Avengers, assembly!


When Coulson hands Tony a case file, it turns out to be an exciting kind of file. For carrying, it’s a large black slab. After Tony grabs it, he grabs the long edges and pulls in opposite directions. One part is a thin translucent screen that fits into an angled slot in the other part, in a laptop-like configuration, right down to a built-in keyboard.

The grip edge

The grip edge of the screen is thicker than the display, so it has a clear, physical affordance as to what part is meant to be gripped and how to pull it free from its casing, and simultaneously what end goes into the base. It’s simple and obvious. The ribbing on the grip unfortunately runs parallel to the direction of pull. It would make for a better grip and a better affordance if the grip was perpendicular to the direction of pull. Minor quibble.

I’d be worried about the ergonomics of an unadjustable display. I’d be worried about the display being easily unseated or dislodged. I’d also be worried about the strength of the join. Since there’s no give, enough force on the display might snap it clean off. But then again this is a world where “vibrium steel” exists, so material critiques may not be diegetically meaningful.


Once he pulls the display from the base, the screen boops and animated amber arcs spin around the screen, signalling him to login via a rectangular panel on the right hand side of the screen. Tony puts his four fingers in the spot and drags down. A small white graphic confirms his biometrics. As a result, a WIMP display appears in grays and amber colors.


Briefing materials

One window on the left hand side shows a keypad, and he enters 1-8-5-4. The keypad disappears and a series of thumbnail images—portraits of members of the Avengers initiative—appear in its place. Pepper asks Tony, “What is all this?” Tony replies, saying, “This is, uh…” and in a quick gesture, places his ten fingertips on the screen at the portraits, and then throws his hands outward, off the display.

The portraits slide offscreen to become ceiling-height volumetric windows filled with rich media dossiers on Thor, Steve Rogers, and David Banner. There are videos, portraits, schematics, tables of data, cellular graphics, and maps. There’s a smaller display near the desktop where the “file” rests about the tesseract. (More on this bit in the next post.)


Insert standard complaint here about the eye strain that a translucent display causes, and the apology that yes, I understand it’s an effective and seemingly high-tech way to show actors and screens simultaneously. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.

The two-part login shows an understanding of multifactor authentication—a first in the survey, so props for that. Tony must provide something he “is”, i.e. his fingerprints, and something he knows, i.e. the passcode. Only then does the top secret information become available.

I have another standard grouse about the screen providing no affordances that content has an alternate view available, and that a secret gesture summons that view. I’d also ordinarily critique the displays for having nearly no visual hierarchy, i.e. no way for your eyes to begin making sense of it, and a lot of pointless-motion noise that pulls your attention in every which way.

But, this beat is about the wonder of the technology, the breadth of information SHIELD in its arsenal, and the surprise of familiar tech becoming epic, so I’m giving it a narrative pass.

Also, OK, Tony’s a universe-class hacker, so maybe he’s just knowledgeable/cocky enough to not need the affordances and turned them off. All that said, in my due diligence: Affordances still matter, people.

Correcting attribution for the medpod

Gorgeous + Catastrophic presentation card

Earlier this year I made two presentations called Gorgeous+Catastrophic, in which I show six sci-fi interfaces that are both beautiful to behold and that would be disastrous if implemented in the real world, all to illustrate why we should keep interfaces in sci-fi at arm’s length and evaluate them with a critical eye. It’s a fun talk to give. You should totally ask me to come present it at your local conference.

But in one of the talks, when I introduced the first of the six examples—the medpod interface from Prometheus, starting around 06:35 in the video—I misattributed the whole design to Territory Studio. This was oversimplifying the team on a couple of levels, so let me make the formal correction and apology here.

Territory Studio did work on Prometheus, and even did work on the medpod: They did the VFX interfaces shown around 07:50, and were joined by teams from Fuel VFX and Compuhire. They did not do the on-set touchscreen that sits on the side of the medpod that Noomi Rapace/Elizabeth Shaw touches directly starting around 07:28. That was designed by Shaun Yue, working as an individual contractor. An additional complication is that George Simons, who was graphics supervisor on the film, is now with Territory, but was not then. And then, there’s the credits, which only list names, not companies, and not full teams.

Mea culpa. I should have known better, since I even have an interview with Shaun Yue on this blog about that movie. It’s a small competitive field, and proper credit is hard to get. It’s functionally advertising, so this mistake isn’t minor. My apologies to Shaun, George Simons, Rheea Aranha, John Hill, Paul Roberts, Daniel Burke, Mark Jordan, Eliot Eveson, and Adam Stevenson. If I give the same talk again I won’t make the same mistake.

The trickiness of attribution

It doesn’t excuse the mistake (and I’m glad I have this forum to right the wrong) but I will note how very difficult it is to get attribution of scifiinterfaces correctly.

Who is the designer?

A sci-fi interface is a pie with a lot of fingers in it. If it’s central to the plot, then the writer will have described what it does in the script. The director will have had (in this case) his opinions as well, well before shooting, and actors may have input after reading the script and during shooting. If it’s not central to the plot, it may have been handed to someone elsewhere in the hierarchy. Then there’s art directors, production designers, and editors all directly touching the end result of what we see on screen.

With interfaces becoming more and more part of sci-fi movie making, the teams are getting larger and more specialized. There may be one team whose responsibility are on-set interfaces that the actors see and touch. Another team might be handling the post-production interfaces that are built after principal shooting. One individual might do the graphics as static elements and another do the motion design. Final assets produced by designers may be cut up and remixed by editors (without consulting the original designers) to meet the narrative needs of the flow of the story, so what winds up on screen may not be what was originally designed.

Given all of these people, where is the line of who is and isn’t the designer? Or even the design team? Is it everyone? Is it just “the designer?” Who is that in this complicated case? Who gets the credit?

Highlighted for focus

Highlighted for focus

An informally defined role

Another part of the difficulty of attribution is that interface design is not as formalized a role as many of the other roles in movie production. If a person is listed as the Director of Photography, that has a specific meaning and set of responsibilities. But there isn’t a formal title that every production agrees to, like Director of Interfaces (even though, hey, Hollywood, maybe it’s time). Sometimes, as was the case with Prometheus, it’s a mixture of individuals and studios hired separately. Sometimes the designers are in-house employees of the studio. It’s hard to even review the credits for some movies and clearly say these people were the ones involved in the interface. That person’s name may represent the individual whose name stands in for a studio. Even Prometheus listed the individuals by name, even though I’ve confirmed through some direct conversations who were hired as individual contractors rather than individuals.

It is so very complicated.

So again, this is not an excuse, but an explication about why trying to get the attribution right is a fraught enterprise, and I did not due my due diligence when speaking about interfaces. It would be easiest to simply bypass attribution altogether, but I want to recognize people for the difficult and beautiful work they do.

This whole thing is especially on my mind as we head into the end of the year and I’m working with folks to create an award for the best sci-fi interface of the year. This will be important to get right, and clearly I’ve got to get better at doing it.

Movie night: Ghostbusters


Thursday, 29 OCT 02015, 9 P.M. at The New Parkway

Come to Oakland to celebrate Halloween week spooktech with Chris Noessel, Design Fellow at Cooper and keeper of scifiinterfaces.com, with a big-screen viewing of the sci-fi/comedy/spooky greats Ghostbusters.

Reserve your ticket before they’re sold out at Brown Paper Tickets


The pre-show includes

  • A trivia contest you take on your phone
  • A bookstacking contest
  • A short presentation deconstructing Ghostbusters for its…uhh…questionable service design

You can win stuff!



8:15 – 9:00: Dinner from The New Parkway concession stand: menu, queueing for seats.

9:00 – 9:10: Seating (going to try to get this done quickly)

9:10 – 9:40: Pre-show

9:40 – 11:30Ghostbusters


The New Parkway: 474 24th St, Oakland, CA 94612. You can find directions on getting there using Google or on the cinema website.

People getting back to San Francisco via BART need not worry. According to BART schedule, there are three trains to catch after the film:

  • 11:39 You can make it if you dash
  • 11:59 Makes for a leisurely stroll back
  • 12:19 Would even let you grab a drink nearby first



Report Card: Back to the Future Part II

Read all the Back to the Future Part II reviews in chronological order.

At least according by the hubbub today, c.f. #BacktotheFuture, this movie struck a deep chord in audiences with its tongue-in-cheek futurism and occasional forays into brilliance. And while much of social media has been poring over the film to see what it got right (the pointless interpretation of futurism, imho) let’s instead return to our little corner of nerdery and see how its interfaces fared.


Continue reading



Marty Sr. answers a call from a shady business colleague shortly after coming home. He takes the call in the den on the large video screen there. As he approaches the screen, he sees a crop of a Renoir painting, “Dance at La Moulin de la Galette,” with a blinking legend “INCOMING CALL” along the bottom. When he answers it, the Renoir shrinks to a corner of the screen, revealing the live video feed with his correspondent. During the conversation, the Renoir disappears, and text appears near the bottom of the screen providing reminders about the speaker. This appears automatically, with no prompting from Marty Sr.

Needles, Douglas J.
Occupation: Sys Operations
Age: 47
Birthday: August 6, 1968
Address: 88 Oriole Rd, A6t
Wife: Lauren Anne
Children: Roberta, 23 Amy, 20
Food Prefence: Steak, Mex
Food Dislike: Fish, Tuna
Drinks: Scotch, Beer
Hobbies: Avid Basketball Fan
Sports: Jogging, Slamball, Tennis
Politics: None

This is an augmented reality teleconference, as mentioned in Chapter 8 of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction. See more information in that chapter. In short, it’s a particularly good example of one type of augmentation that is very useful for people having to interact with networks of people much larger than Dunbar’s number equips us for. Unfortunately, the information appears in a distracting scroll across the bottom, and is not particularly pertinent to the conversation, so could benefit from a bit of context awareness or static high-resolution display to be really useful. Continue reading

VR Goggles


At the dinner table, both Marty Jr. and Marlene have VR goggles. Marty wears his continuously, but Marlene is more polite and rests hers around her neck when with the family. When she receives a call, red LEDs flash the word “PHONE” on the outside of the goggles as they ring. This would be a useful signal if the volume were turned down or the volume was baffled by ambient sounds.


Marty Jr’’s goggles are on, and he announces to Marty Sr. that the phone is for him and that it’s Needles.

This implies a complete wireless caller ID system (which had only just been released to market in the United States the year before the movie was released) and a single number for the household that is distributed amongst multiple communications devices simultaneously, which was not available at the time (or hey, even now), so it’s quite forward looking. Additionally, it lets the whole social circle help manage communication requests, even if it sacrifices a bit of privacy.

Garden Center

In the center of the kitchen, mounted to the ceiling, is a “Garden Center.” Out of use, it retracts out of reach, but anyone in the family can say “Fruit, please” and the Garden Center drops down to allow fresh grapes to be plucked right off the vine. When done, Marty Jr. tells it to “retract” with a thump on it, and it retracts back up to its resting place near the ceiling.


This is wonderful. Responds to many types of inputs and keeps healthy, fresh fruit available to the family at any time.

Black & Decker Hydrator


Lorraine prepares the family a pizza using a hydrator. She opens a sealed foil package, branded “Pizza Hut,” and removes a tiny puck of a pizza, placing it in the center of a large pizza tray. She inserts the tray into a “hydrator” oven and closes the hinged front door. A small green light illuminates on its panel. She puts her mouth close to the device and instructs it to, “Hydrate level 4, please.” A red light illuminates as a bubbling sound is heard for a few seconds. Then a timer bell rings, and both lights extinguish. Lorraine removes a full-sized and fully-cooked pizza from the oven.

It could be improved by not having her have to remember and enter the level of hydration. There might be an argument that this helps the hydrator feel like they’re doing enough effort, like the legendary Betty Crocker egg story. While snopes tells us that the usual version of this is poppycock, but also references Ernest Dichter’s research in which yes, the first generation of homemakers using instant cake mixes felt that a preparation that was too easy was too indulgent. So, perhaps the hydrator is first generation, and later generations will be able to detect the hydration needed from the packaging.  


Hover technology is a thing in 2015(1985) and it appears many places.



When Marty has troubles with Griff Tannan he borrows a young girl’’s hover scooter and breaks off its handlebar. He’s able to put his skateboarding skills to use on the resulting hover board.

Griff and his gang chases Marty on their own hover boards. Griff’s has a top of the line hover board labeled a “Pit Bull.” Though Marty clearly has to manually supply forward momentum to his, Griff’s has miniature swivel-mount jet engines that (seem to) respond to the way he shifts his weight on the board.



George requires traction for a back problem, but this doesn’’t ground him. A hover device clamps his ankles in place and responds to foot motions to move him around.

Hover tech is ideal for leaning control, like what controls a Segway. That’s just what seems to be working in the hoverboard and hovertraction devices. Lean in the direction you wish to travel, just like walking. No modality, just new skills to learn.