As soon as the Rodger Young clears the dock, the interfaces before Ibanez and Barclow change to…well, this.
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?
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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…
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.
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?
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?
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.
Where is the warning klaxon to alert everyone to this potentially disastrous situation?
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.
As far as Carmen is concerned, the shuttle is small fries. Her real interest is in piloting a big ship, like the Rodger Young.
On her first time at the helm as Pilot Trainee, she enters the bridge, reports for duty, and takes the number 2 chair. As she does, she reaches out to one of two panels and flips two green toggle switches simultaneously down, and immediately says, “Identify.”
In response her display screen (a cathode ray tube, guys, complete with bowed-glass surface!)—which had been reading STATION STANDBY in alternating red and yellow capitals—very quickly flashes the legend VOICE IDENTITY CONFIRMED in white letters before displaying a waveform with the label ANALYZING VOICEPRINT, ostensibly of her voice input. Then, having confirmed her identiy, it displays her IDENTIFICATION RECORD, including her name, portrait, mission status, current assignment, and a shouty all-caps red-letter welcome message at the bottom: WELCOME ABOARD ENSIGN. There are tables of tubles along the bottom and top of these screens but they’re unreadable in my copy.
She then reaches to the panel of physical controls again, and flips a red toggle switch before pressing two out of a 4×4 grid of yellow-orange momentary buttons. She sits back in her seat, and turns to see the ridiculously-quaffed Zander in the adjacent chair. Plot ensues.
Some challenges with this setup.
It looks like those vertical panels of unlabeled switches and buttons are all she’s got for input. Not the most ergonomic, if she’s expected to be entering data for any length of time or under any duress.
Having the display in front of her makes a great deal of sense, since most of the things she’s dealing with as either a pilot or navigator are not just out the front viewport.
The workflow for authentication is a little strange, and mismatched for the screens we see.
A toggle switch might make sense if it’s meaning was “I am present.” But we can imagine lots of other ways the system might sense that she is present passively, and not require her to flip the switch manually.
Why would it analyze the voiceprint after the voice identity was confirmed? It would have made more sense to have the first screen prompt her to provide a voice print, like “Provide voiceprint” with some visual confirmation that it’s currently recording and sensitive to her voice. Then when she finishes speaking the sample, then the next can say Analyzing voiceprint with the recorded waveform, and the final screen can read Voice identity confirmed, before moving on. I can’t readily apologize for the way it’s structured now. Fortunately it zips by so that most folks will just get it.
That waveform, by the way, is not for the word “identify.”. I opened the screen cap, isolated the “waveform”, tweaked it in Photoshop for levels, and expanded it.
I ran this image through the demo of a program called PhotoSounder. What played from my speakers was more like astronomy recordings than a voice. Admittedly, it’s audio interpreted from a very low-rez version of the waveform, but seriously, more data is not going to help resolve that audio spookiness into human language.
Props to the interface designers for NOT showing the waveform of sounds in the Rodger Young’s database. It would be explanatory, of course, to immediately see the freshly recorded one being compared against the one in the database. But it would not be very secure. A malefactor would just be able to screen cap or photograph the database version, interpret the waveform like I did for the sound above, and play it back for the system for a perfect match.
Additional props to whoever specced the password button presses after the login. She might be setting a view she wants to see, but I prefer it to mean the system is using multifactor authentication. She’s providing a password. Sure, it’s a weak one—2 hexadecimal characters—but it’s better than nothing, and would even help with the hacking I described in the above section.
The welcome message
Finally, the welcome message feels a little out of place. Is this the only place she encounters the computer system? The literal sense of “welcome aboard” is to welcome someone aboard, which would be most appropriate only when they, you know, come aboard, which surely was some time ago. Carmen at least had to drop her stuff off in quarters. It’s also used by individuals who have been aboard welcoming newcomers the first time they greet them. But that anthropomorphizes this interface, which through this interaction and the several we’ll see next, would be dangerously overpromising.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.