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.

15 comments:

  1. The prime reason there are no touch screens in military vehicles isn't the fact that bottoms aren't illuminating or hard to typed on the move. It's because touch screens aren't ruggedized enough for military use.
    With sliding doors – if door under pressure can be open automatically by an electric motor it is possible to add to the mechanically overwrite some transmitter gears to enhance the user pull to break the door sealing…
    Or more easy, add to the emergency manual controls some valve to break the pressure difference between the two sides of the door

    Yoel

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    1. Good points. With the touchscreen though one thing I forgot to mention is the difficulty of typing on a holographic keyboard suspended in mid air. It would make even the worst touchscreen preferable under any circumstance but is still quite common.

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  2. Blue HUDs.
    For some reason, visual artists decided that blue is the Colour of the Future, and each time one of those fancy displays (holo optional) appears, chances are it will be monochrome blue.

    The problem is, as NASA discovered while extensively studying the science of efficient displays, blue is the colour we have the worst performance at shape recognition (because our blue receptors are less tightly packed on the retina).
    This is why real-life HUDs are green (middle of visible spectrum, best performances) or red (for low-light environment, and still better than blue).

    In SciFi shows or films, this is often paired with the please-drive-me-insane beeps at each action, under the (IMHO flimsy) excuse about giving additional cues to the spectator about stuff happening. In video-games, this a lesser-known of those tricks to look good on screenshots at the expense of in-game practicality.

    It is actually why I mostly played the MMC instead of the ISA side at Shattered Horizon: in this space FPS, they are pretty much entirely symmetrical, at the exception of the former having yellow HUDs (and suits) and the latter blue ones.

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    1. I had noticed that HUDs and similar are usually green in real life, but never knew why. Definitely wouldn't have picked blue for the worst colour though.

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  3. Yay, finally new post!
    The problem with sliding doors is that they can be hacked, making new possibilities for some space terrorists or government controls. But, the main advantage is that they are automated, so the ship can close them without using the crew, it's helpful in case of hull breaches. Also, can you imagine giant Death Star or even my personal favorite Sulaco with normal doors looking like those on subs? I mean, stormtroopers running there and there just to close the doors because someone forget about it? Or, in Sulaco example, computer waking marines from hibernation for same purpose? Looks bad. Oh, and I forgot that normal doors can have automated systems, like electric motors, but... You see my point.
    Nice post, keep your work Moran! What are your plans for near future posts?
    Sorry for my English, it's terrible sometimes ;)

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  4. Yay, finally new post!
    The problem with sliding doors is that they can be hacked, making new possibilities for some space terrorists or government controls. But, the main advantage is that they are automated, so the ship can close them without using the crew, it's helpful in case of hull breaches. Also, can you imagine giant Death Star or even my personal favorite Sulaco with normal doors looking like those on subs? I mean, stormtroopers running there and there just to close the doors because someone forget about it? Or, in Sulaco example, computer waking marines from hibernation for same purpose? Looks bad. Oh, and I forgot that normal doors can have automated systems, like electric motors, but... You see my point.
    Nice post, keep your work Moran! What are your plans for near future posts?
    Sorry for my English, it's terrible sometimes ;)

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  5. The F-35 is notable for relying on a large touchscreen for its multi-function display rather than the traditional rim of buttons. See http://i.imgur.com/uSeh3fK.jpg

    I do have to wonder how well it works but presumably they've given it some thought. I immediately think of touchscreen center consoles on cars and how impractical they seem - I don't want to have to look at the panel when I'm driving if I want to change radio stations or do something else. A knob I can find without looking.

    There are prototypes for touchscreens that can extrude physical buttons on demand. Not completely sure how they work, something to do with fluids expanding the screen at just the right spot. Probably wouldn't be much of a stretch for a scifi setting to include more advanced variants of these.

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    1. 'Buttons on demand' does sound interesting, and would work very well in a far future setting; several different keyboard layouts could be available to deal with different tasks, for example. I hadn't realised that the F-35 used one, but it remains to be seen just how effective it is. Although, given that jet fighters are designed to be flown HOTAS - Hands On Throttle And Stick - it is possible that the touchscreen will only be used to input information on the ground. In that situation the greater flexibility of a touch display could make things a lot easier.

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    2. If holograms don't work, and hard buttons on demand are the future, that ironically makes the TARDIS a good hard sf control room- physical easy to understand button consoles that can change form when needed.

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  6. Sean Robert Meaney19 March 2016 at 05:39

    As to doors on spaceships...liberator on blake seven had big thick airlock hatch that opened inward mechanically on hinges.

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  7. An interesting article on the visual tropes of science fiction. Especially arguments against their use or rather the limited applications that they could be used for. Speaking of which, when it comes to touchscreen interfaces it would probably depend upon the setting at large though as I've mentioned before it would have limited application rather than universal. For example, touch screens would be best utilized to quickly and efficiently scroll and shift through data and even isolate a particular piece of data when under "cruise" or Condition Four. Condition Three would be pushing Moore's Law. When under Condition Three or higher, there would be an emphasis on utilizing physical buttons or at the most extreme the HOTAS philosophy. Though the whole "buttons on demand" mentioned by Elukka does add the possibility of touchscreen interface at Condition Three, even Condition Two.

    As for Transparent Holographic Screens that seem to be all the rage nowadays, well the only advantage I can think up is in the ability to "physically" manipulate an image as if it were an actual object, far more intuitive than using buttons or a combination of buttons. Well, that and to save mass compared to the equivalent monitor, but that's probably cutting hairs. Then again, like the whole simulation and first person gameplay, holograms can help augment the user that the poor ol' Mark I eyeball can't do on its own. Then again, that's probably stretching things a bit.

    The only thing I can figure that sliding pressure doors would have is to rapidly close off an area to ensure that it doesn't spread across the entire spacecraft. I imagine that said pressure doors would actually be strategically located and are held open so long as there is a flow of energy to keep them open. Once a disaster is detected, and ideally isolated from each other to prevent hacking so that the only thing that's networked are the electronics that report the disaster, power is immediately shut off and the sliding pressure doors close off the area. Though I think that, for added safety, there would be some kind of sensor that would slow the action if it detects the presense of an incomming crew member and allow them to escape unharmed. Naturally there would be manual cranks, wheels, whatever to open said pressure door even when power is out. Though if it actually moves the door or just generates electiricty that allows it to move, I haven't really decided upon. As an added safety measure, said manual controls do not move if there's a steep pressure and/or temperature differential.

    As for Universal Computer Control, yeah it's probably better to isolate these systems and networks to increase ruggedness and damage control while limiting spacecraft wide failures. Probably makes it easier to identify the problem so it can be easily fixed. Double points if these isolated systems don't have wifi.

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  8. Sean Robert Meaney6 July 2016 at 05:09

    I was thinking about sliding doors. It only needs 'a roll of foil' as the door. The foil slides between two frames unrolling and the foil is locked down by the second frame.

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  9. Quote:"hinged doors should open onto the side expected to retain pressure so that the pressure holds the door shut rather than blowing it open."
    It is calle a plug door. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plug_door

    Plug doors were used on the Apollo docking hatch but after the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire, the exterior doors on Apollo capsule and lander opened outwards in order to save space on the inside and so they could be more easily opened in an emergency to escape.

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