DuoMento

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.

Dust Storm Alert

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While preparing for his night cycle, Wall-E is standing at the back of his transport/home. On the back drop door of the transport, he is cleaning out his collection cooler. In the middle of this ritual, an alert sounds from his external speakers. Concerned by the sound, Wall-E looks up to see a dust storm approaching. After seeing this, he hurries to finish cleaning his cooler and seal the door of the transport.

A Well Practiced Design

The Dust Storm Alert appears to override Wall-E’s main window into the world: his eyes. This is done to warn him of a very serious event that could damage him or permanently shut him down. What is interesting is that he doesn’t appear to register a visual response first. Instead, we first hear the audio alert, then Wall-E’s eye-view shows the visual alert afterward.

Given the order of the two parts of the alert, the audible part was considered the most important piece of information by Wall-E’s designers. It comes first, is unidirectional as well as loud enough for everyone to hear, and is followed by more explicit information.

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Equal Opportunity Alerts

By having the audible alert first, all Wall-E units, other robots, and people in the area would be alerted of a major event. Then, the Wall-E units would be given the additional information like range and direction that they need to act. Either because of training or pre-programmed instructions, Wall-E’s vision does not actually tell him what the alert is for, or what action he should take to be safe. This could also be similar to tornado sirens, where each individual is expected to know where they are and what the safest nearby location is.

For humans interacting alongside Wall-E units each person should have their own heads-up display, likely similar to a Google-glass device. When a Wall-E unit gets a dust storm alert, the human could then receive a sympathetic alert and guidance to the nearest safe area. Combined with regular training and storm drills, people in the wastelands of Earth would then know exactly what to do.

Why Not Network It?

Whether by luck or proper programming, the alert is triggered with just enough time for Wall-E to get back to his shelter before the worst of the storm hits. Given that the alert didn’t trigger until Wall-E was able to see the dust cloud for himself, this feels like very short notice. Too short notice. A good improvement to the system would be a connection up to a weather satellite in orbit, or a weather broadcast in the city. This would allow him to be pre-warned and take shelter well before any of the storm hits, protecting him and his solar collectors.

Other than this, the alert system is effective. It warns Wall-E of the approaching storm in time to act, and it also warns everyone in the local vicinity of the same issue. While the alert doesn’t inform everyone of what is happening, at least one actor (Wall-E) knows what it means and knows how to react. As with any storm warning system, having a connection that can provide forecasts of potentially dangerous weather would be a huge plus.

Profiling “CAT” scan

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After her escape from the nucleolab, Leeloo ends up on a thin ledge of a building, unsure where to go or what to do. As a police car hovers nearby, the officers use an onboard computer to try and match her identity against their database. One officer taps a few keys into an unseen keyboard, her photograph is taken, and the results displays in about 8 seconds. Not surprisingly, it fails to find a match, and the user is told so with an unambiguous, red “NO FILE” banner across the screen.

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This interface flies by very quickly, so it’s not meant to be read screen by screen. Still, the wireframes present a clear illustration of what the system doing, and what the results are.

The system shouldn’t just provide dead ends like this, though. Any such system has to account for human faces changing over the time since the last capture: aging, plastic surgery, makeup, and disfiguring accidents, to name a few. Since Leeloo isn’t inhuman, it could provide some results of “closest matches,” perhaps with a confidence percentage alongside individual results. Even if the confidence number was very low, that output would help the officers understand it was an issue with the subject, and not an issue of an incomplete database or weak algorithm.

One subtle element is that we don’t see or hear the officer telling the system where the perp is, or pointing a camera. He doesn’t even have to identify her face. It automatically finds her in the camera few, identifies her face, and starts scanning. The sliding green lines tell the officer what it’s finding, giving him confidence in its process, and offering an opportunity to intervene if it’s getting things wrong.

Taxi navigation

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The taxi has a screen on the passenger’s side dashboard that faces the driver. This display does two things. First, it warns the driver when the taxi is about to be attacked. Secondly, it helps him navigate the complexities of New York circa 2163.

Warning system

After Korben decides to help Leeloo escape the police, they send a squadron of cop cars to apprehend them. And by apprehend I mean blow to smithereens. The moment Korben’s taxi is in sights, they don’t try to detain or disable the vehicle, but to blast it to bits with bullets and more bullets. It seems this is a common enough thing to have happen that Korben’s on-board computer can detect it in advance and provide a big, flashing, noisemaking warning to this effect.

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In many cases I object to the Big Label, but not here. In fact, for such a life-threatening issue, more of the taxi’s interface should highlight the seriousness. My life’s in danger? Go full red alert, car. Change the lights to crimson. Dim non-essential things. You’ve got an “automatic” button there. Does that include evasive maneuvering? If so, make that thing opt-out rather than opt-in. Help a brother out.

Navigation aid

At other times during the chase scene, Korben can glance at the screen to see a wireframe of the local surroundings. This interface has a lot of problems.

1. This would work much, much more safely and efficiently for Korben if it was a heads-up display on the windshield. Let’s shrink that feedback loop. Every time a driver glances down he risks a crash and in this case, Korben risks the entire world. If HUD tech isn’t a part of the diegesis, audio cues might be some small help that don’t require him to take his eyes of the “road.”

2. How does the wireframe style help? It’s future-y of course, but it adds a lot of noise to what he’s got to process. He doesn’t need to understand tesselations of surfaces. He needs to understand the shapes and velocities of things around him so he can lose the tail.

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(Exercise for the reader: Provide a solid diegetic explanation for why this screen appeared in the film flipped horizontally.)

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3. There’s some missing information. If the onboard computer can do some real-time calculations and make a recommendation on the best next step, why not do it? We see above that the police have the same information that Korben does. So even better might be information on what the tail is likely to do so Korben can do the opposite. Or maneuvers that Korben can execute that the cop car can’t. If it’s possible to show places he should definitely not go, like dead ends or right into the path, say, of a firing squad of police cars, that would be useful to know, too.

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4. What are those icons in the lower right meant to do? They’re not suggestions as they appear after Korben performs his maneuvers, and sometimes appear along with warnings instead of maneuvers.

Even if they are suggestions, what are they directions to? His original destination? He didn’t have one. Some new destination? When did he provide it? Simple, goal-aware directions to safety? Whatever the information, these icons add a lot cognitive weight and visual work. Surely there’s some more direct way to provide cues, like being superimposed on the 3D so he can see the information rather than read and interpret it.

If they’re something else other than suggestions, they’re just noise. In a pursuit scenario, you’d want to strip that stuff out of the interface.

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5. What is that color gradient on the left meant to tell him? All the walls in this corridor are 350…what? The screen shot above hints that it represents simple height from the ground, but the 2D map has these colors as well, and height cues wouldn’t make sense there. If it is height, this information might help Korben quickly build a 3D mental map of the information he’s seeing. But using arbitrary colors forces him to remember what each color means. Better would be to use something with a natural order to it like the visible spectrum or black-body spectrum. Or, since people already have lots of experience with monocular distance cues and lighting from above, maybe a simple rendering as if the shapes were sunlit would be fastest to process. Taking advantage of any of these perceptual faculties would let him build a 3D model quickly so he can focus on what he’s going to do with the information.

Side note: Density might actually make a great deal more sense to the readout, knowing that Korben has a penchant for ramming his taxi through things. If this was the information being conveyed, varying degrees of transparency might have served him better to know what he can smash through safely, and even what to expect on the other side.

6. Having the 2D map helps a bit to understand the current level of the city from a top-down view. Having it be small in the upper right is a sound placement, since that’s a less-important subset of the information he really needs. It has some color coding but as mentioned above it doesn’t seem to relate to what’s colored in the 3D portion, which could make for an interpretation disaster. In any case, Korben shouldn’t have to read this information in the tiny map. It’s a mode, a distraction. While he’s navigating the alleys and tunnels of the city, he’s thinking in a kind of 3D node-graph. Respect that kind of thinking with a HUD that puts information on the “edges” of the graph, i.e., the holes in the surfaces around him that he’s looking at. That’s his locus of attention. That’s where he’s thinking. Augment that.

So, you know…bad

Fortunately, given that the interface has so many problems, Korben only really glances at this once during the chase, and that’s at the warning sound. But if the younger Korben was meant to use this at all, there’s a lot of work to make this useful rather than dangerous.

Surface Scan

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Later in the scene General Staedert orders a “thermonucleatic imaging.” The planet swallows it up. Then Staedert orders an “upfront loading of a 120-ZR missile” and in response to the order, the planet takes a preparatory defensive stance, armoring up like a pillbug. The scanner screens reflect this with a monitoring display.

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In contrast to the prior screen for the Gravity (?) Scan, these screens make some sense. They show:

  • A moving pattern on the surface of a sphere slowing down
  • clear Big Label indications when those variables hit an important threshold, which is in this case 0
  • A summary assessment, “ZERO SURFACE ACTIVITY”
  • A key on the left identifying what the colors and patterns mean
  • Some sciency scatter plots on the right

The majority of these would directly help someone monitoring the planet for its key variables.

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Though these are useful, it would be even more useful if the system would help track these variables not just when they hit a threshold, but how they are trending. Waveforms like the type used in medical monitoring of the “MOVEMENT LOCK,” “DYNAMIC FLOW,” and “DATA S C A T” might help the operator see a bit into the future rather than respond after the fact.

Gravity (?) Scan

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The first bit of human technology we see belongs to the Federation of Territories, as a spaceship engages the planet-sized object that is the Ultimate Evil. The interfaces are the screen-based systems that bridge crew use to scan the object and report back to General Staedert so he can make tactical decisions.

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We see very few input mechanisms and very little interaction with the system. The screen includes a large image on the right hand side of the display and smaller detailed bits of information on the left. Inputs include

  • Rows of backlit modal pushbuttons adjacent to red LEDs
  • A few red 7-segment displays
  • An underlit trackball
  • A keyboard
  • An analog, underlit, grease-pencil plotting board.
    (Nine Inch Nails fans may be pleased to find that initialism written near the top.)

The operator of the first of these screens touches one of the pushbuttons to no results. He then scrolls the trackball downward, which scrolls the green text in the middle-left part of the screen as the graphics in the main section resolve from wireframes to photographic renderings of three stars, three planets, and the evil planet in the foreground, in blue.

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The main challenge with the system is what the heck is being visualized? Professor Pacoli says in the beginning of the film that, “When the three planets are in eclipse, the black hole, like a door, is open.” This must refer to an unusual, trinary star system. But if that’s the case, the perspective is all wrong on screen.

Plus, the main sphere in the foreground is the evil planet, but it is resolved to a blue-tinted circle before the evil planet actually appears. So is it a measure of gravity and event horizons of the “black hole?” Then why are the others photo-real?

Where is the big red gas giant planet that the ship is currently orbiting? And where is the ship? As we know from racing game interfaces and first-person shooters, having an avatar representation of yourself is useful for orientation, and that’s missing.

And finally, why does the operator need to memorize what “Code 487″ is? That places a burden on his memory that would be better used for other, more human-value things. This is something of a throw-away interface, meant only to show the high-tech nature of the Federated Territories and for an alternate view for the movie’s editor to show, but even still it presents a lot of problems.

Gene Sequence Comparison

Genetic tester

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Shaw sits at this device speaking instructions aloud as she peers through a microscope. We do not see if the instructions are being manually handled by Ford, or whether the system is responding to her voice input. Ford issues the command “compare it to the gene sample,” the nearby screen displays DNA gel electrophoresis results for the exploding alien sample and a human sample. When Ford says, “overlay,” the results slide on top of each other. A few beats after some screen text and a computerized voice informs them that the system is PROCESSING, (repeated twice) it confirms a DNA MATCH with other screen text read by the same computerized voice.


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Playback box

When Halloway visits Shaw in her quarters, she uses a small, translucent glass cuboid to show him the comparison. To activate it, she drags a finger quickly across the long, wide surface. That surface illuminates with the data from the genetic tester, including the animation. The emerald green colors of the original have been replaced by cyan, the red has been replaced by magenta, and some of the contextualizing GUI has been omitted, but it is otherwise the same graphic. Other than this activation gesture, no other interactivity is seen with this device.

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There’s a bit of a mismatch between the gesture she uses for input and the output on the screen. She swipes, but the information fades up. It would be a tighter mapping for Shaw if a swipe on its surface resulted in the information’s sliding in at the same speed, or at least faded up as if she was operating a brightness control. If the fade up was the best transition narratively, another gesture such as a tap might be a better fit for input. Still, the iOS standard for unlocking is to swipe right, so this decision might have been made on the basis of the audience’s familiarity with that interaction.

Alien head sterilizer

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In the lab, Shaw and Ford investigate the alien head from the complex. They first seek to sterilize it. Though we don’t see how the process is initiated, after it is, a “dumb waiter” raises the head from some storage space to a glass-walled chamber where it is sprayed with some white mist. A screen displays an animation of waves passing along the surface of the head.

When the mist clears, a screen reads “SAMPLE STERILE. NO CONTAGION PRESENT,” which Ford dutifully repeats even though Shaw has a screen that says the exact same thing. Obscure metrics and graphs fill the edges of the screen.

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It might have been tempting for the designers to simply supply the analysis, i.e., “no contagion,” but by providing the data from which the analysis derives, the scientists can check and verify the data for themselves, so the combination is well considered.

There are several problems with this sterilization system.

The text of the analysis reads well and unambiguously, but the graphics would be more informative if they indicated their values within clear ranges. As they are, they push the burden of understanding the context of the values onto the scientists’ memories. If this was a very commonplace activity, this might not be much of an issue.

More importantly are the problems with the industrial design. First, this device seems surprisingly head-sized. Wouldn’t a crewmember be the most likely thing they’d have to sterilize? Shouldn’t it be bigger? But moreover, this device is in the wrong place on the ship. If it was infected with an alien pathogen, sterilizing it here is already too late. The pathogen has already spread everywhere between the airlock, the storage space, and on the hands of whoever had to move it between. It would be better if possibly unsterile material could be loaded into a decontamination system outside the ship, and then only once sterilized then pass through to the interior.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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?

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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.

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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?

Destination threshold

As David is walking through a ship’s hallway, a great clanging sounds from deep in the ship, as the colored lights high in the walls change suddenly from a purple to a flashing red, and a slight but urgent beeping begins. He glances at a billiards table in an adjacent room, sees the balls and cue sliding, and understands that it wasn’t just him: gravity has definitely changed.

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There are questions about what’s going on with the ship that the gravity changed so fast, but our interest must be in the interfaces.

Why did David not expect this? If they’re heading to a planet and the route is known, David should know well in advance. The ship should have told him, especially if the event is going to be one that could potentially topple him. Presuming the ship has sensors to monitor all of this, it should not have come as a surprise.

The warning itself seems mostly well designed, using multiple modes of signal and clear warning signs:

  • Change in color from a soft to intense color (They even look like eyes squinting and concentrating in the thumbnails.)
  • A shift to red, commonly used for warning or crisis
  • Blinking red is a hugely attention-getting visual signal
  • Beeping is a auditory signal that is also a common warning signal, and hard to ignore

After David sees these signals, he walks to wall panel and presses a few offscreen buttons which beep back at him and silence the beeping, replacing it with overhead pulses of light that race up and down the hallway. Over the sound system a male voice announces “Attention. Destination threshold.”

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Why should David have to go find out what the crisis is at the wall interface? If he had been unable to get to the wall interface, how would he know what happened? Or if it required split-second action, why require of him to waste his time getting there and pressing buttons? In a crisis, the system should let you know what the crisis is quickly and intrusively if it’s a dire crisis in need of remedy. The audio announcement should have happened automatically.

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The overhead lights are almost a nice replacement for beeping. It still says, “alert” without the grating annoyance that audio can sometimes be. (There’s still a soft “click” with each shifting light, just not as bad.) But if he’s able to silence the audio at this wall panel, why wasn’t he able to silence the race lights as well? And why do they “race” up and down the hallway rather than just blink? The racing provides an inappropriate sense of motion. Given that this signal is for when the crew is in an unusual and potentially dangerous situation, it would be better to avoid the unhelpful motion cue by simply blinking, or to use the sense of direction they provide to signal to David where he ought to be. A simple option would be to have the hallway lights race continuously in the direction of the bridge, leading the crew to where they would be most effective. Even better is if the ship has locational awareness of individual crew members, then you can cut all overhead illumination by 20% and pulse a light a few feet away in the desired direction between 80 and 100 percent, while darkening the hallway in the opposite direction. Then, as David walks towards the blinking light, the ship can lead him, even around corners, to get him where he needs to be. In a real crisis, this would be an easy and intuitive way to lead people where they’re need to be. It would of course need simple overrides in case the crew knew something about the situation that the ship did not.

After walking through the racing-light hallways, he turns just past the door and into the bridge, where we can see the legend “DESTINATION THRESHOLD” across the pilots HUD. He turns on a light, licks a finger, and presses another button to activate all of the interfaces on the bridge. He walks to the pilot’s panel, presses a button to open the forward viewscreen, observing LV223 with wide-eyed wonder.

This entire sequence seems strange from an interface perspective. We’re going to presume that licking his fingers was just a character tic and not required by the system. But in addition to the fact, raised above, that David seems somewhat surprised by it all, that he should have to open doors and manually turn on lights and interfaces during a crisis seems pointless. It’s either not a crisis and these signals should diminish, or it is a crisis and more of this technology should be automated.