I’m interrupting my review of the Prometheus interfaces for a post to share this piece of movie trivia. A few months ago, a number of blogs were all giddy with excitement by the release of the Prometheus Blu-Ray, because it gave a little hint that the Alien world and the Blade Runner world were one and the same. Hey internets, if you’d paid attention to the interfaces, you’d realize that this was already well established by 1982, or 30 years before.
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.
Space is incredibly inhospitable to life. It is a near-perfect vacuum, lacking air, pressure, and warmth. It is full of radiation that can poison us, light that can blind and burn us, and a darkness that can disorient us. If any hazardous chemicals such as rocket fuel have gotten loose, they need to be kept safely away. There are few of the ordinary spatial clues and tools that humans use to orient and control their position. There are free-floating debris that range from to bullet-like micrometeorites to gas and rock planets that can pull us toward them to smash into their surface or burn in their atmospheres. There are astronomical bodies such as stars and black holes that can boil us or crush us into a singularity. And perhaps most terrifyingly, there is the very real possibility of drifting off into the expanse of space to asphyxiate, starve (though biology will be covered in another post), freeze, and/or go mad.
The survey shows that sci-fi has addressed most of these perils at one time or another.
Despite the acknowledgment of all of these problems, the survey reveals only two interfaces related to spacesuit protection.
Battlestar Galactica (2004) handled radiation exposure with simple, chemical output device. As CAG Lee Adama explains in “The Passage,” the badge, worn on the outside of the flight suit, slowly turns black with radiation exposure. When the badge turns completely black, a pilot is removed from duty for radiation treatment.
This is something of a stretch because it has little to do with the spacesuit itself, and is strictly an output device. (Nothing that proper interaction requires human input and state changes.) The badge is not permanently attached to the suit, and used inside a spaceship while wearing a flight suit. The flight suit is meant to act as a very short term extravehicular mobility unit (EMU), but is not a spacesuit in the strict sense.
The other protection related interface is from 2001: A Space Odyssey. As Dr. Dave Bowman begins an extravehicular activity to inspect seemingly-faulty communications component AE-35, we see him touch one of the buttons on his left forearm panel. Moments later his visor changes from being transparent to being dark and protective.
We should expect to see few interfaces, but still…
As a quick and hopefully obvious critique, Bowman’s function shouldn’t have an interface. It should be automatic (not even agentive), since events can happen much faster than human response times. And, now that we’ve said that part out loud, maybe it’s true that protection features of a suit should all be automatic. Interfaces to pre-emptively switch them on or, for exceptional reasons, manually turn them off, should be the rarity.
But it would be cool to see more protective features appear in sci-fi spacesuits. An onboard AI detects an incoming micrometeorite storm. Does the HUD show much time is left? What are the wearer’s options? Can she work through scenarios of action? Can she merely speak which course of action she wants the suit to take? If a wearer is kicked free of the spaceship, the suit should have a homing feature. Think Doctor Strange’s Cloak of Levitation, but for astronauts.
As always, if you know of other examples not in the survey, please put them in the comments.
Spacesuits must support the biological functioning of the astronaut. There are probably damned fine psychological reasons to not show astronauts their own biometric data while on stressful extravehicular missions, but there is the issue of comfort. Even if temperature, pressure, humidity, and oxygen levels are kept within safe ranges by automatic features of the suit, there is still a need for comfort and control inside of that range. If the suit is to be warn a long time, there must be some accommodation for food, water, urination, and defecation. Additionally, the medical and psychological status of the wearer should be monitored to warn of stress states and emergencies.
Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t reveal any interfaces being used to control temperature, pressure, or oxygen levels. There are some for low oxygen level warnings and testing conditions outside the suit, but these are more outputs than interfaces where interactions take place.
There are also no nods to toilet necessities, though in fairness Hollywood eschews this topic a lot.
The one example of sustenance seen in the survey appears in Sunshine, we see Captain Kaneda take a sip from his drinking tube while performing a dangerous repair of the solar shields. This is the only food or drink seen in the survey, and it is a simple mechanical interface, held in place by material strength in such a way that he needs only to tilt his head to take a drink.
Similarly, in Sunshine, when Capa and Kaneda perform EVA to repair broken solar shields, Cassie tells Capa to relax because he is using up too much oxygen. We see a brief view of her bank of screens that include his biometrics.
Remote monitoring of people in spacesuits is common enough to be a trope, but has been discussed already in the Medical chapter in Make It So, for more on biometrics in sci-fi.
There are some non-interface biological signals for observers. In the movie Alien, as the landing party investigates the xenomorph eggs, we can see that the suit outgases something like steam—slower than exhalations, but regular. Though not presented as such, the suit certainly confirms for any onlooker that the wearer is breathing and the suit functioning.
Given that sci-fi technology glows, it is no surprise to see that lots and lots of spacesuits have glowing bits on the exterior. Though nothing yet in the survey tells us what these lights might be for, it stands to reason that one purpose might be as a simple and immediate line-of-sight status indicator. When things are glowing steadily, it means the life support functions are working smoothly. A blinking red alert on the surface of a spacesuit could draw attention to the individual with the problem, and make finding them easier.
One nifty thing that sci-fi can do (but we can’t yet in the real world) is deploy biology-protecting tech at the touch of a button. We see this in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Starlord’s helmet.
If such tech was available, you’d imagine that it would have some smart sensors to know when it must automatically deploy (sudden loss of oxygen or dangerous impurities in the air), but we don’t see it. But given this speculative tech, one can imagine it working for a whole spacesuit and not just a helmet. It might speed up scenes like this.
What do we see in the real world?
Are there real-world controls that sci-fi is missing? Let’s turn to NASA’s space suits to compare.
The Primary Life-Support System (PLSS) is the complex spacesuit subsystem that provides the life support to the astronaut, and biomedical telemetry back to control. Its main components are the closed-loop oxygen-ventilation system for cycling and recycling oxygen, the moisture (sweat and breath) removal system, and the feedwater system for cooling.
The only “biology” controls that the spacewalker has for these systems are a few on the Display and Control Module (DCM) on the front of the suit. They are the cooling control valve, the oxygen actuator slider, and the fan switch. Only the first is explicitly to control comfort. Other systems, such as pressure, are designed to maintain ideal conditions automatically. Other controls are used for contingency systems for when the automatic systems fail.
The suit is insulated thoroughly enough that the astronaut’s own body heats the interior, even in complete shade. Because the astronaut’s body constantly adds heat, the suit must be cooled. To do this, the suit cycles water through a Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment, which has a fine network of tubes held closely to the astronaut’s skin. Water flows through these tubes and past a sublimator that cools the water with exposure to space. The astronaut can increase or decrease the speed of this flow and thereby the amount to which his body is cooled, by the cooling control valve, a recessed radial valve with fixed positions between 0 (the hottest) and 10 (the coolest), located on the front of the Display Control Module.
The spacewalker does not have EVA access to her biometric data. Sensors measure oxygen consumption and electrocardiograph data and broadcast it to the Mission Control surgeon, who monitors it on her behalf. So whatever the reason is, if it’s good enough for NASA, it’s good enough for the movies.
Back to sci-fi
So, we do see temperature and pressure controls on suits in the real world, which underscores their absence in sci-fi. But, if there hasn’t been any narrative or plot reason for such things to appear in a story, we should not expect them.
Spacesuits are functional items, built largely identically to each other, adhering to engineering specifications rather than individualized fashion. A resulting problem is that it might be difficult to distinguish between multiple, similarly-sized individuals wearing the same suits. This visual identification problem might be small in routine situations:
- (Inside the vehicle:) Which of these suits it mine?
- What’s the body language of the person currently speaking on comms?
- (With a large team performing a manual hull inspection:) Who is that approaching me? If it’s the Fleet Admiral I may need to stand and salute.
But it could quickly become vital in others:
- Who’s body is that floating away into space?
- Ensign Smith just announced they have a tachyon bomb in their suit. Which one is Ensign Smith?
- Who is this on the security footage cutting the phlebotinum conduit?
There a number of ways sci-fi has solved this problem.
Especially in harder sci-fi shows, spacewalkers have a name tag on the suit. The type is often so small that you’d need to be quite close to read it, and weird convention has these tags in all-capital letters even though lower-case is easier to read, especially in low light and especially at a distance. And the tags are placed near the breast of the suit, so the spacewalker would also have to be facing you. So all told, not that useful on actual extravehicular missions.
Screen sci-fi usually gets around the identification problem by having transparent visors. In B-movies and sci-fi illustrations from the 1950s and 60s, the fishbowl helmet was popular, but of course offering little protection, little light control, and weird audio effects for the wearer. Blockbuster movies were mostly a little smarter about it.
Seeing faces allows other spacewalkers/characters (and the audience) to recognize individuals and, to a lesser extent, how their faces synch with their voice and movement. People are generally good at reading the kinesics of faces, so there’s a solid rationale for trying to make transparency work.
Face + illumination
As of the 1970s, filmmakers began to add interior lights that illuminate the wearer’s face. This makes lighting them easier, but face illumination is problematic in the real world. If you illuminate the whole face including the eyes, then the spacewalker is partially blinded. If you illuminate the whole face but not the eyes, they get that whole eyeless-skull effect that makes them look super spooky. (Played to effect by director Scott and cinematographer Vanlint in Alien, see below.)
Identification aside: Transparent visors are problematic for other reasons. Permanently-and-perfectly transparent glass risks the spacewalker getting damage from infrared lights or blinded from sudden exposure to nearby suns, or explosions, or engine exhaust ports, etc. etc. This is why NASA helmets have the gold layer on their visors: it lets in visible light and blocks nearly all infrared.
Only in 2001 does the survey show a visor with a manually-adjustable translucency. You can imagine that this would be more safe if it was automatic. Electronics can respond much faster than people, changing in near-real time to keep sudden environmental illumination within safe human ranges.
You can even imagine smarter visors that selectively dim regions (rather than the whole thing), to just block out, say, the nearby solar flare, or to expose the faces of two spacewalkers talking to each other, but I don’t see this in the survey. It’s mostly just transparency and hope nobody realizes these eyeballs would get fried.
So, though seeing faces helps solve some of the identification problem, transparent enclosures don’t make a lot of sense from a real-world perspective. But it’s immediate and emotionally rewarding for audiences to see the actors’ faces, and with easy cinegenic workarounds, I suspect identification-by-face is here in sci-fi for the long haul, at least until a majority of audiences experience spacewalking for themselves and realize how much of an artistic convention this is.
Other shows have taken the notion of identification further, and distinguished wearers by color. Mission to Mars, Interstellar, and Stowaway did this similar to the way NASA does it, i.e. with colored bands around upper arms and sometimes thighs.
Destination Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Star Trek (2009) provided spacesuits in entirely different colors. (Star Trek even equipped the suits with matching parachutes, though for the pedantic, let’s acknowledge these were “just” upper-atmosphere suits.)The full-suit color certainly makes identification easier at a distance, but seems like it would be more expensive and introduce albedo differences between the suits.
One other note: if the visor is opaque and characters are only relying on the color for identification, it becomes easier for someone to don the suit and “impersonate” its usual wearer to commit spacewalking crimes. Oh. My. Zod. The phlebotinum conduit!
According to the Colour Blind Awareness organisation, blindness (color vision deficiency) affects approximately 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women in the world, so is not without its problems, and might need to be combined with bold patterns to be more broadly accessible.
What we don’t see
Blog from another Mog Project Rho tells us that books have suggested heraldry as space suit identifiers. And while it could be a device placed on the chest like medieval suits of armor, it might be made larger, higher contrast, and wraparound to be distinguishable from farther away.
Indirect, but if the soundscape inside the helmet can be directional (like a personal Surround Sound) then different voices can come from the direction of the speaker, helping uniquely identify them by position. If there are two close together and none others to be concerned about, their directions can be shifted to increase their spatial distinction. When no one is speaking leitmotifs assigned to each other spacewalker, with volumes corresponding to distance, could help maintain field awareness.
Gamers might expect a map in a HUD that showed the environment and icons for people with labeled names.
If the spacewalker can have private audio, shouldn’t she just be able to ask, “Who’s that?” while looking at someone and hear a reply or see a label on a HUD? It would also be very useful if I’ve spacewalker could ask for lights to be illuminated on the exterior of another’s suit. Very useful if that other someone is floating unconscious in space.
Mediated Reality Identification
Lastly I didn’t see any mediated reality assists: augmented or virtual reality. Imagine a context-aware and person-aware heads-up display that labeled the people in sight. Technological identification could also incorporate in-suit biometrics to avoid the spacesuit-as-disguise problem. The helmet camera confirms that the face inside Sargeant McBeef’s suit is actually that dastardly Dr. Antagonist!
We could also imagine that the helmet could be completely enclosed, but be virtually transparent. Retinal projectors would provide the appearance of other spacewalkers—from live cameras in their helmets—as if they had fishbowl helmets. Other information would fit the HUD depending on the context, but such labels would enable identification in a way that is more technology-forward and cinegenic. But, of course, all mediated solutions introduce layers of technology that also introduces more potential points of failure, so not a simple choice for the real-world.
So, as you can read, there’s no slam-dunk solution that meets both cinegenic and real-world needs. Given that so much of our emotional experience is informed by the faces of actors, I expect to see transparent visors in sci-fi for the foreseeable future. But it’s ripe for innovation.