So this is going to take a few posts. You see, the next interface that appears in The Avengers is a video conference between Tony Stark in his Iron Man supersuit and his partner in romance and business, Pepper Potts, about switching Stark Tower from the electrical grid to their independent power source. Here’s what a still from the scene looks like.
So on the surface of this scene, it’s a communications interface.
But that chat exists inside of an interface with a conceptual and interaction framework that has been laid down since the original Iron Man movie in 2008, and built upon with each sequel, one in 2010 and one in 2013. (With rumors aplenty for a fourth one…sometime.)
So to review the video chat, I first have to talk about the whole interface, and that has about 6 hours of prologue occurring across 4 years of cinema informing it. So let’s start, as I do with almost every interface, simply by describing it and its components. Continue reading →
In the last post we went over the Iron HUD components. There is a great deal to say about the interactions and interface, but let’s just take a moment to recount everything that the HUD does over the Iron Man movies and The Avengers. Keep in mind that just as there are many iterations of the suit, there can be many iterations of the HUD, but since it’s largely display software controlled by JARVIS, the functions can very easily move between exosuits.
Along the bottom of the HUD are some small gauges, which, though they change iconography across the properties, are consistently present.
For the most part they persist as tiny icons and thereby hard to read, but when the suit reboots in a high-altitude freefall, we get to see giant versions of them, and can read that they are:
When we first see the HUD, Tony is donning the Iron Man mask. Tony asks, JARVIS, “You there?” To which JARVIS replies, “At your service sir.” Tony tells him to Engage the heads-up display, and we see the HUD initialize. It is a dizzying mixture of blue wireframe motion graphics. Some imply system functions, such as the reticle that pinpoints Tonys eye. Most are small dashboard-like gauges that remain small and in Tonys peripheral vision while the information is not needed, and become larger and more central when needed. These features are catalogued in another post, but we learn about them through two points-of-view: a first-person view, which shows us what Tony’s sees as if we were there, donning the mask in his stead, and second-person view, which shows us Tony’s face overlaid against a dark background with floating graphics.
This post is about that first-person view. Specifically it’s about the visual design and the four awarenesses it displays.
In the Augmented Reality chapter of Make It So, I identified four types of awareness seen in the survey for Augmented Reality displays:
The Iron Man HUD illustrates all four and is a useful framework for describing and critiquing the 1st-person view. Continue reading →
In the prior post we looked at the HUD display from Tony’s point of view. In this post we dive deeper into the 2nd-person view, which turns out to be not what it seems.
The HUD itself displays a number of core capabilities across the Iron Man movies prior to its appearance in The Avengers. Cataloguing these capabilities lets us understand (or backworld) how he interacts with the HUD, equipping us to look for its common patterns and possible conflicts. In the first-person view, we saw it looked almost entirely like a rich agentive display, but with little interaction. But then there’s this gorgeous 2nd-person view.
When in the first film Tony first puts the faceplate on and says to JARVIS, “Engage heads-up display”… …we see things from a narrative-conceit, 2nd-person perspective, as if the helmet were huge and we are inside the cavernous space with him, seeing only Tony’s face and the augmented reality interface elements. You might be thinking, “Of course it’s a narrative conceit. It’s not real. It’s in a movie.” But what I mean by that is that even in the diegesis, the Marvel Cinematic World, this is not something that could be seen. Let’s move through the reasons why. Continue reading →
As part of the ongoing review of the Iron Man HUD, I noticed a small feature in the Iron Man 3 UI 2nd-person UI that—in order to critique—I have to discuss some new concepts and introduce some new terms. The feature itself is genuinely small and almost not worth posting about, but the terms are interesting, so bear with me.
Most of the time JARVIS animates the HUD, the UI elements sit on an invisible sphere that surrounds his head. (And in the case of stacked elements, on concentric invisible spheres.) The window of Pepper in the following screenshot illustrates this pretty clearly. It is a rectangular video feed, but appears slightly bowed to us, being on this sphere near the periphery of this 2nd-person view.
…And Pepper Potts is up next with her op-ed about the Civil Mommy Wars. Stay tuned.
Having elements slide around on the surface of this perceptual sphere is usable for Tony, since it means the elements are always facing him and thereby optimally viewable. “PEPPER POTTS,” for example, is as readable as if it was printed on a book perpendicular to his line of sight. (This notion is a bit confounded by the problems of parallax I wrote about in an earlier post, but since that seems unresolvable until Wim Wouters implements this exact HUD on Oculus Rift, let’s bypass it to focus on the new thing.)
So if it’s visually optimal to have 2D UI elements plastered to the surface of this perceptual sphere, how do we describe that suboptimal state where these same elements are not perpendicular to the line of sight, but angled away? I’m partly asking for a friend named Tony Stark because that’s some of what we see in Iron Man 3, both in 1st- and 2nd-person views. These examples aren’t egregious.
The Iron Patriot debut album cover graphic is only slightly angled and so easy to read. Similarly, the altimeter thingy on the left is still wholly readable.
In the last post we discussed some necessary, new terms to have in place for the ongoing deep dive examination of the Iron Man HUD, there’s one last bit of meandering philosophy and fan theory I’d like to propose, that touches on our future relationship with technology.
The Iron Man is not Tony Stark. The Iron Man is JARVIS. Let me explain.
Tony can’t fire weapons like that
The first piece of evidence is that most of the weapons he uses are unlikely to be fired by him. Take the repulsor rays in his palms. I challenge readers to strap a laser perpendicular to each of their their palms and reliably target moving objects that are actively trying to avoid getting hit, while, say, roller skating an obstacle course. Because that’s what he’s doing as he flies around incapacitating Hydra agents and knocking around Ultrons. The weapons are not designed for Tony to operate them manually with any accuracy. But that’s not true for the artificial intelligence.
So, talking about how JARVIS is lying to Tony, and really all of this was to get us back here. If you accept that JARVIS is doing almost all the work, and Tony is an onboard manager, then it excuses almost all of the excesses of the interface.
Distracting 3D, transparent, motion graphics of the tower? Not a problem. Tony is a manager, and wants to know that the project is continuing apace.
Random-width rule line around the video? Meh, it’s more distracting visual interest.
“AUDIO ANAL YSIS” (kerning, people!) waveform that visually marks whether there is audio he could hear anyway? Hey, it looks futuristic.
The fact that the video stays bright and persistent in his vision when he’s a) not looking it and b) piloting a weaponized environmental suit through New York City? Not an issue because JARVIS is handling the flying.
That is has no apparent controls for literally anything (pause/play, end call, volume, brightness)? Not a problem, JARVIS will get it right most of the time, and will correct anything at a word from Tony.
That the suit could have flown itself to the pipe, handled the welding, and pipe-cuffing itself, freeing Tony to continue Tony Starking back in his office? It’s because he’s a megalomaniac and can’t not.
If JARVIS were not handling everything, and this a placebo interface, well, I can think of at least 6 problems.
A major concern of the design of spacesuits is basic usability and ergonomics. Given the heavy material needed in the suit for protection and the fact that the user is wearing a helmet, where does a designer put an interface so that it is usable?
Chest panels are those that require that the wearer only look down to manipulate. These are in easy range of motion for the wearer’s hands. The main problem with this location is that there is a hard trade off between visibility and bulkiness.
Arm panels are those that are—brace yourself—mounted to the forearm. This placement is within easy reach, but does mean that the arm on which the panel sits cannot be otherwise engaged, and it seems like it would be prone to accidental activation. This is a greater technological challenge than a chest panel to keep components small and thin enough to be unobtrusive. It also provides some interface challenges to squeeze information and controls into a very small, horizontal format. The survey shows only three arm panels.
The first is the numerical panel seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey (thanks for the catch, Josh!). It provides discrete and easy input, but no feedback. There are inter-button ridges to kind of prevent accidental activation, but they’re quite subtle and I’m not sure how effective they’d be.
The second is an oversimplified control panel seen in Star Trek: First Contact, where the output is simply the unlabeled lights underneath the buttons indicating system status.
The third is the mission computers seen on the forearms of the astronauts in Mission to Mars. These full color and nonrectangular displays feature rich, graphic mission information in real time, with textual information on the left and graphic information on the right. Input happens via hard buttons located around the periphery.
Side note: One nifty analog interface is the forearm mirror. This isn’t an invention of sci-fi, as it is actually on real world EVAs. It costs a lot of propellant or energy to turn a body around in space, but spacewalkers occasionally need to see what’s behind them and the interface on the chest. So spacesuits have mirrors on the forearm to enable a quick view with just arm movement. This was showcased twice in the movie Mission to Mars.
The easiest place to see something is directly in front of your eyes, i.e. in a heads-up display, or HUD. HUDs are seen frequently in sci-fi, and increasingly in sc-fi spacesuits as well. One is Sunshine. This HUD provides a real-time view of each other individual to whom the wearer is talking while out on an EVA, and a real-time visualization of dangerous solar winds.
These particular spacesuits are optimized for protection very close to the sun, and the visor is limited to a transparent band set near eye level. These spacewalkers couldn’t look down to see the top of a any interfaces on the suit itself, so the HUD makes a great deal of sense here.
Star Trek: Discovery’s pilot episode included a sequence that found Michael Burnham flying 2000 meters away from the U.S.S. Discovery to investigate a mysterious Macguffin. The HUD helped her with wayfinding, navigating, tracking time before lethal radiation exposure (a biological concern, see the prior post), and even doing a scan of things in her surroundings, most notably a Klingon warrior who appears wearing unfamiliar armor. Reference information sits on the periphery of Michael’s vision, but the augmentations occur mapped to her view. (Noting this raises the same issues of binocular parallax seen in the Iron HUD.)
Iron Man’s Mark L armor was able to fly in space, and the Iron HUD came right along with it. Though not designed/built for space, it’s a general AI HUD assisting its spacewalker, so worth including in the sample.
Aside from HUDs, what we see in the survey is similar to what exists in existing real-world extravehicular mobility units (EMUs), i.e. chest panels and arm panels.
Inputs illustrate paradigms
Physical controls range from the provincial switches and dials on the cigarette-girl foldout control panels of Destination Moon to the simple and restrained numerical button panel of 2001, to strangely unlabeled buttons of Star Trek: First Contact’s arm panels (above), and the ham-handed touch screens of Mission to Mars.
As the pictures above reveal, the input panels reflect the familiar technology of the time of the creation of the movie or television show. The 1950s were still rooted in mechanistic paradigms, the late 1960s interfaces were electronic pushbutton, the 2000s had touch screens and miniaturized displays.
Real world interfaces
For comparison and reference, the controls for NASA’s EMU has a control panel on the front, called the Display and Control Module, where most of the controls for the EMU sit.
The image shows that inputs are very different than what we see as inputs in film and television. The controls are large for easy manipulation even with thick gloves, distinct in type and location for confident identification, analog to allow for a minimum of failure points and in-field debugging and maintenance, and well-protected from accidental actuation with guards and deep recesses. The digital display faces up for the convenience of the spacewalker. The interface text is printed backwards so it can be read with the wrist mirror.
The outputs are fairly minimal. They consist of the pressure suit gauge, audio warnings, and the 12-character alphanumeric LCD panel at the top of the DCM. No HUD.
The gauge is mechanical and standard for its type. The audio warnings are a simple warbling tone when something’s awry. The LCD panel provides information about 16 different values that the spacewalker might need, including estimated time of oxygen remaining, actual volume of oxygen remaining, pressure (redundant to the gauge), battery voltage or amperage, and water temperature. To cycle up and down the list, she presses the Mode Selector Switch forward and backward. She can adjust the contrast using the Display Intensity Control potentiometer on the front of the DCM.
The DCMs referenced in the post are from older NASA documents. In more recent images on NASA’s social media, it looks like there have been significant redesigns to the DCM, but so far I haven’t seen details about the new suit’s controls. (Or about how that tiny thing can house all the displays and controls it needs to.)