Reckless undocking

After logging in to her station, Ibanez shares a bit of flirty dialog with mushroom-quaffed Zander Barcalow, and Captain Deladier says, “All right, Ibanez. Take her out.” Ibanez grasps the yoke, pulls back, and the ship begins to pull back from the docking station while still attached by two massive cables. Daladier and Barcalow keep silent but watch as the cables grow dangerously taut. At the last minute Ibanez flips a toggle switch on her panel from 0 to 1 and the cables release.

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There’s a lot of wrong in just this sequence. I mean, I get narratively what’s happening here: Check her out, she’s a badass maverick (we’re meant to think). But, come on…

  1. Where is the wisdom of letting a Pilot Trainee take the helm on her first time ever aboard a vessel? OK. Sorry. This is an interface blog. Ignore that one.
  2. The 1 and 0 symbols are International Electrotechnical Commission 60417 standards for on and off, respectively. How is the cable’s detachment caused by something turning on? If it was magnetic, shouldn’t you turn the magnetism off to release the cables?
  3. Why use the symbols for ON and OFF for an infrequent, specific task? Shouldn’t this be reserved for a kill switch or power to the station or something major? Or shouldn’t it bear a label reading “Power Cable Magnets” or something to make it more intelligible?
  4. Why is there no safety mechanism for this switch? A cover? A two-person rule? A timed activation? It’s fairly consequential. The countersink doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
  5. Where is the warning klaxon to alert everyone to this potentially disastrous situation?
  6. Why isn’t she dishonorably discharged the moment she started to maneuver the ship while it was still attached to the dock? Oh, shit. Sorry. Interfaces. Right. Interfaces.
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Little boxes on the interface

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After recklessly undocking we see Ibanez using an interface of…an indeterminate nature.

Through the front viewport Ibanez can see the cables and some small portion of the docking station. That’s not enough for her backup maneuver. To help her with that, she uses the display in front of her…or at least I think she does.

Undocking_stabilization

The display is a yellow wireframe box that moves “backwards” as the vessel moves backwards. It’s almost as if the screen displayed a giant wireframe airduct through which they moved. That might be useful for understanding the vessel’s movement when visual data is scarce, such as navigating in empty space with nothing but distant stars for reckoning. But here she has more than enough visual cues to understand the motion of the ship: If the massive space dock was not enough, there’s that giant moon thing just beyond. So I think understanding the vessel’s basic motion in space isn’t priority while undocking. More important is to help her understand the position of collision threats, and I cannot explain how this interface does that in any but the feeblest of ways.

If you watch the motion of the screen, it stays perfectly still even as you can see the vessel moving and turning. (In that animated gif I steadied the camera motion.) So What’s it describing? The ideal maneuver? Why doesn’t it show her a visual signal of how well she’s doing against that goal? (Video games have nailed this. The “driving line” in Gran Turismo 6 comes to mind.)

Gran Turismo driving line

If it’s not helping her avoid collisions, the high-contrast motion of the “airduct” is a great deal of visual distraction for very little payoff. That wouldn’t be interaction so much as a neurological distraction from the task at hand. So I even have to dispense with my usual New Criticism stance of accepting it as if it was perfect. Because if this was the intention of the interface, it would be encouraging disaster.

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The ship does have some environmental sensors, since when it is 5 meters from the “object,” i.e. the dock, a voiceover states this fact to everyone in the bridge. Note that it’s not panicked, even though that’s relatively like being a peach-skin away from a hull breach of bajillions of credits of damage. No, the voice just says it, like it was remarking about a penny it happened to see on the sidewalk. “Three meters from object,” is said with the same dispassion moments later, even though that’s a loss of 40% of the prior distance. “Clear” is spoken with the same dispassion, even though it should be saying, “Court Martial in process…” Even the tiny little rill of an “alarm” that plays under the scene sounds more like your sister hasn’t responded to her Radio Shack alarm clock in the next room rather than—as it should be—a throbbing alert.

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Since the interface does not help her, actively distracts her, and underplays the severity of the danger, is there any apology for this?

1. Better: A viewscreen

Starship Troopers happened before the popularization of augmented reality, so we can forgive the film for not adopting that technology, even though it might have been useful. AR might have been a lot for the film to explain to a 1997 audience. But the movie was made long after the popularization of the viewscreen forward display in Star Trek. Of course it’s embracing a unique aesthetic, but focusing on utility: Replace the glass in front of her with a similar viewscreen, and you can even virtually shift her view to the back of the Rodger Young. If she is distracted by the “feeling” of the thrusters, perhaps a second screen behind her will let her swivel around to pilot “backwards.” With this viewscreen she’s got some (virtual) visual information about collision threats coming her way. Plus, you could augment that view with precise proximity warnings, and yes, if you want, air duct animations showing the ideal path (similar to what they did in Alien).

2. VP

The viewscreen solution still puts some burden on her as a pilot to translate 2D information on the viewscreen to 3D reality. Sure, that’s often the job of a pilot, but can we make that part of the job easier? Note that Starship Troopers was also created after the popularization of volumetric projections in Star Wars, so that might have been a candidate, too, with some third person display nearby that showed her the 3D information in an augmented way that is fast and easy for her to interpret.

3. Autopilot or docking tug-drones

Yes, this scene is about her character, but if you were designing for the real world, this is a maneuver that an agentive interface can handle. Let the autopilot handle it, or adorable little “tug-boat” drones.

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Spinning Pizza Interface

As soon as the Rodger Young clears the dock, the interfaces before Ibanez and Barclow change to…well, this.

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I’m pretty good at apologetics, but what this is and how this does anything useful, I just…I’m at a loss. Is this supposed to be the active sweep of a radar dish? Some indication of the flywheel engine? Or the position of that spinning column on the bridge? How are any of these things worth distracting a pilot with a giant yellow spinning pizza?

Starnav

STARNAV

To travel to Jupiter, navigator Zander must engage the Star Drive, a faster than light travel mechanism. Sadly, we only see the output screens and not his input mechanism.

Captain Deladier tells Ibanez, "Steady as she goes, Number 2. Prepare for warp."
She dutifully replies, "Yes m’am."
Deladier turns to Barcalow and tells him, "Number 1, design for Jupiter orbit."

In response, he turns to his interface. We hear some soft bleeping as he does something off screen, and then we see his display. It’s a plan view of the Solar system with orbits of the planets described with blue circles. A slow-blink yellow legend at the top reads DESIGNATING INTRASYSTEM ORBITAL, with a purple highlight ring around Earth. As he accesses "STARNAV" (below) the display zooms slowly in to frame just Jupiter and Earth.

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STARNAV

As the zoom starts, a small box in the lower right hand corner displays a still image of Mars with a label LOCAL PRESET. In the lower left hand corner text reads STARNAV-0031 / ATLAS, MARS. After a moment these disappear replaced with STARNAV-3490 / ATLAS, NEPTUNE, STARNAV-149.58 / ATLAS URANUS, STARNAV-498.48 / ATLAS, SATURN, and finally STARNAV-4910.43 / ATLAS JUPITER. The Jupiter information blinks furiously for a bit confirming a selection just as the zoom completes, and DESIGNATING INTRASYSTEM ORBIT is replaced with the simpler legend COURSE. Jupiter has a yellow/orange ring focus in on it as part of the confirmation.

Some things that may be obvious, but ought to be said:

  1. How about "Destination" instead of "Local preset"? The latter is an implementation model. The former matches the navigator’s goals.
  2. Serial options are a waste here. Why force him to move through each one, read it to see if that’s the right one, and then move on? Wouldn’t an eight-part selection menu be much, much faster?
  3. The serial presentation is made worse in that the list is in some arbitrary order. It’s not alphabetical: MNUSJ? It’s not distance-order either. He starts at 4, he jumps to 8, 7, and 6 before reaching 5, which is Jupiter. Better for most default navigation purposes would be distance order. Sure, that would have meant only one stop between Earth and Jupiter. If you really needed more stops for the time, start at Mercury.
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  5. What are those numbers after "STARNAV-"? It’s not planet size, since Uranus and Neptune should be similar, as should Saturn and Jupiter. And it’s not distance, since Jupiter has the largest number but is not the fathest out. Of course it could be some arbitrary file number, but it’s really unclear why the navigator would need to know this when using the screen. If a number had to be there, perhaps a ranking like Sol-V Best would be to get rid of any information that didn’t help him with the microinteraction.
  6. How about showing the course when the system has determined the course?
  7. NUI would be better. When he looks at that first screen, he should be able to touch Jupiter or its orbit ring.
  8. Agentive would be best. For instance, if the system monitors the conversation on the bridge, when it heard "design for Jupiter," it could prepare that course, and let the navigator confirm it.

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Sneakily agentive?

Regular readers of my writing know that agentive tech is a favorite of mine, but in this case there is some clue that this is actually what happened. Note that the zoom to frame Earth and Jupiter happens at the same time as he’s selecting Jupiter. How did it know ahead of time that he wanted Jupiter? He hadn’t selected it yet. How did it know to go and frame these two planets? Should he select first and this zoom happen afterward? Did it actually listen to Deladier and start heading there anyway?

No.

It would be prescient if this throwaway interface was some secret agentive thing, but sadly, given that the rest of the interfaces in the film are ofttimes goofy, powered controls, it’s quite likely that the cause and effect were mashed together to save time.

STARNAV fuigetry

Though I can’t quite make sense of them (and they don’t change in the sequence), for the sake of completeness, I should list the tabs that fill the top and bottom of the screen, in case its meaning becomes clear later. Along the top they have green tab strokes, and read from left to right POS, ROLL, LINE, NOR, PIVOT, LAY. Tabs at the bottom have orange and purple strokes and read SCAN M, PLACE, ANALYZE, PREF, DIAG-1 on the first row. The second row reads SERIAL [fitting -Ed.], CHART, DECODE, OVER-M, and DIAG-2.

Stardrive

First off, let me apologize for the terrible flashing that is this next interface.

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After "designing a course to Jupiter" using STARNAV, Barcalow presses something that initiates the warp drive.

He speaks along with a broadcast voice to countdown, "Star drive in…5…4…ready…steady…GO!"

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The next screen shows a polar grid labeled GENERATING WARP FIELD. Circular rings shrink towards the center of the grid. Text along the right reads TACHYON CAPTURE, FIELD INGH DISTORT, GRAVITIC FEEDBACK, and ENERGY LEVELS. Bits of the fuidgitry from the STARNAV screens are occluded by a progress bar and a string of unchanging numbers: 0045 4535 7752 0659 2958 6456 6469 2934.

The first part of this display makes sense. It’s providing feedback to the navigator that it’s progressing in a task, i.e. generating the warp field. The animated circles provide some glanceable confirmation that things are progressing smoothly, and the implied concentration of power in a single point tells that whatever it’s building to, it’s gonna be big. Of course we can probably do without the numbers and tabs since they don’t change and it’s not really a touch screen. It would also be good to monitor whatever metrics we should be watching to know if things are safe or trending dangerously, maybe with sparklines, like a medical monitoring interface. Perhaps though that’s the sort of screen better suited to engineering. After all, Barcalow and Ibanez are just navigating and piloting here, respectively.

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Then the progress bar suddenly turns purple, then the whole purple grid flashes multiple colors as we hear rapid electronic beeping (amongst a swell of extra-diegetic orchestra brass). Finally, a white circle grows from the center outward to fill the screen as the ship passes into Star Drive.

At first the white screen might seem like a waste, since this is when the navigator’s job really begins, as they go careening through space hurtling towards potentially life-threatening obstacles. But that white background can provide a clear background for a radar view (or Starship Trooper equivalent), a canvas for him to scan for any threats that radar are picking up beyond the field of vision afforded by the viewport. So the "wasted" space isn’t a problem at all.

The flashes are a bit of a problem. What’s it doing that for? Is it trying to put them into an epileptic seizure just before engaging in potentially deadly activity? Or is a seizure the only way to survive the perils of Stardrive? It’s unclear and dubious that there’s any good reason. Interaction designers are rarely in the business of putting users into a grand mal.

The color and values are also problematic. Why the candy colors? Does the orange flash mean something different than the purple flash? Even if you got rid of all the circus themed colors, there’s still a blinding amount of white on the screen once warp is engaged. That canvas would work a lot better as a black background with white blips to avoid eye fatigue, especially over long spans of time.

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Plotting Course

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While on “third watch” on the bridge, Barcalow brings Ibanez a cup of coffee and they hang out a bit. Looking at the screen, he notes that “something’s wrong.” He reaches down and presses a button, and a screen appears with the label PLOTTING COURSE. A small yellow circle zeroes in on their spot in space, labeled in green as CURRENT POSITION (with “galactic” XYZ coordinates listed beneath). Then a yellow circle zeroes in on their destination, labeled in blue as TARGET DESTINATION. (With fuigetry from her earlier interfaces lining the top and bottom.) Each dot becomes two squares that slide into place on a side-by-side comparison screen with an efficiency analysis below.

Ibanez explains that she replotted the course, it being “more efficient this way.” To check it he walks to a different computer, which we’ll discuss in the next post. Even though this little interaction takes place over a few seconds, already there are things that need to be discussed before we move on.

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Why wasn’t he notified?

Barcalow only finds out about the change to the course by coming to the bridge and observing something on a screen there. Any system that knows its user (and recall that Ibanez had to log in to her station) should know and respect the authority chain of its users. With only three weeks of experience at the helm, it seems more likely that Ibanez should have had to submit a plan for consideration rather than being able to just grabbing the wheel while everyone else is asleep. Seems like a hijacking waiting to happen. More sensibly, Barcalow should have come onto the bridge with the coffee saying, “I saw you submitted a new course. That’s a pretty bold move, ensign. Want to show it to me over a cup of this here space jo?” Then we’d get the idea that there’s an actual chain of authority in this military.

Even if Ibanez has the authority to alter the course without approval, her superior officer (at least) should be notified of the change immediately, so he could be aware and check up on it if he needed to.

Why is this information on a tiny screen?

Everyone on the bridge should be aware of the same basic bits of information. It’s one of the main reasons you get people clustered together in a bridge or a mission control center in the first place. Shouldn’t this be some of that basic information? If so, why is it only appearing on a tiny screen that Barcalow happens to glance at because he’s trying to woo Ibanez? Do they always have to hire womanizing superior officers? Better is a shared information source like Star Trek’s viewscreens where some glanceable mission information—like progress against course—can be seen by everyone.

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Cartesian coordinate system

I do want to credit the interface designer for including 3D coordinates. Sci-fi can fall into the trap of treating spaceships as if they were seagoing vessels floating on a 2 dimensional surface like the sea. Props for acknowledging that the ship is moving through three dimensions. And Cartesian coordinates are nice in that anyone who has completed remedial geometry will be familiar with Descartes’ coordinate system. (Though I doubt that Cartesian Coordinates would be the actal system being used in space. It’s much more likely to be something like the International Celestial Reference System or even sweet-looking Keplerian graphs.) But narratively, showing 3D coordinates is a step in the right direction. But we can do René one better for both the audience and the navigators.

Show don’t tell

Other interfaces on the bridge already showed us that the system is capable of displaying 3D information. On this screen, it would be better to show the plotted course and the point at which the ship is along it.

Of course space travel is likely to be incredibly boring with long stretches of straight-line travel through vast swaths of emptiness. But this is sci-fi, so let’s presume that its path includes gravity assist fly-bys of stars. That gives the display useful markers for orientation and something for Barcalow to look at to realize how the course has changed. Then when he needs to compare, he presses the left arrow key and can see the old path overlaid in a new color in the display, letting him (and us the audience) see the change in course rather than be told about it. Numbers can overlay this display to provide exact details, but it would augment the immediate understanding offered by the 3D.

Course optimal, the Stoic Guru, and the Active Academy

After Ibanez explains that the new course she plotted for the Rodger Young (without oversight, explicit approval, or notification to superiors) is “more efficient this way,” Barcalow walks to the navigator’s chair, presses a few buttons, and the computer responds with a blinking-red Big Text Label reading “COURSE OPTIMAL” and a spinning graphic of two intersecting grids.

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Yep, that’s enough for a screed, one addressed first to sci-fi writers.

A plea to sci-fi screenwriters: Change your mental model

Think about this for a minute. In the Starship Troopers universe, Barcalow can press a button to ask the computer to run some function to determine if a course is good (I’ll discuss “good” vs. “optimal” below). But if it could do that, why would it wait for the navigator to ask it after each and every possible course? Computers are built for this kind of repetition. It should not wait to be asked. It should just do it. This interaction raises the difference between two mental models of interacting with a computer: the Stoic Guru and the Active Academy.

A-writer Continue reading

Course Optimal (for IXD)

In the prior post, I spoke about how the COURSE OPTIMAL betrays the writer of Starship Trooper’s mental model of technology as a “stoic guru” and implored writers to shift that model to one of an “active academy.” It’s a good post (if I do say so myself). Check it out if you haven’t yet.

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But this blog is ostensibly for interaction design (also a thinly veiled rèsumè for my wealthtastic and fameulous future career consulting for sci-fi movies). What do the stoic guru and active academy metaphors do for us?

Is it only for strategists?

To change a writer’s metaphor is to encourage them to conceive of technology differently at a strategic level. That is, what strategic role does the technology play in its users’ lives? If you as an interaction designer have the luxury of consulting on projects at a strategic level, then this metaphor is as powerful for you as it is for the writer. Are you writing scenarios where your personas query technology? Or is the technology getting to know its user and then doing work for them? (Don’t worry, there’s plenty for interaction designers to still do.)

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In-house designers—are often inheriting projects where the strategy was done by someone else, a fait accompli. What if you weren’t asked about the strategic implications of the design task at hand (but you’re still thinking of them?) Here I must encourage some upstartness, some whippersnappery piss n’ vinegar. I used to work with a smaller interaction design consultancy in my day job, and even then we never let a design brief get in the way of a great idea. That is, we will solve the problem as the client frames it first, and then deliver a But Wait, There’s More second idea for consideration if not for this project, then for a later project. Even if it can’t be acted on in the moment, it can plant a seed that germinates later.

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So don’t fret if it’s not your job. Make it part of your job to send these ideas up the chain, and more than likely it will eventually become your job. Sure, design the thing, but then design thing you want to design.

Gravitic distortion

As Ibanez and Barcalow are juuuuuust about to start a slurpy on-duty make out session, their attention is drawn by the coffee mug whose content is listing in the glass.

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Ibanez explains helpfully, “There’s a gravity field out there.” Barcalow orders her to “Run a scan!” She turns to a screen and does something to run the scan, and Barcalow confirms that “Sensors [are] on” As she watches an amber-colored graticule distort as if weighed down by an increasingly heavy ball while a Big Purple Text Label blinks GRAVITIC DISTORTION. Two numbers increment speedily at the bottom-right edge of the screen and modulus at 1000. “There,” she says.

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So many plot questions

  • What kind of coffee cups can withstand enough gravity to tip the contents 45 degrees but remain themselves perfectly still and upright?
  • Why did they need the coffee cup? Wouldn’t their inner ear have told them the same thing faster?
  • Why is the screen in the background of the coffee cup still blinking OPTIMAL COURSE?

Of course we have to put these aside in favor of the interaction design questions.

First the “workflow”

Why on earth would they need to turn on sensors? Aren’t the sensors only useful when they’re sensing? If you have a sense that something is wrong, turning on the sensors only confirms what you already know. This is still more of that pesky stoic guru metaphor. This should have been an active academy that warned them—loudly—the moment nearby gravity started looking weird.

The visualization is not bad…

Let’s pause the criticism for one moment to give credit where credit is due. The grid vortex is a fast and reliable way to illustrate the invisible problem that they’re facing and telegraph increasing danger. Warped graticules have been a staple of depicting spacetime curvature since Disney’s 1979 movie The Black Hole.

The gravity well as depicted in The Black Hole (1979).

The gravity well as depicted in The Black Hole (1979).

This is also the same technique that scientists use to depict the same phenomenon, so it’s got some street cred, too.

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The same thing can be shown in 3D, but it’s visually noisier. Moreover, the 2D version builds on our sense of basic physics, as we can easily imagine what would happen to anything nearing the depression. So, it’s mostly the right display.

…But then, the interaction

Despite the immediacy of the display, there’s a major problem. Sure, this interface conveys impending doom, but it doesn’t convey any useful information to help them know where the threat is coming from or what to do about it after they know that doom impends. (Plus, they had to turn it on, and all it tells them is, “Yep, looks pretty bad out there.”) To design this right, they need a sense of the 3D vector of the threat as compared to their own vector, and what the best available options are.

Better: Augmented reality to telegraph the invisible threat

Fortunately, we already have the medium and channel for Ibanez and Barcalow to immediately understand the 3D direction of the threat in the real world and most importantly, in relation to the ship’s trajectory and orientation, since that’s the tool they have on hand to avoid the threat. We’ve already seen that volumetric projection is a thing in this world, so the ship should display the VP just outside the ship’s viewports. The animation can illustrate the threat coming from the outside on the outside, and fade once the threat gets to be in a range of visible light. In this way there’s no 2D to 3D interpretation. It’s direct. Where’s the unexpected gravitic distortion? Look out the window. There. There is the the unexpected gravitic distortion. The HUD display would need to be aimed at the navigator’s seat, but for very distant objects, e.g. out of visible light range, the parallax shift wouldn’t be problematic for other locations on the bridge. You’d also have to manage the scenario where the threat comes from a direction not out the window (like, say, through the floor) but you can just shift the VP interior for that.

Including a screen comp by Deviant artist scrollsofaryavart.

Including a screen comp by Deviant artist scrollsofaryavart.

Next, you could use VP inside the ship to show the two paths and point of collision, as well as best predicted paths (there’s that useful active academy metaphor again.) Then we can let Ibanez trust her own instincts as she presses the manual override to steer the ship clear. I don’t have the time to comp an internal VP up right now, so I’ll rely on your imagination to comp this particular part of a much better solution than what we see on screen.