Course optimal, the Stoic Guru, and the Active Academy

After Ibanez explains that the new course she plotted for the Rodger Young (without oversight, explicit approval, or notification to superiors) is “more efficient this way,” Barcalow walks to the navigator’s chair, presses a few buttons, and the computer responds with a blinking-red Big Text Label reading “COURSE OPTIMAL” and a spinning graphic of two intersecting grids.


Yep, that’s enough for a screed, one addressed first to sci-fi writers.

A plea to sci-fi screenwriters: Change your mental model

Think about this for a minute. In the Starship Troopers universe, Barcalow can press a button to ask the computer to run some function to determine if a course is good (I’ll discuss “good” vs. “optimal” below). But if it could do that, why would it wait for the navigator to ask it after each and every possible course? Computers are built for this kind of repetition. It should not wait to be asked. It should just do it. This interaction raises the difference between two mental models of interacting with a computer: the Stoic Guru and the Active Academy.

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Did The Lawnmower Man Ruin Everything?

In the most recent issue of the delightful gamer nerd magazine Kill Screen, Erik Fredner and I discuss…

  • The sci-fi constraint I indentified called What You Know Plus One
  • Problem closure
  • The “Black light poster rendered on a Mac Classic” that is the virtual reality sequences of The Lawnmower Man.

It’s not online, so head to their website to find out the closest place to get your hands on some of that goodness yourself.

cover art  by @darkigloo and @KidMograph for Kill Screen

cover art by @darkigloo and @KidMograph for Kill Screen


Poached from information science, the term “problem closure” means that the way a question is asked limits how we might answer it. In other words, it’s that box we’re always trying to think outside of. But, like What You Know Plus One, problem closure has a social dynamic to it. Valid answers to questions may not be recognized as good answers if they venture too far outside of said box. Videogames like Rez drew against the image of virtual reality Lawnmower Man helped create precisely because of the way movies had already framed the question of what virtual space should look like. Usually games have to work with what we already know to teach us something we don’t.
by @darkigloo and @KidMograph for Kill Screen

by @darkigloo and @KidMograph for Kill Screen

Time and Date for Cabin in the Woods

So it turns out there’s already a cool event happening at The New Parkway on Thursday 30 October from 6:30—9:30 P.M., which doesn’t leave a whole lot of options. But, which of these work best for you (and whoever you might want to invite)?


Please share the poll with everyone you think might want to come!

Note: This polldaddy doesn’t work on Chrome. Head to Firefox if you want to cast a vote!

Plotting Course


While on “third watch” on the bridge, Barcalow brings Ibanez a cup of coffee and they hang out a bit. Looking at the screen, he notes that “something’s wrong.” He reaches down and presses a button, and a screen appears with the label PLOTTING COURSE. A small yellow circle zeroes in on their spot in space, labeled in green as CURRENT POSITION (with “galactic” XYZ coordinates listed beneath). Then a yellow circle zeroes in on their destination, labeled in blue as TARGET DESTINATION. (With fuigetry from her earlier interfaces lining the top and bottom.) Each dot becomes two squares that slide into place on a side-by-side comparison screen with an efficiency analysis below.

Ibanez explains that she replotted the course, it being “more efficient this way.” To check it he walks to a different computer, which we’ll discuss in the next post. Even though this little interaction takes place over a few seconds, already there are things that need to be discussed before we move on.


Why wasn’t he notified?

Barcalow only finds out about the change to the course by coming to the bridge and observing something on a screen there. Any system that knows its user (and recall that Ibanez had to log in to her station) should know and respect the authority chain of its users. With only three weeks of experience at the helm, it seems more likely that Ibanez should have had to submit a plan for consideration rather than being able to just grabbing the wheel while everyone else is asleep. Seems like a hijacking waiting to happen. More sensibly, Barcalow should have come onto the bridge with the coffee saying, “I saw you submitted a new course. That’s a pretty bold move, ensign. Want to show it to me over a cup of this here space jo?” Then we’d get the idea that there’s an actual chain of authority in this military.

Even if Ibanez has the authority to alter the course without approval, her superior officer (at least) should be notified of the change immediately, so he could be aware and check up on it if he needed to.

Why is this information on a tiny screen?

Everyone on the bridge should be aware of the same basic bits of information. It’s one of the main reasons you get people clustered together in a bridge or a mission control center in the first place. Shouldn’t this be some of that basic information? If so, why is it only appearing on a tiny screen that Barcalow happens to glance at because he’s trying to woo Ibanez? Do they always have to hire womanizing superior officers? Better is a shared information source like Star Trek’s viewscreens where some glanceable mission information—like progress against course—can be seen by everyone.


Cartesian coordinate system

I do want to credit the interface designer for including 3D coordinates. Sci-fi can fall into the trap of treating spaceships as if they were seagoing vessels floating on a 2 dimensional surface like the sea. Props for acknowledging that the ship is moving through three dimensions. And Cartesian coordinates are nice in that anyone who has completed remedial geometry will be familiar with Descartes’ coordinate system. (Though I doubt that Cartesian Coordinates would be the actal system being used in space. It’s much more likely to be something like the International Celestial Reference System or even sweet-looking Keplerian graphs.) But narratively, showing 3D coordinates is a step in the right direction. But we can do René one better for both the audience and the navigators.

Show don’t tell

Other interfaces on the bridge already showed us that the system is capable of displaying 3D information. On this screen, it would be better to show the plotted course and the point at which the ship is along it.

Of course space travel is likely to be incredibly boring with long stretches of straight-line travel through vast swaths of emptiness. But this is sci-fi, so let’s presume that its path includes gravity assist fly-bys of stars. That gives the display useful markers for orientation and something for Barcalow to look at to realize how the course has changed. Then when he needs to compare, he presses the left arrow key and can see the old path overlaid in a new color in the display, letting him (and us the audience) see the change in course rather than be told about it. Numbers can overlay this display to provide exact details, but it would augment the immediate understanding offered by the 3D.

Movie Night: Cabin in the Woods!

Sci-Fi Interfaces Movie Night is back this fall, just in time for Halloween! I’m in talks currently with The New Parkway in Oakland, CA to license one of my favorite horror/sci-fi crossovers The Cabin in the Woods!

The Cabin in the Woods

I’ll have some of the kinks worked out from the first movie night (a trivia contest that everyone can participate in, easier questions, better seating in the 100-seat cinema—though ticket costs may rise) and I’m working on some amazing additional surprises. Can’t spill the beans yet, but even my mind is blown.The first order of business for this amazing event is to find out who is interested: Would you be? You can let me know how excited you’d be for such an event on a scale of 1 to Oh My Stars in the comments.

Also, the cinema and I are wondering what night would be best for the event. The options are all during Halloween-week, but the question is which night:

  • Wednesday the 29th
  • Thursday the 30th
  • Friday the 31st

Answer this poll and let me know what night would make the most sense with your plans for that week.

And as before, the likelihood of the event depends on the amount of interest there is. If you want to make sure it happens, spread the word and share this URL with everyone you think would be interested.

Let's get this party started


First off, let me apologize for the terrible flashing that is this next interface.


After "designing a course to Jupiter" using STARNAV, Barcalow presses something that initiates the warp drive.

He speaks along with a broadcast voice to countdown, "Star drive in…5…4…ready…steady…GO!"


The next screen shows a polar grid labeled GENERATING WARP FIELD. Circular rings shrink towards the center of the grid. Text along the right reads TACHYON CAPTURE, FIELD INGH DISTORT, GRAVITIC FEEDBACK, and ENERGY LEVELS. Bits of the fuidgitry from the STARNAV screens are occluded by a progress bar and a string of unchanging numbers: 0045 4535 7752 0659 2958 6456 6469 2934.

The first part of this display makes sense. It’s providing feedback to the navigator that it’s progressing in a task, i.e. generating the warp field. The animated circles provide some glanceable confirmation that things are progressing smoothly, and the implied concentration of power in a single point tells that whatever it’s building to, it’s gonna be big. Of course we can probably do without the numbers and tabs since they don’t change and it’s not really a touch screen. It would also be good to monitor whatever metrics we should be watching to know if things are safe or trending dangerously, maybe with sparklines, like a medical monitoring interface. Perhaps though that’s the sort of screen better suited to engineering. After all, Barcalow and Ibanez are just navigating and piloting here, respectively.


Then the progress bar suddenly turns purple, then the whole purple grid flashes multiple colors as we hear rapid electronic beeping (amongst a swell of extra-diegetic orchestra brass). Finally, a white circle grows from the center outward to fill the screen as the ship passes into Star Drive.

At first the white screen might seem like a waste, since this is when the navigator’s job really begins, as they go careening through space hurtling towards potentially life-threatening obstacles. But that white background can provide a clear background for a radar view (or Starship Trooper equivalent), a canvas for him to scan for any threats that radar are picking up beyond the field of vision afforded by the viewport. So the "wasted" space isn’t a problem at all.

The flashes are a bit of a problem. What’s it doing that for? Is it trying to put them into an epileptic seizure just before engaging in potentially deadly activity? Or is a seizure the only way to survive the perils of Stardrive? It’s unclear and dubious that there’s any good reason. Interaction designers are rarely in the business of putting users into a grand mal.

The color and values are also problematic. Why the candy colors? Does the orange flash mean something different than the purple flash? Even if you got rid of all the circus themed colors, there’s still a blinding amount of white on the screen once warp is engaged. That canvas would work a lot better as a black background with white blips to avoid eye fatigue, especially over long spans of time.