Vibranium-based Cape Shields

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is penned by Lonny Brooks. Be sure and read his introduction post if you missed it when it was published.

The Black Panther film represents one of the most ubiquitous statements of Afrofuturist fashion and fashionable digital wearables to celebrate the Africana and Black imagination. The wearable criteria under Director Ryan Cooglar’s lead and that of the formidable talent of costume designer Ruth E. Carter took into account African tribal symbolism. The adinkra symbol, for “cooperation,” emblazoned across W’Kabi’s (played by Daniel Kaluuya) blanket embodies the role of the Border tribe where they lived in a small village tucked into the mountainous borderlands of Wakanda, disguised as farmers and hunters.

Beautiful interaction

Chris’ blog looks at the interactions with speculative technology, and here the interactions are marvelously subtle. They do not have buttons or levers, which might give away their true nature. To activate them, a user does what would come naturally, which is to hold the fabric before them, like a shield. (There might be a mental command as well, but of course we can’t perceive that.) The shield-like gesture activates the shield technology. It’s quick. It fits the material of the technology. You barely even have to be trained to use it. We never see the use case for when a wearer is incapacitated and can’t lift the cape into position, but there’s enough evidence in the rest of the film to expect it might act like Dr. Strange’s cape and activate its shield automatically.

But, for me, the Capes are more powerful not as models of interaction, but for what they symbolize.

The Dual Role of the Capes

The role of the Border Tribe is to create the illusion of agrarian ruggedness as a deception for outsiders that only tells of a placid, developing nation rather than the secret technologically advanced splendor of Wakanda’s lands. The Border Tribe is the keeper of Wakanda’s cloaking technology that hides the vast utopian advancement of Wakandan advantage. 

The Border Tribe’s role is built into the fabric of their illustrious and enviably fashionable capes. The adinkra symbol of cooperation embedded into the cape reveals, by the final scenes of the Black Panther film, how the Border Tribe defenders wield their capes into a force field wall of energy to repel enemies. 

Ironically we only see them at their most effective when Wakanda is undergoing a civil war between those loyal to Kilmonger who is determined to avenge his father’s murder and his own erasure from Wakandan collective memory, and those supporting King T’Challa. Whereas each Black Panther King has selected to keep Wakanda’s presence hidden literally under the cooperative shields of the Border Tribe, Kilmonger—an Oakland native and a potential heir to Wakandan monarchy—was orphaned and left in the U.S. 

If this sounds familiar, consider the film as a grand allusion to the millions of Africans kidnapped and ripped from their tribal lineages and taken across the Atlantic as slaves. Their cultural heritage was purposefully erased, languages and tribal customs, memories lost to the colonial thirst for their unpaid and forced labor. 

Kilmonger represents the Black Diaspora, former descendants of African homelands similarly deprived of their birthrights. Kilmonger wants the Black Diaspora to rise up in global rebellion with the assistance of Wakandan technical superiority. In opposition, King T’Challa aspires for a less vengeful solution. He wantsWakanda to come out to the world, and lead by example. We can empathize with both. T’Challa’s plan is fueled by virtue. Kilmonger’s is fueled by justice—redeploy these shields to protect Black people against the onslaught of ongoing police and state violence. 

W. E. B. Du Bois in 1918
(image in the public domain)

Double Consciousness and the Big Metaphor

The cape shields powered by the precious secret meteorite called Vibranium embodies what the scholar W.E.B. Dubois referred to as a double consciousness, where members of the Black Diaspora inhabit two selves.

  1. Their own identity as individuals
  2. The external perception of themselves as a members of an oppressed people incessantly facing potential erasure and brutality.

The cape shields and their cloaking technology cover the secret utopic algorithms that power Wakanda, while playing on the petty stereotypes of African nations as less-advanced collectives. 

The final battle scene symbolizes this grand debate—between Kilmonger’s claims on Wakanda and assertion of Africana power, and King T’Challa’s more cooperative and, indeed, compliant approach working with the CIA. Recall that in its subterfuge and cloaking tactics, the CIA has undermined and toppled numerous freely-elected African and Latin American governments for decades. In this final showdown, we see W’Kabi’s cloaked soldiers run down the hill towards King T’Challa and stop to raise their shields cooperatively into defensive formation to prevent King T’Challa’s advance. King T’Challa jumps over the shields and the force of his movement causes the soldier’s shields to bounce away while simultaneously revealing their potent energy. 

The flowing blue capes of the Border Tribe are deceptively enticing, while holding the key to Wakanda’s survival as metaphors for cloaking their entire civilization from being attacked, plundered, and erased. Wakanda and these capes represent an alternative history: What if African peoples had not experienced colonization or undergone the brutal Middle Passage to the Americas? What if the prosperous Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma had developed cape shield technology to defend themselves against a genocidal white mob in 1921? Or if the Black Panther Party had harnessed the power of invisible cloaking technology as part of their black beret ensemble? 

Gallery Images: World Building with the Afrofuturist Podcast—Afro-Rithms From The Future game, Neuehouse, Hollywood, May 22, 2019 [Co-Game Designers, Eli Kosminsky and Lonny Avi Brooks, Afro-Rithms Librarian; Co-Game Designer and Seer Ahmed Best]

In the forecasting imagination game, Afro-Rithms From The Future, and the game event we played in 2019 in Los Angeles based on the future universe we created, we generated the question:

What would be an article of fashion that would give you more Black Feminist leadership and more social justice?

One participant responded with: “I was thinking of the notion of the invisibility cloak but also to have it be reversed. It could make you invisible and also more visible, amplifying what you normally” have as strengths and recognizing their value. Or as another player, states “what about a bodysuit that protects you from any kind of harm” or as the game facilitator adds “how about a bodysuit that repels emotional damage?!” In our final analysis, the cape shields have steadfastly protected Wakanda against the emotional trauma of colonization and partial erasure.

In this way the cape shields guard against emotional damage as well. Imagine how it might feel to wear a fashionable cloak that displays images of your ancestral, ethnic, and gender memories reminding you of your inherent lovability as multi-dimensional human being—and that can technologically protect you and those you love as well.

Black Lives Matter

Chris: Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that support black lives. 

To thank Lonny for his guest post, I offered to donate money in his name to the charity of his choice. He has selected Museum of Children’s Arts in Oakland. The mission of MOCHA is to ensure that the arts are a fundamental part of our community and to create opportunities for all children to experience the arts to develop creativity, promote a sense of belonging, and to realize their potential. 

And, since it’s important to show the receipts, the receipt:

Thank you, Lonny, for helping to celebrate Black Panther and your continued excellent work in speculative futures and Afrofuturism. Wakanda forever!

Wakandan Med Table

When Agent Ross is shot in the back during Klaue’s escape from the Busan field office, T’Challa stuffs a kimoyo bead into the wound to staunch the bleeding, but the wounds are still serious enough that the team must bring him back to Wakanda for healing. They float him to Shuri’s lab on a hover-stretcher.

Here Shuri gets to say the juicy line, “Great. Another white boy for us to fix. This is going to be fun.
Sorry about the blurry screen shot, but this is the most complete view of the bay.

The hover-stretcher gets locked into place inside a bay. The bay is a small room in the center of Shuri’s lab, open on two sides. The walls are covered in a gray pattern suggesting a honeycomb. A bas-relief volumetric projection displays some medical information about the patient like vital signs and a subtle fundus image of the optic nerve.

Shuri holds her hand flat and raises it above the patient’s chest. A volumetric display of 9 of his thoracic vertebrae rises up in response. One of the vertebrae is highlighted in a bright red. A section of the wall display displays the same information in 2D, cyan with orange highlights. That display section slides out from the wall to draw observer’s attentions. Hexagonal tiles flip behind the display for some reason, but produce no change in the display.

Shuri reaches her hands up to the volumetric vertebrae, pinches her forefingers and thumbs together, and pull them apart. In response, the space between the vertebrae expands, allowing her to see the top and bottom of the body of the vertebra.

She then turns to the wall display, and reading something there, tells the others that he’ll live. Her attention is pulled away with the arrival of Wakabe, bringing news of Killmonger. We do not see her initiate a treatment in the scene. We have to presume that she did it between cuts. (There would have to be a LOT of confidence in an AI’s ability to diagnose and determine treatment before they would let Griot do that without human input.)

We’ll look more closely at the hover-stretcher display in a moment, but for now let’s pause and talk about the displays and the interaction of this beat.

A lab is not a recovery room

This doesn’t feel like a smart environment to hold a patient. We can bypass a lot of the usual hospital concerns of sterilization (it’s a clean room) or readily-available equipment (since they are surrounded by programmable vibranium dust controlled by an AGI) or even risk of contamination (something something AI). I’m mostly thinking about the patient having an environment that promotes healing: Natural light, quiet or soothing music, plants, furnishing, and serene interiors. Having him there certainly means that Shuri’s team can keep an eye on him, and provide some noise that may act as a stimulus, but don’t they have actual hospital rooms in Wakanda? 

Why does she need to lift it?

The VP starts in his chest, but why? If it had started out as a “translucent skin” illusion, like we saw in Lost in Space (1998, see below), then that might make sense. She would want to lift it to see it in isolation from the distracting details of the body. But it doesn’t start this way, it starts embedded within him?!

The “translucent skin” display from Lost in Space (1998)

It’s a good idea to have a representation close to the referent, to make for easy comparison between them. But to start the VP within his opaque chest just doesn’t make sense.

This is probably the wrong gesture

In the gestural interfaces chapter of  Make It So, I described a pidgin that has been emerging in sci-fi which consisted of 7 “words.” The last of these is “Pinch and Spread to Scale.” Now, there is nothing sacred about this gestural language, but it has echoes in the real world as well. For one example, Google’s VR painting app Tilt Brush uses “spread to scale.” So as an increasingly common norm, it should only be violated with good reason. In Black Panther, Shuri uses spread to mean “spread these out,” even though she starts the gesture near the center of the display and pulls out at a 45° angle. This speaks much more to scaling than to spreading. It’s a mismatch and I can’t see a good reason for it. Even if it’s “what works for her,” gestural idiolects hinder communities of practice, and so should be avoided.

Better would have been pinching on one end of the spine and hooking her other index finger to spread it apart without scaling. The pinch is quite literal for “hold” and the hook quite literal for “pull.” This would let scale be scale, and “hook-pull” to mean “spread components along an axis.”

Model from

If we were stuck with the footage of Shuri doing the scale gesture, then it would have made more sense to scale the display, and fade the white vertebrae away so she could focus on the enlarged, damaged one. She could then turn it with her hand to any arbitrary orientation to examine it.

An object highlight is insufficient

It’s quite helpful for an interface that can detect anomalies to help focus a user’s attention there. The red highlight for the damaged vertebrae certainly helps draw attention. Where’s the problem? Ah, yes. There’s the problem. But it’s more helpful for the healthcare worker to know the nature of the damage, what the diagnosis is, to monitor the performance of the related systems, and to know how the intervention is going. (I covered these in the medical interfaces chapter of Make It So, if you want to read more.) So yes, we can see which vertebra is damaged, but what is the nature of that damage? A slipped disc should look different than a bone spur, which should look different than one that’s been cracked or shattered from a bullet. The thing-red display helps for an instant read in the scene, but fails on close inspection and would be insufficient in the real world.

This is not directly relevant to the critique, but interesting that spinal VPs have been around since 1992. Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Ethics” (Season 5, Episode 16).

Put critical information near the user’s locus of attention

Why does Shuri have to turn and look at the wall display at all? Why not augment the volumetric projection with the data that she needs? You might worry that it could obscure the patient (and thereby hinder direct observations) but with an AGI running the show, it could easily position those elements to not occlude her view.

Compare this display, which puts a waveform directly adjacent to the brain VP. Firefly, “Ariel” (Episode 9, 2002).

Note that Shuri is not the only person in the room interested in knowing the state of things, so a wall display isn’t bad, but it shouldn’t be the only augmentation.

Lastly, why does she need to tell the others that Ross will live? if there was signifcant risk of his death, there should be unavoidable environmental signals. Klaxons or medical alerts. So unless we are to believe T’Challa has never encountered a single medical emergency before (even in media), this is a strange thing for her to have to say. Of course we understand she’s really telling us in the audience that we don’t need to wonder about this plot development any more, but it would be better, diegetically, if she had confirmed the time-to-heal, like, “He should be fine in a few hours.”

Alternatively, it would be hilarious turnabout if the AI Griot had simply not been “trained” on data that included white people, and “could not see him,” which is why she had to manually manage the diagnosis and intervention, but that would have massive impact on the remote piloting and other scenes, so isn’t worth it. Probably.

Thoughts toward a redesign

So, all told, this interface and interaction could be much better fit-to-purpose. Clarify the gestural language. Lose the pointless flipping hexagons. Simplify the wall display for observers to show vitals, diagnosis and intervention, as well as progress toward the goal. Augment the physician’s projection with detailed, contextual data. And though I didn’t mention it above, of course the bone isn’t the only thing damaged, so show some of the other damaged tissues, and some flowing, glowing patterns to show where healing is being done along with a predicted time-to-completion.

Stretcher display

Later, when Ross is fully healed and wakes up, we see a shot of of the med table from above. Lots of cyan and orange, and *typography shudder* stacked type. Orange outlines seem to indicate controls, tough they bear symbols rather than full labels, which we know is better for learnability and infrequent reuse. (Linguist nerds: Yes, Wakandan is alphabetic rather than logographic.)

These feel mostly like FUIgetry, with the exception of a subtle respiration monitor on Ross’ left. But it shows current state rather than tracked over time, so still isn’t as helpful as it could be.

Then when Ross lifts his head, the hexagons begin to flip over, disabling the display. What? Does this thing only work when the patient’s head is in the exact right space? What happens when they’re coughing, or convulsing? Wouldn’t a healthcare worker still be interested in the last-recorded state of things? This “instant-off” makes no sense. Better would have been just to let the displays fade to a gray to indicate that it is no longer live data, and to have delayed the fade until he’s actually sitting up.

All told, the Wakandan medical interfaces are the worst of the ones seen in the film. Lovely, and good for quick narrative hit, but bad models for real-world design, or even close inspection within the world of Wakanda.

MLK Day Matters

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives.

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Normally there would be huge gatherings and public speeches about his legacy and the current state of civil rights. But the pandemic is still raging, and with the Capitol in Washington, D.C. having seen just last week an armed insurrection by supporters of outgoing and pouty loser Donald Trump, (in case that WP article hasn’t been moved yet, here’s the post under its watered-down title) worries about additional racist terrorism and violence.

So today we celebrate virtually, by staying at home, re-experiening his speeches and letters, and listening to the words of black leaders and prominent thinkers all around us, reminding us of the arc of the moral universe, and all the work it takes to bend it toward justice.

With the Biden team taking the reins on Wednesday, and Kamala Harris as our first female Vice President of color, things are looking brighter than they have in 4 long, terrible years. But Trump would have gotten nowhere if there hadn’t been a voting block and party willing to indulge his racist fascism. There’s still much more to do to dismantle systemic racism in the country and around the world. Let’s read, reflect, and use whatever platforms and resources we are privileged to have, act.

Eye of Agamotto (1 of 5)

This is one of those sci-fi interactions that seems simple when you view it, but then on analysis it turns out to be anything but. So set aside some time, this analysis will be one of the longer ones even broken into four parts.

The Eye of Agamotto is a medallion that (spoiler) contains the emerald Time Infinity Stone, held on by a braided leather strap. It is made of brass, about a hand’s breadth across, in the shape of a stylized eye that is covered by the same mystical sigils seen on the rose window of the New York Sanctum, and the portal door from Kamar-Taj to the same.

World builders may rightly ask why this universe-altering artifact bears a sigil belonging to just one of the Sanctums.

We see the Eye used in three different places in the film, and in each place it works a little differently.

  • The Tibet Mode
  • The Hong Kong Modes
  • The Dark Dimension Mode

The Tibet Mode

When the film begins, the Eye is under the protection of the Masters of the Mystic Arts in Kamar-Taj, where there’s even a user manual. Unfortunately it’s in mysticalese (or is it Tibetan? See comments) so we can’t read it to understand what it says. But we do get a couple of full-screen shots. Are there any cryptanalysists in the readership who can decipher the text?

They really should put the warnings before the spells.

The power button

Strange opens the old tome and reads “First, open the eye of Agamotto.” The instructions show him how to finger-tut a diamond shape with both hands and spread them apart. In response the lid of the eye opens, revealing a bright green glow within. At the same time the components of the sigil rotate around the eye until they become an upper and lower lid. The green glow of this “on state” persists as long as Strange is in time manipulation mode.


Once it’s turned on, he puts the heels of his palms together, fingers splayed out, and turns them clockwise to create a mystical green circle in the air before him. At the same time two other, softer green bands spin around his forearm and elbow. Thrusting his right hand toward the circle while withdrawing his left hand behind the other, he transfers control of the circle to just his right hand, where it follows the position of his palm and the rotation of his wrist as if it was a saucer mystically glued there.


Then he can twist his wrist clockwise while letting his fingers close to a fist, and the object on which he focuses ages. When he does this to an apple, we see it with progressively more chomps out of it until it is a core that dries and shrivels. Twisting his wrist counter clockwise, the focused object reverses aging, becoming younger in staggered increments. With his middle finger upright, the object reverts to its “natural” age.


Pausing and playing

At one point he wants to stop practicing with the apple and try it on the tome whose pages were ripped out. He relaxes his right hand and the green saucer disappears, allowing him to manipulate it and a tome without changing their ages. To reinstate the saucer, he extends his fingers out and gives his hand a shake, and it fades back into place.

Tibet Mode Analysis: The best control type

The Eye has a lot of goodness to it. Time has long been mapped to circles in sun dials and clock faces, so the circle controls fit thematically quite well. The gestural components make similar sense. The direction of wrist twist coincides with the movement of clock hands, so it feels familiar. Also we naturally look at and point at objects of focus, so using the extended arm gesture combined with gaze monitoring fits the sense of control. Lastly, those bands and saucers look really cool, both mystical in pattern and vaguely technological with the screen-green glow.

Readers of the blog know that it rarely just ends after compliments. To discuss the more challenging aspects of this interaction with the Eye, it’s useful to think of it as a gestural video scrubber for security footage, with the hand twist working like a jog wheel. Not familiar with that type of control? It’s a specialized dial, often used by video editors to scroll back and forth over video footage, to find particular sequences or frames. Here’s a quick show-and-tell by YouTube user BrainEatingZombie.

Is this the right kind of control?

There are other options to consider for the dial types of the Eye. What we see in the movie is a jog dial with hard stops, like you might use for an analogue volume control. The absolute position of the control maps to a point in a range of values. The wheel stops at the extents of the values: for volume controls, complete silence on one end and max volume at the other.

But another type is a shuttle wheel. This kind of dial has a resting position. You can turn it clockwise or counterclockwise, and when you let go, it will spring back to the resting position. While it is being turned, it enacts a change. The greater the turn, the faster the change. Like a variable fast-forward/reverse control. If we used this for a volume control: a small turn to the left means, “Keep lowering the volume a little bit as long as I hold the dial here.” A larger turn to the left means, “Get quieter faster.” In the case of the Eye, Strange could turn his hand a little to go back in time slowly, and fully to reverse quickly. This solves some mapping problems (discussed below) but raises new issues when the object just doesn’t change that much across time, like the tome. Rewinding the tome, Strange would start slow, see no change, then gradually increase speed (with no feedback from the tome to know how fast he was going) and suddenly he’d fly way past a point of interest. If he was looking for just the state change, then we’ve wasted his time by requiring him to scroll to find it. If he’s looking for details in the moment of change, the shuttle won’t help him zoom in on that detail, either.


There are also free-spin jog wheels, which can specify absolute or relative values, but since Strange’s wrist is not free-spinning, this is a nonstarter to consider. So I’ll make the call and say what we see in the film, the jog dial, is the right kind of control.

So if a jog dial is the right type of dial, and you start thinking of the Eye in terms of it being a video scrubber, it’s tackling a common enough problem: Scouring a variable range of data for things of interest. In fact, you can imagine that something like this is possible with sophisticated object recognition analyzing security footage.

  • The investigator scrubs the video back in time to when the Mona Lisa, which since has gone missing, reappears on the wall.
  • Show me what happened—across all cameras in Paris—to that priceless object…
  • She points at the painting in the video.
  • …there.

So, sure, we’re not going to be manipulating time any…uh…time soon, but this pattern can extend beyond magic items a movie.

The scrubber metaphor brings us nearly all the issues we have to consider.

  • What are the extents of the time frame?
  • How are they mapped to gestures?
  • What is the right display?
  • What about the probabilistic nature of the future?

What are the extents of the time frame?

Think about the mapping issues here. Time goes forever in each direction. But the human wrist can only twist about 270 degrees: 90° pronation (thumb down) and 180° supination (thumb away from the body, or palm up). So how do you map the limited degrees of twist to unlimited time, especially considering that the “upright” hand is anchored to now?

The conceptually simplest mapping would be something like minutes-to-degree, where full pronation of the right hand would go back 90 minutes and full supination 2 hours into the future. (Noting the weirdness that the left hand would be more past-oriented and the right hand more future-oriented.) Let’s call this controlled extents to distinguish it from auto-extents, discussed later.

What if -90/+180 minutes is not enough time to entail the object at hand? Or what if that’s way too much time? The scale of those extents could be modified by a second gesture, such as the distance of the left hand from the right. So when the left hand was very far back, the extents might be -90/+180 years. When the left hand was touching the right, the extents might be -90/+180 milliseconds to find detail in very fast moving events. This kind-of backworlds the gestures seen in the film.


That’s simple and quite powerful, but doesn’t wholly fit the content for a couple of reasons. The first is that the time scales can vary so much between objects. Even -90/+180 years might be insufficient. What if Strange was scrubbing the timeline of a Yareta plant (which can live to be 3,000 years old) or a meteorite? Things exist in greatly differing time scales. To solve that you might just say OK, let’s set the scale to accommodate geologic or astronomic time spans. But now to select meaningfully between the apple and the tome his hand must move mere nanometers and hard for Strange to get right. A logarithmic time scale to that slider control might help, but still only provides precision at the now end of the spectrum.

If you design a thing with arbitrary time mapping you also have to decide what to do when the object no longer exists prior to the time request. If Strange tried to turn the apple back 50 years, what would be shown? How would you help him elegantly focus on the beginning point of the apple and at the same time understand that the apple didn’t exist 50 years ago?

So letting Strange control the extents arbitrarily is either very constrained or quite a bit more complicated than the movie shows.

Could the extents be automatically set per the focus?

Could the extents be set automatically at the beginning and end of the object in question? Those can be fuzzy concepts, but for the apple there are certainly points in time at which we say “definitely a bud and not a fruit” and “definitely inedible decayed biomass.” So those could be its extents.

The extents for the tome are fuzzier. Its beginning might be when its blank vellum pages were bound and its cover decorated. But the future doesn’t have as clean an endpoint. Pages can be torn out. The cover and binding could be removed for a while and the pages scattered, but then mostly brought together with other pages added and rebound. When does it stop being itself? What’s its endpoint? Suddenly the Eye has to have a powerful and philosophically advanced AI just to reconcile Theseus’ paradox for any object it was pointed at, to the satisfaction of the sorcerer using it and in the context in which it was being examined. Not simple and not in evidence.


Auto-extents could also get into very weird mapping. If an object were created last week, each single degree of right-hand-pronation would reverse time by about 2 hours; but if was fated to last a millennium, each single degree of right-hand-supination would advance time by about 5 years. And for the overwhelming bulk of that display, the book wouldn’t change much at all, so the differences in the time mapping between the two would not be apparent to the user and could cause great confusion.

So setting extents automatically is not a simple answer either. But between the two, starting with the extents automatically saves him the work of finding the interesting bits. (Presuming we can solve that tricky end-point problem. Ideas?) Which takes us to the question of the best display, which I’ll cover in the next post.

Cyberspace: Navigation

Cyberspace is usually considered to be a 3D spatial representation of the Internet, an expansion of the successful 2D desktop metaphor. The representation of cyberspace used in books such as Neuromancer and Snow Crash, and by the film Hackers released in the same year, is an abstract cityscape where buildings represent organisations or individual computers, and this what we see in Johnny Mnemonic. How does Johnny navigate through this virtual city?

Gestures and words for flying

Once everything is connected up, Johnny starts his journey with an unfolding gesture. He then points both fingers forward. From his point of view, he is flying through cyberspace. He then holds up both hands to stop.


Both these gestures were commonly used in the prototype VR systems of 1995. They do however conflict with the more common gestures for manipulating objects in volumetric projections that are described in Make It So chapter 5. It will be interesting to see which set of gestures is eventually adopted, or whether they can co-exist.

Later we will see Johnny turn and bank by moving his hands independently.

jm-31-navigation-f Continue reading

Cyberspace: the hardware

And finally we come to the often-promised cyberspace search sequence, my favourite interface in the film. It starts at 36:30 and continues, with brief interruptions to the outside world, to 41:00. I’ll admit there are good reasons not to watch the entire film, but if you are interested in interface design, this will be five minutes well spent. Included here are the relevant clips, lightly edited to focus on the user interfaces.

Click to see video of The cyberspace search.

Click to see Board conversation, with Pharmakom tracker and virus

First, what hardware is required?

Johnny and Jane have broken into a neighbourhood computer shop, which in 2021 will have virtual reality gear just as today even the smallest retailer has computer mice. Johnny clears miscellaneous parts off a table and then sits down, donning a headset and datagloves.



Headsets haven’t really changed much since 1995 when this film was made. Barring some breakthrough in neural interfaces, they remain the best way to block off the real world and immerse a user into the virtual world of the computer. It’s mildly confusing to a current day audience to hear Johnny ask for “eyephones”, which in 1995 was the name of a particular VR headset rather than the popular “iPhone” of today. Continue reading

Talking to a Puppet

As mentioned, Johnny in the last phone conversation in the van is not talking to the person he thinks he is. The film reveals Takahashi at his desk, using his hand as if he were a sock puppeteer—but there is no puppet. His desk is emitting a grid of green light to track the movement of his hand and arm.


The Make It So chapter on gestural interfaces suggests Takahashi is using his hand to control the mouth movements of the avatar. I’d clarify this a bit. Lip synching by human animators is difficult even when not done in real time, and while it might be possible to control the upper lip with four fingers, one thumb is not enough to provide realistic motion of the lower lip. Continue reading

Brain Upload

Once Johnny has installed his motion detector on the door, the brain upload can begin.

3. Building it

Johnny starts by opening his briefcase and removing various components, which he connects together into the complete upload system. Some of the parts are disguised, and the whole sequence is similar to an assassin in a thriller film assembling a gun out of harmless looking pieces.


It looks strange today to see a computer system with so many external devices connected by cables. We’ve become accustomed to one piece computing devices with integrated functionality, and keyboards, mice, cameras, printers, and headphones that connect wirelessly.

Cables and other connections are not always considered as interfaces, but “all parts of a thing which enable its use” is the definition according to Chris. In the early to mid 1990s most computer user were well aware of the potential for confusion and frustration in such interfaces. A personal computer could have connections to monitor, keyboard, mouse, modem, CD drive, and joystick – and every single device would use a different type of cable. USB, while not perfect, is one of the greatest ever improvements in user interfaces. Continue reading

Gestural Spheres

While working on some other material this weekend, I just noticed two unusual, but similar gestures from different movies in 2015, which are gestures on the outside of spheres.

First, the Something control sphere from Tomorrowland.


And, the core memories in Inside Out.


The gestures are subtly different (Tomorrowland is full palm, Inside Out is two fingers) and their meanings are different (Tomorrowland is to shift direction of travel of the time camera, Inside Out is to scrub the time itself) but they are a nice gestural rhyme of each other.

The Inside Out image reminds me that I really, really need to do a full retrospective of interfaces in Pixar movies, because they are quite extraordinary in the aggregate.

Grabby hologram

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.

Prometheus-229 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?

Augmented “reality”

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.

Augmented VP

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.

Avengers_PullVP-05.pngIn 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.


Avengers, assembly!


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.


Briefing materials

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.