I saw Doctor Strange fairly close to opening weekend and was intrigued by much of what I saw there, especially the artifacts and the Cloak of Levitation. (It has some powerful agentive aspects, and given that that is the topic of my new book, I thought it would be fruitful to examine.)
Yep. This book. Check it out. It ain’t sci-fi, but it might inspire some.
But, awwww, that’s too bad. Doctor Strange deals in magic, not techn—Whatever. Continue reading →
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
You’ve no doubt opened up this review of Doctor Strange thinking “What sci-fi interfaces are in this movie? I don’t recall any.” And you’re right. There aren’t any. (Maybe the car, the hospital, but they’re not very sci-fi.) We’re going to take Clarke’s quote above and apply the same types of rigorous assessment to the magical interfaces and devices in the movie that we would for any sci-fi blockbuster.
Dr. Strange opens up a new chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by introducing the concept of magic on Earth, that is both discoverable and learnable by humans. And here we thought it was just a something wielded by Loki and other Asgardians.
In Doctor Strange, Mordo informs Strange that magical relics exist and can be used by sorcerers. He explains that these relics have more power than people could possibly manage, and that many relics “choose their owner.” This is reminiscent of the wands in the Harry Potter books. Magical coincidence?
Subsequently in the movie we are introduced to a few named relics, such as…
The Eye of Agamoto
The Staff of the Living Tribunal
The Vaulting Boots of Valtor
The Cloak of Levitation
The Crimson Bands of Cyttorak
…(this last one, while not named specifically in the movie, is named in supporting materials). There are definitely other relics that the sorcerers arm themselves with. For example, in the Hong Kong scene Wong wields the Wand of Watoomb but it is not mentioned by name and he never uses it. Since we don’t see these relics in use we won’t review them.Continue reading →
This staff appears to be made of wood and is approximately a meter long when in its normal form. When activated by Mordo it has several powers. With a strong pull on both ends, the staff expands into a jointed energy nunchaku. It can also extend to an even greater length like a bullwhip. When it impacts a solid object such as a floor, it seems to release a crack of loud energy. Too bad we only ever see it in demo mode.
How might this work as technology?
The staff is composed of concentric rings within rings of material similar to a collapsing travel cup. This allows the device to expand and contract in length. The handle would likely contain the artificial intelligence and a power source that activates when Mordo gives it a gestural command, or if we’re thinking far future, a mental one. There might also be an additional control for energy discharge.
In the movie, sadly, Mordo does not use the Staff to its best effect, especially when Kaecilius returns to the New York sanctum. Mordo could easily disrupt the spell being cast by the disciples using the staff like a whip, but instead he leaps off the balcony to physically attack them. Dude, you’re the franchise’s next Big Bad? But let’s put down the character’s missteps to look at the interface.
Mode switching and inline meta-signals
Any time you design a thing with modes, you have to design the state changes between those modes. Let’s look at how Mordo moves between staff, nunchaku, and whip in this short demonstration scene. Continue reading →
When Dr. Strange visits the New York Sanctum for the first time, he passes by a vitrine in which a lush red cape hovers in midair. It’s the Cloak of Levitation, and in this moment it chooses Strange. We see many of its functions throughout the movie.
When the glass of the vitrine is broken and Kaecilius stabs at Strange with a Soul Sword, the Cloak reaches out with a corner and stays Kaecilius’ hand to save Strange.
When Kaecilius knocks Strange down a stairwell, the Cloak chases him, catches him, and floats him back up to the fight. (See above.)
Attached by two fibulae to his surcoat, it can pull him, physically, and does so several times for different reasons:
to get him out of the first fight with Kaecilius
to help him dodge the soul sword
to keep him from grabbing ineffective weapons, pointing him instead to the more effective Crimson Bands of Cyttorak
Unbidden, the Cloak wraps itself around the head of one of Kaecilius’ zealots, drags him around, and slams his head into the walls and floor until the zealot is dead. (Even though, for the entire end of the fight, Strange is across town getting medical attention.) After the combat, the Cloak hovers next to the dead zealot, perhaps keeping watch.
After Strange tells Christine goodbye in the surgical prep room, the Cloak gently floats itself into place and uses the corner of its popped collar to remove blood from Strange’s face, to his annoyance. He tells it to, “Stop!” and it relaxes.
It pulls him out of the path of some flying debris while time is reversed before the Hong Kong Sanctum, and defends him from a punch later in the same sequence.
He uses it to fly through the portal into the Dark Dimension to face Dormammu.
It dons itself in the Kamar-Taj, brusquely enough to cause Strange to catch his balance.
The Cloak is like a guardian angel. Or maybe a super-familiar, in the wizard sense. It keeps an eye out for Strange. It is able to predict, protect, crudely inform, and, not least, fly. It acts as both an assistant and an agent. (More on this later) Continue reading →
How could this work as technology instead of magic?
In the prior post I looked at the Cloak as a bit of wearable technology. Today let’s ask ourselves how possible this is in the real world.
The abilities of the Cloak listed in the first post imply a great deal of functionality: Situational awareness, lightning fast thinking, precision actuators throughout its fabric, gravity controls for itself and its wearer, goal awareness, knowledge of the world. Some of these aren’t going to happen, but some are conceivable over time.
So I mentioned in the intro to this review that I was drawn to review Doctor Strange (with my buddy and co-reviewer Scout Addis) because the Cloak displays some interesting qualities in relation to the book I just published. Buy it, read it, review it on amazon.com, it’s awesome.
That sales pitch done, I can quickly cover the key concepts here.
A tool, like a hammer, is a familiar but comparatively-dumb category of thing that only responds to a user’s input. A hammer is an example. Tool has been the model of the thing we’re designing in interaction design for, oh, 60 years, but it is being mostly obviated by narrow artificial intelligence, which can be understood as automatic, assistive, or agentive.
Assistive technology helps its user with the task she is focused on: Drawing her attention, providing information, making suggestions, maybe helping augment her precision or force. If we think of a hammer again, an assistive might draw her attention to the best angle to strike the nail, or use an internal gyroscope to gently correct her off-angle strike.
Agentive technology does the task for its user. Again with the hammer, she could tell hammerbot (a physical agent, but there are virtual ones, too) what she wants hammered and how. Her instructions might be something like: Hammer a hapenny nail every decimeter along the length of this plinth. As it begins to pound away, she can then turn her attention to mixing paint or whatever.
When I first introduce people to these distinctions, I step one rung up on Wittgenstein’s Ladder and talk about products that are purely agentive or purely assistive, as if agency was a quality of the technology. (Thabks to TU prof P.J. Stappers for distinguishing these as ontological and epistemological approaches.) The Roomba, for example, is almost wholly agentive as a vacuum. It has no handle for you to grab, because it does the steering and pushing and vacuuming.
Once you get these basic ideas in your head, we can take another step up the Ladder together and clarify that agency is not necessarily a quality of the thing in the world. It’s subtler than that. It’s a mode of relationship between user and agent, one which can change over time. Sophisticated products should be able to shift their agency mode (between tool, assistant, agent, and automation) according to the intentions and wishes of their user. Hammerbot is useful, but still kind of dumb compared to its human. If there’s a particularly tricky or delicate nail to be driven, our carpenter might ask hammerbot’s assistance, but really, she’ll want to handle that delicate hammering herself.
Given its wealth of capabilities, the main complaint might be its lack of language.
A mute sidekick
It has a working theory of mind, a grasp of abstract concepts, and intention, so why does it not use language as part of a toolkit to fulfill its duties? Let’s first admit that mute sidekicks are kind of a trope at this point. Think R2D2, Silent Bob, BB8, Aladdin’s Magic Carpet (Disney), Teller, Harpo, Bernardo / Paco (admittedly obscure), Mini-me. They’re a thing.
Yes, I know she could talk to other fairies, but not to Peter.
Despite being a trope, its muteness in a combat partner is a significant impediment. Imagine its being able to say, “Hey Steve, he’s immune to the halberd. But throw that ribcage-looking thing on the wall at him, and you’ll be good.” Strange finds himself in life-or-death situations pretty much constantly, so having to disambiguate vague gestures wastes precious time that might make the difference between life and death. For, like, everyone on Earth.Continue reading →