Note: In honor of the season, Rogue One opening this week, and the reviews of Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series behind us, I’m reopening the Star Wars Holiday Special reviews, starting with the show-within-a-show, The Faithful Wookie. Refresh yourself of the plot if it’s been a while.
On board the R.S. Revenge, the purple-skinned communications officer announces he’s picked up something. (Genders are a goofy thing to ascribe to alien physiology, but the voice actor speaks in a masculine register, so I’m going with it.)
He attends a monitor, below which are several dials and controls in a panel. On the right of the monitor screen there are five physical controls.
- A stay-state toggle switch
- A stay-state rocker switch
- Three dials
The lower two dials have rings under them on the panel that accentuate their color.
The screen is a dark purple overhead map of the impossibly dense asteroid field in which the Revenge sits. A light purple grid divides the space into 48 squares. This screen has text all over it, but written in a constructed orthography unmentioned in the Wookieepedia. In the upper center and upper right are unchanging labels. Some triangular label sits in the lower-left. In the lower right corner, text appears and disappears too fast for (human) reading. The middle right side of the screen is labeled in large characters, but they also change too rapidly to make much sense of it.
Luke, looking over the shoulder of the comms officer at the same monitor, exclaims, “It’s the Millennium Falcon!”
Watching the glowing dot and crosshairs blink and change position several times, the comms officer says, “They’re coming out of light speed. I can’t make contact.” An off-screen voice tells him to “Try a lower channel.” Something causes the channel to change (the comms officer’s hands do not touch anything that we can see), and then the monitor shows a video feed from the Falcon.
The video feed has an overlay to the upper left hand side, consisting of lines of text which appear from top to bottom in a palimpsest formation, even though the copy is left-aligned. At the top is a label with changing characters, looking something like a time stamp.
Analysis of the Map View
Since we can’t read the video overlay in the video feed, and it doesn’t interfere with the image, there’s not much to say about it. Instead I’ll focus on the map view.
In the side angle shot, which we see first, we see the dial colors go from top to bottom, as beige, red, yellow. In the facing shot of this interface, which immediately follows the side shot, the dials go beige, yellow, red. The red and yellow are transposed. Itʼs of course possible that the dials have a variable hue, and changed at exactly the same time the camera switches. But then we have to explain where his hand went, and why we don’t see any of the other elements changing color, and so on…
This illustrates one of the problems with reviewing hand-drawn animation (and why scifiinterfaces generally frowns upon it.) It takes a hand-drawing animator extra work to keep things consistent from screen to screen. She must have a reference when drawing the interface from any new angle, and this extra work is on top of all the other things she has to manage like color and timing. Fewer people will notice transposed dial colors than, say, the comms officer turning orange instead of purple, so the interface is low on that priority stack.
Contrast that with live-action and computer-animated interfaces. In these modes of working, it takes extra work to change interfaces from shot to shot, so you run into consistency problems much less frequently.
I’ve written about this before in the abstract, but it’s nice to have a simple and easily shown example in the blog to point to.
Another problem with the interface is that it is 2-D, but space is 3-D.
When picking a projection to display, we have to keep in mind that it is more immediate to understand an impending collision when presented as 2-D information: Constant bearing, decreasing range = Trouble. So, perhaps the view has automatically aligned itself to be perpendicular to the Falcon’s approach, which makes it easier to monitor the decreasing distance.
If so, he would need to see that automatically-aligned status reflected somewhere in the interface, and have access to controls that let him change the view and snap back to this Most Useful View. Admittedly, this is a lot of apologetics to apply, when really, it’s most likely the old trope 2-D Space.
Attention and memory
There are some nicely designed attention cues. The crosshairs, glowing dot, and motion graphics makes it so that—even though we can’t read the language—we can tell what’s of interest on the screen. One dot moving towards another, stationary dot. We’re set up for the Falcon’s buzzing the base.
That’s probably the best thing that can be said for it.
The text is terrible, changing too fast for a human reader. (Yes, yes, put down that emerging comment. Purple-face isnʼt human, but we must evaluate interfaces considering what is useful to us, and right now that means us humans.) The text changes so much faster than the blinking, in fact, that it’s pulling attention away from it. Narratively, the rapid-fire text helps convey a sense of urgency, but it greatly costs readability. It’s not a good model for real world design.
The blinking crosshair might most accurately reflect the actual position of the detected object within the radar sweep. But it could help the officer more. As with medical signals, data points are not as interesting as information trends. As it is, it relies on his memory to piece together the information, which means he has to constantly monitor the screen to make sense. If instead the view featured an evaporating trail of data points, not only could he look away without missing too much information, but he would also notice that the speed and direction are slightly erratic, which would prove quite interesting to anyone trying to ascertain the status of the ship. One glance shows things are not as they should be. The Falcon is clearly careening.
When we first see the comms officer, he has his unmoving hand on one of the dials. But when we see the map switch to the video feed, none of the controls we can see are touched. This raises a possibility and a question.
The possibility is that there is control by some other mechanism. My best guess is that it is voice control, since the Rebel General says “try a lower channel” just before it switches. Maybe he was not speaking to the comms officer, but to the machine itself. And given C3PO, they clearly have the technology to recognize and act on natural language, though it’s usually associated with a full general artificial intelligence. A Rebel Siri (33 years before it came out in Apple’s iOS) makes sense from an apologetics sense.
If so, there are some aspects of the UI missing to signal to an operator that the machine is listening, and hearing, and understanding what is being said, as well as whether the speaker is authorized to control. After all, the comms officer is wearing the headset, but it was the red-bearded general who issued the command. I imagine it’s not OK for anyone on the bridge to just shout out controls.
The question then, is if the channel is controlled by voice, what are the physical controls for? They’re lacking labels of any kind. Perhaps they’re there as a backup, should voice control fail. Perhaps they are vestigial, left over from before voice control was installed. Maybe only the general has a voice override and the comms officer must use the physical controls. Any of these would be fine backworlding explanations, but my favorite idea is that the dials are for controlling nuanced variables in very fluid ways with instant feedback.
It’s easier to twiddle a dial to change the frequency of a radio to find a low-power signal than to keep saying “back…forward…no, back just a bit.” That would help explain what the comms officer was doing with his hands on the dials when he got something but not when the general voice-controls the channel.
The interface shows some sophistication in styling and visual hierarchy, and if we give it lots of benefit of the doubt, might even be handling some presentation variables for the user in sophisticated ways. But the distractions of the rapid-fire text, the lack of trend lines, the lack of labels for the physical controls, and the missing affordances for projection control and voice control feedback make it a poor model for any real world design.