Tattoo-o-matic

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After he is spurned by Carmen and her new beau in the station, Rico realizes that he belongs in the infantry and not the fleet where Carmen will be working. So, to cement this new identity, Rico decides to give in and join his fellow roughnecks in getting matching tattoos.  The tattoos show a skull over a shield and the words “Death from Above”. (Incidentally, Death From Above is the name of the documentary detailing the making of the film, a well as the title of a hilarious progressive metal video by the band Holy Light of Demons. You should totally check it out.)  Continue reading

Gravitic distortion

As Ibanez and Barcalow are juuuuuust about to start a slurpy on-duty make out session, their attention is drawn by the coffee mug whose content is listing in the glass.

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Ibanez explains helpfully, “There’s a gravity field out there.” Barcalow orders her to “Run a scan!” She turns to a screen and does something to run the scan, and Barcalow confirms that “Sensors [are] on” As she watches an amber-colored graticule distort as if weighed down by an increasingly heavy ball while a Big Purple Text Label blinks GRAVITIC DISTORTION. Two numbers increment speedily at the bottom-right edge of the screen and modulus at 1000. “There,” she says.

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So many plot questions

  • What kind of coffee cups can withstand enough gravity to tip the contents 45 degrees but remain themselves perfectly still and upright?
  • Why did they need the coffee cup? Wouldn’t their inner ear have told them the same thing faster?
  • Why is the screen in the background of the coffee cup still blinking OPTIMAL COURSE?

Of course we have to put these aside in favor of the interaction design questions.

First the “workflow”

Why on earth would they need to turn on sensors? Aren’t the sensors only useful when they’re sensing? If you have a sense that something is wrong, turning on the sensors only confirms what you already know. This is still more of that pesky stoic guru metaphor. This should have been an active academy that warned them—loudly—the moment nearby gravity started looking weird.

The visualization is not bad…

Let’s pause the criticism for one moment to give credit where credit is due. The grid vortex is a fast and reliable way to illustrate the invisible problem that they’re facing and telegraph increasing danger. Warped graticules have been a staple of depicting spacetime curvature since Disney’s 1979 movie The Black Hole.

The gravity well as depicted in The Black Hole (1979).

The gravity well as depicted in The Black Hole (1979).

This is also the same technique that scientists use to depict the same phenomenon, so it’s got some street cred, too.

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The same thing can be shown in 3D, but it’s visually noisier. Moreover, the 2D version builds on our sense of basic physics, as we can easily imagine what would happen to anything nearing the depression. So, it’s mostly the right display.

…But then, the interaction

Despite the immediacy of the display, there’s a major problem. Sure, this interface conveys impending doom, but it doesn’t convey any useful information to help them know where the threat is coming from or what to do about it after they know that doom impends. (Plus, they had to turn it on, and all it tells them is, “Yep, looks pretty bad out there.”) To design this right, they need a sense of the 3D vector of the threat as compared to their own vector, and what the best available options are.

Better: Augmented reality to telegraph the invisible threat

Fortunately, we already have the medium and channel for Ibanez and Barcalow to immediately understand the 3D direction of the threat in the real world and most importantly, in relation to the ship’s trajectory and orientation, since that’s the tool they have on hand to avoid the threat. We’ve already seen that volumetric projection is a thing in this world, so the ship should display the VP just outside the ship’s viewports. The animation can illustrate the threat coming from the outside on the outside, and fade once the threat gets to be in a range of visible light. In this way there’s no 2D to 3D interpretation. It’s direct. Where’s the unexpected gravitic distortion? Look out the window. There. There is the the unexpected gravitic distortion. The HUD display would need to be aimed at the navigator’s seat, but for very distant objects, e.g. out of visible light range, the parallax shift wouldn’t be problematic for other locations on the bridge. You’d also have to manage the scenario where the threat comes from a direction not out the window (like, say, through the floor) but you can just shift the VP interior for that.

Including a screen comp by Deviant artist scrollsofaryavart.

Including a screen comp by Deviant artist scrollsofaryavart.

Next, you could use VP inside the ship to show the two paths and point of collision, as well as best predicted paths (there’s that useful active academy metaphor again.) Then we can let Ibanez trust her own instincts as she presses the manual override to steer the ship clear. I don’t have the time to comp an internal VP up right now, so I’ll rely on your imagination to comp this particular part of a much better solution than what we see on screen.

Course optimal

After Ibanez explains that the new course she plotted for the Rodger Young (without oversight, explicit approval, or notification to superiors) is “more efficient this way,” Barcalow walks to the navigator’s chair, presses a few buttons, and the computer responds with a blinking-red Big Text Label reading “COURSE OPTIMAL” and a spinning graphic of two intersecting grids.

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Yep, that’s enough for a screed, one addressed first to sci-fi writers.

A plea to sci-fi screenwriters: Change your mental model

Think about this for a minute. In the Starship Troopers universe, Barcalow can press a button to ask the computer to run some function to determine if a course is good (I’ll discuss “good” vs. “optimal” below). But if it could do that, why would it wait for the navigator to ask it after each and every possible course? Computers are built for this kind of repetition. It should not wait to be asked. It should just do it. This interaction raises the difference between two mental models of interacting with a computer: the Stoic Guru and the Active Academy.

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Stoic Guru vs. Active Academy

This movie was written when computation cycles may have seemed to be a scarce resource. (Around 1997 only IBM could afford a computer and program combination to outthink Kasparov.) Even if computation cycles were scarce, navigating the ship safely would be the second most important non-combat function it could possibly do, losing out only to safekeeping its inhabitants. So I can’t see an excuse for the stoic-guru-on-the-hill model of interaction here. In this model, the guru speaks great truth, but only when asked a direct question. Otherwise it sits silently, awaiting contemplating whatever it is gurus contemplate, stoically. Computers might have started that way in the early part of the last century, but there’s no reason they should work that way today, much less by the time we’re battling space bugs between galaxies.

A better model for thinking about interaction with these kinds of problems an active academy, where a group of learned professors is continually working on difficult questions. For a new problem—like “which of the infinite number of possible courses from point A to point B is optimal?”—they would first discuss it among themselves and provide an educated guess with caveats, and continue to work on the problem afterward, continuously, contacting the querant when they found a better answer or when new information came in that changed the answer. (As a metaphor for agentive technologies, the active academy has some conceptual problems, but it’s good enough for purposes of this article.)

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Consider this model as you write scenes. Nowadays computation is rarely a scarce resource in your audience’s lives. Most processors are bored, sitting idly and not living up to their full potential. Pretending computation is scarce breaks believability. If ebay can continuously keep looking on my behalf for a great deal on a Ted Baker shirt, the ship’s computer can keep looking for optimal courses on the mission’s behalf.

In this particular scene, the stoic guru has for some reason neglected up to his point to provide a crucial piece of information, and that is the optimal path. Why was it holding this information back if it knew it? How does it know that now? “Well,” I imagine Barcalow saying as he slaps the side of the monitor, “Why didn’t you tell me that the first time I asked you to navigate?” I suspect that, if it had been written with the active academy in mind, it would not end up in the stupid COURSE OPTIMAL zone.

Optimal vs. more optimal than

Part of the believability problem of this particular case may come from the word “optimal,” since that word implies the best out of all possible choices.

But if it’s a stoic guru, it wouldn’t know from optimal. It would just know what you’d asked it or provided it in the past. It would only know relative optimalness amongst the set of courses it had access to. If this system worked that way, the screen text should read something like “34% more optimal than previous course” or “Most optimal of supplied courses.” Either text could show some fuigetry that conveys a comparison of compared parameters below the Big Text Label. But of course the text conveys how embarrassingly limited this would be for a computer. It shouldn’t wait for supplied courses.

If it’s an active academy model, this scene would work differently. It would have either shown him optimal long ago, or show him that it’s still working on the problem and that Ibanez’ is the “Most optimal found.” Neither is entirely satisfying for purposes of the story.

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How could this scene gone?

We need a quick beat here to show that in fact, Ibanez is not just some cocky upstart. She really knows what’s up. An appeal to authority is a quick way to do it, but then you have to provide some reason the authority—in this case the computer—hasn’t provided that answer already.

A bigger problem than Starship Troopers

This is a perennial problem for sci-fi, and one that’s becoming more pressing as technology gets more and more powerful. Heroes need to be heroic. But how can they be heroic if computers can and do heroic things for them? What’s the hero doing? Being a heroic babysitter to a vastly powerful force? This will ultimately culminate once we get to the questions raised in Her about actual artificial intelligence.

Fortunately the navigator is not a full-blown artificial intelligence. It’s something less than A.I., and that’s an agentive interface, which gives us our answer. Agentive algorithms can only process what they know, and Ibanez could have been working with an algorithm that the computer didn’t know about. She’s just wrapped up school, so maybe it’s something she developed or co-developed there:

  • Barcalow turns to the nav computer and sees a label: “Custom Course: 34% more efficient than models.”
  • BARCALOW
  • Um…OK…How did you find a better course than the computer could?
  • IBANEZ
  • My grad project nailed the formula for gravity assist through trinary star systems. It hasn’t been published yet.

BAM. She sounds like a badass and the computer doesn’t sound like a character in a cheap sitcom.

So, writers, hopefully that model will help you not make the mistake of penning your computers to be stoic gurus. Next up, we’ll discuss this same short scene with more of a focus on interaction designers.

Little boxes on the interface

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After recklessly undocking we see Ibanez using an interface of…an indeterminate nature.

Through the front viewport Ibanez can see the cables and some small portion of the docking station. That’s not enough for her backup maneuver. To help her with that, she uses the display in front of her…or at least I think she does.

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The display is a yellow wireframe box that moves “backwards” as the vessel moves backwards. It’s almost as if the screen displayed a giant wireframe airduct through which they moved. That might be useful for understanding the vessel’s movement when visual data is scarce, such as navigating in empty space with nothing but distant stars for reckoning. But here she has more than enough visual cues to understand the motion of the ship: If the massive space dock was not enough, there’s that giant moon thing just beyond. So I think understanding the vessel’s basic motion in space isn’t priority while undocking. More important is to help her understand the position of collision threats, and I cannot explain how this interface does that in any but the feeblest of ways.

If you watch the motion of the screen, it stays perfectly still even as you can see the vessel moving and turning. (In that animated gif I steadied the camera motion.) So What’s it describing? The ideal maneuver? Why doesn’t it show her a visual signal of how well she’s doing against that goal? (Video games have nailed this. The "driving line" in Gran Turismo 6 comes to mind.)

Gran Turismo driving line

If it’s not helping her avoid collisions, the high-contrast motion of the "airduct" is a great deal of visual distraction for very little payoff. That wouldn’t be interaction so much as a neurological distraction from the task at hand. So I even have to dispense with my usual New Criticism stance of accepting it as if it was perfect. Because if this was the intention of the interface, it would be encouraging disaster.

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The ship does have some environmental sensors, since when it is 5 meters from the “object,” i.e. the dock, a voiceover states this fact to everyone in the bridge. Note that it’s not panicked, even though that’s relatively like being a peach-skin away from a hull breach of bajillions of credits of damage. No, the voice just says it, like it was remarking about a penny it happened to see on the sidewalk. “Three meters from object,” is said with the same dispassion moments later, even though that’s a loss of 40% of the prior distance. “Clear” is spoken with the same dispassion, even though it should be saying, “Court Martial in process…” Even the tiny little rill of an “alarm” that plays under the scene sounds more like your sister hasn’t responded to her Radio Shack alarm clock in the next room rather than—as it should be—a throbbing alert.

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Since the interface does not help her, actively distracts her, and underplays the severity of the danger, is there any apology for this?

1. Better: A viewscreen

Starship Troopers happened before the popularization of augmented reality, so we can forgive the film for not adopting that SAUNa technology, even though it might have been useful. AR might have been a lot for the film to explain to a 1997 audience. But the movie was made long after the popularization of the viewscreen forward display in Star Trek. Of course it’s embracing a unique aesthetic, but focusing on utility: Replace the glass in front of her with a similar viewscreen, and you can even virtually shift her view to the back of the Rodger Young. If she is distracted by the “feeling” of the thrusters, perhaps a second screen behind her will let her swivel around to pilot “backwards.” With this viewscreen she’s got some (virtual) visual information about collision threats coming her way. Plus, you could augment that view with precise proximity warnings, and yes, if you want, air duct animations showing the ideal path (similar to what they did in Alien).

2. VP

The viewscreen solution still puts some burden on her as a pilot to translate 2D information on the viewscreen to 3D reality. Sure, that’s often the job of a pilot, but can we make that part of the job easier? Note that Starship Troopers was also created after the popularization of volumetric projections in Star Wars, so that might have been a candidate, too, with some third person display nearby that showed her the 3D information in an augmented way that is fast and easy for her to interpret.

3. Autopilot or docking tug-drones

Yes, this scene is about her character, but if you were designing for the real world, this is a maneuver that an agentive interface can handle. Let the autopilot handle it, or adorable little "tug-boat" drones.

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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.

Nucleolab Progress Indicator

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As the nucleolab is reconstructing Leeloo, the screen on the control panel provides update, detailing the process. For the most part this update is a wireframe version of what everyone can see with their eyes.

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The only time it describes something we can’t see with our own eyes is when Leeloo’s skin is being “baked” by an ultraviolet light under a metal cover. Of course we know this is a narrative device to heighten the power of the big reveal, but it’s also an opportunity for the interface to actually do something useful. It has a green countdown clock, and visualizes something that’s hidden from view.

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As far as a progress indicator goes, it’s mostly useful. Mactilburgh presumably knows roughly how long things take and even the order of operations. All he needs is confirmation that his system is doing what it’s supposed to be, and the absence of an error is enough for him. The timer helps, too, since he’s like a kid waiting for an Easy Bake Oven…of science.

But Munro doesn’t know what the heck is going on. Sure he knows some of the basics of biology. There’s going to be a skeleton, some muscle, some nerves. But beyond that, he’s got a job to do, and that’s to take this thing out the minute it goes pear-shaped. So he needs to know: Is everything going OK? Should I pop the top on a tall boy of Big Red Button? It might be that the interface has some kind of Dire Warning mode for when things go off the rails, but that doesn’t help during the good times. Giving Munro some small indicator that things are going well would remove any ambiguity and set him at ease.

An argument could be made that you don’t want Munro at ease, but a false positive might kill Leeloo and risk the world. A false negative (or a late negative) just risks her escape. Which happens anyway. Fortunately for us.

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NucleoLab Display

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The scientist Mactilburgh reconstructs Leeloo from a bit of her remains in his “nucleolab.” We see a few interfaces here.

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We never see Mactilburgh interact with the controls on this display: Potentiometers, dials with circular LED readout rings, glowing toggle buttons, and unlit buttons labeled “OFF” and “ESC.” There’s not much to grasp onto for analysis. These are just “sciencey” set of physical controls. The display is a bit of similar scienciness, meant to vaguely convey that Leeloo is a higher-order being, but beyond that, incomprehensible. Interestingly, the Mondoshawan DNA shows not just a more detailed graphic, but adds color to convey an additional level of complexity.

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An odd bit: In the lower right hand corner of the screen you can see the words “FAMILIAL HYPERCHOL TEROLEMIA.” Looking up this term reveals the genetic condition Familial Hypercholesterolemia. It’s only missing the “ES.” What’s this label doing here? This could be the area on the DNA chain where the markers appear for this predisposition to high cholesterol, but wouldn’t you expect that to take up 5000 times less room on a DNA strand of a perfect being, not the same percentage? Also it kind of takes the winds out of the sails of Mactilburgh’s breathless claim that she’s perfect. Anyway it’s a warning lesson for sci-fi interface designers: Watch where you pull your sciencey words from. If it’s a real thing, ask whether the meaning runs counter to your purposes or not.

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.

Missile Scan

Despite its defenses, Staedert continues with the attack against the evil planet, and several screens help the crew monitor the attack with the “120” missiles.

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First there is an overhead view of the space between the ship and the planet. The ship is represented as a red dot, the planet as a red wireframe, and the path of the missiles magnified as a large white wireframe column. A small legend in the upper right reads “CODIFY” with some confirmation text. Some large text confirms the missiles are “ACTIVE” and an inscrutable “W 6654″ appears in the lower right.

As the missiles launch, their location is tracked along the axis of the column as three white dots. The small paragraph of text in the upper right hand scrolls quickly, displaying tracking information about them. A number in the upper left confirms the number of missiles. A number below tracks some important pair of numeric variables. In the lower right, the label has changed to “SY 6654.” A red vertical line tracks with the missiles across the display, and draws the operator’s attention to another small pair of numeric variables that also follow along.

These missiles have no effect, so he sends a larger group of 9 “240” missiles. Operators watch its impact through the same display.

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These screens are quite literal in the information they provide, i.e. physical objects in space, but abstract it in a way that helps a tactician keep track of and think about the important parts without the distraction of surface appearance, or, say, first-person perspective. Of all the scanner screens, these function the best, even if General Staedert’s tactics were ultimately futile.

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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.