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.