Johnny, with newly upgraded memory, goes straight to the hotel room where he meets the client’s scientists. Before the data upload, he quickly installs a motion detector on the hotel suite door. This is a black box that he carries clipped to his belt. He uses his thumb to activate it as he takes hold and two glowing red status lights appear.
Once placed on the door, there is just one glowing light. We don’t see exactly how Johnny controls the device, but for something this simple just one touch button would be sufficient.
A little later, after the brain upload (discussed in the next post), the motion detector goes off when four heavily armed Yakuza arrive outside the door. The single light starts blinking, and there’s a high pitched beep similar to a smoke alarm, but quieter.Continue reading →
The doctor’s office is a stark, concrete room with a single desk framed under large windows and a tall vaulted ceiling. Two chairs sit on a carpet in front of the desk for patients. A couple pieces of art and personal photos line the room, but they are overwhelmed by the industrial-ness of the rest of the space.
When the doctor enters, he carries a large folder with the patient’s health information and background on paper. He then talks with the patient directly, without help from notes or his patient’s folder.
There is no visible computer in the room.
While not a traditional interface, this office is interesting because it lacks any traditional interactive features of a futuristic doctor’s office; things like holograms, giant computer screen walls, and robots are completely absent. Continue reading →
The Battlestar Galactica is a twisting and interlocking series of large hallways that provide walking access to all parts of the ship. The hallways are poorly labeled, and are almost impossible for someone without experience to navigate. Seriously, look at these images and see if you can tell where you are, or where you’re supposed to head to find…well, anything.
Billy (a young political assistant steeped in modern technology) finds this out after losing the rest of his tour group.
The hallways lack even the most basic signage that we expect in our commercial towers and office buildings. We see no indication of what deck a given corridor is on, what bulkhead a certain intersection is located at, or any obvious markings on doorways.
We do see small, cryptic alphanumerics near door handles:
Based off of current day examples, the alphanumeric would mark the bulkhead the door was at, the level it was on, and which section it was in. This would let anyone who knew the system figure out where they were on the ship.Continue reading →
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.
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.
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 →
At every major intersection, and at the entrance to each room, the Battlestar Galactica has very large pressure doors. These doors each have a handle and a large wheel on each side. During regular operation crewmembers open the door with the handle and close it firmly, but do not spin the wheel. Occasionally, we see crew using the wheel as a leverage point to close the door.
Sealing it off
We never directly see a crewmember spin the wheel on the door after it closes. While Chief Tyrol is acting as head of damage control, he orders all bulkheads in a section of the ship sealed off. This order is beyond the typical door closing that we witness day-to-day.
This implies that the door has three modes: Open, Closed, and Sealed.
Crewmembers could use the door most of their day in an open or closed mode, where an easy pull of the handle unlatches the door and allows them to enter or leave quickly. In an emergency, a closed door could be sealed by spinning the valve wheel on one side of the door.
As with other parts of the Galactica, the doors are completely manual, and cannot be activated remotely. (Because Cylon hacking made them go network-less.) Someone has to run up to the door in an emergency and seal it off.
One worry is that, because there is a valve wheel on both sides, an untrained crewmember might panic and try to unseal the door by turning it in the wrong direction. This would endanger the entire crew.
The other worry is that the valve spins along a single axis (we see no evidence either way during the show), requiring the crew to know which side of the door they were on to seal it against a vacuum. “Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey” would fail in this instance, and might cause hesitation or accidental unsealing in an actual emergency.
Ideally, the doors would have wheels that spun identically on either side, so that a clockwise spin always sealed the door, and a counter-clockwise spin always unsealed it.
Current water-tight doors have two sides, the ‘important’ side and the ‘unimportant’ side. The important side faces towards the ‘center’ of the vessel, or the core of the larger block of the ship, and can be sealed off quickly from that side with a wheel and heavy ‘dogs’.
Weathertight doors have a handle-latch on both sides that is connected (much like a doorknob), and can seal/unseal the door from either side.
If there is a technical limitation to that mechanism (unlikely, but possible), then a large and obvious graphic on the door (a clockwise or counterclockwise arrow) could serve to remind the crew which direction of turn sealed the door. In this case, sealing the door is the primary action to call out because it is the action done under a panic situation, and the action most easily forgotten in the heat of the moment.
Otherwise, the doors could be a danger to the crew: the crew on the ‘safe’ side could seal the door against depressurization, but crew on the ‘unsafe’ side might try to unseal it to save themselves in a panic.
Air pressure might keep the door properly closed in this instance, but it is still a risk.
We see during the damage control incident that the doors are quickly closed and sealed by the crew, even in an emergency, making the rest of the ship airtight. This either shows that the doors are effective at their job, or the crew is very well trained for such a situation.
Like the rest of the Galactica, the technology relies on people to work. A couple hints or minor tweaks to that technology could make the crew’s lives much easier without putting them at danger from the Cylons or the empty void of space.
The “Internet 2021” shot introduces the cyberspace interface and environment that forms the backdrop for the film. (There’s also a lengthy and unhelpful text crawl, but we’ll pass over that.) Now let’s introduce the film using plain words instead.
When discussing the interfaces in a film it helps to know a little about the context in which it was made. I’ll talk more about this at the end, but for now you need to know that Johnny Mnemonic was released in 1995 and is both a cyberpunk and virtual reality film.
Cyberpunk was a subgenre of science fiction which began in the 1980s. Cyberpunk authors were the first to write extensively about personal computing technology, world wide computer networks, and virtual reality. By the end of the 1990s cyberpunk ideas had been absorbed into mainstream science fiction.
At the time of writing, 2016, virtual reality is a hot topic with megabytes devoted online to the prospects and implications of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and others. This “VR Boom” is actually the second of these, not something new. The first virtual reality boom took place in the mid 1990s, and Johnny Mnemonic was released in the middle of it. By the end of the 1990s virtual reality, like cyberpunk, had largely faded away.
Johnny Mnemonic takes place in 2021. It’s a cyberpunk world, with corporations that are more powerful than governments and employ Yakuza gangsters to do their dirty work. There’s also a serious new disease, Nerve Attenuation Syndrome, with no known cure. The Johnny of the title is a mnemonic courier, someone who physically transports important data from place to place by embedding it in their brain. He needs to do one last job before retiring.
In a Beijing hotel he uploads 320G of “data” from a small group of renegade scientists employed by the Pharmakom medical corporation, to be delivered to Newark, New Jersey. The 320G is significant because it has overloaded Johnny’s capacity, and he will die if the data is not downloaded soon. In what will be a recurring plot element, heavily armed thugs who want to prevent the data being released kill the scientists and attempt to kill Johnny. During the fight, three images, the “Access Code” needed to download the data, are partly lost.
Johnny arrives in Newark, where the same people try to kill him again. He is rescued by the other lead character, Jane, a bodyguard who comes to his aid on the promise of lots of money. On the run from an ever-increasing number of people trying to find and kill them, Johnny and Jane fall in with the LoTeks, resistance fighters who hack into corporate networks and release information that corporations want to keep secret. (The LoTeks themselves are not against technology, but their chosen lifestyle restricts them to using what they can scavenge rather than being lavishly equipped with the latest and greatest.)
Johnny learns in quick succession that Jane has early onset NAS symptoms and that the “data” locked up in his head is a cure for NAS. As a cyberpunk corporation, Pharmakom is naturally keeping it secret just to make more money. Without the full access code, the only hope to extract the data is Jones, a cybernetically enhanced dolphin working with the LoTeks. After a last climactic battle, Johnny with the help of Jones is able to “hack his own brain” and recover the data, the cure is released to the world, and Johnny and Jane can live somewhat more happily (this is cyberpunk) ever after.
Johnny Mnemonic (in this review always referring to the film, not the short story, unless stated otherwise) is packed with interfaces, of which the most interesting and memorable is an extended cyberspace scene around the middle. Like the gestural interface of Minority Report, it is a wonderfully, almost obsessively, detailed imagining of the near future. The value of these predictions, as with most science fiction, is not whether they were correct or not. Predictions are much more interesting for what they tell us about the hopes, expectations, and dreams at the time they were made. Johnny Mnemonic, made in 1995 and set in 2021, shows us how the Internet and World Wide Web were expected to develop over the next twenty five years. As I write this, there’s five years to go.
The Galactica’s fighter launch catapults are each controlled by a ‘shooter’ in an armored viewing pane. There is one ‘shooter’ for every two catapults. To launch a Viper, he has a board with a series of large twist-handles, a status display, and a single button. We can also see several communication devices:
Ear-mounted mic and speaker
Board mounted mic
Phone system in the background
These could relate to one of several lines of communication each:
The Viper pilot
Any crew inside the launch pod
Crew just outside the launch pod
CIC (for strategic status updates)
Other launch controllers at other stations
‘On call’ rooms for replacement operators
Each row on the launch display appears to conform to some value coming off of the Viper or the Galactica’s magnetic catapults. The ‘shooter’ calls off Starbuck’s launch three times due to some value he sees on his status board (fluctuating engine power right before launch).
We do not see any other data inputs. Something like a series of cameras on a closed circuit could show him an exterior view of the entire Viper, providing additional information to the sensors.
When Starbuck is ready to launch on the fourth try, the ‘shooter’ twists the central knob and, at the same time and with the same hand, pushes down a green button. The moment the ‘shooter’ hits the button, Starbuck’s Viper is launched into space.
There are other twist knobs across the entire board, but these do not appear to conform directly to the act of launching the Viper, and they do not act like the central knob. They appear instead to be switches, where turning them from one position to another locks them in place.
There is no obvious explanation for the number of twist knobs, but each one might conform to an electrical channel to the catapult, or some part of the earlier launch sequence.
Nothing in the launch control interprets anything for the ‘shooter’. He is given information, then expected to interpret it himself. From what we see, this information is basic enough to not cause a problem and allow him to quickly make a decision.
Without networking the launch system together so that it can poll its own information and make its own decisions, there is little that can improve the status indicators. (And networking is made impossible in this show because of Cylon hackers.) The board is easily visible from the shooter chair, each row conforms directly to information coming in from the Viper, and the relate directly to the task at hand.
The most dangerous task the shooter does is actually decide to launch the Viper into space. If either the Galactica or the Viper isn’t ready for that action, it could cause major damage to the Viper and the launch systems.
A two-step control for this is the best method, and the system now requires two distinct motions (a twist-and-hold, then a separate and distinct *click*). This is effective at confirming that the shooter actually wants to send the Viper into space.
To improve this control, the twist and button could be moved far enough apart (reference, under “Two-Hand Controls” ) that it requires two hands to operate the control. That way, there is no doubt that the shooter intends to activate the catapult.
If the controls are separated like that, it would take some amount of effort to make sure the two controls are visually connected across the board, either through color, or size, or layout. Right now, that would be complicated by the similarity in the final twist control, and the other handles that do different jobs.
Changing these controls to large switches or differently shaped handles would make the catapult controls less confusing to use.