Video call

After ditching Chewie, Boba Fett heads to a public video phone to make a quick report to his boss who turns out to be…Darth Vader (this was a time long before the Expanded Universe/Legends, so there was really only one villain to choose from).

To make the call, he approaches an alcove off an alley. The alcove has a screen with an orange bezel, and a small panel below it with a 12-key number panel to the left, a speaker, and a vertical slot. Below that is a set of three phone books. For our young readers, phone books are an ancient technology in which telephone numbers were printed in massive books, and copies kept at every public phone for reference by a caller.

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R. S. Revenge Comms

Note: In honor of the season, Rogue One opening this week, and the reviews of Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series behind us, I’m reopening the Star Wars Holiday Special reviews, starting with the show-within-a-show, The Faithful Wookie. Refresh yourself of the plot if it’s been a while.

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On board the R.S. Revenge, the purple-skinned communications officer announces he’s picked up something. (Genders are a goofy thing to ascribe to alien physiology, but the voice actor speaks in a masculine register, so I’m going with it.)

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He attends a monitor, below which are several dials and controls in a panel. On the right of the monitor screen there are five physical controls.

  • A stay-state toggle switch
  • A stay-state rocker switch
  • Three dials

The lower two dials have rings under them on the panel that accentuate their color.

Map View

The screen is a dark purple overhead map of the impossibly dense asteroid field in which the Revenge sits. A light purple grid divides the space into 48 squares. This screen has text all over it, but written in a constructed orthography unmentioned in the Wookieepedia. In the upper center and upper right are unchanging labels. Some triangular label sits in the lower-left. In the lower right corner, text appears and disappears too fast for (human) reading. The middle right side of the screen is labeled in large characters, but they also change too rapidly to make much sense of it.

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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.

 

The Galactica Phone Network

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The phone system aboard the Galactica is a hardwired system that can be used in two modes: Point-to-point, and one-to-many.  The phones have an integrated handset wired to a control box and speaker.  The buttons on the control box are physical keys, and there are no automatic voice controls.

In Point-to-point mode, the phones act as a typical communication system, where one station can call a single other station.  In the one-to-many mode the phones are used as a public address system, where a single station can broadcast to the entire ship.

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The phones are also shown acting as broadcast speakers.  These speakers are able to take in many different formats of audio, and are shown broadcasting various different feeds:

  • Ship-wide Alerts (“Action Stations!”)
  • Local alarms (Damage control/Fire inside a specific bulkhead)
  • Radio Streams (pilot audio inside the launch prep area)
  • Addresses (calling a person to the closest available phone)

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Each station is independent and generic.  Most phones are located in public spaces or large rooms, with only a few in private areas.  These private phones serve the senior staff in their private quarters, or at their stations on the bridge.

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In each case, the phone stations are used as kiosks, where any crewmember can use any phone.  It is implied that there is a communications officer acting as a central operator for when a crewmember doesn’t know the appropriate phone number, or doesn’t know the current location of the person they want to reach.

Utterly Basic

There is not a single advanced piece of technology inside the phone system.  The phones act as a dirt-simple way to communicate with a place, not a person (the person just happens to be there while you’re talking).

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The largest disadvantage of this system is that it provides no assistance for its users: busy crewmembers of an active warship.  These crew can be expected to need to communicate in the heat of battle, and quickly relay orders or information to a necessary party.

This is easy for the lower levels of crewmembers: information will always flow up to the bridge or a secondary command center.  For the officers, this task becomes more difficult.

First, there are several crewmember classes that could be anywhere on the ship:

  • Security
  • Damage Control
  • Couriers
  • Other officers

Without broadcasting to the entire ship, it could be extremely difficult to locate these specific crewmembers in the middle of a battle for information updates or new orders.

Unconventional Enemy

The primary purpose of the Galactica was to fight the Cylons: sentient robots capable of infiltrating networked computers.  This meant that every system on the Galactica was made as basic as possible, without regard to its usability.

The Galactica’s antiquated phone system does prevent Cylon infiltration of a communications network aboard an active warship.  Nothing the phone system does requires executing outside pieces of software.

A very basic upgrade to the phone system that could provide better usability would be a near-field tag system for each crew member.  A passive near-field chip could be read by a non-networked phone terminal each time a crew member approached near the phone.  The phone could then send a basic update to a central board at the Communications Center informing the operators of where each crewmember is. Such a system would not provide an attack surface (a weakness for them to infiltrate) for the enemy, and make finding officers and crew in an emergency situation both easier and faster: major advantages for a warship.

The near field sensors would add a second benefit, in that only registered crew could access specific terminals.  As an example, the Captain and senior staff would be the only ones allowed to use the central phone system.

Brutally efficient hardware

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The phone system succeeds in its hardware.  Each terminal has an obvious speaker that makes a distinct sound each time the terminal is looking for a crewmember.  When the handset is in use, it is easy to tell which side is up after a very short amount of training (the cable always comes out the bottom).  

It is also obvious when the handset is active or inactive.  When a crewmember pulls the handset out of its terminal, the hardware makes a distinctive audible and physical *click* as the switch opens a channel.  The handset also slots firmly back into the terminal, making another *click* when the switch deactivates.  This is very similar to a modern-day gas pump.

With a brief amount of training, it is almost impossible to mistake when the handset activates and deactivates.

Quick Wins

For a ship built in the heat of war at a rapid pace, the designers focused on what they could design quickly and efficiently.  There is little in the way of creature comforts in the Phone interface.

Minor additions in technology or integrated functionality could have significantly improved the interface of the phone system, and may have been integrated into future ships of the Galactica’s line.  Unfortunately, we never see if the military designers of the Galactica learned from their haste.

Chef Gormaand

Hello, readers. Hope your Life Days went well. The blog is kicking off 2016 by continuing to take the Star Wars universe down another peg, here, at this heady time of its revival. Yes, yes, I’ll get back to The Avengers soon. But for now, someone’s in the kitchen with Malla.

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After she loses 03:37 of  her life calmly eavesviewing a transaction at a local variety shop, she sets her sights on dinner. She walks to the kitchen and rifles through some translucent cards on the counter. She holds a few up to the light to read something on them, doesn’t like what she sees, and picks up another one. Finding something she likes, she inserts the card into a large flat panel display on the kitchen counter. (Don’t get too excited about this being too prescient. WP tells me models existed back in the 1950s.)

In response, a prerecorded video comes up on the screen from a cooking show, in which the quirky and four-armed Chef Gourmaand shows how to prepare the succulent “Bantha Surprise.”

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And that’s it for the interaction. None of the four dials on the base of the screen are touched throughout the five minutes of the cooking show. It’s quite nice that she didn’t have to press play at all, but that’s a minor note.

The main thing to talk about is how nice the physical tokens are as a means of finding a recipe. We don’t know exactly what’s printed on them, but we can tell it’s enough for her to pick through, consider, and make a decision. This is nice for the very physical environment of the kitchen.

This sort of tangible user interface, card-as-media-command hasn’t seen a lot of play in the scifiinterfaces survey, and the only other example that comes to mind is from Aliens, when Ripley uses Carter Burke’s calling card to instantly call him AND I JUST CONNECTED ALIENS TO THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL.

Of course an augmented reality kitchen might have done even more for her, like…

  • Cross-referencing ingredients on hand (say it with me: slab of tender Bantha loin) with food preferences, family and general ratings, budget, recent meals to avoid repeats, health concerns, and time constraints to populate the tangible cards with choices that fit the needs of the moment, saving her from even having to consider recipes that won’t work;
  • Make the material of the cards opaque so she can read them without holding them up to a light source;
  • Augmenting the surfaces with instructional graphics (or even air around her with volumetric projections) to show her how to do things in situ rather than having to keep an eye on an arbitrary point in her kitchen;
  • Slowed down when it was clear Malla wasn’t keeping up, or automatically translated from a four-armed to a two-armed description;
  • Shown a visual representation of the whole process and the current point within it;

…but then Harvey wouldn’t have had his moment. And for your commitment to the bit, Harvey, we thank you.

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Scenery display

BttF_096Jennifer is amazed to find a window-sized video display in the future McFly house. When Lorraine arrives at the home, she picks up a remote to change the display. We don’t see it up close, but it looks like she presses a single button to change the scene from a sculpted garden to one of a beach sunset, a city scape, and a windswept mountaintop. It’s a simple interface, though perhaps more work than necessary.

We don’t know how many scenes are available, but having to click one button to cycle through all of them could get very frustrating if there’s more than say, three. Adding a selection ring around the button would allow the display to go from a selected scene to a menu from which the next one might be selected from amongst options.

J.D.E.M. LEVEL 5

The first computer interface we see in the film occurs at 3:55. It’s an interface for housing and monitoring the tesseract, a cube that is described in the film as “an energy source” that S.H.I.E.L.D. plans to use to “harness energy from space.” We join the cube after it has unexpectedly and erratically begun to throw off low levels of gamma radiation.

The harnessing interface consists of a housing, a dais at the end of a runway, and a monitoring screen.

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Fury walks past the dais they erected just because.

The housing & dais

The harness consists of a large circular housing that holds the cube and exposes one face of it towards a long runway that ends in a dais. Diegetically this is meant to be read more as engineering than interface, but it does raise questions. For instance, if they didn’t already know it was going to teleport someone here, why was there a dais there at all, at that exact distance, with stairs leading up to it? How’s that harnessing energy? Wouldn’t you expect a battery at the far end? If they did expect a person as it seems they did, then the whole destroying swaths of New York City thing might have been avoided if the runway had ended instead in the Hulk-holding cage that we see later in the film. So…you know…a considerable flaw in their unknown-passenger teleportation landing strip design. Anyhoo, the housing is also notable for keeping part of the cube visible to users near it, and holding it at a particular orientation, which plays into the other component of the harness—the monitor.

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COURSE OPTION ANALYSIS

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When Ibanez and Barcalow enter the atmosphere in the escape pod, we see a brief, shaky glimpse of the COURSE OPTION ANALYSIS interface. In the screen grab below, you can see it has a large, yellow, all-caps label at the top. The middle shows the TERRAIN PROFILE. This consists of a real-time, topography map as a grid of screen-green dots that produce a shaded relief map.

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On the right is a column of text that includes:

  • The title, i.e., TERRAIN PROFILE
  • The location data: Planet P, Scylla Charybdis (which I don’t think is mentioned in the film, but a fun detail. Is this the star system?)
  • Coordinates in 3D: XCOORD, YCOORD, and ELEVATION. (Sadly these don’t appear to change, despite the implied precision of 5 decimal places)
  • Three unknown variables: NOMINAL, R DIST, HAZARD Q (these also don’t change)

The lowest part of the block reads that the SITE ASSESSMENT (at 74.28%, which—does it need to be said at this point—also does not change.)

Two inscrutable green blobs extend out past the left and bottom white line that borders this box. (Seriously what the glob are these meant to be?)

At the bottom is SCAN M and PLACE wrapped in the same purple “NV” wrappers seen throughout the Federation spaceship interfaces. At the bottom is an array of inscrutable numbers in white.

Since that animated gif is a little crazy to stare at, have this serene, still screen cap to reference for the remainder of the article.

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Design

Three things to note in the analysis.

1. Yes, fuigetry

I’ll declare everything on the bottom to be filler unless someone out there can pull some apologetics to make sense of it. But even if an array of numbers was ever meant to be helpful, an emergency landing sequence does not appear to be the time. If it needs to be said, emergency interfaces should include only the information needed to manage the crisis.

2. The visual style of the topography

I have before blasted the floating pollen displays of Prometheus for not describing the topography well, but the escape pod display works while using similar pointillist tactics. Why does this work when the floating pollen does not? First, note that the points here are in a grid. This makes the relationship of adjacent points easy to understand. The randomness of the Promethean displays confounds this. Second, note the angle of the “light” in the scene, which appears to come from the horizon directly ahead of the ship. This creates a strong shaded relief effect, a tried and true method of conveying the shape of a terrain.

3. How does this interface even help?

Let’s get this out of the way: What’s Ibanez’ goal here? To land the pod safely. Agreed? Agreed.

Certainly the terrain view is helpful to understand the terrain in the flight path, especially in low visibility. But similar to the prior interface in this pod, there is no signal to indicate how the ship’s position and path relate to it. Are these hills kilometers below (not a problem) or meters (take some real care there, Ibanez.) This interface should have some indication of the pod. (Show me me.)

Additionally, if any of the peaks pose threats, she can avoid them tactically, but adjusting long before they’re a problem will probably help more than veering once she’s right upon them. Best is to show the optimal path, and highlight any threats that would explain the path. Doing so in color (presuming pilots who can see it) would make the information instantly recognizable.

Finally the big label quantifies a “site assessment,” which seems to relay some important information about the landing location. Presumably pilots know what this number represents (process indicator? structural integrity? deviation from an ideal landing strip? danger from bugs?) but putting it here does not help her. So what? If this is a warning, why doesn’t it look like one? Or is there another landing site that she can get to with a better assessment? Why isn’t it helping her find that by default? If this is the best site, why bother her with the number at all? Or the label at all? She can’t do anything with this information, and it takes up a majority of the screen. Better is just to get that noise off the screen along with all the fuigetry. Replace it with a marker for where the ideal landing site is, its distance, and update it live if her path makes that original site no longer viable.

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Of course it must be said that this would work better as a HUD which would avoid splitting her attention from the viewport, but HUDs or augmented reality aren’t really a thing in the diegesis.

Narratively

The next scene shows them crashing through the side of a mountain, so despite this more helpful design, better for the scene might be to design a warning mode that reads SAFE SITE: NOT FOUND. SEARCHING… and let that blink manically while real-time, failing site assessments blink all over the terrain map. Then the next scene makes much more sense as they skip off a hill and into a mountain.

KLENDATHU CASUALTIES: 308,563

The initial invasion of Klendathu is disastrous, and our hero Rico suffers a massive penetration wound in combat, with an Arachnid digging its massive, thorn-like pincer straight through his thigh.

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Rico is (spoiler alert) mistakenly reported as deceased. (There’s perhaps some argument for outfitting soldiers with networked biometrics so this sort of mistake can’t be made, but that’s another post.)

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After returning to dock, Ibanez hears reports about the military disaster, and sees a death roll scrolling by on a large wall display. Three columns of off-white names tick along, surname first, with an initialism indicating whether the soldier was killed, wounded, or missing in action. At the very top three legends summarize key information, WOUNDED IN ACTION 2,548; KILLED IN ACTION 205,515; and MISSING IN ACTION 105,753. Largest of all is the KLENDATHU CASUALTIES: 308,563. (I know, the math doesn’t add up. It’s possible I misread the blurry numbers.) But the screen could use some more deliberate graphic design. Continue reading

Fed Communication Service

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When they are in basic training, Carmen and Johnny exchange video messages to stay in touch. Videos are recorded locally to small discs and sent to the other through the Fed post. Carmen has her own computer station in her berth for playing Johnny’’s messages. Johnny uses the single player available on the wall in the barracks. Things are different in the roughnecks than on the Rodger Young.

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To play her message, he inserts the small compact disk she sent him into a vertical holder, closes the hinged cover, and presses the rightmost of five similar metal buttons below the screen to play it. After the (sad breakup) message is done, the player displays an “END OF MESSAGE” screen that includes the message ID. Three lights sit in the lower left hand part of the interface. An amber light glows in the lower right near text reading, “P3.” There is a large dial on the left (a frustum of a cone, to be all geometric about it) with some debossed shapes on it that is likely a dial, but we never see these controls in use. In fact, there’s not a lot of interaction there at all for us to evaluate.

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Usually you’d expect a dial to operate volume (useful in the noisy narracks), with controls for play, pause, and some controls for either fast forward / reverse, or non-linear access of chapters in the message. The number of controls certainly could accommodate either of those structures, even if it was an old two-button model of play and stop rather than the more modern toggle. Certainly these could use better affordance, as they do not convey their behavior at this distance. Even at Rico’s distance, it’s faster for him to be able to see than to read the controls.

We could also ask what good the message ID is since it’s on screen and not very human-readable or human-memorable, but it does help remind Rico that his messages are being monitored by the fascism that is the Federation. So that’s a helpful reminder, if not useful data.

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For the larger interaction, most of the complexities in sending a message—initiating a recording, editing, encoding, specifying a recipient, and sending it—are bypassed offscreen by the physical medium, so it’s not worth speculating on how well this is from a larger standpoint. Of course we could ding them for not thinking that video could be sent faster and cheaper digitally via interstellar transmission than a fragile little disc, but that’s a question for which we just don’t have enough information. (And in which the filmmakers would have had a little trouble explaining how it wasn’t an instant video call.)