The aesthetics of sci fi computer technology

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Megabot
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The aesthetics of sci fi computer technology

Post by Megabot » 2018-11-25 08:38am

Being familiar with the main site's Engineering and Star Trek essay, I recently came across a blog post that reminded me of the essay's safety section which argues that high-tech solutions aren't necessarily the best solutions, and can in fact be more unreliable and dangerous than less advanced technology: "Instead of employing the "dead man's switch" principle, their entire design principle is to make the ship utterly dependent, minute by minute, second by second, on the continued operation of numerous active systems. Without the much-ballyhooed structural integrity field, the ship won't even hold together. Without various force fields and containment systems, the ship will explode in a fraction of a second. Even when they take a biohazard on board, they contain it exclusively with a forcefield, which means that the lives of the entire crew are dependent on the continued operation, millisecond by millisecond, of some forcefield generator. I know that bottles and walls may seem "primitive" to the pinheads who write the show, but they work. And in engineering, you use what works. Not necessarily the latest and greatest."

This post applies that same principle to starship console technology:
swan2swan
You know what?

I’m no longer holding Star Trek or Star Wars “accountable” for their clunky-looking sixties-and-seventies future technology.

Why?

Because the Enterprise is off on a years-long voyage through space. There’s no Verizon store, no Radio Shack, no Geek Squad out there. If the Klingons fire photon torpedoes and the bridge shakes and Spock’s head bangs against the fancy iPad72 touchscreen and cracks the glass, the ship’s toast. If Han Solo’s fingerprints get all over the starchart and the touch-calibration is off by half a centimeter, the Falcon is going right into a star. But if Mister Worf accidentally twists the command knob too hard and pops it off, he can just screw that thing right back on and it will keep working. Dust gets in there? Take it apart and clean it out. All the plugs are big and universal, all the power cells are functional and have a decent battery life, and nothing is built to expire in the next six months so you have to buy a new one.

That tech isn’t anachronistic or suffering a bad case of Zeerust–it’s practical, effective, and it works. Apple tried launching its own space exploration craft, it had to come back for full repairs within three months, and then it had to be upgraded over the next two.

Image

But this? This is just good, long-lasting, fully-functional, and reliable craftsmanship.



alexkablob

The actual real-life space shuttles’ electronics looked pretty much like that for their entire lifespan and this is exactly why.

Image

Obviously a touchscreen on a starship wouldn't be as fragile as an iPad, and in fact with materials science of the future it would likely be a lot more durable than anything we can build today. And a touchscreen is a lot more versatile and configurable than a console with physical buttons and switches. But it still doesn't change the fact that if a computer console consists entirely of one big touchscreen ala Star Trek TNG and onward, and said screen takes sufficient damage, the entire console becomes useless. And then there's holographic terminals, which are even more versatile and configurable than touchscreens, especially if they're advanced enough to act as touch controls themselves ala Mass Effect or Dead Space, but as the trope's page image says, "And when the power fails, the whole thing goes dark.* Granted, any sensibly designed holoscreen should be built with multiple redundant emitters and power sources independent of the main power, but it still seems more fragile and prone to failure than a physical console.

So did the Son'a from Star Trek Insurrection have the right idea, with their preference for physical buttons, knobs and switches on their consoles, a stark contrast to Federation over-reliance on touchscreens? Is Mass Effect's ubiquitous touchscreens, and holoscreens, and holo-touchscreens, while cool and futuristic-looking (and are even advanced enough to provide tactile feedback), an example of poor engineering? Or is the best console design a balance between old and new: a combination of rustic and reliable buttons and switches, more advanced and configurable physical touchscreens, and even more advanced holographic emitters? Possibly something along the lines of what we see in Prometheus (minus holoscreens of course), which I liked because it retcons the 80's aesthetics of the Alien series' tech without looking too advanced and out of place with what was already established in prior films.

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Re: The aesthetics of sci fi computer technology

Post by Imperial528 » 2018-11-25 08:55am

A note on Mass Effect: so long as the electronics and projectors are robust under constant use and impact stress, they should hold up just fine, since the interface is a hologram and thus incapable of the usual physical wear and tear.

How they got the things to be physically robust and cost-effective is, I imagine, a mystery, at least from our perspective on how to make such technology.

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Re: The aesthetics of sci fi computer technology

Post by bilateralrope » 2018-11-25 09:17am

Because the Enterprise is off on a years-long voyage through space. There’s no Verizon store, no Radio Shack, no Geek Squad out there.
But, for TNG onwards, there are replicators. Which makes replacing anything they can produce simple.

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Re: The aesthetics of sci fi computer technology

Post by Sea Skimmer » 2018-11-25 01:06pm

Militaries are moving to touch screens fast on a wide range of platforms. You can make them withstand all kinds of shocks, extreme heat and impacts, while being far less prone to fault from stupid things.

Buttons still have a place for important dedicated functions, primarily for ensuring physical separation from other functions. But the idea that a bunch of mechanical systems are going to be more reliable then a touch screen is false, and a lot of the logic in Wong's original essay, while understandable 15 or so years ago, is just not correct and not proven by experience.

The idea that one button breaking still lets you use a console... is wrong. If that button was important you are completely screwed, it does not matter that the others work. If you need the enter key, what does it matter that the 9 button still works? Instead of one reliable part with no moving parts you have a huge number of possible mechanical fault paths and a huge amount of less integrated wiring behind them that can break. This also adds weight and cost, and that will detract from other functions, if only because you buy fewer total systems, but possibly in more direct ways.

In real life you also have the added complication that people need to use gloves, often rather bulky ones if NBC warfare or pressurization is a concern. Which it would be in anything resembling real life, spacecraft, aircraft or otherwise. It's not hard to make a glove that's conductive for pressing a touch screen, but if you want to use mechanical buttons then again, you are locking yourself into a specific high bulk architecture to make this work.

Image
This is the cockpit of the F-35, it still has some mechanical switches but it's dominated by two large displays, with a small secondary display for the all important artificial horizon, though that is only a backup for the helmet display failing in the first place. If desired both these screens can work together to display a ground target image. This display is actually being replaced by a single unit display though in future F-35 builds, though the unit will be subdivided the same way.

Trying to replicate the kind of large display icons and information density this setup allows with non touch displays and a bunch of dedicated gauges would be impossible. Any damage that will knock out a display like this could just as easily screwup anything else you used, that's far more about how rugged the back end is then the front end. The fact is any 'advantage' of a super non integrated display-button-gauge setup become irrelevant real quick if the overall ability of the platform to conduct the mission in the first place is rendered inferior in the process.

If the plane gets shot down because the pilot has to loiter because he can't see the target well enough, who cares that some random button still worked?

Keyboards and the like still have a point if you need to type a lot, but most control functions don't require that or realistically only require a number pad.

Oh and that shuttle cockpit, a huge number of those lights, including about everything on the ceiling, are circuit breakers. A rather large number of air crashes meanwhile have been caused by pilots pulling the wrong dedicated breaker in an emergency, so much so that Airbus has begun hiding them down in the avionics bay on the basis that very few of them ever actually malfunction or are useful to trip in an emergency that wouldn't already trip them. Military aircraft for the most part already do that. Prime example of misuse of a breaker causing a crash, see Transair Flight 235. One engine failed. The crew killed power to the other engine by mistake and they fell out of the sky on someones dash camera.

I don't think that would have happened if the crew had been looking at some kind of visual graphical display that showed the troubled engine high lighted, and the other working engine clear as a distinct unit. But that's the kind of thing you can't do with dedicated controls without taking up a huge amount of space, like a power plant control room the size of a large room, but you can do in the cockpit of a plane or inside a tank or helicopter with multi function displays.
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Re: The aesthetics of sci fi computer technology

Post by Zixinus » 2018-11-25 04:49pm

The question isn't whether touchscreens or buttons, but the engineering standards of either. You can make touchscreens rugged and resistant to damage. You can make a simple button fail due to bad materials that are not resistant to wear and tear.

Buttons and levers seem simpler to use because they are old technology. Simpler too, yes, but the infrastructure making them and experience about them is over a century. Whereas touchscreens are five decades old. It is true that they require special machines.

But on the Enterprise or Star Trek, they can just replicate a new touchscreen like they replicate food and probably recycle the old one with very high efficiency. So it's also a question of how hard it is to replace complex technology. A switch is lot less simple to make with medieval technology than modern one.
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Re: The aesthetics of sci fi computer technology

Post by Lord Revan » 2018-11-25 10:52pm

I think part of the reason why they use touchscreens exclusive from TNG onward (in-universe that is, ENT and DSC use a mix of physical buttons and touchscreens) is flexibility, if you can make a touchscreen that is a reliable as physical button but can be reconfigured on the fly so to speak which one would you prefer.

and it's not like LCARS is shown to be any less reliable then the ENT-TOS style of mixing.
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Re: The aesthetics of sci fi computer technology

Post by Batman » 2018-11-25 11:54pm

The problem with LCARS isn't LCARS, it's that it's apparently used to control a setup that is based on the 'fundamental interconnectedness of all things' approach to engineering. The problem isn't the touchscreens, which do have significant advantages over mechanical controls and aren't actually all that more prone to failure, but that TNG and up the systems they're designed 'to' control are so intricately and pointlessly interconnected a hit to the galleys can short out the Warp core.

As to replicating components, you apparently can replicate phasers so replicating new control panels doesn't seem far-fetched. Fat lot of good that will do you in the middle of a battle.
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Re: The aesthetics of sci fi computer technology

Post by Elheru Aran » 2018-11-26 01:06am

There is a difference, I think, in a hardened, purpose-built touchscreen that's only going to operate a certain set of functions, versus the TNG notion of an universal touchscreen that can do pretty much anything. Changing a physical button in the middle of combat isn't really going to be any more convenient than unplugging a broken screen and putting in a new one-- that's what auxiliary bridges and backup controls are for. To give TNG some credit, they did occasionally put the battle-bridge to use, but only whenever the saucer was separated IIRC. Don't think we ever saw it happen much, if at all, on any of the other shows.

Trek has its own whole set of issues that it should be a whole other category of 'Bad Sci-Fi Design'...
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Re: The aesthetics of sci fi computer technology

Post by Sea Skimmer » 2018-11-27 03:35am

Honestly how many times did they repair the ship without a space dock after all the consoles outright exploded? The durability and underway repair capacity of the Enterprise seems to be really damn good in certain kinds of scenarios. It's just plagued by detail issues that make the damn thing want to explode constantly, even though it actually holds up fairly well to actual enemy weapons fire, better then it probably has any right to do so with such a vast number of windows. Which I find a bit amusing since it explicitly had a double hull.


As far as spare parts goes, the actual number of mission critical LCARS terminals doesn't seem to be that high compared to the size of the ship. A few dozen on the bridge, a few dozen in engineering? And some of them may well be using the same front end pieces. For a 600m long ship packing physical spares for this wouldn't be too great of a problem even if you couldn't readily replicate them. Enterprise is really damn big and obviously has no shortage of spare room given the crew quarters and how the number 10 lounge seemed to be open to everyone onboard yet was never very crowded. Every cargo bay we saw had plenty of spare room too.

Of course one might then wonder why they didn't put some more armor or physical redundancy on key areas. Enterprise is a bit like a battleship without the armored hatches in all the armored bits having been fitted.
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