Saturday, May 18, 2013

Computer Human Interface in Cinema: An Example from Patriot Games (1992)

In general if we ask the question "Is it too much to ask that Hollywood represent the use of computers with some authenticity or correctness?" the answer would clearly be "Yes, it is too much to ask".

Authenticity is a dirty word in Hollywood and computers fit the rule, not the exception. A computer in a movie serves some generally shallow plot points: the computer acts as an oracle, or a dictator, or whimsical child, or God knows what. These shallow ideas generally mirror the genuinely sincere shallow level of understanding of the filmmakers. Water seeks its own level, and in this area its a pretty low level.

But I came across a scene in a stupid movie called Patriot Games (1992) starring Harrison Ford and the sequence has an excellent representation of a classic late 60s, early 70s computer user interface, complete with user.

The sequence watches a preemptive strike on an IRA training camp in the desert somewhere (maybe Libya?) through a classic spy satellite, probably a KH-11 or 12. In the Intel vault we watch a perfect example, an authentic recreation, of a female computer programmer from the late 1960s or thereabouts controlling the imaging from the satellite in real time. She types commands one line at a time.

Serious of purpose, her fingers fly over the keyboard

Notice the innovative command structure.   One command per line.  A concise 2 or 3 letter command abbreviation.  Commands such as zoom (zm), rotate (rot), and name (nm).   Intuitive and facile, our user is a power user, confident and on post.

Its feels completely authentic to me.

A modern user of computing must only shake their head in confusion at the above display.  Where are the helpful advertisements for irrelevant products?  Where is the cheap violation of privacy, the contempt for the user's time?   All we see is a few lines of serious endeavor, clearly represented.   Its failure to demonstrate cheap consumerism and sellout marks this ancient computer interface for what it is: an artifact from a time which had more integrity than our own.


You can see the sequence here:

NB: The BG voices have good information in this sequence.

Patriot Games on IMDB

KH Satellites on Wikipedia

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