Agent Ross’ remote piloting

Remote operation appears twice during Black Panther. This post describes the second, in which CIA Agent Ross remote-pilots the Talon in order to chase down cargo airships carrying Killmonger’s war supplies. The prior post describes the first, in which Shuri remotely drives an automobile.

In this sequence, Shuri equips Ross with kimoyo beads and a bone-conducting communication chip, and tells him that he must shoot down the cargo ships down before they cross beyond the Wakandan border. As soon as she tosses a remote-control kimoyo bead onto the Talon, Griot announces to Ross in the lab “Remote piloting system activated” and creates a piloting seat out of vibranium dust for him. Savvy watchers may wonder at this, since Okoye pilots the thing by meditation and Ross would have no meditation-pilot training, but Shuri explains to him, “I made it American style for you. Get in!” He does, grabs the sparkly black controls, and gets to business.

The most remarkable thing to me about the interface is how seamlessly the Talon can be piloted by vastly different controls. Meditation brain control? Can do. Joystick-and-throttle? Just as can do.

Now, generally, I have a beef with the notion of hyperindividualized UI tailoring—it prevents vital communication across a community of practice (read more about my critique of this goal here)—but in this case, there is zero time for Ross to learn a new interface. So sure, give him a control system with which he feels comfortable to handle this emergency. It makes him feel more at ease.

The mutable nature of the controls tells us that there is a robust interface layer that is interpreting whatever inputs the pilot supplies and applying them to the actuators in the Talon. More on this below. Spoiler: it’s Griot.

Too sparse HUD

The HUD presents a simple circle-in-a-triangle reticle that lights up red when a target is in sights. Otherwise it’s notably empty of augmentation. There’s no tunnel in the sky display to describe the ideal path, or proximity warnings about skyscrapers, or airspeed indicator, or altimeter, or…anything. This seems a glaring omission since we can be certain other “American-style” airships have such things. More on why this might be below, but spoiler: It’s Griot.

What do these controls do, exactly?

I take no joy in gotchas. That said…

  • When Ross launches the Talon, he does so by pulling the right joystick backward.
  • When he shoots down the first cargo ship over Birnin Zana, he pushes the same joystick forward as he pulls the trigger, firing energy weapons.

Why would the same control do both? It’s hard to believe it’s modal. Extradiegetically, this is probably an artifact of actor Martin Freeman’s just doing what feels dramatic, but for a real-world equivalent I would advise against having physical controls have wholly different modes on the same grip, lest we risk confusing pilots on mission-critical tasks. But spoiler…oh, you know where this is going.

It’s Griot

Diegetically, Shuri is flat-out wrong that Ross is an experienced pilot. But she also knew that it didn’t matter, because her lab has him covered anyway. Griot is an AI with a brain interface, and can read Ross’ intentions, handling all the difficult execution itself.

This would also explain the lack of better HUD augmentation. That absence seems especially egregious considering that the first cargo ship was flying over a crowded city at the time it was being targeted. If Ross had fired in the wrong place, the cargo ship might have crashed into a building, or down to the bustling city street, killing people. But, instead, Griot quietly, precisely targets the ship for him, to insure that it would crash safely in nearby water.

This would also explain how wildly different interfaces can control the Talon with similar efficacy.

An stained-glass image of William of Ockham. A modern blackletter caption reads, “It was always Griot.”

So, Occams-apology says, yep, it’s Griot.

An AI-wizard did it?

In the post about Shuri’s remote driving, I suggested that Griot was also helping her execute driving behind the scenes. This hearkens back to both the Iron HUD and Doctor Strange’s Cloak of Levitation. It could be that the MCU isn’t really worrying about the details of its enabling technologies, or that this is a brilliant model for our future relationship with technology. Let us feel like heroes, and let the AI manage all the details. I worry that I’m building myself into a wizard-did-it pattern, inserting AI for wizard. Maybe that’s worth another post all its own.

But there is one other thing about Ross’ interface worth noting.

The sonic overload

When the last of the cargo ships is nearly at the border, Ross reports to Shuri that he can’t chase it, because Killmonger-loyal dragon flyers have “got me trapped with some kind of cables.” She instructs him to, “Make an X with your arms!” He does. A wing-like display appears around him, confirming its readiness.

Then she shouts, “Now break it!” he does, and the Talon goes boom shaking off the enemy ships, allowing Ross to continue his pursuit.

First, what a great gesture for this function. Very ordinarily, Wakandans are piloting the Talon, and each of them would be deeply familiar with this gesture, and even prone to think of it when executing a hail Mary move like this.

Second, when an outsider needed to perform the action, why didn’t she just tell Griot to just do it? If there’s an interpretation layer in the system, why not just speak directly to that controller? It might be so the human knows how to do it themselves next time, but this is the last cargo ship he’s been tasked with chasing, and there’s little chance of his officially joining the Wakandan air force. The emergency will be over after this instance. Maybe Wakandans have a principle that they are first supposed to engage the humans before bringing in the machines, but that’s heavy conjecture.

Third, I have a beef about gestures—there’s often zero affordances to tell users what gestures they can do, and what effects those gestures will have. If Shuri was not there to answer Ross’ urgent question, would the mission have just…failed? Seems like a bad design.

How else could have known he could do this? If Griot is on board, Griot could have mentioned it. But avoiding the wizard-did-it solutions, some sort of context-aware display could detect that the ship is tethered to something, and display the gesture on the HUD for him. This violates the principle of letting the humans be the heroes, but would be a critical inclusion in any similar real-world system.

Any time we are faced with “intuitive” controls that don’t map 1:1 to the thing being controlled, we’re faced with similar problems. (We’ve seen the same problems in Sleep Dealer and Lost in Space (1998). Maybe that’s worth its own write-up.) Some controls won’t map to anything. More problematic is that there will be functions which don’t have controls. Designers can’t rely on having a human cavalry like Shuri there to save the day, and should take steps to find ways that the system can inform users of how to activate those functions.

Fit to purpose?

I’ve had to presume a lot about this interface. But if those things are correct, then, sure, this mostly makes it possible for Ross, a novice to piloting, to contribute something to the team mission, while upholding the directive that AI Cannot Be Heroes.

If Griot is not secretly driving, and that directive not really a thing, then the HUD needs more work, I can’t diegetically explain the controls, and they need to develop just-in-time suggestions to patch the gap of the mismatched interface. 


Black Georgia Matters

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives. As this critical special election is still coming up, this is a repeat of the last one, modified to reflect passed deadlines.

The state flag of Georgia, whose motto clearly violates the doctrine of separation of church and state.
Always on my mind, or at least until July 06.

Despite outrageous, anti-democratic voter suppression by the GOP, for the first time in 28 years, Georgia went blue for the presidential election, verified with two hand recounts. Credit to Stacey Abrams and her team’s years of effort to get out the Georgian—and particularly the powerful black Georgian—vote.

But the story doesn’t end there. Though the Biden/Harris ticket won the election, if the Senate stays majority red, Moscow Mitch McConnell will continue the infuriating obstructionism with which he held back Obama’s efforts in office for eight years. The Republicans will, as they have done before, ensure that nothing gets done.

To start to undo the damage the fascist and racist Trump administration has done, and maybe make some actual progress in the US, we need the Senate majority blue. Georgia is providing that opportunity. Neither of the wretched Republican incumbents got 50% of the vote, resulting in a special runoff election January 5, 2021. If these two seats go to the Democratic challengers, Warnock and Ossof, it will flip the Senate blue, and the nation can begin to seriously right the sinking ship that is America.

Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

What can you do?

If you live in Georgia, vote blue, of course. You can check your registration status online. You can also help others vote. Important dates to remember, according to the Georgia website

  • 14 DEC Early voting begins
  • 05 JAN 2021 Final day of voting

Residents can also volunteer to become a canvasser for either of the campaigns, though it’s a tough thing to ask in the middle of the raging pandemic.

The rest of us (yes, even non-American readers) can contribute either to the campaigns directly using the links above, or to Stacey AbramsFair Fight campaign. From the campaign’s web site:

We promote fair elections in Georgia and around the country, encourage voter participation in elections, and educate voters about elections and their voting rights. Fair Fight brings awareness to the public on election reform, advocates for election reform at all levels, and engages in other voter education programs and communications.

We will continue moving the country into the anti-racist future regardless of the runoff, but we can make much, much more progress if we win this election. Please join the efforts as best you can even as you take care of yourself and your loved ones over the holidays. So very much depends on it.

Black Reparations Matter

This is timely, so I’m adding this on as well rather than waiting for the next post: A bill is in the house to set up a commission to examine the institution of slavery and its impact and make recommendations for reparations to Congress. If you are an American citizen, please consider sending a message to your congresspeople asking them to support the bill.

Image, uncredited, from the ACLU site. Please contact me if you know the artist.

On this ACLU site you will find a form and suggested wording to help you along.

Colossus Computer Center

As Colossus: The Forbin Project opens, we are treated to an establishing montage of 1970’s circuit boards (with resistors), whirring doodads, punched tape, ticking Nixie tube numerals, beeping lights, and jerking control data tapes. Then a human hand breaks into frame, and twiddles a few buttons as an oscilloscope draws lines creepily like an ECG cardiac cycle. This hand belongs to Charles Forbin, who walks alone in this massive underground compound, making sure final preparations are in order. The matte paintings make this space seem vast, inviting comparisons to the Krell technopolis from Forbidden Planet.

Forbidden Planet (1956)
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1976)

Forbin pulls out a remote control and presses something on its surface to illuminate rows and rows of lights. He walks across a drawbridge over a moat. Once on the far side, he uses the remote control to close the massive door, withdraw the bridge and seal the compound.

The remote control is about the size of a smartphone, with a long antenna extending out the top. Etched type across the top reads “COLOSSUS COMPUTER SYSTEMS.” A row of buttons is labeled A–E. Large red capital letters warn DANGER RADIATION above a safety cover. The cover has an arrow pointing right. Another row of five buttons is labeled SLIDING WALLS and numbered 1–5. A final row of three buttons is labeled RAMPS and numbered 1–3.

Forbin flips open the safety cover. He presses the red button underneath, and a blood-red light floods the bottom of the moat and turns blue-white hot, while a theremin-y whistle tells you this is no place a person should go. Forbin flips the cover back into place and walks out the sealed compound to the reporters and colleagues who await him. 

I can’t help but ask one non-tech narrative question: Why is Forbin turning lights on when he is about to abandon the compound? It might be that the illumination is a side-effect of the power systems, but it looks like he’s turning on the lights just before leaving and locking the house. Does he want to fool people into thinking there’s someone home? Maybe it should be going from fully-lit to an eerie, red low-light kinda vibe.

The Remote Control

The layout is really messy. Some rows are crowded and others have way too much space. (Honestly, it looks like the director demanded there be moar buttins make tecc! and forced the prop designer to add the A–E.) The crowding makes it tough to immediately know what labels go with what controls. Are A–E the radiation bits, and the safety cover control sliding walls? Bounding boxes or white space or some alternate layout would make the connections clear.

You might be tempted to put all of the controls in strict chronological order, but the gamma shielding is the most dangerous thing, and having it in the center helps prevent accidental activation, so it belongs there. And otherwise, it is in chronological order.

The labeling is inconsistent. Sure, maybe A–E the five computer systems that comprise Colossus. Sliding walls and ramps are well labeled, but there’s no indication about what it is that causes the dangerous radiation. It should say something like “Gamma shielding: DANGER RADIATION.” It’s tiny, but I also think the little arrow is a bad graphic for showing which way the safety cover flips open. Existing designs show that the industrial design can signal this same information with easier-to-understand affordances. And since this gamma radiation is an immediate threat to life and health, how about foregoing the red lettering in favor of symbols that are more immediately recognizable by non-English speakers and illiterate people. The IAEA hadn’t invented its new sign yet, but the visual concepts were certainly around at the time, so let’s build on that. Also, why doesn’t the door to the compound come with the same radiation warning? Or any warning?

The buttons are a crap choice of control as well. They don’t show what the status of the remotely controlled thing is. So if Charles accidentally presses a button, and, say, raises a sliding wall that’s out of sight, how would he know? Labeled rocker switches help signal the state and would be a better choice.

But really, why would these things be controlled remotely? It be more secure to have two-handed momentary buttons on the walls, which would mean that a person would be there to visually verify that the wall was slid or the ramp retracted or whatever it is national security needed them to be.

There’s also the narrative question about why this remote control doesn’t come up later in the film when Unity is getting out of control. Couldn’t they have used this to open the fortification and go unplug the thing?

So all told, not a great bit of design, for either interaction or narrative, with lots of improvement for both.

Locking yourselves out and throwing away the key

At first glance, it seems weird that there should be interfaces in a compound that is meant to be uninhabited for most of its use. But this is the first launch of a new system, and these interfaces may be there in anticipation of the possibility that they would have to return inside after a failure.  We can apologize these into believability.

But that doesn’t excuse the larger strategic question. Yes, we need defense systems to be secure. But that doesn’t mean sealing the processing and power systems for an untested AI away from all human access. The Control Problem is hard enough without humans actively limiting their own options. Which raises a narrative question: Why wasn’t there a segment of the film where the military is besieging this compound? Did Unity point a nuke at its own crunchy center? If not, siege! If so, well, maybe you can trick it into bombing itself. But I digress.

“And here is where we really screw our ability to recover from a mistake.”

Whether Unity should have had its plug pulled is the big philosophical question this movie does not want to ask, but I’ll save that for the big wrap up at the end.

Trivium remotes

Once a victim is wearing a Trivium Bracelet, any of Orlak’s henchmen can control the wearer’s actions. The victim’s expression is blank, suggesting that their consciousness is either comatose, twilit, or in some sort of locked in state. Their actions are controlled via a handheld remote control.

We see the remote control in use in four places in Las Luchadoras vs El Robot Asesino.

  1. One gets clapped on Dr. Chavez to test it.
  2. One goes on Gemma to demonstrate it.
  3. One is removed from the robot.
  4. One goes on Berthe to transform her to Black Electra.
Continue reading

Jasper’s Music Player

ChildrenofMen-player03

After Jasper tells a white lie to Theo, Miriam, and Kee to get them to escape the advancing gang of Fishes, he returns indoors. To set a mood, he picks up a remote control and presses a button on it while pointing it at a display.

ChildrenofMen-player02

He watches a small transparent square that rests atop some things in a nook. (It’s that decimeter-square, purplish thing on the left of the image, just under the lampshade.) The display initially shows an album queue, with thumbnails of the album covers and two bright words, unreadably small. In response to his button press, the thumbnail for Franco Battiato’s album FLEURs slides from the right to the left. A full song list for the album appears beneath the thumbnail. Then track two, the cover of Ruby Tuesday, begins to play. A small thumbnail to the right of the album cover appears, featuring some white text on a dark background and a cycling, animated border. Theo puts the remote control down, picks up the Quietus box, and walks over to Janice. *sniff*

This small bit of speculative consumer electronics gets around 17 seconds of screen time, but we see enough to consider the design. 

Persistent display

One very nice thing about it is that it is persistently visible. As Marshall McLuhan famously noted, we are simply not equipped with earlids. This means that when music is playing in a space, you can’t really just turn away from it to stop listening. You’ll still hear it. In UX parlance, sound is non-modal.

Yet with digital music players, the visual displays that tell you about what’s being played, or the related interfaces that help you know what you can do with the music are often hidden behind modes. Want to know what that song you can’t stop hearing is? Find your device, wake it up, enter a password, find the app, and even then you may have to root around to find the software to find what you’re looking for.

But a persistent object means that non-modal sound is accompanied by (mostly) non-modal visuals. This little box is always somewhere, glowing, and telling you what’s playing, what just played, and what’s next.

Remote control

Finding the remote is a different problem, of course, and if your household is like my household, it is a thing which seems to want to be lost. To keep that non-modality of sound matched by the controls, it would be better to have the device or the environment know when Jasper is looking at the display, and enable loose gestural or voice controls to control it.

Imagine the scene if he grabs the Quietus box, looks up to the display, and says, “Play…” then pause while he considers his options, and says “…‘Ruby Tuesday’…the Battiato one.” We would have known that his selection has deep personal meaning. If Cuarón wanted to convey that this moment has been planned for a while, Jasper could even have said, “Play her goodbye song.”

Visual layout

The visual design of the display is, like most of the technology, meant to be a peripheral thing, accepting attention but not asking for it. In this sense it works. The text is so small the audience is not tempted to read it. The thumbnails are so small it is only if you already knew the music that it would refresh your memory. But if this was a real product meant to live in the home, I would redesign the display to be usable at the 3–6 meter distance, which would require vastly reducing the number of elements, increasing their size, and perhaps overlaying text on image.

ChildrenofMen-player03

Video Phone Calls

The characters in Johnny Mnemonic make quite a few video phone calls throughout the film, enough to be grouped in their own section on interfaces.

The first thing a modern viewer will note is that only one of the phones resembles a current day handheld mobile. This looks very strange today and it’s hard to imagine why we would ever give up our beloved iPhones and Androids. I’ll just observe that accurately predicting the future is difficult (and not really the point) and move on.

More interesting is the variety of phones used. In films from the 1950s to the 1990s, everyone uses a desk phone with a handset. (For younger readers: that is the piece you picked up and held next to your ear and mouth. There’s probably one in your parents’ house.) The only changes were the gradual replacement of rotary dials by keypads, and some cordless handsets. In 21st century films everyone uses a small sleek handheld box. But in Johnny Mnemonic every phone call uses a different interface.

New Darwin

First is the phone call Johnny makes from the New Darwin hotel.

jm-3-phone-hotel-c-adjusted

As previously discussed, Johnny is lying in bed using a remote control to select numbers on the onscreen keypad. He is facing a large wall mounted TV/display screen, with what looks like a camera at the top. The camera is realistic but unusual: as Chapter 10 of Make It So notes, films very rarely show the cameras used in visual communication. Continue reading

Hotel Remote

The Internet 2021 shot that begins the film ends in a hotel suite, where it wakes up lead character Johnny. This is where we see the first real interface in the film. It’s also where this discussion gets more complicated.

A note on my review strategy

As a 3D graphics enthusiast, I’d be happy just to analyze the cyberspace scenes, but when you write for Sci Fi Interfaces, there is a strict rule that every interface in a film must be subjected to inspection. And there are a lot of interfaces in Johnny Mnemonic. (Curse your exhaustive standards, Chris!)

A purely chronological approach which would spend too much time looking at trees and not enough at the forest. So I’ll be jumping back and forth a bit, starting with the gadgets and interfaces that appear only once, then moving on to the recurring elements, variations on a style or idea that are repeated during the film.

Description

The wakeup call arrives in the hotel room as a voice announcement—a sensible if obvious choice for someone who is asleep—and also as text on a wall screen, giving the date, time, and temperature. The voice is artificial sounding but pleasant rather than grating, letting you know that it’s a computer and not some hotel employee who let himself in. The wall display functions as both a passive television and an interactive computer monitor. Johnny picks up a small remote control to silence the wake up call.

jm-2-check-email-a

This remote is a small black box like most current-day equivalents, but with a glowing red light at one end. At the time of writing blue lights and indicators are popular for consumer electronics, apparently following the preference set by science fiction films and noted in Make It So. Johnny Mnemonic is an outlier in using red lights, as we’ll see more of these as the film progresses. Here the glow might be some kind of infrared or laser beam that sends a signal, or it might simply indicate the right way to orient the control in the hand for the controls to make sense. Continue reading

Scenery display

BttF_096Jennifer is amazed to find a window-sized video display in the future McFly house. When Lorraine arrives at the home, she picks up a remote to change the display. We don’t see it up close, but it looks like she presses a single button to change the scene from a sculpted garden to one of a beach sunset, a city scape, and a windswept mountaintop. It’s a simple interface, though perhaps more work than necessary.

We don’t know how many scenes are available, but having to click one button to cycle through all of them could get very frustrating if there’s more than say, three. Adding a selection ring around the button would allow the display to go from a selected scene to a menu from which the next one might be selected from amongst options.

Is serial presentation a problem in The Circuit?

serial

In the prior post I described the wonky sex teleporter known as The Circuit and began a critique. Today I go deep into a particular issue to finish the critque.

We only see Logan encounter two riders when using The Circuit, but we can presume that there are a lot of people on there. Why does it only show Logan a single choice at a time? If he actually has, say, 12 candidates that are a match, a serial presentation like this puts a significant burden on his memory. Once he gets to #12 and thinks he’s seen enough candidates, was it #3 or #5 he liked best?

The serial presentation also looks like it might make extra work. If he gets to #12 and decides he was most fond of #2, does he have to jump back through 10 people to get there? What does he say to each of them in turn? Does he have to reject them each again? How awkward is that? If not, and he can jump back to #2, what’s the control for that? Does he have to remember what station they were on and retune them in again? Continue reading

The Circuit

LogansRun073

One of my favorite interfaces in Logan’s Run is one of the worst in the survey. It’s called The Circuit, and it’s a system for teleporting partners for casual sex right into your living room. ZOMGEVERYBODYSIGNUP.

Credit where it’s due: I first explored this interface in Issue 04 of Raymond Cha’s awesome print zine FAQNP in 2012. I’m going to go into even more nerdly depth on some of the topics here, but it was in that publication that I first got riled up about it. If you want to read those thoughts, you’ll need to go find a back issue and you totally should because the whole zine rocks.

Anyway, this interface is such a hot, hot mess that I have to break it up into a couple of posts. This first one is a description and the first part of a critique. Continue reading