Hotel Remote

The Internet 2021 shot that begins the film ends in a hotel suite, where it wakes up lead character Johnny. This is where we see the first real interface in the film. It’s also where this discussion gets more complicated.

A note on my review strategy

As a 3D graphics enthusiast, I’d be happy just to analyze the cyberspace scenes, but when you write for Sci Fi Interfaces, there is a strict rule that every interface in a film must be subjected to inspection. And there are a lot of interfaces in Johnny Mnemonic. (Curse your exhaustive standards, Chris!)

A purely chronological approach which would spend too much time looking at trees and not enough at the forest. So I’ll be jumping back and forth a bit, starting with the gadgets and interfaces that appear only once, then moving on to the recurring elements, variations on a style or idea that are repeated during the film.

Description

The wakeup call arrives in the hotel room as a voice announcement—a sensible if obvious choice for someone who is asleep—and also as text on a wall screen, giving the date, time, and temperature. The voice is artificial sounding but pleasant rather than grating, letting you know that it’s a computer and not some hotel employee who let himself in. The wall display functions as both a passive television and an interactive computer monitor. Johnny picks up a small remote control to silence the wake up call.

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This remote is a small black box like most current-day equivalents, but with a glowing red light at one end. At the time of writing blue lights and indicators are popular for consumer electronics, apparently following the preference set by science fiction films and noted in Make It So. Johnny Mnemonic is an outlier in using red lights, as we’ll see more of these as the film progresses. Here the glow might be some kind of infrared or laser beam that sends a signal, or it might simply indicate the right way to orient the control in the hand for the controls to make sense. Continue reading

Viper Launch Control

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The Galactica’s fighter launch catapults are each controlled by a ‘shooter’ in an armored viewing pane.  There is one ‘shooter’ for every two catapults.  To launch a Viper, he has a board with a series of large twist-handles, a status display, and a single button.  We can also see several communication devices:

  • Ear-mounted mic and speaker
  • Board mounted mic
  • Phone system in the background

These could relate to one of several lines of communication each:

  • The Viper pilot
  • Any crew inside the launch pod
  • Crew just outside the launch pod
  • CIC (for strategic status updates)
  • Other launch controllers at other stations
  • Engineering teams
  • ‘On call’ rooms for replacement operators

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Each row on the launch display appears to conform to some value coming off of the Viper or the Galactica’s magnetic catapults.  The ‘shooter’ calls off Starbuck’s launch three times due to some value he sees on his status board (fluctuating engine power right before launch).

We do not see any other data inputs.  Something like a series of cameras on a closed circuit could show him an exterior view of the entire Viper, providing additional information to the sensors.

When Starbuck is ready to launch on the fourth try, the ‘shooter’ twists the central knob and, at the same time and with the same hand, pushes down a green button.  The moment the ‘shooter’ hits the button, Starbuck’s Viper is launched into space.

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There are other twist knobs across the entire board, but these do not appear to conform directly to the act of launching the Viper, and they do not act like the central knob.  They appear instead to be switches, where turning them from one position to another locks them in place.

There is no obvious explanation for the number of twist knobs, but each one might conform to an electrical channel to the catapult, or some part of the earlier launch sequence.

Manual Everything

Nothing in the launch control interprets anything for the ‘shooter’.  He is given information, then expected to interpret it himself.  From what we see, this information is basic enough to not cause a problem and allow him to quickly make a decision.

Without networking the launch system together so that it can poll its own information and make its own decisions, there is little that can improve the status indicators. (And networking is made impossible in this show because of Cylon hackers.) The board is easily visible from the shooter chair, each row conforms directly to information coming in from the Viper, and the relate directly to the task at hand.

The most dangerous task the shooter does is actually decide to launch the Viper into space.  If either the Galactica or the Viper isn’t ready for that action, it could cause major damage to the Viper and the launch systems.

A two-step control for this is the best method, and the system now requires two distinct motions (a twist-and-hold, then a separate and distinct *click*).  This is effective at confirming that the shooter actually wants to send the Viper into space.

To improve this control, the twist and button could be moved far enough apart (reference, under “Two-Hand Controls” ) that it requires two hands to operate the control.  That way, there is no doubt that the shooter intends to activate the catapult.

If the controls are separated like that, it would take some amount of effort to make sure the two controls are visually connected across the board, either through color, or size, or layout.  Right now, that would be complicated by the similarity in the final twist control, and the other handles that do different jobs.

Changing these controls to large switches or differently shaped handles would make the catapult controls less confusing to use.

 

Colonial One

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Colonial One is a luxury passenger liner in commercial service until the war with the Cylons breaks out.  The captain and co-pilot are not military pilots, and most passengers are dignitaries or VIPs visiting the Galactica for the unveiling of it as a museum.

Compared to military cockpits and the CIC aboard the Galactica, Colonial One’s cockpit has simple controls and an unsophisticated space-borne sensor system.  Also unlike the Galactica or the Raptors, no one on Colonial One calls their space-borne sensor system the “Dradis”.  At the center of each control console is a large gimbal-based horizon indicator.

image07The sensors show a simple 2-d representation of local space, with nearby contacts indicated as white dots.  There is no differentiation between ‘enemy’ and ‘friendly’ contacts.  Likewise, the image of a Cylon missile (shown above) is the same indicator as other ships.  There is no clear explanation of what the small white dots on the background of the image are, or what the lines indicate.

When the Cylon fighters show up, the crew has some unknown way besides this screen of knowing the Cylons have just jumped into contact range, and that they have launched missiles at Colonial One.  How the crew determines this isn’t shown, but both the crew and Apollo are confident that the assessment is correct.

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When Laura Rosilyn tells the crew to send a message on a specific frequency before the missile attack, the crew uses the same keypad to send alpha-numeric signals over a radio/faster-than-light (FTL) link as to enter information into their flight computers.  The FTL link appears to connect every planet in the Colonies together in real time: we don’t get any sense of delay between the attacks happening and the entire civilization reacting to it in real time.

The largest usability concern here is Mode Switching, and making it clear whether the crew is entering information into the ship or into the radio.  Given that we see the crew interact most with the ship itself, the following procedure would make the most sense:

  1. Entering information into the ship is the primary ‘mode’
  2. An explicit command to switch over to the radio link.
  3. Crew enters the given information into the link
  4. On ‘enter’, the interface flips back over to entering information into the ship.

With a larger budget, the Dradis is a better system (at least with the improvements installed)

Other Systems

A large amount of space inside the cockpit is given over to communication controls and a receiver station.  At the receiver station, Colonial One has a small printer attached to an automatic collector that prints off broadcast messages.  The function and placement of the printer appears similar to weather printers on modern passenger jets.

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The cockpit is very utilitarian, and the controls look well used.  These are robust systems and look like they have been in place for a while.  Despite the luxury associated with the passenger compartment, the crew have been granted no special luxuries or obvious assisting equipment to make their job more comfortable.

If we look at a current (or, up until very recently current) pattern: the Space Shuttle has a very similar layout.  It is intended to also enter the atmosphere, which Colonial One is shown with the equipment to do, and maintains a 2.5D movement concept.  Given that it’s a commercial ship with direct paths to follow, Colonial One does not need the complicated controls – that are shown to be very difficult to master – that are present on ships like the Viper.

Overall, a solid pattern

In-universe, this ship was not designed for combat, and is woefully unprepared for it when it arrives.  The sensor system and the controls appear specialized for the job of ferrying high-paying customers from one planet to another through friendly space.  Other ships also have the same level of manual controls and physical switches in the cockpit, though it is impossible to tell whether this is because Colonial One was built in the same era as the Galactica, or whether the builders wanted extra reliability in the controls than ‘modern’ electronics provided.

As long as the pilots are as well trained as current-day commercial pilots, the banks of controls would provide solid spatial grouping and muscle memory.  There might be some room to shrink the number of controls or group them better, but we lack the context to dig into that particular issue.

One minor fix would be the possibility of mode errors for the keypad.  It is not obvious when the crew changes from “I want to enter information into Colonial One to change operating parameters” and “I want to send a message to someone else”.  A clear way to indicate that the keyboard is sending information to the ship, compared to sending information to the radio system, would clear up the possibility of a mode-switch error.  Common options could be:

  • A large switch close by that changed the color of the lights
  • A bi-directional light with labels on which mode it’s in
  • or distinct separation between the Pilot’s keyboard and the Co-pilot’s keyboard

Of the three, a clear distinction between pilot’s keyboard and co-pilot’s keyboard would be the most secure; provided that there was a switch in case of emergency.

The Colonial One copies many interface patterns from modern airliners.  Since the airline industry has one of the best and most sophisticated UI design in practice right now, there are very few obvious recommendations to make, and credit should be given for how realistic it looks.

Captain’s Board

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The Captain’s Board is a double hexagon table at the very center of the CIC.  This board serves as a combination of podium and status dashboard for the ship’s Captain.  Often, the ship’s XO or other senior officers will move forward and use a grease pen or replacement transparency sheet to update information on the board.

image05For example, after jumping from their initial position to the fleet supply base in the nebula, Colonel Tigh replaces the map on the ‘left’ side of the board with a new map of the location that the Galactica had just jumped to.  This implies that the Galactica has a cache of maps in the CIC of various parts of the galaxy, or can quickly print them on the fly.

After getting hit by a Cylon fighter’s nuclear missile, Tigh focuses on a central section of the board with a grease pen to mark the parts of the Galactica suffering damage or decompression. The center section of the board has a schematic, top-down view of the Galactica.

During the initial fighting, Lt. Gaeda is called forward to plot the location of Galactica’s combat squadrons on the board.  This hand-drawn method is explicitly used, even when the Dradis system is shown to be functioning.

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The transparency sheets are labeled with both a region and a sector: in this case, “Caprica Region, SECT OEL”.  More text fills the bottom of the label: “Battlestar Galactica Starchart…”

Several panels of physical keys and low-resolution displays ring the board, but we never see any characters interacting with them.  They do not appear to change during major events or during shifts in the ship status.

The best use of these small displays would be to access reference data with a quick search or wikipedia-style database.  Given what we see in the show, it is likely that it was just intended as fuigetry.

 

Old School

Charts and maps are an old interface that has been well developed over the course of human history.  Modern ships still use paper charts and maps to track their current location as a backup to GPS.

Given the Galactica’s mission to stay active even in the face of complete technological superiority of the opponent, a map-based backup to the Dradis makes sense in spite of the lack of detailed information it might need to provide.  It is best as, and should be, a worst-case backup.  

Here, the issue becomes the 3-dimensional space that the Galactica inhabits.  The maps do an excellent job of showing relationships in a two dimensional plane, but don’t represent the ‘above’ and ‘below’ at all.  

In those situations, perhaps something like a large fish tank metaphor might work better, but wouldn’t allow for quick plotting of distance and measurements by hand.  Instead, perhaps something more like the Pin Table from the 2000 X-Men movie that could be operated by hand:

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It would provide a shake-resistant, physical, no-electricity needed 3-D map of the surrounding area.  Markups could be easily accomplished with a sticky-note-like flag that could attach to the pins.

FTL – Engine Analysis

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The FTL Jump process on the Galactica has several safeguards, all appropriate for a ship of that size and an action of that danger (late in the series, we see that an inappropriate jump can cause major damage to nearby objects).  Only senior officers can start the process, multiple teams all sign off on the calculations, and dedicated computers are used for potentially damaging computations.

Even the actual ‘jump’ requires a two stage process with an extremely secure key and button combination.  It is doubtful that Lt. Gaeta’s key could be used on any other ship aside from the Galactica.

The process is so effective, and the crew is so well trained at it, that even after two decades of never actually using the FTL system, the Galactica is able to make a pinpoint jump under extreme duress (the beginning of human extinction).

Difficult Confirmation

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The one apparent failure in this system is the confirmation process after the FTL jump.  Lt. Gaeta has to run all the way across the CIC and personally check a small screen with less than obvious information.

Of the many problems with the nav’s confirmation screen, three stand out:

  • It is a 2d representation of 3d space, without any clear references to how information has been compacted
  • There are no ‘local zero’ showing the system’s plane or relative inclination of orbits
  • No labels on data

Even the most basic orbital navigation system has a bit more information about Apogee, Perigee, relative orbit, and a gimbal reading. Compare to this chart from the Kerbal Space Program:

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(from http://blog.asgaard.co.uk/t/gaming and Kerbal Space Program)

The Galactica would need at least this much information to effectively confirm their location.  For Lt. Gaeta, this isn’t a problem because of his extensive training and knowledge of the Galactica.  

But the Galactica is a warship and would be expected to experience casualties during combat.  Other navigation officers and crew may not be as experienced or have the same training as Lt. Gaeta.  In a situation where he is incapacitated and it falls to a less experienced member of the crew, an effective visual display of location and vector is vital.

Simplicity isn’t always perfect

This is an example of where a bit more information in the right places can make an interface more legible and understandable.  Some information here looks useless, but may be necessary for the Galactica’s navigation crew.  With the extra information, this display could become useful for crew other than Lt. Gaeta.

CIC

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The Battlestar Galactica’s Combat Information Center, or CIC, is a medical-theater-like room that acts as the military nerve center and brain of the Galactica.  It is located near the center of the ship, is heavily armored and protected by armed guards, and has a staff of between 35-50 people.

The two highest ranking officers on the ship, Commander Adama and Colonel Tigh, typically stand at the center of the auditorium around the Command Board.  This position lets them hear status reports from around the room, and issue orders to the entire ship.

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Various pods of workstations provide seating for the rest of the staff.  These stations are grouped by function.  We see Navigation crew sitting near other navigation crew, weapons officers near other combat functions, communications near the center, and engineering given a special area up top.

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Phone kiosks are placed throughout the CIC, with two high profile kiosks on the Command Board.  Large display boards and the central Dradis Console provide information to the entire crew of the CIC.

 

Organized Chaos

The CIC is dealing with a lot of information from all over the ship and trying to relate it to the lead officers who are making decisions.  There is a lot of activity related to this information overload, but the design of the CIC has organized it into a reasonably effective flow.

Teams communicate with each other, then that decision flows forward to lead officers, who relate it to Admiral Adama.
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Orders flow in the opposite direction.

Admiral Adama can very quickly shout out an order from the center of the CIC and have his lead officers hear it all around him.  It can also act as a failsafe: other officers can also hear the same order and act as a confirmation step.  From there, the officers can organize their teams to distribute more detailed orders to the entire ship.

Large screens show information that the entire CIC needs to know, while smaller screens display information for specific crew or groups.

Overall, the stadium-like construction of the CIC works well for the low tech approach that the Galactica takes after.  Without introducing automation and intelligent computer networks onto the bridge, there is little that could be done to improve the workflow.

Stark Tower monitoring

Since Tony disconnected the power transmission lines, Pepper has been monitoring Stark Tower in its new, off-the-power-grid state. To do this she studies a volumetric dashboard display that floats above glowing shelves on a desktop.

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Volumetric elements

The display features some volumetric elements, all rendered as wireframes in the familiar Pepper’s Ghost (I know, I know) visual style: translucent, edge-lit planes. A large component to her right shows Stark Tower, with red lines highlighting the power traveling from the large arc reactor in the basement through the core of the building.

The center of the screen has a similarly-rendered close up of the arc reactor. A cutaway shows a pulsing ring of red-tinged energy flowing through its main torus.

This component makes a good deal of sense, showing her the physical thing she’s meant to be monitoring but not in a photographic way, but a way that helps her quickly locate any problems in space. The torus cutaway is a little strange, since if she’s meant to be monitoring it, she should monitor the whole thing, not just a quarter of it that has been cut away.

Flat elements

The remaining elements in the display appear on a flat plane. Continue reading

Perimeter Fences

Jurassic_Park_Perimeter_Fences01Each of the dinosaur paddocks in Jurassic Park is surrounded by a large electric fence on a dedicated power circuit that is controlled from the Central Control Room. The fences have regular signage warning of danger…

Jurassic_Park_Perimeter_Fences04…and large lamps at the top of many towers with amber and blue lights indicating the status of the fence.

Jurassic_Park_Perimeter_Fences02 Continue reading

Dat glaive: Mojo Radiator

Loki’s wants to take down the Avengers and the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, to disable the two greatest threats to his invading forces. To accomplish this, he lets himself get captured and the glaive taken away from him, knowing Banner would study it, fall prey to one of its terrible effects, become the ragemonster, and wreck the place.

That effect goes unnamed in the film so I’ll call it the bad mojo radiator. The longer people hang around it, the more discord it sows. In fact just before Loki’s thralls enact a daring rescue of him, we see all of the Avengers fighting in the lab, for no other reason than they stand in the glaive’s presence.

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The infighting ends suddenly when Banner unintentionally takes the glaive in hand as he attempts to silence the group. Because the threat of Hulk + glaive is enough to make other fights seem secondary. Continue reading

Dat glaive: Teleconferencing

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When his battalion of thralls are up and harvesting Vespene Gas working to stabilize the Tesseract, Loki sits down to check in with his boss’ two-thumbed assistant, an MCU-recurring weirdo who goes unnamed in the movie, but which the Marvel wiki assures me is called The Other.

To get into the teleconference, Loki sits down on the ground with the glaive in his right hand and the blue stone roughly in front of his heart. He closes his eyes, straightens his back, and as the stone glows, the walls around him seem to billow away and he sees the asteroidal meeting room where The Other has been on hold (listening to some annoying Chitauri Muzak no doubt).

Avengers-Glaive-Teleconferencing-09 Continue reading