair sits in the family living room, and has a sort of helmet fixed in place such that Itchy can sit down and rest his head within it. On the outside of the helmet are lights that continuously blink out of sync with each other and seem unrelated to the actual function of the chair. Maybe a fairy-lights power indicator?


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