Spinners (flying cars)

So the first Fritzes are now a thing. Before I went off on that awesome tangent, where were we? Oh that’s right. I was reviewing Blade Runner as part of a series on AI in sci-fi. I was just about to get to Spinners. Now vehicles are complicated things as they are, much less when they are navigating proper 3D space. Additionally, the police force is, ostensibly, a public service, which complicates things even further. So this will get lengthy. Still, I think I can get this down to eight or so subtopics.

In the distant future of 2019, flying cars, called “spinners,” are a reality. They’re largely for the wealthy and powerful (including law enforcement). The main protagonist, Deckard, is only ever a passenger in a few over the course of the film. His partner Gaff flies one, though, so we have enough usage to review.

Opening the skies to automobile-like traffic poses challenges, especially when those skies are as full of lightning bolts, ever-present massive flares, distracting building-sized video advertisements, and of course, other spinners.

Piloting controls

To pilot the spinner, Gaff keeps his hands on each handle of a split yoke. Within easy reach of his fingers are a few unlabeled buttons and small lights. Once we see him reach with his right thumb to press one of the buttons, but we don’t see any result, so it’s not clear what these buttons do. It’s nice that they don’t require him to take his hands off the controls. (This might seem like a prescient concept, but WP tells me the first non-horn wheel-mounted controls date back as far back as 1966.)

It is contextualizing to note the mode of agency here. That is, the controls are manual, with no AI offering assistance or acting as an agent. (The AI is in the passenger’s seat, lol fight me.) It appears to be up to Gaff to observe conditions, monitor displays, perform wayfinding, and keep the spinner on track.

Note that we never see what his feet are doing and never see him doing other things with his hands other than putting on a headset before lift-off. There are lots of other controls to the pilot’s left and in the console between seats, but we never see them in use. So, you know, approach with caution. There are a lot of unknowns here.

The Traditional Chinese characters on the window read “No entry,” for citizens outside the spinner, passing by when it is on the ground. (Hat tips for the translation to Mischa Park-Doob and Frank Chung.)

The spinner is more like a VTOL aircraft or helicopter than a spaceship. That is, it is constantly in the presence of planetary gravity and must overcome the constant resistance of air. So the standards I established in the piloting controls post are of only limited use to us here.

So let’s look at how helicopter controls work. The FAA Helicopter Flying Handbook tells us that a pilot has controls for…

  1. The vertical velocity, up or down. (Controlled by the angle of the control stick called the collective. The collective is to the left of the pilot’s hip when they are seated.)
  2. The thrust. (Controlled by the twistgrip on the collective.)
  3. Movement forward, rearward, left, and right. (Controlled with the stick in front of the pilot, called the cyclic.)
  4. Yaw of the vehicle. (Controlled with the pair of antitorque pedals at the pilot’s feet.)

Since we don’t see Gaff when the spinner is moving up and down, let’s presume that the thing he’s gripping is like a Y-shaped cyclic, with lots of little additional controls around the handles. Then, if we presume he has a collective somewhere out of sight to his left and antitorque pedals at his feet, this interface meets modern helicopter standards for control. From the outside, those appear to be well mapped (collective up = helicopter up, cyclic right = helicopter right). Twist for thrust is a little weird, but it’s a standard and certainly learnable, as I recall from my motorcycling days. So let’s say it’s complete and convincing. Is it the best it could be? I’m not enough of an aeronautical engineer (read: not at all) to imagine better options, so let’s move along. I might have more to say if it was agentive.

Dashboard

There are two large screens in the dashboard. The one directly in front of Gaff shows a stylized depiction of the 3D surfaces around him as cyan highlights on a navy blue background. Approaching red shapes describe a pill-shaped tunnel-in-the-sky display. These have been tested since 1981 and found to provide higher tracking performance to ideal paths in manual flight, lower cognitive workload, and enhanced situational awareness. (https://arc.aiaa.org/doi/abs/10.2514/3.56119) So, this is believable and well done. I’m not sure that Gaff could readily use the 3D background to effectively understand the 3D terrain, but it is tertiary, after the real world and the tunnel display.

I have to say that it’s a frustrating anti-trope to run into again, but it must be said: If the spinner knows where the ship should be, and general artificial intelligence exists in this diegesis, why exactly are humans doing the piloting? Shouldn’t the spinner fly itself? But back to the interfaces…

Above the tunnel-in-the-sky display is a cyan 7-segment LED scroll display. In the gif above it displays “MAXIMUM SPEED” and later it provides some wayfinding text. I’m not sure how many different types of information it is meant to cycle through, but it sure would be a pain to wait for vital information to appear, and distracting to have to control it to get to the one you wanted.

There is also a vertical screen in the middle of the console listing cyan labels ALT, VEL, and PTCH. These match to altitude, velocity, and pitch variables, reinforcing the helicopter model. The yellow numbers below these labels change in the scene very slowly, and—remarkably for a four-second interface from 1982—do not appear to change randomly. That’s awesome.

But then, there’s a paragraph of cyan text in the middle of the screen that appears over the course of the scene, letter by letter. This animation calls unnecessary attention to itself. There are also smaller, thin screens in the pilot’s door that also continually scroll that same teeny tiny cyan text. I’m not sure WTF all this text is supposed to be, since it would be horribly distracting to a pilot. There are also a few rows of white LEDs with cylon-eye displays traveling back and forth. They are distracting, but at least they’re regular, and might be habituate-able and act as some sort of ambient display. Anyway, if we were building this thing for real, we’d want to eliminate these.

Lastly, at the bottom of the center screen are some unlabeled bar charts depicting some variables that appear to be wiggling randomly. So, like, only the top fifth of this screen can be lauded. The rest is fuigetry. *sigh* It’s hard to escape.

Wayfinding

To help navigate the 3D space, pilots have a number of tools. First, there are windows where you expect windows to be in a car, and there are also glass panels under their feet. The movie doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but it’s clear in the scene where the spinner lifts off from the street level. These transparent panes surround pilots and passengers and allow them to track visual cues for landmarks and to identify collision threats.

It’s reflecting some neon on the street below.

The tunnel-in-the-sky display above is the most obvious wayfinding tool. Somehow Gaff has entered a destination, and the tunnel guides him where it needs to go. Since this entails a safe path through the air, it’s the most important display. Other bits of information (like the ALT, VEL, and PTCH in the center screen) should be oriented around it. This would make them glanceable, allowing Gaff glance to check them and quickly return his eyes to the windshield. In fact, we have to admit that a heads up display would allow Gaff to keep his attention where it needs to be rather than splitting it between the real world and these dashboard displays. Modern vehicle drivers are used to this split attention, and can manage it well enough. But I suspect that a HUD would be better.

It’s also at this point that you begin to wonder if these are the scout ships we see in Close Encounters.

There is also that crawling LED display above the tunnel-in-the-sky screen. In one scene it shows “SECTOR FOUR (4)…QUAD-” (we don’t get to see the end of this phrase) but it implies that one of the bits of information this scroll provides is a reminder of the name of the neighborhood you’re currently in. That really only helps if you’re way off course, and seems too low a fidelity for actual wayfinding assistance, but presuming the tunnel-in-the-sky is helping provide the rest of the wayfinding, this information is of secondary importance.

A special note about takeoff: ENVIRON CTR

The display sequence infamous for appearing in both Alien and Blade Runner happens as Gaff lifts off in a spinner early in the film. White all-cap letters label this blue screen “ENVIRON CTR,” above a grid of square characters. Then two 8-digit sequences “drop” down the center of the square grid: 92886599 | 95654085. Once they drop 3 rows, the background turns red, the grid disappears to be replaced by a big blinking label PURGE. Characters at the bottom read “24556 DR 5”, and don’t change.

After the spinner lifts off the display shows a complex diagram of a circle-within-a-circle, illustrating the increasing elevation from the ground below. The delightful worldbuilding thing about the sequence is that it is inscrutable, and legible only by a trained driver, yet gets full focus on screen. There’s not really enough information about the speculative engineering or functional constraints of the spinner to say why these screens would be necessary or useful. I have a suspicion that a live camera view would be more useful than the circle-within-a-circle view, but gosh, it sure is cool. Here’s the shot from Alien, by the way, for easy comparison.

Since people seem to be all over this one now, let me also interject that Alien is also connected to Firefly, since Mal’s anti-aircraft HUD in the pilot had a Weyland-Yutani logo. Chew on that trivia, Internet.

Intercar communication

Of special note is a scene just before his call to Sebastian’s apartment. Deckard is sitting in his parked vehicle in a call with Bryant. A police spinner glides by and we hear an announcement over his loudspeaker, directed to Deckard’s vehicle saying, “This sector’s closed to ground traffic. What are you doing here?” From inside his vehicle, Deckard looks towards his video phone in the console (we never see if there is video, but he’s looking in that direction rather than out the window) and without touching a thing, responds defensively, “I’m working. What are you doing?” The policeman’s reply comes through the videophone’s speakers, “Arresting you, that’s what I’m doing.”

Note that Deckard did not have to answer the call or even put Bryant on hold. We don’t know what the police officer did on their end, but this interaction implies that the police can make an instant, intrusive audio connection with vehicles it finds suspicious. It’s so seamless it will slip by you if you don’t know to look for it, but it paints quite a picture of intercar communication. Can you imagine if our cars automatically shared an audio space with the cars around it?

External interfaces

Another aspect of the car is that it is an interface not just for the people using the car, but for the citizens observing or near the spinner as it goes about its business. There are a number of features that helps it act as an interface to the public. 

Police exist as a social service, and the 995 repeated around the outside helps remind citizens of the number they can call in case of an emergency. 

Modern patrol cars have beacons and sirens to tell other drivers to get out of the way when they are on urgent business. Police spinners are gravid with beacons, having 12 of them visible from the front alone. (See below.) As the spinner is taking off, yellow and blue beacons circle as a warning. This would be of no help to a blind person nearby, but the vehicle does make some incidental noise that serves as an audible warning.

The rich light strip makes sense because it has such a greater range of movement than ground-based cars, and needs more attention grabbing power. Another nice touch is that, since the spinner can be above people, there are also beacons on the chassis.

Upshot: Spinners do well

So, all in all, the spinner fares quite well on close inspection. It builds on known models of piloting, shows mostly-relevant data, uses known best practices for assistance, and has a lot of well-considered surface features for citizens.

Now if only I could figure out why they’re called spinners.

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Flight Recorder

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

Fhloston evacuation

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When Fhloston Paradise’s bomb alarms finally go off (a full 15:06 after Zorg’s bomb actually starts. WTH, Fhloston?) four shipwide systems help evacuate the ship.

First, a klaxon is heard on a public address system across the ship. A recorded female voice calmly announces that…

This is a type A alert. For security reasons the hotel must be evacuated. Please proceed calmly to the lifeboats located in the main hallways.

This voice continues to speak a warning countdown, repeating the remaining time every minute, and then when there’s less than a minute at 15 second intervals, and each of the last 10 seconds.

Second, in the main hallway, small, rows of red beacon lights emerge out of the floor and begin flashing and blinking. They repeatedly flash in order to point the direction of the lifeboats.

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Third, in the main hallway large arrows on the floor and “LIFEBOAT” lettering illuminate green to point travelers towards ingress points for individual lifeboats.

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Fourth, the lifeboats themselves eject from the ship to get the passengers far from danger.

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Awesome

  • The voice warning is a trope, but a trope for a reason. For visually impaired guests and people whose attention is focused on, you know, escape, the audio will still help them keep tabs on the time they have left.
  • The racing lights provide a nice directionality (a similar interface would have helped Prometheus).
  • The arrows and beacons require no language skills to comprehend.

Awful

  • The voice warning and the “LIFEBOAT” signs do require language to comprehend. They couldn’t have used Running Man?
  • You know when’s a crappy time to add trip hazards to the floor? When a herd of panicked humans are going to be running over it. Seriously. There is no excuse for this.
  • The beacons and the arrows should be the same color. Green is the ISO standard for exit, so while we’re moving the beacon lights to the ceiling where they belong, we can swap them out for some #33cc00 beacons.
  • The green arrows at first seem badly placed as it’s difficult to see when there’s a crowd of people, but then you realize that when the room is empty, people will see and follow them. People in a crowd will just follow whatever direction the horde is currently going, and seeing the arrows is unnecessary. But in a light crowd, people will get a glimpse of the arrow and become stressed out over an occluded, potentially life-saving signal or worse, get trampled to death trying to stop and read it to make sure everyone is going the right way, so ultimately awful. Put that up on the ceiling or high on the walls, too. Because people genuinely panic.

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