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.


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10 thoughts on “Helmsman’s HUD

    • Wow! Me, too. But we didn’t see anything else in the movie that hints at robots being a thing, so I dismissed it. This would give credence to the bioship hypothesis, too. Cooool.

      • It was the view from outside the helmsman pod that was odd for me. I know you you can see his legs, but the effect of the yellow cylinder on his torso gives the impression that he’s a projection of solido of some sort rather than a robot. A new-age skeuomorphism if you like.

    • And what’s “mmm,” “nnmnn,” “nmnn,” and all the other combinations of ms and ns?

  1. Assuming the helmsman is human, wouldn’t the fact that his interface is mostly transparent and situated such that he sees other people standing behind it be distracting? It would force him to distinguish movement/shapes on the display from movement/shapes from behind the display. I always wondered the same time about the interfaces in Avatar (even though the are aesthetically awesome).

    • Indeed. In the book we talk about the tension that transparent displays show up a lot in TV and film because they’re cinemagenic, i.e., they look great on screen, but in the real world, it just puts too much strain. Nice comparison to Avatar, btw.

  2. in some cases the display is transparent since there is someting useful to se behind it but in this case it is just for effect it seems.

  3. This was perhaps my favorite part of the film, spacecraft wise, and it has no doubt inspired other “retro” starship bridges in works such as Doctor Who.

    So far as the “nm” “nmn” and all that, the “nm” could stand for Nautical Miles, which would be in keeping with the nods to the ocean liners of the past, and “nmn” could be “Nautical Miles Measured”, which the “Measured” would be the equivalent to “Indicated”. You see, on most ships these days, the internal navigation systems will calculate distance traveled, speed, and so on independently of outside influence such as GPS as a backup should these fail, maintaining a general idea of the navigational state of the vessel at all times.

    Because of factors such as wind, current, tides, and other outside forces, the real position, may be different than where the ship “thinks” it’s at. The upshot of all this is that there are usually several readouts that list the navigation system’s current “thinking”, which the crew can double-check what the system is telling them by taking bearings with the compass off of landmarks (if possible) and sun sightings with the sextant (still required learning in most seafaring academies and still used even on the most up to date ships such as the Queen Mary 2), as well as using the GPS, updating the navigation system as necessary.

    This makes the whole process triple-redundant, which is good, for it’s very easy to get lost when you’re out of sight of land, and space is infinitely more vast and complicated than any ocean, so it’s a good idea to have a good navigation system so you don’t go slamming into anything or get hopelessly lost.

    Getting back to the Paradise, I imagine most of the numeric gobbledegook on the left and right sides of the HUD are the equivalent to what I’ve just described. The ship’s navigation systems could be displaying navigational data and its current “thinking” on where the ship is in space based on measurements from the ship’s sensors, and that in itself could be using many reference points, such as altitude measurements bouncing off the surface of the planet, data feedback from aids to navigation such as buoys or beacons, star-sightings, SINS (Ship’s Inertial Navigation System) or equivalents, and so on. This enables the helmsman to stay on top of the navigation situation, and alert the officers on the bridge if he notices a discrepancy in the readings, which could indicate a malfunction or that the internal nav systems need to be re-calibrated or updated.

    As to why the helmsman’s got a virtual HUD and not a HUD overlaid on a video feed or on a window, well that has a precedent in naval vessels, for on some, such as destroyers, cutters, and submarines, the helmsman can’t see anything at all, or has very limited vision of the outside world. This seems counter-intuitive, since after all, shouldn’t the guy driving be able to see where he’s going? However, when you think about it, the helmsman’s job is to maneuver the vessel where the captain or officer of the watch tells him to, not where he thinks it ought to go, so he really doesn’t need to see anything besides gauges or displays telling him the speed, nav readings such as bearing, and a rudder indicator. The officers on the bridge are supposed to keep a sharp lookout by looking at the sensors and doing the tried and true method of looking out the windows, and if they spot something that means the ship needs to turn, it’s passed along promptly to the captain, then to the helmsman, who takes the appropriate course of action.’

    As to the heading indicator flub being an indication that the ship’s computer is doing all the work (as with most ships in present day) and the helm station is really just another piece of show on the elegant cruise liner, I don’t think so. Why have a helm station that is non-functional? It makes sense to have a human hand on the helm, if not for reasons of sentimentality and tradition, then for safety and reliability, and even on modern ships in the present, a manual helm is still present in case of auto-pilot failure or malfunction. The indicator on the top of the HUD might be changing simply because the ship’s computer is reminding the helmsman what course to steer, the analog of the old chalkboard by the wheel with the course written on it in the old days. This ties into the triple-redundancies I’ve been writing about so far, if you’ve somehow forgotten what course to steer, just look up at the display and it will remind you, and with a ship the size of the Fhloston Paradise, precision maneuvering is paramount.

    The real heading indicator might very well be the old compass in front of the rudder indicator on the wheel’s mount, the card of the compass being linked to the ship’s computer/nav systems, and that the indicator up on the HUD is simply the ordered course bearing, analogous the “go over here” arrows in video games today. Given the retro styling cues on the ship, this could very well be the case. I’m not saying that the Paradise can’t have an automatic pilot feature, but given the fact the wheel is there on the bridge and that it’s manned, I’d say that the helmsman’s legitimately steering the ship. Why else would the bad guy aliens have removed him from the helm station when they took over the bridge?

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