Mad Max and the Rumble Seat

by Chris Palmieri

A few days ago, I asked a few friends to join me for a showing of Mad Max: Fury Road. And not just any showing, but the most obscenely extravagant one I could find — the MX4D-equipped Theater 8 at Toho Cinemas in Roppongi.

The MX4D? We rode it at Disneyworld. For a few minutes, it yanked us from our sunburned dads and slingshot us through the galaxy at warp speed. Every bump, rumble and jerk was perfectly timed to suck us deeper into the five minute space opera for all ages.

How could the MX4D — with its leg ticklers, seat poppers and water blasts — not make Mad Max — a two hour stationary roller coaster for the eyes — even more mad?

Because Mad Max does not know the MX4D. George Miller does not know the MX4D. And MX4D does not understand Mad Max, nor George Miller. It doesn’t understand the unique properties of cinema, and as a result, tears down the scaffolding of suspended reality it attempts to fortify.

Movies like Mad Max are made for the black box theater. With each cut and camera angle the screen stretches wider and wider, until we can’t see our hands or feet, and have forgotten our lives waiting out in the lobby. We enter Max’s world reincarnated as a weightless, invisible eye, teleporting every 2.5 seconds at the hand of our director. One moment we are inches from the orange earth, the next we are flung through the sky. One moment we are Max, then we are Furiosa, then the invisible eye watching from behind a cloud, then a fly on the hood ornament, then Max again. Our perspective changes over and over, but we never notice because we are tearing down Fury Road at 90 MPH with a caravan of death cult biker clowns hot on our tail.

Mad Max with the MX4D is Mad Max with a seat kicker. No, a texter. No, no, a wet willie. With each poke, rumble and squirt it jerks us out of the desert and back into the theater. The screen shrinks, and with it Max’s mad world.

As a runaway slave spits in the face of her captor, the theater of MX4Ds hiss at us with a fine, even mist. Nux aerosol-sprays his teeth with chrome paint, and the MX4D hisses the same hiss with the same mist. Max falls in a puddle. Same hiss, same mist.

As we watch a hot-rodder tank scale a rock pile, lunge over its apex and speed towards us, the MX4D tilts us forward and back as if we were in the passenger seat, the mirror opposite of the perspective we are shown. Like an adult watching a child do a magic trick, our minds close the gap between skill and intent.

For MX4D to sustain a coherent illusion, filmmakers must weld the camera in place at a single point of view, planted right in the seat itself. Only by choosing a single character for the viewer to inhabit for the duration of the movie can the filmmaker sync the rocking and rumbles with what our eyes, ears and vestibular system are telling us. This is how the MX4D works at Disney, and there for only a few minutes. No story with more than a few characters or plot twists can take off when our point of view is stuck in place.

With the release of the Apple Watch, we are entering a period of design in which haptic cues are likely to play an ever expanding role in the user interface. To understand what our devices are saying, we will need to extend our working vocabulary of vibrations, pokes and tickles, just as we learned a trash can icon is the way we destroy data, and Gran Vals means someone’s phone is ringing.

As with other forms of learning, there will be an easier and a harder path. To send us on the hard path, interaction designers can cut against the grain like the MX4D, interrupting the narrative flow of art and life a few hours at a time, to show us a few parlor tricks we will soon forget. To send us on the easy path, they can start from our existing vocabulary of touch feedback — the one we’ve picked up from our experience of the physical world from birth — and layer new meanings onto what our eyes and ears are already telling us, while respecting the known grammar.