So here’s a thing Gentleman Jon Sung made me think of: Star Trek viewscreens.
Here’s what they’re used for 99% of the time:
- expensive videophones (common)
- expensive window into what’s going on at other angles around the ship (less common but not uncommon)
All of these are very straightforward uses of the idea. But the reality is these are ships, moving in three dimensions, sometimes dealing with other ships also moving in three dimensions around them. A single POV viewpoint isn’t the best way to display this information.
I can say this with authority because of video games! I’m not sure you can call what I’m about to describe “research”, but I do, and you can’t argue there’s definitely been progress over the past 10-20 years in video games towards finding better representations of virtual worlds. In games knowing where things are and where you’re going to land after a jump is important, so communicating this clearly is paramount. And the takeaway is this: the more information you have on a 3D environment the easier it is to navigate, and a viewpoint in which you can see your body (or ship!) gives you more information.
Imagine someone hovering behind you, slightly above your head. They can see pretty much all that you can in front of you, but can also see going on around you to the left and right, a little of what’s going on behind you too, and what’s beneath you (usually, the ground you’re standing on, but in space it might be ALIENS).
This is the reason first-person platformers suck (How far away am I from the edge? If I look at my feet, how can I see where I want to jump to? Whoops nevermind I died) and third-person platformers are more fun (I can see the edge of this cliff, my feet, where I am and where I intend to land all at once! Oh Mario, let’s get married).
A third-person perspective gives you way more environmental information that a first-person one. And it’s kinda weird that in the future they’re still using the “camera on front of the hull pointing forward” metaphor, isn’t it?
You might say “that this only works in games, where you can move a virtual camera freely - we’re talking about (Star Trek) REALITY, Ryan, and there’s no floating camera behind and above the Enterprise”. To this I say, okay, no, there isn’t, but the Enterprise has tons of sensors all over. It should be possible for the Enterprise computers, which, you’ll recall, use a non-propulsive warp field to let them run calculations at faster than light speeds (note: this is awesome) to collect that data and transform it into a visual representation of space around the ship instantly, in as close to real-time as you can get. If you want to get fancy, throw in non-visual information made visual: projected paths of ships, properties of nearby spacial elements, the works.
I get why it’s not done on the shows (TOS aired in the 60s and the years of distributed experimental research on representing 3D environments on screens done through game development hadn’t been done yet), and I think if it were done it would be easy for it to look cheesy (the downside of us seeing stuff like this in games is that, when we see it elsewhere, it looks like a game), but I think in real life you’d want a more schematic, intuitive, information-rich display over “here are the stars we are flying towards right now”. Game interfaces are built with the idea that useful information has to be easily available at all times, as life-or-death decisions are being made constantly. HEY, SOUNDS LIKE LIFE ON A STARSHIP TO ME.
Even in Star Trek computer games, fighting through the viewscreen is hard and feels like you’re looking through a telescope, and it’s so much more freeing when you can switch to a third-person out-in-space viewpoint. ESPECIALLY when the computer can show and target and fly towards enemy ships automatically. I feel certain that Kirk and Picard and even the other more dud captains would vastly prefer something like what I propose to what they’re forced to work with currently.
Thus concludes the nerdiest post on tumblr I have ever written… SO FAR.
tl;dr: I think games over the past 20 years have done actual experimental research into representing environments on a screen. Also: hey Star Trek
THIS is what the internet is meant to be used for: science fiction analysis done thoughtful and done awesome.
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