Motion Detector

Johnny, with newly upgraded memory, goes straight to the hotel room where he meets the client’s scientists. Before the data upload, he quickly installs a motion detector on the hotel suite door. This is a black box that he carries clipped to his belt. He uses his thumb to activate it as he takes hold and two glowing red status lights appear.

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Once placed on the door, there is just one glowing light. We don’t see exactly how Johnny controls the device, but for something this simple just one touch button would be sufficient.

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A little later, after the brain upload (discussed in the next post), the motion detector goes off when four heavily armed Yakuza arrive outside the door. The single light starts blinking, and there’s a high pitched beep similar to a smoke alarm, but quieter.

Analysis

A sonic alarm is good, because it is omnidirectional. But being omnidirectional it might also notify the would-be attackers that they have been detected. Here the designers have erred too far on the side of caution. The alarm is so quiet that none of the scientists notice, and Johnny himself is lucky to be within a few metres when it goes off. The Yakuza burst in and slaughter the unaware scientists. It would almost certainly have been better for the alarm to be configured as loud as possible, ensuring everyone who needed to hear did so. And while the attackers would have been alerted, they might have been deterred by the thought of witnesses arriving.

The Memory Doubler

In Beijing, Johnny steps into a hotel lift and pulls a small package out his pocket. He unwraps it to reveal the “Pemex MemDoubler”.

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Johnny extends the cable from the device and plugs it into the implant in his head. The socket glows red once the connection is made.

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Analysis: The jack

The jack looks like an audio plug, and like most audio plugs is round and has no coronal-orientation requirement. It also has a bulbous rather than pointed tip. Both of these are good design, as Johnny can’t see the socket directly and while accidentally poking yourself with a headphone style point is unlikely to be harmful, it would certainly be irritating.

The socket’s glow would be a useful indicator that the thing is working, but Johnny can’t see it! Probably these sockets and jacks are produced and used for other devices as well, as red status lights are common in this world.

There are easier and more convenient fictional brain plug interfaces, such as the neck plugs previously discussed on this website for Ghost In The Shell. But Johnny doesn’t want his implant to be too obvious, so this not so convenient plug may be a deliberate choice. Perhaps he tells inquisitive people that it’s for his Walkman.

Analysis: The device

The product name got a few chuckles from audiences in the 1990s, as the name is similar to a common classic Macintosh extension at the time, the Connectix RAM Doubler. This applied in-memory lossless data compression techniques to allow more or larger programs to run within the existing RAM.

The MemDoubler is apparently a software or firmware updater, modifying Johnny’s implant to use brain tissue twice as efficiently as before. It has voice output, again a slightly artificial sounding but not unpleasant voice. This announces that Johnny’s current capacity is 80 gigabytes. As the update is applied, a glowing progress bar gradually fills until the voice announces the new capacity of 160G.

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(Going from 80G to 160G seems quaint today. But we should remember that the value of a mnemonic courier is secrecy, not quantity.)

Why does the MemDoubler need voice output? For such a simple task, the progress bar and a three digit numeric counter would seem adequate. But if there are complications—which for something wired into the brain might have an all too literal meaning for “fatal error”—a voice announcement would be able to include much more detail about the problem, or even alert bystanders if Johnny is rendered unconscious by the problem. (Given how current software installers operate, Johnny is fortunate that the MemDoubler did not insist on reciting the entire end user license agreement and warranty before the update could start.) Maybe the visual should be the default (to respect his professional need for secrecy), and the voice announcement adopted in an alert mode.

It’s also interesting that Johnny installs this immediately before he needs it, in the lift that is taking him to the hotel room where he will receive the data to be stored. Suppose someone else had been in the lift with him? In this world of routine body implants doubling your memory is probably not a crime, but at the time of writing diabetics will inject themselves in private even though that is harmless and necessary. Perhaps body-connected technology will be common enough in 2021 that public operation is considered normal, just as we have become accustomed to mobile phone conversations being carried out in public.

Viper Controls

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The Viper is the primary space fighter of the Colonial Fleet.  It comes in several varieties, from the Mark II (shown above), to the Mark VII (the latest version).  Each is made for a single pilot, and the controls allow the pilot to navigate short distances in space to dogfight with enemy fighters.

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Mark II Viper Cockpit

The Mark II Viper is an analog machine with a very simple Dradis, physical gauges, and paper flight plans.  It is a very old system.  The Dradis sits in the center console with the largest screen real-estate.  A smaller needle gauge under the Dradis shows fuel levels, and a standard joystick/foot pedal system provides control over the Viper’s flight systems.

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Mark VII Viper Cockpit

The Viper Mk VII is a mostly digital cockpit with a similar Dradis console in the middle (but with a larger screen and more screen-based controls and information).  All other displays are digital screens.  A few physical buttons are scattered around the top and bottom of the interface.  Some controls are pushed down, but none are readable.  Groups of buttons are titled with text like “COMMS CIPHER” and “MASTER SYS A”.

Eight buttons around the Dradis console are labeled with complex icons instead of text.

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When the Mk VII Vipers encounter Cylons for the first time, the Cylons use a back-door computer virus to completely shut down the Viper’s systems.  The screens fuzz out in the same manner as when Apollo gets caught in an EMP burst.

The Viper Mk VII is then completely uncontrollable, and the pilot’s’ joystick-based controls cease to function.

Overall, the Viper Mk II is set up similarly to a WWII P-52 Mustang or early production F-15 Eagle, while the Viper Mk VII is similar to a modern-day F-16 Falcon or F-22 Raptor .

 

Usability Concerns

The Viper is a single seat starfighter, and appears to excel in that role.  The pilots focus on their ship, and the Raptor pilots following them focus on the big picture.  But other items, including color choice, font choice, and location are an issue.

Otherwise, Items appear a little small, and it requires a lot of training to know what to look for on the dashboards. Also, the black lines radiating from the large grouper labels appear to go nowhere and provide no extra context or grouping.  Additionally, the controls (outside of the throttle and joystick) require quite a bit of reach from the seat.

Given that the pilots are accelerating at 9+ gs, reaching a critical control in the middle of a fight could be difficult.  Hopefully, the designers of the Vipers made sure that ‘fighting’ controls are all within arms reach of the seat, and that the controls requiring more effort are secondary tasks.

Similarly, all-caps text is the hardest to read at a glance, and should be avoided for interfaces like the Viper that require quick targeting and actions in the middle of combat.  The other text is very small, and it would be worth doing a deeper evaluation in the cockpit itself to determine if the font size is too small to read from the seat.

If anyone reading this blog has an accurate Viper cockpit prop, we’d be happy to review it! 

Fighter pilots in the Battlestar Galactica universe have quick reflexes, excellent vision, and stellar training.  They should be allowed to use all of those abilities for besting Cylons in a dogfight, instead of being forced to spend time deciphering their Viper’s interface.

Dradis Console

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Dradis is the primary system that the Galactica uses to detect friendly and enemy units beyond visual range.  The console appears to have a range of at least one light second (less than the distance from Earth to the Moon), but less than one light minute (one/eighth the distance from Earth to the Sun).

How can we tell?  We know that it’s less than one light minute because Galactica is shown orbiting a habitable planet around a sun-like star.  Given our own solar system, we would have at least some indication of ships on the Dradis at that range and the combat happening there (which we hear over the radios).  We don’t see those on the Dradis.

We know that it’s at least one light second because Galactica jumps into orbit (possibly geosynchronous) above a planet and is able to ‘clear’ the local space of that planet’s orbit with the Dradis

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The sensor readings are automatically interpreted into Friendly contacts, Enemy contacts, and missiles, then displayed on a 2d screen emulating a hemisphere. A second version of the display shows a flat 2d view of the same information.


Friendly contacts are displayed in green, while enemy units (Cylons) are displayed in red.  The color of the surrounding interface changes from orange to red when the Galactica moves to Alert Stations.

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The Dradis is displayed on four identical displays above the Command Table, and is viewable from any point in the CIC.  ‘Viewable’ here does not mean ‘readable’.  The small size, type, and icons shown on the screen are barely large enough to be read by senior crew at the main table, let alone officers in the second or third tier of seating (the perspective of which we see here).

It is possible that these are simply overview screens to support more specific screens at individual officer stations, but we never see any evidence of this.

Whatever the situation, the Dradis needs to be larger in order to be readable throughout the CIC and have more specific screens at officer stations focused on interpreting the Dradis.

As soon as a contact appears on the Dradis screen, someone (who appears to be the Intelligence Officer) in the CIC calls out the contact to reiterate the information and alert the rest of the CIC to the new contact.  Vipers and Raptors are seen using a similar but less powerful version of the Galactica’s sensor suite and display.  Civilian ships like Colonial One have an even less powerful or distinct radar system.

 

2d display of 3d information

The largest failing of the Dradis system is in its representation of the hemisphere.  We never appear to see the other half of the sphere. Missing half the data is pretty serious. Theoretically, the Galactica would be at the center of a bubble of information, instead of picking an arbitrary ‘ground plane’ and showing everything in a half-sphere above that (cutting out a large amount of available information).

The Dradis also suffers from a lack of context: contacts are displayed in 3 dimensions inside the view, but only have 2 dimensions of reference on the flat screen in the CIC.  For a reference on an effective 3d display on a 2d screen, see Homeworld’s (PC Game, THQ and Relic) Sensor Manager:

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In addition to rotation of the Sensor Manager (allowing different angles of view depending on the user’s wishes), the Sensor Manager can display reference lines down to a ‘reference plane’ to show height above, and distance from, a known point.  In Homeworld, this reference point is often the center of the selected group of units, but on the Dradis it would make sense for this reference point to be the Galactica herself.

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Dradis Contact

Overall, the crew of the Galactica never seems to be inhibited by this limitation.  The main reasons they could be able to work around this limitation include:

  • Extensive training
  • Effective communication between crew members
  • Experience operating with limited information.  

This relies heavily on the crew operating at peak efficiency during an entire combat encounter.  That is a lot to ask from anyone.  It would be better to improve the interface and lift the burden off of a possibly sleep deprived crewmember.

The Dradis itself displays information effectively about the individual contacts it sees.  This isn’t visible at the distances involved in most CIC activities, but would be visible on personal screens easily.  Additionally, the entire CIC doesn’t need to know every piece of information about each contact.

In any of those three cases, crew efficiency would be improved (and misunderstandings would be limited) by improving how the Dradis displayed its contacts on its screen.

Damage Control

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After the Galactica takes a nuclear missile hit to its port launch bay, part of the CIC goes into Damage Control mode.  Chief Tyrol and another officer take up a position next to a large board with a top-down schematic of the Galactica.  The board has various lights in major sections of the ship representing various air-tight modules in the ship.  

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After the nuclear hit, the port launch bay is venting to space, bulkheads are collapsing in due to the damage, and there are uncontrolled fires.  In those blocks, the lights blink red.

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Colonel Tigh orders the red sections sealed off and vented to space.  When Tigh turns his special damage control key in the “Master Vent” control, the lights disappear until the areas are sealed off again.  When the fires go out and the master vents are closed, the lights return to a green state.

On the board then, the lights have three states:

  • Green: air-tight, healthy
  • Blinking Red: Fire
  • Off: Intentional Venting

There does not appear to be any indications of the following states:

  • Damage Control Teams in the area
  • Open to space/not air-tight

We also do not see how sections are chosen to be vented.

Why it works

The most effective pieces here are the red lights and the “vent” key.  Chief Tyrol has a phone to talk to local officers managing the direct crisis, and can keep a basic overview of the problems on the ship (with fire being the most dangerous) with the light board.  The “vent” key is likewise straightforward, and has a very clear “I’m about to do something dangerous” interaction.

What is confusing are the following items:

  • How does Chief Tyrol determine which phone/which officer he’s calling?
  • Who is the highest ranking officer in the area?
  • How does the crew determine which sections they’re going to vent?
  • How do they view more complex statuses besides “this section is on fire”?

As with other systems on the Galactica, the board could be improved with the use of more integrated systems like automatic sensors, display screens to cycle through local cameras, and tracking systems for damage control crew.  Also as with other systems on the Galactica, these were deliberate omissions to prevent the Cylons from being able to control the Galactica.

One benefit of the simplified system is that it keeps Chief Tyrol thinking of the high-level problem instead of trying to micromanage his local damage control teams.  With proper training, local teams with effective leadership and independent initiative are more effective than a large micro-managed organization.  Chief Tyrol can focus on the goals he needs his teams to accomplish:

  • Putting out fires
  • Evacuating local crew
  • Protecting the ship from secondary explosions

and allow his local teams to focus on the tactics of each major goal.

What it’s missing

A glaring omission here is the lack of further statuses.  In the middle of a crisis, Chief Tyrol could easily lose track of individual teams on his ship.  He knows the crews that are in the Port Hangar Bay, but we never hear about the other damage control teams and where they are.  Small reminders or other status indicators would keep the Chief from needing to remember everything that was happening across the ship.  Even a box of easily-grabbed sticky notes or a grease-pen board would help here and be very low-tech.

Possible indicators include:

  • Secondary lights in each section when a damage control crew was in the area
  • A third color indicator (less optimal, but would take up less space on the board)
  • A secondary board with local reports of damage crew location and progress
  • Radiation alarms
  • Extreme temperatures
  • Low oxygen states
  • High oxygen states (higher fire risk)
  • Structural damage

It is also possible that Colonel Tigh would have taken the local crews into consideration when making his decision if he could have seen where they were for himself on the board, instead of simply hearing Chief Tyrol’s protests about their existence. Reducing feedback loops can make decision making less error prone and faster, but can admittedly introduce single points of failure.

Colonel Tigh and Chief Tyrol are able to get control of the situation with the tools at hand, but minor upgrades could have lessened the stress of the situation and allowed both of them to think clearer before jumping to decisions.  Better systems would have given them all the information they needed, but the Galactica’s purpose limited them for the benefit of the entire ship.

FTL – Activation

The Battlestar Galactica has at least two Faster-than-Light engines (which might be easier to think of as teleportation engines), activated during a complex sequence. The sequence involves:

  1. An explicit, direct command from Commander Adama
  2. Complex calculations on dedicated computers
  3. Double-checking by a large portion of the CIC staff
  4. and finally, a dedicated key and button to initiate the actual jump

Making an FTL jump is not a standard procedure for the Galactica, and it is implied that it has been decades since the ship carried out an actual jump.  This is because of the danger in landing off-course, the difficulty in the calculations, and wear on what is likely a very expensive component.  We see that many civilian ships do not have FTL capability.

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The FTL engine allows the Galactica to instantly travel between one point in the star system, and another point in the star system.  Dense books of pre-made calculations are kept in the Galactica’s CIC to enter into the ship’s FTL computers.

Multiple teams each begin separate calculations, using the Galactica’s FTL computers as giant calculators for their hand-written/typed equations.  The teams then cross-check their answers against each other, using a senior officer (in this case, Lt. Gaeta) as the final confirmation.

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Once all teams agree on an FTL jump coordinate, the information is plugged into a separate system to “spool up” the FTL drive.

Lt. Gaeta then pulls out a special key that fits into a dedicated slot in the FTL system in the CIC.  The key has two cylindrical pins that each glow a distinct blue, and are each different lengths.  The handle of the key has a matching shape on the console as well, so that the key can only fit in one way.

Once the key is inserted, Lt. Gaeta turns the key and announces that the FTL drive is active.  Commander Adama then gives the order to jump, and Lt. Gaeta pushes a separate button (which has until now been inactive) that jumps the Galactica to the coordinates entered.

After the Galactica finishes its FTL Jump, Commander Adama asks for confirmation that they have arrived successfully at their destination.  Lt. Gaeta runs across the CIC to a navigation console and checks the screen there for the ship’s location.  From the information on that screen, Lt. Gaeta confirms that the Galactica has re-entered real space at exactly the place they were intended to be. (Or might report an error, but we never see this.)

The entire CIC lets out a breath of relief and begins clapping in celebration.  Lt. Gaeta congratulates his navigation team for their work, and the CIC slowly resumes their task of running the ship.  The CIC crew is clearly unnerved by the jump, and everyone is thankful when they arrive safely at their destination.

The Current Position Screen

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This is the screen that Lt. Gaeta uses to confirm that they have successfully landed at their current target: geosynchronous orbit above their target body of mass.  He does not visibly use any of the controls on the console.  The screen autonomously zooms in on the ‘X’ marker, then displays a large, red, blinking triangle with “BSG 75” written above it (The Battlestar Galactica’s registry code).  The red ‘X’ is written inside a large sphere, which appears to be the object the Galactica was attempting to jump to.

All of the lines on this graph describe arcs, and appear to be orbital paths.  The Galactica is marked as being directly on one of these arcs.  Dotted arcs connect many other objects on the screen to each other.  These have no clear purpose or legend.

At the bottom center of the screen are the words “Waypoint Time”, “Waypoint Distance”, and “T.O.T.”  Above those words is a small label: “Synthetic Gravity Field 74.56”.  To the left of those words is an area of data that has been boxed off with the label “Optic Nav System Control.”

More text to the top left lists out information in a table format, but is unreadable to the viewer due to the resolution of the screens in the CIC.  The two rows of data beside the labels do not have column headers or unit indicators.

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.

Black & Decker Hydrator

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Lorraine prepares the family a pizza using a hydrator. She opens a sealed foil package, branded “Pizza Hut,” and removes a tiny puck of a pizza, placing it in the center of a large pizza tray. She inserts the tray into a “hydrator” oven and closes the hinged front door. A small green light illuminates on its panel. She puts her mouth close to the device and instructs it to, “Hydrate level 4, please.” A red light illuminates as a bubbling sound is heard for a few seconds. Then a timer bell rings, and both lights extinguish. Lorraine removes a full-sized and fully-cooked pizza from the oven.

It could be improved by not having her have to remember and enter the level of hydration. There might be an argument that this helps the hydrator feel like they’re doing enough effort, like the legendary Betty Crocker egg story. While snopes tells us that the usual version of this is poppycock, but also references Ernest Dichter’s research in which yes, the first generation of homemakers using instant cake mixes felt that a preparation that was too easy was too indulgent. So, perhaps the hydrator is first generation, and later generations will be able to detect the hydration needed from the packaging.  

Thumbknob

To get Jennifer into her home, the police take her to the front door of her home. They place her thumb on a small circular reader by the door. Radial LEDs circle underneath her thumb for a moment as it reads. Then a red light above the reader turns off and a green light turns on. The door unlocks and a synthesized voice says, “Welcome home, Jennifer!”

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Similarly to the Thumbdentity, a multifactor authentication would be much more secure. The McFly family is struggling, so you might expect them to have substandard technology, but that the police are using something similar casts that in doubt.

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