Helmsman’s HUD


Aboard the Fhloston Paradise luxury liner, we are treated to a quick view of the ship’’s wheel. The helmsman stands before the wheel, in the middle of a ceiling-mounted translucent yellow cylinder that drops just below shoulder level. This surface acts as heads-up display that is visible only from the inside.


The content of the display is a 3-D, featureless, blue graticule with an overlay featuring target brackets, various numeric data strangely labeled with various numbers of ““m””s and “n”s, and a green, faint outline of a railing, as if the helmsman was looking out from a Lawnmower Man interpretation of an Age of Sail wheelbridge. At the top of the display are three yellow-outline rectangles with no content. In the center-top of his view is a compass readout, with a rolling counter display that appears to show bearing.

In practice, the Captain calmly gives an order to a barker, who confirms with a, “Yes, sir” before walking to the edge of the cylinder and shouting the same order, “HELM ONE OH EIGHT!” To confirm that he heard the message, the helmsman repeats the order back and turns the wheel. The helmsman wears a headset that amplifies his spoken confirmation back to everyone on the bridge.

Sometimes a Human is the Best Interface

The Captain doesn’t want to shout or wear a headset. He’s a gentleman. But if the helmsman is going to be trapped in the yellow cone of silence, there must be an intermediary to convey the commands and ensure that they’re carried out. Even if technology could solve it better, I have the sense that navies are places where traditions are carried on for the sake of tradition, so the human aspect of this interaction doesn’t bother me too much. It does add a layer of intermediation where data can go wrong, but the barker and the helmsman each repeat the command loudly, so the Captain can hear and error-check that way.

Long live the HUD

On the plus side, showing the graticule grants a sense of speed and (kind-of) bearing that would be much more difficult to do on the surface on all-water planet like Fhloston Paradise. So that’s nice.

But that information would be even more useful if it was backed up by some other contextual information like the clouds, the position of the sun, or, say, anything else on the surface of the planet toward which they might be barreling. A simple highly-transparent live feed of a camera from somewhere would have been more useful.


And of course I can’t let the silly nonsense data on the edges just go. Shipmen love their sea-salted jargon, but they also love effectiveness, and there is no sense to labeling one variable “nm” and the next “nmn,” much less a whole screen of them. They would be difficult to distinguish at the very least. Certainly there’s no use to having two variables labeled just “m” with no other contextualizers. Even if it was better labeled, presenting this information as an undifferentiated wall of data isn’t helpful. Better would be to turn some of these into differentiable graphics that help the helmsman see the information and not have to read it. In any case, the arbitrary blinking on and off of data just needs to stop. It’s a pointless distraction unless there is some monitoring data that is trending poorly and needs attention.

Sometimes an AI is the Best (Secret) Interface

Finally, if you obsess over editing details (and you are reading this blog…) you’ll note that the bearing indicator at the top begins to change before the helmsman moves the wheel. It even moves before the helmsman repeats the order. It even begins before the the barker shouts the orders. (Reminiscent of the chem department flub from Cabin I covered earlier.) It looks like the HUD designers wanted movement and mistimed it before the events in the scene.

But we don’t have to leave it there. We’ve already noted that seamen love standing on tradition. What if this whole interface was vestigial? If the ship has a low-level AI that listens to the captain, it wouldn’t need to wait for any of the subsequent human processes: the barker, the helmsman repeat, or the wheel turning. Each of these acts to confirm the command, but the ship can go from the first order when it has a high degree of confidence. This would also excuse the nmnmmnonsense we see on the HUD. The display might have degraded to displaying noise, but no one needs to fix it because the ship runs just fine without it.

Thinking that the Fhloston Paradise might have been a bioship only makes its destruction from a Zorg Mangalore Zorg bomb only makes its destruction much more tragic, but also more heroic as it died saving the people it had been programmed to serve all along.


Prometheus’ Flight instrument panels

There are a great many interfaces seen on the bridge of the Prometheus, and like most flight instrument panels in sci-fi, they are largely about storytelling and less about use.


The captain of the Prometheus is also a pilot, and has a captain’s chair with a heads-up display. This HUD has with real-time wireframe displays of the spaceship in plan view, presumably for glanceable damage feedback.


He also can stand afore at a waist-high panel that overlooks the ship’s view ports. This panel has a main screen in the center, grouped arrays of backlit keys to either side, a few blinking components, and an array of red and blue lit buttons above. We only see Captain Janek touch this panel once, and do not see the effects.


Navigator Chance’s instrument panel below consists of four 4:3 displays with inscrutable moving graphs and charts, one very wide display showing a topographic scan of terrain, one dim panel, two backlit reticles, and a handful of lit switches and buttons. Yellow lines surround most dials and group clusters of controls. When Chance “switches to manual”, he flips the lit switches from right to left (nicely accomplishable with a single wave of the hand) and the switches lights light up to confirm the change of state. This state would also be visible from a distance, useful for all crew within line of sight. Presumably, this is a dangerous state for the ship to be in, though, so some greater emphasis might be warranted: either a blinking warning, or a audio feedback, or possibly both.


Captain Janek has a joystick control for manual landing control. It has a line of light at the top rear-facing part, but its purpose is not apparent. The degree of differentiation in the controls is great, and they seem to be clustered well.


A few contextless flight screens are shown. One for the scientist known only as Ford features 3D charts, views of spinning spaceships, and other inscrutable graphs, all of which are moving.


A contextless view shows the points of metal detected overlaid on a live view from the ship.


There is a weather screen as well that shows air density. Nearby there’s a push control, which Chance presses and keeps held down when he says, “Boss, we’ve got an incoming storm front. Silica and lots of static. This is not good.” Thought we never see the control, it’s curious how such a thing could work. Would it be an entire-ship intercom, or did Chance somehow specify Janek as a recipient with a single button?


Later we see Chance press a single button that illuminates red, after which the screens nearby change to read “COLLISION IMMINENT,” and an all-ship prerecorded announcement begins to repeat its evacuation countdown.


This is single button is perhaps the most egregious of the flight controls. As Janek says to Shaw late in the film, “This is not a warship.” If that’s the case, why would Chance have a single control that automatically knows to turn all screens red with the Big Label and provide a countdown? And why should the crew ever have to turn this switch on? Isn’t a collision one of the most serious things that could happen to the ship? Shouldn’t it be hard to, you know, turn off?