Escape pod and insertion windows


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.


12 thoughts on “Escape pod and insertion windows

  1. A semi-related graphic used by electrical engineers is the “eye diagram”. It’s used to diagnose signal quality and errors due to loss of tracking, interference, etc.

    It can be thought of as a probabilistic plot. If the crosshairs are in the blue, you’re OK. Red is bad. It might be useful in a trajectory HUD but might have to be semi-transparent if the underlying scene needs to be viewed.

  2. I’d say it is definitely a first person interface. The alignment of the largest rectangle with the screen tells Ibanez that she’s currently OK, but will need to roll in the future. These 1st person interfaces do seem to be the Federation preference for small craft, as previously discussed for the moon shuttle.

    A homage to Alien? Probably. But these “rectangle tunnels” were (are?) being considered for real world fighters in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the McDonnell Douglas “Big Picture” future electronic cockpit display. I have a (hand drawn!) concept sketch in a book published in 1987, and another CGI rendering in a 1990 book which both show the same twisting rectangles to the pilot.

    With one interesting difference: the rectangles are open at the top, no line drawn between top left and top right. In both pictures the aircraft looks to be flying near the ground, so presumably this indicates that it is safe to go up but not down.

    Extending this to space, this is why the rectangle aspect ratio doesn’t match the display. The shape of the rectangle is a quick guide to how much freedom to vary course the pilot has in each dimension. Square rects indicate no real constraints either way; a flattened rectangle would indicate that matching vertical course is more important than horizontal. If trying to fly between two mountains, the rects would be tall and thin.

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  4. This is great background, and some fine apologetics, Hugh! Can you post the images to IMGUR and link to them?

    • Amazing. It would be great to contact that designers and find out how it came to be. Thanks, Hugh!

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