Sci-fi Spacesuits: Moving around

Whatever it is, it ain’t going to construct, observe, or repair itself. In addition to protection and provision, suits must facilitate the reason the wearer has dared to go out into space in the first place.

One of the most basic tasks of extravehicular activity (EVA) is controlling where the wearer is positioned in space. The survey shows several types of mechanisms for this. First, if your EVA never needs you to leave the surface of the spaceship, you can go with mountaineering gear or sticky feet. (Or sticky hands.) We can think of maneuvering through space as similar to piloting a craft, but the outputs and interfaces have to be made wearable, like wearable control panels. We might also expect to see some tunnel in the sky displays to help with navigation. We’d also want to see some AI safeguard features, to return the spacewalker to safety when things go awry. (Narrator: We don’t.)

Mountaineering gear

In Stowaway (2021) astronauts undertake unplanned EVAs with carabiners and gear akin to mountaineers use. This makes some sense, though even this equipment needs to be modified for use by astronauts’ thick gloves.

Stowaway (2021) Drs Kim and Levinson prepare to scale to the propellant tank.

Sticky feet (and hands)

Though it’s not extravehicular, I have to give a shout out to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), where we see a flight attendant manage their position in the microgravity with special shoes that adhere to the floor. It’s a lovely example of a competent Hand Wave. We don’t need to know how it works because it says, right there, “Grip shoes.” Done. Though props to the actress Heather Downham, who had to make up a funny walk to illustrate that it still isn’t like walking on earth.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1969)
Pan Am: “Thank god we invented the…you know, whatever shoes.

With magnetic boots, seen in Destination Moon, the wearer simply walks around and manages the slight awkwardness of having to pull a foot up with extra force, and have it snap back down on its own.

Battlestar Galactica added magnetic handgrips to augment the control provided by magnetized boots. With them, Sergeant Mathias is able to crawl around the outside of an enemy vessel, inspecting it. While crawling, she holds grip bars mounted to circles that contain the magnets. A mechanism for turning the magnet off is not seen, but like these portable electric grabbers, it could be as simple as a thumb button.

Iron Man also had his Mark 50 suit form stabilizing suction cups before cutting a hole in the hull of the Q-Ship.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

In the electromagnetic version of boots, seen in Star Trek: First Contact, the wearer turns the magnets on with a control strapped to their thigh. Once on, the magnetization seems to be sensitive to the wearer’s walk, automatically lessening when the boot is lifted off. This gives the wearer something of a natural gait. The magnetism can be turned off again to be able to make microgravity maneuvers, such as dramatically leaping away from Borg minions.

Star Trek: Discovery also included this technology, but with what appears to be a gestural activation and a cool glowing red dots on the sides and back of the heel. The back of each heel has a stack of red lights that count down to when they turn off, as, I guess, a warning to anyone around them that they’re about to be “air” borne.

Quick “gotcha” aside: neither Destination Moon nor Star Trek: First Contact bothers to explain how characters are meant to be able to kneel while wearing magnetized boots. Yet this very thing happens in both films.

Destination Moon (1950): Kneeling on the surface of the spaceship.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996): Worf rises from operating the maglock to defend himself.

Controlled Propellant

If your extravehicular task has you leaving the surface of the ship and moving around space, you likely need a controlled propellant. This is seen only a few times in the survey.

In the film Mission to Mars, the manned mobility unit, or MMU, seen in the film is based loosely on NASA’s MMU. A nice thing about the device is that unlike the other controlled propellant interfaces, we can actually see some of the interaction and not just the effect. The interfaces are subtly different in that the Mission to Mars spacewalkers travel forward and backward by angling the handgrips forward and backward rather than with a joystick on an armrest. This seems like a closer mapping, but also seems more prone to error by accidental touching or bumping into something.

The plus side is an interface that is much more cinegenic, where the audience is more clearly able to see the cause and effect of the spacewalker’s interactions with the device.

If you have propellent in a Moh’s 4 or 5 film, you might need to acknowledge that propellant is a limited resource. Over the course of the same (heartbreaking) scene shown above, we see an interface where one spacewalker monitors his fuel, and another where a spacewalker realizes that she has traveled as far as she can with her MMU and still return to safety.

Mission to Mars (2000): Woody sees that he’s out of fuel.

For those wondering, Michael Burnham’s flight to the mysterious signal in that pilot uses propellant, but is managed and monitored by controllers on Discovery, so it makes sense that we don’t see any maneuvering interfaces for her. We could dive in and review the interfaces the bridge crew uses (and try to map that onto a spacesuit), but we only get snippets of these screens and see no controls.

Iron Man’s suits employ some Phlebotinum propellant that lasts for ever, can fit inside his tailored suit, and are powerful enough to achieve escape velocity.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

All-in-all, though sci-fi seems to understand the need for characters to move around in spacesuits, very little attention is given to the interfaces that enable it. The Mission to Mars MMU is the only one with explicit attention paid to it, and that’s quite derived from NASA models. It’s an opportunity for film makers should the needs of the plot allow, to give this topic some attention.

Sci-fi Spacesuits: Interface Locations

A major concern of the design of spacesuits is basic usability and ergonomics. Given the heavy material needed in the suit for protection and the fact that the user is wearing a helmet, where does a designer put an interface so that it is usable?

Chest panels

Chest panels are those that require that the wearer only look down to manipulate. These are in easy range of motion for the wearer’s hands. The main problem with this location is that there is a hard trade off between visibility and bulkiness.

Arm panels

Arm panels are those that are—brace yourself—mounted to the forearm. This placement is within easy reach, but does mean that the arm on which the panel sits cannot be otherwise engaged, and it seems like it would be prone to accidental activation. This is a greater technological challenge than a chest panel to keep components small and thin enough to be unobtrusive. It also provides some interface challenges to squeeze information and controls into a very small, horizontal format. The survey shows only three arm panels.

The first is the numerical panel seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey (thanks for the catch, Josh!). It provides discrete and easy input, but no feedback. There are inter-button ridges to kind of prevent accidental activation, but they’re quite subtle and I’m not sure how effective they’d be.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The second is an oversimplified control panel seen in Star Trek: First Contact, where the output is simply the unlabeled lights underneath the buttons indicating system status.

The third is the mission computers seen on the forearms of the astronauts in Mission to Mars. These full color and nonrectangular displays feature rich, graphic mission information in real time, with textual information on the left and graphic information on the right. Input happens via hard buttons located around the periphery.

Side note: One nifty analog interface is the forearm mirror. This isn’t an invention of sci-fi, as it is actually on real world EVAs. It costs a lot of propellant or energy to turn a body around in space, but spacewalkers occasionally need to see what’s behind them and the interface on the chest. So spacesuits have mirrors on the forearm to enable a quick view with just arm movement. This was showcased twice in the movie Mission to Mars.

HUDs

The easiest place to see something is directly in front of your eyes, i.e. in a heads-up display, or HUD. HUDs are seen frequently in sci-fi, and increasingly in sc-fi spacesuits as well. One is Sunshine. This HUD provides a real-time view of each other individual to whom the wearer is talking while out on an EVA, and a real-time visualization of dangerous solar winds.

These particular spacesuits are optimized for protection very close to the sun, and the visor is limited to a transparent band set near eye level. These spacewalkers couldn’t look down to see the top of a any interfaces on the suit itself, so the HUD makes a great deal of sense here.

Star Trek: Discovery’s pilot episode included a sequence that found Michael Burnham flying 2000 meters away from the U.S.S. Discovery to investigate a mysterious Macguffin. The HUD helped her with wayfinding, navigating, tracking time before lethal radiation exposure (a biological concern, see the prior post), and even doing a scan of things in her surroundings, most notably a Klingon warrior who appears wearing unfamiliar armor. Reference information sits on the periphery of Michael’s vision, but the augmentations occur mapped to her view. (Noting this raises the same issues of binocular parallax seen in the Iron HUD.)

Iron Man’s Mark L armor was able to fly in space, and the Iron HUD came right along with it. Though not designed/built for space, it’s a general AI HUD assisting its spacewalker, so worth including in the sample.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Aside from HUDs, what we see in the survey is similar to what exists in existing real-world extravehicular mobility units (EMUs), i.e. chest panels and arm panels.

Inputs illustrate paradigms

Physical controls range from the provincial switches and dials on the cigarette-girl foldout control panels of Destination Moon to the simple and restrained numerical button panel of 2001, to strangely unlabeled buttons of Star Trek: First Contact’s arm panels (above), and the ham-handed touch screens of Mission to Mars.

Destination Moon (1950)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

As the pictures above reveal, the input panels reflect the familiar technology of the time of the creation of the movie or television show. The 1950s were still rooted in mechanistic paradigms, the late 1960s interfaces were electronic pushbutton, the 2000s had touch screens and miniaturized displays.

Real world interfaces

For comparison and reference, the controls for NASA’s EMU has a control panel on the front, called the Display and Control Module, where most of the controls for the EMU sit.

The image shows that inputs are very different than what we see as inputs in film and television. The controls are large for easy manipulation even with thick gloves, distinct in type and location for confident identification, analog to allow for a minimum of failure points and in-field debugging and maintenance, and well-protected from accidental actuation with guards and deep recesses. The digital display faces up for the convenience of the spacewalker. The interface text is printed backwards so it can be read with the wrist mirror.

The outputs are fairly minimal. They consist of the pressure suit gauge, audio warnings, and the 12-character alphanumeric LCD panel at the top of the DCM. No HUD.

The gauge is mechanical and standard for its type. The audio warnings are a simple warbling tone when something’s awry. The LCD panel provides information about 16 different values that the spacewalker might need, including estimated time of oxygen remaining, actual volume of oxygen remaining, pressure (redundant to the gauge), battery voltage or amperage, and water temperature. To cycle up and down the list, she presses the Mode Selector Switch forward and backward. She can adjust the contrast using the Display Intensity Control potentiometer on the front of the DCM.

A NASA image tweeted in 2019.

The DCMs referenced in the post are from older NASA documents. In more recent images on NASA’s social media, it looks like there have been significant redesigns to the DCM, but so far I haven’t seen details about the new suit’s controls. (Or about how that tiny thing can house all the displays and controls it needs to.)

Sci-fi Spacesuits: Biological needs

Spacesuits must support the biological functioning of the astronaut. There are probably damned fine psychological reasons to not show astronauts their own biometric data while on stressful extravehicular missions, but there is the issue of comfort. Even if temperature, pressure, humidity, and oxygen levels are kept within safe ranges by automatic features of the suit, there is still a need for comfort and control inside of that range. If the suit is to be warn a long time, there must be some accommodation for food, water, urination, and defecation. Additionally, the medical and psychological status of the wearer should be monitored to warn of stress states and emergencies.

Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t reveal any interfaces being used to control temperature, pressure, or oxygen levels. There are some for low oxygen level warnings and testing conditions outside the suit, but these are more outputs than interfaces where interactions take place.

There are also no nods to toilet necessities, though in fairness Hollywood eschews this topic a lot.

The one example of sustenance seen in the survey appears in Sunshine, we see Captain Kaneda take a sip from his drinking tube while performing a dangerous repair of the solar shields. This is the only food or drink seen in the survey, and it is a simple mechanical interface, held in place by material strength in such a way that he needs only to tilt his head to take a drink.

Similarly, in Sunshine, when Capa and Kaneda perform EVA to repair broken solar shields, Cassie tells Capa to relax because he is using up too much oxygen. We see a brief view of her bank of screens that include his biometrics.

Remote monitoring of people in spacesuits is common enough to be a trope, but has been discussed already in the Medical chapter in Make It So, for more on biometrics in sci-fi.

Crowe’s medical monitor in Aliens (1986).

There are some non-interface biological signals for observers. In the movie Alien, as the landing party investigates the xenomorph eggs, we can see that the suit outgases something like steam—slower than exhalations, but regular. Though not presented as such, the suit certainly confirms for any onlooker that the wearer is breathing and the suit functioning.

Given that sci-fi technology glows, it is no surprise to see that lots and lots of spacesuits have glowing bits on the exterior. Though nothing yet in the survey tells us what these lights might be for, it stands to reason that one purpose might be as a simple and immediate line-of-sight status indicator. When things are glowing steadily, it means the life support functions are working smoothly. A blinking red alert on the surface of a spacesuit could draw attention to the individual with the problem, and make finding them easier.

Emergency deployment

One nifty thing that sci-fi can do (but we can’t yet in the real world) is deploy biology-protecting tech at the touch of a button. We see this in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Starlord’s helmet.

If such tech was available, you’d imagine that it would have some smart sensors to know when it must automatically deploy (sudden loss of oxygen or dangerous impurities in the air), but we don’t see it. But given this speculative tech, one can imagine it working for a whole spacesuit and not just a helmet. It might speed up scenes like this.

What do we see in the real world?

Are there real-world controls that sci-fi is missing? Let’s turn to NASA’s space suits to compare.

The Primary Life-Support System (PLSS) is the complex spacesuit subsystem that provides the life support to the astronaut, and biomedical telemetry back to control. Its main components are the closed-loop oxygen-ventilation system for cycling and recycling oxygen, the moisture (sweat and breath) removal system, and the feedwater system for cooling.

The only “biology” controls that the spacewalker has for these systems are a few on the Display and Control Module (DCM) on the front of the suit. They are the cooling control valve, the oxygen actuator slider, and the fan switch. Only the first is explicitly to control comfort. Other systems, such as pressure, are designed to maintain ideal conditions automatically. Other controls are used for contingency systems for when the automatic systems fail.

Hey, isn’t the text on this thing backwards? Yes, because astronauts can’t look down from inside their helmets, and must view these controls via a wrist mirror. More on this later.

The suit is insulated thoroughly enough that the astronaut’s own body heats the interior, even in complete shade. Because the astronaut’s body constantly adds heat, the suit must be cooled. To do this, the suit cycles water through a Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment, which has a fine network of tubes held closely to the astronaut’s skin. Water flows through these tubes and past a sublimator that cools the water with exposure to space. The astronaut can increase or decrease the speed of this flow and thereby the amount to which his body is cooled, by the cooling control valve, a recessed radial valve with fixed positions between 0 (the hottest) and 10 (the coolest), located on the front of the Display Control Module.

The spacewalker does not have EVA access to her biometric data. Sensors measure oxygen consumption and electrocardiograph data and broadcast it to the Mission Control surgeon, who monitors it on her behalf. So whatever the reason is, if it’s good enough for NASA, it’s good enough for the movies.


Back to sci-fi

So, we do see temperature and pressure controls on suits in the real world, which underscores their absence in sci-fi. But, if there hasn’t been any narrative or plot reason for such things to appear in a story, we should not expect them.

Sci-fi Spacesuits: Protecting the Wearer from the Perils of Space

Space is incredibly inhospitable to life. It is a near-perfect vacuum, lacking air, pressure, and warmth. It is full of radiation that can poison us, light that can blind and burn us, and a darkness that can disorient us. If any hazardous chemicals such as rocket fuel have gotten loose, they need to be kept safely away. There are few of the ordinary spatial clues and tools that humans use to orient and control their position. There are free-floating debris that range from to bullet-like micrometeorites to gas and rock planets that can pull us toward them to smash into their surface or burn in their atmospheres. There are astronomical bodies such as stars and black holes that can boil us or crush us into a singularity. And perhaps most terrifyingly, there is the very real possibility of drifting off into the expanse of space to asphyxiate, starve (though biology will be covered in another post), freeze, and/or go mad.

The survey shows that sci-fi has addressed most of these perils at one time or another.

Alien (1976): Kane’s visor is melted by a facehugger’s acid.

Interfaces

Despite the acknowledgment of all of these problems, the survey reveals only two interfaces related to spacesuit protection.

Battlestar Galactica (2004) handled radiation exposure with simple, chemical output device. As CAG Lee Adama explains in “The Passage,” the badge, worn on the outside of the flight suit, slowly turns black with radiation exposure. When the badge turns completely black, a pilot is removed from duty for radiation treatment.

This is something of a stretch because it has little to do with the spacesuit itself, and is strictly an output device. (Nothing that proper interaction requires human input and state changes.) The badge is not permanently attached to the suit, and used inside a spaceship while wearing a flight suit. The flight suit is meant to act as a very short term extravehicular mobility unit (EMU), but is not a spacesuit in the strict sense.

The other protection related interface is from 2001: A Space Odyssey. As Dr. Dave Bowman begins an extravehicular activity to inspect seemingly-faulty communications component AE-35, we see him touch one of the buttons on his left forearm panel. Moments later his visor changes from being transparent to being dark and protective.

We should expect to see few interfaces, but still…

As a quick and hopefully obvious critique, Bowman’s function shouldn’t have an interface. It should be automatic (not even agentive), since events can happen much faster than human response times. And, now that we’ve said that part out loud, maybe it’s true that protection features of a suit should all be automatic. Interfaces to pre-emptively switch them on or, for exceptional reasons, manually turn them off, should be the rarity.

But it would be cool to see more protective features appear in sci-fi spacesuits. An onboard AI detects an incoming micrometeorite storm. Does the HUD show much time is left? What are the wearer’s options? Can she work through scenarios of action? Can she merely speak which course of action she wants the suit to take? If a wearer is kicked free of the spaceship, the suit should have a homing feature. Think Doctor Strange’s Cloak of Levitation, but for astronauts.

As always, if you know of other examples not in the survey, please put them in the comments.

Spacesuits in Sci-fi

“Why cannot we walk outside [the spaceship] like the meteor? Why cannot we launch into space through the scuttle? What enjoyment it would be to feel oneself thus suspended in ether, more favored than the birds who must use their wings to keep themselves up!”

—The astronaut Michel Ardan in Round the Moon by Jules Verne (1870)

When we were close to publication on Make It So, we wound up being way over the maximum page count for a Rosenfeld Media book. We really wanted to keep the components and topics sections, and that meant we had to cut the section on things. Spacesuits was one of the chapters I drafted about things. I am representing that chapter here on the blog. n.b. This was written ten years ago in 2011. There are almost certainly other more recent films and television shows that can serve as examples. If you, the reader, notice any…well, that‘s what the comments section is for.

Sci-fi doesn’t have to take place in interplanetary space, but a heck of a lot of it does. In fact, the first screen-based science fiction film is all about a trip to the moon.

La Voyage Dans La Lune (1904): The professors suit up for their voyage to the moon by donning conical caps, neck ruffles, and dark robes.

Most of the time, traveling in this dangerous locale happens inside spaceships, but occasionally a character must travel out bodily into the void of space. Humans—and pretty much everything (no not them) we would recognize as life—can not survive there for very long at all. Fortunately, the same conceits that sci-fi adopts to get characters into space can help them survive once they’re there.

Establishing terms

An environmental suit is any that helps the wearer survive in an inhospitable environment. Environment suits first began with underwater suits, and later high-altitude suits. For space travel, pressure suits are to be worn during the most dangerous times, i.e. liftoff and landing, when an accident may suddenly decompress a spacecraft. A spacesuit is an environmental suit designed specifically for survival in outer space. NASA refers to spacesuits as Extravehicular Mobility Units, or EMUs. Individuals who wear the spacesuits are known as spacewalkers. The additional equipment that helps a spacewalker move around space in a controlled manner is the Manned Mobility Unit, or MMU.

Additionally, though many other agencies around the world participate in the design and engineering of  spacesuits, there is no convenient way to reference them and their efforts as a group, so Aerospace Community is used as a shorthand. This also helps to acknowledge that my research and interviews were primarily with sources primarily from NASA.

The design of the spacesuit is an ongoing and complicated affair. To speak of “the spacesuit” as if it were a single object ignores the vast number of iterations and changes made to the suits between each cycle of engineering, testing, and deployment, must less between different agencies working on their own designs. So, for those wondering, I’m using the Russian Orlan spacesuit currently being used in the International Space Station and shuttle missions as the default design when speaking about modern spacesuits.

Spacesuit Orlan-MKS at MAKS-2013(air show) (fragment) CC BY-SA 4.0

What the thing’s got to do

A spacesuit, whether in sci-fi or the real world, has to do three things.

  1. It has to protect the wearer from the perils of interplanetary space.
  2. It has to accommodate the wearer’s ongoing biological needs.
  3. Since space is so dangerous, the suit and tools must help the wearer accomplish their extravehicular tasks efficiently and get them back to safer environs as quickly as possible.

Each of these categories of functions, and the related interfaces, are discussed in following posts.

The Fritzes 2021 Winners

The Fritzes award honors the best interfaces in a full-length motion picture in the past year. Interfaces play a special role in our movie-going experience, and are a craft all their own that does not otherwise receive focused recognition. Awards are given for Best Believable, Best Narrative, Audience Choice, and Best Interfaces (overall.) A group of critics and creators were consulted to watch the nominated films, compare their merits, and cast votes.

As we all know 2020 was a strange year—being the first big year of the COVID pandemic—and cinema was greatly affected. The number of sci-fi films was low, and the amount of interfaces in those films often smallish compared to prior years. But that does not mean they were not without quality, and here I’m happy to celebrate the excellent work of the candidates and the winners.

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 PremiseProject Power, and Proximity.

The winner of the Best Believable award for 2021 is Project Power.

Project Power

Project Power’s novum is a speculative street drug called Power, that can either explode you, or give you temporary superpowers that are derived from animals’ abilities. Frank Shaver is a policeman who is a user, who has befriended his young dealer, Robin. Art, an ex-soldier who goes by the name Major, teams up with Shaver and Robin, to work their way through the Power dealer network, to stop distribution and find Major’s daughter Tracy, who plays a key role in the whole thing. On the way they learn that Power was created by a private defense contractor, Teleios, that is using New Orleans like a Tuskegee-like testing ground, and work to bring it down.

The interfaces we see belong to Teleios, and tell a story of surveillance, control, social justice, and cutting-edge genetic engineering. While being cool and reserved, the interfaces are believable and help engage us in its psychotic scheme. It’s a Netflix original, so you can catch the movie there.


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.

The winner of the Best Narrative award for 2021 is World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime.

World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime

In a far and bleakly dystopian future, David Prime is alone in his spaceship, when he discovers a hidden memory from a future lover named Emily 9, that sets him off on a trek to retrieve memories from his multiple, future, cloned selves. The instructions that he needs to follow are all from a technology 400 years in the future, the size of which require that he offload increasingly more and more important “cognitive apps.” David’s glitchy, intrusive-ad-infested head-mounted viewscreen interface tells of a world where genetic engineering is a schlock product “HOLOGRAMS THAT YELL AT YOU! (HOTT WILD DISCRETE PARTYLOVE),” human minds are little more than extended smartphones, time travel is used mostly for murder, and human experience is wholly mediated. See it on Vimeo.


Audience Choice

All of the movies nominated for other awards were presented for an Audience Choice award. Across social media, the readership was invited to vote for their favorite, and the results tallied. The winner of the Audience Choice award for 2021 is LX 2048.

LX 2048

Adam Bird is dealing with a broken family, a wrecked world, a failing career, and on top of it all, a diagnosis of heart failure. To get a new heart that can be transplanted from a clone, he must approach his estranged wife Reena and ask her to request her Insurance Spouse ahead of his death. She agrees to it but bitterly arranges a virtual assassination for Adam before getting accidentally killed herself. When his clone shows up at his door he must face off against a better version of himself. It’s a dense thriller that goes to ask: What if your dream lover prefers a dream version of you? What if humanity was only a chrysalis?

The interfaces are simple and often subtle, but tell of a high-tech world trapped by virtual escapism, the complications of technological personhood, and the threat that our creations will obviate us. You can watch LX 2048 on many streaming services.


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 ArchiveLX 2048, and The Midnight Sky.

The winner of the Best Interfaces award for 2021 is Archive.

Archive

George is an engineer reactivating a remote, mothballed industrial facility for a corporation called ARM. George is using the facility’s assets to work on general artificial intelligence and a robot housing that would be indistinguishable from human. He is camping on a technology called Archive, which offers its clients interactions with a virtual simulation of deceased persons for up to 200 hours, while the archive lasts. But he’s hiding both how far he’s gotten with his work, and that he’s not building just any human, but specifically that of Jules, his deceased wife. He and his 3 prototypes must try to reactive the facility, keep the corporation in the dark, keep a tech gang called the Otaku at bay, and deal with the dark interpersonal strife of the prototypes—with the resources and time he has left.

The interfaces are striking in their high-contrast palette, tight grid, and bold typography. The interface style extends throughout the costumes, the sets, and props. The interfaces tell of a setting that is lonely, corporatist, and isolated, and hides a dark secret at the center of it all. You can see Archive on several streaming services.


Congratulations to all the candidates and the winners. That you for helping advance the art and craft of speculative interfaces in cinema.

The Fritzes 2021: Audience Choice Voting

The form to cast your vote for Audience Choice is at the bottom of this post.

On or around 25 April 2021, scifiinterfaces.com is announcing awards for interfaces in a 2020 science fiction film. An “Audience Choice” will also be announced, and determined by the results of the poll, below. All films eligible for other awards are nominees for the Audience Choice award. Which one had the interfaces that you just loved the best? You should see the movies in full, but you can see trailers for each of the nominees, presented in alphabetical order, below. Voting will be open until 24 April 2021 at 23:59, Pacific Time.

Archive

Love and Monsters

LX 2048

The Midnight Sky

Minor Premise

Project Power

Proximity

Underwater

World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime


Of those movies, which do you think had the best over all interfaces? Cast your vote below. To avoid flagrant ballot stuffing, you must have a google account and be logged in to that account to cast your vote.

Voting will be open until 24 April 2021 at 23:59, Pacific Time.

Please share this post on your social media to get the vote out! Thanks!

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.