The Cloak of Levitation, Part 1

When Dr. Strange visits the New York Sanctum for the first time, he passes by a vitrine in which a lush red cape hovers in midair. It’s the Cloak of Levitation, and in this moment it chooses Strange. We see many of its functions throughout the movie.

Functions

  • When the glass of the vitrine is broken and Kaecilius stabs at Strange with a Soul Sword, the Cloak reaches out with a corner and stays Kaecilius’ hand to save Strange.
  • When Kaecilius knocks Strange down a stairwell, the Cloak chases him, catches him, and floats him back up to the fight. (See above.)
  • Attached by two fibulae to his surcoat, it can pull him, physically, and does so several times for different reasons:
    • to get him out of the first fight with Kaecilius
    • to help him dodge the soul sword
    • to keep him from grabbing ineffective weapons, pointing him instead to the more effective Crimson Bands of Cyttorak
  • Unbidden, the Cloak wraps itself around the head of one of Kaecilius’ zealots, drags him around, and slams his head into the walls and floor until the zealot is dead. (Even though, for the entire end of the fight, Strange is across town getting medical attention.) After the combat, the Cloak hovers next to the dead zealot, perhaps keeping watch.
  • After Strange tells Christine goodbye in the surgical prep room, the Cloak gently floats itself into place and uses the corner of its popped collar to remove blood from Strange’s face, to his annoyance. He tells it to, “Stop!” and it relaxes.
  • It pulls him out of the path of some flying debris while time is reversed before the Hong Kong Sanctum, and defends him from a punch later in the same sequence.
  • He uses it to fly through the portal into the Dark Dimension to face Dormammu.
  • It dons itself in the Kamar-Taj, brusquely enough to cause Strange to catch his balance.

The Cloak is like a guardian angel. Or maybe a super-familiar, in the wizard sense. It keeps an eye out for Strange. It is able to predict, protect, crudely inform, and, not least, fly. It acts as both an assistant and an agent. (More on this later)

Wearable Analysis

Let’s first look at it as a wearable. Turns out it fares well according to the wearable principles I laid out in the The Combadge & ideal Wearables post. Those principles are discussed individually below.

Sartorial? Yes.

The Cloak is literally a piece of clothing and quite inline with fashion trends of the sorcerous and superhero worlds. A dash of panache for the workday and a night flying above the town. I’m saying it looks quite in place for being a piece of tech.

Social? Yes, kind of.

The cape does not signal its cape-abilities (how many terrible puns will I allow myself, here? Time will tell…) and so might score low on its social aspect. But it is a unique mystical item. Those in the know, know. Its reputation conveys its abilities. To those who don’t know, its cape-ness grants an initial element of surprise, as we saw when it blocked Kaecilius’ stab the first and second time. The villain was as surprised as we. The Cloak is cloaked, but this is a feature.

Tough to accidentally activate? Yes.

To fly to the Dark Dimension, he places his hands in a “Devil sign,” with 1st and 4th fingers extended and the others bent down to the thumb. He points his hands towards his feet, and flies off in the opposite direction. This isn’t him casting a spell. It’s him telling the Cloak what he wants it to do. That’s hard to do by accident.

Apposite I/O? Yes.

For the most part, the Cloak acts of its own accord. Looking at the list above, the only times it acts under instruction is when Strange tells it to stop wiping his cheek and when he uses it to fly to the Dark Dimension. He uses speech for the former and finger-tutting for the latter.

The rest of its functionality (that is, most of it) is it acting on its own, which doesn’t befit an i/o mapping evaluation.

Easy to access and use? Yes, exceptionally.

Being a key part of Strange’s uniform, and able to both get out of the way and onto shoulders when it needs to, the Cloak is not just easy to use, but it makes itself easy to access and use, so it scores high here.

In total, a very usable and useful wearable tech. Next let’s look at how we might get to a Cloak-like object using real world technology.

Staff of the Living Tribunal

This staff appears to be made of wood and is approximately a meter long when in its normal form. When activated by Mordo it has several powers. With a strong pull on both ends, the staff expands into a jointed energy nunchaku. It can also extend to an even greater length like a bullwhip. When it impacts a solid object such as a floor, it seems to release a crack of loud energy. Too bad we only ever see it in demo mode.

How might this work as technology?

The staff is composed of concentric rings within rings of material similar to a collapsing travel cup. This allows the device to expand and contract in length. The handle would likely contain the artificial intelligence and a power source that activates when Mordo gives it a gestural command, or if we’re thinking far future, a mental one. There might also be an additional control for energy discharge.

In the movie, sadly, Mordo does not use the Staff to its best effect, especially when Kaecilius returns to the New York sanctum. Mordo could easily disrupt the spell being cast by the disciples using the staff like a whip, but instead he leaps off the balcony to physically attack them. Dude, you’re the franchise’s next Big Bad? But let’s put down the character’s missteps to look at the interface.

Mode switching and inline meta-signals

Any time you design a thing with modes, you have to design the state changes between those modes. Let’s look at how Mordo moves between staff, nunchaku, and whip in this short demonstration scene.

To go from staff to nunchaku, Mordo pulls it apart. It’s now in a dangerous state, so is there any authentication or safety switch here? It could be there, but all passive via contact sensors, which would be the best so it could be activated in a hurry. The film doesn’t give us any clue, really, so that’s an open question.

How does it know to go from nunchaku to whip? It sure would be crappy to bet on a disabling thwack against your opponent only to find it lazily draping over a shoulder instead. (Pere Perez might have advanced ideas, given his ideas on light saber tactics.) Again, this state change could be passive, detecting in real time the subtle gestural differences in a distal snap, which a bullwhip would need, and lateral force, which sets the nunchaku spinning, and adjust between the two accordingly. Gestural and predictive technologies are not cinemagenic, so let’s give it the benefit of the doubt and say that’s what’s happening.

A last mode is After Mordo cracks it against the ground, it retracts back to Staff form. This is the hardest one to buy. Certainly it’s a most dramatic ending for Mordo’s demonstration. But does it snap back automatically after it strikes a surface? Automation is not always the answer. Deliberate control would mean Mordo doesn’t have to waste time undoing unwanted automatic actions.

Critical systems must be extremely confident in their interpretations before automation is the right choice.

It might be that this particular gesture is a retraction signal, but how the Staff distinguishes this from a mid-combat strike is tricky. It would have to have sophisticated situational awareness to know the difference, and it doesn’t display this. Better backworlding would point at some subtle gestural signal from Mordo. A double-tightening of his grip, maybe. Or even a double-slight-release of his grip, since that’s something he’s quite unlikely to do in combat.

This is a broad pattern for designers to remember. Inline control signals should be simple-to-provide, but unlikely to occur in literal use. Imagine if the Winter Soldier’s Trigger Phrase wasn’t “Longing, rusted, 17, daybreak, furnace, 9, benign, homecoming, 1, freight car” but instead was the word “the.” He’d be berserking every few seconds. Unworkable. So, if you were designing the Staff’s retraction command gesture, you’d have to pick something he could remember and perform easily, and that would be difficult to accidentally provide.

If Mordo has the staff in the next film, I hope the control modes are clearer and of course well-designed.

Named relics in Doctor Strange

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

You’ve no doubt opened up this review of Doctor Strange thinking “What sci-fi interfaces are in this movie? I don’t recall any.” And you’re right. There aren’t any. (Maybe the car, the hospital, but they’re not very sci-fi.) We’re going to take Clarke’s quote above and apply the same types of rigorous assessment to the magical interfaces and devices in the movie that we would for any sci-fi blockbuster.

Dr. Strange opens up a new chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by introducing the concept of magic on Earth, that is both discoverable and learnable by humans. And here we thought it was just a something wielded by Loki and other Asgardians.

In Doctor Strange, Mordo informs Strange that magical relics exist and can be used by sorcerers. He explains that these relics have more power than people could possibly manage, and that many relics “choose their owner.” This is reminiscent of the wands in the Harry Potter books. Magical coincidence?

relics

Subsequently in the movie we are introduced to a few named relics, such as…

  • The Eye of Agamoto
  • The Staff of the Living Tribunal
  • The Vaulting Boots of Valtor
  • The Cloak of Levitation
  • The Crimson Bands of Cyttorak

…(this last one, while not named specifically in the movie, is named in supporting materials). There are definitely other relics that the sorcerers arm themselves with. For example, in the Hong Kong scene Wong wields the Wand of Watoomb but it is not mentioned by name and he never uses it. Since we don’t see these relics in use we won’t review them.

WandofWatoon.png

Choosing an Owner

The implications of what Mordo tells Strange is profound because it means magical relics possess some kind of intelligence. That’s a weighty word, so In order to back this up, we need a common definition in place. Let’s ask Merriam-Webster.

Intelligence

a (1) :  the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations :  reason; also :  the skilled use of reason (2) :  the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests)

That gives us the foundation that we need. In order to choose their owner, these relics require a theory of mind, an ability to detect and perceive the individuals they meet, and they must possess a reasoning mechanism to decide that an individual is worthy or useful to them. That seems to satisfy both senses of that definition. For our purposes we’re going to think of this in terms of an artificial intelligence and review these relics as if they were a form of advanced technology. Thanks, Mr. Clarke.

We should take care, though. There are some narrative trappings for magic that can trip us up. Magic, for instance, doesn’t typically run out in these relics, but if they were technological, we would have to deal with issues of power, batteries or recharging. So for all their instructive power, we would have to deal with even greater complexity if they were real technology.

The AIs/Intelligences appear to vary in capabilities from narrow to general and are focused on their own specific purposes and “hardware.” In use, they primarily respond to the intentions and actions of the user. None of the objects seem to be able to speak directly, although the Cloak provides rudimentary directional guidance and responds to speech and emotions, so the connection varies from communication via touch to some form of remote telepathy.

Cloak-of-Levitation-01.png

Distance constraints

The initial awareness and selection by an relic for a sorcerer seems limited in range to a few meters. It’s almost like they need to meet their humans socially to determine if they are a match. But once  an relic chooses a sorcerer, their interactions can occur more remotely. The Cloak, as we’ll see in that write-up, flies to save Strange from a fall and it fights for him in the Sanctum while he seeks medical attention across town at the hospital.

What’s the platform?

One question the diligent backworlder might seek to answer is how all of these unique relics—created as they were across different millennia, and realities and by different sources/sorcerers/beings—wound up with similar intelligence and imprinting features. The movie itself doesn’t provide an answer, so we’ll leave it to speculation, but it does imply some sort of shared provenance/source material/code base/relic-maker convention.

Ok. So we’re set with some understanding of how these things work and what they have in common. Next let’s dig into the big billowy one that should have gotten supporting actor credit in the film.

Doctor Strange: Overview

I saw Doctor Strange fairly close to opening weekend and was intrigued by much of what I saw there, especially the artifacts and the Cloak of Levitation. (It has some powerful agentive aspects, and given that that is the topic of my new book, I thought it would be fruitful to examine.)

Full_cover

Yep. This book. Check it out. It ain’t sci-fi, but it might inspire some.

But, awwww, that’s too bad. Doctor Strange deals in magic, not techn—Whatever. Continue reading

An Interview with Mark Coleran

In homage to the wrap of Children of Men, this post I’m sharing an interview with Mark Coleran, a sci-fi interface designer who worked on the film. He also coined the term FUI, which is no small feat. He’s had a fascinating trajectory from FUI, to real world design here in the Bay Area, and very soon, back to FUI again.

I’d interviewed Mark way back in 2011 for a segment of the Make It So book that got edited out of the final book, so it’s great to be able to talk to him again for a forum where I know it will be published, scifiinterfaces.com.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

So obviously my background is in sci-fi interfaces, the movies. I spent around 10 years doing that from 1997 to 2007. Worked on a variety of projects ranging from the first one, which was Tomb Raider, through to finishing off the last Bourne film, Bourne Ultimatum.

The Bourne Ultimatum, from Mark’s online portfolio, see more at coleran.com

My experience of working in films has been coming at it from the angle of loving the technology, loving the way machines work. And trying to expose it, to make it quite genuine. That’s what I got a name for in the industry was to try and create a more realistic side of interfaces. Continue reading

Report Card: Children of Men

Read all Children of Men reviews in chronological order.

Depending on how you count, there are only 9 interfaces in Children of Men. This makes sense because it’s not one of those Gee-Whiz-Can-You-Believe-the-Future technofests like Forbidden Planet or Minority Report. Children of Men is a social story about the hopelessness of a world without children, so the small number of interfaces—and even the way they are underplayed—is wholly appropriate to the theme. Given such a small number, you would not expect them to be as spectacular as they are. Or maybe you would. I don’t know how you roll.

CoM-Report-Card

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Report Card: Johnny Mnemonic

There are no more interfaces within the film to analyse. But before moving on to the grades, some final (and brief – I promise) discussion about cyberpunk and virtual reality.

Read all Johnny Mnemonic reviews in chronological order.

Cyberpunk Love

As stated at the beginning, Johnny Mnemonic is a cyberpunk film, with the screenplay written by noted cyberpunk author William Gibson, loosely based on one of his short stories of the same name. Why would user interface designers care? Because the cyberpunk authors were the first to write extensively about personal computing technologies, world wide networks, 2D/3D GUIs, and AI. Cyberspace, both the idea and the word itself, comes from cyberpunk fiction. Just as Star Trek inspired NASA engineers and astronauts, the cyberspace depicted by the authors inspired virtual reality programmers and designers. In the first virtual reality wave of the mid to late 1990s, it seemed that everybody working in the field had read Neuromancer.

If you’ve never read any cyberpunk and are now curious, Neuromancer by William Gibson is still the classic work. For a visual interpretation, the most cyberpunk of all films, in style and tone rather than plot, is Blade Runner. Cyberpunk founder Bruce Sterling, who wrote the foreword for “Make It So”, often writes about design; and sometimes cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson has also written interesting and thought provoking non-fiction about computers and user experience. It’s beyond the scope of this post to outline all their ideas for you, but if you are interested start with:

Bruce Sterling on Tumblr

In the Beginning was the Command Line

VR Love

Johnny Mnemonic also includes scenes set in virtual reality, a trend that began with Tron (although that particular film did not use the term). These virtual reality scenes with their colorful graphics  were most likely included to make computer systems less boring and more comprehensible to a general audience. However, these films from Tron onwards have never been successful. (If you work around computer people you’ll hear otherwise from plenty of fans, but computer geeks are not a representative sample.)

In the more recent Iron Man films, Tony Stark in his workshop uses a gestural interface, voice commands, and large volumetric projections. This could easily have been depicted as a VR system, but wasn’t. Could there be a usability problem when virtual reality interfaces are used in film?

The most common reason given for not using VR is that such sequences remind the audience that they’re watching an artificial experience, thus breaking suspension of disbelief. Evidence for this is the one financially successful VR film, The Matrix, which very carefully made its virtual reality identical to the real world. The lesson is that in film, just like most fields, user interfaces should not draw too much attention to themselves.

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