Report Card: Oblivion

Read all the Oblivion reviews in chronological order.

According to the director, Oblivion is “a daylight science fiction film with a kind of Twilight Zone story,” a callback to pre-Star Wars, 1970’s lonely man sci-fi set against a huge backdrop. (Read the full interview by Germain Lussier on /Film for more.) Certainly, it’s more visually-satisfying thing than intellectually-satisfying thing, but fortunately that same thing does not play out in the interfaces.


Sci: B (3 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

One of the great strengths of the interfaces are their deep ties to the diegesis. There’s little fuidgetry, little that could be generically lifted and placed in another film. It’s what we used to call site-specific in design school and that’s a good thing for believability.

See how in Vika’s desktop the sections of interface contain things she has to monitor: Land, hydrorigs, drones, the Tet’s orbital position. Most of the interfaces in the film are this considered.


On the flip side, there are communication systems that suffer more downtime than modern systems. There’s a flight control interface that omits the weather. The Scav binoculars just don’t make sense. And the Odyssey has a bunch of problems given that’s meant to be a near-future-ish extension of what we know today.

And then…then…then there’s the narrative-shortcut trope of the oh-by-the-way faster-than-light communication system that would have meant a much more advanced (and more defended?) world for the Tet to encounter in the first place.


So, some dings.

Fi: A (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

This is where Oblivion’s interfaces really shine. They’re gorgeously realized with a rich stylistic and motion language. But moreso IMHO some of the apparent “problems” with the interfaces actually tell of the deep deception by the Tet. It’s core to telling that central story, and partly told through the interfaces.

Home 49 disconnects its inhabitants from the land they’re tasked to protect. Tet’s thinking: Perfect.


Jack’s bike doesn’t make a lot of sense in the diegesis except that it is a perfect outlet for his sense of “freedom.” Tet’s thinking: Whew. Glad he has that outlet.


Other narrative aspects of the interfaces like the drone programmer help underscore the drones as aggressive, suspect, and alien, rather than defensive human measures.

I’d add a + to that A if the drones hadn’t been designed to look evil and menacing. Had they been more Hello Kitty and less Galactic Empire, Jack might have been less suspicious.

If it needs to be said: Not actually from Oblivion. Maybe the reboot.

Interfaces: B (3 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

The centerpiece of the film is Vika’s desktop. It’s her command and control center workstation that enables her to manage the strategy to Jack’s tactics, and even rest her teacup as she works. The most commonly accessed bits are in easy reach, and the display-only information is turned vertically for her like a clock on the wall.


It has a few ergonomic problems, like angling its displays away from her observational sphere (just for a teacup?) It doesn’t equip her for crisis conversations like it should. Some of its interactions are inconsistent. It sometimes makes her hunt for information rather than leading her there. But, all in all, a nice dashboard for her task.

There are other interesting bits, like the situationally-shaped reticle, the breakfast table that allows for sitrep breakfasts, and well-mapped Odyssey controls that imply a bit of agentive support.

There are some usability problems throughout, or it would have fared better, but overall a good show.

Final Grade B+ (10 of 12), MUST-SEE

All told, these interfaces are rich and powerful and embody solid modern thinking about visual styling, motion design, gestural interaction, and heads-up-displays. Big props to that pro gmunk for his work (and keep an eye out for an interview with him about his work on the film soon.)

And may I send out a special shout-out to the guest bloggers for their excellent insights and write-ups: Clayton, Aleatha, Heath, and Maximilion. They did great and I’m very glad that at least four other people in the world know how much effort goes into providing these in-depth interface analyses. Let’s hope we hear from more about them on this blog in the future.

Pitch time: Learn more lessons about gestural interfaces, heads-up-displays, and other interface concepts from a vast survey of science fiction movies and television programs in the book I co-authored with Nathan Shedroff, Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction.

It’s the (drone) ethics

Today, a post touching on some of the ethical issues at hand with drone technology.


Much of the debate today and in science fiction about drone technologies rightly focuses on ethics. To start, it is valuable to remember that drones are merely a technology like any other. While the technology’s roots have been driven by military research and military applications, like, say, the internet, the examples in the prior posts demonstrate that the technology can be so much more. But of course it’s not that simple.

Hang on, it’s going to get nerdy. But that’s why you come to this blog, innit?

Where drones become particularly challenging to assess in an ethical context is in their blurring of the lines of agency and accountability. As such, we must consider the ethics of the relationship between user/creator and the technology/device itself. A gun owner doesn’t worry about the gun…itself…turning on him or her. However, in Oblivion, for instance, Tom Cruise’s character flies and repairs the Predator-esque drones but then has them turn on him when their sensors see him as a threat.


While not obviously not an autonomous strong artificial intelligence, a real-world drone alternates between being operated manually and autonomously. Even a hobbyist with a commercial quadcopter can feel this awkward transition when they switch from flying their drone like an RC plane to preprogramming it to fly a pattern or take photos. This transition in agency has serious implications.


When you see someone standing in park, looking at a handheld control or staring up into the sky at their quadcopter buzzing around, the actions of that device are attributed to them. But seeing a drone flying without a clear operator in sight gives any observer a bit of the creeps. Science fiction’s focus on military drones has meant that the depictions can bypass questions about who owns and operates them—it is always the state or the military. But as consumer drones become increasingly available it will become unclear to whom or what we can attribute the actions of a drone. Just this year there was serious public concern when drones were spotted flying around historical landmarks in Paris because their control was entirely anonymous. Should drones have physical or digital identification to service a “license plate” of sorts that could link any actions of the drone to its owner? Most probably. But the bad guys will just yank them off.

The author (in blue) and Chris Noessel (in black), at InfoCamp.

The author (in blue) and Chris Noessel (in black), at InfoCamp.

Gap between agent and outcome

Many researchers have explored the difference between online behaviour and in-person behavior. (There’s a huge body of research here. Contact me if you want more information.) People have a lot less problem typing a vitriolic tweet when they don’t have to face the actual impact of that tweet on the receiver. Will drones have a similar effect? Unlike a car, where the driver is physically within the device and operating it by hand and foot, a drone might be operated a distance of hundreds of feet (or even thousands of miles, for military drones). Will this physical distance, mediated by a handheld controller, a computer interface, or a smartphone application change how the operator behaves? For instance, research has found that these operators, thousands of miles away from combat and working with a semi autonomous technology, are in fact at risk for PTSD. They still feel connected and in enough control of the drone that its effects have a significant impact on their mental health.

However, as drones become more ubiquitous, their applications become more diverse (and mundane), and their agency increases, will this connection remain as strong? If Amazon has tens of thousands of drones flying from house to house, do the technicians managing their flight paths feel the ethical implications of one crashing through a window the same as if they had accidentally knocked a baseball through? If I own a drone and program it to pick up milk from the store, do I feel fully responsible for its behaviour as part of that flight pattern Or does the physical distance, the intangible interface and the mediating technology (the software and hardware purchased from a drone company) disassociate the agent from the effect of the technology?Just imagine the court cases.

From Breaking Defense: As drone operations increase, the military is researching effective interfaces to support human operators

From Breaking Defense: As drone operations increase, the military is researching effective interfaces to support human operators

What are the ethical consequences of the different levels of agency an operator can provide to the drone? What are the moral consequences of increased anonymity in the use of these drone technologies? The U.S. military designs computer interfaces to help its drone pilots make effective decisions to achieve mission targets. Can science fiction propose designs, interfaces and experiences that help users of drone technologies achieve ethical missions?

Come on, sci-fi. Show the way.

People don’t know what to make of this technology. It’s currently the domain of the military, big technology companies, a few startups, and a hobbyist community generally ignored outside of beautiful, drone-filmed YouTube videos. Science fiction is a valuable (and enjoyable) tool for understanding technology and envisioning implications of new technologies. Science fiction should be pushing the limits of how drone technologies will change our world, not just exaggerating today’s worst applications.

As journalist and robotics researcher P.W. Singer puts it in his TED talk, “As exciting as a drone for search-and-rescue is, or environmental monitoring or filming your kids playing soccer, that’s still doing surveillance. It’s what comes next, using it in ways that no one’s yet imagined, that’s where the boom will be.

Future uses of drones

Chris: Oh my drone it’s DRONE WEEK! Wait…what’s drone week?

Recently I was invited to the InfoCamp unConference at Berkeley where among the awesome and inspiring presentations, I sat in on Peter Swigert’s workshop on drones. Since the blog was deep in Oblivion, Pete and I agreed to coauthor a series of posts on this phenomenon, and also to set the record a little more straight for sci-fi fans and authors on the real-world state of drones.

Today, a post on some cool and totally not evil speculative uses of drones.


While drones are being used for positive purposes already, there will undoubtedly be myriad new applications as the technology develops and more people engage with its possibilities and implications. A few options include:

Voting drones

While purely online voting seems a long way off in the United States, drones could provide a physical link to voters but remove the logistical challenges of getting time off to travel to a polling station (a tactic that suppresses voting turnout and wastes time and resources.) Drones could go from house to house, authenticate by taking a photo of an individual’s face, their ID, and even their thumbprint, and a citizen could place their vote directly into the drone.

…much to the suppressors’ night terrors.

…much to the suppressors’ night terrors.

Weather management drones

With climate change likely to cause increasing challenges in weather, drones could be used as safe, effective tools for weather management. For instance, drones could seed clouds to promote rain. Drones equipped with weather sensors searching for the exact right place to release their payload could be more accurate and effective than current rocket based solutions. A cloud of drones with small parabolic lenses could cool an area by reflecting light away or warm one by concentrating it.

Biological replacement drones

Could drones replace certain species in the ecosystem? The collapse of bee communities in many parts of the world has been a major threat for agriculture and, if it needs to be said, most of human life on the planet. Should the worst happen to our bee friends in the future, could micro-drones serve the some pollination function as bees? In places where keystone species have gone extinct or can’t be maintained, could a drone be developed to automatically serve the same function? For instance, elephants knock down trees and create clearings in certain patterns, facilitating the transition from jungle to grassland. A drone could fly continuously, looking for patterns in the landscape or specific trees that an elephant would normally knock down, and either mark the trees for human removal or be constructed to damage the tree itself. Could these patterns and behaviors be used in terraforming new planets as well?

Little Johnny, it’s time you knew about the birds and the drones.

Little Johnny, it’s time you knew about the birds and the drones.

Avalanche prevention drones

Drones could scout avalanche prone areas and use computer vision and snow sampling to identify possible avalanches, and bring their own explosive payload to detonate preventative avalanches. (A practice done—dangerously—by humans today.) Backcountry skiers could rent time on a resort or park management’s drone to get a first person view of the terrain in real time before hitting the slopes.

Amber alert drones

Drones could be trained in facial recognition or even smell tracking (wouldn’t a bloodhound be more effective if it could fly and smell from the air?) to search for missing children. They could also serve as a notification system as they search for the child, broadcasting real time information to both investigators and citizens in the area.

Musical performance drones

Drones could provide on demand musical performances. No bandshell in a park? Just fly in some drones with speakers; the drones could align themselves appropriately to get the best acoustics for the setting.

“Well, mayhaps something a little less…dubsteppy?”

“Well, mayhaps something a little less…dubsteppy?”

While some ideas may seem absurd (and Chris’ comps up there turn that up to 11), science fiction can provide an interesting testing ground for what these systems might look like if implemented. What are the implications of these ideas? What impact would they have on society? On our last Drone Week post tomorrow we’ll discuss some of the ethical considerations underneath all of this.

Actual drones for not-evil

Chris: Day 2 of mighty mighty DRONE WEEK! Wait…what’s drone week?

Recently I was invited to the InfoCamp unConference at Berkeley where among the awesome and inspiring presentations, I sat in on Peter Swigert’s workshop on drones. Since the blog was deep in Oblivion, Pete and I agreed to coauthor a series of posts on this phenomenon, and also to set the record a little more straight for sci-fi fans and authors on the real-world state of drones.

Today Drone Week continues with the not-so-scary world of actual drones.


Delivery drones

While capitalism is a neutral force at best, the speculative drones that Amazon and Google are working on stand to make delivery faster and more direct. While these projects are undoubtedly driven by possible profits, Google suggests that rapid delivery by drone will also have significant social benefits. Astro Teller, director at Google X, suggests that on-demand drop off and pick up we of goods will let us need to own less. “It would help move us from an ownership society to an access society. We would have more of a community feel to the things in our lives. And what if we could do that and lower the noise pollution and lower the carbon footprint, while we improve the safety of having these things come to you?”

Parcel delivery by drone is reminiscent of early proposals for mail delivery by parachute, seen here in a 1921 edition of Popular Mechanic.

Parcel delivery by drone is reminiscent of early proposals for mail delivery by parachute, seen here in a 1921 edition of Popular Mechanic.

Agricultural drones

Drones are already being used to help farmers monitor their crops. Companies like PrecisionHawk or senseFly offer aerial imagery capture and analysis of crop growth and health. Drones can cover much larger areas than on the ground monitoring and require minimal upfront costs or investments. With rising population to feed and climate change and soil degradation to combat, drones can be a valuable tool in increasing agricultural yields.

An example of image processing from aerial imagery taken by drone from HoneyComb, one of many companies offering drone services for agriculture

An example of image processing from aerial imagery taken by drone from HoneyComb, one of many companies offering drone services for agriculture

Medical drones

An emergency drone that carries a defibrillator has been developed and is currently in testing. The drone could be dispatched by emergency services and arrive to the site of a cardiac arrest faster than any ambulance, and “includes a webcam and loudspeaker and allows remote doctors to walk people on the scene through the process of attaching the electrodes and preparing the defibrillator.

Similarly, Doctors Without Borders is experimenting with drones to rapidly transport patient samples to fight tuberculosis epidemics in parts of Papua New Guinea where road transport is too slow.

Image from FastCo.Exist.

Image from FastCo.Exist.

Archeological drones

Drones are also being used for a variety of archaeological projects. They are a cheap method of capturing images to build 3D models of ruins. “In remote northwestern New Mexico, archaeologists are using drones outfitted with thermal-imaging cameras to track the walls and passages of a 1,000-year-old Chaco Canyon settlement, now buried beneath the dirt. In the Middle East, researchers have employed them to guard against looting.” And in the Yucatan peninsula, drones provided a cost effective solution to flying over dense, remote jungles, and identified previously undiscovered Mayan ruins.

Peruvian archaeologists command a drone to search for architectural ruins. (New York Times)

Peruvian archaeologists command a drone to search for architectural ruins. (New York Times)

Of course these are all cool and useful models of non-military uses of drones. But it can get cooler. In the next post, we’ll look at some speculative future uses of drones. Hollywood, get out your pens, or whatever it is you write with these days.

Military Drones

Chris: Oh my drone it’s DRONE WEEK! Wait…what’s drone week?

Recently I was invited to the InfoCamp unConference at Berkeley where among the awesome and inspiring presentations, I sat in on Peter Swigert’s workshop on drones. Since the blog was deep in Oblivion, Pete and I agreed to coauthor a series of posts on this phenomenon, and also to set the record a little more straight for sci-fi fans and authors on the real-world state of drones.

Today, a first post on the scary, scary world of sci-fi drones.


Unmanned (either manual or automated) aerial vehicles, or drones, have become increasingly common in science fiction, likely a reflection of their increasing role in today’s society. While the future of drone technologies and their role in society are yet to be determined, science fiction has been conservative in its speculation. Most depictions of drones tend to suppose an expansion of the current military usage of drone technologies.

Sci-fi: Drones are scary, m’kay

The 2014 remake of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop has drones that are clearly extensions of modern military drones: wicked Stealth-shaped things with perfect maneuverability for gunning down citizens.

Being welcomed as liberators.

Being welcomed as liberators.

Oblivion takes a similar approach, as drones are fully autonomous, big, scary technospheres used primarily for surveillance, monitoring, and firepower.

Jack facing a drone in bondage.

Jack facing a drone in bondage.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the drones are gargantuan floating things, each capable of monitoring thousands of square miles at a time, but the concept is the same: drones are a military technology used for surveillance and violence.

The Falcon, for scale.

The Falcon, for scale.

More recently, Chappie features a very scary military drone who ends up being driven by a psychotic operator against the eponymous, peaceful robot. [Nobody has responded to emails for a screener, so no lovely screen caps for us. -Ed.]

That all you got?

These representations of drones (and many others in the genre) are failures of the creativity of science fiction. While they embody well-founded concerns about drones, they’re monotone, and don’t match the creativity of drone makers right here in the real world.

Hey, I get it. It’s hard to know what drones will mean to future people. Drones combine a whole set of complex technologies that people didn’t know what to do with when they first came out as individual technologies: planes, cameras, GPS, and computers. Sometimes even the military applications aren’t clear. For instance, when the Wright Brothers discussed patenting their approach to the plane in Great Britain and helping the government develop military uses, they were rebuffed, as “Their Lordships are of the opinion that they [airplanes] would not be of any practical use to the Naval Service.”

Additionally, there is an understandable psychological horror at the flying thing that either houses an inhuman machine intelligence or arguably worse, that houses some distant human’s eyes and ears but without their stake in the locale or consequences. Blasted-earth, collateral damage, and horrible mistakes don’t seem to mean as much when the perpetrator can just turn off the monitor and not think about it. So…yes. That military part is pretty scary.

But science fiction films seem particularly confused about how to represent this technology and limited by this military thinking. This was true even before modern military drones were in use; as XKCD notes, The Terminator would have been a much shorter film if it had been developed after Predator drones were around.

From Our modern military can more effectively abstract the purposes of a drone soldier and design it like a plane, whereas old sci-fi depictions like The Terminator envisioned robotic humans.

From Our modern military can more effectively abstract the purposes of a drone soldier and design it like a plane, whereas old sci-fi depictions like The Terminator envisioned robotic humans.

But even as science fiction has tackled modern drones, it still builds on military models rather than considering civilian contexts. For instance, the “nanobots” of the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still or 2009’s G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra suggest what might happen as drone technologies become miniaturized. OK, yes, the military is currently working on this. After all, why send a multimillion dollar Predator that can be shot down when thousands of small drones could more effectively infiltrate enemy territory and conduct operations? That said, this technology doesn’t have to be used in a military context. A micro-sized drone that could identify and poison an enemy’s water supply might be adapted to unclog an artery or kill a cancer cell just as easily.

From Gizmag: British soldiers have tested these Black Hornet Nano UAVs [Image: © Crown copyright]

From Gizmag: British soldiers have tested these Black Hornet Nano UAVs [Image: © Crown copyright]

But even as sci-fi catches up to modern military designs, that’s still only one set of effects for which drones have and might be put to use. In the next post we’ll take a pass at painting the rest of the non-military picture.

Scav Reticle

The last Scav tech (and the last review of tech in the nerdsourced reviews of Oblivion) is a short one. During the drone assault on the Scav compound, we get a glimpse of the reticle used by the rebel Sykes as he tries to target a weak spot in a drone’s backside.
Scav reticle

The reticle has a lot of problems, given Sykes’ task. The data on the periphery is too small to be readable. There are some distracting lines from the augmentation boxes which, if they’re just pointing to static points along the hairline, should be removed. The grid doesn’t seem to serve much purpose. There aren’t good differentiations among the ticks to be able to quickly subitize subtensions. (Read: tell how wide a thing is compared to the tick marks.) (You know, like with a ruler.)


The reticle certainly looks sci-fi, but real-world utility seems low.

The nicest and most surprising thing though is that the bullseye is the right shape and size of the thing he’s targeting. Whatever that circle thing is on the drone (a thermal exhaust port, which seem to be ubiquitously weak in spherical tech) this reticle seems to be custom-shaped to help target it. This may be giving it a lot of credit, but in a bit of apologetics, what if it had a lot of goal awareness, and adjusted the bullseye to match the thing he was targeting? Could it take on a tire shape to disable a car? Or a patella shape to help incapacitate a human attacker? That would be a very useful reticle feature.

Scav dual-monoculars

As Jack searches early in the film for Drone 172, he parks his bike next to a sinkhole in the desert and cautiously peers into it. As he does so, he is being observed from afar by a sinister looking Scav through a set of asymmetrical…well, it’s not exactly right to call them binoculars.



They look kind of binocular, but that term technically refers to a machine that displays two slighty-offset images shown independently to each eye such that the user perceives stereopsis, or a single field in 3D. But a quick shot from the Scav’s perspective shows that this is not what is shown at all. Continue reading

Flight Recorder


Jack flies the airship most of the way to the TET when he decides to listen the recordings of the Odyssey. He presses the play button on the recorder, it makes a beep and an electronic voice says, “Flight recorder playback for the Odyssey mission, 3 May 2017.” Then the playback starts.

First, real flight recorders

Before starting the analysis of the black box in Oblivion I thought it could be helpful to do some research on real-word black boxes. That way I had a reference point, something to compare this to. Oddly enough, there is a lot of information on the internet about the required recording and survival aspects of the device, but not much about means to find it after a crash. Beacons and transmitters are mentioned, but not many requirements to facilitate a person actually spotting it. Anyway, after that research I came up with a list of requirements for the device. It must…

  • Survive extreme temperature, pressure, and water conditions.
  • Record both ship and crew´s data on the flight.
  • Be easy to find in a crash site.
  • Provide quick access to the stored data.

You can think of modern flight recorders as big and tough hard drives that make digital recordings of both ship data and cockpit voice. Most modern commercial jets use a “quick access recorder” that stores data in a removable memory that can be plugged in to a common computer. And some recorders can also have an USB or Ethernet port for quick access, too. But often the device is damaged by the crash, and the full data needs to be accessed with special equipment.

So it’s against these requirements that we can analyze the real-world design of the flight recorder.

And really, this thing is like a Christmas tree of attention getting lights and sounds in comparison.

Great: Commanding attention

I have to give it to them here, they did a really good job. Aside from the normal design patterns for black boxes, the flight recorder in the movie provides other ways to find the device. The flashing white light can be easily spotted in the dark —and also on the day if bright enough. Even more, flashing is one of the most attention-getting signals that there are, neurologically speaking. And it can be instantly associated with an electronic device, while a fixed flight could be taken as a reflection on some debris.

Irregular flashing is even more powerful: A pattern that is semi random (or stochastic in the literature), with some flashes slightly offset from the main pattern. That difference in the flashing is even more attention getting that a regular one. This too would be really helpful in a crash site where you have an important amount of flashes going on as well: police cars, ambulances and fire cars. In that situation, the randomness of the flashing can help in distinguishing the device from the surroundings.

Julia was wandering through the Odyssey´s wreckage when she heard a soft and repeating sound. She pulled out some wreckage to find the flight recorder. These sound signals help her to locate the device more precisely when at close distance, even when it´s covered by debris if the sound is strong enough.


She takes it out to give it a look, and it´s here when we see the device.


When Julia finds the recorder, she knows that she and Jack need to carry it back to the Tower to better examine it. And as the recorder is kind of heavy, Julia folds out an small handler and uses it to lift up the recorder.

Great: Even better than a flash memory

The recorder in the movie also provides a way to instantly access the voice recordings of the crew. It uses a display and several buttons in a way that is similar to a music player, and building on a known mental model means that anyone looking for the device is going to be able to use it.

Assistive tools for the emergency mode

The recorder in the movie also seems to have two different modes or settings, an “emergency” mode when it has to be found and another mode to play the recordings. As with real flight recorders, the emergency mode could be activated by internal sensors. These could detect the crash via a sudden and/or significant change in velocity, for example. But it ought to have a manual control of some sort to return to normal mode.

When Julia finds the recorder, the device was beeping and using a light as beacon. It also had two status LEDs turned on and the small display was showing a graph curve in red. In contrast, when Jack is hearing the playbacks, the recorder doesn´t show any of those functions. Both the beeping, the lights, and the small screen display are all turned off, and the graph isn´t showing anymore.

What is that red graph supposed to mean anyway?

It´s not very clear what the purpose of the small screen display is. What is it meant to communicate? Additionally the display is oddly placed next to the controls of the recorder, which implies a mapping that doesn’t really seem logical. But mapping is not the only issue, because when the recorder is actually playing, this display is always off.

Given that It´s only on when Julia finds the recorder and the device is capable of playing the recordings by itself, it might be a way to tell the amount of battery life of the device. Although even then, a graph is something that shows change through time. When you need to know the energy levels at one specific moment, using a common battery indicator, or even a depletion bar would work better.

So maybe the graph is telling us that the device has some way of recharging itself. In that case, the graph could be showing charge and discharge cycles—or energy consumption rates—and by association also telling about some problem with the charging system. Even assuming this is the case, it´s odd that the display is always off during playback so it probably has some control to turn it on and off.

A screen dedicated to sound.

The recorder uses another, bigger display to show a number that indicates some time value, like recording or playback time. The bottom half of the display shows a spectrum analyzer of the recording playing at the moment, but when the recorder is not working this part of the display remains empty. During the movie we see that the recorder plays only sound, i.e. the voice recordings during the mission.

This screen offers some visualization but showing the spectrum analysis of the playback seems like a secondary feature. You know, given that it´s not necessary to actually hear the playback. But the display has a MODE button, so maybe the recorder can also record video to take advantage of the full size of the screen. In that case maybe the crew of the Odyssey just chose to only record audio, be it for privacy or to save storage space for the rest of the mission.


Jack was already in space and closing in to the Tet. And as he has to maintain his cover until he gets inside the Tet with the bomb, he stops the recording of the Odyssey.

After getting permission to dock in the Tet, Jack the returns to the playback. But the recording suddenly stops when the command module of the Odyssey got inside the Tet, then there´s only static and an—end of recording—message.

After getting permission to dock in the Tet, Jack the returns to the playback. But the recording suddenly stops when the command module of the Odyssey got inside the Tet, then there´s only static and an—end of recording—message.

But again, we never actually see the recorder playing video. And the display has a low resolution, monochrome screen—like some early PDAs. So making sense of any video playing from there would definitely be a challenge.

Odyssey Navigation


When the Odyssey needs to reverse thrust to try and counter a descent towards the TET, Jack calls for a full OMS (Orbital Maneuvering System) burn. We do not see what information he looks at to determine how fast he is approaching the TET, or how he knows that the OMS system will provide enough thrust.

We do see 4 motor systems on board the Odyssey

  1. The Main Engines (which appear to be Ion Engines)
  2. The OMS system (4 large chemical thrusters up front)
  3. A secondary set of thrusters (similar and larger than the OMS system) on the sleep module
  4. Tiny chemical thrusters like those used to change current spacecraft yaw/pitch/roll (the shuttle’s RCS).


After Jack calls out for an OMS burn, Vika punches in a series of numbers on her keypad, and jack flips two switches under the keypad. After flipping the switches ‘up’, Jack calls out “Gimbals Set” and Vika says “System Active”.

Finally, Jack pulls back on a silver thrust lever to activate the OMS.


Why A Reverse Lever?

Typically, throttles are pushed forward to increase thrust. Why is this reversed? On current NASA spacecraft, the flight stick is set up like an airplane’s control, i.e., back pitches up, forward pitches down, left/right rolls the same. Note that the pilot moves the stick in the direction he wants the craft to move. In this case, the OMS control works the same way: Jack wants the ship to thrust backwards, so he moves the control backwards. This is a semi-direct mapping of control to actuator. (It might be improved if it moved not in an arc but in a straight forward-and-backward motion like the THC control, below. But you also want controls to feel different for instant differentiation, so it’s not a clear cut case.)


Source: NASA

What is interesting is that, in NASA craft, the control that would work the main thrusters forward is the same control used for lateral, longitudinal, and vertical controls:


Source: NASA

Why are those controls different in the Odyssey? My guess is that, because the OMS thrusters are so much more powerful than the smaller RCS thrusters, the RCS thrusters are on a separate controller much like the Space Shuttle’s (shown above).

And, look! We see evidence of just such a control, here:


Separating the massive OMS thrusters from the more delicate RCS controls makes sense here because the control would have such different effects—and have different fuel costs—in one direction than in any other. Jack knows that by grabbing the RCS knob he is making small tweaks to the Odyssey’s flight path, while the OMS handle will make large changes in only one direction.

The “Targets” Screen


When Jack is about to make the final burn to slow the Odyssey down and hold position 50km away from the TET, he briefly looks at this screen and says that the “targets look good”.

It is not immediately obvious what he is looking at here.

Typically, NASA uses oval patterns like this to detail orbits. The top of the pattern would be the closest distance to an object, while the further line would indicate the furthest point. If that still holds true here, we see that Jack is at the closest he is going to get to the TET, and in another orbit he would be on a path to travel away from the TET at an escape velocity.

Alternatively, this plot shows the Odyssey’s entire voyage. In that case, the red dotted line shows the Odyssey’s previous positions. It would have entered range of the TET, made a deceleration burn, then dropped in close.

Either way, this is a far less useful or obvious interface than others we see in the Odyssey.

The bars on the right-hand panel do not change, and might indicate fuel or power reserves for various thruster banks aboard the Odyssey.

Why is Jack the only person operating the ship during the burn?

This is the final burn, and if Jack makes a mistake then the Odyssey won’t be on target and will require much more complicated math and piloting to fix its position relative to the TET. These burns would have been calculated back on Earth, double-checked by supercomputers, and monitored all the way out.

A second observer would be needed to confirm that Jack is following procedure and gets his timing right. NASA missions have one person (typically the co-pilot) reading from the checklist, and the Commander carrying out the procedure. This two-person check confirms that both people are on the same page and following procedure. It isn’t perfect, but it is far more effective than having a single person completing a task from memory.

Likely, this falls under the same situation as the Odyssey’s controls: there is a powerful computer on board checking Jack’s progress and procedure. If so, then only one person would be required on the command deck during the burn, and he or she would merely be making sure that the computer was honest.

This argument is strengthened by the lack of specificity in Jack’s motions. He doesn’t take time to confirm the length of the burn required, or double-check his burn’s start time.


If the computer was doing all that for him, and he was merely pushing the right button at the indicated time, the system could be very robust.

This also allows Vika to focus on making sure that the rest of the crew is still alive and healthy in suspended animation. It lowers the active flight crew requirement on the Odyssey, and frees up berths and sleep pods for more scientific-minded crew members.

Help your users

Detail-oriented tasks, like a deceleration burn, are important but let’s face it, boring. These kinds of tasks require a lot of memory on the part of users, and pinpoint precision in timing. Neither of those are things humans are good at.

If you can have your software take care of these tasks for your users, you can save on the cost of labor (one user instead of two or three), increase reliability, and decrease mistakes.

Just make sure that your computer works, and that your users have a backup method in case it fails.