Why Sound in Space Battles Could Make Sense

By Wesley Fenlon

Imagining sound as an element of design in Star Wars is a fun exercise, even though it doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Take away Darth Vader and Yoda, lightsabers and R2-D2, and the most famous thing about Star Wars may be its sound. Some people prefer to call Star Wars fantasy or space opera rather than science fiction, and sound is an effective tool in that argument. Star Wars definitely isn't hard sci-fi thanks to the blasts of turbolasers, exploding ships and roaring engines in the vacuum of space. There's no sound in space!

The explanation for that sound is simple, of course: Lucas knew those sounds would make the movie more exciting, more imaginative, more fun. Fighters would move like World War II fighter planes, and larger ships would engage in combat much like World War II era ships in naval battles. Today, Star Wars' sound effects are iconic. They make the movies better, even if they're not realistic. But the authors of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons From Science Fiction have come up with a fascinating alternate way to interpret Star Wars' sound effects. What if the sounds in Star Wars were a type of user interface?

Image credit: 20th Century Fox

When we think of user interfaces, we usually think of surfaces we touch. More recently, we've thought more and more about gestures in front of cameras or other motion sensing devices. But sound can be an interface element, too. 99% Invisible talked to the authors of Make It So and offered an explanation focused on the shootout in Star Wars, when the Millenium Falcon escapes from the Death Star.

"Is there an explanation that can warrant hearing ships exploding in space?" asks 99% Invisible. "Well, what if the sound is the interface? Audio is a much more efficient gauge of surroundings, since it spans 360 degrees, whereas vision only covers 120 degrees. It might be that there are sensors on the outside of the Millennium Falcon that provide 3D sound inside the gunner seat. So when we hear ships blow up, we’re actually hearing an augmented reality interface that Luke and Han hear. Maybe?"

Suddenly, sound isn't a tool for the audience that makes the movie more fun and easier to understand. It's a tool for the characters that makes space easier to understand. Sensors outside the ship track the positioning and trajectory of the TIE fighters and convert that information into sound that Han and Luke can understand as useful sensory data. Fantasy becomes science, if you read the scene that way.

Of course, the theory falls apart outside the context of the gun battle. There's little justification for the sound created by Star Destroyers and other ships, which are often shown making sound in external space shots--with no internal POV to explain that sound. Ships make sound in Star Wars because that makes for a better movie. But it's still cool to think of sound as an element of interface design instead of the usual glowing buttons and touchscreens.