Sci-fi Interfaces Q&A with Perception Studio

First, congratulations to Perception Studio for the excellent work on Black Panther! Readers can see Perception’s own write up about the interfaces on their website. (Note that the reviewers only looked at this after the reviews were complete, to ensure we were looking at end-result, not intent. Also all images in this post were lifted from that page, with permission, unless otherwise noted.)

John LePore of Perception Studio reached out to me when we began to publish the reviews, asking if he could shed light on anything. So I asked if he would be up for an email interview when the reviews were complete. This post is all that wonderful shed light.

What exactly did Perception do for the film?

John: Perception was brought aboard early in the process for the specific purpose of consulting on potential areas of interest in science and technology. A brief consulting sprint evolved into 18 months of collaboration that included conceptual development and prototyping of various technologies for use in multiple sequences and scenarios. The most central of these elements was the conceptualization and development of the vibranium sand interfaces throughout the film. Some of this work was used as design guidelines for various vfx houses while other elements were incorporated directly into the final shots by Perception. In addition to the various technologies, Perception worked closely on two special sequences in the film—the opening ‘history of Wakanda’ prologue, and the main-on-end title sequence, both of which were based on the technological paradigm of vibranium sand.

What were some of the unique challenges for Black Panther?

John: We encountered various challenges on Black Panther, both conceptual and technical. An inspiring challenge was the need to design the most advanced technology in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while conceptualizing something that had zero influence from any existing technologies. There were lots of challenges around dynamic sand, and even difficulty rendering when a surge in the crypto market made GPU’s scarce to come by!

One of the things that struck me about Black Panther is the ubiquity of (what appear to be) brain-computer interfaces. How was it working with speculative tech that seemed so magical?

John: From the very start, it was very important to us that all of the technology we conceptualized was grounded in logic, and had a pathway to feasibility. We worked hard to hold ourselves to these constraints, and looked for every opportunity to include signals for the audience (sometimes nuanced, sometimes obvious) as to how these technologies worked. At the same time, we know the film will never stop dead in its tracks to explain technology paradigm #6. In fact, one of our biggest concerns was that any of the tech would appear to be ‘made of magic’.

Chris: Ooh, now I want to know what some of the nuanced signals were!

John: One of the key nuances that made it from rough tests to the final film was that the vibranium Sand ‘bounces’ to life with a pulse. This is best seen in the tactical table in the Royal Talon at the start of the film. The ‘bounce’ was intended to be a rhythmic cue to the idea of ultrasonic soundwaves triggering the levitating sand.

Similarly, you can find cymatic patterns in numerous effects in the film.

Did you know going in that you’d be creating something that would be so important to black lives?

John: Sometimes on a film, it is often hard to imagine how it will be received. On Black Panther, all the signals were clear that the film would be deeply important. From our early peeks at concept art of Wakanda, to witnessing the way Marvel Studios supported Ryan Coogler’s vision. The whole time working on the film the anticipation kept growing, and at the core of the buzz was an incredibly strong black fandom. Late in our process, the hype was still increasing—It was becoming obvious that Black Panther could be the biggest Marvel film to date. I remember working on the title sequence one night, a couple months before release, and Ryan played (over speakerphone) the song that would accompany the sequence. We were bugging out— “Holy shit that’s Kendrick!”… it was just another sign that this film would be truly special, and deeply dedicated to an under-served audience.

How did working on the film affect the studio?

John: For us it’s been one of our proudest moments— it combined everything we love in terms of exciting concept development, aesthetic innovation and ambitious technical execution. The project is a key trophy in our portfolio, and I revisit it regularly when presenting at conferences or attracting new clients, and I’m deeply proud that it continues to resonate. 

Where did you look for inspiration when designing?

John: When we started, the brief was simple: Best tech, most unique tech, and centered around vibranium. With a nearly open canvas, the element of vibranium (only seen previously as Captain America’s shield) sent us pursuing vibration and sound as a starting point. We looked deeply into cymatic patterns and other sound-based phenomena like echo-location. About a year prior, we were working with an automotive supplier on a technology that used ultrasonic soundwaves to create ‘mid-air haptics’… tech that lets you feel things that aren’t really there. We then discovered that the University at Tokyo was doing experiments with the same hardware to levitate styrofoam particles with limited movement. Our theory was that with the capabilities of vibranium, this effect could levitate and translate millions of particles simultaneously.

Beyond technical and scientific phenomenon, there was tremendous inspiration to be taken from African culture in general. From textile patterns, to colors of specific spices and more, there were many elements that influenced our process.  

What thing about working on the film do you think most people in audiences would be surprised by?

John: I think the average audience member would be surprised by how much time and effort goes into these pieces of the film. There are so many details that are considered and developed, without explicitly figuring into the plot of the film. We consider ourselves fortunate that film after film Marvel Studios pushes to develop these ideas that in other films are simply ‘set dressing’.

Chris: Lastly, I like finishing interviews with these questions.

What, in your opinion, makes for a great fictional user interface?

John: I love it when you are presented with innovative tech in a film and just by seeing it you can understand the deeper implications. Having just enough information to make assumptions about how it works, why it works, and what it means to a culture or society. If you can invite this kind of curiosity, and reward this fascination, the audience gets a satisfying gift. And if these elements pull me in, I will almost certainly get ‘lost’ in a film…in the best way. 

What’s your favorite sci-fi interface that someone else designed? (and why)

John: I always loved two that stood out to me for the exact reasons mentioned above.

One is Westworld’s tablet-based Dialog Tree system. It’s not the most radical UI design etc, but it means SO much to the story in that moment, and immediately conveys a complicated concept effortlessly to the viewer.

from Westworld Season 01 Episode 06, “The Adversary”

Another see-it-and-it-makes-sense tech concept is the live-tracked projection camera system from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. It’s so clever, so physical, and you understand exactly how it works (and how it fails!). When I saw this in the theatre, I turned to my wife and whispered, “You see, the camera is moving to match the persp…” and she glared at me and said “I get it! Everybody gets it!” The clever execution of the gadget and scene made me, the viewer, feel smarter than I actually was!

from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

What’s next for the studio?

The Perception team is continuing to work hard in our two similar paths of exploration— film and real-world tech. This year we have seen our work appear in Marvel’s streaming shows, with more to come. We’ve also been quite busy in the technology space, working on next-generation products from technology platforms to exciting automobiles. The past year has been busy and full of changes, but no matter how we work, we continue to be fascinated and inspired by the future ahead.

Fritzes 2021 nominees

I’m glad I started the Fritzes in 2019, because in 2020 the movie industry was reeling from the haymaker that was COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2. Without the money of butts in cinema seats, many studios postponed production and releases. So the number of films to consider is notably smaller than in decades beforehand. But this also gave us the opportunity to consider films that are less blockbuster, more small and focused.

Following are the candidates for the 2021 Fritz awards, recognizing excellence in cinema sci-fi interfaces across the prior year.

Best Believable

These movies’ interfaces adhere to solid HCI principles and believable interactions. They engage us in the story world by being convincing. The nominees for Best Believable are Minor Premise, Project Power, and Proximity.

Best Narrative

These movies’ interfaces blow us away with wonderful visuals and the richness of their future vision. They engross us in the story world by being spectacular. The nominees for Best Narrative are Love and Monsters, Underwater, and World of Tomorrrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime.

Best Interfaces

The movies nominated for Best Interfaces manage the extraordinary challenge of being believable and helping to paint a picture of the world of the story. They advance the state of the art in telling stories with speculative technology. The nominees for Best Narrative are Archive, LX 2048, and The Midnight Sky.

Audience choice

All of the movies nominated for other awards will be presented for an Audience Choice award. Watch this space for when the ballot is open. In the meantime, if like me you want to see all the candidates so you can be elated or outraged at results, start watching now.

Awards will be announced near the end of April, probably.

Report Card: Black Panther (2018)

Read all the Black Panther posts in chronological order.

Black Panther’s financial success is hard to ignore. From the Wikipedia page:

Black Panther grossed $700.1 million in the United States and Canada, and $646.9 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $1.347 billion. It became the highest-grossing solo superhero film, the third-highest-grossing film of the MCU and superhero film overall, the ninth-highest-grossing film of all time, and the highest-grossing film by a black director. It is the fifth MCU film and 33rd overall to surpass $1 billion, and the second-highest-grossing film of 2018. Deadline Hollywood estimated the net profit of the film to be $476.8 million, accounting for production budgets, P&A, talent participations and other costs, with box office grosses and ancillary revenues from home media, placing it second on their list of 2018’s “Most Valuable Blockbusters”.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Panther_(film)

It was also a critical success (96% Tomotometer anyone?) as well as a fan…well, “favorite” seems too small a word. Here, let me let clinical psychologist, researcher and trusted media expert Erlanger Turner speak to this.

Many have wondered why Black Panther means so much to the black community and why schools, churches and organizations have come to the theaters with so much excitement. The answer is that the movie brings a moment of positivity to a group of people often not the centerpiece of Hollywood movies… [Racial and ethnic socialization] helps to strengthen identity and helps reduce the likelihood on internalizing negative stereotypes about one’s ethnic group.

Erlanger Turner, assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Houston–Downtown

People—myself included—just love this movie. As is my usual caveat, though, this site reviews not the film, but the interfaces that appear in the film, and specifically, across three aspects.

Sci: B (3 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

This category (and Interfaces, I’ll be repeating myself later) is complicated because Wakanda is the most technologically-advanced culture on Earth as far as the MCU goes. So who’s to say what’s believable when you have general artificial intelligence, nanobots, brain interfaces, and technology barely distinguishable from magic? But this sort of challenge is what I signed up for, so…pressing on.

The interfaces are mostly internally consistent and believable within their (admittedly large) scope of nova.

There are plenty of weird wtf moments, though. Why do remote piloting interfaces routinely drop their users onto their tailbones? Why are the interfaces sometimes photo-real and sometimes sandpaper? Why does the Black Panther suit glow with a Here-I-Am light? Why have a recovery room in the middle of a functioning laboratory? Why have a control where thrusting one way is a throttle and the other fires weapons?

Fi: A (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

Here’s where Black Panther really shines. The wearable technology tells of a society build around keeping its advancement secret. The glowing tech gives clues as to what’s happening where. The kimoyo beads help describe a culture that—even if it is trapped in a might-makes-right and isolationist belief system—is still marvelous and equitable. The tech helps tell a wholly believable story that this is the most technologically advanced society on MCU Earth 616.

Interfaces: B (3 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

As I mentioned above, this is an especially tough determination given the presence of nanobots, AGI, and brain interfaces. All these things confound usual heuristic approaches.

It even made me make this Simpsons-riff animated gif, which I expect I’ll be using increasingly in the future. In this metaphor I am Frink.

But they do not make it impossible. The suit and Talon provide gorgeous displays. (As does the med table, even if its interaction model has issues.) The claws, the capes, and the sonic overload incorporate well-designed gestures. Griot (the unnamed AI) must be doing an awful lot of the heavy lifting, but as a model of AI is one that appears increasingly in the MCU, where the AI is the thing in the background that lets the heroes be heroes (which I’m starting to tag as sidekick AI).

All that said, we still see the same stoic guru mistakes in the sand table that seem to plague sci-fi. In the med station we see a red-thing-bad oversimplicity, mismatched gestures-to-effects, and a display that pulls attention away from a patient, which keeps it from an A grade.

Final Grade A- (10 of 12), Blockbuster.

It was an unfortunately poignant time to have been writing these reviews. I started them because of the unconscionable murders of Breonna Taylor and George Flloyd—in the long line of unconscionable black deaths at the hands of police—and, knowing the pandemic was going to slow posting frequency, would keep these issues alive at least on this forum long after the initial public fury has died down.

But across the posts, Raysean White was killed. Cops around the nation responded with inappropriate force. Chadwick Boseman died of cancer. Ruth Bader Ginsberg died, exposing one of the most blatant hypocrisies of the GOP and tilting the Supreme Court tragically toward the conservative. The U.S. ousted its racist-in-chief and Democrats took control of the Senate for the first time since 2011, despite a coordinated attempt by the GOP to suppress votes while peddling the lie that the election was stolen (for which lawmakers involved have yet to suffer any consequences).

It hasn’t ended. Just yesterday began the trial of the officer who murdered George Floyd. It’s going to take about a month just to hear the main arguments. The country will be watching.

Meanwhile Georgia just passed new laws that are so restrictive journalists are calling it the new Jim Crow. This is part of a larger conservative push to disenfranchise Democrats and voters of color in particular. We have a long way to go, but even though this wraps the Black Panther reviews, our work bending the arc of the moral universe is ongoing. Science fiction is about imagining other worlds so we can make this one better.

Black Panther II is currently scheduled to come out July 8, 2022.

Wakanda forever.

Vibranium-based Cape Shields

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is penned by Lonny Brooks. Be sure and read his introduction post if you missed it when it was published.

The Black Panther film represents one of the most ubiquitous statements of Afrofuturist fashion and fashionable digital wearables to celebrate the Africana and Black imagination. The wearable criteria under Director Ryan Cooglar’s lead and that of the formidable talent of costume designer Ruth E. Carter took into account African tribal symbolism. The adinkra symbol, for “cooperation,” emblazoned across W’Kabi’s (played by Daniel Kaluuya) blanket embodies the role of the Border tribe where they lived in a small village tucked into the mountainous borderlands of Wakanda, disguised as farmers and hunters.

Beautiful interaction

Chris’ blog looks at the interactions with speculative technology, and here the interactions are marvelously subtle. They do not have buttons or levers, which might give away their true nature. To activate them, a user does what would come naturally, which is to hold the fabric before them, like a shield. (There might be a mental command as well, but of course we can’t perceive that.) The shield-like gesture activates the shield technology. It’s quick. It fits the material of the technology. You barely even have to be trained to use it. We never see the use case for when a wearer is incapacitated and can’t lift the cape into position, but there’s enough evidence in the rest of the film to expect it might act like Dr. Strange’s cape and activate its shield automatically.

But, for me, the Capes are more powerful not as models of interaction, but for what they symbolize.

The Dual Role of the Capes

The role of the Border Tribe is to create the illusion of agrarian ruggedness as a deception for outsiders that only tells of a placid, developing nation rather than the secret technologically advanced splendor of Wakanda’s lands. The Border Tribe is the keeper of Wakanda’s cloaking technology that hides the vast utopian advancement of Wakandan advantage. 

The Border Tribe’s role is built into the fabric of their illustrious and enviably fashionable capes. The adinkra symbol of cooperation embedded into the cape reveals, by the final scenes of the Black Panther film, how the Border Tribe defenders wield their capes into a force field wall of energy to repel enemies. 

Ironically we only see them at their most effective when Wakanda is undergoing a civil war between those loyal to Kilmonger who is determined to avenge his father’s murder and his own erasure from Wakandan collective memory, and those supporting King T’Challa. Whereas each Black Panther King has selected to keep Wakanda’s presence hidden literally under the cooperative shields of the Border Tribe, Kilmonger—an Oakland native and a potential heir to Wakandan monarchy—was orphaned and left in the U.S. 

If this sounds familiar, consider the film as a grand allusion to the millions of Africans kidnapped and ripped from their tribal lineages and taken across the Atlantic as slaves. Their cultural heritage was purposefully erased, languages and tribal customs, memories lost to the colonial thirst for their unpaid and forced labor. 

Kilmonger represents the Black Diaspora, former descendants of African homelands similarly deprived of their birthrights. Kilmonger wants the Black Diaspora to rise up in global rebellion with the assistance of Wakandan technical superiority. In opposition, King T’Challa aspires for a less vengeful solution. He wantsWakanda to come out to the world, and lead by example. We can empathize with both. T’Challa’s plan is fueled by virtue. Kilmonger’s is fueled by justice—redeploy these shields to protect Black people against the onslaught of ongoing police and state violence. 

W. E. B. Du Bois in 1918
(image in the public domain)

Double Consciousness and the Big Metaphor

The cape shields powered by the precious secret meteorite called Vibranium embodies what the scholar W.E.B. Dubois referred to as a double consciousness, where members of the Black Diaspora inhabit two selves.

  1. Their own identity as individuals
  2. The external perception of themselves as a members of an oppressed people incessantly facing potential erasure and brutality.

The cape shields and their cloaking technology cover the secret utopic algorithms that power Wakanda, while playing on the petty stereotypes of African nations as less-advanced collectives. 

The final battle scene symbolizes this grand debate—between Kilmonger’s claims on Wakanda and assertion of Africana power, and King T’Challa’s more cooperative and, indeed, compliant approach working with the CIA. Recall that in its subterfuge and cloaking tactics, the CIA has undermined and toppled numerous freely-elected African and Latin American governments for decades. In this final showdown, we see W’Kabi’s cloaked soldiers run down the hill towards King T’Challa and stop to raise their shields cooperatively into defensive formation to prevent King T’Challa’s advance. King T’Challa jumps over the shields and the force of his movement causes the soldier’s shields to bounce away while simultaneously revealing their potent energy. 

The flowing blue capes of the Border Tribe are deceptively enticing, while holding the key to Wakanda’s survival as metaphors for cloaking their entire civilization from being attacked, plundered, and erased. Wakanda and these capes represent an alternative history: What if African peoples had not experienced colonization or undergone the brutal Middle Passage to the Americas? What if the prosperous Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma had developed cape shield technology to defend themselves against a genocidal white mob in 1921? Or if the Black Panther Party had harnessed the power of invisible cloaking technology as part of their black beret ensemble? 

Gallery Images: World Building with the Afrofuturist Podcast—Afro-Rithms From The Future game, Neuehouse, Hollywood, May 22, 2019 [Co-Game Designers, Eli Kosminsky and Lonny Avi Brooks, Afro-Rithms Librarian; Co-Game Designer and Seer Ahmed Best]

In the forecasting imagination game, Afro-Rithms From The Future, and the game event we played in 2019 in Los Angeles based on the future universe we created, we generated the question:

What would be an article of fashion that would give you more Black Feminist leadership and more social justice?

One participant responded with: “I was thinking of the notion of the invisibility cloak but also to have it be reversed. It could make you invisible and also more visible, amplifying what you normally” have as strengths and recognizing their value. Or as another player, states “what about a bodysuit that protects you from any kind of harm” or as the game facilitator adds “how about a bodysuit that repels emotional damage?!” In our final analysis, the cape shields have steadfastly protected Wakanda against the emotional trauma of colonization and partial erasure.

In this way the cape shields guard against emotional damage as well. Imagine how it might feel to wear a fashionable cloak that displays images of your ancestral, ethnic, and gender memories reminding you of your inherent lovability as multi-dimensional human being—and that can technologically protect you and those you love as well.


Black Lives Matter

Chris: Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that support black lives. 

To thank Lonny for his guest post, I offered to donate money in his name to the charity of his choice. He has selected Museum of Children’s Arts in Oakland. The mission of MOCHA is to ensure that the arts are a fundamental part of our community and to create opportunities for all children to experience the arts to develop creativity, promote a sense of belonging, and to realize their potential. 

And, since it’s important to show the receipts, the receipt:

Thank you, Lonny, for helping to celebrate Black Panther and your continued excellent work in speculative futures and Afrofuturism. Wakanda forever!

Challenge Ritual

Wakanda is a monarchy of sorts. Though rulership is passed down like a regular monarchy, the authority of the monarch can be overthrown by combat. We see this ritual twice in Black Panther. The first is when T’Challa is called to take the throne after his father T’Chaka’s death at the hands of the mind-controlled Winter Solider. The second is when Killmonger challenges T’Challa’s legitimacy.

Though this blog often focuses on interaction with technology, in this case we’ll be looking at one minor interaction with technology (the spillways) but moreover the ritual interaction as a group.

The accession ritual

For this major cultural event, many Wakandans from different tribes travel to the arena by barge on a river. En route they are dancing, playing music, and laughing. When they approach the waterfall, the Dora Milaje and other warriors pound the butt of their spears on their barge’s deck. This creates a physical wave that travels through the water to sensors. These sensors cause mechanical spillways to open, routing water through rock, revealing the combat arena that normally sits under the waterfall.

Citizens disembark on the shores and walk to the arena. They take positions on small ledges surrounding the arena, with highest-ranking members of each tribe getting “front row seats.”

T’Challa arrives in the Talon, stepping out onto the arena. An officiant named Zuri addresses the crowd, explaining what is happening. He explains he is giving T’Challa a draught that will drain him of his Black Panther superpowers. Then he calls on each of four tribes, asking if they wish to challenge T’Challa’s accession. Each in turn declines. But then the Jibari tribe arrives and does challenge. T’Challa dons a panther mask, M’Baku dons a gorilla mask, and they fight. During the fight, members of each tribe’s military keep a tight ring around the combatants, holding spears inward toward them. It’s a tough battle, but T’Challa defeats M’Baku. M’Baku, it is important to note, taps out rather than fight to the death.

For winning, Zuri bestows a panther-tooth necklace onto T’Challa. Having been confirmed as king, T’Challa is taken to a ritual cave where his Black Panther powers are restored by imbibing a draught of the Heart-Shaped Herb. He is then buried in loose sand as he visits the ancestral plane to talk with ancestors and his father. When he awakes, he sits up, throwing the sand off of him, and the ritual is complete.

Killmonger’s challenge

Erik Killmonger arrives in the kingdom and invokes his blood right (as T’Chaka’s nephew) to challenge T’Challa’s legitimacy. T’Challa accepts the challenge. For this ritual, only a handful of others are present. As before, Zuni strips T’Challa of his powers.

Before battling T’Challa, Killmonger stabs and kills Zuni, after which the ritual combat just…continues(?). (Seriously, shouldn’t the Dora Milaje arrested him at just this moment? They had the numbers.) Killmonger wins the fight and throws T’Challa over the waterfall. He claims victory and he becomes the new tyrant-in-chief.

The designed ritual

Ritual can be a laden and woo-woo concept. But we don’t need to leave our careful, skeptical worldview behind to understand and critique it. We just need to think of it like any system, which we optimize for the set of effects we want. (Though if you’re really into the idea of ritual design, there are a few groups focused on it.)

In the case of Black Panther, the ritual serves several purposes.

  • It gathers the community together to witness the accession. (“What do you mean you challenge the monarch’s authority? You were there. We all saw you.”)
  • It ensures members of the society are accountable. (“You had the chance to challenge, and either didn’t or lost.”)
  • It tests the successor’s fighting ability.
  • At the end it confirms the transfer of power and reifies the new social structure.

An important feature of communal rituals is the demarcation of the ritual space, that increases the sense of meaning of the actions. In Black Panther, this is done by the communal journey to the waterfall and activating the spillways that reveal the arena. Travel and the revealed arena are great choices for reinforcing the specialness of the occasion. We only come here for this.

The use of sound as an activation signal means every hearing person is aware of the transition, even if they cannot see the Dora Milaje from where they are on their barge.

The arena itself will win neither OSHA nor accessibility awards. Those are thin wet shelves that people are standing on, facing a far drop where they would fall onto others, making them fall…and no railing. Also where are the stairs? It seems pretty ableist to require climbing and standing for the duration. But it’s dramatic for sure.

The arrival of the crown prince is a bit lopsided. Everyone else comes from the river and climbs down rocks, but he gets to fly up in a royal spaceship and walk out like a rock star. It asserts that the crown is really his, and potential challengers riff-raff upstarts. This might be the intent, but it seems at odds with the notion of a fair call to challengers. So inconsistent messaging both about the point of the ritual and the Wakandan brand promise.

Removing the power of the heart-shaped herb before any challengers are declared is a good, subtle design feature. If it only happened after a challenger was declared, it would seem like it was about that challenger. As if they were causing the hero to be diminished. But stripping him of the power first signals, ritually, that it’s not about any particular challenger, but about a fair chance to challenge.

Having warriors ring the combatants adds some dramatic pressure, but it would actually hide the combat from many observers (especially the most important observers on the front row). And with cliffs on one side and a waterfall on the other, there are natural boundaries to ensure neither combatant can withdraw far. But it also ensures that any cheating can be seen by first-hand witnesses in close proximity, so maybe the audience sightlines are less important than that. Yes, Wakanda is the MCU’s most technologically advanced nation, so there would be ways around it, but this ritual feels like it has roots that extend into the past long before the technology.

Might Makes Right?

The other thing that I cannot let go of (and here we must, as we often do, journey afield of technology) is that this ritual is built on might makes right. In what way does a person’s fighting skill prove they have the chops to be a good and wise ruler? I mean, yes, in feudalist times, crowning a proven warrior might cow potential usurpers and result in greater governmental stability, but given all the rest of Wakanda’s progressive utopia, this seems troubling. Might-makes-right is one of the things that representative democracy and democratic republics are meant to correct. Who should have authority over the people? Not the fighter, nor the spoiled child of the prior leader, nor the unctuous priest, nor the game-fixing moneybags, nor the elders. Democracy is the daring notion that all people should have a fundamental say in how they are governed.

Admittedly, it is narratively simpler to be able to point to a person and say, “That one’s the monarch because they fought best.” And that illustrates a problem.

Narratively simple (and that’s the problem)

Narrative simplicity fits humans. We like simple stories and dislike what is hard to understand. Combat is narratively simple. Panther-man beat gorilla-man, so he’s now boss. (Even if its rituals are, as in this case, strikingly beautiful.)

Turning back again to democracy and representative democracy for comparison, they are broad abstractions. Its tenets are hard to understand. Consider: Self-determination and consent of the governed rather than a monarch. The balance of power across three co-equal branches of government. Carefully-crafted and critical limits to power. How to encourage democracy while reining in the tyranny of the majority. A core structuring document that is imperfect and slowly, slowly malleable. The failings of the first-past-the-post system. Deliberate deliberativeness. What the two party system tends towards.

Even if our elections are panther-person vs gorilla-person, we don’t put candidates in a ring and let them duke it out with fists. We valorize a combat of ideas, of competing notions about what would do more good for civilization and arguably the planet. Ideally, the best ideas about governance win this combat.

Familiarity and comfort with democratic abstractions do not come naturally. It takes liberal education (“liberal” here as in “broadly serving work, citizenship, and life” rather than “not conservative”), a pervasive sense of civic duty, and nurturance of civic virtue. The last several decades of politics, and our ongoing fight against American strong fascism seems to me to be partly about discomfort and unfamiliarity with these abstractions. Simply put, we lost them, not the least of which reason is they’re hard to think about. Fascism and might-makes-right are so much easier to understand. They are more cinegenic. But we should be very wary of this lure. I want to encourage everyone to be wary of this aspect of Black Panther. It is to me the most troubling thing about a speculative culture that is otherwise just phenomenal.

In the first movie Wakanda collectively learned the costs of isolationism. Maybe in the sequel they’ll learn about the limits of might-makes-right.


Anti-Racism Resources

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives. Today I’m sharing anti-racism resources. Because it’s not enough to believe black lives matter. We must fight racism.

The first is, of course, Ibram Kendi’s New York Times #1 bestseller book that is all about the topic, How to be an Anti-Racist. His site also has a discussion guide and links to the book in multiple languages.

portuguese.jpg

If you’re the reading sort (and you’re on my word-heavy blog, after all) Kayti Christian has compiled this list of 21 books about anti racism.

The second is the Smithsonian Institution’s page about anti-racism. It lays out the core issues, and addresses both the personal and interpersonal things to do, as well as thought exercises and recommended actions. Something to read while your book is en route.

Implicit Bias and Structural Racism
“Implicit Bias and Structural Racialization,” By Kathleen Osta & Hugh Vasquez, National Equity Project.

The third is less polished than these other resources, but I love Carlisa Johnson’s stages of white identity development, which moves people through greater and greater engagement, including activities and next steps for each phase.

Contact → Disintegration → Reintegration → Pseudo-independence → Immersion → Autonomy.

The last is the NPR science podcast Shortwave episode about anti-racism in science education, where hosts Emily Kwong, Madeline K. Sofia, and Rebecca Ramirez interview anti-racist educators Letimicia Fears, Gretchen Kraig-Turner, and Viji Sathy. I’ve recently become enamored of this podcast and was glad to come across this episode while working on this post.

And while we’re in NPR’s territory, here are four tips from Eric Deggans, Putting In The Work To Be Anti-Racist. Here are the four headers to pique your interest to read (or listen) to more.

  1. Accept that we’ve all been raised in a society that elevates white culture over others. Being anti-racist will mean first challenging those notions inside yourself.
  2. Learn the history of racism and anti-racism, especially in America, to educate yourself about the complexities of the issues you’ll be confronting.
  3. Seek out films and TV shows which will challenge your notions of race and culture and dive in deeply, learning to see anti-racism in new ways.
  4. Find local organizations involved in anti-racism efforts – preferably led by people of color – and help uplift their voices and ideas.

Panther Glove Guns

As I rule I don’t review lethal weapons on scifiinterfaces.com. The Panther Glove Guns appear to be remote-bludgeoning beams, so this kind of sneaks by. Also, I’ll confess in advance that there’s not a lot that affords critique.

We first see the glove guns in the 3D printer output with the kimoyo beads for Agent Ross and the Dora Milaje outfit for Nakia. They are thick weapons that fit over Shuri’s hands and wrists. I imagine they would be very useful to block blades and even disarm an opponent in melee combat, but we don’t see them in use this way.

The next time we see them, Shuri is activating them. (Though we don’t see how) The panther heads thrust forward, their mouths open wide, and the “neck” glows a hot blue. When the door before her opens, she immediately raises them at the guards (who are loyal to usurper Killmonger) and fires.

A light-blue beam shoots out of the mouths of the weapons, knocking the guards off the platform. Interestingly, one guard is lifted up and thrown to his 4-o-clock. The other is lifted up and thrown to his 7-o-clock. It’s not clear how Shuri instructs the weapons to have different and particular knock-down effects. But we’ve seen all over Black Panther that brain-computer interfaces (BCI) are a thing, so it’s diegetically possible she’s simply imagining where she wants them to be thrown, and then pulling a trigger or clenching her fist around a rod or just thinking “BAM!” to activate. The force-bolt strikes them right where they need to so that, like a billiard ball, they get knocked in the desired direction. As with all(?) brain-computer interfaces, there is not an interaction to critique.

After she dispatches the two guards, still wearing the gloves, she throws a control bead onto the Talon. The scene is fast and blurry, but it’s unclear how she holds and releases the bead from the glove. Was it in the panther’s jaw the whole time? Could be another BCI, of course. She just thought about where she wanted it, flung her arm, and let the AI decide when to release it for perfect targeting. The Talon is large and she doesn’t seem to need a great deal of accuracy with the bead, but for more precise operations, the AI targeting would make more sense than, say, letting the panther heads disintegrate on command so she would have freedom of her hands. 

Later, after Killmonger dispatches the Dora Milaje, Shuri and Nakia confront him by themselves. Nakia gets in a few good hits, but is thrown from the walkway. Shuri throws some more bolts his way though he doesn’t appear to even notice. I note that the panther gloves would be very difficult to aim since there’s no continuous beam providing feedback, and she doesn’t have a gun sight to help her. So, again—and I’m sorry because it feels like cheating—I have to fall back to an AI assist here. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense. 

Then Shuri switches from one blast at a time to a continuous beam. It seems to be working, as Killmonger kneels from the onslaught.

This is working! How can I eff it up?

But then for some reason she—with a projectile weapon that is actively subduing the enemy and keeping her safe at a distance—decides to close ranks, allowing Killmonger to knock the glove guns with a spear tip, thereby free himself, and destroy the gloves with a clutch of his Panther claws. I mean, I get she was furious, but I expected better tactics from the chief nerd of Wakanda. Thereafter, they spark when she tries to fire them. So ends this print of the Panther Guns.

As with all combat gear, it looks cool for it to glow, but we don’t want coolness to help an enemy target the weapon. So if it was possible to suppress the glow, that would be advisable. It might be glowing just for the intimidation factor, but for a projectile weapon that seems strange.

The panther head shapes remind an opponent that she is royalty (note no other Wakandan combatants have ranged weapons) and fighting in Bast’s name, which I suppose if you’re in the business of theocratic warfare is fine, I guess.

It’s worked so well in the past. More on this aspect later.

So, if you buy the brain-computer interface interpretation, AI targeting assist, and theocratic design, these are fine, with the cinegenic exception of the attention-drawing glow.


Black History Matters

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives.

When The Watchmen series opened with the Tulsa Race Massacre, many people were shocked to learn that this event was not fiction, reminding us just how much of black history is erased and whitewashed for the comfort of white supremacy (and fuck that). Today marks the beginning of Black History Month, and it’s a good opportunity to look back and (re)learn of the heroic figures and stories of both terror and triumph that fill black struggles to have their citizenship and lives fully recognized.

Library of Congress, American National Red Cross Photograph Collection

There are lots of events across the month. The African American History Month site is a collaboration of several government organizations (and it feels so much safer to share such a thing now that the explicitly racist administration is out of office and facing a second impeachment):

  • The Library of Congress
  • National Archives and Records Administration
  • National Endowment for the Humanities
  • National Gallery of Art
  • National Park Service
  • Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The site, https://www.africanamericanhistorymonth.gov/, has a number of resources, including images, video, and calendar of events for you.

Today we can take a moment to remember and honor the Greensboro Four.

On this day, February 1, 1960: Through careful planning and enlisting the help of a local white businessman named Ralph Johns, four Black college students—Ezell A. Blair, Jr., Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, David L. Richmond—sat down at a segregated lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service. Their request was refused. When asked to leave, they remained in their seats.

Police arrived on the scene, but were unable to take action due to the lack of provocation. By that time, Ralph Johns had already alerted the local media, who had arrived in full force to cover the events on television. The Greensboro Four stayed put until the store closed, then returned the next day with more students from local colleges.

Their passive resistance and peaceful sit-down demand helped ignite a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South.

A last bit of amazing news to share today is that Black Lives Matter has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize! The movement was co-founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, got a major boost with the outrage following and has grown to a global movement working to improve the lives of the entire black diaspora. May it win!

Wakandan Med Table

When Agent Ross is shot in the back during Klaue’s escape from the Busan field office, T’Challa stuffs a kimoyo bead into the wound to staunch the bleeding, but the wounds are still serious enough that the team must bring him back to Wakanda for healing. They float him to Shuri’s lab on a hover-stretcher.

Here Shuri gets to say the juicy line, “Great. Another white boy for us to fix. This is going to be fun.
Sorry about the blurry screen shot, but this is the most complete view of the bay.

The hover-stretcher gets locked into place inside a bay. The bay is a small room in the center of Shuri’s lab, open on two sides. The walls are covered in a gray pattern suggesting a honeycomb. A bas-relief volumetric projection displays some medical information about the patient like vital signs and a subtle fundus image of the optic nerve.

Shuri holds her hand flat and raises it above the patient’s chest. A volumetric display of 9 of his thoracic vertebrae rises up in response. One of the vertebrae is highlighted in a bright red. A section of the wall display displays the same information in 2D, cyan with orange highlights. That display section slides out from the wall to draw observer’s attentions. Hexagonal tiles flip behind the display for some reason, but produce no change in the display.

Shuri reaches her hands up to the volumetric vertebrae, pinches her forefingers and thumbs together, and pull them apart. In response, the space between the vertebrae expands, allowing her to see the top and bottom of the body of the vertebra.

She then turns to the wall display, and reading something there, tells the others that he’ll live. Her attention is pulled away with the arrival of Wakabe, bringing news of Killmonger. We do not see her initiate a treatment in the scene. We have to presume that she did it between cuts. (There would have to be a LOT of confidence in an AI’s ability to diagnose and determine treatment before they would let Griot do that without human input.)

We’ll look more closely at the hover-stretcher display in a moment, but for now let’s pause and talk about the displays and the interaction of this beat.

A lab is not a recovery room

This doesn’t feel like a smart environment to hold a patient. We can bypass a lot of the usual hospital concerns of sterilization (it’s a clean room) or readily-available equipment (since they are surrounded by programmable vibranium dust controlled by an AGI) or even risk of contamination (something something AI). I’m mostly thinking about the patient having an environment that promotes healing: Natural light, quiet or soothing music, plants, furnishing, and serene interiors. Having him there certainly means that Shuri’s team can keep an eye on him, and provide some noise that may act as a stimulus, but don’t they have actual hospital rooms in Wakanda? 

Why does she need to lift it?

The VP starts in his chest, but why? If it had started out as a “translucent skin” illusion, like we saw in Lost in Space (1998, see below), then that might make sense. She would want to lift it to see it in isolation from the distracting details of the body. But it doesn’t start this way, it starts embedded within him?!

The “translucent skin” display from Lost in Space (1998)

It’s a good idea to have a representation close to the referent, to make for easy comparison between them. But to start the VP within his opaque chest just doesn’t make sense.

This is probably the wrong gesture

In the gestural interfaces chapter of  Make It So, I described a pidgin that has been emerging in sci-fi which consisted of 7 “words.” The last of these is “Pinch and Spread to Scale.” Now, there is nothing sacred about this gestural language, but it has echoes in the real world as well. For one example, Google’s VR painting app Tilt Brush uses “spread to scale.” So as an increasingly common norm, it should only be violated with good reason. In Black Panther, Shuri uses spread to mean “spread these out,” even though she starts the gesture near the center of the display and pulls out at a 45° angle. This speaks much more to scaling than to spreading. It’s a mismatch and I can’t see a good reason for it. Even if it’s “what works for her,” gestural idiolects hinder communities of practice, and so should be avoided.

Better would have been pinching on one end of the spine and hooking her other index finger to spread it apart without scaling. The pinch is quite literal for “hold” and the hook quite literal for “pull.” This would let scale be scale, and “hook-pull” to mean “spread components along an axis.”

Model from https://justsketch.me/

If we were stuck with the footage of Shuri doing the scale gesture, then it would have made more sense to scale the display, and fade the white vertebrae away so she could focus on the enlarged, damaged one. She could then turn it with her hand to any arbitrary orientation to examine it.

An object highlight is insufficient

It’s quite helpful for an interface that can detect anomalies to help focus a user’s attention there. The red highlight for the damaged vertebrae certainly helps draw attention. Where’s the problem? Ah, yes. There’s the problem. But it’s more helpful for the healthcare worker to know the nature of the damage, what the diagnosis is, to monitor the performance of the related systems, and to know how the intervention is going. (I covered these in the medical interfaces chapter of Make It So, if you want to read more.) So yes, we can see which vertebra is damaged, but what is the nature of that damage? A slipped disc should look different than a bone spur, which should look different than one that’s been cracked or shattered from a bullet. The thing-red display helps for an instant read in the scene, but fails on close inspection and would be insufficient in the real world.

This is not directly relevant to the critique, but interesting that spinal VPs have been around since 1992. Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Ethics” (Season 5, Episode 16).

Put critical information near the user’s locus of attention

Why does Shuri have to turn and look at the wall display at all? Why not augment the volumetric projection with the data that she needs? You might worry that it could obscure the patient (and thereby hinder direct observations) but with an AGI running the show, it could easily position those elements to not occlude her view.

Compare this display, which puts a waveform directly adjacent to the brain VP. Firefly, “Ariel” (Episode 9, 2002).

Note that Shuri is not the only person in the room interested in knowing the state of things, so a wall display isn’t bad, but it shouldn’t be the only augmentation.

Lastly, why does she need to tell the others that Ross will live? if there was signifcant risk of his death, there should be unavoidable environmental signals. Klaxons or medical alerts. So unless we are to believe T’Challa has never encountered a single medical emergency before (even in media), this is a strange thing for her to have to say. Of course we understand she’s really telling us in the audience that we don’t need to wonder about this plot development any more, but it would be better, diegetically, if she had confirmed the time-to-heal, like, “He should be fine in a few hours.”

Alternatively, it would be hilarious turnabout if the AI Griot had simply not been “trained” on data that included white people, and “could not see him,” which is why she had to manually manage the diagnosis and intervention, but that would have massive impact on the remote piloting and other scenes, so isn’t worth it. Probably.

Thoughts toward a redesign

So, all told, this interface and interaction could be much better fit-to-purpose. Clarify the gestural language. Lose the pointless flipping hexagons. Simplify the wall display for observers to show vitals, diagnosis and intervention, as well as progress toward the goal. Augment the physician’s projection with detailed, contextual data. And though I didn’t mention it above, of course the bone isn’t the only thing damaged, so show some of the other damaged tissues, and some flowing, glowing patterns to show where healing is being done along with a predicted time-to-completion.

Stretcher display

Later, when Ross is fully healed and wakes up, we see a shot of of the med table from above. Lots of cyan and orange, and *typography shudder* stacked type. Orange outlines seem to indicate controls, tough they bear symbols rather than full labels, which we know is better for learnability and infrequent reuse. (Linguist nerds: Yes, Wakandan is alphabetic rather than logographic.)

These feel mostly like FUIgetry, with the exception of a subtle respiration monitor on Ross’ left. But it shows current state rather than tracked over time, so still isn’t as helpful as it could be.

Then when Ross lifts his head, the hexagons begin to flip over, disabling the display. What? Does this thing only work when the patient’s head is in the exact right space? What happens when they’re coughing, or convulsing? Wouldn’t a healthcare worker still be interested in the last-recorded state of things? This “instant-off” makes no sense. Better would have been just to let the displays fade to a gray to indicate that it is no longer live data, and to have delayed the fade until he’s actually sitting up.

All told, the Wakandan medical interfaces are the worst of the ones seen in the film. Lovely, and good for quick narrative hit, but bad models for real-world design, or even close inspection within the world of Wakanda.


MLK Day Matters

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives.

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Normally there would be huge gatherings and public speeches about his legacy and the current state of civil rights. But the pandemic is still raging, and with the Capitol in Washington, D.C. having seen just last week an armed insurrection by supporters of outgoing and pouty loser Donald Trump, (in case that WP article hasn’t been moved yet, here’s the post under its watered-down title) worries about additional racist terrorism and violence.

So today we celebrate virtually, by staying at home, re-experiening his speeches and letters, and listening to the words of black leaders and prominent thinkers all around us, reminding us of the arc of the moral universe, and all the work it takes to bend it toward justice.

With the Biden team taking the reins on Wednesday, and Kamala Harris as our first female Vice President of color, things are looking brighter than they have in 4 long, terrible years. But Trump would have gotten nowhere if there hadn’t been a voting block and party willing to indulge his racist fascism. There’s still much more to do to dismantle systemic racism in the country and around the world. Let’s read, reflect, and use whatever platforms and resources we are privileged to have, act.

Okoye’s grip shoes

Like so much of the tech in Black Panther, this wearable battle gear is quite subtle, but critical to the scene, and much more than it seems at first. When Okoye and Nakia are chasing Klaue through the streets of Busan, South Korea, she realizes she would be better positioned on top of their car than within it.

She holds one of her spears out of the window, stabs it into the roof, and uses it to pull herself out on top of the swerving, speeding car. Once there, she places her feet into position, and the moment the sole of her foot touches the roof, it glows cyan for a moment.

She then holds onto the stuck spear to stabilize herself, rears back with her other spear, and throws it forward through the rear-window and windshield of some minions’ car, where it sticks in the road before them. Their car strikes the spear and get crushed. It’s a kickass moment in a film of kickass moments. But by all means let’s talk about the footwear.

Now, it’s not explicit, the effect the shoe has in the world of the story. But we can guess, given the context, that we are meant to believe the shoes grip the car roof, giving her a firm enough anchor to stay on top of the car and not tumble off when it swerves.

She can’t just be stuck

I have never thrown a javelin or a hyper-technological vibranium spear. But Mike Barber, PhD scholar in Biomechanics at Victoria University and Australian Institute of Sport, wrote this article about the mechanics of javelin throwing, and it seems that achieving throwing force is not just by sheer strength of the rotator cuff. Rather, the thrower builds force across their entire body and whips the momentum around their shoulder joint.

 Ilgar Jafarov, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Okoye is a world-class warrior, but doesn’t have superpowers, so…while I understand she does not want the car to yank itself from underneath her with a swerve, it seems that being anchored in place, like some Wakandan air tube dancer, will not help her with her mighty spear throwing. She needs to move.

It can’t just be manual

Imagine being on a mechanical bull jerking side to side—being stuck might help you stay upright. But imagine it jerking forward suddenly, and you’d wind up on your butt. If it jerked backwards, you’d be thrown forward, and it might be much worse. All are possibilities in the car chase scenario.

If those jerking motions happened to Okoye faster than she could react and release her shoes, it could be disastrous. So it can’t be a thing she needs to manually control. Which means it needs to some blend of manual, agentive, and assistant. Autonomic, maybe, to borrow the term from physiology?

So…

To really be of help, it has to…

  • monitor the car’s motion
  • monitor her center of balance
  • monitor her intentions
  • predict the future motions of the cars
  • handle all the cybernetics math (in the Norbert Wiener sense, not the sci-fi sense)
  • know when it should just hold her feet in place, and when it should signal for her to take action
  • know what action she should ideally take, so it knows what to nudge her to do

These are no mean feats, especially in real-time. So, I don’t see any explanation except…

An A.I. did it.

AGI is in the Wakandan arsenal (c.f. Griot helping Ross), so this is credible given the diegesis, but I did not expect to find it in shoes.

An interesting design question is how it might deliver warning signals about predicted motions. Is it tangible, like vibration? Or a mild electrical buzz? Or a writing-to-the-brain urge to move? The movie gives us no clues, but if you’re up for a design challenge, give it a speculative design pass.

Wearable heuristics

As part of my 2014 series about wearable technologies in sci-fi, I identified a set of heuristics we can use to evaluate such things. A quick check against those show that they fare well. The shoes are quite sartorial, and look like shoes so are social as well. As a brain interface, it is supremely easy to access and use. Two of the heuristics raise questions though.

  1. Wearables must be designed so they are difficult to accidentally activate. It would have been very inconvenient for Okoye to find herself stuck to the surface of Wakanda while trying to chase Killmonger later in the film, for example. It would be safer to ensure deliberateness with some mode-confirming physical gesture, but there’s no evidence of it in the movie.
  2. Wearables should have apposite I/O. The soles glow. Okoye doesn’t need that information. I’d say in a combat situation it’s genuinely bad design to require her to look down to confirm any modes of the shoes. They’re worn. She will immediately feel whether her shoes are fixed in place. While I can’t name exactly how an enemy might use the knowledge about whether she is stuck in place or not, but on general principle, the less information we give to the enemy, the safer you’ll be. So if this was real-world, we would seek to eliminate the glow. That said, we know that undetectable interactions are not cinegenic in the slightest, so for the film this is a nice “throwaway” addition to the cache of amazing Wakandan technology.

Black Georgia Matters and Today is the Day

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives.

Today is the last day in the Georgia runoff elections. It’s hard to overstate how important this is. If Ossoff and Warnock win, the future of the country has a much better likelihood of taking Black Lives Matter (and lots of other issues) more seriously. Actual progress might be made. Without it, the obstructionist and increasingly-frankly-racist Republican party (and Moscow Mitch) will hold much of the Biden-Harris administration back. If you know of any Georgians, please check with them today to see if they voted in the runoff election. If not—and they’re going to vote Democrat—see what encouragement and help you can give them.

Some ideas…

  • Pay for a ride there and back remotely.
  • Buy a meal to be delivered for their family.
  • Make sure they are protected and well-masked.
  • Encourage them to check their absentee ballot, if they cast one, here. https://georgia.ballottrax.net/voter/
  • If their absentee ballot has not been registered, they can go to the polls and tell the workers there that they want to cancel their absentee ballot and vote in person. Help them know their poll at My Voter Page: https://www.mvp.sos.ga.gov/MVP/mvp.do

This vote matters, matters, matters.

Fritzes 2021: What else is out there?

Last year in January I launched an annual awards program for excellence in cinematic sci-fi interfaces. If you didn’t catch it then, here are the inaugural winners. Then the rest of 2020 happened. A lot of movies were postponed since reasonable audiences were staying out of cinemas during the pandemic.

I’m still going to do the Fritzes this year, formally announcing nominees on 15 MAR and publishing the results on 25 APR (timed with the Oscars), but this post is asking to see if my readership knows (and can recommend) other movies that I might not have heard about. This is because of the movies I saw last year, only 2 (that’s right, two) had interfaces significant enough to evaluate. And one of those only had 1 interface in it. In total. So maybe you know more?

2020 sci-fi movies with negligible-or-no interfaces

Here’s a list of those movies that I watched which had negligible or no interfaces to review. (Note some of these were awful, so this is not a recommendations list, just an accounting.)

The ones with some interfaces

Still on my to-watch list

Here’s the list of sci-fi movies I’m aware of that were released in 2020 that I have yet to watch. Now it could be that I’ve just watched things in an unfortunate order, and the ones I watched happened to be the ones without much to review. Maybe (hopefully?) that’s true. But just in case…

If you have seen any of these and can share with me that they have no or negligible interfaces (and save the 90ish minutes of time) please let me know that, too.

The Ask

So…does anyone know of other 2020 films with great interfaces that I should see? Please let me know on social media or in the comments.

Television addendum

In contrast to the suspiciously-interfaceless moviescape, I’ve seen a lot of great interface work in television. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Expanse, Devs, Lovecraft Country, The Mandalorian, Star Trek Discovery, and Star Trek Picard, to name a few. So much great work. Awarding television shows is some complexity I haven’t ventured into yet, but if I wind up with a paucity of examples in film, I might have to start alternating years for TV & movies. Or start up a new set of awards just for TV.

Star Trek Discovery, S03E05 “Die Trying” screen shot. And yes, I know.

Who did it better? Santa Claus edition

I presume my readership are adults. I honestly cannot imagine this site has much to offer the 3-to-8-year-old. That said, if you are less than 8.8 years old, be aware that reading this will land you FIRMLY on the naughty list. Leave before it’s too late. Oooh, look! Here’s something interesting for you.


For those who celebrate Yule (and the very hybridized version of the holiday that I’ll call Santa-Christmas to distinguish it from Jesus-Christmas or Horus-Christmas), it’s that one time of year where we watch holiday movies. Santa features in no small number of them, working against the odds to save Christmas and Christmas spirit from something that threatens it. Santa accomplishes all that he does by dint of holiday magic, but increasingly, he has magic-powered technology to help him. These technologies are different for each movie in which they appear, with different sci-fi interfaces, which raises the question: Who did it better?

Unraveling this stands to be even more complicated than usual sci-fi fare.

  • These shows are largely aimed at young children, who haven’t developed the critical thinking skills to doubt the core premise, so the makers don’t have much pressure to present wholly-believable worlds. The makers also enjoy putting in some jokes for adults that are non-diegetic and confound analysis.
  • Despite the fact that these magical technologies are speculative just as in sci-fi, makers cannot presume that their audience are sci-fi fans who are familiar with those tropes. And things can’t seem too technical.
  • The sci in this fi is magical, which allows makers to do all-sorts of hand-wavey things about how it’s doing what it’s doing.
  • Many of the choices are whimsical and serve to reinforce core tenets of the Santa Claus mythos rather than any particular story or worldbuilding purpose.

But complicated-ness has rarely cowed this blog’s investigations before, why let a little thing like holiday magic do it now?

Ho-Ho-hubris!

A Primer on Santa

I have readers from all over the world. If you’re from a place that does not celebrate the Jolly Old Elf, a primer should help. And if you’re from a non-USA country, your Saint Nick mythos will be similar but not the same one that these movies are based on, so a clarification should help. To that end, here’s what I would consider the core of it.

Santa Claus is a magical, jolly, heavyset old man with white hair, mustache, and beard who lives at the North Pole with his wife Ms. Claus. The two are almost always caucasian. He can alternately be called Kris Kringle, Saint Nick, Father Christmas, or Klaus. The Clark Moore poem calls him a “jolly old elf.” He is aware of the behavior of children, and tallies their good and bad behavior over the year, ultimately landing them on the “naughty” or “nice” list. Santa brings the nice ones presents. (The naughty ones are canonically supposed to get coal in their stockings though in all my years I have never heard of any kids actually getting coal in lieu of presents.) Children also hang special stockings, often on a mantle, to be filled with treats or smaller presents. Adults encourage children to be good in the fall to ensure they get presents. As December approaches, Children write letters to Santa telling him what presents they hope for. Santa and his elves read the letters and make all the requested toys by hand in a workshop. Then the evening of 24 DEC, he puts all the toys in a large sack, and loads it into a sleigh led by 8 flying reindeer. Most of the time there is a ninth reindeer up front with a glowing red nose named Rudolph. He dresses in a warm red suit fringed with white fur, big black boots, thick black belt, and a stocking hat with a furry ball at the end. Over the evening, as children sleep, he delivers the presents to their homes, where he places them beneath the Christmas tree for them to discover in the morning. Families often leave out cookies and milk for Santa to snack on, and sometimes carrots for the reindeer. Santa often tries to avoid detection for reasons that are diegetically vague.

There is no single source of truth for this mythos, though the current core text might be the 1823 C.E. poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore. Visually, Santa’s modern look is often traced back to the depictions by Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast, which the Coca-Cola Corporation built upon for their holiday advertisements in 1931.

Both these illustrations are by Nast.

There are all sorts of cultural conversations to have about the normalizing a magical panopticon, what effect hiding the actual supply chain has, and asking for what does perpetuating this myth train children; but for now let’s stick to evaluating the interfaces in terms of Santa’s goals.

Santa’s goals

Given all of the above, we can say that the following are Santa’s goals.

  • Sort kids by behavior as naughty or nice
    • Many tellings have him observing actions directly
    • Manage the lists of names, usually on separate lists
  • Manage letters
    • Reading letters
    • Sending toy requests to the workshop
    • Storing letters
  • Make presents
  • Travel to kids’ homes
    • Find the most-efficient way there
    • Control the reindeer
    • Maintain air safety
      • Avoid air obstacles
    • Find a way inside and to the tree
    • Enjoy the cookies / milk
  • Deliver all presents before sunrise
  • For each child:
    • Know whether they are naughty or nice
    • If nice, match the right toy to the child
    • Stage presents beneath the tree
  • Avoid being seen

We’ll use these goals to contextualize the Santa interfaces against.

This is the Worst Santa, but the image is illustrative of the weather challenges.

Typical Challenges

Nearly every story tells of Santa working with other characters to save Christmas. (The metaphor that we have to work together to make Christmas happen is appreciated.) The challenges in the stories can be almost anything, but often include…

  • Inclement weather (usually winter, but Santa is a global phenomenon)
  • Air safety
    • Air obstacles (Planes, helicopters, skyscrapers)
  • Ingress/egress into homes
  • Home security systems / guard dogs

The Contenders

Imdb.com lists 847 films tagged with the keyword “santa claus,” which is far too much to review. So I looked through “best of” lists (two are linked below) and watched those films for interfaces. There weren’t many. I even had to blend CGI and live action shows, which I’m normally hesitant to do. As always, if you know of any additional shows that should be considered, please mention it in the comments.

https://editorial.rottentomatoes.com/guide/best-christmas-movies/https://screenrant.com/best-santa-claus-holiday-movies-ranked/

After reviewing these films, the ones with Santa interfaces came down to four, presented below in chronological order.

The Santa Clause (1994)

This movie deals with the lead character, Scott Calvin, inadvertently taking on the “job” of Santa Clause. (If you’ve read Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series, this plot will feel quite familiar.)

The sleigh he inherits has a number of displays that are largely unexplained, but little Charlie figures out that the center console includes a hot chocolate and cookie dispenser. There is also a radar, and far away from it, push buttons for fog, planes, rain, and lightning. There are several controls with Christmas bell icons associated with them, but the meaning of these are unclear.

Santa’s hat in this story has headphones and the ball has a microphone for communicating with elves back in the workshop.

This is the oldest of the candidates. Its interfaces are quite sterile and “tacked on” compared to the others, but was novel for its time.

The Santa Clause on imdb.com

Fred Claus (2007)

This movie tells the story of Santa’s n’er do well brother Fred, who has to work in the workshop for one season to work off bail money. While there he winds up helping forestall foreclosure from an underhanded supernatural efficiency expert, and un-estranging himself from his family. A really nice bit in this critically-panned film is that Fred helps Santa understand that there are no bad kids, just kids in bad circumstances.

Fred is taken to the North Pole in a sled with switches that are very reminiscent of the ones in The Santa Clause. A funny touch is the “fasten your seatbelt” sign like you might see in a commercial airliner. The use of Lombardic Capitals font is a very nice touch given that much of modern Western Santa Claus myth (and really, many of our traditions) come from Germany.

The workshop has an extensive pneumatic tube system for getting letters to the right craftself.

This chamber is where Santa is able to keep an eye on children. (Seriously panopticony. They have no idea they’re being surveilled.) Merely by reading the name and address of a child a volumetric display appears within the giant snowglobe. The naughtiest children’s names are displayed on a digital split-flap display, including their greatest offenses. (The nicest are as well, but we don’t get a close up of it.)

The final tally is put into a large book that one of the elves manages from the sleigh while Santa does the actual gift-distribution. The text in the book looks like it was printed from a computer.

Fred Clause on imdb.com

Arthur Christmas (2011)

In this telling, the Santa job is passed down patrilineally. The oldest Santa, GrandSanta, is retired. The dad, Malcolm, is the current-acting Santa one, and he has two sons. One is Steve, a by-the-numbers type into military efficiency and modern technology. The other son, Arthur, is an awkward fellow who has a semi-disposable job responding to letters. Malcolm currently pilots a massive mile-wide spaceship from which ninja elves do the gift distribution. They have a lot of tech to help them do their job. The plot involves Arthur working with Grandsanta using his old Sleigh to get a last forgotten gift to a young girl before the sun rises.

To help manage loud pets in the home who might wake up sleeping people, this gun has a dial for common pets that delivers a treat to distract them.

Elves have face scanners which determine each kids’ naughty/nice percentage. The elf then enters this into a stocking-filling gun, which affects the contents in some unseen way. A sweet touch is when one elf scans a kid who is read as quite naughty, the elf scans his own face to get a nice reading instead.

The S-1 is the name of the spaceship sleigh at the beginning (at the end it is renamed after Grandsanta’s sleigh). Its bridge is loaded with controls, volumetric displays, and even a Little Tree air freshener. It has a cloaking display on its underside which is strikingly similar to the MCU S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier cloaking. (And this came out the year before The Avengers, I’m just sayin’.)

The north pole houses the command-and-control center, which Steve manages. Thousands of elves manage workstations here, and there is a huge shared display for focusing and informing the team at once when necessary. Smaller displays help elf teams manage certain geographies. Its interfaces fall to comedy and trope, mostly, but are germane to the story beats

One of the crisis scenarios that this system helps manage is for a “waker,” a child who has awoken and is at risk of spying Santa.

Grandsanta’s outmoded sleigh is named Eve. Its technology is much more from the early 20th century, with switches and dials, buttons and levers. It’s a bit janky and overly complex, but gets the job done.

One notable control on S-1 is this trackball with dark representations of the continents. It appears to be a destination selector, but we do not see it in use. It is remarkable because it is very similar to one of the main interface components in the next candidate movie, The Christmas Chronicles.

Arthur Christmas on imdb.com

The Christmas Chronicles (2018)

The Christmas Chronicles follows two kids who stowaway on Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve. His surprise when they reveal themselves causes him to lose his magical hat and wreck his sleigh. They help him recover the items, finish his deliveries, and (well, of course) save Christmas just in time.

Santa’s sleight enables him to teleport to any place on earth. The main control is a trackball location selector. Once he spins it and confirms that the city readout looks correct, he can press the “GO” button for a portal to open in the air just ahead of the sleigh. After traveling in a aurora borealis realm filled with famous landmarks for a bit, another portal appears. They pass through this and appear at the selected location. A small magnifying glass above the selection point helps with precision.

Santa wears a watch that measures not time, but Christmas spirit, which ranges from 0 to 100. In the bottom half, chapter rings and a magnifying window seem designed to show the date, with 12 and 31 sequential numbers, respectively. It’s not clear why it shows mid May. A hemisphere in the middle of the face looks like it’s almost a globe, which might be a nice way to display and change time zone, but that may be wishful thinking on my part.

Santa also has a tracking device for finding his sack of toys. (Apparently this has happened enough time to warrant such a thing.) It is an intricate filligree over a cool green and blue glass. A light within blinks faster the closer the sphere is to the sack.

Since he must finish delivering toys before Christmas morning, the dashboard has a countdown clock with Nixie tube numbers showing hours, minutes, and milliseconds. They ordinary glow a cyan, but when time runs out, they turn red and blink.

This Santa also manages his list in a large book with lovely handwritten calligraphy. The kids whose gifts remain undelivered glow golden to draw his attention.

The Christmas Chronicles on imdb.com

So…who did it better?

The hard problem here is that there is a lot of apples-to-oranges comparisons to do. Even though the mythos seems pretty locked down, each movie takes liberties with one or two aspects. As a result not all these Santas are created equally. Calvin’s elves know he is completely new to his job and will need support. Christmas Chronicles Santa has perfect memory, magical abilities, and handles nearly all the delivery duties himself, unless he’s enacting a clever scheme to impart Christmas wisdom. Arthur Christmas has intergenerational technology and Santas who may not be magic at all, but fully know their duty from their youths but rely on a huge army of shock troop elves to make things happen. So it’s hard to name just one. But absent a point-by-point detailed analysis, there are two that really stand out to me.

The weathered surface of this camouflage button is delightful (Arthur Christmas).

Coverage of goals

Arthur Christmas movie has, by far, the most interfaces of any of the candidates, and more coverage of the Santa-family’s goals. Managing noisy pets? Check? Dealing with wakers? Check. Navigating the globe? Check. As far as thinking through speculative technology that assists its Santa, this film has the most.

Keeping the holiday spirit

I’ll confess, though, that extradiegetically, one of the purposes of annual holidays is to mark the passage of time. By trying to adhere to traditions as much as we can, time and our memory is marked by those things that we cannot control (like, say, a pandemic keeping everyone at home and hanging with friends and family virtually). So for my money, the thoroughly modern interfaces that flood Arthur Christmas don’t work that well. They’re so modern they’re not…Christmassy. Grandsanta’s sleigh Eve points to an older tradition, but it’s also clearly framed as outdated in the context of the story.

Gorgeous steampunkish binocular HUD from The Christmas Chronicles 2, which was not otherwise included in this post.

Compare this to The Christmas Chronicles, with its gorgeous steampunk-y interfaces that combine a sense of magic and mechanics. These are things that a centuries-old Santa would have built and use. They feel rooted in tradition while still helping Santa accomplish as many of his goals as he needs (in the context of his Christmas adventure for the stowaway kids). These interfaces evoke a sense of wonder, add significantly to the worldbuilding, and which I’d rather have as a model for magical interfaces in the real world.

Of course it’s a personal call, given the differences, but The Christmas Chronicles wins in my book.

Ho, Ho, HEH.

For those that celebrate Santa-Christmas, I hope it’s a happy one, given the strange, strange state of the world. May you be on the nice list.


For more Who Did it Better, see the tag.