A major problem with the use of the Eye is that it treats the past and the future similarly. But they’re not the same. The past is a long chain of arguably-knowable causes and effects. So, sure, we can imagine that as a movie to be scrubbed.
But the future? Not so much. Which brings us, briefly, to this dude.
If we knew everything, Pierre-Simon Laplace argued in 1814, down to the state of every molecule, and we had a processor capable, we would be able to predict with perfect precision the events of the future. (You might think he’s talking about a computer or an AI, but in 1814 they used demons for their thought experiments.) In the two centuries since, there have been several major repudiations of Laplace’s demon. So let’s stick to the near-term, where there’s not one known future waiting to happen, but a set of probabilities. That means we have to rethink what the Eye shows when it lets Strange scrub the future.
Note that in the film, the “future” of the apple shown to Strange was just a likelihood, not a fact. The Eye shows it being eaten. In the actual events of the film, after the apple is set aside:
- Strange repairs the tome
- Mordo and Wong interrupt Strange
- They take him into the next room for some exposition
- The Hong Kong sanctum portal swings open
- Kaecilius murders a redshirt
- Kaecilius explodes Strange into the New York sanctum
Then for the next 50 minutes, The Masters of Mysticism are scrambling to save the world. I doubt any of them have time to while away in a library, there to discover an abandoned apple with a bite taken out of it, and decide—staphylococcus aureus be damned—a snack’s a snack. No, it’s safe to say the apple does not get eaten.
So the Eye gets the apple wrong, but it showed Strange that future as if it were a certainty. That’s a problem. Sure, when asked about the future, it ought to show something, but better would be to…
- Indicate somewhere that what is being displayed is one of a set of possibilities
- Provide options to understand the probability distribution among the set
- Explore the alternates
- Be notified when new data shifts the probability distribution or inserts new important possibilities
So how to display probabilities? There are lots of ways, but I am most fond of probability tree diagrams. In nerd parlance, this is a unidirectional graph where the nodes are states and the lines are labeled for probabilities. In regular language they look like sideways two-dimensional trees. See an example below from mathisfun.com. These diagrams seem to me a quick way to understand branching possibilities. (I couldn’t find any studies giving me more to work on than “seem to me”.)
In addition to being easy to understand, they afford visual manipulation. You can work branching lines around an existing design.
Now if we were actually working out a future-probabilities gestural scrubber attached to the Eye of Agamotto saucer, we’d have a whole host of things to get into next, like designing…
- A compact but informative display that signals the relative probabilities of each timeline
- The mechanism for opening that display so probabilities can be seen rather than read
- Labels so Strange wouldn’t have to hunt through all of them for the thing of interest (or some means of search)
- A selection process for picking the new timeline
- A comparison mode
- A means of collapsing the display to return to scrub mode
- A you-are-here signal in the display to indicate the current timeline
Which is a big set of design tasks for a hobbyist website. Fortunately for us, Strange only deals with a simple, probable (but wrong) scenario of the apple’s future as an illustration for the audience of what the Eye can do; and he only deals with the past of the tome. So while we could get into all of the above, it’s most expedient just to resolve the first one for the scene and tidy up the interface as it helps illustrate a well-thought-out and usable world.
Below I’ve drafted up an extension of my earlier conceptual diagram. I’ve added a tree to the future part of the chapter ring, using some dots to indicate the comparative likelihood of each branch. This could be made more compact, and might be good to put on a second z-axis layer to distinguish it from the saucer, but again: conceptual diagram.
If this were implemented in the film, we would want to make sure that the probability tree begins to flicker right before Wong and Mordo shut him down, as a nod to the events happening off screen with Kaecilius that are changing those futures. This would give a clue that the Eye is smartly keeping track of real-world events and adjusting its predictions appropriately.
These changes would make the Eye more usable for Strange and smart as a model for us.
Twist ending: This is a real problem we will have to solve
I skipped those design tasks for this comp, but we may not be able to avoid those problems forever. As it turns out, this is not (just) an idle, sci-fi problem. One of the promises of assistive AI is that it will be giving its humans advice, based on predictive algorithms, which will be a set of probabilistic scenarios. There may be an overwhelmingly likely next scenario, but there may also be several alternatives that users will need to explore and understand before deciding the best strategy. So, yeah, an exercise for the reader.
Wrapping up the Tibet Mode
So three posts is not the longest analysis I’ve done, bit it was a lot. In recap: Gestural time scrubbing seems like a natural interaction mapped well to analog clocks. The Eye’s saucer display is cool, but insufficient. We can help Strange much more by adding an events-based chapter ring detailing the facts of the past and the probabilities of the future.
Alas. We’re not done yet. As you’ll recall from the intro post, there are two other modes: The Hong Kong and Dark Dimension modes. Let’s next talk the Hong Kong mode, which is like the Tibet mode, but different.