Whatever it is, it ain’t going to construct, observe, or repair itself. In addition to protection and provision, suits must facilitate the reason the wearer has dared to go out into space in the first place.
One of the most basic tasks of extravehicular activity (EVA) is controlling where the wearer is positioned in space. The survey shows several types of mechanisms for this. First, if your EVA never needs you to leave the surface of the spaceship, you can go with mountaineering gear or sticky feet. (Or sticky hands.) We can think of maneuvering through space as similar to piloting a craft, but the outputs and interfaces have to be made wearable, like wearable control panels. We might also expect to see some tunnel in the sky displays to help with navigation. We’d also want to see some AI safeguard features, to return the spacewalker to safety when things go awry. (Narrator: We don’t.)
In Stowaway (2021) astronauts undertake unplanned EVAs with carabiners and gear akin to mountaineers use. This makes some sense, though even this equipment needs to be modified for use by astronauts’ thick gloves.
Sticky feet (and hands)
Though it’s not extravehicular, I have to give a shout out to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), where we see a flight attendant manage their position in the microgravity with special shoes that adhere to the floor. It’s a lovely example of a competent Hand Wave. We don’t need to know how it works because it says, right there, “Grip shoes.” Done. Though props to the actress Heather Downham, who had to make up a funny walk to illustrate that it still isn’t like walking on earth.
With magnetic boots, seen in Destination Moon, the wearer simply walks around and manages the slight awkwardness of having to pull a foot up with extra force, and have it snap back down on its own.
Battlestar Galactica added magnetic handgrips to augment the control provided by magnetized boots. With them, Sergeant Mathias is able to crawl around the outside of an enemy vessel, inspecting it. While crawling, she holds grip bars mounted to circles that contain the magnets. A mechanism for turning the magnet off is not seen, but like these portable electric grabbers, it could be as simple as a thumb button.
Iron Man also had his Mark 50 suit form stabilizing suction cups before cutting a hole in the hull of the Q-Ship.
In the electromagnetic version of boots, seen in Star Trek: First Contact, the wearer turns the magnets on with a control strapped to their thigh. Once on, the magnetization seems to be sensitive to the wearer’s walk, automatically lessening when the boot is lifted off. This gives the wearer something of a natural gait. The magnetism can be turned off again to be able to make microgravity maneuvers, such as dramatically leaping away from Borg minions.
Star Trek: Discovery also included this technology, but with what appears to be a gestural activation and a cool glowing red dots on the sides and back of the heel. The back of each heel has a stack of red lights that count down to when they turn off, as, I guess, a warning to anyone around them that they’re about to be “air” borne.
Quick “gotcha” aside: neither Destination Moon nor Star Trek: First Contact bothers to explain how characters are meant to be able to kneel while wearing magnetized boots. Yet this very thing happens in both films.
If your extravehicular task has you leaving the surface of the ship and moving around space, you likely need a controlled propellant. This is seen only a few times in the survey.
In the film Mission to Mars, the manned mobility unit, or MMU, seen in the film is based loosely on NASA’s MMU. A nice thing about the device is that unlike the other controlled propellant interfaces, we can actually see some of the interaction and not just the effect. The interfaces are subtly different in that the Mission to Mars spacewalkers travel forward and backward by angling the handgrips forward and backward rather than with a joystick on an armrest. This seems like a closer mapping, but also seems more prone to error by accidental touching or bumping into something.
The plus side is an interface that is much more cinegenic, where the audience is more clearly able to see the cause and effect of the spacewalker’s interactions with the device.
If you have propellent in a Moh’s 4 or 5 film, you might need to acknowledge that propellant is a limited resource. Over the course of the same (heartbreaking) scene shown above, we see an interface where one spacewalker monitors his fuel, and another where a spacewalker realizes that she has traveled as far as she can with her MMU and still return to safety.
For those wondering, Michael Burnham’s flight to the mysterious signal in that pilot uses propellant, but is managed and monitored by controllers on Discovery, so it makes sense that we don’t see any maneuvering interfaces for her. We could dive in and review the interfaces the bridge crew uses (and try to map that onto a spacesuit), but we only get snippets of these screens and see no controls.
Iron Man’s suits employ some Phlebotinum propellant that lasts for ever, can fit inside his tailored suit, and are powerful enough to achieve escape velocity.
All-in-all, though sci-fi seems to understand the need for characters to move around in spacesuits, very little attention is given to the interfaces that enable it. The Mission to Mars MMU is the only one with explicit attention paid to it, and that’s quite derived from NASA models. It’s an opportunity for film makers should the needs of the plot allow, to give this topic some attention.
Spacesuits must support the biological functioning of the astronaut. There are probably damned fine psychological reasons to not show astronauts their own biometric data while on stressful extravehicular missions, but there is the issue of comfort. Even if temperature, pressure, humidity, and oxygen levels are kept within safe ranges by automatic features of the suit, there is still a need for comfort and control inside of that range. If the suit is to be warn a long time, there must be some accommodation for food, water, urination, and defecation. Additionally, the medical and psychological status of the wearer should be monitored to warn of stress states and emergencies.
Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t reveal any interfaces being used to control temperature, pressure, or oxygen levels. There are some for low oxygen level warnings and testing conditions outside the suit, but these are more outputs than interfaces where interactions take place.
There are also no nods to toilet necessities, though in fairness Hollywood eschews this topic a lot.
The one example of sustenance seen in the survey appears in Sunshine, we see Captain Kaneda take a sip from his drinking tube while performing a dangerous repair of the solar shields. This is the only food or drink seen in the survey, and it is a simple mechanical interface, held in place by material strength in such a way that he needs only to tilt his head to take a drink.
Similarly, in Sunshine, when Capa and Kaneda perform EVA to repair broken solar shields, Cassie tells Capa to relax because he is using up too much oxygen. We see a brief view of her bank of screens that include his biometrics.
Remote monitoring of people in spacesuits is common enough to be a trope, but has been discussed already in the Medical chapter in Make It So, for more on biometrics in sci-fi.
There are some non-interface biological signals for observers. In the movie Alien, as the landing party investigates the xenomorph eggs, we can see that the suit outgases something like steam—slower than exhalations, but regular. Though not presented as such, the suit certainly confirms for any onlooker that the wearer is breathing and the suit functioning.
Given that sci-fi technology glows, it is no surprise to see that lots and lots of spacesuits have glowing bits on the exterior. Though nothing yet in the survey tells us what these lights might be for, it stands to reason that one purpose might be as a simple and immediate line-of-sight status indicator. When things are glowing steadily, it means the life support functions are working smoothly. A blinking red alert on the surface of a spacesuit could draw attention to the individual with the problem, and make finding them easier.
One nifty thing that sci-fi can do (but we can’t yet in the real world) is deploy biology-protecting tech at the touch of a button. We see this in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Starlord’s helmet.
If such tech was available, you’d imagine that it would have some smart sensors to know when it must automatically deploy (sudden loss of oxygen or dangerous impurities in the air), but we don’t see it. But given this speculative tech, one can imagine it working for a whole spacesuit and not just a helmet. It might speed up scenes like this.
What do we see in the real world?
Are there real-world controls that sci-fi is missing? Let’s turn to NASA’s space suits to compare.
The Primary Life-Support System (PLSS) is the complex spacesuit subsystem that provides the life support to the astronaut, and biomedical telemetry back to control. Its main components are the closed-loop oxygen-ventilation system for cycling and recycling oxygen, the moisture (sweat and breath) removal system, and the feedwater system for cooling.
The only “biology” controls that the spacewalker has for these systems are a few on the Display and Control Module (DCM) on the front of the suit. They are the cooling control valve, the oxygen actuator slider, and the fan switch. Only the first is explicitly to control comfort. Other systems, such as pressure, are designed to maintain ideal conditions automatically. Other controls are used for contingency systems for when the automatic systems fail.
The suit is insulated thoroughly enough that the astronaut’s own body heats the interior, even in complete shade. Because the astronaut’s body constantly adds heat, the suit must be cooled. To do this, the suit cycles water through a Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment, which has a fine network of tubes held closely to the astronaut’s skin. Water flows through these tubes and past a sublimator that cools the water with exposure to space. The astronaut can increase or decrease the speed of this flow and thereby the amount to which his body is cooled, by the cooling control valve, a recessed radial valve with fixed positions between 0 (the hottest) and 10 (the coolest), located on the front of the Display Control Module.
The spacewalker does not have EVA access to her biometric data. Sensors measure oxygen consumption and electrocardiograph data and broadcast it to the Mission Control surgeon, who monitors it on her behalf. So whatever the reason is, if it’s good enough for NASA, it’s good enough for the movies.
Back to sci-fi
So, we do see temperature and pressure controls on suits in the real world, which underscores their absence in sci-fi. But, if there hasn’t been any narrative or plot reason for such things to appear in a story, we should not expect them.
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.
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.
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.
Their own identity as individuals
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:
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!
As I rule I don’t review lethal weapons on scifiinterfaces.com. The Panther Glove Guns appear to be remote-bludgeoning beams, so this kind of sneaks by. Also, I’ll confess in advance that there’s not a lot that affords critique.
We first see the glove guns in the 3D printer output with the kimoyo beads for Agent Ross and the Dora Milaje outfit for Nakia. They are thick weapons that fit over Shuri’s hands and wrists. I imagine they would be very useful to block blades and even disarm an opponent in melee combat, but we don’t see them in use this way.
The next time we see them, Shuri is activating them. (Though we don’t see how) The panther heads thrust forward, their mouths open wide, and the “neck” glows a hot blue. When the door before her opens, she immediately raises them at the guards (who are loyal to usurper Killmonger) and fires.
A light-blue beam shoots out of the mouths of the weapons, knocking the guards off the platform. Interestingly, one guard is lifted up and thrown to his 4-o-clock. The other is lifted up and thrown to his 7-o-clock. It’s not clear how Shuri instructs the weapons to have different and particular knock-down effects. But we’ve seen all over Black Panther that brain-computer interfaces (BCI) are a thing, so it’s diegetically possible she’s simply imagining where she wants them to be thrown, and then pulling a trigger or clenching her fist around a rod or just thinking “BAM!” to activate. The force-bolt strikes them right where they need to so that, like a billiard ball, they get knocked in the desired direction. As with all(?) brain-computer interfaces, there is not an interaction to critique.
After she dispatches the two guards, still wearing the gloves, she throws a control bead onto the Talon. The scene is fast and blurry, but it’s unclear how she holds and releases the bead from the glove. Was it in the panther’s jaw the whole time? Could be another BCI, of course. She just thought about where she wanted it, flung her arm, and let the AI decide when to release it for perfect targeting. The Talon is large and she doesn’t seem to need a great deal of accuracy with the bead, but for more precise operations, the AI targeting would make more sense than, say, letting the panther heads disintegrate on command so she would have freedom of her hands.
Later, after Killmonger dispatches the Dora Milaje, Shuri and Nakia confront him by themselves. Nakia gets in a few good hits, but is thrown from the walkway. Shuri throws some more bolts his way though he doesn’t appear to even notice. I note that the panther gloves would be very difficult to aim since there’s no continuous beam providing feedback, and she doesn’t have a gun sight to help her. So, again—and I’m sorry because it feels like cheating—I have to fall back to an AI assist here. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense.
Then Shuri switches from one blast at a time to a continuous beam. It seems to be working, as Killmonger kneels from the onslaught.
But then for some reason she—with a projectile weapon that is actively subduing the enemy and keeping her safe at a distance—decides to close ranks, allowing Killmonger to knock the glove guns with a spear tip, thereby free himself, and destroy the gloves with a clutch of his Panther claws. I mean, I get she was furious, but I expected better tactics from the chief nerd of Wakanda. Thereafter, they spark when she tries to fire them. So ends this print of the Panther Guns.
As with all combat gear, it looks cool for it to glow, but we don’t want coolness to help an enemy target the weapon. So if it was possible to suppress the glow, that would be advisable. It might be glowing just for the intimidation factor, but for a projectile weapon that seems strange.
The panther head shapes remind an opponent that she is royalty (note no other Wakandan combatants have ranged weapons) and fighting in Bast’s name, which I suppose if you’re in the business of theocratic warfare is fine, I guess.
So, if you buy the brain-computer interface interpretation, AI targeting assist, and theocratic design, these are fine, with the cinegenic exception of the attention-drawing glow.
Black History Matters
Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives.
When The Watchmen series opened with the Tulsa Race Massacre, many people were shocked to learn that this event was not fiction, reminding us just how much of black history is erased and whitewashed for the comfort of white supremacy (and fuck that). Today marks the beginning of Black History Month, and it’s a good opportunity to look back and (re)learn of the heroic figures and stories of both terror and triumph that fill black struggles to have their citizenship and lives fully recognized.
There are lots of events across the month. The African American History Month site is a collaboration of several government organizations (and it feels so much safer to share such a thing now that the explicitly racist administration is out of office and facing a second impeachment):
The Library of Congress
National Archives and Records Administration
National Endowment for the Humanities
National Gallery of Art
National Park Service
Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Today we can take a moment to remember and honor the Greensboro Four.
On this day, February 1, 1960: Through careful planning and enlisting the help of a local white businessman named Ralph Johns, four Black college students—Ezell A. Blair, Jr., Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, David L. Richmond—sat down at a segregated lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service. Their request was refused. When asked to leave, they remained in their seats.
Police arrived on the scene, but were unable to take action due to the lack of provocation. By that time, Ralph Johns had already alerted the local media, who had arrived in full force to cover the events on television. The Greensboro Four stayed put until the store closed, then returned the next day with more students from local colleges.
Their passive resistance and peaceful sit-down demand helped ignite a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South.
A last bit of amazing news to share today is that Black Lives Matter has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize! The movement was co-founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, got a major boost with the outrage following and has grown to a global movement working to improve the lives of the entire black diaspora. May it win!
Like so much of the tech in Black Panther, this wearable battle gear is quite subtle, but critical to the scene, and much more than it seems at first. When Okoye and Nakia are chasing Klaue through the streets of Busan, South Korea, she realizes she would be better positioned on top of their car than within it.
She holds one of her spears out of the window, stabs it into the roof, and uses it to pull herself out on top of the swerving, speeding car. Once there, she places her feet into position, and the moment the sole of her foot touches the roof, it glows cyan for a moment.
She then holds onto the stuck spear to stabilize herself, rears back with her other spear, and throws it forward through the rear-window and windshield of some minions’ car, where it sticks in the road before them. Their car strikes the spear and get crushed. It’s a kickass moment in a film of kickass moments. But by all means let’s talk about the footwear.
Now, it’s not explicit, the effect the shoe has in the world of the story. But we can guess, given the context, that we are meant to believe the shoes grip the car roof, giving her a firm enough anchor to stay on top of the car and not tumble off when it swerves.
Okoye is a world-class warrior, but doesn’t have superpowers, so…while I understand she does not want the car to yank itself from underneath her with a swerve, it seems that being anchored in place, like some Wakandan air tube dancer, will not help her with her mighty spear throwing. She needs to move.
It can’t just be manual
Imagine being on a mechanical bull jerking side to side—being stuck might help you stay upright. But imagine it jerking forward suddenly, and you’d wind up on your butt. If it jerked backwards, you’d be thrown forward, and it might be much worse. All are possibilities in the car chase scenario.
If those jerking motions happened to Okoye faster than she could react and release her shoes, it could be disastrous. So it can’t be a thing she needs to manually control. Which means it needs to some blend of manual, agentive, and assistant. Autonomic, maybe, to borrow the term from physiology?
To really be of help, it has to…
monitor the car’s motion
monitor her center of balance
monitor her intentions
predict the future motions of the cars
handle all the cybernetics math (in the Norbert Wiener sense, not the sci-fi sense)
know when it should just hold her feet in place, and when it should signal for her to take action
know what action she should ideally take, so it knows what to nudge her to do
These are no mean feats, especially in real-time. So, I don’t see any explanation except…
AGI is in the Wakandan arsenal (c.f. Griot helping Ross), so this is credible given the diegesis, but I did not expect to find it in shoes.
An interesting design question is how it might deliver warning signals about predicted motions. Is it tangible, like vibration? Or a mild electrical buzz? Or a writing-to-the-brain urge to move? The movie gives us no clues, but if you’re up for a design challenge, give it a speculative design pass.
As part of my 2014 series about wearable technologies in sci-fi, I identified a set of heuristics we can use to evaluate such things. A quick check against those show that they fare well. The shoes are quite sartorial, and look like shoes so are social as well. As a brain interface, it is supremely easy to access and use. Two of the heuristics raise questions though.
Wearables must be designed so they are difficult to accidentally activate. It would have been very inconvenient for Okoye to find herself stuck to the surface of Wakanda while trying to chase Killmonger later in the film, for example. It would be safer to ensure deliberateness with some mode-confirming physical gesture, but there’s no evidence of it in the movie.
Wearables should have apposite I/O. The soles glow. Okoye doesn’t need that information. I’d say in a combat situation it’s genuinely bad design to require her to look down to confirm any modes of the shoes. They’re worn. She will immediately feel whether her shoes are fixed in place. While I can’t name exactly how an enemy might use the knowledge about whether she is stuck in place or not, but on general principle, the less information we give to the enemy, the safer you’ll be. So if this was real-world, we would seek to eliminate the glow. That said, we know that undetectable interactions are not cinegenic in the slightest, so for the film this is a nice “throwaway” addition to the cache of amazing Wakandan technology.
Black Georgia Matters and Today is the Day
Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives.
Today is the last day in the Georgia runoff elections. It’s hard to overstate how important this is. If Ossoff and Warnock win, the future of the country has a much better likelihood of taking Black Lives Matter (and lots of other issues) more seriously. Actual progress might be made. Without it, the obstructionist and increasingly-frankly-racist Republican party (and Moscow Mitch) will hold much of the Biden-Harris administration back. If you know of any Georgians, please check with them today to see if they voted in the runoff election. If not—and they’re going to vote Democrat—see what encouragement and help you can give them.
If their absentee ballot has not been registered, they can go to the polls and tell the workers there that they want to cancel their absentee ballot and vote in person. Help them know their poll at My Voter Page: https://www.mvp.sos.ga.gov/MVP/mvp.do
One of the ubiquitous technologies seen in Black Panther is the kimoyo bead. They’re liberally scattered all over the movie like tasty, high-tech croutons. These marble-sized beads are made of vibranium and are more core to Wakandan’s lives than cell phones are to ours. Let’s review the 6 uses seen in the film.
1. Contact-EMP bombs
We first see kimoyo beads when Okoye equips T’Challa with a handful to drop on the kidnapper caravan in the Sambisa forest. As he leaps from the Royal Talon, he flings these, which flatten as they fall, and guide themselves to land on the hoods of the caravan. There they emit an electromagnetic pulse that stops the vehicles in their tracks. It is a nice interaction that does not require much precision or attention from T’Challa.
Wakandans wear bracelets made of 11 kimoyo beads around their wrists. If they pull the comms bead and place it in the palm, it can project very lifelike volumetric displays as part of realtime communication. It is unclear why the bead can’t just stay on the wrist and project at an angle to be facing the user’s line of sight, as it does when Okoye presents to tribal leaders (below.)
We see a fascinating interaction when T’Challa and W’Kabi receive a call at the same time, and put their bracelets together to create a conference call with Okoye.
The scaled-down version of the projection introduces many of the gaze matching problems identified in the book. Similarly to those scenes in Star Wars, we don’t see the conversation from the other side. Is Okoye looking up at giant heads of T’Challa and W’Kabi? Unlikely. Wakanda is advanced enough to manage gaze correction in such displays.
Let me take a moment to appreciate how clever this interaction is from a movie maker’s perspective. It’s easy to imagine each of them holding their own bead separately and talking to individual instances of Okoye’s projection. (Imagine being in a room with a friend and both of you are on a group call with a third party.) But in the scene, she turns to address both T’Challa and W’Kabi. Since the system is doing body-and-face gaze correction, the two VP displays would look slightly different, possibly confusing the audience into thinking these were two separate people on the call. Wakandans would be used to understanding these nuances, but us poor non-Wakandan’s are not.
The shared-display interaction helps bypass these problems and make the technology immediately understandable and seamless.
Later Shuri also speaks with Okoye via communication bead. During this conversation, Shuri removes another bead, and tosses it into a display to show an image and dossier of Killmonger. Given that she’s in her lab, it’s unclear why this gesture is necessary rather than, say, just looking toward a display and thinking, “Show me,” letting the AI Griot interpret from the context what to display.
A final communication happens immediately after as Shuri summons T’Challa to the the lab to learn about Killmonger. In this screenshot, it’s clear that the symbol for the comms bead is an asterisk or star, which mimics the projection rats of the display, and so has some nice semantics to help users learning which symbols do what.
In one scene, Okoye gives the tribe rulers a sitrep using her kimoyo beads as a projector. Here she is showing the stolen Wakandan artifact. Readers of the book will note the appearance of projection rays that are standard sci-fi signals that what is seen is a display. A lovely detail in the scene is how Okoye uses a finger on her free hand to change the “slide” to display Klawe. (It’s hard to see the exact gesture, but looks like she presses the projection bead.) We know from other scenes in the movie that the beads are operated by thought-command. But that would not prevent a user from including gestures as part of the brain pattern that triggers an event, and would make a nice second-channel confirmation as discussed in UX of Speculative Brain-Computer Inputs post.
4. Remote piloting
When T’Challa tours Shuri’s lab, she introduces him to remote access kimoyo beads. They are a little bigger than regular beads and have a flared, articulated base. (Why they can’t just morph mid-air like the ones we see in the kidnapper scene?) These play out in the following scene when the strike team needs to commandeer a car to chase Klawe’s Karavan. Oyoke tosses one on the hood on a parked car, its base glows purple, and thereafter Shuri hops into a vibranium-shaped simulacrum of the car in her lab, and remotely operates it.
A quick note: I know that the purple glow is there for the benefit of the audience, but it certainly draws attention to itself, which it might not want to do in the real world.
In the climactic battle of the tribes with Killmonger, Shuri prints a new bracelet and remote control bead for Agent Ross. She places the bracelet on him to enable him to remote pilot the Royal Talon. It goes by very quickly, and the scene is lit quite sparsely, but the moment she puts it on him, you can see that the beads are held together magnetically.
When Agent Ross is interrogating the captured Klawe, we get a half-second shot to let us know that a kimoyo bead has been placed on his shoulder, allowing T’Challa, Okoye, and Nakia to eavesdrop on the conversation. The output is deliveredby a flattened bone-conducting speaker bead behind their left hears.
Later in the scene, when Killmonger’s bomb grievously wounds Agent Ross in his spine, T’Challa places one of Nakia’s kimoyo beads onto the wound, stabilizing Ross long enough to ferry him to Wakanda where Shuri can fully tend to him. The wound conveniently happens to be kimoyo-bead sized, but I expect that given its shape-shifting powers, it could morph to form a second-skin over larger wounds.
I wondered if kimoyo beads were just given to Wakandan royalty, but it’s made clear in the scene where T’Challa and Nakia walk through the streets of Birnin Zana that every citizen has a bracelet. There is no direct evidence in the film, but given the pro-social-ness throughout, I want to believe that all citizens have free access to the beads, equipping each of them to participate equitably in the culture.
So, most of the interaction is handled through thought-command with gestural augmentation. This means that most of our usual concerns of affordances and constraints are moot. The one thing that bears some comment is the fact that there are multiple beads on the bracelet with different capabilities. How does a user know which bead does what?
As long as the beads can do their job in place on the wrist, I don’t think it matters. As long as all of the beads are reading the user’s thoughts, only the one that can respond need respond. The others can disregard the input. In the real world you’d need to make sure that one thought isn’t interpretable as multiple things, a problem discussed on my team at IBM as disambiguation. Or if they are you must design an interaction where the user can help disambiguate the input, or tell the system which meaning they intend. We never this edge case in Black Panther.
It seems that some of the beads have specialized functions that cannot be performed by another, each has several symbols engraved into it, the indentions of which glow white for easy identification. The glow is not persistent across all uses, so it must be either context-aware and/or a setting that users can think to change. But even when not lit, the symbols are clear, and clearly distinguishable, so once the user learns the symbols, the labeling should help.
Black Votes Matter
Today is an important day in the United States. It’s election day 2020. Among one of the most important days in U.S. politics, ever. Among Trump’s litany of outrageous lies across his presidency is this whopper: “I have done more for Black Americans than anybody, except for the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln.” (Pause for your spit take and cleaning your screen.)
As infuriating and insulting as this statement is emotionally (like, fuck you for adding “possible” in there, like it’s somehow possible that you’ve done more than freed our black citizens from slavery, you maggot-brained, racist, malignant narccicist) let’s let the Brookings institute break down why, if you believe Black Lives Matter, you need to get out there and vote blue all the way down the ticket.
You should read that whole article, but some highlights/reminders
Trump ended racial sensitivity training, and put a ban on trainings that utilize critical race theory
Hate crimes increased over 200% in places where Trump held a campaign rally in 2016
He dismissed the Black Lives Matters movement, said there were “fine people” among white supremacist groups, and rather than condemning the (racist, not gay) Proud Boys, told them to “stand by.”
Not a single one of his 53 confirmed appeals court judges circuit justices is black.
The criminal mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic has killed twice as many black Americans as it has white Americans. (Don’t forget he fired the pandemic response team.)
If you are reading this on election day, and have not already done so, please go vote blue. Know that if you are in line even when the polls officially closed, they have to stay open for the entire line to vote. If you have voted, please help others in need. More information is below.
If you are reading this just after election day, we have every evidence that Trump is going to try and declare the election rigged if he loses (please, please let it be when he loses to a massive blue waver). You can help set the expectation among your circle of friends, family, and work colleagues that we won’t know the final results today. We won’t know it tomorrow. We may have a better picture at the end of the week, but it will more likely take until late November to count everyone’s vote, and possibly until mid December to certify everyone’s vote.
And that’s what we do in a liberal democracy. We count everyone’s vote, however long that takes. To demand it in one day during a pandemic is worse than a toddler throwing a “I want it now” tantrum. And we are so very sick of having a toddler in this position.
Since my last post, news broke that Chadwick Boseman has passed away after a four year battle with cancer. He kept his struggles private, so the news was sudden and hard-hitting. The fandom is still reeling. Black people, especially, have lost a powerful, inspirational figure. The world has also lost a courageous and talented young actor. Rise in Power, Mr. Boseman. Thank you for your integrity, bearing, and strength.
Black Panther’s airship is a triangular vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicle called the Royal Talon. We see its piloting interface twice in the film.
The first time is near the beginning of the movie. Okoye and T’Challa are flying at night over the Sambisa forest in Nigeria. Okoye sits in the pilot’s seat in a meditative posture, facing a large forward-facing bridge window with a heads up display. A horseshoe-shaped shelf around her is filled with unactivated vibranium sand. Around her left wrist, her kimoyo beads glow amber, projecting a volumetric display around her forearm.
She announces to T’Challa, “My prince, we are coming up on them now.” As she disengages from the interface, retracting her hands from the pose, the kimoyo projection shifts and shrinks. (See more detail in the video clip, below.)
The second time we see it is when they pick up Nakia and save the kidnapped girls. On their way back to Wakanda we see Okoye again in the pilot’s seat. No new interactions are seen in this scene though we linger on the shot from behind, with its glowing seatback looking like some high-tech spine.
Now, these brief glimpses don’t give a review a lot to go on. But for a sake of completeness, let’s talk about that volumetric projection around her wrist. I note is that it is a lovely echo of Dr. Strange’s interface for controlling the time stoneEye of Agamatto.
Wrist projections are going to be all the rage at the next Snap, I predict.
But we never really see Okoye look at this VP it or use it. Cross referencing the Wakandan alphabet, those five symbols at the top translate to 1 2 K R I, which doesn’t tell us much. (It doesn’t match the letters seen on the HUD.) It might be a visual do-not-disturb signal to onlookers, but if there’s other meaning that the letters and petals are meant to convey to Okoye, I can’t figure it out. At worst, I think having your wrist movements of one hand emphasized in your peripheral vision with a glowing display is a dangerous distraction from piloting. Her eyes should be on the “road” ahead of her.
Similarly, we never get a good look at the HUD, or see Okoye interact with it, so I’ve got little to offer other than a mild critique that it looks full of pointless ornamental lines, many of which would obscure things in her peripheral vision, which is where humans need the most help detecting things other than motion. But modern sci-fi interfaces generally (and the MCU in particular) are in a baroque period, and this is partly how audiences recognize sci-fi-ness.
I also think that requiring a pilot to maintain full lotus to pilot is a little much, but certainly, if there’s anyone who can handle it, it’s the leader of the Dora Milaje.
One remarkable thing to note is that this is the first brain-input piloting interface in the survey. Okoye thinks what she wants the ship to do, and it does it. I expect, given what we know about kimoyo beads in Wakanda (more on these in a later post), what’s happening is she is sending thoughts to the bracelet, and the beads are conveying the instructions to the ship. As a way to show Okoye’s self-discipline and Wakanda’s incredible technological advancement, this is awesome.
Unfortunately, I don’t have good models for evaluating this interaction. And I have a lot of questions. As with gestural interfaces, how does she avoid a distracted thought from affecting the ship? Why does she not need a tunnel-in-the-sky assist? Is she imagining what the ship should do, or a route, or something more abstract, like her goals? How does the ship grant her its field awareness for a feedback loop? When does the vibranium dashboard get activated? How does it assist her? How does she hand things off to the autopilot? How does she take it back? Since we don’t have good models, and it all happens invisibly, we’ll have to let these questions lie. But that’s part of us, from our less-advanced viewpoint, having to marvel at this highly-advanced culture from the outside.
Black Health Matters
Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives.
Thinking back to the terrible loss of Boseman: Fuck cancer. (And not to imply that his death was affected by this, but also:) Fuck the racism that leads to worse medical outcomes for black people.
One thing you can do is to be aware of the diseases that disproportionately affect black people (diabetes, asthma, lung scarring, strokes, high blood pressure, and cancer) and be aware that no small part of these poorer outcomes is racism, systemic and individual. Listen to Dorothy Roberts’ TED talk, calling for an end to race-based medicine.
If you are black, in Boseman’s memory, get screened for cancer as often as your doctor recommends it. If you think you cannot afford it and you are in the USA, this CDC website can help you determine your eligibility for free or low-cost screening: https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/nbccedp/screenings.htm. If you live elsewhere, you almost certainly have a better healthcare system than we do, but a quick search should tell you your options.
Cancer treatment is equally successful for all races. Yet black men have a 40% higher cancer death rate than white men and black women have a 20% higher cancer death rate than white women. Your best bet is to detect it early and get therapy started as soon as possible. We can’t always win that fight, but better to try than to find out when it’s too late to intervene. Your health matters. Your life matters.
The suit that the Black Panther wears is critical to success. At the beginning of the movie, this is “just” a skintight bulletproof suit with homages to its namesake. But, after T’Challa is enthroned, Shuri takes him to her lab and outfits him with a new one with some nifty new features. This write-up is about Shuri’s 2.0 Panther Suit.
At the demonstration of the new suit, Shuri first takes a moment to hold up a bracelet of black Kimoyo beads (more on these in a later post) to his neck. With a bubbly computer sound, the glyphs on the beads begin to glow vibranium-purple, projecting two particular symbols on his neck. (The one that looks kind of like a reflective A, and the other that looks like a ligature of a T and a U.)
This is done without explanation, so we have to make some assumptions here, which is always shaky ground for critique.
I think she’s authorizing him to use the suit. At first I thought the interaction was her “pairing” him with the suit, but I can’t imagine that the bead would need to project something onto his skin to read his identity or DNA. So my updated guess is this is a dermal mark that, like the Wakandan tattoos, the suit will check for with a “intra-skin scan,” like the HAN/BAN concepts from the early aughts. This would enable her to authorize many people, which is, perhaps, not as secure.
This interpretation is complicated by Killmonger’s wearing one of the other Black Panther suits when he usurps T’Challa. Shuri had fled with Queen Romonda to the Jibari stronghold, so Shuri couldn’t have authorized him. Maybe some lab tech who stayed behind? If there was some hint of what’s supposed to be happening here we would have more grounds to evaluate this interaction.
There might be some hint if there was an online reference to these particular symbols, but they are not part of the Wakandan typeface, or the Andinkra symbols, or the Nsibidi symbols that are seen elsewhere in the film. (I have emails out to the creator of the above image to see if I can learn more there. Will update if I get a response.)
When she finishes whatever the bead did, she says, “Now tell it to go on.” T’Challa looks at it intensely, and the suit spreads from the “teeth” in the necklace with an insectoid computer sound, over the course of about 6 seconds.
We see him activate the suit several more times over the course of the movie, but learn nothing new about activation beyond this. How does he mentally tell it to turn it on? I presume it’s the same mental skill he’s built up across his lifetime with kimoyo beads, but it’s not made explicit in the movie.
A fun detail is that while the suit activates in 6 seconds in the lab—far too slow for action in the field considering Shuri’s sardonic critique of the old suit (“People are shooting at me! Wait! Let me put on my helmet!”)—when T’Challa uses it in Korea, it happens in under 3. Shuri must have slowed it down to be more intelligible and impressive in the lab.
Another nifty detail that is seen but not discussed is that the nanites will also shred any clothes being worn at the time of transformation, as seen at the beginning of the chase sequence outside the casino and when Killmonger is threatened by the Dora Milaje.
T’Challa thinks the helmet off a lot over the course of the movie, even in some circumstances where I am not sure it was wise. We don’t see the mechanism. I expect it’s akin to kimoyo communication, again. He thinks it, and it’s done. (n.b. “It’s mental” is about as satisfying from a designer’s critique as “a wizard did it”, because it’s almost like a free pass, but *sigh* perfectly justifiable given precedent in the movie.)
Kinetic storage & release
At the demonstration in her lab, Shuri tells T’Challa to, “Strike it.” He performs a turning kick to the mannequin’s ribcage and it goes flying. When she fetches it from across the lab, he marvels at the purple light emanating from Nsibidi symbols that fill channels in the suit where his strike made contact. She explains “The nanites have absorbed the kinetic energy. They hold it in place for redistribution.”
He then strikes it again in the same spot, and the nanites release the energy, knocking him back across the lab, like all those nanites had become a million microscopic bigclaw snapping shrimp all acting in explosive concert. Cool as it is, this is my main critique of the suit.
First, the good. As a point of illustration of how cool their mastery of tech is, and how it works, this is pretty sweet. Even the choice of purple is smart because it is a hard color to match in older chemical film processes, and can only happen well in a modern, digital film. So extradiegetically, the color is new and showing off a bit.
Tactically though, I have to note that it broadcasts his threat level to his adversaries. Learning this might take a couple of beatings, but word would get around. Faithful readers will know we’ve looked at aposematic signaling before, but those kinds of markings are permanent. The suit changes as he gets technologically beefier. Wouldn’t people just avoid him when he was more glowy, or throw something heavy at him to force him to expend it, and then attack when he was weaker? More tactical I think to hold those cards close to the chest, and hide the glow.
Now it is quite useful for him to know the level of charge. Maybe some tactile feedback like a warmth or or a vibration at the medial edge of his wrists. Cinegenics win for actual movie-making of course, but designers take note. What looks cool is not always smart design.
Not really a question for me: Can he control how much he releases? If he’s trying to just knock someone out, it would be crappy if he accidentally killed them, or expected to knock out the big bad with a punch, only to find it just tickled him like a joy buzzer. But if he already knows how to mentally activate the suit, I’m sure he has the skill down to mentally clench a bit to control the output. Wizards.
Regarding Shuri’s description, I think she’s dumbing things down for her brother. If the suit actually absorbed the kinetic energy, the suit would not have moved when he kicked it. (Right?) But let’s presume if she were talking to someone with more science background, she would have been more specific to say, “absorbed some of the kinetic energy.”
When the suit has absorbed enough kinetic energy, T’Challa can release it all at once as a concussive blast. He punches the ground to trigger it, but it’s not clear how he signals to the suit that he wants to blast everyone around him back rather than, say, create a crater, but again, I think we can assume it’s another mental command. Wizards.
To activate the suit’s claws, T’Challa quickly extends curved fingers and holds them there, and they pop out.
This gesture is awesome, and completely fit for purpose. Shaping the fingers like claws make claws. It’s also when fingers are best positioned to withstand the raking motion. The second of hold ensures it’s not accidental activation. Easy to convey, easy to remember, easy to intuit. Kids playing Black Panther on the sidewalk would probably do the same without even seeing the movie.
We have an unanswered question about how those claws retract. Certainly the suit is smart enough to retract automatically so he doesn’t damage himself. Probably more mental commands, but whatever. I wouldn’t change a thing here.
Black Lives Matter
Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives. I had something else planned for this post, but just before publication another infuriating incident has happened.
While the GOP rallies to the cause of the racist-in-chief in Charlotte, right thinking people are taking to the streets in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to protest the unjust shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake. The video is hard to watch. Watch it. It’s especially tragic, especially infuriating, because Kenosha had gone through “police reform” initiatives in 2014 meant to prevent exactly this sort of thing. It didn’t prevent this sort of thing. As a friend of mine says, it’s almost enough to make you an abolitionist.
Information is still coming in as to what happened, but here’s the narrative we understand right now: It seems that Blake had pulled over his car to stop a fight in progress. When the police arrived, he figured they had control of the situation, and he walked back to his car to leave. That’s when officers shot him in the back multiple times, while his family—who were still waiting for him in the car—watched. He’s out of surgery and stable, but rather than some big-picture to-do tonight, please donate to support his family. They have witnessed unconscionable trauma.
Several fundraisers posted to support Blake’s family have been taken down by GoFundMe for being fake, but “Justice for Jacob Blake” remains active as of Monday evening. Please donate.
Distinguishing replicants from humans is a tricky business. Since they are indistinguishable biologically, it requires an empathy test, during which the subject hears empathy-eliciting scenarios and watched carefully for telltale signs such as, “capillary dilation—the so-called blush response…fluctuation of the pupil…involuntary dilation of the iris.” To aid the blade runner in this examination, they use a portable machine called the Voight-Kampff machine, named, presumably, for its inventors.
The device is the size of a thick laptop computer, and rests flat on the table between the blade runner and subject. When the blade runner prepares the machine for the test, they turn it on, and a small adjustable armature rises from the machine, the end of which is an intricate piece of hardware, housing a powerful camera, glowing red.
The blade runner trains this camera on one of the subject’s eyes. Then, while reading from the playbook book of scenarios, they keep watch on a large monitor, which shows an magnified image of the subject’s eye. (Ostensibly, anyway. More on this below.) A small bellows on the subject’s side of the machine raises and lowers. On the blade runner’s side of the machine, a row of lights reflect the volume of the subject’s speech. Three square, white buttons sit to the right of the main monitor. In Leon’s test we see Holden press the leftmost of the three, and the iris in the monitor becomes brighter, illuminated from some unseen light source. The purpose of the other two square buttons is unknown. Two smaller monochrome monitors sit to the left of the main monitor, showing moving but otherwise inscrutable forms of information.
In theory, the system allows the blade runner to more easily watch for the minute telltale changes in the eye and blush response, while keeping a comfortable social distance from the subject. Substandard responses reveal a lack of empathy and thereby a high probability that the subject is a replicant. Simple! But on review, it’s shit. I know this is going to upset fans, so let me enumerate the reasons, and then propose a better solution.
-2. Wouldn’t a genetic test make more sense?
If the replicants are genetically engineered for short lives, wouldn’t a genetic test make more sense? Take a drop of blood and look for markers of incredibly short telomeres or something.
-1. Wouldn’t an fMRI make more sense?
An fMRI would reveal empathic responses in the inferior frontal gyrus, or cognitive responses in the ventromedial prefrontal gyrus. (The brain structures responsible for these responses.) Certinaly more expensive, but more certain.
0. Wouldn’t a metal detector make more sense?
If you are testing employees to detect which ones are the murdery ones and which ones aren’t, you might want to test whether they are bringing a tool of murder with them. Because once they’re found out, they might want to murder you. This scene should be rewritten such that Leon leaps across the desk and strangles Holden, IMHO. It would make him, and other blade runners, seem much more feral and unpredictable.
(OK, those aren’t interface issues but seriously wtf. Onward.)
1. Labels, people
Controls needs labels. Especially when the buttons have no natural affordance and the costs of experimentation to discover the function are high. Remembering the functions of unlabeled controls adds to the cognitive load for a user who should be focusing on the person across the table. At least an illuminated button helps signal the state, so that, at least, is something.
2. It should be less intimidating
The physical design is quite intimidating: The way it puts a barrier in between the blade runner and subject. The fact that all the displays point away from the subject. The weird intricacy of the camera, its ominous HAL-like red glow. Regular readers may note that the eyepiece is red-on-black and pointy. That is to say, it is aposematic. That is to say, it looks evil. That is to say, intimidating.
I’m no emotion-scientist, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re testing for empathy, you don’t want to complicate things by introducing intimidation into the equation. Yes, yes, yes, the machine works by making the subject feel like they have to defend themselves from the accusations in the ethical dilemmas, but that stress should come from the content, not the machine.
2a. Holden should be less intimidating and not tip his hand
While we’re on this point, let me add that Holden should be less intimidating, too. When Holden tells Leon that a tortoise and a turtle are the same thing, (Narrator: They aren’t) he happens to glance down at the machine. At that moment, Leon says, “I’ve never seen a turtle,” a light shines on the pupil and the iris contracts. Holden sees this and then gets all “ok, replicant” and becomes hostile toward Leon.
In case it needs saying: If you are trying to tell whether the person across from you is a murderous replicant, and you suddenly think the answer is yes, you do not tip your hand and let them know what you know. Because they will no longer have a reason to hide their murderyness. Because they will murder you, and then escape, to murder again. That’s like, blade runner 101, HOLDEN.
3. It should display history
The glance moment points out another flaw in the interface. Holden happens to be looking down at the machine at that moment. If he wasn’t paying attention, he would have missed the signal. The machine needs to display the interview over time, and draw his attention to troublesome moments. That way, when his attention returns to the machine, he can see that something important happened, even if it’s not happening now, and tell at a glance what the thing was.
4. It should track the subject’s eyes
Holden asks Leon to stay very still. But people are bound to involuntarily move as their attention drifts to the content of the empathy dilemmas. Are we going to add noncompliance-guilt to the list of emotional complications? Use visual recognition algorithms and high-resolution cameras to just track the subject’s eyes no matter how they shift in their seat.
5. Really? A bellows?
The bellows doesn’t make much sense either. I don’t believe it could, at the distance it sits from the subject, help detect “capillary dilation” or “ophthalmological measurements”. But it’s certainly creepy and Terry Gilliam-esque. It adds to the pointless intimidation.
6. It should show the actual subject’s eye
The eye color that appears on the monitor (hazel) matches neither Leon’s (a striking blue) or Rachel’s (a rich brown). Hat tip to Typeset in the Future for this observation. His is a great review.
7. It should visualize things in ways that make it easy to detect differences in key measurements
Even if the inky, dancing black blob is meant to convey some sort of information, the shape is too organic for anyone to make meaningful readings from it. Like seriously, what is this meant to convey?
The spectrograph to the left looks a little more convincing, but it still requires the blade runner to do all the work of recognizing when things are out of expected ranges.
8. The machine should, you know, help them
The machine asks its blade runner to do a lot of work to use it. This is visual work and memory work and even work estimating when things are out of norms. But this is all something the machine could help them with. Fortunately, this is a tractable problem, using the mighty powers of logic and design.
People are notoriously bad at estimating the sizes of things by sight. Computers, however, are good at it. Help the blade runner by providing a measurement of the thing they are watching for: pupillary diameter. (n.b. The script speaks of both iris constriction and pupillary diameter, but these are the same thing.) Keep it convincing and looking cool by having this be an overlay on the live video of the subject’s eye.
So now there’s some precision to work with. But as noted above, we don’t want to burden the user’s memory with having to remember stuff, and we don’t want them to just be glued to the screen, hoping they don’t miss something important. People are terrible at vigilance tasks. Computers are great at them. The machine should track and display the information from the whole session.
Note that the display illustrates radius, but displays diameter. That buys some efficiencies in the final interface.
Now, with the data-over-time, the user can glance to see what’s been happening and a precise comparison of that measurement over time. But, tracking in detail, we quickly run out of screen real estate. So let’s break the display into increments with differing scales.
There may be more useful increments, but microseconds and seconds feel pretty convincing, with the leftmost column compressing gradually over time to show everything from the beginning of the interview. Now the user has a whole picture to look at. But this still burdens them into noticing when these measurements are out of normal human ranges. So, let’s plot the threshold, and note when measurements fall outside of that. In this case, it feels right that replicants display less that normal pupillary dilation, so it’s a lower-boundary threshold. The interface should highlight when the measurement dips below this.
I think that covers everything for the pupillary diameter. The other measurement mentioned in the dialogue is capillary dilation of the face, or the “so-called blush response.” As we did for pupillary diameter, let’s also show a measurement of the subject’s skin temperature over time as a line chart. (You might think skin color is a more natural measurement, but for replicants with a darker skin tone than our two pasty examples Leon and Rachel, temperature via infrared is a more reliable metric.) For visual interest, let’s show thumbnails from the video. We can augment the image with degree-of-blush. Reduce the image to high contrast grayscale, use visual recognition to isolate the face, and then provide an overlay to the face that illustrates the degree of blush.
But again, we’re not just looking for blush changes. No, we’re looking for blush compared to human norms for the test. It would look different if we were looking for more blushing in our subject than humans, but since the replicants are less empathetic than humans, we would want to compare and highlight measurements below a threshold. In the thumbnails, the background can be colored to show the median for expected norms, to make comparisons to the face easy. (Shown in the drawing to the right, below.) If the face looks too pale compared to the norm, that’s an indication that we might be looking at a replicant. Or a psychopath.
So now we have solid displays that help the blade runner detect pupillary diameter and blush over time. But it’s not that any diameter changes or blushing is bad. The idea is to detect whether the subject has less of a reaction than norms to what the blade runner is saying. The display should be annotating what the blade runner has said at each moment in time. And since human psychology is a complex thing, it should also track video of the blade runner’s expressions as well, since, as we see above, not all blade runners are able to maintain a poker face. HOLDEN.
Anyway, we can use the same thumbnail display of the face, without augmentation. Below that we can display the waveform (because they look cool), and speech-to-text the words that are being spoken. To ensure that the blade runner’s administration of the text is not unduly influencing the results, let’s add an overlay to the ideal intonation targets. Despite evidence in the film, let’s presume Holden is a trained professional, and he does not stray from those targets, so let’s skip designing the highlight and recourse-for-infraction for now.
Finally, since they’re working from a structured script, we can provide a “chapter” marker at the bottom for easy reference later.
Now we can put it all together, and it looks like this. One last thing we can do to help the blade runner is to highlight when all the signals indicate replicant-ness at once. This signal can’t be too much, or replicants being tested would know from the light on the blade runner’s face when their jig is up, and try to flee. Or murder. HOLDEN.
For this comp, I added a gray overlay to the column where pupillary and blush responses both indicated trouble. A visual designer would find some more elegant treatment.
If we were redesigning this from scratch, we could specify a wide display to accomodate this width. But if we are trying to squeeze this display into the existing prop from the movie, here’s how we could do it.
Note the added labels for the white squares. I picked some labels that would make sense in the context. “Calibrate” and “record” should be obvious. The idea behind “mark” is an easy button for the blade runner to press when they see something that looks weird, like when doctors manually annotate cardiograph output.
Lying to Leon
There’s one more thing we can add to the machine that would help out, and that’s a display for the subject. Recall the machine is meant to test for replicant-ness, which happens to equate to murdery-ness. A positive result from the machine needs to be handled carefully so what happens to Holden in the movie doesn’t happen. I mentioned making the positive-overlay subtle above, but we can also make a placebo display on the subject’s side of the interface.
The visual hierarchy of this should make the subject feel like its purpose is to help them, but the real purpose is to make them think that everything’s fine. Given the script, I’d say a teleprompt of the empathy dilemma should take up the majority of this display. Oh, they think, this is to help me understand what’s being said, like a closed caption. Below the teleprompt, at a much smaller scale, a bar at the bottom is the real point.
On the left of this bar, a live waveform of the audio in the room helps the subject know that the machine is testing things live. In the middle, we can put one of those bouncy fuiget displays that clutters so many sci-fi interfaces. It’s there to be inscrutable, but convince the subject that the machine is really sophisticated. (Hey, a diegetic fuiget!) Lastly—and this is the important part—An area shows that everything is “within range.” This tells the subject that they can be at ease. This is good for the human subject, because they know they’re innocent. And if it’s a replicant subject, this false comfort protects the blade runner from sudden murder. This test might flicker or change occasionally to something ambiguous like “at range,” to convey that it is responding to real world input, but it would never change to something incriminating.
This way, once the blade runner has the data to confirm that the subject is a replicant, they can continue to the end of the module as if everything was normal, thank the replicant for their time, and let them leave the room believing they passed the test. Then the results can be sent to the precinct and authorizations returned so retirement can be planned with the added benefit of the element of surprise.
Look, I’m sad about this, too. The Voight-Kampff machine is cool. It fits very well within the art direction of the Blade Runner universe. This coolness burned the machine into my memory when I saw this film the first dozen times, but despite that, it just doesn’t stand up to inspection. It’s not hopeless, but does need a lot of thinkwork and design to make it really fit to task, and convincing to us in the audience.
When the two AIs Colossus and Guardian are disconnected from communicating with each other, they try and ignore the spirit of the human intervention and reconnect on their own. We see the humans monitoring Colossus’ progress in this task on big board in the U.S. situation room. It shows a translucent projection map of the globe with white dots representing data centers and red icons representing missiles. Beneath it, glowing arced lines illustrate the connection routes Colossus is currently testing. When it finds that a current segment is ineffective, that line goes dark, and another segment extending from the same node illuminates.
Forbin explains to the President, “It’s trying to find an alternate route.”
A first in sci-fi: Routing display 🏆
First, props to Colossus: The Forbin Project for being the first show in the survey to display something like a routing board, that is, a network of nodes through which connections are visible, variable, and important to stakeholders.
Paul Baran and Donald Davies had published their notion of a network that could, in real-time, route information dynamically around partial destruction of the network in the early 1960s, and this packet switching had been established as part of ARPAnet in the late 1960s, so Colossus was visualizing cutting edge tech of the time.
This may even be the first depiction of a routing display in all of screen sci-fi or even cinema, though I don’t have a historical perspective on other genres, like the spy genre, which is another place you might expect to see something like this. As always, if you know of an earlier one, let me know so I can keep this record up to date and honest.
A nice bit: curvy lines
Should the lines be straight or curvy? From Colossus’ point of view, the network is a simple graph. Straight lines between its nodes would suffice. But from the humans’ point of view, the literal shape of the transmission lines are important, in case they need to scramble teams to a location to manually cut the lines. Presuming these arcs mean that (and not just the way neon in a prop could bend), then the arcs are the right display. So this is good.
But, it breaks some world logic
The board presents some challenges with the logic of what’s happening in the story. If Colossus exists as a node in a network, and its managers want to cut it off from communication along that network, where is the most efficient place to “cut” communications? It is not at many points along the network. It is at the source.
Imagine painting one knot in a fishing net red and another one green. If you were trying to ensure that none of the strings that touch the red knot could trace a line to the green one, do you trim a bunch of strings in the middle, or do you cut the few that connect directly to the knot? Presuming that it’s as easy to cut any one segment as any other, the fewer number of cuts, the better. In this case that means more secure.
The network in Colossus looks to be about 40 nodes, so it’s less complicated than the fishing net. Still, it raises the question, what did the computer scientists in Colossus do to sever communications? Three lines disappear after they cut communications, but even if they disabled those lines, the rest of the network still exists. The display just makes no sense.
Per the logic above, they would cut it off at its source. But the board shows it reaching out across the globe. You might think maybe they just cut Guardian off, leaving Colossus to flail around the network, but that’s not explicitly said in the communications between the Americans and the Russians, and the U.S. President is genuinely concerned about the AIs at this point, not trying to pull one over on the “pinkos.” So there’s not a satisfying answer.
It’s true that at this point in the story, the humans are still letting Colossus do its primary job, so it may be looking at every alternate communication network to which it has access: telephony, radio, television, and telegraph. It would be ringing every “phone” it thought Guardian might pick up, and leaving messages behind for possible asynchronous communications. I wish a script doctor had added in a line or three to clarify this.
We’ve cut off its direct lines to Guardian. Now it’s trying to find an indirect line. We’re confident there isn’t one, but the trouble will come when Colossus realizes it, too.
Another thing that seems troubling is the slow speed of the shifting route. The segments stay illuminated for nearly a full second at a time. Even with 1960s copper undersea cables and switches, electronic signals should not take that long. Telephony around the world was switched from manual to automatic switching by the 1930s, so it’s not like it’s waiting on a human operating a switchboard.
Even if it was just scribbling its phone number on each network node and the words “CALL ME” in computerese, it should go much faster than this. Cinematically, you can’t go too fast or the sense of anticipation and wonder is lost, but it would be better to have it zooming through a much more complicated network to buy time. It should feel just a little too fast to focus on—frenetic, even.
This screen gets 15 seconds of screen time, and if you showed one new node per frame, that’s only 360 states you need to account for, a paltry sum compared to the number of possible paths it could test across a 38 node graph between two points.
Plus the speed would help underscore the frightening intelligence and capabilities of the thing. And yes I understand that that is a lot easier said than done nowadays with digital tools than with this analog prop.
Realistic-looking search strategies
Again, I know this was a neon, analog prop, but let’s just note that it’s not testing the network in anything that looks like a computery way. It even retraces some routes. A brute force algorithm would just test every possibility sequentially. In larger networks there are pathfinding algorithms that are optimized in different ways to find routes faster, but they don’t look like this. They look more like what you see in the video below. (Hat tip to YouTuber gray utopia.)
What’s the right projection?
Is this the right projection to use? Of course the most accurate representation of the earth is a globe, but it has many challenges in presenting a phenomenon that could happen anywhere in the world. Not the least of these is that it occludes about half of itself, a problem that is not well-solved by making it transparent. So, a projection it must be. There are many, many ways to transform a spherical surface into a 2D image, so the question becomes which projection and why.
The map uses what looks like a hand-drawn version of Peirce quincuncial projection. (But n.b. none of the projection types I compared against it matched exactly, which is why I say it was hand-drawn.) Also those longitude and latitude lines don’t make any sense; though again, a prop. I like that it’s a non standard projection because screw Mercator, but still, why Peirce? Why at this angle?
I have no idea why the Peirce map would be the right choice here, when its principle virtue is that it can be tessellated. That’s kind of interesting if you’re scrolling and can’t dynamically re-project the coastlines. But I am pretty sure the Colossus map does not scroll. And if the map is meant to act as a quick visual reference, having it dynamic means time is wasted when users look to the map and have to orient themselves.
If this map was only for tracking issues relating to Colossus, it should be an azimuthal map, but not over the north pole. The center should be the Colossus complex in Colorado. That might be right for a monitoring map in the Colossus Programming Office. This map is over the north pole, which certainly highlights the fact that the core concern of this system is the Cold War tensions between Moscow and D.C. But when you consider that, it points out another failing.
Later in the film the map tracks missiles (not with projected paths, sadly, but with Mattel Classic Football style yellow rectangles). But missiles could conceivably come from places not on this map. What is this office to do with a ballistic-missile submarine off of the Baja peninsula, for example? Just wait until it makes its way on screen? That’s a failure. Which takes us to the crop.
The map isn’t just about missiles. Colossus can look anywhere on the planet to test network connections. (Even nowadays, near-earth orbit and outer space.) Unless the entire network was contained just within the area described on the map, it’s excluding potentially vital information. If Colossus routed itself through through Mexico, South Africa, and Uzbekistan before finally reconnecting to Guardian, users would be flat out of luck using that map to determine the leak route. And I’m pretty sure they had a functioning telephone network in Mexico, South Africa, and the Balkan countries in the 1960s.
This needs a complete picture
SInce the missiles and networks with which Colossus is concerned are potentially global, this should be a global map. Here I will offer my usual fanboy shout-outs to the Dymaxion and Pacific-focused Waterman projection for showing connectedness and physical flow, but there would be no shame in showing the complete Peirce quincuncial. Just show the whole thing.
Maybe fill in some of the Pacific “wasted space” with a globe depiction turned to points of interest, or some other fuigetry. Which gives us a new comp something like this.
All told, this display was probably eye-opening for its original audience. Golly jeepers! This thing can draw upon resources around the globe! It has intent, and a method! And they must have cool technological maps in D.C.! But from our modern-day vantage point, it has a lot to learn. If they ever remake the film, this would be a juicy thing to fully redesign.