I am pleased to announce an inaugural award for the year’s best interfaces seen in sci-fi movies throughout the prior year, to honor and encourage excellence in sci-fi interfaces, called the Fritzes. I will be give out the awards in February of 2015. The films will be nominated by and voted on a small academy of interaction designers, sci-fi makers, and critics.
If you’re wondering, the name of the award honors Fritz Lang, who, with his film Metropolis, made history with the first serious work of science fiction in film to contain interfaces. Though dark and often times dystopian (heck, Moloch is a character), it marked the first film in which interfaces became a part of the way we told the human story. The Fritzes honor excellence in both storytelling and interface design.
Intel Corporation has generously offered to support the creation of a custom-designed award to be delivered to recipients after the awards are announced. It’s currently being fabricated, but you can see the draft rendering of it, below.
Note there are opportunities for other sponsorships, please contact me if your organization is interested.
More information about the awards, including the categories and dates will be forthcoming in early 2015. Stay tuned to scifiinterfaces.com to stay up to date on the latest information, including how to nominate your independent film.
A possible mini-con
I am considering hosting a mini-conference the day of the awards, that might include
and of course, an awards show itself. Maybe cocktails.
Before I embark on this, I’d love to hear how many folks are interested in attending such a sci-fi interfaces mini-con. I don’t know what ticket prices would be, but that partly depends on how much interest there is. If you are interested in attending something like this, please let me know by answering the poll below.
Note if you have AdBlock installed, the poll will not appear. Disable it for this site to access the poll.
Starship Troopers is an unlikely movie to have come out of the 1990s. Director Paul Verhoeven says that it got made because it was a high-turnover time at Sony, and the script just got shooed along as studio leads paraded in and out. The irony, hyperbole, and critique of American neocons as fascist warmongers was all in the script from the beginning. Had anyone looked at the script or the dailies, he says, it might not have been made. That’s probably why I like this movie so much, in that it’s a criticism of hawkishness and the culture that gives rise to it.
But despite that soft spot that I have for it, I’m here to rate the interfaces, and in that regard, it is lucky I don’t send it to the brig.
Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?
If it I could convince myself to give a negative score, I would. The interfaces are just so bad they break believability all over the place. Sure, we’re willing to accept the emergence of psychic powers, but give us an interface that makes testing it believable. And of course, all the Federation spaceship interfaces that are just so very, very broken: single-factor login that’s out of order, undocking interfaces that are a disaster in the making, inscrutable spinning pizzas, a starnav & stardrive that seem to want to induce seizures more than help people pilot, the terrible fuigetry of the red phone, the silly evasion interface, the absolute lack of affordances for sealing compartment 21.It’s just one disaster after another.
There are a few precious bright spots. The interface of Fedpaint was believable and maybe even ahead of its time, though we don’t see it much. The news and information hub in the terminal foresaw a time when digital information would be everywhere. The jumpball scoreboard is certainly believable, largely because it was just a real world one that didn’t think about the goals of the audience. But these can’t hope to make up for the gravity of its other crimes.
Fi: C (2 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?
Here the interfaces fare a little better. The news that is only very slightly interactive tell of a society where the illusion of choice is a given. The easy-bullying grade Board helps illustrate how might makes right here. The bug volumetric projection shows the indoctrination process. It all helps to paint the picture of the society. Even the panic-inducing collision alarm & rescue shuttle interfaces help “sweeten” the scenes they appear in, underscoring the emotional tone of the scenes in which they appear.
On the other hand, the diegesis-breaking goofiness of the course-plotting scene, had me digressing from the tech to write COURSE OPTIMAL, an open letter for writers to drop the stoic guru metaphor and adopt an active academy model instead. While it let me try my hand at scene writing, it wrecked much of the storytelling cred it had built up.
Interfaces: D (1 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?
Certainly there are some examples of good, goal-directed interfaces. The war game equipment is well suited to the learning goals of boot camp. The healing chamber helps its patient physically, socially, and psychologically. The briefly-seen insertion windows help give the escape pod pilot a sense of what she needs to do to get the pod oriented correctly for re-entry.
And if you want to give them the benefit of the apologetics doubt, the doors work like doors should, the tattoo-o-matic—though a placebo—helps customers manage pain, and lastly, the weapons cache opens as seamlessly as you’d need it to in a crisis. I’m not sure those were intended as I’m interpreting them, but that’s what apologetics is all about.
But then you get to the terrible interfaces like the live fire exercise that seems to want to kill recruits, the pillory that forgets that the drama is the point, the combat interfaces that are full of sound and fury and not much else, the Klendathu casualty announcement that doesn’t help people reading it, the fuigetry-filled binoculars, and the inscrutable uplink, and it’s just not a place to look for inspiration for real-world design.
Final Grade D (3 of 12), MATINÉE
Despite its ultimate grade, I’m still fond of this one, and hope to be showing it in 2015 at a sci-fi movie night where we can lament together at the marvelous train-wreck that are the Starship Troopers interfaces.
I wish that the last Starship Troopers interface wasn’t this one, but so it goes.
After piloting the escape pod through the atmosphere using the meagerinterfaces she has to work with, it careens off of a hill to pierce the thin wall of a mountainside and landing Ibanez and Barcalow squarely in the dangerous depths of bug burrows.
After checking on Ibanez, Barcalow exits the pod and struts around to the back of it, where he pulls open a panel to access the weapons within.
So equipped, the pair are able to defend themselves at least a few moments before being overwhelmed by superior bug numbers.
So. OK. This.
I want to ask why, in the first place, they would get out of a vehicle that can survive space, re-entry, breaking through a frakking mountainside, and crash landing without so much as a scratch. If they’d stayed there, would the bugs have been able to get at them? Couldn’t staying inside of it given them at least a fighting chance until Rico got there? The glass didn’t break when slammed at terminal velocity into stone. I think it can handle bug pincers. But I digress. that’s a question of character logic, not interfaces, so let me put that aside.
Instead, let me ask about the design rationale of putting the weapons in an exterior compartment. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put them inside the pod? If they’d landed with hostiles present outside the vehicle, what was the plan, ask them to hold on while you grabbed something from the trunk?
Additionally, it appears that there are no security features. Barcalow just opens it. Silly seeming, of course, but that’s how it should work, i.e., for the right person it just opens up. So in the spirit of apologetics—and giving it way more credit than it’s earned across this film—let’s presume that the pod has some passive authentication mechanism that biometrically checks him at a distance and unlocks the panel so that he doesn’t even have to think about it, especially in this crisis scenario.
That’s an apologetics gift from me to you, Starship Troopers, since I still have a soft spot in my heart for you.
When Ibanez and Barcalow enter the atmosphere in the escape pod, we see a brief, shaky glimpse of the COURSE OPTION ANALYSIS interface. In the screen grab below, you can see it has a large, yellow, all-caps label at the top. The middle shows the TERRAIN PROFILE. This consists of a real-time, topography map as a grid of screen-green dots that produce a shaded relief map.
On the right is a column of text that includes:
The title, i.e., TERRAIN PROFILE
The location data: Planet P, Scylla Charybdis (which I don’t think is mentioned in the film, but a fun detail. Is this the star system?)
Coordinates in 3D: XCOORD, YCOORD, and ELEVATION. (Sadly these don’t appear to change, despite the implied precision of 5 decimal places)
Three unknown variables: NOMINAL, R DIST, HAZARD Q (these also don’t change)
The lowest part of the block reads that the SITE ASSESSMENT (at 74.28%, which—does it need to be said at this point—also does not change.)
Two inscrutable green blobs extend out past the left and bottom white line that borders this box. (Seriously what the glob are these meant to be?)
At the bottom is SCAN M and PLACE wrapped in the same purple “NV” wrappers seen throughout the Federation spaceship interfaces. At the bottom is an array of inscrutable numbers in white.
Since that animated gif is a little crazy to stare at, have this serene, still screen cap to reference for the remainder of the article.
Three things to note in the analysis.
1. Yes, fuigetry
I’ll declare everything on the bottom to be filler unless someone out there can pull some apologetics to make sense of it. But even if an array of numbers was ever meant to be helpful, an emergency landing sequence does not appear to be the time. If it needs to be said, emergency interfaces should include only the information needed to manage the crisis.
2. The visual style of the topography
I have before blasted the floating pollen displays of Prometheus for not describing the topography well, but the escape pod display works while using similar pointillist tactics. Why does this work when the floating pollen does not? First, note that the points here are in a grid. This makes the relationship of adjacent points easy to understand. The randomness of the Promethean displays confounds this. Second, note the angle of the “light” in the scene, which appears to come from the horizon directly ahead of the ship. This creates a strong shaded relief effect, a tried and true method of conveying the shape of a terrain.
3. How does this interface even help?
Let’s get this out of the way: What’s Ibanez’ goal here? To land the pod safely. Agreed? Agreed.
Certainly the terrain view is helpful to understand the terrain in the flight path, especially in low visibility. But similar to the prior interface in this pod, there is no signal to indicate how the ship’s position and path relate to it. Are these hills kilometers below (not a problem) or meters (take some real care there, Ibanez.) This interface should have some indication of the pod. (Show me me.)
Additionally, if any of the peaks pose threats, she can avoid them tactically, but adjusting long before they’re a problem will probably help more than veering once she’s right upon them. Best is to show the optimal path, and highlight any threats that would explain the path. Doing so in color (presuming pilots who can see it) would make the information instantly recognizable.
Finally the big label quantifies a “site assessment,” which seems to relay some important information about the landing location. Presumably pilots know what this number represents (process indicator? structural integrity? deviation from an ideal landing strip? danger from bugs?) but putting it here does not help her. So what? If this is a warning, why doesn’t it look like one? Or is there another landing site that she can get to with a better assessment? Why isn’t it helping her find that by default? If this is the best site, why bother her with the number at all? Or the label at all? She can’t do anything with this information, and it takes up a majority of the screen. Better is just to get that noise off the screen along with all the fuigetry. Replace it with a marker for where the ideal landing site is, its distance, and update it live if her path makes that original site no longer viable.
Of course it must be said that this would work better as a HUD which would avoid splitting her attention from the viewport, but HUDs or augmented reality aren’t really a thing in the diegesis.
The next scene shows them crashing through the side of a mountain, so despite this more helpful design, better for the scene might be to design a warning mode that reads SAFE SITE: NOT FOUND. SEARCHING… and let that blink manically while real-time, failing site assessments blink all over the terrain map. Then the next scene makes much more sense as they skip off a hill and into a mountain.
When the Rodger Young is destroyed by fire from the Plasma Bugs on Planet P, Ibanez and Barcalow luckily find a functional escape pod and jettison. Though this pod’s interface stays off camera for almost the whole scene, the pod is knocked and buffeted by collisions in the debris cloud outside the ship, and in one jolt we see the interface for a fraction of a second. If it looks familiar, it is not from anything in Starship Troopers.
The interface features a red wireframe image of the planet below, outlined by a screen-green outline, oriented to match the planet’s appearance out the viewport. Overlaid on this is a set of screen-green rectangles, twisting as they extend in space (and time) towards the planet. These convey the ideal path for the ship to take as it approaches the planet.
I’ve looked through all the screen grabs I’ve made for this movie, and there no other twisting-rectangle interfaces that I can find. (There’s this, but it’s a status-indicator.) It does, however, bear an uncanny resemblance to an interface from a different movie made 18 years earlier: Alien. Compare the shot above to the shot below, which is the interface Ash uses to pilot the dropship from the Nostromo to LV-426.
It’s certainly not the same interface, the most obvious aspect of which is the blue chrome and data, absent from Ibanez’ screen. But the wireframe planet and twisting rectangles of Starship Troopers are so reminiscent of Alien that it must be at least an homage.
Planet P, we have a problem
Whether homage, theft, or coincidence, each of these has a problem as far as the interaction design. The rectangles certainly show the pilot an ideal path in a way that can instantly be understood even by us non-pilots. At a glance we understand that Ibanez should roll her pod to the right. Ash will need to roll his to the left. But how are they actually doing against this ideal? How is the pilot doing compared to that goal at the moment? How is she trending? It’s as if they were driving a car and being told “stay in the center of the middle lane” without being told how close to either edge they were actually driving.
Rectangle to rectangle?
The system could use the current alignment of the frame of the screen itself to the foremost rectangle in the graphic, but I don’t think that’s what happening. The rectangles don’t match the ratio of the frame. Additionally, the foremost rectangle is not given any highlight to draw the pilot’s attention to it as the next task, which you’d expect. Finally that’s a level of abstraction that wouldn’t fit the narrative as well, to immediately convey the purpose of the interface.
Show me me
Ash may see some of that comparison-to-ideal information in blue, but the edge of the screen is the wrong place for it. His attention would be split amongst three loci of attention: the viewport, the graphic display, and the text display. That’s too many. You want users to see information first, and read it secondarily if they need more detail. If we wanted a single locus of attention, you could put ideal, current state, and trends all as a a heads-up display augmenting the viewport (as I recommended for the Rodger Young earlier).
If that broke the diegesis too much, you can at least add to the screen interface an avatar of the ship, in a third-person overhead view. That would give the pilot an immediate sense of where their ship currently is in relation to the ideal. A projection line could show the way the ship is trending in the future, highlighting whether things are on a good or not so good path. Numerical details could augment these overlays.
By showing the pilot themselves in the interface—like the common 3rd person view in modern racing video games—pilots would not just have the ideal path described, but the information they need to keep their vessels on track.
When the Roughnecks respond to a distress call from an outpost on Planet P, they quickly learn that it is a trap. Rasczak tells Dizzy to immediately summon an evacuation. To do so she uses this “uplink” interface. It has five components. Continue reading →
When Rico encounters a napalm-spewing tanker, he performs an amazing act of bravery by jumping on to the thing, blowing a hole through its carapace with his weapon, plopping a hand grenade into the opening, and leaping off in time to watch it blow into a charred chunk of bug.