The miniseries represents the best that the reboot has to offer. Its story is contained, the characters fill their roles, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The miniseries even ends on a solid cliffhanger: Will humanity survive?
Battlestar Galactica also picked a rarely chosen theme for its run. The well-used and anachronistic technology was in direct opposition to the Star Wars Prequels being released at the time. After getting my feet wet with my previous reviews, this was an entertaining choice because of its difficulty, detail, and setting.
I was constantly reminded during the review process that this miniseries represented—and this can’t be stated strongly enough—the end of human civilization.
The doctor’s office is a stark, concrete room with a single desk framed under large windows and a tall vaulted ceiling. Two chairs sit on a carpet in front of the desk for patients. A couple pieces of art and personal photos line the room, but they are overwhelmed by the industrial-ness of the rest of the space.
When the doctor enters, he carries a large folder with the patient’s health information and background on paper. He then talks with the patient directly, without help from notes or his patient’s folder.
There is no visible computer in the room.
While not a traditional interface, this office is interesting because it lacks any traditional interactive features of a futuristic doctor’s office; things like holograms, giant computer screen walls, and robots are completely absent. Continue reading →
The Battlestar Galactica is a twisting and interlocking series of large hallways that provide walking access to all parts of the ship. The hallways are poorly labeled, and are almost impossible for someone without experience to navigate. Seriously, look at these images and see if you can tell where you are, or where you’re supposed to head to find…well, anything.
Billy (a young political assistant steeped in modern technology) finds this out after losing the rest of his tour group.
The hallways lack even the most basic signage that we expect in our commercial towers and office buildings. We see no indication of what deck a given corridor is on, what bulkhead a certain intersection is located at, or any obvious markings on doorways.
We do see small, cryptic alphanumerics near door handles:
Based off of current day examples, the alphanumeric would mark the bulkhead the door was at, the level it was on, and which section it was in. This would let anyone who knew the system figure out where they were on the ship.Continue reading →
At every major intersection, and at the entrance to each room, the Battlestar Galactica has very large pressure doors. These doors each have a handle and a large wheel on each side. During regular operation crewmembers open the door with the handle and close it firmly, but do not spin the wheel. Occasionally, we see crew using the wheel as a leverage point to close the door.
Sealing it off
We never directly see a crewmember spin the wheel on the door after it closes. While Chief Tyrol is acting as head of damage control, he orders all bulkheads in a section of the ship sealed off. This order is beyond the typical door closing that we witness day-to-day.
This implies that the door has three modes: Open, Closed, and Sealed.
Crewmembers could use the door most of their day in an open or closed mode, where an easy pull of the handle unlatches the door and allows them to enter or leave quickly. In an emergency, a closed door could be sealed by spinning the valve wheel on one side of the door.
As with other parts of the Galactica, the doors are completely manual, and cannot be activated remotely. (Because Cylon hacking made them go network-less.) Someone has to run up to the door in an emergency and seal it off.
One worry is that, because there is a valve wheel on both sides, an untrained crewmember might panic and try to unseal the door by turning it in the wrong direction. This would endanger the entire crew.
The other worry is that the valve spins along a single axis (we see no evidence either way during the show), requiring the crew to know which side of the door they were on to seal it against a vacuum. “Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey” would fail in this instance, and might cause hesitation or accidental unsealing in an actual emergency.
Ideally, the doors would have wheels that spun identically on either side, so that a clockwise spin always sealed the door, and a counter-clockwise spin always unsealed it.
Current water-tight doors have two sides, the ‘important’ side and the ‘unimportant’ side. The important side faces towards the ‘center’ of the vessel, or the core of the larger block of the ship, and can be sealed off quickly from that side with a wheel and heavy ‘dogs’.
Weathertight doors have a handle-latch on both sides that is connected (much like a doorknob), and can seal/unseal the door from either side.
If there is a technical limitation to that mechanism (unlikely, but possible), then a large and obvious graphic on the door (a clockwise or counterclockwise arrow) could serve to remind the crew which direction of turn sealed the door. In this case, sealing the door is the primary action to call out because it is the action done under a panic situation, and the action most easily forgotten in the heat of the moment.
Otherwise, the doors could be a danger to the crew: the crew on the ‘safe’ side could seal the door against depressurization, but crew on the ‘unsafe’ side might try to unseal it to save themselves in a panic.
Air pressure might keep the door properly closed in this instance, but it is still a risk.
We see during the damage control incident that the doors are quickly closed and sealed by the crew, even in an emergency, making the rest of the ship airtight. This either shows that the doors are effective at their job, or the crew is very well trained for such a situation.
Like the rest of the Galactica, the technology relies on people to work. A couple hints or minor tweaks to that technology could make the crew’s lives much easier without putting them at danger from the Cylons or the empty void of space.
The Galactica’s fighter launch catapults are each controlled by a ‘shooter’ in an armored viewing pane. There is one ‘shooter’ for every two catapults. To launch a Viper, he has a board with a series of large twist-handles, a status display, and a single button. We can also see several communication devices:
Ear-mounted mic and speaker
Board mounted mic
Phone system in the background
These could relate to one of several lines of communication each:
The Viper pilot
Any crew inside the launch pod
Crew just outside the launch pod
CIC (for strategic status updates)
Other launch controllers at other stations
‘On call’ rooms for replacement operators
Each row on the launch display appears to conform to some value coming off of the Viper or the Galactica’s magnetic catapults. The ‘shooter’ calls off Starbuck’s launch three times due to some value he sees on his status board (fluctuating engine power right before launch).
We do not see any other data inputs. Something like a series of cameras on a closed circuit could show him an exterior view of the entire Viper, providing additional information to the sensors.
When Starbuck is ready to launch on the fourth try, the ‘shooter’ twists the central knob and, at the same time and with the same hand, pushes down a green button. The moment the ‘shooter’ hits the button, Starbuck’s Viper is launched into space.
There are other twist knobs across the entire board, but these do not appear to conform directly to the act of launching the Viper, and they do not act like the central knob. They appear instead to be switches, where turning them from one position to another locks them in place.
There is no obvious explanation for the number of twist knobs, but each one might conform to an electrical channel to the catapult, or some part of the earlier launch sequence.
Nothing in the launch control interprets anything for the ‘shooter’. He is given information, then expected to interpret it himself. From what we see, this information is basic enough to not cause a problem and allow him to quickly make a decision.
Without networking the launch system together so that it can poll its own information and make its own decisions, there is little that can improve the status indicators. (And networking is made impossible in this show because of Cylon hackers.) The board is easily visible from the shooter chair, each row conforms directly to information coming in from the Viper, and the relate directly to the task at hand.
The most dangerous task the shooter does is actually decide to launch the Viper into space. If either the Galactica or the Viper isn’t ready for that action, it could cause major damage to the Viper and the launch systems.
A two-step control for this is the best method, and the system now requires two distinct motions (a twist-and-hold, then a separate and distinct *click*). This is effective at confirming that the shooter actually wants to send the Viper into space.
To improve this control, the twist and button could be moved far enough apart (reference, under “Two-Hand Controls” ) that it requires two hands to operate the control. That way, there is no doubt that the shooter intends to activate the catapult.
If the controls are separated like that, it would take some amount of effort to make sure the two controls are visually connected across the board, either through color, or size, or layout. Right now, that would be complicated by the similarity in the final twist control, and the other handles that do different jobs.
Changing these controls to large switches or differently shaped handles would make the catapult controls less confusing to use.
Colonial One is a luxury passenger liner in commercial service until the war with the Cylons breaks out. The captain and co-pilot are not military pilots, and most passengers are dignitaries or VIPs visiting the Galactica for the unveiling of it as a museum.
Compared to military cockpits and the CIC aboard the Galactica, Colonial One’s cockpit has simple controls and an unsophisticated space-borne sensor system. Also unlike the Galactica or the Raptors, no one on Colonial One calls their space-borne sensor system the “Dradis”. At the center of each control console is a large gimbal-based horizon indicator.
The sensors show a simple 2-d representation of local space, with nearby contacts indicated as white dots. There is no differentiation between ‘enemy’ and ‘friendly’ contacts. Likewise, the image of a Cylon missile (shown above) is the same indicator as other ships. There is no clear explanation of what the small white dots on the background of the image are, or what the lines indicate.
When the Cylon fighters show up, the crew has some unknown way besides this screen of knowing the Cylons have just jumped into contact range, and that they have launched missiles at Colonial One. How the crew determines this isn’t shown, but both the crew and Apollo are confident that the assessment is correct.
When Laura Rosilyn tells the crew to send a message on a specific frequency before the missile attack, the crew uses the same keypad to send alpha-numeric signals over a radio/faster-than-light (FTL) link as to enter information into their flight computers. The FTL link appears to connect every planet in the Colonies together in real time: we don’t get any sense of delay between the attacks happening and the entire civilization reacting to it in real time.
The largest usability concern here is Mode Switching, and making it clear whether the crew is entering information into the ship or into the radio. Given that we see the crew interact most with the ship itself, the following procedure would make the most sense:
Entering information into the ship is the primary ‘mode’
An explicit command to switch over to the radio link.
Crew enters the given information into the link
On ‘enter’, the interface flips back over to entering information into the ship.
With a larger budget, the Dradis is a better system (at least with the improvements installed)
A large amount of space inside the cockpit is given over to communication controls and a receiver station. At the receiver station, Colonial One has a small printer attached to an automatic collector that prints off broadcast messages. The function and placement of the printer appears similar to weather printers on modern passenger jets.
The cockpit is very utilitarian, and the controls look well used. These are robust systems and look like they have been in place for a while. Despite the luxury associated with the passenger compartment, the crew have been granted no special luxuries or obvious assisting equipment to make their job more comfortable.
If we look at a current (or, up until very recently current) pattern: the Space Shuttle has a very similar layout. It is intended to also enter the atmosphere, which Colonial One is shown with the equipment to do, and maintains a 2.5D movement concept. Given that it’s a commercial ship with direct paths to follow, Colonial One does not need the complicated controls – that are shown to be very difficult to master – that are present on ships like the Viper.
Overall, a solid pattern
In-universe, this ship was not designed for combat, and is woefully unprepared for it when it arrives. The sensor system and the controls appear specialized for the job of ferrying high-paying customers from one planet to another through friendly space. Other ships also have the same level of manual controls and physical switches in the cockpit, though it is impossible to tell whether this is because Colonial One was built in the same era as the Galactica, or whether the builders wanted extra reliability in the controls than ‘modern’ electronics provided.
As long as the pilots are as well trained as current-day commercial pilots, the banks of controls would provide solid spatial grouping and muscle memory. There might be some room to shrink the number of controls or group them better, but we lack the context to dig into that particular issue.
One minor fix would be the possibility of mode errors for the keypad. It is not obvious when the crew changes from “I want to enter information into Colonial One to change operating parameters” and “I want to send a message to someone else”. A clear way to indicate that the keyboard is sending information to the ship, compared to sending information to the radio system, would clear up the possibility of a mode-switch error. Common options could be:
A large switch close by that changed the color of the lights
A bi-directional light with labels on which mode it’s in
or distinct separation between the Pilot’s keyboard and the Co-pilot’s keyboard
Of the three, a clear distinction between pilot’s keyboard and co-pilot’s keyboard would be the most secure; provided that there was a switch in case of emergency.
The Colonial One copies many interface patterns from modern airliners. Since the airline industry has one of the best and most sophisticated UI design in practice right now, there are very few obvious recommendations to make, and credit should be given for how realistic it looks.
The Viper is the primary space fighter of the Colonial Fleet. It comes in several varieties, from the Mark II (shown above), to the Mark VII (the latest version). Each is made for a single pilot, and the controls allow the pilot to navigate short distances in space to dogfight with enemy fighters.
Mark II Viper Cockpit
The Mark II Viper is an analog machine with a very simple Dradis, physical gauges, and paper flight plans. It is a very old system. The Dradis sits in the center console with the largest screen real-estate. A smaller needle gauge under the Dradis shows fuel levels, and a standard joystick/foot pedal system provides control over the Viper’s flight systems.
Mark VII Viper Cockpit
The Viper Mk VII is a mostly digital cockpit with a similar Dradis console in the middle (but with a larger screen and more screen-based controls and information). All other displays are digital screens. A few physical buttons are scattered around the top and bottom of the interface. Some controls are pushed down, but none are readable. Groups of buttons are titled with text like “COMMS CIPHER” and “MASTER SYS A”.
Eight buttons around the Dradis console are labeled with complex icons instead of text.
When the Mk VII Vipers encounter Cylons for the first time, the Cylons use a back-door computer virus to completely shut down the Viper’s systems. The screens fuzz out in the same manner as when Apollo gets caught in an EMP burst.
The Viper Mk VII is then completely uncontrollable, and the pilot’s’ joystick-based controls cease to function.
Overall, the Viper Mk II is set up similarly to a WWII P-52 Mustang or early production F-15 Eagle, while the Viper Mk VII is similar to a modern-day F-16 Falcon or F-22 Raptor.
The Viper is a single seat starfighter, and appears to excel in that role. The pilots focus on their ship, and the Raptor pilots following them focus on the big picture. But other items, including color choice, font choice, and location are an issue.
Otherwise, Items appear a little small, and it requires a lot of training to know what to look for on the dashboards. Also, the black lines radiating from the large grouper labels appear to go nowhere and provide no extra context or grouping. Additionally, the controls (outside of the throttle and joystick) require quite a bit of reach from the seat.
Given that the pilots are accelerating at 9+ gs, reaching a critical control in the middle of a fight could be difficult. Hopefully, the designers of the Vipers made sure that ‘fighting’ controls are all within arms reach of the seat, and that the controls requiring more effort are secondary tasks.
Similarly, all-caps text is the hardest to read at a glance, and should be avoided for interfaces like the Viper that require quick targeting and actions in the middle of combat. The other text is very small, and it would be worth doing a deeper evaluation in the cockpit itself to determine if the font size is too small to read from the seat.
If anyone reading this blog has an accurate Viper cockpit prop, we’d be happy to review it!
Fighter pilots in the Battlestar Galactica universe have quick reflexes, excellent vision, and stellar training. They should be allowed to use all of those abilities for besting Cylons in a dogfight, instead of being forced to spend time deciphering their Viper’s interface.
The phone system aboard the Galactica is a hardwired system that can be used in two modes: Point-to-point, and one-to-many. The phones have an integrated handset wired to a control box and speaker. The buttons on the control box are physical keys, and there are no automatic voice controls.
In Point-to-point mode, the phones act as a typical communication system, where one station can call a single other station. In the one-to-many mode the phones are used as a public address system, where a single station can broadcast to the entire ship.
The phones are also shown acting as broadcast speakers. These speakers are able to take in many different formats of audio, and are shown broadcasting various different feeds:
Ship-wide Alerts (“Action Stations!”)
Local alarms (Damage control/Fire inside a specific bulkhead)
Radio Streams (pilot audio inside the launch prep area)
Addresses (calling a person to the closest available phone)
Each station is independent and generic. Most phones are located in public spaces or large rooms, with only a few in private areas. These private phones serve the senior staff in their private quarters, or at their stations on the bridge.
In each case, the phone stations are used as kiosks, where any crewmember can use any phone. It is implied that there is a communications officer acting as a central operator for when a crewmember doesn’t know the appropriate phone number, or doesn’t know the current location of the person they want to reach.
There is not a single advanced piece of technology inside the phone system. The phones act as a dirt-simple way to communicate with a place, not a person (the person just happens to be there while you’re talking).
The largest disadvantage of this system is that it provides no assistance for its users: busy crewmembers of an active warship. These crew can be expected to need to communicate in the heat of battle, and quickly relay orders or information to a necessary party.
This is easy for the lower levels of crewmembers: information will always flow up to the bridge or a secondary command center. For the officers, this task becomes more difficult.
First, there are several crewmember classes that could be anywhere on the ship:
Without broadcasting to the entire ship, it could be extremely difficult to locate these specific crewmembers in the middle of a battle for information updates or new orders.
The primary purpose of the Galactica was to fight the Cylons: sentient robots capable of infiltrating networked computers. This meant that every system on the Galactica was made as basic as possible, without regard to its usability.
The Galactica’s antiquated phone system does prevent Cylon infiltration of a communications network aboard an active warship. Nothing the phone system does requires executing outside pieces of software.
A very basic upgrade to the phone system that could provide better usability would be a near-field tag system for each crew member. A passive near-field chip could be read by a non-networked phone terminal each time a crew member approached near the phone. The phone could then send a basic update to a central board at the Communications Center informing the operators of where each crewmember is. Such a system would not provide an attack surface (a weakness for them to infiltrate) for the enemy, and make finding officers and crew in an emergency situation both easier and faster: major advantages for a warship.
The near field sensors would add a second benefit, in that only registered crew could access specific terminals. As an example, the Captain and senior staff would be the only ones allowed to use the central phone system.
Brutally efficient hardware
The phone system succeeds in its hardware. Each terminal has an obvious speaker that makes a distinct sound each time the terminal is looking for a crewmember. When the handset is in use, it is easy to tell which side is up after a very short amount of training (the cable always comes out the bottom).
It is also obvious when the handset is active or inactive. When a crewmember pulls the handset out of its terminal, the hardware makes a distinctive audible and physical *click* as the switch opens a channel. The handset also slots firmly back into the terminal, making another *click* when the switch deactivates. This is very similar to a modern-day gas pump.
With a brief amount of training, it is almost impossible to mistake when the handset activates and deactivates.
For a ship built in the heat of war at a rapid pace, the designers focused on what they could design quickly and efficiently. There is little in the way of creature comforts in the Phone interface.
Minor additions in technology or integrated functionality could have significantly improved the interface of the phone system, and may have been integrated into future ships of the Galactica’s line. Unfortunately, we never see if the military designers of the Galactica learned from their haste.
Dradis is the primary system that the Galactica uses to detect friendly and enemy units beyond visual range. The console appears to have a range of at least one light second (less than the distance from Earth to the Moon), but less than one light minute (one/eighth the distance from Earth to the Sun).
How can we tell? We know that it’s less than one light minute because Galactica is shown orbiting a habitable planet around a sun-like star. Given our own solar system, we would have at least some indication of ships on the Dradis at that range and the combat happening there (which we hear over the radios). We don’t see those on the Dradis.
We know that it’s at least one light second because Galactica jumps into orbit (possibly geosynchronous) above a planet and is able to ‘clear’ the local space of that planet’s orbit with the Dradis
The sensor readings are automatically interpreted into Friendly contacts, Enemy contacts, and missiles, then displayed on a 2d screen emulating a hemisphere. A second version of the display shows a flat 2d view of the same information.
Friendly contacts are displayed in green, while enemy units (Cylons) are displayed in red. The color of the surrounding interface changes from orange to red when the Galactica moves to Alert Stations.
The Dradis is displayed on four identical displays above the Command Table, and is viewable from any point in the CIC. ‘Viewable’ here does not mean ‘readable’. The small size, type, and icons shown on the screen are barely large enough to be read by senior crew at the main table, let alone officers in the second or third tier of seating (the perspective of which we see here).
It is possible that these are simply overview screens to support more specific screens at individual officer stations, but we never see any evidence of this.
Whatever the situation, the Dradis needs to be larger in order to be readable throughout the CIC and have more specific screens at officer stations focused on interpreting the Dradis.
As soon as a contact appears on the Dradis screen, someone (who appears to be the Intelligence Officer) in the CIC calls out the contact to reiterate the information and alert the rest of the CIC to the new contact. Vipers and Raptors are seen using a similar but less powerful version of the Galactica’s sensor suite and display. Civilian ships like Colonial One have an even less powerful or distinct radar system.
2d display of 3d information
The largest failing of the Dradis system is in its representation of the hemisphere. We never appear to see the other half of the sphere. Missing half the data is pretty serious. Theoretically, the Galactica would be at the center of a bubble of information, instead of picking an arbitrary ‘ground plane’ and showing everything in a half-sphere above that (cutting out a large amount of available information).
The Dradis also suffers from a lack of context: contacts are displayed in 3 dimensions inside the view, but only have 2 dimensions of reference on the flat screen in the CIC. For a reference on an effective 3d display on a 2d screen, see Homeworld’s (PC Game, THQ and Relic) Sensor Manager:
In addition to rotation of the Sensor Manager (allowing different angles of view depending on the user’s wishes), the Sensor Manager can display reference lines down to a ‘reference plane’ to show height above, and distance from, a known point. In Homeworld, this reference point is often the center of the selected group of units, but on the Dradis it would make sense for this reference point to be the Galactica herself.
Overall, the crew of the Galactica never seems to be inhibited by this limitation. The main reasons they could be able to work around this limitation include:
Effective communication between crew members
Experience operating with limited information.
This relies heavily on the crew operating at peak efficiency during an entire combat encounter. That is a lot to ask from anyone. It would be better to improve the interface and lift the burden off of a possibly sleep deprived crewmember.
The Dradis itself displays information effectively about the individual contacts it sees. This isn’t visible at the distances involved in most CIC activities, but would be visible on personal screens easily. Additionally, the entire CIC doesn’t need to know every piece of information about each contact.
In any of those three cases, crew efficiency would be improved (and misunderstandings would be limited) by improving how the Dradis displayed its contacts on its screen.
After the Galactica takes a nuclear missile hit to its port launch bay, part of the CIC goes into Damage Control mode. Chief Tyrol and another officer take up a position next to a large board with a top-down schematic of the Galactica. The board has various lights in major sections of the ship representing various air-tight modules in the ship.
After the nuclear hit, the port launch bay is venting to space, bulkheads are collapsing in due to the damage, and there are uncontrolled fires. In those blocks, the lights blink red.
Colonel Tigh orders the red sections sealed off and vented to space. When Tigh turns his special damage control key in the “Master Vent” control, the lights disappear until the areas are sealed off again. When the fires go out and the master vents are closed, the lights return to a green state.
On the board then, the lights have three states:
Green: air-tight, healthy
Blinking Red: Fire
Off: Intentional Venting
There does not appear to be any indications of the following states:
Damage Control Teams in the area
Open to space/not air-tight
We also do not see how sections are chosen to be vented.
Why it works
The most effective pieces here are the red lights and the “vent” key. Chief Tyrol has a phone to talk to local officers managing the direct crisis, and can keep a basic overview of the problems on the ship (with fire being the most dangerous) with the light board. The “vent” key is likewise straightforward, and has a very clear “I’m about to do something dangerous” interaction.
What is confusing are the following items:
How does Chief Tyrol determine which phone/which officer he’s calling?
Who is the highest ranking officer in the area?
How does the crew determine which sections they’re going to vent?
How do they view more complex statuses besides “this section is on fire”?
As with other systems on the Galactica, the board could be improved with the use of more integrated systems like automatic sensors, display screens to cycle through local cameras, and tracking systems for damage control crew. Also as with other systems on the Galactica, these were deliberate omissions to prevent the Cylons from being able to control the Galactica.
One benefit of the simplified system is that it keeps Chief Tyrol thinking of the high-level problem instead of trying to micromanage his local damage control teams. With proper training, local teams with effective leadership and independent initiative are more effective than a large micro-managed organization. Chief Tyrol can focus on the goals he needs his teams to accomplish:
Putting out fires
Evacuating local crew
Protecting the ship from secondary explosions
…and allow his local teams to focus on the tactics of each major goal.
What it’s missing
A glaring omission here is the lack of further statuses. In the middle of a crisis, Chief Tyrol could easily lose track of individual teams on his ship. He knows the crews that are in the Port Hangar Bay, but we never hear about the other damage control teams and where they are. Small reminders or other status indicators would keep the Chief from needing to remember everything that was happening across the ship. Even a box of easily-grabbed sticky notes or a grease-pen board would help here and be very low-tech.
Possible indicators include:
Secondary lights in each section when a damage control crew was in the area
A third color indicator (less optimal, but would take up less space on the board)
A secondary board with local reports of damage crew location and progress
Low oxygen states
High oxygen states (higher fire risk)
It is also possible that Colonel Tigh would have taken the local crews into consideration when making his decision if he could have seen where they were for himself on the board, instead of simply hearing Chief Tyrol’s protests about their existence. Reducing feedback loops can make decision making less error prone and faster, but can admittedly introduce single points of failure.
Colonel Tigh and Chief Tyrol are able to get control of the situation with the tools at hand, but minor upgrades could have lessened the stress of the situation and allowed both of them to think clearer before jumping to decisions. Better systems would have given them all the information they needed, but the Galactica’s purpose limited them for the benefit of the entire ship.