Spinning Pizza Interface

As soon as the Rodger Young clears the dock, the interfaces before Ibanez and Barclow change to…well, this.


I’m pretty good at apologetics, but what this is and how this does anything useful, I just…I’m at a loss. Is this supposed to be the active sweep of a radar dish? Some indication of the flywheel engine? Or the position of that spinning column on the bridge? How are any of these things worth distracting a pilot with a giant yellow spinning pizza?

Little boxes on the interface


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.


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.


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.


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.


Reckless undocking

After logging in to her station, Ibanez shares a bit of flirty dialog with mushroom-quaffed Zander Barcalow, and Captain Deladier says, “All right, Ibanez. Take her out.” Ibanez grasps the yoke, pulls back, and the ship begins to pull back from the docking station while still attached by two massive cables. Daladier and Barcalow keep silent but watch as the cables grow dangerously taut. At the last minute Ibanez flips a toggle switch on her panel from 0 to 1 and the cables release.



There’s a lot of wrong in just this sequence. I mean, I get narratively what’s happening here: Check her out, she’s a badass maverick (we’re meant to think). But, come on…

  1. Where is the wisdom of letting a Pilot Trainee take the helm on her first time ever aboard a vessel? OK. Sorry. This is an interface blog. Ignore that one.
  2. The 1 and 0 symbols are International Electrotechnical Commission 60417 standards for on and off, respectively. How is the cable’s detachment caused by something turning on? If it was magnetic, shouldn’t you turn the magnetism off to release the cables?
  3. Why use the symbols for ON and OFF for an infrequent, specific task? Shouldn’t this be reserved for a kill switch or power to the station or something major? Or shouldn’t it bear a label reading “Power Cable Magnets” or something to make it more intelligible?
  4. Why is there no safety mechanism for this switch? A cover? A two-person rule? A timed activation? It’s fairly consequential. The countersink doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
  5. Where is the warning klaxon to alert everyone to this potentially disastrous situation?
  6. Why isn’t she dishonorably discharged the moment she started to maneuver the ship while it was still attached to the dock? Oh, shit. Sorry. Interfaces. Right. Interfaces.

Rodger Young Bridge Doors


I have a special interest in sci-fi doors, so, for completeness in the database, I’m going to document what’s we see with the security doors of the Rodger Young, which is not much.


To access the bridge, Carmen walks through a short corridor, with large, plate-metal doors at either end. As she approaches each, they slide up over the course of about a second, making a grinding sound as they rise, and a heavy puff of air when they are safely locked open. (If they’re automatic, why don’t they close behind her?) The lower half-meter of each door is emblazoned with safety stripes.


Carmen appears to do nothing special to authenticate with the doors. That either means that there is no authentication, or that it’s a sophisticated passive authentication that works as she approaches. I suggested just such a passive authentication for the Prometheus escape pod. The main difference in what I recommended there and what we see here is that both Carmen and the audience could use some sort of feedback that this is happening. A simple glowing point with projection rays towards her eyes or something, and even a soft beep upon confirmation.


The only other time we see the door in action is after Carmen’s newly plotted course "discovers" the asteroid en route to Earth. It’s a Code Red situation, and the door doesn’t seem to behave any differently, even admitting about half a dozen people in at a time, so we have to presume that this is one those "dumb" doors.


Creative Control

Update: Though I was lured to promote his kickstarter with promises of working on the film, as soon as the campaign ended, Mr. Dickinson went radio silent on me. I have to regard the whole thing as gullibility on my part, and bullshit (in the H. G. Frankfurt sense) on his. For that reason I’ve stripped the links from this post. No need to keep getting played.

Are you a supporter of indie sci-fi? Want to be? There is a Kickstarter that I want to point you to, for some shared-interest reasons, and other completely selfish ones. First, the Kickstarter. It’s for a film called Creative Control, by Benjamin Dickinson.
In Near-Future Brooklyn, an ad exec uses a new Augmented Reality technology to conduct an affair with his best friend’s girlfriend…sort of.

The shared-interest reason I’m sharing it is that it looks like cool, indie sci-fi. The kind of stuff that’s not about pimping action figures, but about luscious storytelling.

The selfish reason I’m sharing it is that the director, Benjamin Dickinson, has asked me to consult on the interfaces for the film. You see, the kickstarter money is specifically for the funds to get the UI conceived, designed, and built. The first threshold of money goes for the VFX, but if it doesn’t happen, there won’t be a project for me to consult on. If you’re the sort who supports indie projects like this and the film goes through, I’ll be working with Ethan Keller, the guy behind the now-familiar and beautiful Productivity Future Vision for Microsoft.

Benjamin’s no slouch either, being a kickstarter “veteran”, funding his first feature-length film there, which garnered a lot of audience love, attention, and praise. Check out First Winter on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video if you’re curious about that.

Oh, and the cast is eye opening too, amongst which are H. Jon Benjamin (of Archer and Bob’s Burgers fame) and Reggie Watts of this wonderful insanity.

On top of that the big brains may (still in talks) at META consult on the VFX as well. So, an all star team all around.

I’ll admit I’m eager to lend my voice to the project, and therefore eager to see it get funded. Check it out and pony up some credits if you want to see a film with some UI by a filmmaker who wants to see it done right, with attention to the interface as an important part of the narrative rather than just indulgent “interface porn” or a pretty-stick afterthought.

Shuttle Yoke


Our first scene with Ibanez in training shows her piloting a shuttle to her ship. We don’t see much of the instrument panel or any footpedals, but the interaction with the yoke is pretty clear. She sits in the pilot seat, flicks a couple of switches on an overhead panel, and then gives the yoke a hard yank back to ignite the engines and take off. The reactions from the other characters tell us that she’s meant to be something of an aggressive pilot.


The shuttle exits the flight deck and we get a glimpse of the instrument panel. It has a screen, displaying moving gradients, and a bank of unlabeled buttons. Ibanez never looks at these. She flies visually by the viewport. As she approaches the Rodger Young, we see her holding the yoke close to her, and rolling it to the right as the shuttle arcs near the giant spaceship, and then into a “hallway” within its scaffolded hull. She doesn’t move the yoke very much at all to pitch it 90 degrees up and back out to space again.



There’s not a lot of information in this short scene, but enough to talk about. It’s a simple powered interface, with Ibanez operating a yoke that’s kind-of like a plane’s yoke. She banks the yoke to bank the shuttle. She rolls the yoke to roll the shuttle. There’s a bit of confusion about what the back-and-forth (ventral) controls do. On the flight deck it ignites thrust, but in space it seems to mean pitch (more like what we’d expect.) Yokes are problematic conceptually (for reasons being discussed here) but let’s go with it as a given for now.

First, where’s the safety measures on the flight deck? There is no clearance zone behind the shuttle and that thing is spitting blue fire, right at head level. You’d expect her to check her equivalent of the rear-view mirrors and key some warning klaxxons on the flight deck. Unless that fire is somehow harmless.

While we’re at it, where are the safety measures for the shuttle while in space? She’s clearly freaking the other pilots out with reckless piloting. Sure, they’re new and she’s a “maverick” but you’d expect it to alert her visibly and audibly if she’s undertaking maneuvers that are risky to the shuttle and the giant warship. So fine, the shuttle doesn’t have some gigantic and expensive equipment needed for this. But later in the movie we see that the Rodger Young has a collision alert function. (See below.) Why isn’t she contacted by someone assigned to security aboard the Rodger Young when she first approaches the ship in a reckless way?

This is not aboard the shuttle.

This is not aboard the shuttle.

And finally, there’s the control. It’s risky to use yoke-jerk for initiating thrust if the same motion means something else in flight. If the pilot needs a sudden boost of power, having them strain leaning forward or backward risks their messing with other variables and pointless repositioning for the pilot. Sure, it might be a mode where this only works when docked, but as we all know, modes are problematic at best and to be avoided. And then there’s the fact that the yoke’s sensitivity to pitch is nearly a force gauge, but to roll requires around 45 degrees. Shouldn’t these be at least the same order of magnitude?

It’s so unreal that it breaks the scene. The eyes of the actor and the camera do some work to keep us distracted, but it’s still there, like a bug hiding under the sand of Klendathu.