“Real-time,” Interplanetary Chat

While recording a podcast with the guys at DecipherSciFi about the twee(n) love story The Space Between Us, we spent some time kvetching about how silly it was that many of the scenes involved Gardner, on Mars, in a real-time text chat with a girl named Tulsa, on Earth. It’s partly bothersome because throughout the rest of the the movie, the story tries for a Mohs sci-fi hardness of, like, 1.5, somewhere between Real Life and Speculative Science, so it can’t really excuse itself through the Applied Phlebotinum that, say, Star Wars might use. The rest of the film feels like it’s trying to have believable science, but during these scenes it just whistles, looks the other way, and hopes you don’t notice that the two lovebirds are breaking the laws of physics as they swap flirt emoji.

Hopefully unnecessary science brief: Mars and Earth are far away from each other. Even if the communications transmissions are sent at light speed between them, it takes much longer than the 1 second of response time required to feel “instant.” How much longer? It depends. The planets orbit the sun at different speeds, so aren’t a constant distance apart. At their closest, it takes light 3 minutes to travel between Mars and Earth, and at their farthest—while not being blocked by the sun—it takes about 21 minutes. A round-trip is double that. So nothing akin to real-time chat is going to happen.

But I’m a designer, a sci-fi apologist, and a fairly talented backworlder. I want to make it work. And perhaps because of my recent dive into narrow AI, I began to realize that, well, in a way, maybe it could. It just requires rethinking what’s happening in the chat. Continue reading

Luke’s predictive HUD

When Luke is driving Kee and Theo to a boat on the coast, the car’s heads-up-display shows him the car’s speed with a translucent red number and speed gauge. There are also two broken, blurry gauges showing unknown information.

Suddenly the road becomes blocked by a flaming car rolled onto the road by a then unknown gang. In response, an IMPACT warning triangle zooms in several times to warn the driver of the danger, accompanied by a persistent dinging sound.


It commands attention effectively

Continue reading

Rebel videoscope

Talking to Luke


Hidden behind a bookshelf console is the family’s other comm device. When they first use it in the show, Malla and Itchy have a quick discussion and approach the console and slide two panels aside. The device is small and rectangular, like an oscilloscope, sitting on a shelf about eye level. It has a small, palm sized color cathode ray tube on the left. On the right is an LED display strip and an array of red buttons over an array of yellow buttons. Along the bottom are two dials.


Without any other interaction, the screen goes from static to a direct connection to a hangar where Luke Skywalker is working with R2-D2 to repair some mechanical part. He simply looks up to the camera, sees Malla and Itchy, and starts talking. He does nothing to accept the call or end it. Neither do they. Continue reading

The Mechanized Squire


Having completed the welding he did not need to do, Tony flies home to a ledge atop Stark tower and lands. As he begins his strut to the interior, a complex, ring-shaped mechanism raises around him and follows along as he walks. From the ring, robotic arms extend to unharness each component of the suit from Tony in turn. After each arm precisely unscrews a component, it whisks it away for storage under the platform. It performs this task so smoothly and efficiently that Tony is able to maintain his walking stride throughout the 24-second walk up the ramp and maintain a conversation with JARVIS. His last steps on the ramp land on two plates that unharness his boots and lower them into the floor as Tony steps into his living room.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

This is exactly how a mechanized squire should work. It is fast, efficient, supports Tony in his task of getting unharnessed quickly and easily, and—perhaps most importantly—how we wants his transitions from superhero to playboy to feel: cool, effortless, and seamless. If there was a party happening inside, I would not be surprised to see a last robotic arm handing him a whiskey.

This is the Jetsons vision of coming home to one’s robotic castle writ beautifully.

There is a strategic question about removing the suit while still outside of the protection of the building itself. If a flying villain popped up over the edge of the building at about 75% of the unharnessing, Tony would be at a significant tactical disadvantage. But JARVIS is probably watching out for any threats to avoid this possibility.

Another improvement would be if it did not need a specific landing spot. If, say…

  • The suit could just open to let him step out like a human-shaped elevator (this happens in a later model of the suit seen in The Avengers 2)
  • The suit was composed of fully autonomous components and each could simply fly off of him to their storage (This kind of happens with Veronica later in The Avengers 2)
  • If it was composed of self-assembling nanoparticles that flowed off of him, or, perhaps, reassembled into a tuxedo (If I understand correctly, this is kind-of how the suit currently works in the comic books.)

These would allow him to enact this same transition anywhere.

Iron Welding


Cut to the bottom of the Hudson River where some electrical “transmission lines” rest. Tony in his Iron Man supersuit has his palm-mounted repulsor rays configured such that they create a focused beam, capable of cutting through an iron pipe to reveal power cables within. Once the pipe casing is removed, he slides a circular device onto the cabling. The cuff automatically closes, screws itself tight, and expands to replace the section of casing. Dim white lights burn brighter as hospital-green rings glow brightly around the cable’s circumference. His task done, he underwater-flies away, flying up the southern tip of Manhattan to Stark Tower.

It’s quick scene that sets up the fact that they’re using Tony’s arc reactor technology to liberate Stark Tower from the electrical grid (incidentally implying that the Avengers will never locate a satellite headquarters anywhere in Florida. Sorry, Jeb.) So, since it’s a quick scene, we can just skip the details and interaction design issues, right?

Of course not. You know better from this blog.

Avengers-Underwater_welding02 Continue reading

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.

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

Communications with Sally


While Vika and Jack are conducting their missions on the ground, Sally is their main point of contact in orbital TET command. Vika and Sally communicate through a video feed located in the top left corner of the TETVision screen. There is no camera visible in the film, but it is made obvious that Sally can see Vika and at one point Jack as well.


The controls for the communications feed are located in the bottom left corner of the TETVision screen. There are only two controls, one for command and one for Jack. The interaction is pretty standard—tap to enable, tap again to disable. It can be assumed that conferencing is possible, although certain scenes in the film indicate that this has never taken place. Continue reading

The Bubbleship Cockpit

image01 Jack’s main vehicle in the post-war Earth is the Bubbleship craft. It is a two seat combination of helicopter and light jet. The center joystick controls most flight controls, while a left-hand throttle takes the place of a helicopter’s thrust selector. A series of switches above Jack’s seat provide basic power and start-up commands to the Bubbleship’s systems. image05 Jack first provides voice authentication to the Bubbleship (the same code used to confirm his identity to the Drones), then he moves to activate the switches above his head. Continue reading

Course optimal, the Stoic Guru, and the Active Academy

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.


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.

A-writer Continue reading