Flight Recorder


Jack flies the airship most of the way to the TET when he decides to listen the recordings of the Odyssey. He presses the play button on the recorder, it makes a beep and an electronic voice says, “Flight recorder playback for the Odyssey mission, 3 May 2017.” Then the playback starts.

First, real flight recorders

Before starting the analysis of the black box in Oblivion I thought it could be helpful to do some research on real-word black boxes. That way I had a reference point, something to compare this to. Oddly enough, there is a lot of information on the internet about the required recording and survival aspects of the device, but not much about means to find it after a crash. Beacons and transmitters are mentioned, but not many requirements to facilitate a person actually spotting it. Anyway, after that research I came up with a list of requirements for the device. It must…

  • Survive extreme temperature, pressure, and water conditions.
  • Record both ship and crew´s data on the flight.
  • Be easy to find in a crash site.
  • Provide quick access to the stored data.

You can think of modern flight recorders as big and tough hard drives that make digital recordings of both ship data and cockpit voice. Most modern commercial jets use a “quick access recorder” that stores data in a removable memory that can be plugged in to a common computer. And some recorders can also have an USB or Ethernet port for quick access, too. But often the device is damaged by the crash, and the full data needs to be accessed with special equipment.

So it’s against these requirements that we can analyze the real-world design of the flight recorder.

And really, this thing is like a Christmas tree of attention getting lights and sounds in comparison.

Great: Commanding attention

I have to give it to them here, they did a really good job. Aside from the normal design patterns for black boxes, the flight recorder in the movie provides other ways to find the device. The flashing white light can be easily spotted in the dark —and also on the day if bright enough. Even more, flashing is one of the most attention-getting signals that there are, neurologically speaking. And it can be instantly associated with an electronic device, while a fixed flight could be taken as a reflection on some debris.

Irregular flashing is even more powerful: A pattern that is semi random (or stochastic in the literature), with some flashes slightly offset from the main pattern. That difference in the flashing is even more attention getting that a regular one. This too would be really helpful in a crash site where you have an important amount of flashes going on as well: police cars, ambulances and fire cars. In that situation, the randomness of the flashing can help in distinguishing the device from the surroundings.

Julia was wandering through the Odyssey´s wreckage when she heard a soft and repeating sound. She pulled out some wreckage to find the flight recorder. These sound signals help her to locate the device more precisely when at close distance, even when it´s covered by debris if the sound is strong enough.


She takes it out to give it a look, and it´s here when we see the device.


When Julia finds the recorder, she knows that she and Jack need to carry it back to the Tower to better examine it. And as the recorder is kind of heavy, Julia folds out an small handler and uses it to lift up the recorder.

Great: Even better than a flash memory

The recorder in the movie also provides a way to instantly access the voice recordings of the crew. It uses a display and several buttons in a way that is similar to a music player, and building on a known mental model means that anyone looking for the device is going to be able to use it.

Assistive tools for the emergency mode

The recorder in the movie also seems to have two different modes or settings, an “emergency” mode when it has to be found and another mode to play the recordings. As with real flight recorders, the emergency mode could be activated by internal sensors. These could detect the crash via a sudden and/or significant change in velocity, for example. But it ought to have a manual control of some sort to return to normal mode.

When Julia finds the recorder, the device was beeping and using a light as beacon. It also had two status LEDs turned on and the small display was showing a graph curve in red. In contrast, when Jack is hearing the playbacks, the recorder doesn´t show any of those functions. Both the beeping, the lights, and the small screen display are all turned off, and the graph isn´t showing anymore.

What is that red graph supposed to mean anyway?

It´s not very clear what the purpose of the small screen display is. What is it meant to communicate? Additionally the display is oddly placed next to the controls of the recorder, which implies a mapping that doesn’t really seem logical. But mapping is not the only issue, because when the recorder is actually playing, this display is always off.

Given that It´s only on when Julia finds the recorder and the device is capable of playing the recordings by itself, it might be a way to tell the amount of battery life of the device. Although even then, a graph is something that shows change through time. When you need to know the energy levels at one specific moment, using a common battery indicator, or even a depletion bar would work better.

So maybe the graph is telling us that the device has some way of recharging itself. In that case, the graph could be showing charge and discharge cycles—or energy consumption rates—and by association also telling about some problem with the charging system. Even assuming this is the case, it´s odd that the display is always off during playback so it probably has some control to turn it on and off.

A screen dedicated to sound.

The recorder uses another, bigger display to show a number that indicates some time value, like recording or playback time. The bottom half of the display shows a spectrum analyzer of the recording playing at the moment, but when the recorder is not working this part of the display remains empty. During the movie we see that the recorder plays only sound, i.e. the voice recordings during the mission.

This screen offers some visualization but showing the spectrum analysis of the playback seems like a secondary feature. You know, given that it´s not necessary to actually hear the playback. But the display has a MODE button, so maybe the recorder can also record video to take advantage of the full size of the screen. In that case maybe the crew of the Odyssey just chose to only record audio, be it for privacy or to save storage space for the rest of the mission.


Jack was already in space and closing in to the Tet. And as he has to maintain his cover until he gets inside the Tet with the bomb, he stops the recording of the Odyssey.

After getting permission to dock in the Tet, Jack the returns to the playback. But the recording suddenly stops when the command module of the Odyssey got inside the Tet, then there´s only static and an—end of recording—message.

After getting permission to dock in the Tet, Jack the returns to the playback. But the recording suddenly stops when the command module of the Odyssey got inside the Tet, then there´s only static and an—end of recording—message.

But again, we never actually see the recorder playing video. And the display has a low resolution, monochrome screen—like some early PDAs. So making sense of any video playing from there would definitely be a challenge.

Ghost in the Shell: Home viewing

San Francisco Bay Area folks may have been wondering what was up with the Ghost in the Shell 20th anniversary movie night. Well, some bad news.


There weren’t enough pre-sales to rent the cinema. We might have just run it as a public showing, but the cinema could not find a way to secure the rights for a public showing despite best efforts and the use of Google Translate on promising Japanese sites. You might think in that case that you could just show it anyway, but the owners cited a story in which independent filmmakers once had to fork over a cool $8000 for an unauthorized showing of a film, even when the normal licensing was only $200. So, without licensing, no public showing. But that doesn’t have to stop us. We have technology.


A synchronozed home viewing of Ghost in the Shell

I’m watching Ghost in the Shell on Saturday, 28 March 2015, starting at 20:30 PDT. I may have a few friends over. Want to join? Well, my couch will likely be full, but get a copy of the movie yourself on Blu-Ray, or Amazon instant video, or Netflix DVD (not available at this time streaming through Netflix), and we can live tweet the event. I’ve just launched the twitter handle @SFImovienight, where

  • I will announce upcoming movie nights
  • I will track movie night requests
  • I will live tweet movies as we’re watching
  • Anyone else watching along can join in

The hashtag for this viewing will be #gits20.

Yes a contest

Since this won’t be a live event, let’s shake the contest up a bit. No trivia. Whatever tweet that:

  • Includes #gits20
  • Tags @SFImovienight
  • Gets the most retweets

…between now and 28 March 2015 23:00 PDT will win an Adobe Creative Cloud license for 1 year, a $600 value, as an offer by in-kind sponsor Adobe.

Has anyone tried this before? Have suggestions?

Odyssey Navigation


When the Odyssey needs to reverse thrust to try and counter a descent towards the TET, Jack calls for a full OMS (Orbital Maneuvering System) burn. We do not see what information he looks at to determine how fast he is approaching the TET, or how he knows that the OMS system will provide enough thrust.

We do see 4 motor systems on board the Odyssey

  1. The Main Engines (which appear to be Ion Engines)
  2. The OMS system (4 large chemical thrusters up front)
  3. A secondary set of thrusters (similar and larger than the OMS system) on the sleep module
  4. Tiny chemical thrusters like those used to change current spacecraft yaw/pitch/roll (the shuttle’s RCS).


After Jack calls out for an OMS burn, Vika punches in a series of numbers on her keypad, and jack flips two switches under the keypad. After flipping the switches ‘up’, Jack calls out “Gimbals Set” and Vika says “System Active”.

Finally, Jack pulls back on a silver thrust lever to activate the OMS.


Why A Reverse Lever?

Typically, throttles are pushed forward to increase thrust. Why is this reversed? On current NASA spacecraft, the flight stick is set up like an airplane’s control, i.e., back pitches up, forward pitches down, left/right rolls the same. Note that the pilot moves the stick in the direction he wants the craft to move. In this case, the OMS control works the same way: Jack wants the ship to thrust backwards, so he moves the control backwards. This is a semi-direct mapping of control to actuator. (It might be improved if it moved not in an arc but in a straight forward-and-backward motion like the THC control, below. But you also want controls to feel different for instant differentiation, so it’s not a clear cut case.)


Source: NASA

What is interesting is that, in NASA craft, the control that would work the main thrusters forward is the same control used for lateral, longitudinal, and vertical controls:


Source: NASA

Why are those controls different in the Odyssey? My guess is that, because the OMS thrusters are so much more powerful than the smaller RCS thrusters, the RCS thrusters are on a separate controller much like the Space Shuttle’s (shown above).

And, look! We see evidence of just such a control, here:


Separating the massive OMS thrusters from the more delicate RCS controls makes sense here because the control would have such different effects—and have different fuel costs—in one direction than in any other. Jack knows that by grabbing the RCS knob he is making small tweaks to the Odyssey’s flight path, while the OMS handle will make large changes in only one direction.

The “Targets” Screen


When Jack is about to make the final burn to slow the Odyssey down and hold position 50km away from the TET, he briefly looks at this screen and says that the “targets look good”.

It is not immediately obvious what he is looking at here.

Typically, NASA uses oval patterns like this to detail orbits. The top of the pattern would be the closest distance to an object, while the further line would indicate the furthest point. If that still holds true here, we see that Jack is at the closest he is going to get to the TET, and in another orbit he would be on a path to travel away from the TET at an escape velocity.

Alternatively, this plot shows the Odyssey’s entire voyage. In that case, the red dotted line shows the Odyssey’s previous positions. It would have entered range of the TET, made a deceleration burn, then dropped in close.

Either way, this is a far less useful or obvious interface than others we see in the Odyssey.

The bars on the right-hand panel do not change, and might indicate fuel or power reserves for various thruster banks aboard the Odyssey.

Why is Jack the only person operating the ship during the burn?

This is the final burn, and if Jack makes a mistake then the Odyssey won’t be on target and will require much more complicated math and piloting to fix its position relative to the TET. These burns would have been calculated back on Earth, double-checked by supercomputers, and monitored all the way out.

A second observer would be needed to confirm that Jack is following procedure and gets his timing right. NASA missions have one person (typically the co-pilot) reading from the checklist, and the Commander carrying out the procedure. This two-person check confirms that both people are on the same page and following procedure. It isn’t perfect, but it is far more effective than having a single person completing a task from memory.

Likely, this falls under the same situation as the Odyssey’s controls: there is a powerful computer on board checking Jack’s progress and procedure. If so, then only one person would be required on the command deck during the burn, and he or she would merely be making sure that the computer was honest.

This argument is strengthened by the lack of specificity in Jack’s motions. He doesn’t take time to confirm the length of the burn required, or double-check his burn’s start time.


If the computer was doing all that for him, and he was merely pushing the right button at the indicated time, the system could be very robust.

This also allows Vika to focus on making sure that the rest of the crew is still alive and healthy in suspended animation. It lowers the active flight crew requirement on the Odyssey, and frees up berths and sleep pods for more scientific-minded crew members.

Help your users

Detail-oriented tasks, like a deceleration burn, are important but let’s face it, boring. These kinds of tasks require a lot of memory on the part of users, and pinpoint precision in timing. Neither of those are things humans are good at.

If you can have your software take care of these tasks for your users, you can save on the cost of labor (one user instead of two or three), increase reliability, and decrease mistakes.

Just make sure that your computer works, and that your users have a backup method in case it fails.

Odyssey Communications


The TET is far enough away from Earth that the crew goes into suspended animation for the initial travel to it. This initial travel is either automated or controlled from Earth. After waking up, the crew speak conversationally with their mission controller Sally.

This conversation between Jack, Vika, and [actual human] Sally happens over a small 2d video communication system. The panel in the middle of the Odyssey’s control panel shows Sally and a small section of Mission Control, presumably back on Earth. Sally confirms with Jack that the readings Earth is getting from the Odyssey remotely are what is actually happening on site.


Soon after, mission control is able to respond immediately to Jack’s initial OMS burn and let him know that he is over-stressing the ship trying to escape the TET. Jack is then able to make adjustments (cut thrust) before the stress damages the Odyssey.

FTL Communication

Communication between Odyssey and the Earth happens in real-time. When you look at the science of it all, this is more than a little surprising. Continue reading



The TETVision display is the only display Vika is shown interacting with directly—using gestures and controls—whereas the other screens on the desktop seem to be informational only. This screen is broken up into three main sections:

  1. The left side panel
  2. The main map area
  3. The right side panel

The left side panel

The communications status is at the top of the left side panel and shows Vika the status of whether the desktop is online or offline with the TET as it orbits the Earth. Directly underneath this is the video communications feed for Sally.

Beneath Sally’s video feed is the map legend section, which serves the dual purposes of providing data transfer to the TET and to the Bubbleship as well as a simple legend for the icons used on the map.

The communications controls, which are at the bottom of the left side panel, allow Vika to toggle the audio communications with Jack and with Sally. Continue reading

Sleep Pod—Wake Up Countdown

On each of the sleep pods in which the Odyssey crew sleep, there is a display for monitoring the health of the sleeper. It includes some biometric charts, measurements, a body location indicator, and a countdown timer. This post focuses on that timer.

To show the remaining time of until waking Julia, the pod’s display prompts a countdown that shows hours, minutes and seconds. It shows in red the final seconds while also beeping for every second. It pops-up over the monitoring interface.


Julia’s timer reaches 0:00:01.

The thing with pop-ups

We all know how it goes with pop-ups—pop-ups are bad and you should feel bad for using them. Well, in this case it could actually be not that bad.

The viewer

Although the sleep pod display’s main function is to show biometric data of the sleeper, the system prompts a popup to show the remaining time until the sleeper wakes up. And while the display has some degree of redundancy to show the data—i.e. heart rate in graphics and numbers— the design of the countdown brings two downsides for the viewer.

  1. Position: it’s placed right in the middle of the screen.
  2. Size: it’s roughly a quarter of the whole size of the display

Between the two, it partially covers both the pulse graphics and the numbers, which can be vital, i.e. life threatening—information of use to the viewer. Continue reading

Homing Beacon


After following a beacon signal, Jack makes his way through an abandoned building, tracking the source. At one point he stops by a box on the wall, as he sees a couple of cables coming out from the inside of it, and cautiously opens it.

The repeater

I can’t talk much about interactions on this one given that he does not do much with it. But I guess readers might be interested to know about the actual prop used in the movie, so after zooming in on a screen capture and a bit of help from Google I found the actual radio.


When Jack opens the box he finds the repeater device inside. He realizes that it’s connected to the building structure, using it as an antenna, and over their audio connection asks Vika to decrypt the signal.

The desktop interface

Although this sequence centers around the transmission from the repeater, most of the interactions take place on Vika’s desktop interface. A modal window on the display shows her two slightly different waveforms that overlap one another. But it’s not clear at all why the display shows two signals instead of just one, let aside what the second signal means.

After Jack identifies it as a repeater and asks her to decrypt the signal, Vika touches a DECODE button on her screen. With a flourish of orange and white, the display changes to reveal a new panel of information, providing a LATITUDE INPUT and LONGITUDE INPUT, which eventually resolve to 41.146576 -73.975739. (Which, for the curious, resolves to Stelfer Trading Company in Fairfield, Connecticut here on Earth. Hi, M. Stelfer!) Vika says, “It’s a set of coordinates. Grid 17. It’s a goddamn homing beacon.”


At the control tower Vika was already tracking the signal through her desktop interface. As she hears Jack’s request, she presses the decrypt button at the top of the signal window to start the process.

Continue reading