Green Laser Scan

In a very brief scene, Theo walks through a security arch on his way into the Ministry of Energy. After waiting in queue, he walks towards a rectangular archway. At his approach, two horizontal green laser lines scan him from head to toe. Theo passes through the arch with no trouble.

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Though the archway is quite similar to metal detection technology used in airports today, the addition of the lasers hints at additional data being gathered, such as surface mapping for a face-matching algorithm.

We know that security mostly cares about what’s hidden under clothes or within bodies and bags, rather than confirming the surface that security guards can see, so it’s not likely to be an actual technological requirement of the scan. Rather it is a visual reminder to participants and onlookers that the scan is in progress, and moreover that this the Ministry is a secured space.

Though we could argue that the signal could be made more visible, laser light is very eye catching and human eyes are most sensitive at 555nm, and this bright green is the closest to the 808 diode laser at 532nm. So for being an economic, but eye catching signal, this green laser is a perfect choice.

Viper Controls

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The Viper is the primary space fighter of the Colonial Fleet.  It comes in several varieties, from the Mark II (shown above), to the Mark VII (the latest version).  Each is made for a single pilot, and the controls allow the pilot to navigate short distances in space to dogfight with enemy fighters.

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Mark II Viper Cockpit

The Mark II Viper is an analog machine with a very simple Dradis, physical gauges, and paper flight plans.  It is a very old system.  The Dradis sits in the center console with the largest screen real-estate.  A smaller needle gauge under the Dradis shows fuel levels, and a standard joystick/foot pedal system provides control over the Viper’s flight systems.

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Mark VII Viper Cockpit

The Viper Mk VII is a mostly digital cockpit with a similar Dradis console in the middle (but with a larger screen and more screen-based controls and information).  All other displays are digital screens.  A few physical buttons are scattered around the top and bottom of the interface.  Some controls are pushed down, but none are readable.  Groups of buttons are titled with text like “COMMS CIPHER” and “MASTER SYS A”.

Eight buttons around the Dradis console are labeled with complex icons instead of text.

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When the Mk VII Vipers encounter Cylons for the first time, the Cylons use a back-door computer virus to completely shut down the Viper’s systems.  The screens fuzz out in the same manner as when Apollo gets caught in an EMP burst.

The Viper Mk VII is then completely uncontrollable, and the pilot’s’ joystick-based controls cease to function.

Overall, the Viper Mk II is set up similarly to a WWII P-52 Mustang or early production F-15 Eagle, while the Viper Mk VII is similar to a modern-day F-16 Falcon or F-22 Raptor .

 

Usability Concerns

The Viper is a single seat starfighter, and appears to excel in that role.  The pilots focus on their ship, and the Raptor pilots following them focus on the big picture.  But other items, including color choice, font choice, and location are an issue.

Otherwise, Items appear a little small, and it requires a lot of training to know what to look for on the dashboards. Also, the black lines radiating from the large grouper labels appear to go nowhere and provide no extra context or grouping.  Additionally, the controls (outside of the throttle and joystick) require quite a bit of reach from the seat.

Given that the pilots are accelerating at 9+ gs, reaching a critical control in the middle of a fight could be difficult.  Hopefully, the designers of the Vipers made sure that ‘fighting’ controls are all within arms reach of the seat, and that the controls requiring more effort are secondary tasks.

Similarly, all-caps text is the hardest to read at a glance, and should be avoided for interfaces like the Viper that require quick targeting and actions in the middle of combat.  The other text is very small, and it would be worth doing a deeper evaluation in the cockpit itself to determine if the font size is too small to read from the seat.

If anyone reading this blog has an accurate Viper cockpit prop, we’d be happy to review it! 

Fighter pilots in the Battlestar Galactica universe have quick reflexes, excellent vision, and stellar training.  They should be allowed to use all of those abilities for besting Cylons in a dogfight, instead of being forced to spend time deciphering their Viper’s interface.

Chef Gormaand

Hello, readers. Hope your Life Days went well. The blog is kicking off 2016 by continuing to take the Star Wars universe down another peg, here, at this heady time of its revival. Yes, yes, I’ll get back to The Avengers soon. But for now, someone’s in the kitchen with Malla.

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After she loses 03:37 of  her life calmly eavesviewing a transaction at a local variety shop, she sets her sights on dinner. She walks to the kitchen and rifles through some translucent cards on the counter. She holds a few up to the light to read something on them, doesn’t like what she sees, and picks up another one. Finding something she likes, she inserts the card into a large flat panel display on the kitchen counter. (Don’t get too excited about this being too prescient. WP tells me models existed back in the 1950s.)

In response, a prerecorded video comes up on the screen from a cooking show, in which the quirky and four-armed Chef Gourmaand shows how to prepare the succulent “Bantha Surprise.”

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And that’s it for the interaction. None of the four dials on the base of the screen are touched throughout the five minutes of the cooking show. It’s quite nice that she didn’t have to press play at all, but that’s a minor note.

The main thing to talk about is how nice the physical tokens are as a means of finding a recipe. We don’t know exactly what’s printed on them, but we can tell it’s enough for her to pick through, consider, and make a decision. This is nice for the very physical environment of the kitchen.

This sort of tangible user interface, card-as-media-command hasn’t seen a lot of play in the scifiinterfaces survey, and the only other example that comes to mind is from Aliens, when Ripley uses Carter Burke’s calling card to instantly call him AND I JUST CONNECTED ALIENS TO THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL.

Of course an augmented reality kitchen might have done even more for her, like…

  • Cross-referencing ingredients on hand (say it with me: slab of tender Bantha loin) with food preferences, family and general ratings, budget, recent meals to avoid repeats, health concerns, and time constraints to populate the tangible cards with choices that fit the needs of the moment, saving her from even having to consider recipes that won’t work;
  • Make the material of the cards opaque so she can read them without holding them up to a light source;
  • Augmenting the surfaces with instructional graphics (or even air around her with volumetric projections) to show her how to do things in situ rather than having to keep an eye on an arbitrary point in her kitchen;
  • Slowed down when it was clear Malla wasn’t keeping up, or automatically translated from a four-armed to a two-armed description;
  • Shown a visual representation of the whole process and the current point within it;

…but then Harvey wouldn’t have had his moment. And for your commitment to the bit, Harvey, we thank you.

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DuoMento, improved

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

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

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

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

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Setup

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

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Blind matching

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

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

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Not very efficient

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

A semi-questionable display

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

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

Mismatched inputs?

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

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Does it help test for “sensitivity”?

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

Visual cheating

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

The risk of false positives

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

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Better input

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

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

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

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

Grade Board

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

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

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

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Is ANSI the right input?

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

Are publicizing grades OK?

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

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

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

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

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

FedPaint

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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