Tunnel-in-the-Sky Displays

“Tunnel in the Sky” is the name of a 1955 Robert Heinlein novel that has nothing to do with this post. It is also the title of the following illustration by Muscovite digital artist Vladimir Manyukhin, which also has nothing to do with this post, but is gorgeous and evocative, and included here solely for visual interest.

See more of Vladimir’s work here https://www.artstation.com/mvn78.

Instead, this post is about the piloting display of the same name, and written specifically to sci-fi interface designers.


Last week in reviewing the spinners in Blade Runner, I included mention and a passing critique of the tunnel-in-the-sky display that sits in front of the pilot. While publishing, I realized that I’d seen this a handful of other times in sci-fi, and so I decided to do more focused (read: Internet) research about it. Turns out it’s a real thing, and it’s been studied and refined a lot over the past 60 years, and there are some important details to getting one right.

Though I looked at a lot of sources for this article, I must give a shout-out to Max Mulder of TU Delft. (Hallo, TU Delft!) Mulder’s PhD thesis paper from 1999 on the subject is truly a marvel of research and analysis, and it pulls in one of my favorite nerd topics: Cybernetics. Throughout this post I rely heavily on his paper, and you could go down many worse rabbit holes than cybernetics. n.b., it is not about cyborgs. Per se. Thank you, Max.

I’m going to breeze through the history, issues, and elements from the perspective of sci-fi interfaces, and then return to the three examples in the survey. If you want to go really in depth on the topic (and encounter awesome words like “psychophysics” and “egomotion” in their natural habitat), Mulder’s paper is available online for free from researchgate.net: “Cybernetics of Tunnel-in-the-Sky Displays.”

What the heck is it?

A tunnel-in-the-sky display assists pilots, helping them know where their aircraft is in relation to an ideal flight path. It consists of a set of similar shapes projected out into 3D space, circumscribing the ideal path. The pilot monitors their aircraft’s trajectory through this tunnel, and makes course corrections as they fly to keep themselves near its center.

This example comes from Michael P. Snow, as part of his “Flight Display Integration” paper, also on researchgate.net.

Please note that throughout this post, I will spell out the lengthy phrase “tunnel-in-the-sky” because the acronym is pointlessly distracting.

Quick History

In 1973, Volkmar Wilckens was a research engineer and experimental test pilot for the German Research and Testing Institute for Aerospace (now called the German Aerospace Center). He was doing a lot of thinking about flight safety in all-weather conditions, and came up with an idea. In his paper “Improvements In Pilot/Aircraft-Integration by Advanced Contact Analog Displays,” he sort of says, “Hey, it’s hard to put all the information from all the instruments together in your head and use that to fly, especially when you’re stressed out and flying conditions are crap. What if we took that data and rolled it up into a single easy-to-use display?” Figure 6 is his comp of just such a system. It was tested thoroughly in simulators and shown to improve pilot performance by making the key information (attitude, flight-path and position) perceivable rather than readable. It also enabled the pilot greater agency, by not having them just follow rules after instrument readings, but empowering them to navigate multiple variables within parameters to stay on target.

In Wilckens’ Fig. 6, above, you can see the basics of what would wind up on sci-fi screens decades later: shapes repeated into 3D space ahead of the aircraft to give the pilot a sense of an ideal path through the air. Stay in the tunnel and keep the plane safe.

Mulder notes that the next landmark developments come from the work of Arthur Grunwald & S. J. Merhav between 1976–1978. Their research illustrates the importance of augmenting the display and of including a preview of the aircraft in the display. They called this preview the Flight Path Predictor, or FPS. I’ve also seen it called the birdie in more modern papers, which is a lot more charming. It’s that plus symbol in the Grunwald illustration, below. Later in 1984, Grunwald also showed that a heads-up-display increased precision adhering to a curved path. So, HUDs good.

 n.b. This is Mulder’s representation of Grunwald’s display format.

I have also seen lots of examples of—but cannot find the research provenance for—tools for helping the pilot stay centered, such as a “ghost” reticle at the center of each frame, or alternately brackets around the FPP, called the Flight Director Box, that the pilot can align to the corners of the frames. (I’ll just reference the brackets. Gestalt be damned!) The value of the birdie combined with the brackets seems very great, so though I can’t cite their inventor, and it wasn’t in Mulder’s thesis, I’ll include them as canon.

The takeaway from the history is really that these displays have a rich and studied history. The pattern has a high confidence.

Elements of an archetypical tunnel-in-the-sky display

There are lots of nuances that have been studied for these displays. Take for example the effect that angling the frames have on pilot banking, and the perfect time offset to nudge pilot behavior closer to ideal banking. For the purposes of sci-fi interfaces, however, we can reduce the critical components of the real world pattern down to four.

  1. Square shapes (called frames) extending into the distance that describe an ideal path through space
    1. The frame should be about five times the width of the craft. (The birdie you see below is not proportional and I don’t think it’s standard that they are.)
    2. The distances between frames will change with speed, but be set such that the pilot encounters a new one every three seconds.
    3. The frames should adopt perspective as if they were in the world, being perpendicular to the flight path. They should not face the display.
    4. The frames should tilt, or bank, on curves.
    5. The tunnel only needs to extend so far, about 20 seconds ahead in the flight path. This makes for about 6 frames visible at a time.
  2. An aircraft reference symbol or Flight Path Predictor Symbol (FPS, or “birdie”) that predicts where the plane will be when it meets the position of the nearest frame. It can appear off-facing in relation to the cockpit.
    1. These are often rendered as two L shapes turned base-to-base with some space between them. (See one such symbol in the Snow example above.)
    2. Sometimes (and more intuitively, imho) as a circle with short lines extending out the sides and the top. Like a cartoon butt of a plane. (See below.)
  3. Contour lines connect matching corners across frames
  4. A horizon line
This comp illustrates those critical features.

There are of course lots of other bits of information that a pilot needs. Altitude and speed, for example. If you’re feeling ambitious, and want more than those four, there are other details directly related to steering that may help a pilot.

  • Degree-of-vertical-deviation indicator at a side edge
  • Degree-of-horizontal-deviation indicator at the top edge
  • Center-of-frame indicator, such as a reticle, appearing in the upcoming frame
  • A path predictor 
  • Some sense of objects in the environment: If the display is a heads-up display, this can be a live view. If it is a separate screen, some stylized representation what the pilot would see if the display was superimposed onto their view.
  • What the risk is when off path: Just fuel? Passenger comfort? This is most important if that risk is imminent (collision with another craft, mountain) but then we’re starting to get agentive and I said we wouldn’t go there, so *crumbles up paper, tosses it*.

I haven’t seen a study showing efficacy of color and shading and line scale to provide additional cues, but look closely at that comp and you’ll see…

  • The background has been level-adjusted to increase contrast with the heads-up display
  • A dark outline around the white birdie and brackets to help visually distinguish them from the green lines and the clouds
  • A shadow under the birdie and brackets onto the frames and contours as an additional signal of 3D position
  • Contour lines diminishing in size as they extend into the distance, adding an additional perspective cue and limiting the amount of contour to the 20 second extents.
Some other interface elements added.

What can you play with when designing one in sci-fi?

Everything, of course. Signaling future-ness means extending known patterns, and sci-fi doesn’t answer to usability. Extend for story, extend for spectacle, extend for overwhelmedness. You know your job better than me. But if you want to keep a foot in believability, you should understand the point of each thing as you modify it and try not to lose that.

  1. Each frame serves as a mini-game, challenging the pilot to meet its center. Once that frame passes, that game is done and the next one is the new goal. Frames describe the near term. Having corners to the frame shape helps convey banking better. Circles would hide banking.
  2. Contour lines, if well designed, help describe the overall path and disambiguate the stack of frames. (As does lighting and shading and careful visual design, see above.) Contour lines convey the shape of the overall path and help guide steering between frames. Kind of like how you’d need to see the whole curve before drifitng your car through one, the contour lines help the pilot plan for the near future. 
  3. The birdie and brackets are what a pilot uses to know how close to the center they are. The birdie needs a center point. The brackets need to match the corners of the frame. Without these, it’s easier to drift off center.
  4. A horizon line provides feedback for when the plane is banked.
THIS BAD: You can kill the sense of the display by altering (or in this case, omitting) too much.

Since I mentioned that each frame acts as a mini-game, a word of caution: Just as you should be skeptical when looking to sci-fi, you should be skeptical when looking to games for their interfaces. The simulator which is most known for accuracy (Microsoft Flight Simulator) doesn’t appear to have a tunnel-in-the-sky display, and other categories of games may not be optimizing for usability as much as just plain fun, with the risk of crashing your virtual craft just being part of the risk. That’s not an acceptable outcome in real-world piloting. So, be cautious considering game interfaces as models for this, either.

This clip of stall-testing in the forthcoming MSFS2020 still doesn’t appear to show one. 

So now let’s look at the three examples of sci-fi tunnel-in-the-sky displays in chronological order of release, and see how they fare.

Three examples from sci-fi

So with those ideal components in mind, let’s look back at those three examples in the survey.

Alien (1976)
Blade Runner (1982)

Quick aside on the Blade Runner interface: The spike at the top and the bottom of the frame help in straight tunnels to serve as a horizontal degree-of-deviation indicator. It would not help as much in curved tunnels, and is missing a matching vertical degree-of-deviation indicator. Unless that’s handled automatically, like a car on a road, its absence is notable.

Starship Troopers (1986) We only get 15 frames of this interface in Starship Troopers, as Ibanez pilots the escape shuttle to the surface of Planet P. It is very jarring to see as a repeating gif, so accept this still image instead. 

Some obvious things we see missing from all of them are the birdie, the box, and the contour lines. Why is this? My guess is that the computational power in the 1976 was not enough to manage those extra lines, and Ridley Scott just went with the frames. Then, once the trope had been established in a blockbuster, designers just kept repeating the trope rather than looking to see how it worked in the real world, or having the time to work through the interaction logic. So let me say:

  • Without the birdie and box, the pilot has far too much leeway to make mistakes. And in sci-fi contexts, where the tunnel-in-the-sky display is shown mostly during critical ship maneuvers, their absence is glaring.
  • Also the lack of contour lines might not seem as important, since the screens typically aren’t shown for very long, but when they twist in crazy ways they should help signal the difficulty of the task ahead of the pilot very quickly.

Note that sci-fi will almost certainly encounter problems that real-world researchers will not have needed to consider, and so there’s plenty of room for imagination and additional design. Imagine helping a pilot…

  • Navigating the weird spacetime around a singularity
  • Bouncing close to a supernova while in hyperspace
  • Dodging chunks of spaceship, the bodies of your fallen comrades, and rising plasma bombs as you pilot shuttlecraft to safety on the planet below
  • AI on the ships that can predict complex flight paths and even modify them in real time, and even assist with it all
  • Needing to have the tunnel be occluded by objects visible in a heads up display, such as when a pilot is maneuvering amongst an impossibly-dense asteroid field. 

…to name a few off my head. These things don’t happen in the real world, so would be novel design challenges for the sci-fi interface designer.


So, now we have a deeper basis for discussing, critiquing, and designing sci-fi tunnel-in-the-sky displays. If you are an aeronautic engineer, and have some more detail, let me hear it! I’d love for this to be a good general reference for sci-fi interface designers.

If you are a fan, and can provide other examples in the comments, it would be great to see other ones to compare.

Happy flying, and see you back in Blade Runner in the next post.

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Spinners (flying cars)

So the first Fritzes are now a thing. Before I went off on that awesome tangent, where were we? Oh that’s right. I was reviewing Blade Runner as part of a series on AI in sci-fi. I was just about to get to Spinners. Now vehicles are complicated things as they are, much less when they are navigating proper 3D space. Additionally, the police force is, ostensibly, a public service, which complicates things even further. So this will get lengthy. Still, I think I can get this down to eight or so subtopics.

In the distant future of 2019, flying cars, called “spinners,” are a reality. They’re largely for the wealthy and powerful (including law enforcement). The main protagonist, Deckard, is only ever a passenger in a few over the course of the film. His partner Gaff flies one, though, so we have enough usage to review.

Opening the skies to automobile-like traffic poses challenges, especially when those skies are as full of lightning bolts, ever-present massive flares, distracting building-sized video advertisements, and of course, other spinners.

Piloting controls

To pilot the spinner, Gaff keeps his hands on each handle of a split yoke. Within easy reach of his fingers are a few unlabeled buttons and small lights. Once we see him reach with his right thumb to press one of the buttons, but we don’t see any result, so it’s not clear what these buttons do. It’s nice that they don’t require him to take his hands off the controls. (This might seem like a prescient concept, but WP tells me the first non-horn wheel-mounted controls date back as far back as 1966.)

It is contextualizing to note the mode of agency here. That is, the controls are manual, with no AI offering assistance or acting as an agent. (The AI is in the passenger’s seat, lol fight me.) It appears to be up to Gaff to observe conditions, monitor displays, perform wayfinding, and keep the spinner on track.

Note that we never see what his feet are doing and never see him doing other things with his hands other than putting on a headset before lift-off. There are lots of other controls to the pilot’s left and in the console between seats, but we never see them in use. So, you know, approach with caution. There are a lot of unknowns here.

The Traditional Chinese characters on the window read “No entry,” for citizens outside the spinner, passing by when it is on the ground. (Hat tips for the translation to Mischa Park-Doob and Frank Chung.)

The spinner is more like a VTOL aircraft or helicopter than a spaceship. That is, it is constantly in the presence of planetary gravity and must overcome the constant resistance of air. So the standards I established in the piloting controls post are of only limited use to us here.

So let’s look at how helicopter controls work. The FAA Helicopter Flying Handbook tells us that a pilot has controls for…

  1. The vertical velocity, up or down. (Controlled by the angle of the control stick called the collective. The collective is to the left of the pilot’s hip when they are seated.)
  2. The thrust. (Controlled by the twistgrip on the collective.)
  3. Movement forward, rearward, left, and right. (Controlled with the stick in front of the pilot, called the cyclic.)
  4. Yaw of the vehicle. (Controlled with the pair of antitorque pedals at the pilot’s feet.)

Since we don’t see Gaff when the spinner is moving up and down, let’s presume that the thing he’s gripping is like a Y-shaped cyclic, with lots of little additional controls around the handles. Then, if we presume he has a collective somewhere out of sight to his left and antitorque pedals at his feet, this interface meets modern helicopter standards for control. From the outside, those appear to be well mapped (collective up = helicopter up, cyclic right = helicopter right). Twist for thrust is a little weird, but it’s a standard and certainly learnable, as I recall from my motorcycling days. So let’s say it’s complete and convincing. Is it the best it could be? I’m not enough of an aeronautical engineer (read: not at all) to imagine better options, so let’s move along. I might have more to say if it was agentive.

Dashboard

There are two large screens in the dashboard. The one directly in front of Gaff shows a stylized depiction of the 3D surfaces around him as cyan highlights on a navy blue background. Approaching red shapes describe a pill-shaped tunnel-in-the-sky display. These have been tested since 1981 and found to provide higher tracking performance to ideal paths in manual flight, lower cognitive workload, and enhanced situational awareness. (https://arc.aiaa.org/doi/abs/10.2514/3.56119) So, this is believable and well done. I’m not sure that Gaff could readily use the 3D background to effectively understand the 3D terrain, but it is tertiary, after the real world and the tunnel display.

I have to say that it’s a frustrating anti-trope to run into again, but it must be said: If the spinner knows where the ship should be, and general artificial intelligence exists in this diegesis, why exactly are humans doing the piloting? Shouldn’t the spinner fly itself? But back to the interfaces…

Above the tunnel-in-the-sky display is a cyan 7-segment LED scroll display. In the gif above it displays “MAXIMUM SPEED” and later it provides some wayfinding text. I’m not sure how many different types of information it is meant to cycle through, but it sure would be a pain to wait for vital information to appear, and distracting to have to control it to get to the one you wanted.

There is also a vertical screen in the middle of the console listing cyan labels ALT, VEL, and PTCH. These match to altitude, velocity, and pitch variables, reinforcing the helicopter model. The yellow numbers below these labels change in the scene very slowly, and—remarkably for a four-second interface from 1982—do not appear to change randomly. That’s awesome.

But then, there’s a paragraph of cyan text in the middle of the screen that appears over the course of the scene, letter by letter. This animation calls unnecessary attention to itself. There are also smaller, thin screens in the pilot’s door that also continually scroll that same teeny tiny cyan text. I’m not sure WTF all this text is supposed to be, since it would be horribly distracting to a pilot. There are also a few rows of white LEDs with cylon-eye displays traveling back and forth. They are distracting, but at least they’re regular, and might be habituate-able and act as some sort of ambient display. Anyway, if we were building this thing for real, we’d want to eliminate these.

Lastly, at the bottom of the center screen are some unlabeled bar charts depicting some variables that appear to be wiggling randomly. So, like, only the top fifth of this screen can be lauded. The rest is fuigetry. *sigh* It’s hard to escape.

Wayfinding

To help navigate the 3D space, pilots have a number of tools. First, there are windows where you expect windows to be in a car, and there are also glass panels under their feet. The movie doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but it’s clear in the scene where the spinner lifts off from the street level. These transparent panes surround pilots and passengers and allow them to track visual cues for landmarks and to identify collision threats.

It’s reflecting some neon on the street below.

The tunnel-in-the-sky display above is the most obvious wayfinding tool. Somehow Gaff has entered a destination, and the tunnel guides him where it needs to go. Since this entails a safe path through the air, it’s the most important display. Other bits of information (like the ALT, VEL, and PTCH in the center screen) should be oriented around it. This would make them glanceable, allowing Gaff glance to check them and quickly return his eyes to the windshield. In fact, we have to admit that a heads up display would allow Gaff to keep his attention where it needs to be rather than splitting it between the real world and these dashboard displays. Modern vehicle drivers are used to this split attention, and can manage it well enough. But I suspect that a HUD would be better.

It’s also at this point that you begin to wonder if these are the scout ships we see in Close Encounters.

There is also that crawling LED display above the tunnel-in-the-sky screen. In one scene it shows “SECTOR FOUR (4)…QUAD-” (we don’t get to see the end of this phrase) but it implies that one of the bits of information this scroll provides is a reminder of the name of the neighborhood you’re currently in. That really only helps if you’re way off course, and seems too low a fidelity for actual wayfinding assistance, but presuming the tunnel-in-the-sky is helping provide the rest of the wayfinding, this information is of secondary importance.

A special note about takeoff: ENVIRON CTR

The display sequence infamous for appearing in both Alien and Blade Runner happens as Gaff lifts off in a spinner early in the film. White all-cap letters label this blue screen “ENVIRON CTR,” above a grid of square characters. Then two 8-digit sequences “drop” down the center of the square grid: 92886599 | 95654085. Once they drop 3 rows, the background turns red, the grid disappears to be replaced by a big blinking label PURGE. Characters at the bottom read “24556 DR 5”, and don’t change.

After the spinner lifts off the display shows a complex diagram of a circle-within-a-circle, illustrating the increasing elevation from the ground below. The delightful worldbuilding thing about the sequence is that it is inscrutable, and legible only by a trained driver, yet gets full focus on screen. There’s not really enough information about the speculative engineering or functional constraints of the spinner to say why these screens would be necessary or useful. I have a suspicion that a live camera view would be more useful than the circle-within-a-circle view, but gosh, it sure is cool. Here’s the shot from Alien, by the way, for easy comparison.

Since people seem to be all over this one now, let me also interject that Alien is also connected to Firefly, since Mal’s anti-aircraft HUD in the pilot had a Weyland-Yutani logo. Chew on that trivia, Internet.

Intercar communication

Of special note is a scene just before his call to Sebastian’s apartment. Deckard is sitting in his parked vehicle in a call with Bryant. A police spinner glides by and we hear an announcement over his loudspeaker, directed to Deckard’s vehicle saying, “This sector’s closed to ground traffic. What are you doing here?” From inside his vehicle, Deckard looks towards his video phone in the console (we never see if there is video, but he’s looking in that direction rather than out the window) and without touching a thing, responds defensively, “I’m working. What are you doing?” The policeman’s reply comes through the videophone’s speakers, “Arresting you, that’s what I’m doing.”

Note that Deckard did not have to answer the call or even put Bryant on hold. We don’t know what the police officer did on their end, but this interaction implies that the police can make an instant, intrusive audio connection with vehicles it finds suspicious. It’s so seamless it will slip by you if you don’t know to look for it, but it paints quite a picture of intercar communication. Can you imagine if our cars automatically shared an audio space with the cars around it?

External interfaces

Another aspect of the car is that it is an interface not just for the people using the car, but for the citizens observing or near the spinner as it goes about its business. There are a number of features that helps it act as an interface to the public. 

Police exist as a social service, and the 995 repeated around the outside helps remind citizens of the number they can call in case of an emergency. 

Modern patrol cars have beacons and sirens to tell other drivers to get out of the way when they are on urgent business. Police spinners are gravid with beacons, having 12 of them visible from the front alone. (See below.) As the spinner is taking off, yellow and blue beacons circle as a warning. This would be of no help to a blind person nearby, but the vehicle does make some incidental noise that serves as an audible warning.

The rich light strip makes sense because it has such a greater range of movement than ground-based cars, and needs more attention grabbing power. Another nice touch is that, since the spinner can be above people, there are also beacons on the chassis.

Upshot: Spinners do well

So, all in all, the spinner fares quite well on close inspection. It builds on known models of piloting, shows mostly-relevant data, uses known best practices for assistance, and has a lot of well-considered surface features for citizens.

Now if only I could figure out why they’re called spinners.

Fritz 2020: Best Interfaces

The movies nominated for Best Interfaces manage the extraordinary challenge of being believable and helping to paint a picture of the world of the story. They advance the state of the art in telling stories with speculative technology. The nominees for Best Narrative are I Am Mother, Spider Man: Far From Home, and Men in Black: International.

The winner of the Best Interfaces award for 2020 is Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Spider-Man: Far From Home

In the second 2019 nominee movie from the MCU, Peter Parker fails to have a normal summer studying abroad in Europe. He witnesses what he thinks are elemental monsters wreaking havoc on popular tourist cities, and a new superhero named Mysterio fighting them. Over the course of the film, Parker and his Scoobys discover the terrible truth before defeating and exposing the real bad guy. In the end, Parker learns to accept Tony Stark’s legacy, and then has his secret identity rudely outed.

Technology is at the very heart of this plot. And while it could have played out with lots of gee-whiz wiggling-chart nonsense, Far from Home puts in the work to make the interfaces believable, germane to the plot, and still pretty amazing. Sensational. Spectacular, even.

When you watch the film again, keep an eye out for Mysterio’s drone tracking screens, the solid comedy with the trigger-happy AI Edith, and even the lovely suit-design tools that echo Iron Man from over a decade before, and you’ll see why the film is nominated for Best Interfaces of the year.

You can watch Spider-Man: Far From Home online at Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and with subscriptions at Hulu and Starz.


I would love to extend my congratulations to all the studios who produced this work, but Hollywood is complicated and nothing makes it easy to identify exactly who is to credit for what. So let me extend my congratulations generally to the nominees and winners for an extraordinary body of work. Here’s looking to the next year of sci-fi cinema.

Fritz 2020: Audience Choice

All of the movies nominated for other awards were presented for an Audience Choice award. Across social media, the readership was invited to vote for their favorite, and the results tallied. The winner of the Audience Choice award for 2020 is Avengers: Endgame.

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame is an indie feelgood about a group of friends who go rock hunting together. Just kidding, of course. Endgame is the biggest box-office movie of all time, earning 2.67 billion dollars worldwide and bringing to climax 11 years of filmmaking in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The story happens after Infinity War, where Thanos did “the snap” that disintegrated half of all life in the universe. Endgame sees the remaining Avengers build a time travel device in order to “undo” the snap, and along the way resolve some longstanding personal arcs.

Interfaces don’t get as much screen time as they have in preceding films, but the ones we do see are lovely. They include some elegant gestural interfaces, like when Thor snaps a gag onto Loki’s mouth, or the Iron Gauntlet that automagically reconfigures itself to fit Hulk’s massive fist. The interfaces even craft emotional beats, as when Thor successfully reclaims Mjolnir from the past. No really, I sniffed.

One of the most subtle feats of the film is how it builds on the groundwork laid in the preceding 21 movies. It doesn’t need to take pains to explain the heads-up display that smoothly guides Avengers as they freefall through the quantum sponge, because the audience will almost certainly have seen the Iron HUD before.

Endgame’s interfaces help tell the story of heroes using every tool at their disposal to defeat one of the MCU’s worst, most Malthusian villains.

You can watch Avengers: Endgame online at Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and Disney+ via subscription.


Congratulations to the designers, the studios, and the production companies.

Fritzes 2020: Best Narrative

These movies’ interfaces blow us away with wonderful visuals and the richness of their future vision. They engross us in the story world by being spectacular. The nominees for Best Narrative are Alita: Battle Angel, Avengers: Endgame, and Captive State.

The winner of the Best Narrative award for 2020 is Captive State.

Captive State

After an alien occupation, most of humanity falls in line with the oppressors. But not everyone. Captive State tells the story of a resistance movement bent on freeing humanity and saving the earth from ruthless alien capitalists.

The interfaces in the movie show how “the Legislature” (as the aliens are called) and their human lackeys manage to keep humanity oppressed with drones and tracking “bugs”, as well as the scrappy resistance fighters’ tools for striking back.

This thriller is full of twists and surprises, and its interface designs are compelling and terrifyingly believable, earning its nomination for a Fritz award.

You can watch Captive State online at Amazon, Google Play, and Vudu.


Congratulations to the designers, the studios, and the production companies.

Fritzes 2020: Best Believable

These movies’ interfaces adhere to solid HCI principles and believable interactions. They engage us in the story world by being convincing. The nominees for Best Believable are Ad Astra, High Life, and X-Men: Dark Phoenix.

The winner of the Best Believable award for 2020 is Ad Astra.

Ad Astra

Sometime in the near future, Roy McBridge heads to Mars to find his father and see if he is responsible for immense electrical surges that have been damaging the earth. His journey is troubled by murderous moon pirates, frenzied space baboons, Roy’s unexpected emotions, and the aforementioned surges.

Much of the technology is incidental yet still quite convincing and usable. His bedside news alarm, the various briefing slates, and interplanetary message pads. There are a lot of translucent screens throughout, but that’s a grandfathered trope by now.

By the time Roy reunites with his father and then returns to earth, he and the audience have been through the wringer. The technology is not the point of the story, but it helps tell that story in a very well-done way.

You can watch Ad Astra online at Amazon, Google Play, and Vudu.


Congratulations to the designers, the studios, and the production companies.

Fritzes 2020: Honorary Award

I have wanted to do this for about 6 years. I began imagining it as a thing on an actual stage with physical awards and a sponsor and an academy of hundreds. But things kept getting in the way of the big-production version, (as you can tell by, you know, the lack of any awards from 2014 until now). So in 2019, I thought about what the minimum-delightful version might be, and I’m happy that this was the trick that finally worked.

And tonight’s the night. Alongside the 92nd Academy Awards happening in the Dolby Theatre, in Los Angeles, California, I’ll be announcing five awards. For my RSS subscribers (about half of you), I’ll make a short post for each award that will wind up in your readers, a little less than an hour apart each. For those who follow social media notifications to the site, notifications are timed to go out just after the posts are released. Finally, the final results will be documented as a page that will be part of the persistent navigation on the site.

To kick off the “evening,” I’m first giving an honorary and posthumous award to Fritz Lang.

Honorary Award

The Fritz award is named for him, since he was was the first filmmaker to put realistic interfaces in a sci-fi film, specifically his 1927 film Metropolis. (It was the first film I officially reviewed on the blog.) Lang was grappling with the larger role of technology in society, and his interfaces are wonderfully evocative and illustrative. Naming the awards after him honors his pioneering spirit and craft. Plus there’s a fun irony of “being on the fritz” being slang for broken technology. Just look at the wonder of this horrible “human router” interface from the film.

You can find full length films of Metropolis online, such as this high res copy posted by YouTube user Pedro Campos Miranda.

The Fritzes award honors the best interfaces in a full-length motion picture in the past year. Interfaces play a special (and for my money, under-appreciated) role in our movie-going experience, and are a craft all their own that does not otherwise receive focused recognition.

In this first year, awards will be given for Best Believable, Best Narrative, Audience Choice, and Best Interfaces (overall.) A group of critics and creators were consulted to watch the nominated films, compare their merits, and cast votes. Thanks to everyone who helped to get things to this point.

The Fritzes 2020: Audience Choice Voting

The form to cast your vote for Audience Choice is at the bottom of this post.

On 09 FEB 2020, scifiinterfaces.com is announcing awards for interfaces in a 2019 science fiction feature film. An “Audience Choice” will also be announced, and determined by the results of the poll, below. What is your selection? You should see the movies in full, but you can see reminder videos and summaries for each of the nominees, below.

Ad Astra

Sometime in the near future, Roy McBridge heads to Mars to find his father and see if he is responsible for immense electrical surges that have been damaging the earth. His journey is troubled by murderous moon pirates, frenzied space baboons, Roy’s unexpected emotions, and the aforementioned surges.

Alita: Battle Angel

The year is 2563. After doctor Ido revives a mysterious cyborg girl from a junkyard, she discovers he is a bounty hunter for evil rogue cyborgs and wants to be one. After she finds a new superpowered body, she is able to save her friend Hugo by turning him into a cyborg, too. With his new abilities, he tries to scale a cable to the forbidden floating city Zalem, but dies. The movie concludes with Alita committing herself to vengeance.

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame is an indie feelgood about a group of friends who go rock hunting together. Just kidding, of course. Endgame is the biggest box-office movie of all time, earning 2.67 billion USD worldwide and bringing to climax 11 years of filmmaking in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The story happens after Infinity War, where Thanos performed “the snap” that disintegrated half of all life in the universe. Endgame sees the remaining Avengers build a time travel device in order to “undo” the snap, defeat Thanos, and along the way resolve some longstanding personal arcs.

Captive State

After an alien occupation, most of humanity falls in line with the oppressors. But not everyone. Captive State tells the story of a resistance movement bent on freeing humanity and saving the earth from ruthless alien capitalists.

High Life

High Life is certainly the most unusual film among the nominees. Convicts in the far future are sentenced to find a new energy source traveling into a black hole. On route to their certain death, sex is forbidden, but they find release in a Holodeck-style masturbatorium called The Box. Meanwhile, there are power struggles and murders and intense sexual situations. 

I am Mother

A robot raises a child from embryo to young woman in a mysterious underground facility. As the human explores more of her world, she learns dark truths about the facility, her life, and the robot she’s come to know as Mother.

Men in Black: International

The Men in Black franchise got new life in 2019 with the release of Men in Black: International. In it a young woman named Molly charms her way into the MIB, only to join Agent H on a mission to forestall an invasion by the hideous but beautiful race called the Hive. On the way, they uncover a mole in the organization while Molly helps H overcome a dark event from his past.

Spider-Man: Far from Home

In the second 2019 nominee movie from the MCU, Peter Parker fails to have a normal summer studying abroad in Europe. He witnesses what he thinks are elemental monsters wreaking havoc on popular tourist cities, and a new superhero named Mysterio fighting them. Over the course of the film, Parker and his Scoobys discover the terrible truth before defeating and exposing the real bad guy. In the end, Parker learns to accept Tony Stark’s legacy, and then has his secret identity rudely outed.

X-Men Dark Phoenix

Superhero movies are not known for their restraint. Dark Phoenix starts with our mutant team rushing into space to, oh, you know, rescue some astronauts, and Jean Gray absorbing a “mysterious space force” in order to save the day. Over the movie, she finds her psychic and telekinetic powers amplified, but ultimately out of her control. She is hunted by the U.S. military, an alien race called the D’Bari, a Magneto gang, and even her own team, to no avail.


Of those movies, which do you think had the best over all interfaces? Cast your vote below. To avoid flagrant ballot stuffing, you must have a google account and be logged in to that account to cast your vote.

Voting will be open until 01 FEB 2020, 23:59 PST.

Please share this post on your social media to get the vote out! Thanks!

The Fritzes 2020: Nominees

This year scifiinterfaces is going to try something new: Giving out awards for the best interfaces in a movie in the prior calendar year. The timing will roughly correspond to the timing of the Oscars.

It’s going to be an “alpha” release version, mind you, since I don’t have a sponsor lined up, and you always have stuff to figure out the first time you try a massive project, and it’s hard to rally collaborators around a new thing. So, the “award” will be virtual, even though the honor is real. Also everything will happen via this blog and social media rather than any live stage event or anything like that. I have tried to do this on a larger scale in the past, but each time something stood in the way. Wish me luck.

The idea here is to reward and encourage excellence and maybe help readers discover what awesomeness is happening in sci-fi interfaces, without going into the full-scale, scene-by-scene critique that normally occupies this blog. The Oscars give awards for “Achievement in production design,” but this often entails much more than the very specific craft of sci-fi interfaces, which is the focus of this project.

On the name

The award will be called the Fritz, in honor of Fritz Lang, who was the first filmmaker to put realistic interfaces in a sci-fi film, specifically his 1927 film Metropolis. Lang was grappling with the larger role of technology in society, and his interfaces are wonderfully evocative and illustrative. Naming the awards after him honors his pioneering spirit and craft.

4 Awards

Sci-fi films have to answer to many masters, and rather than just give one award, I’m going to go with 4. Two of these will respect films that err towards either believability or spectacle—I believe there is often a wicked tradeoff between the two. The main award will honor films that manage that extraordinary challenge of accomplishing both. The fourth award is a viewer’s choice, where I share all the nominees and ask readers (like you) which they think is the best.

  1. Best interfaces (overall)
  2. Best narrative
  3. Best believable
  4. Audience Choice

Perhaps in the future there will be other categories, like for shorts, student work, or television serials. But for now just these four are going to tax the resources of your lone hobbyist blogger, here. Especially as I try to keep up regular reviews.

I will have the help of a few other judges. (I’m still chatting with them now to see if they want to be named. The Academy stays anonymous, so maybe these judges, should, too?) Winners will be announced the week of 09 Feb 2020.

What gets considered?

Focusing efforts on a narrower category of media helps the task be manageable, which is important since a new program cannot rely on submissions from others. I have loosely followed the Academy’s guidelines for eligibility for feature-length films (over 40 minutes), with the exception that I included feature-length films released on streaming media as well, such as those produced by Amazon and Netflix, which never saw theatrical release.

These guidelines gave the judges a list of 27 candidates to consider, and the following are the final nominees, presented in their category in alphabetical order. Keep in mind that the nominees were elected for the quality of the interfaces in the context of the film, but with specific disconsideration for other aspects of the work. In other words, a film could be panned for nearly any other reason, but its interfaces just marvelous, and it could wind up a nominee.

Nominees: Best believable

Nominees: Best narrative

Nominees: Best interfaces (overall)

Congratulations to all the nominees. Nice work.

If you’re the sort who likes to see all the nominees in a category to justify your outrage at the results, get to watching. You have a few weeks to see or re-see these before results are shared.

Stay tuned to scifiinterfaces.com here or on twitter for more, including when and where to vote for Viewer’s Choice.

About the critical stance of this blog

I knew I was going to piss of some fans of Blade Runner when I called the Voight-Kampff machine shit. I stand by it, but some of the discussion led me to realize I should make some of the implicit guiding principles of my approach to critique (and which lead me to call it shit) explicit. This is that.

OMG I’ve always wanted to read art critique theory on a sci-fi blog!

I’m going to drop this into the “About this site” page on the blog, but because a majority of my readers subscribe via RSS (Hi, you) and would not see that link, I’ll also copy the content to a post.

Short answer, I’m here for constructive criticism. That is, to ask of interfaces in sci-fi movies and television shows, “Is this the best form for its purpose?” followed by “If not, what is a better form, and why?” All for the 8 reasons I’ve outlined before:

  1. Build skepticism.
  2. Farm for good ideas.
  3. Use their bad ideas.
  4. Avoid their mistakes.
  5. Practice design critique.
  6. Build literacy.
  7. Mine its blind spots.
  8. Think big.

It’s made quite complicated because…

  • These are speculative technologies depicted in fictious tales.
  • The people making the art being reviewed may not have studied or even be interested in design for the real world.
  • The concepts of users and goals in this domain are complex: diegetic users with goals, actors using props, extradiegetic users of the film as engaging entertainment, sci-fi interface designers trying to balance believability with spectacle and narrative function, other sci-fi interface designers looking at other work in their field, writers of sci-fi trying to make a point, and designers of real-world technologies examining the design. All of these are “users” with different goals of use.
  • Narratively, an interface can serve multiple purposes: conveying plot points, telling us something about the character using it or the organization that made it, set dressing to convey science-y-ness, or even comedy.
  • Makers of sci-fi interfaces are often constrained with limited resources, paradigms of their time, conflicting directives, and intense pressures.
  • It is a fait accompli that these speculative technologies “work” in the way the script needs them to. They are not subject to ordinary forces of usability.
  • Often times actors are “interacting” with blank technologies on set, and interfaces painted on afterward in post to fit the actor’s motions.
  • The semiotics are multilayered, increasingly self-referential, and span the whole supergenre.
  • Most of the time the audience “reads” the interfaces in real-time for their narrative purpose rather than “seeing” them and contemplating their intricacies, the way I do on this blog. (Humans are surprisingly adept at knowing when to read a thing as “for the audience” and “for the characters” and rolling with the appropriate interpretation. We just “get” Tony’s Iron HUD, even though it is an impossible thing.)
  • Many of the films I review were made in a time when “pausing” was not even possible, so the artists could reasonably expect for details to zip by unnoticed.

But honestly, that complexity is why I find it an engaging place to be working. If it was simple, it might be boring.

Those few paragraphs might be enough of an explanation, except I have invoked “New Criticism” several times on the blog and in conversations, which bears some additional detail.

So, a longer-form answer follows.


When I was studying art history in undergraduate, we talked not just about art, but about how we talk about art, and as you might imagine, formal critique is a rich and high-minded topic. Turns out there are entire competing schools of thought, most of which end in “ism,” about what are good and useful ways to critique. Now, I wouldn’t consider myself exactly literate in critical theory. At most I have exposure to its key concepts as part of an undergrad minor, and then nearly a decade of putting it into practice here. It’s possible I’m only half-remembering what it is, and I’m missing out on key trends in modern critical theories. But the principles I’m going to attribute to it are sound, and I’ll stand by them even if I’m misattributing the source.

Here goes.

For hundreds of years prior to the mid-20th century, critique of art and literature was largely about examining the artists’ intent, circumstance, technique, and position within the artist’s body of work, as well as its contribution to the school of expression with which it was associated. It was largely about examining things from the artist’s perspective.

Historical critique: Where does this work sit in relation to Picasso’s blue period, and how did that inspire his later work or other artists?

But New Criticism rejects nearly all of this, instead looking at a thing from the perspective of a receiver [reader|watcher|hearer] of it. The work is the thing that is closely examined, not the artist nor their context. New Criticism seeks to ask what does the thing mean to us, as an audience, now?

Picasso’s famous “Weeping woman” paintng, showing woman, weeping, as a highly-deconstructed face.
New Criticism: What on earth could this deconstructed face mean?

Let’s look at these two approaches with an example from sci-fi.

In the literally-explosive last act of Alien, Ellen Ripley wants to set the Nostromo to self-destruct to destroy the titular xenomorph, while she and Jonesy the cat take the escape pod to cuddly safety. To start the self-destruct sequence, Ripley must use a labyrinthine interface, part of which is a push button interface with some arcane labels, including “lingha,” “yoni,” and “agaric fly.” How should we critique this?

The historical critique would examine the person who made it, how they made it, and what constraints they were working under. In this case, we would find (via the Alien Explorations blog) that the designer, Simon Deering, was reading the philosopher/occultist Helena Blavatsky’s book The Secret Doctrine, and in a pinch decided to use weird phrases from her book to fill out the “extra,” non-plot-critical buttons on the panel.

Do I need to mention this was Photoshopped? This was totally Photoshopped.

Great. We now have an answer to who made it and why. And…so what? It’s an interesting bit for trivia night or to trot out at your next cocktail party, but almost worthless for practitioners hoping to improve their craft.

(Almost worthless: The story could help sharpen one’s sense of skepticism, i.e. that just because these interfaces are cool doesn’t mean they are good models for real world design, but that’s the only takeaway I can think of.)

(And maybe a fine, semi-random way to discover new works of Russian occultism, but again, useless for design practice.)

(See, it’s complicated.)

The tag line for this very blog

Historicism is not a bad approach. Dave Addey has made quite an entertaining book and blog out of just this sort of examination. It’s even where I learned the Deering trivia in the first place. It’s just that while it’s entertaining, I don’t find this approach useful.

Better, the New Criticism argument goes, is to disregard the maker and their circumstance. Better is to try and find a diegetic reason the thing might be the way it is. Prioritize critique of the art over the artist. Sometimes this is easy. Other times you have to add a rule or idea to the diegesis to have it make sense, an act I call backworlding. Sometimes you can push through the surface of what appears broken to realize it might actually be brilliant, an act of apologetics (borrowing the term from religious philosophy). Now, staying in the diegesis, even with these techniques, isn’t always possible. Trying to connect “LINGHA” to self-destruct on the Nostromo would be a credibility-breaking stretch. But this deliberate first rejection of artist’s context and focus on the internal consistency is the “close reading” for which New Criticism is known.

The next step I take after a close reading is to make the critique useful to the reader. Sometimes that’s suggesting a design that better achieves the purposes of the work. (I did this with the Voight-Kampff machine. I did it with the Logan’s Run Circuit. How well I did is open to…critique.) Other usefulnesses are contrasting the design to known best practices or dark patterns in the field. Sometimes it’s acknowledging that the sci-fi interface is a great idea, and formalizing a new best practice—or Alexandrian pattern—around it. Sometimes it’s connecting the thing to other real world designs that share similar issues.

I consider real-world designers my primary audience, partly because having done this kind of design (and hey, even won some awards for it) for decades, I can claim some authority in the space.

I do know that another component of my readership are the writers and makers of sci-fi interfaces. I count some of them as friends (Hi, you). So ideally, when I suggest a new design, I try to have it both work as a real-world model and meeting the needs of the narrative. That’s not always possible, but I try. Sometimes that’s even a script rewrite. I have much less authority here, since I‘ve not yet done it professionally. <hangs shingle/> But yes, I try to consider those needs, too.

What this all means is that I will reject some common complaints about my reviews:

  1. But, it’s art. (Yes, I know. That does not exempt it from critique.)
  2. The [original book|novelization|toy|wiki|expanded universe] says differently. (Don’t care. I’m not reviewing those.)
  3. The designer didn’t have this [technology|paradigm|editing capability] at the time of creation. (Not useful to us today.)
  4. The designer couldn’t have imagined you’d be looking at it this closely. (Not my concern.)
  5. Maybe the aliens have some extra sense or capability that we don’t, and that is why it works for them. (Not useful for real-world design, at least, because we don’t live in a world with these actual, sentient aliens. We almost always design for people, and so frame the critique in light of that.)
  6. This is mean. (I never attack the designer, and just address the design. If you’re looking for pure fawning, I’m just not your guy.)
  7. But this was pretty good, for its time. (That’s a historical read.)
  8. But it’s soooooo cool. (I offer skeptical critique and entertainment. There are plenty of other places to go to soak in spectacle and just be inspired.)
  9. Shhh. Just let people enjoy things. (This blog is opt-in. If you just want to enjoy these things without critical evaluation, press command-K and go elsewhere. I understand there are some charming cat videos hereabouts.)
With due respect: No. Not in this case.

Lastly, note that all of this is a general stance I take, not a set of laws to which I pedantically adhere. Sometimes an interface or speculative technology is so broken or so unusual that this approach just doesn’t work, and I have to take another tack. I’m OK with that.

I know this is long and screedy, but should help explain where I’m coming from, and whether this blog is for you. I hope it helps.