Saturday, May 3, 2014

How has "science fiction impacted your life"? Someone asked me that.

Well, I can't tell you how sci fi impacted "my life", but I can provide one example: Below is a shot of the pilot's chair and controls on the flight deck of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

When the Space Shuttle design was finalized in 1972 (!), it used an IBM AP-101 avionics computer. This device had 16 bits of RAM and 1MB of memory (about as much as your programmable coffee pot). The computer was very limited in memory, and by the early 1980s was seriously out of date. But since the Shuttle could not be extensively updated due to weight, more advanced computers were not possible because they required much more power and extensive cooling.

NASA got around this by making the AP-101s programmable. That is, a complex computer program would be broken down into bits. The computer would work on one small part of the program, and then store the results. The next bit would be hand-loaded by the astronaut, and the results of the first computations inputted into this program. So on and so on, until a very complex result was reached.

Fast-forward to 1989. Star Trek: The Next Generation is entering production. Gene Roddenberry asked that the new Enterprise bridge look less "busy" than the old show's bridge. The lights, switches, and glowing buttons was too old-fashioned. Roddenberry very much wanted a more futuristic "clean look" to the new bridge.

Art supervisor Michael Okuda designed a fictional control panel based on the NASA one used in the Space Shuttle. Dubbed "LCARS" -- for Library Computer Access/Retrieval System -- the goal was to have a programmable interface just like the Shuttle. Moreover, as the LCARS system was programmed, the panel beneath the fingers would change (sometimes significantly) to reveal the new set of programs available to the user. LCARS was designed to be graphical rather than character or input-driven, because Okuda reasoned that what Starfleet staff were doing were highly complex duties -- most of which were already programmed or dealt with by the computer.

At first, LCARS display panels were made of backlit colored plexiglas. But when the show entered its second season, many screens (particularly those in the rear of the bridge) were replaced by video monitors which displayed animation. When an actor "progammed" the LCARS system, the animation would be triggered off-stage to go to the next level.

The LCARS programming language proved so innovative and popular that Star Trek producers used it for all cultures. Below are examples of both Romulan and Cardassian control panels which used essentially the same graphical programming language. (LCARS is kind of like the wheel.)

NASA was so impressed with the LCARS system developed by Paramount that they moved to a graphical programming system for some of the Space Shuttle's computers in the late 1990s!!!

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