The Galactica Phone Network

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The phone system aboard the Galactica is a hardwired system that can be used in two modes: Point-to-point, and one-to-many.  The phones have an integrated handset wired to a control box and speaker.  The buttons on the control box are physical keys, and there are no automatic voice controls.

In Point-to-point mode, the phones act as a typical communication system, where one station can call a single other station.  In the one-to-many mode the phones are used as a public address system, where a single station can broadcast to the entire ship.

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The phones are also shown acting as broadcast speakers.  These speakers are able to take in many different formats of audio, and are shown broadcasting various different feeds:

  • Ship-wide Alerts (“Action Stations!”)
  • Local alarms (Damage control/Fire inside a specific bulkhead)
  • Radio Streams (pilot audio inside the launch prep area)
  • Addresses (calling a person to the closest available phone)

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Each station is independent and generic.  Most phones are located in public spaces or large rooms, with only a few in private areas.  These private phones serve the senior staff in their private quarters, or at their stations on the bridge.

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In each case, the phone stations are used as kiosks, where any crewmember can use any phone.  It is implied that there is a communications officer acting as a central operator for when a crewmember doesn’t know the appropriate phone number, or doesn’t know the current location of the person they want to reach.

Utterly Basic

There is not a single advanced piece of technology inside the phone system.  The phones act as a dirt-simple way to communicate with a place, not a person (the person just happens to be there while you’re talking).

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The largest disadvantage of this system is that it provides no assistance for its users: busy crewmembers of an active warship.  These crew can be expected to need to communicate in the heat of battle, and quickly relay orders or information to a necessary party.

This is easy for the lower levels of crewmembers: information will always flow up to the bridge or a secondary command center.  For the officers, this task becomes more difficult.

First, there are several crewmember classes that could be anywhere on the ship:

  • Security
  • Damage Control
  • Couriers
  • Other officers

Without broadcasting to the entire ship, it could be extremely difficult to locate these specific crewmembers in the middle of a battle for information updates or new orders.

Unconventional Enemy

The primary purpose of the Galactica was to fight the Cylons: sentient robots capable of infiltrating networked computers.  This meant that every system on the Galactica was made as basic as possible, without regard to its usability.

The Galactica’s antiquated phone system does prevent Cylon infiltration of a communications network aboard an active warship.  Nothing the phone system does requires executing outside pieces of software.

A very basic upgrade to the phone system that could provide better usability would be a near-field tag system for each crew member.  A passive near-field chip could be read by a non-networked phone terminal each time a crew member approached near the phone.  The phone could then send a basic update to a central board at the Communications Center informing the operators of where each crewmember is. Such a system would not provide an attack surface (a weakness for them to infiltrate) for the enemy, and make finding officers and crew in an emergency situation both easier and faster: major advantages for a warship.

The near field sensors would add a second benefit, in that only registered crew could access specific terminals.  As an example, the Captain and senior staff would be the only ones allowed to use the central phone system.

Brutally efficient hardware

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The phone system succeeds in its hardware.  Each terminal has an obvious speaker that makes a distinct sound each time the terminal is looking for a crewmember.  When the handset is in use, it is easy to tell which side is up after a very short amount of training (the cable always comes out the bottom).  

It is also obvious when the handset is active or inactive.  When a crewmember pulls the handset out of its terminal, the hardware makes a distinctive audible and physical *click* as the switch opens a channel.  The handset also slots firmly back into the terminal, making another *click* when the switch deactivates.  This is very similar to a modern-day gas pump.

With a brief amount of training, it is almost impossible to mistake when the handset activates and deactivates.

Quick Wins

For a ship built in the heat of war at a rapid pace, the designers focused on what they could design quickly and efficiently.  There is little in the way of creature comforts in the Phone interface.

Minor additions in technology or integrated functionality could have significantly improved the interface of the phone system, and may have been integrated into future ships of the Galactica’s line.  Unfortunately, we never see if the military designers of the Galactica learned from their haste.

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Joh’s Videophone

One of the most impressive interfaces seen in the film is Joh’’s wall-mounted videophone. It is a marvel of special effects for 1927, and an ideal example that no matter how far sci-fi wants to look into the future, it must base its interfaces on the paradigms familiar to the audiences. Note in Joh’’s use of the interface how the videophone is an awkward blend of early 20th century technology metaphors.

The videophone is a large device, easily as tall as Joh himself, mounted to the wall of his office. At its center is a large vertically-oriented video screen that is angled upwards for easy downward viewing. To the right and left of the screen are large tuning dials. A series of knobs and controls sit below the dials.

Joh checks the recent activity of the video phone.

When he first approaches the device, he checks the tickertape dangling from an overhung box on the left. Not seeing anything of interest, he drops the paper and approaches the screen.

Joh tunes in the channel he needs to speak to Grot.

Reaching up to the right dial, he turns its hand counterclockwise from pointing at the number 10 to the number 6. Then he turns the left hand dial to 4, and the screen comes to life. It first displays the legend “HM 2” at the top. Some video appears below this, but rather than a clear feed of a single camera, it is a shifting blend of different cameras. Joh must fiddle with a few controls to clear the reception.

This moment seems quite strange to viewers familiar with modern video technology, since their experience is rooted in VHF broadcast, cable television, or online video. With these technology metaphors, channels are discrete. But it is important to recall that television was not popularized at the time, and the media metaphor most familiar to that audience would be radio, which users do in fact have to “tune” to get a clear signal.

Joh picks up the phone and calls Grot.

Joh verifies that he’s seeing the right channel visually, by seeing Grot’s nervous pacing in camera view. Confident that he’’s calling the right place, Joh picks up a telephone handset from the device, and reaches across to repeatedly press a button on the right. In response, the light bulbs on Grot’’s videophone begin to blink and (presumably) make a sound.

Joh tells Grot to destroy the Heart Machine.

Grot rushes to his device, looks into the screen and lifts his handset. The two have a conversation, each looking directly at the face on the screen.

This moment is another telling one. Lang was familiar with cameras, and could have had his actors talking to a lens. But instead he had them do what felt right and would make sense to the audience, i.e. talking to the other “person,” not the machine. In this way Lang is involved in “bodystorming” the right feel of technology, and in so doing is setting expectations for the way the real technology——should it ever get here—should work.

His command issued, Joh hangs up on an incredulous Grot.

A final note on the interaction is that, to end the call, Joh returns the handset to its resting position, and, much like a telephone, this ends the call for both parties.

This seems to us like an overcomplicated mash-up of technology metaphors: telegraph, film, radio, and telephone. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but it’’s not that Lang lacked the vision. He easily could have made the device more “magic,” by omitting the telephone handset and have Joh speak directly to the image of Grot. But Lang was not a technologist. He was a filmmaker, and needed to take his audience on the journey with him. He spoke to them in their shared language, using understandable cues to the individual components that, when added together add up to the something new that is one of the delights and promises of science fiction.