From smartphones to Malls to now Spacecrafts- Touchscreens are taking over UI

The latest SpaceX spacecraft features the most advanced touchscreen UI instead of conventional buttons and gears

Gone are the days when touchscreens were only limited to smartphones. In today’s world, touchscreens are found in not just smartphones but laptops, TVs, airports, malls, to now even Spacecrafts!

2020 marked the first time SpaceX dropped the dials and buttons approach and went the touchscreen route. This was the first time touchscreens have taken over the UI in such a capacity. With the Dragon spacecraft setting off on May 30th, the astronauts had to ditch years of training their body and muscle memory and learn the touchscreen UI way.

Using a touchscreen UI, you can access numerous critical functionalities that are laid out in front of you. It becomes easy to control the device, enter data, retrieve information, and perform other tasks. The ease-of-use and multiple functionalities reduce the required cognitive load to ensure you have improved mental processing capacity and that you can focus on more complex or important tasks.

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By increasing the ease of use and reducing the necessary cognitive load, touchscreen UIs help reduce potential human errors. Moreover, many UIs ask you for confirmation before performing an action, which gives you a brief pause to consider which is the appropriate approach.

Touchscreen UI reaches SpaceX crew ship model

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley became the first two astronauts to set off into space with a touchscreen UI-operated spacecraft when they set off from the Kennedy Space Center on May 30th, 2020. The spacecraft reached the ISS without any complications while also testing out the latest features designed by SpaceX. The spacecraft’s dashboard had a completely new look. The levers, gauges, and dials were replaced by a sleek touchscreen along with a few buttons.

Touchscreen UI with human-centred design transforming the spacecraft

The Dragon spacecraft had a futuristic interior, equipped with three huge touchscreens and around 30 buttons, which was a massive change from the 2,000 buttons, circuit-breakers, and dials normally in the Space Shuttle.

This shift to touchscreen UI has changed space travel forever.

To go into the specifics, the goal of the SpaceX team was to follow a human-centred design when coming up with the touchscreen UI. The process included “safety” and “thoroughly identifying the minimum crew interactions” as success criteria.

The human-centred design in SpaceX was the concept that the team would follow a routine that is intuitive. Tasks become easier to accomplish by increasing accessibility. It also improves efficiency, safety, and happiness among those involved.

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With this in mind, the software team of SpaceX developed the dashboard and identified the different commands for typical and emergency protocols. They even had to identify which date would have been mission-relevant and included it in the main display. Emergency hardware buttons including cabin fire response, emergency deorbit, break out button for aborting a station approach, cancel command, and execute command had to be designed for functioning in case the display wasn’t functioning as expected.

Chromium – The key to Touchscreen UI used in the Dragon Spacecraft

The software team of Dragon made use of Chromium for developing the dashboard’s UI. Chromium is a free, lightweight browser framework. In fact, Google uses Chromium as the Chrome Browser’s core. Chrome is the browser that dominates the world of the internet today. As surprising as it sounds, the same codes that help people look for sleeping cat videos helped the astronauts reach the ISS (International Space Station).

According to the Reddit AMA, Sofian Hnaide claimed that Chromium was originally meant to be the proof of concept to NASA. They weren’t actually intending to use it in real-life applications. As the testing process continued, they found the stacks were reliable and robust, which drove them to move forward with the design. With Chromium, the dashboard was given modernized features and the team was given access to a more fluent pool of features.

Moreover, Chromium was only surface level. The UI and dashboard look straight out of a scene from Star Trek, but in reality, they used commands from Linux and microcontroller backend. SpaceX claims that they made use of a combination of HTML/CSS/Javascript for the display, Python for testing, and C++ for vehicle controls.



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