The SHIELD helicarrier cockpit has dozens and dozens of agents sitting at desktop screens, working 3D mice and keyboards, speaking to headsets, and doing superspy information work.
The camera mostly sweeps by these interfaces, never lingering too hard on them. It’s hard to see any details because of the motion blur, but given the few pauses we do see:
Wireframe of the helicarrier (A map to help locate problems?)
Gantt chart (Literally for the nascent Avengers initiative?)
Complex, node-network diagram (Datamining as part of the ongoing search for Loki?)
View of a flying camera pointing down. (You might think this is a live view from the bottom of the Helicarrier, but it’s above water, and this seems to be showing land, so recorded? part of the search?)
Live-video displays of cameras around the Helicarrier
There are others that appear later (see the next entry) but these bear some special note for a couple of reasons.
The ones that are instantly recognizable make sense at this glanceable level.
I couldn’t spot any repeats, even among the fuidget-filled screens (this represents a lot of work.)
The screens are all either orange or blue. Not as in orange and blue highlights. I mean each screen is either strictly values of orange or strictly values of blue. Maybe cyan.
After Pepper tosses off the sexy bon mot “Work hard!” and leaves Tony to his Avengers initiative homework, Tony stands before the wall-high translucent displays projected around his room.
Amongst the videos, diagrams, metadata, and charts of the Tesseract panel, one item catches his attention. It’s the 3D depiction of the object, the tesseract itself, one of the Infinity Stones from the MCU. It is a cube rendered in a white wireframe, glowing cyan amidst the flat objects otherwise filling the display. It has an intense, cold-blue glow at its center. Small facing circles surround the eight corners, from which thin cyan rule lines extend a couple of decimeters and connect to small, facing, inscrutable floating-point numbers and glyphs.
Wanting to look closer at it, he reaches up and places fingers along the edge as if it were a material object, and swipes it away from the display. It rests in his hand as if it was a real thing. He studies it for a minute and flicks his thumb forward to quickly switch the orientation 90° around the Y axis.
Then he has an Important Thought and the camera cuts to Agent Coulson and Steve Rogers flying to the helicarrier.
So regular readers of this blog (or you know, fans of blockbuster sci-fi movies in general) may have a Spidey-sense that this feels somehow familiar as an interface. Where else do we see a character grabbing an object from a volumetric projection to study it? That’s right, that seminal insult-to-scientists-and-audiences alike, Prometheus. When David encounters the Alien Astrometrics VP, he grabs the wee earth from that display to nuzzle it for a little bit. Follow the link if you want that full backstory. Or you can just look and imagine it, because the interaction is largely the same: See display, grab glowing component of the VP and manipulate it.
Two anecdotes are not yet a pattern, but I’m glad to see this particular interaction again. I’m going to call it grabby holograms (capitulating a bit on adherence to the more academic term volumetric projection.) We grow up having bodies and moving about in a 3D world, so the desire to grab and turn objects to understand them is quite natural. It does require that we stop thinking of displays as untouchable, uninterruptable movies and more like toy boxes, and it seems like more and more writers are catching on to this idea.
More graphics or more information?
Additionally, the fact that this object is the one 3D object in its display is a nice affordance that it can be grabbed. I’m not sure whether he can pull the frame containing the JOINT DARK ENERGY MISSION video to study it on the couch, but I’m fairly certain I knew that the tesseract was grabbable before Tony reached out.
On the other hand, I do wonder what Tony could have learned by looking at the VP cube so intently. There’s no information there. It’s just a pattern on the sides. The glow doesn’t change. The little glyph sticks attached to the edges are fuigets. He might be remembering something he once saw or read, but he didn’t need to flick it like he did for any new information. Maybe he has flicked a VP tesseract in the past?
Rather, I would have liked to have seen those glyph sticks display some useful information, perhaps acting as leaders that connected the VP to related data in the main display. One corner’s line could lead to the Zero Point Extraction chart. Another to the lovely orange waveform display. This way Tony could hold the cube and glance at its related information. These are all augmented reality additions.
Or, even better, could he do some things that are possible with VPs that aren’t possible with AR. He should be able to scale it to be quite large or small. Create arbitrary sections, or plan views. Maybe fan out depictions of all objects in the SHIELD database that are similarly glowy, stone-like, or that remind him of infinity. Maybe…there’s…a…connection…there! Or better yet, have a copy of JARVIS study the data to find correlations and likely connections to consider. We’ve seen these genuine VP interactions plenty of places (including Tony’s own workshop), so they’re part of the diegesis.
In any case, this simple setup works nicely, in which interaction with a cool media helps underscore the gravity of the situation, the height of the stakes. Note to selves: The imperturbable Tony Stark is perturbed. Shit is going to get real.
When Coulson hands Tony a case file, it turns out to be an exciting kind of file. For carrying, it’s a large black slab. After Tony grabs it, he grabs the long edges and pulls in opposite directions. One part is a thin translucent screen that fits into an angled slot in the other part, in a laptop-like configuration, right down to a built-in keyboard.
The grip edge
The grip edge of the screen is thicker than the display, so it has a clear, physical affordance as to what part is meant to be gripped and how to pull it free from its casing, and simultaneously what end goes into the base. It’s simple and obvious. The ribbing on the grip unfortunately runs parallel to the direction of pull. It would make for a better grip and a better affordance if the grip was perpendicular to the direction of pull. Minor quibble.
I’d be worried about the ergonomics of an unadjustable display. I’d be worried about the display being easily unseated or dislodged. I’d also be worried about the strength of the join. Since there’s no give, enough force on the display might snap it clean off. But then again this is a world where “vibrium steel” exists, so material critiques may not be diegetically meaningful.
Once he pulls the display from the base, the screen boops and animated amber arcs spin around the screen, signalling him to login via a rectangular panel on the right hand side of the screen. Tony puts his four fingers in the spot and drags down. A small white graphic confirms his biometrics. As a result, a WIMP display appears in grays and amber colors.
One window on the left hand side shows a keypad, and he enters 1-8-5-4. The keypad disappears and a series of thumbnail images—portraits of members of the Avengers initiative—appear in its place. Pepper asks Tony, “What is all this?” Tony replies, saying, “This is, uh…” and in a quick gesture, places his ten fingertips on the screen at the portraits, and then throws his hands outward, off the display.
The portraits slide offscreen to become ceiling-height volumetric windows filled with rich media dossiers on Thor, Steve Rogers, and David Banner. There are videos, portraits, schematics, tables of data, cellular graphics, and maps. There’s a smaller display near the desktop where the “file” rests about the tesseract. (More on this bit in the next post.)
Insert standard complaint here about the eye strain that a translucent display causes, and the apology that yes, I understand it’s an effective and seemingly high-tech way to show actors and screens simultaneously. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.
The two-part login shows an understanding of multifactor authentication—a first in the survey, so props for that. Tony must provide something he “is”, i.e. his fingerprints, and something he knows, i.e. the passcode. Only then does the top secret information become available.
I have another standard grouse about the screen providing no affordances that content has an alternate view available, and that a secret gesture summons that view. I’d also ordinarily critique the displays for having nearly no visual hierarchy, i.e. no way for your eyes to begin making sense of it, and a lot of pointless-motion noise that pulls your attention in every which way.
But, this beat is about the wonder of the technology, the breadth of information SHIELD in its arsenal, and the surprise of familiar tech becoming epic, so I’m giving it a narrative pass.
Also, OK, Tony’s a universe-class hacker, so maybe he’s just knowledgeable/cocky enough to not need the affordances and turned them off. All that said, in my due diligence: Affordances still matter, people.
JARVIS interrupts his banter with Pepper, explaining, “Sir, the telephone. I’m afraid my protocols are being overridden.” We can hear Coulson’s voice saying, “Mr. Stark, we need to talk.” Perturbed, Tony grabs his custom phone from where it sits on a nearby table. It is made up of a glass plane within a rounded-rectangle black band. On its little screen we can see a white label reading, “Connected.” Remarkably, this label is presented in mixed case. Nearly all sci-fi interface typography is rendered in all caps, so I have some curiosity how this ended up in majuscule and miniscule. But it feels right. Perhaps that’s because it’s kind-of a consumer device?
Anyway, beneath the label is a static photo of the caller, Agent Coulson, and below that a large circle with a central bump, and some other tiny controls.
Tony positions the phone before him, looks into the glass, and says, “You have reached the life model decoy of Tony Stark. Please leave a message.” Coulson doesn’t fall for it, saying, “This is urgent.” Tony tries to admonish him, “Then leave it urgently,” but it’s too late. Coulson himself walks out of the elevator in the room, his phone to his ear.
Aside from the trope screens are cameras, and the bad-but-understandable translucent screen, I have another question about the interaction: What is Tony doing looking at the phone for the duration of the short conversation? Since Coulson isn’t looking at his phone, it’s just an audio connection between them. The phone should convey that status to Tony, and in fact the static image of Coulson seems to imply just that. So, why does he bother looking at it?
So try as I may, I can’t apologetics-my-way to get around this odd behavior in the scene. Perhaps Downey believed that the interface would be rendered with a video image of Coulson on the other end, and that turned out not to jive with Gregg’s holding it to his ear. I hate to leave it at “misinformed actor” but I can’t think of a diegetic explanation. Anyone have a plausible one?
Since Tony disconnected the power transmission lines, Pepper has been monitoring Stark Tower in its new, off-the-power-grid state. To do this she studies a volumetric dashboard display that floats above glowing shelves on a desktop.
The display features some volumetric elements, all rendered as wireframes in the familiar Pepper’s Ghost (I know, I know) visual style: translucent, edge-lit planes. A large component to her right shows Stark Tower, with red lines highlighting the power traveling from the large arc reactor in the basement through the core of the building.
The center of the screen has a similarly-rendered close up of the arc reactor. A cutaway shows a pulsing ring of red-tinged energy flowing through its main torus.
This component makes a good deal of sense, showing her the physical thing she’s meant to be monitoring but not in a photographic way, but a way that helps her quickly locate any problems in space. The torus cutaway is a little strange, since if she’s meant to be monitoring it, she should monitor the whole thing, not just a quarter of it that has been cut away.
Having completed the welding he did not need to do, Tony flies home to a ledge atop Stark tower and lands. As he begins his strut to the interior, a complex, ring-shaped mechanism raises around him and follows along as he walks. From the ring, robotic arms extend to unharness each component of the suit from Tony in turn. After each arm precisely unscrews a component, it whisks it away for storage under the platform. It performs this task so smoothly and efficiently that Tony is able to maintain his walking stride throughout the 24-second walk up the ramp and maintain a conversation with JARVIS. His last steps on the ramp land on two plates that unharness his boots and lower them into the floor as Tony steps into his living room.
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
This is exactly how a mechanized squire should work. It is fast, efficient, supports Tony in his task of getting unharnessed quickly and easily, and—perhaps most importantly—how we wants his transitions from superhero to playboy to feel: cool, effortless, and seamless. If there was a party happening inside, I would not be surprised to see a last robotic arm handing him a whiskey.
This is the Jetsons vision of coming home to one’s robotic castle writ beautifully.
There is a strategic question about removing the suit while still outside of the protection of the building itself. If a flying villain popped up over the edge of the building at about 75% of the unharnessing, Tony would be at a significant tactical disadvantage. But JARVIS is probably watching out for any threats to avoid this possibility.
Another improvement would be if it did not need a specific landing spot. If, say…
The suit could just open to let him step out like a human-shaped elevator (this happens in a later model of the suit seen in The Avengers 2)
The suit was composed of fully autonomous components and each could simply fly off of him to their storage (This kind of happens with Veronica later in TheAvengers 2)
If it was composed of self-assembling nanoparticles that flowed off of him, or, perhaps, reassembled into a tuxedo (If I understand correctly, this is kind-of how the suit currently works in the comic books.)
These would allow him to enact this same transition anywhere.
So, talking about how JARVIS is lying to Tony, and really all of this was to get us back here. If you accept that JARVIS is doing almost all the work, and Tony is an onboard manager, then it excuses almost all of the excesses of the interface.
Distracting 3D, transparent, motion graphics of the tower? Not a problem. Tony is a manager, and wants to know that the project is continuing apace.
Random-width rule line around the video? Meh, it’s more distracting visual interest.
“AUDIO ANAL YSIS” (kerning, people!) waveform that visually marks whether there is audio he could hear anyway? Hey, it looks futuristic.
The fact that the video stays bright and persistent in his vision when he’s a) not looking it and b) piloting a weaponized environmental suit through New York City? Not an issue because JARVIS is handling the flying.
That is has no apparent controls for literally anything (pause/play, end call, volume, brightness)? Not a problem, JARVIS will get it right most of the time, and will correct anything at a word from Tony.
That the suit could have flown itself to the pipe, handled the welding, and pipe-cuffing itself, freeing Tony to continue Tony Starking back in his office? It’s because he’s a megalomaniac and can’t not.
If JARVIS were not handling everything, and this a placebo interface, well, I can think of at least 6 problems.
In the prior post we looked at the HUD display from Tony’s point of view. In this post we dive deeper into the 2nd-person view, which turns out to be not what it seems.
The HUD itself displays a number of core capabilities across the Iron Man movies prior to its appearance in The Avengers. Cataloguing these capabilities lets us understand (or backworld) how he interacts with the HUD, equipping us to look for its common patterns and possible conflicts. In the first-person view, we saw it looked almost entirely like a rich agentive display, but with little interaction. But then there’s this gorgeous 2nd-person view.
When in the first film Tony first puts the faceplate on and says to JARVIS, “Engage heads-up display”… …we see things from a narrative-conceit, 2nd-person perspective, as if the helmet were huge and we are inside the cavernous space with him, seeing only Tony’s face and the augmented reality interface elements. You might be thinking, “Of course it’s a narrative conceit. It’s not real. It’s in a movie.” But what I mean by that is that even in the diegesis, the Marvel Cinematic World, this is not something that could be seen. Let’s move through the reasons why. Continue reading →
When we first see the HUD, Tony is donning the Iron Man mask. Tony asks, JARVIS, “You there?” To which JARVIS replies, “At your service sir.” Tony tells him to Engage the heads-up display, and we see the HUD initialize. It is a dizzying mixture of blue wireframe motion graphics. Some imply system functions, such as the reticle that pinpoints Tonys eye. Most are small dashboard-like gauges that remain small and in Tonys peripheral vision while the information is not needed, and become larger and more central when needed. These features are catalogued in another post, but we learn about them through two points-of-view: a first-person view, which shows us what Tony’s sees as if we were there, donning the mask in his stead, and second-person view, which shows us Tony’s face overlaid against a dark background with floating graphics.
This post is about that first-person view. Specifically it’s about the visual design and the four awarenesses it displays.
In the Augmented Reality chapter of Make It So, I identified four types of awareness seen in the survey for Augmented Reality displays:
The Iron Man HUD illustrates all four and is a useful framework for describing and critiquing the 1st-person view. Continue reading →
In the last post we went over the Iron HUD components. There is a great deal to say about the interactions and interface, but let’s just take a moment to recount everything that the HUD does over the Iron Man movies and The Avengers. Keep in mind that just as there are many iterations of the suit, there can be many iterations of the HUD, but since it’s largely display software controlled by JARVIS, the functions can very easily move between exosuits.
Along the bottom of the HUD are some small gauges, which, though they change iconography across the properties, are consistently present.
For the most part they persist as tiny icons and thereby hard to read, but when the suit reboots in a high-altitude freefall, we get to see giant versions of them, and can read that they are: