Brain VP

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When trying to understand the Puppet Master, Kusanagi’s team consults with their staff Cyberneticist, who displays for them in his office a volumetric projection of the cyborg’s brain. The brain floats free of any surrounding tissue, underlit in a screen-green translucent monochrome. The edge of the projection is a sphere that extends a few centimeters out from the edge of the brain. A pattern of concentric lines routinely passes along the surface of this sphere. Otherwise, the "content" of the VP, that is, the brain itself, does not appear to move or change.

The Cyberneticist explains, while the team looks at the VP, "It isn’t unlike the virtual ghost-line you get when a real ghost is dubbed off. But it shows none of the data degradation dubbing would produce. Well, until we map the barrier perimeter and dive in there, we won’t know anyting for sure."

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The VP does not appear to be interactive, it’s just an output. In fact, it’s just an output of the surface features of a brain. There’s no other information called out, no measurements, or augmenting data. Just a brain. Which raises the question of what purpose does this projection serve? Narratively, of course, it tells us that the Cyberneticist is getting deep into neurobiology of the cyborg. But he doesn’t need that information. Kunasagi’s team doesn’t even need that information. Is this some sort of screen saver?

And what’s up with the little ripples? It’s possible that these little waves are more than just an artifact of the speculative technology’s refresh. Perhaps they’re helping to convey that a process is currently underway, perhaps "mapping the barrier perimeter." But if that was the case, the Cyberneticist would want to see some sense of progress against a goal. At the very least there should be some basic sense of progress: How much time is estimated before the mapping is complete, and how much time has elapsed?

Of course any trained brain specialist would gain more information from looking at the surface features of a brain than us laypersons could understand. But if he’s really using this to do such an examination, the translucency and peaked, saturated color makes that task prohibitively harder than just looking at the real thing an office away or a photograph, not to mention the routine rippling occlusion of the material being studied.

Unless there’s something I’m not seeing, this VP seems as useless as an electric paperweight.

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Human VPs

In the volumetric projection chapter of Make It So, we note that sci-fi makers take pains to distinguish the virtual from the real most often with a set of visual treatments derived from the “Pepper’s Ghost” parlor trick, augmented with additional technology cues: translucency, a blue tint, glowing whites, supersaturated colors for wireframed objects, clear pixels and/or flicker, with optional projection rays.

Prometheus has four types of VPs that adhere to this style in varying degrees. Individual displays (with their interactions) are discussed in other posts. This collection of posts compares their styles. This particular post describes the human VPs.

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Blue-box displays

One type of human-technology VPs are the blue-box displays:

  • David’s language program
  • Halloway and Shaw’s mission briefing
  • The display in Shaw’s quarters

These adhere more closely to the Pepper’s Ghost style, being contained in a translucent blue cuboid with saturated surface graphics and a grid pattern on the sides.

Weyland-Yutani VP

The other type of human displays are the Weyland-Yutani VPs. These have translucency and supersaturated wireframes, but they do not have any of the other conventional Pepper’s Ghost cues. Instead they add two new visual cues to signal to the audience their virtualness: scaffolded transitions and edge embers.

When a Weyland-Yutani VP is turned on, it does not simply blink into view. It builds. First, shapes are described in space as a tessellated surface, made of yellow-green lines describing large triangles that roughly describe the forthcoming object or its extents. These triangles have a faint smoky-yellow pattern on their surface. Some of the lines have yellow clouds and bright red segments along their lengths. Additionally, a few new triangles extend to a point space where another piece of the projection is about to appear. Then the triangles disappear, replaced with a fully refined image of the 3D object. The refined image may flicker once or twice before settling into persistence. The whole scaffolding effect is staggered across time, providing an additional sense of flicker to the transition.

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Motion in resolved parts of the VP begins immediately, even as other aspects of the VP are still transitioning on.

When a VP is turned off, this scaffolding happens in reverse, as elements decay into tessellated yellow wireframes before flickering out of existence.

Edge embers

A line of glowing, flickering, sliding, yellow-green points illustrates the extents of the VP area, where a continuous surface like flooring is clipped at the limits of the display. These continue across the duration of the playback.

A growing confidence in audiences

This slightly different strategy to distinguishing VPs from the real world indicates the filmmaker’s confidence that audiences are growing familiar enough with this trope that fewer cues are needed during the display. In this case the translucency and subtle edge embers are the only persistent cues, pushing the major signals of the scaffolding and surface flicker to the transitions.

If this trend continues and sci-fi makers become overconfident, it may confuse some audiences, but at the same time give the designers of the first real-world VPs more freedom with their appearance. They wouldn’t have to look like Star Wars’.

Something new: Projected Reflectance

One interesting detail is that when we see Vickers standing in the projection of Weyland’s office, she casts a slight reflection in the volumetric surface. It implies a technology capable of projecting not just luminance, but reflectivity as well. The ability to project volumetric mirrors hasn’t appeared before in the survey.

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Lesson: Transition by importance

Another interesting detail is that when the introduction to the Mission briefing ends, the environment flickers out first, then the 2D background, then Weyland’s dog, then finally Weyland.

This order isn’t by position, brightness, motion, or even surface area (the dog confounds that.) It is by narrative importance: Foreground, background, tertiary character, primary character. The fact that the surrounding elements fade first keep your eyes glued onto the last motion (kind of like watching the last bit of sun at a sunset), which in this order is the most important thing in the feed, i.e. the human in view. If a staggered-element fade-out becomes a norm in the real world for video conferencing (or eventually VP conferencing), this cinematic order is worth remembering.