Portable brainwave detector


Through the atom transmitter Dianthus bestows several gifts on Barbarella to help her with her mission. The first of these is the “portable brainwave detector…to test for Durand-Durand’s presence.” To operate it, Barbarella must press “a contact,” (Dianthus is offscreen when he indicates the contact, but later we see her operating the leaf-like button near the wrist) and if Durand-Durand is around, the ball of lights will glow and an alarm will sound.


The device is wearable, wrapping around Barbarella’s forearm, and held in place by a ring. This aspect of the design is good, since it means the device is ever-present for operation, and the design of it makes it lovely enough to be overlooked as a fashion accessory. In fact many characters see her wearing it and make no mention.


Manual activation is less than ideal, though, since this might tip off the suspect. This is especially true with the blinking, glowing ball of light and audio feedback. And, in fact, this is what happens later in the film when Durand-Durand trips over the device. The blinking light and audio catch his attention, betray the device for what it is, and blow Barbarella’’s cover in the process.

Portable Brainwave Device

The best feedback would be invisible, like a haptic vibration through the cuff to her skin. Ideally, the device would be constantly on, to detect the subject passively, the moment he came into range. But presuming battery life is the issue, the activation cue should be something much more subtle, like Barbarella’s touching the back of the ring with the thumb of the same hand. Such a gesture would match the existing design of the object, be discreet to an observer, and yet still discrete enough to prevent accidental activation.

Barbarella’s energy box


In addition to the portable brainwave detector, Dianthus also provides Barbarella with a number of weapons from the Museum of Conflict for her mission. All of these weapons are powered by a single energy box.

We only see it in use after she fires a single shot from the smallest of the weapons. She tries a second shot, but when it doesn’’t work, she glances at a device on the cuff of her boot. The device is designed in a taijitu, a yin-yang set of lights: one red, one white. They are blinking in an alternating pattern, and after viewing it she tells Pygar, ““My energy box is completely dead.””


Though having a visual signal is quite useful to understand the state of an invisible resource like power, the signal would be much more useful if it showed the amount of energy remaining, and gave warnings before the power was completely out. Failing all that, it would be more useful if she just put the device on the glove of her shooting hand so it was in her field of view at all times.

And though Barbarella’s culture doesn’t understand war, even a peaceful person can quickly come to realize the risk in making your available resources—like power for your weapons—wholly visible to your enemies.

Police light


This post (the first in what is going to amount to The Fifth Element Police Week. What is this, sweeps?) is going to veer to the edge of interaction design, getting into the Venn overlap of industrial design and wearable tech.

The police seen throughout New York each wear uniforms that feature a large, circular, glowing light over the right side of their chest.

There are only two things to say that’s positive about this police light. One: Yes, it looks cool. Two: It certainly gives narby citizens a clear, attention-getting signal that something is up. This might be OK for community relations officers, who are only ever interfacing with the public. But when it comes to dealing with actual criminals, it’s a terrible idea.


It’s a terrible idea because of its placement

Imagine this scene from the chief’s perspective. When he addresses Leeloo down the pipe as she’s standing on the ledge of the building, he is in an isosceles stance, with his shoulders perpendicular to the target and his weapon held in front of his heart. This common stance would place the weapon directly in the glow of the circle. This means that his forearms and weapon will have the brightest illumination in his field of vision and be distracting. This might be manageable by coating his uniform and the back of the weapon with a super black coating to absorb much of this light. But, depending on the distance of the target, it is also likely to place the perp in shadow, making them harder to see and harder to hit.

Looking at the officer on the right, we see he is taking a different stance. He is “bladed” to the target, closer to a Weaver stance, with his body turned a bit sideways. This stance turns the light to the adjacent wall, which minimizes the backscatter and perp-shadow effects, but also aims the light toward his fellow officer, possibly distracting him or her. That’s a pretty crappy design. But wait, it gets worse.


It’s a terrible idea because it’s a giant, glowing target

What’s worse is to imagine the scene from the perspective of the perp, say, the Mondosahwans in the airport. They want to specifically shoot the police in the crowd and all they have to do is shoot towards the glowing discs. That’s right, the police in 2263 are actually wearing attention-drawing targets. Admittedly, if you are going to get shot in the line of duty, you’d rather draw fire away from the head to a place with a solid slab of bone and lots of body armor. But why draw their fire in the first place?

As we saw in another post, Zorg believes in the fallacy/parable of the broken window, and so favors a bit of destruction that encourages market activity. We also know from the film that he has a lot of control over the NYPD. It might be that he’s deliberately sabotaging the police through this design to encourage the sale of more body armor and weapons, but are we to believe that the cops themselves are willing to go along with this? C’mon. They’re smarter than this.

Improve it with a little bit of smarts

Outfit the light with a little agentive smarts, and most of these problems could be fixed. The light could simply dim when it’s counterproductive to have it illuminated. Proximity sensors can sense when the officer’s arm is in the way. Context aware sensors can sense when it might blind another officer. It would take a lot of smarts to know when the officer is being targeted by a weapon, but certainly simple audio sensors should shut it off in the sound of gunfire.

Thermoptic camouflage


Kusanagi is able to mentally activate a feature of her skintight bodysuit and hair(?!) that renders her mostly invisible. It does not seem to affect her face by default. After her suit has activated, she waves her hand over her face to hide it. We do not see how she activates or deactivates the suit in the first place. She seems to be able to do so at will. Since this is not based on any existing human biological capacity, a manual control mechanism would need some biological or cultural referent. The gesture she uses—covering her face with open-fingered hands—makes the most sense, since even with a hand it means, “I can see you but you can’t see me.”

In the film we see Ghost Hacker using the same technology embedded in a hooded coat he wears. He activates it by pulling the hood over his head. This gesture makes a great deal of physical sense, similar to the face-hiding gesture. Donning a hood would hide your most salient physical identifier, your face, so having it activate the camouflage is a simple synechdochic extension.


The spider tank also features this same technology on its surface, where we learn it is a delicate surface. It is disabled from a rain of glass falling on it.


This tech less than perfect, distorting the background behind it, and occasionally flashing with vigorous physical activity. And of course it cannot hide the effects that the wearer is creating in the environment, as we see with splashes the water and citizens in a crowd being bumped aside.

Since this imperfection runs counter to the wearer’s goal, I’d design a silent, perhaps haptic feedback, to let the wearer know when they’re moving too fast for the suit’s processors to keep up, as a reinforcement to whatever visual effects they themselves are seeing.

UPDATE: When this was originally posted, I used the incorrect concept “metonym” to describe these gestures. The correct term is “synechdoche” and the post has been updated to reflect that.

Lifeclock: The central conceit


The central technological conceit of the movie is the lifeclock, a rosette crystal that is implanted in each citizen’s left palm at birth. This clock changes color in stages over the course of the individual’s lifetime.

Though the information in the movie is somewhat contradictory as to the actual stages, the DVD has an easter egg that explains the stages as follows.

White white Birth to 8 years
Yellow yellow 9 to 15 years
Green green 16 to 23 years
Red red 24 years to 10 days before Lastday (30 years)
Blinking Red red_blink from 10 days before Lastday to Lastday
Black black End of Lastday (Carousel/death)


Lifeclocks derive their signal and possibly power from a local-area broadcast in the city. When Logan and Jessica leave the city their lifeclocks turn clear.

The signal of the lifeclock is so central to life that most citizens dress exclusively in colors that match their lifeclock color. Only certain professions, such as Sandmen and the New You doctor, are seen to wear clothing that lacks clear reference to a lifeclock color, even though the individuals in these professions have lifeclocks and are still subject to carousel at Lastday. We can presume, though are not shown explicitly, that certain rights and responsibilities are conferred on citizens in different stages, such as legal age of sexual consent and access to intoxicants, so the clothing acts as a social signal of status.


As an interface the lifeclock is largely passive, and can be discussed for its usability in two main ways.


The first is the color. Are the stages easily discernable by people? The main problem would be between the red and green stages since the forms of red-green color blindness affects around 4% of the population. To accommodate for this, reds are made more discernable with a brighter glow than the green. As a wavelength, red carries the farthest, and blinking is of course a highly visible and attention-getting signal, which makes it difficult for an individual to socially hide that his or her time for carousel has come.


Black is a questionable signal since this indicates actual violation of the law but does not draw any attention to itself. Casual observation of a relaxed hand with a black lifeclock might even be mistaken for a colored lifeclock in shadow, but as the citizenry has complete faith in the system and a number of countermeasures in place to ensure that everyone either attends carousel or is terminated, perhaps this is not a concern.

But if we’re just going on human signal processing, the red should be reserved for LastWeek, and a blinking red for after LastDay. That leaves a color gap between 24 and 30. I’d make this phase blue, since it looks so clearly different from red. The new colors would be as follows.

White white Birth to 8 years
Yellow yellow 9 to 15 years
Green green 16 to 23 years
Blue blue 24 years to 10 days before Lastday (30 years)
Red red from 10 days before Lastday to Lastday
Blinking Red red_blink End of Lastday (Carousel/death)

Location on the body

The second question is the location of the lifeclock. Where should it be placed? It is a social signal, and as such needs to be visible. The parts of the body that are most often seen uncovered in the film are the hand, the neck, and the head. The neck and head are problematic since these are not visible to the citizen himself, useful for reinforcing compliance with the system. This leaves the hand.


Given the hand, the palm seems an odd choice since in a relaxed position or when the hand is in use, the palm is often hidden from view of other people. The colored clothing seen in the film show that a citizen’s life stage is not really considered a private matter, so a location on the back of the hand would have made more sense. To keep it in view of its owner, a location on the fleshy pad between the thumb and the forefinger would have made a better, if less cinematic, choice.

Precrime forearm-comm


Though most everyone in the audience left Minority Report with the precrime scrubber interface burned into their minds (see Chapter 5 of the book for more on that interface), the film was loaded with lots of other interfaces to consider, not the least of which were the wearable devices.

Precrime forearm devices

These devices are worn when Anderton is in his field uniform while on duty, and are built into the material across the left forearm. On the anterior side just at the wrist is a microphone for communications with dispatch and other officers. By simply raising that side of his forearm near his mouth, Anderton opens the channel for communication. (See the image above.)


There is also a basic circular display in the middle of the posterior left forearm that displays a countdown for the current mission: The time remaining before the crime that was predicted to occur should take place. The text is large white characters against a dark background. Although the translucency provides some visual challenge to the noisy background of the watch (what is that in there, a Joule heating coil?), the jump-cut transitions of the seconds ticking by commands the user’s visual attention.

On the anterior forearm there are two visual output devices: one rectangular perpetrator information (and general display?) and one amber-colored circular one we never see up close. In the beginning of the film Anderton has a man pinned to the ground and scans his eyes with a handheld Eyedentiscan device. Through retinal biometrics, the pre-offender’s identity is confirmed and sent to the rectangular display, where Anderton can confirm that the man is a citizen named Howard Marks.

Wearable analysis

Checking these devices against the criteria established in the combadge writeup, it fares well. This is partially because it builds on a century of product evolution for the wristwatch.

It is sartorial, bearing displays that lay flat against the skin connected to soft parts that hold them in place.

They are social, being in a location other people are used to seeing similar technology.

It is easy to access and use for being along the forearm. Placing different kinds of information at different spots of the body means the officer can count on body memory to access particular data, e.g. Perp info is anterior middle forearm. That saves him the cognitive load of managing modes on the device.

The display size for this rectangle is smallish considering the amount of data being displayed, but being on the forearm means that Anderton can adjust its apparent size by bringing it closer or farther from his face. (Though we see no evidence of this in the film, it would be cool if the amount of information changed based on distance-to-the-observer’s face. Writing that distanceFromFace() algorithm might be tricky though.)

There might be some question about accidental activation, since Anderton could be shooting the breeze with his buddies while scratching his nose and mistakenly send a dirty joke to a dispatcher, but this seems like an unlikely and uncommon enough occurrence to simply not worry about it.

Using voice as the input is cinemagenic, but especially in his line of work a subvocalization input would keep him more quiet—and therefore safer— in the field. Still, voice inputs are fast and intuitive, making for fairly apposite I/O. Ideally he might have some haptic augmentation of the countdown, and audio augmentation of the info so Anderton wouldn’t have to pull his arm and attention away from the perpetrator, but as long as the information is glanceable and Anderton is merely confirming data (rather than new information), recognition is a fast enough cognitive process that this isn’t too much of a problem.

All in all, not bad for a “throwaway” wearable technology.

Her interface components (2/8)

Depending on how you slice things, the OS1 interface consists of five components and three (and a half) capabilities.


1. An Earpiece

The earpiece is small and wireless, just large enough to fit snugly in the ear and provide an easy handle for pulling out again. It has two modes. When the earpiece is in Theodore’s ear, it’s in private mode, hearable only by him. When the earpiece is out, the speaker is as loud as a human speaking at room volume. It can produce both voice and other sounds, offering a few beeps and boops to signal needing attention and changes in the mode.


2. Cameo phone

I think I have to make up a name for this device, and “cameo phone” seems to fit. This small, hand-sized, bi-fold device has one camera on the outside an one on the inside of the recto, and a display screen on the inside of the verso. It folds along its long edge, unlike the old clamshell phones. The has smartphone capabilities. It wirelessly communicates with the internet. Theodore occasionally slides his finger left to right across the wood, so it has some touch-gesture sensitivity. A stripe around the outside-edge of the cameo can glow red to act as a visual signal to get its user’s attention. This is quite useful when the cameo is folded up and sitting on a nightstand, for instance. Continue reading