Technical Journal: Computers

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By Andrew Modro

Computers: one of the most standard elements of modern science fiction. It's hard to envision sci-fi without them. Computers, from the elegantly simple abacus to the mighty machines of today, have aided us for centuries, and with new breakthroughs, their development extends far into any future we can foresee.

Computers in STAR FRONTIERS are pretty much ubiquitous. They appear everywhere, running almost everything. Even on the Frontier, life in the STAR FRONTIERS universe is high-tech. Computers are essential parts of vehicles, spacecraft, and even the gear utilized by sentient beings on every world. From the office towers in the cities to the camps of wanderers in the wilderness, computers are an intrinsic factor of just about every aspect of life. While technically any device that "computes" can be considered a computer in one form or another, for the purposes of this article, we use the common definition of the word "computer", meaning an electronic machine that can gather, store, manipulate and output data in any form, in real-time or on-demand.


Differences with Modern Technology

The similarities between modern computers and those in the universe of STAR FRONTIERS are obvious. Both are electronic devices that manipulate data, utilizing programs written for them to give them instructions. Both accept input and generate output in various forms.

The differences between STAR FRONTIERS computers and those with which players and GMs will be familiar arise from the fact that STAR FRONTIERS computers are far-future outgrowths of modern technology. These differences include not just the physical and systemic, but also terminology.

For example, when a Yazirian computer programmer speaks of a "program", he does not mean a discrete, individual software application in the modern sense. When he says "program", he means a suite of individual applications unified into a functional whole for a specific purpose -- much the same way his own Computers skill is made up of multiple subskills. He may use his voice to generate input, speaking his commands to the computer, or make gestures which the computer can "see" with an electronic eye. The information he gets from the computer can be visual, in the form of text or images on screens or in holograms, or perhaps auditory, with the computer speaking back to him.

STAR FRONTIERS computers tend to hold in their memories only a few of these complex, broad-ranging program-suites, instead of the typical modern hard drive, which can be cluttered with scores of unrelated applications.

Storage and memory of STAR FRONTIERS computers is light-years beyond our current capacities. A single "function point" is the equivalent of many gigabytes or even terabytes of modern information technology. Many of the applications within a program are larger than the more involved program suites of today, necessitating a far greater ability to store and access information.

We are beginning to explore some of these technological avenues today. STAR FRONTIERS computers use fully-realized and long-developed extensions of these ideas.


Programs are the "skills" of any computer. A program not only gives the computer instructions, but allows the computer to utilize its resources. In modern times the word "program" often means a specific software application, an individual piece. In STAR FRONTIERS, a program is a collection of linked applications, a package of software that enables a computer to perform all aspects of a task.

Many different programs exist, and there are many different versions of each program. Lightweight, small programs (with low function point ratings) take little power or space, but may not include all the software applications necessary to handle more complex aspects of a particular task. Heavier, larger programs (with higher function point ratings) ensure the computer has the ability to handle the task and any variables or unexpected developments, but also require more space and power. Those with limited access to computer memory and computational power will use the lowestcomplexity version of a program that they can get away with.

A program is designed to be a self-sufficient whole. Altering a program involves a laborious search through the interconnected applications to see how they rely upon each other, which can take time and effort. Simply changing a few lines of code usually won't do; the entire thing has to be rebalanced. This is where the Manipulate Programs subskill comes into play. Without the ability to see and interpret how a program is woven together, a character will have a much harder time changing that balance.

The basic STAR FRONTIERS Alpha Dawn rules state that when a character purchases a computer, she is actually purchasing both the software and the hardware, much the same as our modern business model. However, those same rules also state that the power to run each program is a "computer circuit module". Those either unfamiliar with or uncomfortable with the early 1980s "hobby kit" hardware model, wherein a computer is handassembled out of circuit boards, can instead visualize it as the character purchasing storage (hard drive), memory and processor sufficient to run the purchased programs.

Input Methods

A computer can have powerful programs ready to run, but without data, there is little it can do. A computer receives information from the outside in various ways: from its own program output, from connected devices, from other computers, and from users.

Programs often make use of the output from their constituent applications as part of their normal functioning. Data can also be acquired externally through sensory devices or from media readers, which extract content from portable storage media. Computer networks exchange data at high speed and can work on multiple aspects of a task at the same time, greatly increasing efficiency and power. Finally, computer users can enter data directly in multiple forms, either providing information or making requests.

User input is traditionally performed through a keyboard. However, there are other methods, each with their own advantages and drawbacks. One of the most popular "alternative" user input methods is voice command. A computer can easily interpret a multitude of languages (such technology is the basis of the PolyVox device, for example) and obey spoken commands. One drawback to this method is that the computer could have difficulty differentiating between an actual command and conversation spoken in its "hearing" range.

Another popular method is somatic command input, or "gesture control". The computer can observe a user through an electronic eye and, based on posture and movement, interpret silent commands. For example, the system can mimic the movements of the user's hands through a "virtual interface", approximating Virtual Reality. (This particular somatic method is often used with a head-worn visor display, immersing the user visually in the virtual interface.) A drawback to this method is that the different species move in different ways, and interpretations can become difficult if the computer is programmed to react to the gestures of a Human but is dealing with a Dralasite user.

A common variant of keyboard input is the holographic display. Rather than reacting to full gestures, the computer's sensor only records when fingers, pseudopods or other pointing devices "touch" a particular location in space. allowing the user to "type" on a keyboard image made of pure light. This kind of keyboard can be projected and follow the user almost anywhere, making it much more practical than a physical keyboard, and can be modified almost instantly to the user's preferences. The drawback is that the projector costs much more than a simple keyboard would.

Output Methods

Once a computer has run its programs, it often has to transmit the results to the user, as well as store the information. The standard method of display is the old standby of the screen unit, but other methods exist as well.

A popular method among those with visual difficulty is audio output. In essence, the computer speaks to the user, verbally telling the results or communicating with the user. This method is much slower than visual outputs, but can be fine-tuned to give the illusion of sentient interaction.

Holographic or "tri-D" displays separate output display from the screen and allow the results to be projected in midair. These are commonly paired with holographic keyboard input, both of which are often used in small mobile units.

Hardcopy is still an option, even in STAR FRONTIERS. Information can be printed on many different materials, including standard paper and thin plastic "flimsy" sheets which can have their contents altered electronically.

Storage can be achieved magnetically (as with modern hard drives), optically (burned to laser-read disc, or holographic recording within special crystals) or even in quantum form. Each species has its own prefered storage methods, outgrowths of their individual technologies, but the Frontier is quickly mixing and changing those methods.

The Future

While these technologies are truly amazing, there is still room for computers to grow and change even further. With the mingling of Human, Yazirian, Dralasite and Vrusk technologies (as well as those being discovered and brought in by contact with still more species), the capabilities of computers are expanding at astonishing rates. The future is wide open; such things as direct linkage between sentient minds and their machines may become reality. Anything is possible.

New Items

These devices can be added to a new or existing computer system at any time. Installation of one of these devices ordinarily requires no skill roll, though tweaking them to link with nonstandard programming or systems may require Manipulate Program checks at the refereeā€™s discretion.

Device Cost (Cr) Weight (kg)
Voice Control 100 1
Speech Output 100 1
Somatic Control 300 special
Holographic Keyboard 250 special
Holographic Display 200 2

Voice Control: This package includes the module for receiving voice commands and the necessary drivers to interpret and implement them. A Voice Control module does not require any of the computer's function points. The "hearing" range of the module's pickup is approximately 10 meters.

Once connected, the module can be set to accept vocal commands from up to five "trusted" voices. Once the list of "trusted" voices is full, a voice must be removed before another can be added. Voices must be ranked from first to fifth, to avoid conflicting orders being issued. The commands of a higher-ranked voice will always override those of a lower-ranked one.

Standard Voice Control modules utilize a pair of codewords to begin and cease accepting vocal commands. These codewords must be spoken at the beginning and end of a command or set of commands, to avoid having the computer pick up erroneous commands from normal speech. Example codewords include a name for the computer, to simulate addressing it, and the word "engage" to signal the end of a command set. An example would sound this way: "Hal (the beginning codeword), give me a full system diagnosis and shunt output to my personal display; engage (the ending codeword)." This would tell Hal, the computer, to begin checking all its systems and report to the user's personal screen.

Adding a Voice Control module to an existing computer does not disable other input methods unless installed specifically to do so.

Speech Output: This package includes a small module with programming that allows the computer to direct output through speakers in the form of spoken words. The standard output voice is a pleasant but slightly monotone gender-neutral Human voice. This can be changed to any desired voice with the Manipulate Programs subskill as if the module were a Level 1 program.

Adding a Speech Output module does not disable other outputs unless specifically installed to do that.

Somatic Control: This package includes motion sensors and a module containing interpretation software. The interpretation module itself costs 100 Cr and weighs 1 kg. Each sensor costs 50 Cr and also weighs 1 kg. A standard package includes four sensors and one module. The pickup range of a single motion sensor is approximately three meters. Sensors are often arrayed around a central location to ensure maximized, overlapping coverage.

Holographic Keyboard: This package includes a small projector unit with a single attached somatic sensor weighing 1 kg, and a receiver unit which accepts input from the projector/sensor, also weighing 1 kg. The unit is worn either as a collar or a headband, and projects a user-defined "keyboard" image into the air at a set distance. When the user "touches" the keyboard, the somatic sensor detects this and accepts the input as if the user were touching a physical input device. The input is then communicated to the computer through wireless broadcast. Holo keyboards can be greatly reconfigured to almost anything the user can conceive, so long as the input can be meaningful to the associated computer system.

Holographic Display: This device functions as a three-dimensional monitor. It projects data in light through three dimensions within a given field and in all other ways functions the same as a normal display. The device itself contains all the necessary software for utilizing tri-D display.