Enter the maze

Grabbing attention, saving lives

An airplane flying through some threatening cloud

Computer science is clearly helping animators do their jobs more easily. It is less obvious how the animators might teach computer scientists a thing or two, but Rachid Hourizi of the University of Bath thinks maybe they can.

He was studying how to improve the design of airline cockpits and was particularly interested in what is called situation awareness. If a pilot loses track of the current state that the autopilot is in, for example, then they could easily crash the plane.

In modern planes, the computers do most of the flying. You might think that makes things easier for the pilot, but if at some point the pilot has to take over, then he or she has to rapidly understand the current state of the plane. If not things can go badly wrong. For example, in 1992, an Airbus A320 coming in to land at Strasbourg crashed because the pilot, who wanted to enter an angle of descent into the computer, didn’t realise that the autopilot was in a mode that treated the number he entered not as an angle but as fast speed to ascend. He flew the plane into a hillside killing all on board. Similarly, if the autopilot makes adjustments to the course it is important that the pilot realises it, so he knows where they are heading on taking over. A person’s attention can only be in one place at a time, so how do you best focus a pilot’s attention to the place it needs to be to take in vital information in situations like this?

Having been on a course on animation for fun, Rachid realised that the animators might be able to help. Throughout the 1900s, the Disney animation studios were worrying about a similar issue. How do you grab the audience’s attention so they don’t miss any of the action, even though important things might happen on different parts of the screen? The solution they came up with was to have the characters do what is called a ‘predictive’ movement. Before Mickey Mouse starts to run forwards he will take a single step backwards. That movement draws everyone’s attention to Mickey so that when he does start to run everyone sees it. Rachid suggested the same might work in cockpits if we can find ways for the autopilot to make similar anticipatory actions. More work is needed to find out if the approach really does help, but if it does then one day this Mickey Mouse technology could just save lives.