Little boxes on the interface


After recklessly undocking we see Ibanez using an interface of…an indeterminate nature.

Through the front viewport Ibanez can see the cables and some small portion of the docking station. That’s not enough for her backup maneuver. To help her with that, she uses the display in front of her…or at least I think she does.


The display is a yellow wireframe box that moves “backwards” as the vessel moves backwards. It’s almost as if the screen displayed a giant wireframe airduct through which they moved. That might be useful for understanding the vessel’s movement when visual data is scarce, such as navigating in empty space with nothing but distant stars for reckoning. But here she has more than enough visual cues to understand the motion of the ship: If the massive space dock was not enough, there’s that giant moon thing just beyond. So I think understanding the vessel’s basic motion in space isn’t priority while undocking. More important is to help her understand the position of collision threats, and I cannot explain how this interface does that in any but the feeblest of ways.

If you watch the motion of the screen, it stays perfectly still even as you can see the vessel moving and turning. (In that animated gif I steadied the camera motion.) So What’s it describing? The ideal maneuver? Why doesn’t it show her a visual signal of how well she’s doing against that goal? (Video games have nailed this. The “driving line” in Gran Turismo 6 comes to mind.)

Gran Turismo driving line

If it’s not helping her avoid collisions, the high-contrast motion of the “airduct” is a great deal of visual distraction for very little payoff. That wouldn’t be interaction so much as a neurological distraction from the task at hand. So I even have to dispense with my usual New Criticism stance of accepting it as if it was perfect. Because if this was the intention of the interface, it would be encouraging disaster.


The ship does have some environmental sensors, since when it is 5 meters from the “object,” i.e. the dock, a voiceover states this fact to everyone in the bridge. Note that it’s not panicked, even though that’s relatively like being a peach-skin away from a hull breach of bajillions of credits of damage. No, the voice just says it, like it was remarking about a penny it happened to see on the sidewalk. “Three meters from object,” is said with the same dispassion moments later, even though that’s a loss of 40% of the prior distance. “Clear” is spoken with the same dispassion, even though it should be saying, “Court Martial in process…” Even the tiny little rill of an “alarm” that plays under the scene sounds more like your sister hasn’t responded to her Radio Shack alarm clock in the next room rather than—as it should be—a throbbing alert.


Since the interface does not help her, actively distracts her, and underplays the severity of the danger, is there any apology for this?

1. Better: A viewscreen

Starship Troopers happened before the popularization of augmented reality, so we can forgive the film for not adopting that technology, even though it might have been useful. AR might have been a lot for the film to explain to a 1997 audience. But the movie was made long after the popularization of the viewscreen forward display in Star Trek. Of course it’s embracing a unique aesthetic, but focusing on utility: Replace the glass in front of her with a similar viewscreen, and you can even virtually shift her view to the back of the Rodger Young. If she is distracted by the “feeling” of the thrusters, perhaps a second screen behind her will let her swivel around to pilot “backwards.” With this viewscreen she’s got some (virtual) visual information about collision threats coming her way. Plus, you could augment that view with precise proximity warnings, and yes, if you want, air duct animations showing the ideal path (similar to what they did in Alien).

2. VP

The viewscreen solution still puts some burden on her as a pilot to translate 2D information on the viewscreen to 3D reality. Sure, that’s often the job of a pilot, but can we make that part of the job easier? Note that Starship Troopers was also created after the popularization of volumetric projections in Star Wars, so that might have been a candidate, too, with some third person display nearby that showed her the 3D information in an augmented way that is fast and easy for her to interpret.

3. Autopilot or docking tug-drones

Yes, this scene is about her character, but if you were designing for the real world, this is a maneuver that an agentive interface can handle. Let the autopilot handle it, or adorable little “tug-boat” drones.


15 thoughts on “Little boxes on the interface

  1. I was right when I first saw the video game illustration, it is Gran Turismo just not the one I have played most recently (GT5, though I have been playing them since the first). And yep, you ain’t lying that driving line is both a boon and a bane, and makes Licenses the worst part of that game. Maybe they should give her a “ghost car” so she has a better idea of what is considered proper piloting.

    Also, I do so love your regular comments about how many instances this movie has of conduct that merits charges. The “Court Martial in progress…” crack had me dying. That is so true, and got to love the future where they can through use of sophisticated, high tech computers can empanel a Court Martial as you are screwing up.

    Last, so your suggestion is do what real navies do get great big ships out of narrow, tight spaces, but dude, tug boats are not sexy…to most folks.

  2. I also think its interesting that they have hologram technology cheap and reliable enough to be present in schools, but that they don’t have a primary or secondary system in the command pods of their warships to provide easier docking/undocking.

    Given the task, it feels like a full 3d projection of the ship and objects around it would be most effective for that kind of detailed piloting.

  3. Basically, the Rodger Young is a Space Boat, with all the trappings. Even when this movie came out, computer control was already a viable trope in SF books. Requiring a human crew to pilot the ship as if it was a wet navy carrier at a dock is ridiculous.

    But as the old saying goes, Hollywood SF is still in the 1950’s & 60’s for its tropes.

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  5. I’ll toss this thought out: wasn’t Ibanez still a rookie pilot at this point in the movie? I would want my pilots to have that level of control for the same reason sailors in the Navy still learn to use a sextant – you need to know how to do this sort of thing manually because all the whizz-bang computer-assisted-ar-auto-pilots in the world won’t help you a bit if the power is down. I do agree, however, that at the very least there should have been several remote-camera views so she could truly see what her ship was doing.
    But another, completely different, POV is why was the space dock built that way in the 1st place? It’s reasonable to assume that a ship might return severely damaged and not have that level of control. So why make it so difficult to get in and out of the dock? Those arm-like projections should fold back or retract out of the way so the ship is relatively free before it even moves.
    Of course that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong…

    • Graceful degradation of support tech is vital for military organizations. Manual is good, but recklessness is not.

      Love the thoughts about the space dock. I suspect the base answer is because it’s referencing real-world, body-of-water docks. But space is different, so you’re right, it should be different. Having the big, fragile space-arm on dock and undocking doesn’t make a ton of sense.

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  7. Seems to me that the “letter box” or “duct” animation is pretty clear. It’s “the pipe” indicator showing the RY is in a correct position and on a correct (if reckless) trajectory. Same sort of indicator is in 2001, Aliens, and (IIRC) Outland.

    • But it doesn’t show the correctness at all, does it? Other actuators tell her that. It should help her understand the position of collision threats, and there’s nothing on screen that helps her do that.

      • Your complaint would seem to be about “pipe” indicators in general, rather than this particular implementation.

        Since she never exceeded her positioning tolerances (if barely), the system never had to display any threats. The ship knew it’s capabilities, and she knew it’s capabilities (as well as her skill). The only ones gnawing on fingernails were her less knowledgeable/capable co-crew.

        If you want to argue that they should have included the standard “warning, warning” drill on the display (with alarms and ennuciated reinforcement), I could see that.

  8. There I really have to disagree. Managing to variables is terrible when it’s binary from silence to “warning!” Much more useful is an indicator of distances with thresholds indicated along the distance. That way no one is waiting for the alarm out of the blue but aware of both the distance and the how the distance is trending.

    • Perhaps. That would seem to be a fault of all indicators of this type. My understanding of how “pipe” indicators work is that the computer monitors all those numbers and puts up the graphic display. So long as you’re “inside the lines”, if barely, you’re golden.

      Not that Ibanez was even paying much attention to the thing anyways. She’s a “natural”. She could instinctively “feel” her relative positioning as accurately as any readout could tell her. Like any hot-shot pilot, that”s part of her character package.

      • Might be true, but can the Federation depend on all its pilots to be as extraordinary? If so, then she’s not that extraordinary. And if not, it can’t build its interfaces to presume it. We could probably find character excuses for almost every technology failing on screen, but that’s ultimately not useful to studying sci-fi interfaces to improve our real-world practice.

      • Ok, I’ll accept the argument that the tolerances are tighter than they should be.

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