Vibranium sand tables

There are a number of vibranium sand tables seen in Black Panther.

  1. The horseshoe-shaped shelf in which Okoye sits as she pilots the Royal Talon. (We never see it activated.)
  2. The small sand table in the center of the Royal Talon.
  3. The big sand tables in Shuri’s lab.

You can see the Royal Talon one in the post about piloting that craft. The other two are described below.

All of these build on the given that vibranium is a very powerful substance and that Wakanda’s scientists have managed to gain a very, very sophisticated control over it.

In the Talon

This table is about a meter square, and raised off the floor around knee-height. As Okoye and T’Challa approach the traffickers in the Sambisa Forest, T’Challa approaches the table and it springs to life, showing him real-time model of the traffickers’ vehicle train. T’Challa picks up the model of the small transport truck and with a finger, wipes off its roof, revealing that there are over a dozen people huddled within. One of the figures glows amber. (It’s Nakia.) He places the truck back into the display, and the display collapses back to inert sand.

A quick critique of this interaction. The sand highlights Nakia for T’Challa, but why did it wait for him to find her truck and wipe off the top of it to look inside? It knew his goals (find Nakia), can clearly conduct a scan into the vehicle, and understood the context (she’s in one of those trucks), it should not wait for him to pick up each car and scrape off its roof to check and see which one she was in. The interface should have drawn his attention to the truck it knew she was in. This is a “stoic guru” mistake that I’ve critiqued before. You know, the computer knows all, but only tells you when you ask it. It is much more sensible for the transport truck to be glowing from the moment the table goes live, as in the comp below.

Designers: Don’t wait for users to ask just the the right thing at the right time.

Otherwise, this is a good high-tech use of the sand table for the more common meaning of “sand table,” which is a 3-dimensional surface for understanding a theatre of conflict. It doesn’t really help him run through scenarios, testing various tactics, but T’Challa is a warrior king, he can do all that in his head.

The interaction also nicely blurs the line between display and gestural interactive tool, in the same way that the Prometheus astrometrics display did. Like that other example, it would be useful for the display to distinguish when it is representing reality, and when the display is being interrupted or modified. Also, T’Challa is nice enough to put the truck back where it “belongs,” but a design would also need to handle how to respond when T’Challa put the truck back in the wrong place, or, say, crushed the truck model with his hand in fury.

In Prometheus it was an Earth, not a truck, but still focused on Africa.

Shuri’s lab

The largest table we see in the movie is in Shuri’s lab. After Black Panther challenges Killmonger and engages in battle outside the capital city, Shuri, Nakia, and Agent Ross rush down to the lab. As they approach an edge-lit hexagonal table, the vibranium sand lowers to reveal 3D-printed armor and weaponry for Shuri and Nakia to join the fight. (Though it’s not like modern 3D printing, these are powered weapons and kimoyo beads, items with very sophisticated functionality.)

Shuri outfits Ross with kimoyo beads from the print and takes off to join the fight. In the lab, the table creates a seat for Ross to remote-pilot the Royal Talon. Up on the flight deck, Shuri throws a control bead onto the Talon, and an AI in the lab named Griot announces to Agent Ross, “Remote piloting system activated.” (Hey, Trevor Noah, we hear you there!)

Around the seat, a volumetric projection of the Talon appears around him, including a 360° display just beyond the windshield that gives him a very immersive remote flying experience. We hear Shuri’s voice explain to Ross “I made it American Style for you. Get in!

Ross sits down, grabs joystick controls, and begins remote-chasing down the cargo ships that are carrying munitions to Killmonger’s War Dogs around the world. (The piloting controls and HUD for Ross are a separate issue, and will be handled in their own post.)

The moment that Ross pilots the Talon through the last cargo ship, the volumetric projection disappears and the piloting seat returns to sand, ungraciously plopping Ross down the floor level of the lab.

It is in this shot that we realize that the dark tiles of the lab’s floor are all recessed vibranium sand tables. I can count seven in the shot. So the lab is full of them.

Display material

Let’s talk for a bit about the display choices. Vibranium can change to display any color and a shape down to a fine level of detail. See the screen cap below for an example of perfectly lifelike (if scaled) representation.

This is a vibranium-powered volumetric display.
It raises the gaze matching issues we’ve seen before.

So why would it be designed so that in most cases, the display is sparkly and black like black tourmaline? Wouldn’t the truck that T’Challa picks up be most useful if it was photographically rendered? Wouldn’t the remote piloting chair be more comfortable if it had pleather- and silicone-like surfaces?

Extradiegetically, I understand the reason is because art direction. We want Wakandan tech to be visibly different than other tech in the MCU, and having it look like vibranium dust ties it back to that key plot element.

But, per the stance of this blog, I try to look for a diegetic reason. It might be a deliberate reminder of the resource on which their technological fortunes are built. And as the Okoye VP above shows, they aren’t purists about it. When detail is needed, it’s included. So perhaps this is it. That implies a great deal of sophistication on the part of the displays to know when photorealism is needed and when it is not, but the presence of Griot there tells us that they have something approaching general AI.

Missing interactions

So, just like I had to do for the Royal Talon, I have to throw my hands up about reviewing the interactions with the sand tables, because we don’t see the interactions that would give these results.

How were the mission goals communicated to the Royal Talon table? Is it programmed to activate when someone approaches it, or did T’Challa issue a mental command? How did Shuri specify those weapons and that armor? What did she do to make the ship “American style” for Ross? Is that a template? Was it Griot’s interpretation of her intention? Why did the remote piloting seat vanish the moment the mission was complete? Was this something Shuri set up in advance, or Griot’s way of telling Agent Ross to GTFO for his own safety? How does someone in the lab instruct a floor tile to leap up and become a table and do stuff? It’s almost certainly via mental commands through the kimoyo beads, but that’s conjecture. The film really provides little evidence.

On the one hand, this is appropriate for us mere non-Wakandans observing the most technologically advanced society on earth. Much of it would feel like inexplicable magic to us.

On the other, sci-fi routinely introduces us to advanced technologies, and doesn’t always eschew the explanatory interactions, so the absence is notable here. It’s magic.

Black Lives Matter

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

In the last post we grieved Chadwick Boseman’s passing. This week we’re grieving the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. May her memory be a blessing. With her loss, the GOP is ratcheting up its outrageous hypocrisy by reversing a precedent that they themselves established when Obama was president. The “Moscow Mitch Rule” (oh, oops, sorry) “McConnell Rule” was that new Justices should not be appointed within a year of a general election, so the people’s voice can be taken into account. Of course, the bastards are just ignoring that now and trying to ram through one of their own before election day. This Justice will certainly be a conservative, and we know with this administration that means reactionary, loyal to tiny-hand Twittler, and racist as a Jim Crow law.

There are a few arrows in citizen’s quivers to stop this. One is to convince at least 4 Republican Senators to reject this outright hypocrisy, put country over party, and adhere to the McConnell rule.

Brilliant image by Jesse Duquette

To help put pressure where it might work, you can leave voicemails with Republican Senators who may be mulling whether to put country over party. Those 6 Senators’ names and numbers are below. Here’s a script for your message:

Hello, my name is ______. In 2016, Mitch McConnell created the principle of not confirming a Supreme Court Justice in an election year until after the next inauguration. For the legitimacy of the Court in the eyes of the people, I’m asking Senator ________ to uphold that principle by refusing to confirm a new Justice until after a new President is installed. Thank you.

—You, hopefully
  • Lisa Murkowski, Alaska; (202) 224-6665
  • Mitt Romney, Utah: (202) 224-5251
  • Susan Collins, Maine: (202) 224-2523
  • Martha McSally, Arizona: (202) 224-2235
  • Cory Gardner, Colorado: (202) 224-5941
  • Chuck Grassley, Iowa: (202) 224-3744

I’ve made my calls and left my messages. Can you do the same to stop the hypocritical Trumpian power grab that would tip the Supreme Court for generations?

UPDATE: Nevermind. Romney caved.

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.


Alien Astrometrics


When David is exploring the ancient alien navigation interfaces, he surveys a panel, and presses three buttons whose bulbous tops have the appearance of soft-boiled eggs. As he presses them in order, electronic clucks echo in in the cavern. After a beat, one of the eggs flickers, and glows from an internal light. He presses this one, and a seat glides out for a user to sit in. He does so, and a glowing pollen volumetric projection of several aliens appears. The one before David takes a seat in the chair, which repositions itself in the semicircular indentation of the large circular table.


The material selection of the egg buttons could not be a better example of affordance. The part that’s meant to be touched looks soft and pliable, smooth and cool to the touch. The part that’s not meant to be touched looks rough, like immovable stone. At a glance, it’s clear what is interactive and what isn’t. Among the egg buttons there are some variations in orientation, size, and even surface texture. It is the bumpy-surfaced one that draws David’s attention to touch first that ultimately activates the seat.

The VP alien picks up and blows a few notes on a simple flute, which brings that seat’s interface fully to life. The eggs glow green and emit green glowing plasma arcs between certain of them. David is able to place his hand in the path of one of the arcs and change its shape as the plasma steers around him, but it does not appear to affect the display. The arcs themselves appear to be a status display, but not a control.

After the alien manipulates these controls for a bit, a massive, cyan volumetric projection appears and fills the chamber. It depicts a fluid node network mapped to the outside of a sphere. Other node network clouds appear floating everywhere in the room along with objects that look like old Bohr models of atoms, but with galaxies at their center. Within the sphere three-dimensional astronomical charts appear. Additionally huge rings appear and surround the main sphere, rotating slowly. After a few inputs from the VP alien at the interface, the whole display reconfigures, putting one of the small orbiting Bohr models at the center, illuminating emerald green lines that point to it and a faint sphere of emerald green lines that surround it. The total effect of this display is beautiful and spectacular, even for David, who is an unfeeling replicant cyborg.


At the center of the display, David observes that the green-highlighted sphere is the planet Earth. He reaches out towards it, and it falls to his hand. When it is within reach, he plucks it from its orbit, at which point the green highlights disappear with an electronic glitch sound. He marvels at it for a bit, turning it in his hands, looking at Africa. Then after he opens his hands, the VP Earth gently returns to its rightful position in the display, where it is once again highlighted with emerald, volumetric graphics.


Finally, in a blinding flash, the display suddenly quits, leaving David back in the darkness of the abandoned room, with the exception of the small Earth display, which is floating over a small pyramid-shaped protrusion before flickering away.

After the Earth fades, david notices the stasis chambers around the outside of the room. He realizes that what he has just seen (and interacted with) is a memory from one of the aliens still present.



Hilarious and insightful Youtube poster CinemaSins asks in the video “Everything Wrong with Prometheus in 4 minutes or Less,” “How the f*ck is he holding the memory of a hologram?” Fair question, but not unanswerable. The critique only stands if you presume that the display must be passive and must play uninterrupted like a television show or movie. But it certainly doesn’t have to be that way.

Imagine if this is less like a YouTube video, and more like a playback through a game engine like a holodeck StarCraft. Of course it’s entirely possible to pause the action in the middle of playback and investigate parts of the display, before pressing play again and letting it resume its course. But that playback is a live system. It would be possible to run it afresh from the paused point with changed parameters as well. This sort of interrupt-and-play model would be a fantastic learning tool for sensemaking of 4D information. Want to pause playback of the signing of the Magna Carta and pick up the document to read it? That’s a “learning moment” and one that a system should take advantage of. I’d be surprised if—once such a display were possible—it wouldn’t be the norm.


The only thing I see that’s missing in the scene is a clear signal about the different state of the playback:

  1. As it happened
  2. Paused for investigation
  3. Playing with new parameters (if it was actually available)

David moves from 1 to 2, but the only change of state is the appearance and disappearance of the green highlight VP graphics around the Earth. This is a signal that could easily be missed, and wasn’t present at the start of the display. Better would be some global change, like a global shift in color to indicate the different state. A separate signal might compare As it Happened with the results of Playing with new parameters, but that’s a speculative requirement of a speculative technology. Best to put it down for now and return to what this interface is: One of the most rich, lovely, and promising examples of sensemaking interactions seen on screen. (See what I did there?)

For more about how VP might be more than a passive playback, see the lesson in Chapter 4 of Make It So, page 84, VP Systems Should Interpret, Not Just Report.