Colossus Video Phones

Throughout Colossus: The Forbin Project, characters talk to one another over video phones. This is a favorite sci-fi interface trope of mine. And though we’ve seen it many times, in the interest of completeness, I’ll review these, too.

The first time we see one in use is early in the film when Forbin calls his team in the Central Programming Office (Forbin calls it the CPO) from the Presidential press briefing (remember those?) where Colossus is being announced to the public. We see an unnamed character in the CPO receiving a telephone call, and calling for quiet amongst the rowdy, hip party of computer scientists. This call is received on a wall-tethered 2500 desk phone

We cut away to the group reaction, and by the time the camera is back on the video phone, Forbin’s image is peering through the glass. We do not get to see the interactions which switched the mode from telephony to videotelephony.

Forbin calls the team from Washington.

But we can see two nice touches in the wall-mounted interface.

First, there is a dome camera mounted above the screen. Most sci-fi videophones fall into the Screen-Is-Camera trope, so this is nice to see. It could mounted closer to the screen to avoid gaze misalignment that plagues such systems.

One of the illustrations from the book I’m still quite proud of, for its explanatory power and nerdiness. Chapter 4, Volumetric Projection, Page 83.

Second, there is a 12-key numeric keypad mounted to the wall below the screen. (0–9 as well as an asterisk and octothorp.) This keypad is kind-of nice in that it hints that there is some interface for receiving calls, making calls, and ending an ongoing call. But it bypasses actual interaction design. Better would be well-labeled controls that are optimized for the task, and that don’t rely on the user’s knowledge of directories and commands.

The 2500 phone came out in 1968, introducing consumers to the 12-key pushbutton interface rather than the older rotary dial on the 500 model. The 12-key is the filmmakers’ building on interface paradigms that audiences knew. This shortcutting belongs to the long lineage of sci-fi videophones that goes all the way back to Metropolis (1927) and Buck Rogers (1939).

Also, it’s worth noting that the ergonomics of the keypad are awkward, requiring users to poke at it in an error-prone way, or to seriously hyperextend their wrists. If you’re stuck with a numeric keypad as a wall mounted input, at least extend it out from the wall so it can be angled to a more comfortable 30°

Is it still OK to reference Dreyfuss? He hasn’t been Milkshake Ducked, has he?

There is another display in the CPO, but it lacks a numeric keypad. I presume it is just piping a copy of the feed from the main screen. (See below.)

Looking at the call from Forbin’s perspective, he has a much smaller display. There there is still a bump above the monitor for a camera, another numeric keypad below it, and several 2500 telephones. Multiple monitors on the DC desks show the same feed.

After Dr. Markham asks Dr. Forbin to steal an ashtray, he ends the call by pressing the key in the lower right-hand corner of the keypad.

Levels adjusted to reveal details of the interface.

After Colossus reveals that THERE IS ANOTHER SYSTEM, Forbin calls back and asks to be switched to the CPO. We see things from Forbin’s perspective, and we see the other fellow actually reach offscreen to where the numeric keypad would be, to do the switching. (See the image, below.) It’s likely that this actor was just staring at a camera, so this bit of consistency is really well done.

When Forbin later ends the call with the CPO, he presses the lower-left hand key. This is inconsistent with the way he ended the call earlier, but it’s entirely possible that each of the non-numeric keys perform the same function. This also a good example why will labeled, specific controls would be better, like, say, one for “end call.”

Other video calls in the remainder of the movie don’t add any more information than these scenes provide, and introduce a few more questions.


The President calls to discuss Colossus’ demand to talk to Guardian.

Note the duplicate feed in the background in the image above. Other scenes tell us all the monitors in the CPO are also duplicating the feed. I wondered how users might tell the system which is the one to duplicate. In another scene we see that the President’s monitor is special and red, hinting that there might be a “hotseat” monitor, but this is not the monitor from which Dr. Forbin called at the beginning of the film. So, it’s a mystery. 

The red “phone.”
Chatting with CIA Director Grauber.
Bemusedly discussing the deadly, deadly FOOM with the President.
The President ends his call with the Russian Chairman, which is a first of sorts for this blog.
In a multi-party conference call, The Chairman and Dr. Kuprin speak with the President and Forbin. No cameras are apparent here. This interface is managed by the workers sitting before it, but the interaction occurs off screen.

In the last video conference of the film, everyone listens to Unity’s demands. This is a multiparty teleconference between at least three locations, and it is not clear how it is determined whose face appears on the screen. Note that the CPO (the first in the set) has different feeds on display simultaneously, which would need some sort of control.


Plug: For more about the issues involved in sci-fi communications technology, see chapter 10 of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction. (Though it’s affordably only available in digital formats as of this post.)

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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.

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Why aren’t these in any way affiiiiixxxxxxeeeeeeddddddd?

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

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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.

Continue reading

Phone System Analysis

Note to readers: The author and editor of this series of posts would like to be Matrix-style cool, competent, stylishly-dressed world-changers with superhuman abilities. In reality we are much closer to the protagonists of Johnny Mnemonic: always frantically improvising to stay one step ahead of disaster with a mix of clunky technology. (And we don’t even have a cybernetic dolphin helping out.) So, um, yeah. This post is out of order. Sorry. Please pretend you haven’t read Cyberspace: the Hardware yet. OK. On to an analysis of the phone system.

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The video phones in Johnny Mnemonic all seem easy to use and reliable, but this is generally true of all phones in film and TV, video or otherwise. The audience want to see the characters communicate, not struggle with technology – unless difficulty or failure is necessary for the plot! Continue reading

Video call

After ditching Chewie, Boba Fett heads to a public video phone to make a quick report to his boss who turns out to be…Darth Vader (this was a time long before the Expanded Universe/Legends, so there was really only one villain to choose from).

To make the call, he approaches an alcove off an alley. The alcove has a screen with an orange bezel, and a small panel below it with a 12-key number panel to the left, a speaker, and a vertical slot. Below that is a set of three phone books. For our young readers, phone books are an ancient technology in which telephone numbers were printed in massive books, and copies kept at every public phone for reference by a caller.

faithful-wookiee-video-call-04faithful-wookiee-video-call-05 Continue reading

Carrier Control

The second instantiation of videochat with the World Security Council that we see is  when Fury receives their order to bomb the site of the Chitauri portal. (Here’s the first.) He takes this call on the bridge, and rather than a custom hardware setup, this is a series of windows that overlay an ominous-red map of the world in an app called CARRIER CONTROL. These windows represent a built-in chat feature for discussing this very topic. There is some fuigetry on the periphery, but our focus is on these windows and the conversation happening through them.

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In this version of the chat, we are assured that it is a SECURE TRANSMISSION by a legend across the top of each, but there is not the same level of assurance as in the videoconference room. If it’s still HOTP, Fury isn’t notified of it. There’s a tiny 01_AZ in the upper right of every screen, but it never changes and is the same for each participant. (An homage to Arizona? Lighter Andrew Zink? Cameraman Arthur Zajac?) Though this is a more desperate situation, you imagine that the need for security is no less dire. Having that same cypher key would be comforting if it is in fact a policy.

Different sizes of windows in the app seem to indicate a hierarchy, since the largest window is the fellow who does most of the talking in both conferences, and it does not change as others speak. Such an automated layout would spare Fury the hassle of having to manage multiple windows, though visually these look more like individual objects he’s meant to manipulate. Poor affordances.

dismiss

The only control we see is when Fury dismisses them, and to do this he just taps at the middle of the screen. The teleconference window is “push wiped” by a satellite view of New York City. Fine, he feels like punching them. But…

a) How does he actually select something in that interface without a tap?

b) A swipe would have been more meaningful, and in line with the gestural pidgin I identified in the gestural chapter of the book.

And of course, if this was the real world, you’d hope for better affordances for what can be done on this window across the board.

So though mostly effective, narratively, could use some polish.

Shadowy videoconferencing room

After Loki gets away with the crazy-powerful tesseract and a handful of S.H.I.E.L.D. (seriously that’s a pain to type) agents, Fury has a virtual meeting with members of the World Security Council—which is shadowy in appearance and details. To conduct this furtive conference Fury walks into a room custom-built for such purposes.

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A bank of large vertically-mounted monitors forms a semicircle in the small room, each mounted above a workstation with keyboard and multiple screens overlit for maximum eyestrain. It’s quite unclear what the agents who normally work here are currently doing, or what those vertically mounted screens normally display, since they’d be a shoo-in for an OSHA lawsuit, given the amount a user would need to crane. Ergonomics, Nick, look it up.

Avengers-Shadowy-Videoconference03

 

Each screen dedicates most of its real estate to a waist-up view of the speaker. Overlays near the bottom assure us that DATA [is] SECURE and confirms it with a 16-character alphanumeric CYPHER KEY that is frequently changing and unique to each speaker. This is similar to an HMAC-based One-time Password Algorithm (HOTP) password algorithm, so is well-grounded in reality. It’s convincing.

The screens adhere to the trope that every screen is a camera. Nick looks at their eyes and they look right back. Ordinarily that would be a big problem, but with the translucent displays and the edge lighting of the participants, it could actually work.

There is no indication of controls for these screens, but that’s cool if the room is dedicated to this purpose. Someone else would set the call up for him, and all he has to do is walk in. He should be able to just walk out to end it. And let them know how he feels about them.