Colonial One

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Colonial One is a luxury passenger liner in commercial service until the war with the Cylons breaks out.  The captain and co-pilot are not military pilots, and most passengers are dignitaries or VIPs visiting the Galactica for the unveiling of it as a museum.

Compared to military cockpits and the CIC aboard the Galactica, Colonial One’s cockpit has simple controls and an unsophisticated space-borne sensor system.  Also unlike the Galactica or the Raptors, no one on Colonial One calls their space-borne sensor system the “Dradis”.  At the center of each control console is a large gimbal-based horizon indicator.

image07The sensors show a simple 2-d representation of local space, with nearby contacts indicated as white dots.  There is no differentiation between ‘enemy’ and ‘friendly’ contacts.  Likewise, the image of a Cylon missile (shown above) is the same indicator as other ships.  There is no clear explanation of what the small white dots on the background of the image are, or what the lines indicate.

When the Cylon fighters show up, the crew has some unknown way besides this screen of knowing the Cylons have just jumped into contact range, and that they have launched missiles at Colonial One.  How the crew determines this isn’t shown, but both the crew and Apollo are confident that the assessment is correct.

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When Laura Rosilyn tells the crew to send a message on a specific frequency before the missile attack, the crew uses the same keypad to send alpha-numeric signals over a radio/faster-than-light (FTL) link as to enter information into their flight computers.  The FTL link appears to connect every planet in the Colonies together in real time: we don’t get any sense of delay between the attacks happening and the entire civilization reacting to it in real time.

The largest usability concern here is Mode Switching, and making it clear whether the crew is entering information into the ship or into the radio.  Given that we see the crew interact most with the ship itself, the following procedure would make the most sense:

  1. Entering information into the ship is the primary ‘mode’
  2. An explicit command to switch over to the radio link.
  3. Crew enters the given information into the link
  4. On ‘enter’, the interface flips back over to entering information into the ship.

With a larger budget, the Dradis is a better system (at least with the improvements installed)

Other Systems

A large amount of space inside the cockpit is given over to communication controls and a receiver station.  At the receiver station, Colonial One has a small printer attached to an automatic collector that prints off broadcast messages.  The function and placement of the printer appears similar to weather printers on modern passenger jets.

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The cockpit is very utilitarian, and the controls look well used.  These are robust systems and look like they have been in place for a while.  Despite the luxury associated with the passenger compartment, the crew have been granted no special luxuries or obvious assisting equipment to make their job more comfortable.

If we look at a current (or, up until very recently current) pattern: the Space Shuttle has a very similar layout.  It is intended to also enter the atmosphere, which Colonial One is shown with the equipment to do, and maintains a 2.5D movement concept.  Given that it’s a commercial ship with direct paths to follow, Colonial One does not need the complicated controls – that are shown to be very difficult to master – that are present on ships like the Viper.

Overall, a solid pattern

In-universe, this ship was not designed for combat, and is woefully unprepared for it when it arrives.  The sensor system and the controls appear specialized for the job of ferrying high-paying customers from one planet to another through friendly space.  Other ships also have the same level of manual controls and physical switches in the cockpit, though it is impossible to tell whether this is because Colonial One was built in the same era as the Galactica, or whether the builders wanted extra reliability in the controls than ‘modern’ electronics provided.

As long as the pilots are as well trained as current-day commercial pilots, the banks of controls would provide solid spatial grouping and muscle memory.  There might be some room to shrink the number of controls or group them better, but we lack the context to dig into that particular issue.

One minor fix would be the possibility of mode errors for the keypad.  It is not obvious when the crew changes from “I want to enter information into Colonial One to change operating parameters” and “I want to send a message to someone else”.  A clear way to indicate that the keyboard is sending information to the ship, compared to sending information to the radio system, would clear up the possibility of a mode-switch error.  Common options could be:

  • A large switch close by that changed the color of the lights
  • A bi-directional light with labels on which mode it’s in
  • or distinct separation between the Pilot’s keyboard and the Co-pilot’s keyboard

Of the three, a clear distinction between pilot’s keyboard and co-pilot’s keyboard would be the most secure; provided that there was a switch in case of emergency.

The Colonial One copies many interface patterns from modern airliners.  Since the airline industry has one of the best and most sophisticated UI design in practice right now, there are very few obvious recommendations to make, and credit should be given for how realistic it looks.

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FTL – Activation

The Battlestar Galactica has at least two Faster-than-Light engines (which might be easier to think of as teleportation engines), activated during a complex sequence. The sequence involves:

  1. An explicit, direct command from Commander Adama
  2. Complex calculations on dedicated computers
  3. Double-checking by a large portion of the CIC staff
  4. and finally, a dedicated key and button to initiate the actual jump

Making an FTL jump is not a standard procedure for the Galactica, and it is implied that it has been decades since the ship carried out an actual jump.  This is because of the danger in landing off-course, the difficulty in the calculations, and wear on what is likely a very expensive component.  We see that many civilian ships do not have FTL capability.

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The FTL engine allows the Galactica to instantly travel between one point in the star system, and another point in the star system.  Dense books of pre-made calculations are kept in the Galactica’s CIC to enter into the ship’s FTL computers.

Multiple teams each begin separate calculations, using the Galactica’s FTL computers as giant calculators for their hand-written/typed equations.  The teams then cross-check their answers against each other, using a senior officer (in this case, Lt. Gaeta) as the final confirmation.

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Once all teams agree on an FTL jump coordinate, the information is plugged into a separate system to “spool up” the FTL drive.

Lt. Gaeta then pulls out a special key that fits into a dedicated slot in the FTL system in the CIC.  The key has two cylindrical pins that each glow a distinct blue, and are each different lengths.  The handle of the key has a matching shape on the console as well, so that the key can only fit in one way.

Once the key is inserted, Lt. Gaeta turns the key and announces that the FTL drive is active.  Commander Adama then gives the order to jump, and Lt. Gaeta pushes a separate button (which has until now been inactive) that jumps the Galactica to the coordinates entered.

After the Galactica finishes its FTL Jump, Commander Adama asks for confirmation that they have arrived successfully at their destination.  Lt. Gaeta runs across the CIC to a navigation console and checks the screen there for the ship’s location.  From the information on that screen, Lt. Gaeta confirms that the Galactica has re-entered real space at exactly the place they were intended to be. (Or might report an error, but we never see this.)

The entire CIC lets out a breath of relief and begins clapping in celebration.  Lt. Gaeta congratulates his navigation team for their work, and the CIC slowly resumes their task of running the ship.  The CIC crew is clearly unnerved by the jump, and everyone is thankful when they arrive safely at their destination.

The Current Position Screen

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This is the screen that Lt. Gaeta uses to confirm that they have successfully landed at their current target: geosynchronous orbit above their target body of mass.  He does not visibly use any of the controls on the console.  The screen autonomously zooms in on the ‘X’ marker, then displays a large, red, blinking triangle with “BSG 75” written above it (The Battlestar Galactica’s registry code).  The red ‘X’ is written inside a large sphere, which appears to be the object the Galactica was attempting to jump to.

All of the lines on this graph describe arcs, and appear to be orbital paths.  The Galactica is marked as being directly on one of these arcs.  Dotted arcs connect many other objects on the screen to each other.  These have no clear purpose or legend.

At the bottom center of the screen are the words “Waypoint Time”, “Waypoint Distance”, and “T.O.T.”  Above those words is a small label: “Synthetic Gravity Field 74.56”.  To the left of those words is an area of data that has been boxed off with the label “Optic Nav System Control.”

More text to the top left lists out information in a table format, but is unreadable to the viewer due to the resolution of the screens in the CIC.  The two rows of data beside the labels do not have column headers or unit indicators.

Bridge VP: Hello

The main interface on the bridge is the volumetric projection display. This device takes up the center of the bridge and is the size of a long billiards table. It serves multiple purposes for the crew. The first is to display the “Golden Record” message.

Hello, Deadly World

Prometheus broadcasts a message to LV223 in advance of its arrival that appears to be something like the Voyager Golden Record recording. David checks on this message frequently in transit to see if there is a response. To do so he stands in a semi-circular recess and turns a knob on the waist-high control panel there counter clockwise. It’s reasonable that the potentiometer controls the volume of the display, though we don’t see this explicitly.

The computer responds to being turned on by voice, wishing him “good morning” by name, confirming that it is still transmitting the message (reinforced by a Big Label in the content itself), and informing David that there has been “NO RESPONSE LOGGED.”

The content of the display is lovely. Lines of glowing yellow scaffolding define a cube, roughly a meter on a side. Within is a cacophony of anthropological, encyclopedic information as video and images, including…

  • Masterworks of art such as Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo (better known as the Mona Lisa).
  • Portrait of Abraham Lincoln
  • Chemical structures (I could not identify the exact chemicals)
  • Portrait of a young Beethoven
  • The periodic table of elements
  • Mathematical equations
  • A language frequency chart
  • The language-learning A.I. seen elsewhere in the film
  • Musical notation
  • Sonograms of fetuses in utero
  • Video of tribal makeup
  • Video of Noh theater in Japan
  • Video of a young prodigy playing violin in a field

These squares of translucent information are dispersed within the cube semi-randomly. Some display on a sagittal plane. Some on a coronal plane. (None on a transverse plane.) Though to an observer they are greatly overlapped, they do not seem to intersect. Some of these squares remain in place but most slide around along a y- or x-axis, a few even changing direction, in semi-random paths. Two are seen to rotate around their y-axis, and the periodic table is seen to divide into layered columns.

This display quickly imparts to the audience that the broadcast message is complex and rich, telling the vicious, vicious aliens all they need to know about humans prior to their potential contact. But looking at it from a real-world perspective, the shifting information only provides a sense of the things described, which could really work only if you already happened to have existing knowledge of the fundamentals, which the unknown aliens certainly do not have. A better way to build up a sense of understanding was seen in the movie Contact, where one begins with simple abstract concepts that build on one another to eventually form a coherent communication.

In contrast, this display is one of ADHD-like distraction and “sense” rather than one of communication and understanding. But there’s a clue that this isn’t meant to be the actual content at all. Looking closely at the VP, we see that that the language-learning module David uses is present. Look in the image below for the cyan rectangle in the left of the big yellow cube.

Since we know from seeing David use it elsewhere in the film that that module is interactive, and this VP display does not appear to be, we can infer that this is not the actual content being broadcast. This is more like cover art for an album, meant only to give a sense of the actual content to the humans on the “sender” side of the message. In this simple example of apologetics, we see that the complexity that worked for audiences would work equally well for users.

Later in the film we see David turn the display off. Though his hand is offscreen, the click we hear and his shoulder movement seem to indicate that uses the same knob with which he turned it on. After he does so, the display decays in layers common to the movie’s “yellow scaffold” VPs, as a hum slows to a halt.