Starship Troopers (1997): Overview

Release date: 27 June 2008, United States

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Starship Troopers follows Johnny Rico and his friends Diz, Carmen, and Carl, from humble beginnings together at school, into their participation in a war against the super evolved insect race called the Arachnids, or “Bugs.” Johnny, who is excellent at sports but poor with verbal and math skills, enters the infantry with Diz. Carmen’s scores and skills lead her to being a pilot aboard the war ship Rodger Young. Carl shows nascent psychic ability and winds up in military intelligence. In these roles they travel to the bug home planet of Klendathu to not only score a major victory in the war, but come of age in dealing with life and love.

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Very slightly interactive news

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One of the most unusual conceits of the movie is “Would you like to know more?” These consist of short video news sequences with overlaid graphics and narration. At the top of the screen the user can click one of three categories for different categories of video feed, and two functions. At the end of each video sequence the “user” is prompted to interact—should they want to learn more—by clicking the legend at the bottom of the screen.

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The user here is ambiguous. It might be that the audience member is the user, but of course it’s not interactive. There’s probably room here for some other writer to investigate the narrative tactic/semiotics of using an interactive interface in a passive story.

At the top of the screen are menu headers labeled “FEDERAL,” “GALAXY,” “TOP NEWS," "ENLIST," and "EXIT." For the usability purist, the collection is problematic for a number of reasons.

  • The information categories aren’t parallel, and there’s no clear reason why they shouldn’t be. What’s the relationship between Galaxy and Federal?
  • The functions (enlist and exit) are not visually distinguished from content categories.
  • The current state of the interface is a mystery. Am I currently watching Top News or something else?
  • Why does the interface chrome persist? Aren’t they distractions from the content? Maybe they should appear just only for the few seconds it’s inviting the user to interact, and fade at other times.
  • While a fascist government would be happy to try and trick its users into clicking enlist, I can’t imagine what benefit they get from having them accidentally clicking exit to close the propaganda engine. These should not just be visually distinguished, but given different visual weight. They’d probably want enlist large and exit smaller, if there at all.

“Welp. All the links in Federal, Galaxy, and Top News are purple. I wonder what’s happening in ENLIST news? Oh hey, who’s that pounding on the door?”

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The presence of the "EXIT" control implies that this is an application running in an operating system or media computer space. This opt-in news application with its small windows of time for interaction helps to paint a picture of a highly engaged and ready-to-respond audience, fitting for the mid-war society portrayed in the movie.

Only once do we see an unidentified and unseen "user" control a cursor to view more. In this sequence, he or she clicks on “more” after watching a clip on the bug homeworld Klendathu. (It’s worth noting/condemning that the clickable word “more” looks identical to the rest of the non-clickable text, offering no special affordance.) In response to the selection, the application shows a live video news feed from the conflict on Klendathu. Was it just good fortune that a live feed happened to be available at this moment? More likely the application and media coordination system are smart enough to know a live feed was coming up, and played the trailer in advance as an advertisement for the content, implying a well-coordinated propaganda/content management system.

FedPaint

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Students in Starship Troopers academy have access to desktop computing environments during class, including a drawing and animation program called “Fedpaint,” that had a number of very forward-looking features.

The screen is housed in a metal bezel that is attached to the desk, and can be left flat or angled slightly per the user’s preference. A few hardware buttons sit in a row at the bottom of the bezel. (Quick industrial design aside: Those buttons belong at the top of the bezel.) The input device is a stylus. (Styli had been in use in personal digital assistants for over a decade when the film came out, I don’t think they had been sold as the primary input for a PC.) When we first see Johnny using the computer, he is ignoring his citizenship lesson and using Fedpaint instead.

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The main part of the interface is a canvas. Running along the left and bottom edges are a complex tool palette and color picker that is vaguely reminiscent of Windows 3.0 WIMP applications. It’s easy to tell which category and tool is selected. (What color is selected is unclear.) I’d even say that most of the icons, while a little ham-handed and completely lacking labels, convey what they would do pretty clearly. The tools also seem to be clustered logically with categories across the top left, tools in the middle left, a color palette in the lower left corner, and file operations across the bottom. That’s some reasonable and reasonably convincing layout design for a movie interface. Nowadays a designer might argue to hide the menus when not in use to maximize the canvas real estate, but the most common OS paradigm at the time was Windows 97, and the most advanced paint program, i.e. Photoshop, looked like this. (Major thanks to Hongkiat for keeping their museum of Photoshop interfaces.)

Using the stylus, Johnny sketches a flirty animation for Carmen. He draws each of their profiles in white lines. He then adds some flat color and animates the profiles (not shown onscreen) such that the faces get closer, their eyes close, and their mouths open in readiness of a kiss. He then sends it to her.

On her desk she receives a notification. (We don’t get to see it. Was she already in the program? Did the notification jump her there?) Carmen grabs her stylus and responds by adding to the animation. She sends the file back to him. He opens it and it plays automatically. In her version of the animation, the profiles approach as before, but as they near for a kiss, the female profile blows a bubble gum bubble that gets so large it pops and covers the face of the male.


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What’s nice about this interface is that the narrative seems to have driven some innovation in its design. It’s half gee-whiz-circa-1997 of course but half character development as it tells us that Johnny likes Cameron, and Cameron is a bit playfully stand-offish in response. To make this work well narratively, communication of the animation back and forth had to be seamless, and that seems to be the reason we see the communication tools built right into the interface. If ever there was a case for why scenario-driven design for personas works, this is it.

What’s frustrating is that they skipped over the hard part. How does Johnny apply the color? A paint bucket tool is a reasonable guess, but it’s also error prone. How did he specify the number of frames and their speed? How did he ensure that the motion felt relatively smooth and communicative? Anyone who’s worked with an animation program knows that these aren’t trivial matters, and Starship Troopers took the narrative route. Probably best for the story, but less for my analysis purposes.

Still, the stylus-driven direct manipulation, the unique layout, and easy, social sharing were big innovations for the time. I don’t know that there’s much to learn from this today, since our OS metaphors have advanced enough to make this seem quaint at best, and social integration is now the norm. But credit where it’s due, this interface was ahead of its time.

Grade Board

When students want to know the results of their tests, they do so by a public interface. A large, tiled screen is mounted to a recessed section of wall in a courtyard. The display is divided into a grid of five columns and three rows. Each cell contains one student’s results for one test, as a percentage. One cell displays an ad for military service. Another provides a reminder for the upcoming sports game. Four keyboards are situated below the screens at waist level.

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To find her score, Carmen approaches one of the keyboards and enters some identifying data. In response, the column above the screen displays her score and moves the data in the other cells up. There is no way to learn of one’s test scores privately. This hits Johnny particularly hard when he checks his scores to find he has earned 35% on his Math Final, a failing grade.

Worse, his friend Carl is able to walk up to the keyboard and with a few key presses, interrupt every other student looking at the grades, and fill the entire screen with Johnny’s score for all to see, with the failing number blinking red and white, ridiculing him before his peers. After a reprimand from Johnny, Carl returns the display to normal with the press of a button.

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Is ANSI the right input?

The keyboard would be a pain to keep clean, and you’d figure that a student ID would be a unique-and-memorable enough token. Does an entire ANSI keyboard need to be there? Wouldn’t a number pad be enough? But why a manual input at all? Nowadays you’d expect some near-field communication, or biometric token, which would obviate the keyboard entirely.

Are publicizing grades OK?

So there are input and interaction improvements to be made, for sure. But there’s more important issues to talk about here. Yes, students can accomplish one task with the interface well enough: Checking grades. But what about the giant, public output?

It’s fullfilling one of the dystopian goals of the fascist society in which the story takes place, which is that might makes right. Carl is a bully (even if Jonny’s friend) and in the culture of Starship Troopers, if he wants to increase Johnny’s public humiliation, why not? Johnny needs to study harder, take it on the chin, or make Carl stop. In this regard, the interface satisfies both the students’ task and the culture’s…um…values.

I originally wanted to counter that with a strong statement that, “But that’s not us.” After all, modern federal privacy laws in the United States forbid this public display as a violation of students’ privacy. (See FERPA laws.) But apparently not everyone believes this. A look on debate.org (at the time of writing) shows that opinion is perfectly split on the topic. I could lay out my thoughts on which side is better for learning, but it’s really beyond the scope of this blog to build a case for either side of Lakoff’s Moral Politics.

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You’re Doing More Than You Think You’re Doing

But it’s worth noting the scope of these issues at hand. This seems at first to be an interface just about checking grades, but when you look at the ecosystem in which it operates, it actually illustrates and reinforce a culture’s core virtues. The interface is sometimes not just the interface. Its designers are more than flowchart monkeys.

The bug VP

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In biology class, the (unnamed) professor points her walking stick (she’s blind) at a volumetric projector. The tip flashes for a second, and a volumetric display comes to life. It illustrates for the class what one of the bugs looks like. The projection device is a cylinder with a large lens atop a rolling base. A large black plug connects it to the wall.

The display of the arachnid appears floating in midair, a highly saturated screen-green wireframe that spins. It has very slight projection rays at the cylinder and a "waver" of a scan line that slowly rises up the display. When it initially illuminates, the channels are offset and only unify after a second.

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The top and bottom of the projection are ringed with tick lines, and several tick lines runs vertically along the height of the bug for scale. A large, lavender label at the bottom identifies this as an ARACHNID WARRIOR CLASS. There is another lavendar key too small for us to read.The arachnid in the display is still, though the display slowly rotates around its y-axis clockwise from above. The instructor uses this as a backdrop for discussing arachnid evolution and "virtues."

After the display continues for 14 seconds, it shuts down automatically.

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Interaction

It’s nice that it can be activated with her walking stick, an item we can presume isn’t common, since she’s the only apparently blind character in the movie. It’s essentially gestural, though what a blind user needs with a flash for feedback is questionable. Maybe that signal is somehow for the students? What happens for sighted teachers? Do they need a walking stick? Or would a hand do? What’s the point of the flash then?

That it ends automatically seems pointlessly limited. Why wouldn’t it continue to spin until it’s dismissed? Maybe the way she activated it indicated it should only play for a short while, but it didn’t seem like that precise a gesture.

Of course it’s only one example of interaction, but there are so many other questions to answer. Are there different models that can be displayed? How would she select a different one? How would she zoom in and out? Can it display aimations? How would she control playback? There are quite a lot of unaddressed details for an imaginative designer to ponder.

Display

The display itself is more questionable.

Scale is tough to tell on it. How big is that thing? Students would have seen video of it for years, so maybe it’s not such an issue. But a human for scale in the display would have been more immediately recognizable. Or better yet, no scale: Show the thing at 1:1 in the space so its scale is immediately apparent to all the students. And more appropriately, terrifying.

And why the green wireframe? The bugs don’t look like that. If it was showing some important detail, like carapice density, maybe, but this looks pretty even. How about some realistic color instead? Do they think it would scare kids? (More than the “gee-whiz!” girl already is?)

And lastly there’s the title. Yes, having it rotate accomodates viewers in 360 degrees, but it only reads right for half the time. Copy it, flip it 180º on the y-axis, and stack it, and you’ve got the most important textual information readable at most any time from the display.

Better of course is more personal interaction, individual displays or augmented reality where a student can turn it to examine the arachnid themselves, control the zoom, or follow up on more information. (Wnat to know more?) But the school budget in the world of Starship Troopers was undoubtedly stripped to increase military budget (what a crappy world that would be amirite?), and this single mass display might be more cost effective.

DuoMento

Carl, a young psychic, has an application at home to practice and hone his mental powers. It’s not named in the film, so I’m going to call it DuoMento. We see DuoMento in use when Carl uses it to try and help Johnny find if he has any latent psyhic talent. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work.)

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Setup

DuoMento challenges its users with blind matching tests. For it, the “thought projector” (Carl) sits in a chair at a desk with a keyboard and a desktop monitor before him. The “thought receiver” (Johnny) sits in a chair facing the thought projector, unable to see either the desktop monitor or the large, wall-mounted screen behind him, which duplicates the image from the desktop monitor. To the receiver’s right hand is a small elevated panel of around 20 white push buttons.

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Blind matching

For the test, two Hoyle playing cards appear on the screen side-by-side, face down. Carl presses a key on his keyboard, and one card flips over to reveal its face. Carl concentrates on the face-up card, attempting to project the identity of the card to Johnny. Johnny tries his best to receive the thought. It’s intense.

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When Johnny feels he has an answer, he says, “I see…Ace of Spades,” and reaches forward and presses a button on the elevated panel. In response, the hidden card flips over as the ace of spades. An overlay appears on top of the two cards indicating if it was a match. Lacking any psychic abilities, Johnny gets a big label reading “NO MATCH,” accompanied by a buzzer sound. Carl resets it to a new card with three clicks on his keyboard.

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Not very efficient

Why does it take Carl three clicks to reset the cards? You’d think on such a routine task it would be as simple as pressing [space bar]. Maybe you want to prevent accidental activation, but still that’s a key with a modifer, like shift+[space bar]. Best would be if Carl was also a telekinetic. Then he could just mentally push a switch and get some of that practice in. If that switch offered variable resistance it could increase with each…but I digress since he’s just a telepath.

A semi-questionable display

I get why there’s a side-by-side pair of cards. People are much better at these sorts of comparison tasks when objects are side-by-side. But ultimately, it conveys the wrong thing. Having a face down card that flips over implies that that face-down card is the one that Johnny’s trying to guess. But it’s not. The one that’s already turned over is the one he’s trying to guess. Better would be a graphic that implies he’s filling in the blank.

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Better still are two separate screens: One for the projector with a single card displayed, and a second for the receiver with this same graphic prompting him to guess. This would require a little different setup when shooting the scene, with over-the-shoulder shots for each showing the different screen. But audiences are sophisticated enough to get that now. Different screens can show different things.

Mismatched inputs?

At first it seems like Johnny’s input panel is insufficient for the task. After all, there are 52 cards in a standard deck of cards and only 20 buttons. But having a set of 13 keys for the card ranks and 4 for the suit is easy enough, reduces the number of keys, and might even let him answer only the part he’s confident in if the image hasn’t quite come through.

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Does it help test for “sensitivity”?

Psychic powers are real in the world of Starship Troopers, so we’re going not going to question that. Instead the question at hand will be: Is this the best test for psychic sensitivity?

Visual cheating

I do wonder that having a lit screen gives the receiver a reflection in the projector’s eyes to detect, even if unconsciously. An eagle-eyed receiver might be able to spot a color, or the difference between a face card and a number card. Better would be some way for the projector to cover his eyes while reading the subject, and dim that screen afterward.

The risk of false positives

More importantly, such a test would want to eliminate the chance that the receiver guessed correctly by chance. The more constrained and familiar the range of options, the more likely they are to get a false positive, which wouldn’t help anything except confidence, and even that would be false. I get that when designing skills-building interfaces, you want to start easy and get progressively more challenging. But it makes more sense to constrain the concepts being projected to things that are more concrete and progress to greater abstraction or more nuance. Start with “fire,” perhaps, and advance to “flicker” or “warmth.” For such thoughts, a video cue of a word randomly selected from that pool of concepts would make the most sense. And for cinematic directness (Starship Troopers was nothing if not direct) you should overlay the word onto the video cue as well.

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Better input

The next design challenge then becomes how does the receiver provide to the system what, if anything, they’re receiving. Since the concepts would be open-ended, you need a language-input mechanism: ANSI keyboard for typing, or voice recognition.

Additionally, I’d add a brain-reading interface that was able to read his brain as he was attempting to receive. Then it could detect for the right state of mind, e.g. an alpha state, as well as areas of the brain that are being activated. Cinematically you could show a brain map, indicating the brain state in a range, the areas of the brain being activated. Having the map on hand for Johnny would let him know to relax and get into a receptive state. If Carl had the same map he could help prompt him.

In a movie you’d probably also want a crude image feed being “read” from Johnny’s thoughts. It might charmingly be some dumb, non-fire things, like scenes from his last jump ball game, Carmen’s face and cleavage, and to Carl’s shame, a recollection of the public humilation suffered recently at his hand.

But if this interface (and telepathy) was real, you wouldn’t want to show that to Johnny, as it might cause distracting feedback loops, and you wouldn’t want to show it to Carl less he betray when Johnny is getting close, and encourage Johnny’s zeroing in on the concept through subtle social cues instead of the desired psychic ones. Since it’s not real, let’s comp it up next more cinematically.

DuoMento, improved

Forgive me, as I am but a humble interaction designer (i.e., neither a professional visual designer nor video editor) but here’s my shot at a redesigned DuoMento, taking into account everything I’d noted in the review.

  • There’s only one click for Carl to initiate this test.
  • To decrease the risk of a false positive, this interface draws from a large category of concrete, visual and visceral concepts to be sent telepathically, and displays them visually.
  • It contrasts Carl’s brainwave frequencies (smooth and controlled) with Johnny’s (spiky and chaotic).
  • It reads both the brain of the sender and the receiver for some crude images from their visual cortex. (It would be better at this stage to have the actors wear some glowing attachment near a crown to show how this information was being read.)

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These changes are the sort that even in passing would help tell a more convincing narrative by being more believable, and even illustrating how not-psychic Johnny really is.

Shuttle Yoke

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Our first scene with Ibanez in training shows her piloting a shuttle to her ship. We don’t see much of the instrument panel or any footpedals, but the interaction with the yoke is pretty clear. She sits in the pilot seat, flicks a couple of switches on an overhead panel, and then gives the yoke a hard yank back to ignite the engines and take off. The reactions from the other characters tell us that she’s meant to be something of an aggressive pilot.

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The shuttle exits the flight deck and we get a glimpse of the instrument panel. It has a screen, displaying moving gradients, and a bank of unlabeled buttons. Ibanez never looks at these. She flies visually by the viewport. As she approaches the Rodger Young, we see her holding the yoke close to her, and rolling it to the right as the shuttle arcs near the giant spaceship, and then into a “hallway” within its scaffolded hull. She doesn’t move the yoke very much at all to pitch it 90 degrees up and back out to space again.

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Problems

There’s not a lot of information in this short scene, but enough to talk about. It’s a simple powered interface, with Ibanez operating a yoke that’s kind-of like a plane’s yoke. She banks the yoke to bank the shuttle. She rolls the yoke to roll the shuttle. There’s a bit of confusion about what the back-and-forth (ventral) controls do. On the flight deck it ignites thrust, but in space it seems to mean pitch (more like what we’d expect.) Yokes are problematic conceptually (for reasons being discussed here) but let’s go with it as a given for now.

First, where’s the safety measures on the flight deck? There is no clearance zone behind the shuttle and that thing is spitting blue fire, right at head level. You’d expect her to check her equivalent of the rear-view mirrors and key some warning klaxxons on the flight deck. Unless that fire is somehow harmless.

While we’re at it, where are the safety measures for the shuttle while in space? She’s clearly freaking the other pilots out with reckless piloting. Sure, they’re new and she’s a “maverick” but you’d expect it to alert her visibly and audibly if she’s undertaking maneuvers that are risky to the shuttle and the giant warship. So fine, the shuttle doesn’t have some gigantic and expensive equipment needed for this. But later in the movie we see that the Rodger Young has a collision alert function. (See below.) Why isn’t she contacted by someone assigned to security aboard the Rodger Young when she first approaches the ship in a reckless way?

This is not aboard the shuttle.

This is not aboard the shuttle.

And finally, there’s the control. It’s risky to use yoke-jerk for initiating thrust if the same motion means something else in flight. If the pilot needs a sudden boost of power, having them strain leaning forward or backward risks their messing with other variables and pointless repositioning for the pilot. Sure, it might be a mode where this only works when docked, but as we all know, modes are problematic at best and to be avoided. And then there’s the fact that the yoke’s sensitivity to pitch is nearly a force gauge, but to roll requires around 45 degrees. Shouldn’t these be at least the same order of magnitude?

It’s so unreal that it breaks the scene. The eyes of the actor and the camera do some work to keep us distracted, but it’s still there, like a bug hiding under the sand of Klendathu.

Rodger Young Bridge Doors

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I have a special interest in sci-fi doors, so, for completeness in the database, I’m going to document what’s we see with the security doors of the Rodger Young, which is not much.

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To access the bridge, Carmen walks through a short corridor, with large, plate-metal doors at either end. As she approaches each, they slide up over the course of about a second, making a grinding sound as they rise, and a heavy puff of air when they are safely locked open. (If they’re automatic, why don’t they close behind her?) The lower half-meter of each door is emblazoned with safety stripes.

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Carmen appears to do nothing special to authenticate with the doors. That either means that there is no authentication, or that it’s a sophisticated passive authentication that works as she approaches. I suggested just such a passive authentication for the Prometheus escape pod. The main difference in what I recommended there and what we see here is that both Carmen and the audience could use some sort of feedback that this is happening. A simple glowing point with projection rays towards her eyes or something, and even a soft beep upon confirmation.

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The only other time we see the door in action is after Carmen’s newly plotted course "discovers" the asteroid en route to Earth. It’s a Code Red situation, and the door doesn’t seem to behave any differently, even admitting about half a dozen people in at a time, so we have to presume that this is one those "dumb" doors.

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