Part of what makes the Star Wars series great is all the attention paid to the details of the long, long ago, far far away galaxy everything resides in. I saw Rogue One this weekend, and I’m happy to say it’s crammed full of all sorts of exciting technical stuff, and now you and I are going to scrutinize the crap out of it. Prepare yourself for some painfully geeky shit.
(I should start by saying that there are very minor spoilers below, but probably nothing you didn’t know from having watched Episode IV. Either way, be warned.)
Not only did Rogue One fill in a lot of plot details that led up to the original Star Wars movie back in 1977, but it also provided a wealth of information about how the Star Wars universe works, on a technical level. For example, the movie had three different portable mass storage standards represented! Three!
What I want to do is to look at some of the mundane technical details from the movie, and from that see if we can extrapolate a bit about the socioeconomic and cultural environment at large.
Before I get into this, I think the biggest overarching takeaway that we can infer from the technological details of the Star Wars universe as shown in Rogue One is that the whole society is not particularly consumer-driven, like ours is. Machines seem to be built more for industrial and military use, prioritizing ruggedness and longevity over almost all other concerns. Technological progress is highly advanced, but focused on big-picture achievements over convenience, comfort, or aesthetics and entertainment.
For example, this is a society that has perfected faster-than-light travel and communication, developed artificial intelligences that appear to be sentient and capable of fully independent operation—yet they seem incapable of producing display devices capable of accurate color reproduction or really high-quality images.
Sure, they have holographic displays, but it seems like absolutely nobody cares how shitty they all look. There’s hardly any machines that seem to be dedicated to leisure use; I know we mostly see military hardware, but there are cities and personal dwellings shown, and almost every bit of technology in there is utilitarian.
Well, there is one very famous exception, the holochess board on the Millennium Falcon. But that’s pretty much it.
User experience seems to not be too big a concern as well. There’s no touch screens to be found, just clunky physical buttons and levers, often unlabeled, that people just seem to know how to use. There don’t seem to be too many standards of interface design, either; every bit of equipment seems to have its own idiosyncratic control scheme.
Enough overview—let’s get into what you’re all here for: irritatingly detailed examinations of machines that don’t really exist!
Since the movie is essentially about getting a particular data file uploaded from one server, transmitted to another server, and then physically copied onto a new medium, it’s worth talking about the sorts of storage devices used in the film.
As I said before, I noticed three distinct types of removable mass storage, which we’ll just call A, B, and C here, for “Ah! A way to store data,” “But now another way!,” and “Come on, a third way?”
The A device is sort of like the Rogue One equivalent of a flash drive; it seems to be a small, easy way to transfer relatively small data files. This one in the movie held a short but important holographic message.
A hologram has an audio track, and a full 360 degree visual of a given subject. The resolution and quality of the video part isn’t great, so I’m guessing it’s not that big a file. It’s possible this little device has a roughly similar capacity to our Earth cheap little USB flash drives.
It’s also possible this format is designed only for holographic use. Since we only saw it used in a hologram projector, we just don’t have enough information to know.
The B device is the most important to the plot, and was referenced in the original Star Wars as “data tapes.” So, perhaps this is a cartridge that encloses reels of tape, sort of like a VHS or Betamax-type tape. The semi-circular details on the housing corroborate this idea as well. (Yes, it’s really because these movies are products of the 1970s, but put yourself in that world for a second.)
This tape cartridge has a nice little carrying handle, and is a high-density data format, since it holds the entire Death Star plans. It’s mentioned that this file is huge at several points in the movie, and is cited as why it’s so difficult to transmit non-physically.
One interesting note is that the B high-density tape format seems to use some kind of four channel format, based on what we see as separate bars when the data on the tape cartridge is being transmitted:
See how there’s four concurrent signal strength (and maybe progress) bars? There must be four tracks of data on these things.
The C data storage device is seen on the Rebel ship, the Tantive IV. It appears to be some sort of solid-state device, but much higher density than the A device, since it’s holding the entire Death Star plans.
Since this device is what’s handed to Princess Leia, we can infer that this is a format an R2 droid can read, and that an R2 droid has enough storage capacity to hold all the data, since the data then goes from that device into R2-D2, where it’s the trigger for the whole of the original three movies.
Is it a newer format? It looks more advanced to me. Is the Empire just too bureaucratic and huge to upgrade to every new format that comes along? Hopefully these questions will be answered in upcoming movies.
Are there any words that get people more excited than large-scale, long-term data storage? I fucking doubt it.
Rogue One is also a movie about large-scale data storage, and offers up some of the most exciting Imperial Server Room action you can imagine. The Empire’s approach to long-term data storage fits very much within its overall approach to technology: massive, mechanical, semi-automated, and strangely physical. There’s a vast library of stored, high-density data tape cartridges, but there appears to be no way to electronically get the data from the tapes and display that data on a remote device.
Instead, the tape must be physically accessed. A computer is able to index the location of any data cartridge, but, despite the massive amount of droids in use, the system relies on a manual control system to physically retrieve data cartridges.
The computer knows the location of any cartridge, and can indicate the location via a blinking light. Yet, instead of simply sending a droid-operated retrieval device, the retrieval device is hand-operated:
This seems like a terrible idea to me, way too slow and cumbersome, and opening up all kinds of possibilities for biological-being error. Why can’t the tapes be read in situ? Security reasons?
You know, one of the advantages of the Empire that doesn’t get discussed much is that they seem capable of designating and enforcing galaxy-wide standards for all sorts of things. Take physical data connections, for example:
We see the same huge-ass, clunky, rotating computer data port on droids and computers and spaceships throughout the decades and decades-long timeline of the Star Wars saga. Considering that here on earth you can’t even find a DB-25 RS-232 serial connector on any computer made today, that’s remarkable.
We even see what looks like this port used for a huge reel of stiff, cumbersome-looking cable, with a long plug designed to be plugged in by hand. This must be the type of computer interface connector. The Death Star’s printer in the copy room must use this same connector, too. And some Storm Trooper’s digital camera.
The wide use of standards seems to carry over to the storage devices, too: when the Death Star data tape cartridge was taken to the machine that would transmit the file, there was no 15 minute scene of Jyn Erso rummaging through drawers looking for an adapter to make the cartridge fit into the slot.
We saw the big mechanical camels known as AT-ATs again (here a version called AT-ACTs), and while it’s always fun to watch them stomp trees and crush Rebels, there was one very exciting detail to note:
They’re modular! That makes a lot of sense. Once again, our standards-loving Empire seems to have established a modular cargo/crew container standard, and the walkers seem to accept these modules, which I bet really helps with logistics and material and personnel handling issues.
I don’t understand the logic of why certain control panels are placed where they are. There must be some technical restrictions I’m not understanding, because there’s no other good justification for putting the main transceiver dish controls out on this absurd catwalk:
Why is that out there? Couldn’t the controls for the dish be inside? There’s a little screen with the dish position shown on it—do you really need visual confirmation of the dish? Is that it? I mean, I’m glad they at least put up a railing, but this just seems like a terrible place for crucial controls.
This sort of design shows up over and over again; the idea of centralizing controls or allowing remote access to controls is inconsistent and haphazard at best.
If you’re like me and think that the shitty holograms just aren’t worth it, there do seem to be screen-based videophones as an option, though the color reproduction on that screen isn’t winning any prizes, either.
After years of wondering, we can all finally relax, because Rogue One has showed us what progress bars look like in the Star Wars universe. You ready?
Look at that. A typical monochrome screen, sure, but a nice progress bar implementation, with segmented bars and a little inset countdown timer. This is the kind of perfect detail that’s going to make my fan fiction about the guy who works at the Imperial records facility copying data tapes for remote outposts so fucking awesome.
Holy crap, this was tedious even for me. When I get a chance to watch the movie again, I’ll pay special attention to HVAC and water treatment solutions, so we can keep this party going!