Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Worldbuilding Rambles: Will spaceships have sliding doors?

A touch keyboard?  Who though this was a good idea...
The Future is Shiny

   One of the most futuristic aspects of Star Trek have been the iconic coloured displays and control panels.  There are the large wall mounted MSDs or Master Systems Displays; a cross-section of the ship festooned with status data.  Smaller panels cover the walls in Engineering and the Bridge, their bold visual style mimicked by the touch-sensitive controls consoles.  They look sleek and futuristic, conveying information in a clean and uncluttered interface while offering the intuitive interaction of a touchscreen device.  Compared to the infestation of switches, buttons, and lights in Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and Alien/Aliens it is positively futuristic even to a modern audience.  But is it as good as it looks?

   The conflict between the attempt to portray futuristic technology and the practicalities of real life is a bitter one.  Quite often the decisions are based around aesthetics rather than logic or practicality.  I'm going to look at a few of the common elements of futuristic Science Fiction that bother me the most.

Touch Screen Controls 

   Star Trek's touchscreen tech might look cool, but they score somewhat lower on the practicality side.  While the interface allowed by touchscreen can be far more intuitive and easy to use than a keyboard or button based system they become almost impossible to use in an erratically moving vehicle.  Try typing a text message on a iPhone while riding cross country in a speeding jeep, or in a aircraft in a dogfight, or a fast boat, or a spaceship dodging or being hit by weapons fire.  Especially on a spacecraft or in a military situation you don't want to hit the wrong command - it could be the difference between life and death.  This is why modern military vehicles, particularly aircraft, may have touch screens but depend mostly on buttons.  Buttons also cope fine with gloved hands, something that many touchscreen have issues with.  Buttons and switches can also be used by touch in the dark, and with the latter can tell the user what is on or off without any light at all.  No light conditions aren't much of an issue for civilians but are quite a concern for any military or organisation operating in a hazardous environment.  While touchscreen will be ever-present in the technology of the future buttons will be right alongside them.

Transparent Holographic Screens

   Holograms are cool.  Projected onto a sheet of glass like the hud display of a fighter jet or floating in mid air they are one of the best ways to turn a simple computer screen into a signpost for the future.  They are very common in modern SF, both written and visual, although it is with the latter that I have a bone to pick.  To understand the limitations of a holographic display it is best to look at the most common application in current times, the HUD of a fighter jet.  This allows the pilot to see vital information without distracting himself by looking down at instruments in the cockpit, keeping his eyes on the target at all times.  Anyone who has played a FPS like Halo will understand the concepts use on a personal scale, as will anyone who has played a futuristic dogfighting game like Elite Dangerous.  However the fact that allows this use - being mostly empty space - also makes them extremely impractical for a run of the mill monitor.  Everything and anything behind the screen can become a distraction, or worse, make it difficult to read the data displayed by the hologram.  Not only that but isn't having a colour-limited screen pretty useless?  There is no way I know of that a hologram can produce a black background, and most are shown as monochromatic.  Another issue is that of light.  It is very easy to see holograms becoming difficult to read in bright light, and impossible if the light was on the opposite side to you.  While they have the advantage of requiring no physical space this is only a minor one with the possibility of foldable screen technology in the future.  So while I would not be surprise at the proliferation of hologram technology in applications such as compact devices, smart-glasses, and interactive 3D images they will supplement not replace conventional screens.

Sliding Pressure Doors

   It is very rare to see a door in a Science Fiction movie that does not slide smoothly open at the tap of a button, the mere wave of a hand, or even without any invitation at all.  That might not seem so bad, we have automatic doors all over the place after all.  But a shopping centre is a sight different to a spaceship.  Overlooking the frequent lack of obvious handles on the doors - how do you open them in a power out - there is still the fact that thy are the worst possible choice for a spacecraft.  To be fair this only applies to doors expected to hold air pressure, but it is quite common to see the hatch of a airlock slide open, hiding itself away in the wall where it is utterly impossible to get to it if the power should fail or some other mechanical malady should occur.  Of course we could just not be seeing the emergency manual controls, a handy lever or wheel hidden behind a panel on the wall perhaps.  But there is a bigger problem.  Any pressure differential is going to try and jam the door/hatch shut.  Why?  The pressure on the door will push it against the frame, creating greater than normal friction and possibly damage to the mechanism.  Even if the motors are strong enough, and the mechanism but to withstand the stress is might make it impossible for a human to open in a power-out.  The last point is not restricted to sliding doors; hinged doors should open onto the side expected to retain pressure so that the pressure holds the door shut rather than blowing it open.  Sliding doors do have there uses.  Restricted space, non-pressure critical locations, emergency doors with sharpened edges and hydraulics that can cut through debris to attain and airtight seal.  It should also be noted that the larger the door the better a sliding door looks, as it does not need so much clear room to swing, and cannot slam shut as easily.  But doors on which the atmospheric integrity of a spacecraft, space station, or indeed submarine depends probably should not be sliding.  And yes, I shouldn't call it a door; hatch is probably the right term, but whatever.

  Little details like these don't do much to make or break a work of SF, especially if it is a written one, or one that focuses on story rather than setting.  But it would be nice to see more mainstream works(Hollywood movies) buck the trends in favour of something that while a little less shiny, is probably actually more futuristic.  These are the three that have always irritated me; what are the technology tropes that bug you the most?

Addendum   Universal Computer Control

   I somehow forgot all about this one, although it is one of the tropes that annoys me the most when it comes to Science Fiction.  It is a well established thing in SF that AI has  very high chance of going rogue and trying to kill all humans.  One a spaceship this is a serious thing, as the engineers of the future seem to love putting all functions under the control of a shipboard AI.  This is more reasonable in a military vessel, where the AI can continue to fight the ship even with numerous crew dead, but makes little sense in any other setting.  Doors, for example, don't need to be AI controlled.  Indeed, having simple systems like doors and lighting, along with the division of major systems like life support and thermal control, seems like a logical means of increasing redundancy.  Not only does having seperate systems stop a hostile AI takeover or reduce its danger, but it gives better resilience to accidental damage or failure.  Universal computer control also opens up the spacecraft for electronic warfare to a greater extent.  In the Battlestar Galactica 'Verse the computer systems of Human ships were not networked ship-wide to prevent hacking by the Cylons from taking down all systems at once.  So even when we have the ability to do so, I think it highly unlikely that we will turn over all control to a computer or AI system to the extent that is often seen in SF; there is no need, and a lot of possible dangers.