Realtime story visualization

Caveat: This is definitely me reading into things. Or even, inferring something that I’d like to see in the world. But why not?

Black Panther begins with a conversation between a son and father.

  • SON
  • Baba?
  • FATHER
  • Yes, my son?
  • SON
  • Tell me a story
  • FATHER
  • Which one?
  • SON
  • The story of home.

The conversation continues with the father describing the history of Wakanda. On screen, we see a lovely sequence of shapes that illustrate the story. A meteor strikes Africa and the nearby flora and fauna change. Five hands form a pentagram version of the four-handed carry grip to represent the five tribes. The hands shift to become warring tribespeople. Their armor. Their weapons. Their animals.

All these shapes are made from vibranium sand—gunmetal gray colored, sparkling particles, see the screen caps—that move and reform fluidly, with a unifying highlight of glowing blue.

Now, this opening sequence isn’t presented as an interface, or really, as anything in the diegesis at all. We understand it is exposition, for us in the audience. But what if it wasn’t? What if this is showing us a close up of a display that illustrates in real-time what the storyteller is saying? Something just over the shoulder of Baba that the child can watch?

The display would not be prerecorded, which requires the storyteller to match its fixed pace. (Presenters who have tried pecha-kucha style presentations of 20 slides, 20 seconds each will know how awkward this can be.) Instead, this display responds instantly to the storyteller’s tone and pace, allowing them to tailor the story to the responses of the audience: emphasizing the things that seem exciting, or heartwarming, or whatever the storyteller wants.

It’s a given in the MCU that Wakanda has developed the technology to control vibranium down to a very small scale, including levitating it, shaping it, and having it form materials of widely varying properties. Nearly all of the technology we see in the film is made from it. So, the diegetic technology for such a display is there.

It’s not that far a stretch from 2D technology we have now. The game Scribblenauts lets players type in phrases and *poof* that thing appears in the scene with your characters. I doubt it’s, like, dictionary-exhaustive, but the vast majority of things I and my son have typed in have been there.

  • Black panther? Check. (Well, it’s the large cat version, anyway.)
  • Huge pink Cthulu? Check.
  • Teeny tiny singularity? Check!
  • Enraged plaid Beowulf? OK. Not that. But if enough people typed it in, I have a feeling it would eventually show up.

Pipe a speech-to-text engine into something like that, skin it with vibranium sand, and you’re most of the way there.

This unfortunate screen cap makes it look like Cthulu’s about to take a dump in a birdbath.

The interface issues for such a thing probably center around 1. interpretation and 2 control.

1. Natural language understanding of the story

I work on a natural language AI system in my day job at IBM, and disambiguation is one of the major challenges we face: Teaching the systems enough about the world and language to understand what might a user have been meant when they typed something like “deliveries tuesday.” But I work with real-world narrow artificial intelligence, and getting it to understand like a human might understand is a massive undertaking.

The MCU generally, and Wakanda in particular has speculative, human-like Artificial General Intelligences (AGI) like J.A.R.V.I.S., F.R.I.D.A.Y., and Ultron, so all the disambiguation problems we face in the real world are a trivial issue. (Noting that Shuri’s AGI isn’t named in the film.)

AGI can interpret and design and render the story like some magical realtime scene painter in the same way a person would—only much, much faster—and would interpret the language in the same reasonable way. (Plus, I’m pretty sure the display has heard Baba tell this exact same myth before, so its confidence that it is displaying the right thing is even greater.)

2. Controlling the display

The other issue is controlling the display. How does Baba start and stop the rendering? How does it correct something it misunderstood, or change the styling? In the real world we have to work out escape sequences for opt-out systems (like “//” for comments in code) and wake words for opt-in systems (like “Hey, Google” or “Alexa”), but in the MCU we get to rely on the speculative AGI again. Just like a person would know to listen for cues when to start and stop, it can reasonably interpret commands like “pause display,” or “hold here” as we would expect of a person in a tech booth overseeing a theatrical performance.

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Given the AGI in Wakanda, vibranium sand, and the render-almost-anything engines in the real world, we don’t even have to add anything to the diegesis to make it work, just make a new combination of existing parts.

So while there is zero evidence that this is a diegetic interface, I’m choosing to believe it is one, and hope somebody makes something like it one day. 


Black Lives Matter: A first reading list

The Black Lives Matter movement needs to be much more than education—we need action to dismantle the unjust and racist systems it brings to light—but education can be a first place to start. So for this first post, let’s talk how to educate yourself on the issues at hand. This is especially for white people, since this can be so far out of our lived experience that the claims seem at first implausible.

Here biracial/black filmmaker Maria Breaux has given me persmission to share the books she has shared with me, which are a kind of 101 syllabus. Pick one, any one, and read.

In full disclosure I have not read any of these yet. (I’m a notoriously slow reader.) I’m on this journey, too. I’m starting with The New Jim Crow, because it seems the most painful to read.

New Jim Crow: Michelle Alexander at Dillard Nov. 28 – Antenna.Works

Black Panther (2018)

Release date: 16 Feb 2018

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Wakanda is a greatly advanced nation in Africa, which hides from the world both its true nature and the great deposit of valuable vibranium on top of which the capital city is built. The vibranium causes purple flowers to grow in underground caves, the essence of which grants an imbiber superhuman abilities. Wakandans reserve the right to imbibe the essence for their reigning monarch, who is then called the Black Panther.

In 1992 T’Chaka, then king of Wakanda, confronts his brother, Prince N’Jobu, in an Oakland apartment, accusing him of treason and collusion with the murderous vibranium-trafficker Ulysses Klaue. N’Jobu explains his radicalization, “I observed for as long as I could. But their leaders have been assassinated, communities flooded with drugs and weapons. They are overly policed and incarcerated.” He urges T’Chaka to end Wakandan isolationism. Unmoved, the king insists N’Jobu face trial. N’Jobu draws a weapon and aims it at T’Chaka, who in self-defense kills N’Jobu.

In 2018 following the death of T’Chaka, his son Prince T’Challa is to be crowned king. In the ceremony, he is challenged to trial-by-combat by M’Baku, leader of the Jabari tribe, but T’Challa proves victorious.

Meanwhile, ex-military supervillain Killmonger is collaborating with Klaue. Together they violently liberate a Wakandan treasure made of vibranium from a British colonialist museum. Word gets back to Okoye, who is the badass general of the all-female Wakandan royal military, the Dora Milaje. She recommends they follow the lead to bring Klaue to justice, and the royal court agrees. T’Challa is outfitted with a new Black Panther suit and weapons by his science nerd sister, Shuri.

They travel to a South Korean casino to intercept the sale of the vibranium to CIA agent Everett Ross. Klaue arrives and after a gunfight and car chase, is captured. The arrest is short-lived as, after a day, Klaue is busted out of CIA custody by Killmonger and some goons. Agent Ross is wounded in the process, and taken back to Wakanda for healing.

Killmonger betrays Klaue, killing him and bringing his body to Wakanda. There, he reveals that he is son of N’Jobu, and challenges T’Challa to trial by combat. Killmonger seems to be victorious, throwing T’Challa over a waterfall. T’Challa’s family, his sweetheart Nakia, and Agent Ross flee the capital to the mountain hold of the Jabari. There M’Baku reveals that they have T’Challa in safekeeping. They heal him with the last of the vibranium flowers.

Killmonger reveals his murderous plans of revenge and global conquest to the Wakandan court. As equipment and ships are being loaded for the war, T’Challa appears, challenging Killmonger to finish the trial-by-combat. The fight involves the Border tribe fighting T’Challa out of national duty, the Jabari arriving as cavalry, Agent Ross’ preventing the ships from leaving Wakandan airspace by remote pilot, and Shuri and the Dora Milaje’s mutiny against the usurper. In the end, Black Panther defeats Killmonger, wounding him. Though he could be healed, Killmoger opts to die before a Wakandan sunset instead. He asks that he be buried in the ocean with Africans who jumped from slave ships, because “they knew death was better than bondage.” 

The final scene has T’Challa and Shuri visiting Oakland, where he explains that this will be the site of the first of a series of community outreach centers around the world, ending Wakandan isolationism and hiding, and promising a better, more communal future.

(The stinger has him making a similar announcement to the U.N.)


I ordinarily reserve the introductory post of a series to just a summary of its story. But I chose Black Panther to follow Blade Runner because of the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement following the unjust murder of George Floyd. Protests have died down somewhat since that tragedy, but these issues are far from resolved. Given my pandemic-slowed posting rate, I trust this will help keep these issues visible on this forum for months to come. After all, there is more work to do.

Similar to the anti-fascist series that accompanied the review of Idiocracy, the posts in these reviews will be followed by ways that you can take action against white supremacy and white nationalism, especially in the context of ending police brutality against black lives and the carceral state.

To amplify some awesome voices, I have invited several black writers and futurists to join me in the critique of Black Panther’s interfaces. It is important to note that I am paying them for their efforts, directly or to a charity of their choice. I hope you look forward as much as I do to the Black Panther reviews, and their call to continued activism.

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The Time Masheen

Chris: Diorama rides like The Time Masheen seen at the end of Idiocracy aren’t interactive in a strict sense, but since it’s a favorite moment and works for riders abstractly as an interface to the vast domain of knowledge that is history, I asked the awesome Cynthia Sharpe to provide some opinions. Cynthia works as the Principal, Cultural Attractions and Research at Thinkwell Group, and so has a much more learned opinion than mine. We totally crazily co-wrote this in a 24-hour long frenzy of geekdom. Note that these opinions are her own, and not necessarily shared by Thinkwell Group (hey team!).

I usually try to post reviews of interfaces in the order they appear in the film. But Cynthia wants to make a hard core shout out to Sharice Davids and that would work best sooner rather than later, so we’re doing this NOW. omg. It’s almost like this post TRAVELED IN TIME.

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IDIOCRACY-time-masheen01

Though the actual payoff is maybe a minute long, the whole The Time Masheen conceit and reveal in Idiocracy is one of my favorite “it’s turtles all the day down” moments of total ur-nerdery. A shitty ride, wrong history, awful exhibit design, Godwin-ing itself from the get-go. Pure poetry. As someone who works in both theme parks and museums, let’s have fun unpacking this, shall we?

Idiocracy_time-masheen02

Welcome my son. Welcome to the (Time) Masheen. 🎵 Where have you been? 🎶

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