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Control rooms – even sexier than Hollywood imagines
Posted on Wednesday, October 14, 2015
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Jurassic Park, one of my favorite movies, has made its reappearance in theaters with the 4th movie in the saga, called Jurassic World. The movie is bigger (as is the park), and this is reflected in the size of the control room. Yes, just as in the original, a lot of the action in this sequel takes place in the control room. And come to think of it, there are a lot of movies in which the control room plays a starring part. Why? Because control rooms are just darn sexy places – at least on the big screen!

Control rooms are quite handy environments for scriptwriters. Showing the nerve center of an operation, where all of the information comes together, gives the audience an overview of the action as it is taking place. In this way, movies dealing with disasters, space travel, or large-scale criminal pursuits explain the action and drama from inside the control room. (For a nice overview, see Nathan Shedroff and Chris Noessle’s website ? these two designers / SF enthusiasts have compiled a list of future technologies at: www.scifiinterfaces.com.)

Probably the first control room I ever saw was the one in the movie WarGames (1983) (which I saw as a kid), in which a young Matthew Broderick accidentally hacks the US Army’s mainframe (yes, these things could happen back in 1983). We don’t really see that many differences between that control room and the one in Jurassic World (or The Martian, another 2015 control room-centered release). Yes, the CRT displays have been replaced by LCD models with touch screens, and the large video wall was hardly ‘seamless’ back then, but the actions performed by the staff are very similar. The operators focus on their own part of the action, the large display mainly shows CCTV footage and a map – and the supervisor is still shouting ? trying to see more details on specific events as soon as possible to increase his and the team’s understanding of the situation. Only in The Hunger Games we see a different setup, with operators sitting around a central hologram.

We don’t see any screen-sharing between operators – or between different control rooms. We don’t see any interaction with mobile devices. We don’t see much use of social media or other content provided by commoners. All the things that are possible – and used ? in today’s control rooms. So, in a way, reality has surpassed the imagination of the Hollywood screenwriters: they can put a man on Mars, but they don’t know how to integrate Twitter feeds in a control room.

Hollywood has a number of conventions, dating from the 80s or so, that still come back in a lot of movies: it takes about a minute to trace a phone call, all telephone numbers start with 555, and laser guns have visible (and quite slow-moving) beams. And apparently, the action in the control room is among these myths. That’s why we kindly invite Hollywood to visit a real-life control room – they’ll see that it’s even sexier in real life!