Star Wars and Standards


I recently read Future Law - a book of essays about using popular culture to explain technological and legal concepts. One essay looks looks at GDPR issues experienced by Disney® Princesses. I thought I'd try my hand at something similar! So here's my (brief and incomplete) guide to Technical Standards in Star Wars!

Where do we see compatibility - and incompatibility - within the Star Wars universe? How might the lives and fates of our protagonists have been changed by better standardisation?

Data Tapes

Admiral Motti: Don't try to frighten us with your sorcerer's ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data-tapes.

At the very end of Rogue One, an unnamed soldier downloads the Death Star plans onto a "data tape" - and pulls it from the Tantive IV's mainframe.
Still from Rogue One. A human hand pulls a  Data Tape from a computer.

The tape makes its way to Princess Leia, who inserts it into R2-D2 - an astromech droid.

Still from A New Hope. Leia inserts the disk into R2-D2.

This tells us a few interesting things about the Star Wars universe. Firstly, the physical format of data tapes are standardised. A computer from one part of the galaxy can exchange physical media with a droid from somewhere else. Data tapes are common enough for their drives to be built into droids. The physical size - and formats - of tapes has obviously remained relatively consistent.

Imagine Leia trying to squeeze a CD-RW into a Zip Drive slot. Or even a Mac formatted floppy into a DOS drive!

Without the mutual compatibility of this exchange format, there would be no escape for the Rebels!

Computer Terminals

When the gang of heroes arrive on the Death Star, R2-D2 immediately inserts his probe (no, seriously, that's what it is called) into a computer terminal, and starts interrogating the system:

R2-D2 inserting his probe into a port.

He does the same thing on a different level of the Death Star as his chums are running around:

R2D2 interfaceing with the Death Star.

This shows us that these ports have a standard physical interface - at least for R2 units or droids of a similar height. Despite the Death Star's modernity, they retain a standard way of accessing information with older computers.

The lack of standards shows up when Artoo visits the Cloud City of Bespin. His friend, C-3PO, asks him to interface with the computer to override the security systems - with disastrous consequences:

R2-D2 getting zapped with electricity.

Poor Artoo! But, also, poor planning from a standards' perspective. C-3PO's non-apology shows the problem.

C-3PO complaining that he can't know the difference between a power socket and a computer terminal.

Look at that image. The power socket is at the same height as a computer terminal and uses a physically similar connector. A good standard would have made the sockets mutually incompatible - you shouldn't be able to shove a USB plug into an electrical socket and vice-versa.

A few moments later, the droid opens one of the doors on Cloud City:

R2D2 plugged into a Cloud City data port.

Can you immediately tell the difference between the data socket and the power socket? There are no labels, no warnings, and few physical differences.

Standards Save Lives!

Ships

Astromech droids, like R2, are handy, diverse, and standardised.

The Phantom Menace shows them interfacing with N-1 star fighters

Row of star fighters with droids in them.

Attack of the Clones shows them in other ships:
Delta-7 Aethersprite.

Yet more in Revenge of the Sith:
Jedi Interceptor.

And, A New Hope also shows a variety of Atromechs in a bunch of different ships:
Green droid being lowered into a spaceship.

R2 in an X-Wing saying "beep beep".

What I'm getting at is that standardisation is the secret to success. You can take any Astromech droid and plonk it in any small spaceship at it'll just work! That means standard physical sizes for the robots, standard interfaces, standard protocols, standards everywhere!

Imagine the palaver if R2-D2 had to have a conversion kit when swapped between a Jedi Interceptor and an X-Wing - what chaos! Bought a brand new Y-Wing? Sorry pal, you'll need to replace all your little robots. What a waste!

Let's Go Fly A Kite Spaceship

I particularly like this sideways look at Star Wars:


The whole thread is brilliant - and I recommend it. But it makes a small error. Luke is proficient at flying a T-16. So why shouldn't he be able to fly an X-Wing?

In most countries, if you have a basic driving licence, you are allowed to drive any make and model of car. The accelerator, brake, and clutch pedals are all in the same location. The gears are in the same order on the stick. Mirrors adjust in much the same way. Lights, indicators, and wipers are all clearly marked. If you're a competent driver - standards means that you can hop from one car to another with ease.

We see the same thing in The Force Awakens. Poe has never flown a TIE Fighter:
Poe saying "I've always wanted to fly one of these things."

Same with Rey after flying the Millennium Falcon:
Rey saying "I've flown some ships, but never left the planet."

Standards make it easy to go from one craft to the next. Does Poe know what every switch does in the cockpit? No - but he eventually works out how to release the docking tether.

I'm not sure how easy it is for, say, a MiG-21 pilot to fly an F-35. I'm sure some of the basics are the same, right? There are standards for how joysticks work, at the very least, I assume.

Imagine if Poe had to take 30 week course before jumping into a TIE Fighter. What if Luke needed to get a thousand flight-hours in on a simulator before they let him near an X-Wing? Standardised technologies make it easier for people to use new equipment.

6 Million Forms of Communication

We all know Threepio's famous boast:
C-3PO saying he is fluent in over 6 million forms of communication.
But what does he mean by that? The full quote is:

Sir, I am fluent in six million forms of communication. This signal is not used by the Alliance. It could be an Imperial code.

By "forms of communication" - Threepio means codes and other protocols. Remember how he introduces himself to Own Lars?

C-3PO talking about vaporators.

OWEN: What I really need is a droid that understands the binary language of moisture vaporators.
THREEPIO: Vaporators! Sir, my first job was programming binary load lifters... very similar to your vaporators in most respects.

C-3PO can't speak 6 million languages. But he does have 6 million printer drivers installed!

And on it goes

There are dozens of other standards hidden away in the Star Wars universe. Radio comms just work across a menagerie of different space-ships. Restraining bolts are standardised no matter the droid. Clones are the very apotheosis of standardisation!

This isn't intended to be an exhaustive list of standards. And it only covers the movies - rather than the endless comics, cartoons, books, and games you played with your toys.

Speaking of which... one last thing. When I was a lad, my original Star Wars toys (which would be worth a fortune if I hadn't played with them) all had a standardised feature. Can you guess what it was?

5 points if you remembered that all the original toys had the same size hole in the soles of their feet for foot pegs!

You can read more about them in "The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Star Wars Action Figures 1977-1985". The standard allowed Kenner - the manufacturer - to create playsets of all shapes and sizes, and to have their action figures clip in nicely to them. If you wanted Darth Vader in your Millennium Falcon, or Lando Calrissian in the Mos Eisley cantina - standards helped you have fun.

I hope, in my small way, I've shown you why standards are important throughout the galaxy.


7 thoughts on “Star Wars and Standards

  1. Stuart Hall says:

    ...and yet we all remember in Independence Day when Jeff Goldblum connected his Apple Powerbook to an alien spacecraft, interfaced with it, and used it to deploy a virus and destroy the alien fleet. The movie was pretty far fetched, but many of us considered that this was the most unrealistic part of it, given that in those days when you'd have a pretty tough job getting an Apple computer to even talk to a printer that wasn't made by them!

    I wonder if the Star Wars universe ever managed to create a USB-A equivalent with less than three possible orientations from a two-sided connector?

  2. says:

    The 2nd part of this post is illustrative of why Polycom shouldn't have used RJ45 for their 'Starfish' power connector - bad things could happen to laptops if somebody made the mistake of thinking it was an ethernet cable.

  3. I am a 100% here for the idea ‘C-3PO can't speak 6 million languages. But he does have 6 million printer drivers installed!"

    (I know this is an article is about the importance of standards, but all my brain can think of is how long did it take Anakin to install them all?)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *