High Tech Binoculars

In Johnny Mnemonic we see two different types of binoculars with augmented reality overlays and other enhancements: Yakuz-oculars, and LoTek-oculars.


The Yakuza are the last to be seen but also the simpler of the two. They look just like a pair of current day binoculars, but this is the view when the leader surveys the LoTek bridge.


I assume that the characters here are Japanese? Anyone?

In the centre is a fixed-size green reticule. At the bottom right is what looks like the magnification factor. At the top left and bottom left are numbers, using Western digits, that change as the binoculars move. Without knowing what the labels are I can only guess that they could be azimuth and elevation angles, or distance and height to the centre of the reticule. (The latter implies some sort of rangefinder.)

So far, this is a simple uncluttered display. But why is there a brightly glowing Pharmakom logo at the top right? It blocks part of the view, and probably doesn’t help anyone trying to keep their eyes adapted for night vision.


The LoTeks, despite their name, have more impressive binoculars. They’re first used when Johnny gets out of his airport taxi.


There’s a third tube above the optics, a rectangular inlet, and an antenna.

In these binoculars, the augmented reality overlay is much more dynamic. Instead of a fixed circle, green lines converge in a bounding box around the image of Johnny. Text slides onto the display from left to right, the last line turning yellow.



The animated transition of the bounding box resembles what Classic MacOS programmers of the 1990s called “zoomrects” used for showing windows opening or closing. It’s a very effective technique to draw attention to a particular area of an image.

Animated text

Text appearing character by character is ubiquitous in film interfaces. In the 1960s and 1970s mainframe and minicomputer terminals really did display incrementally, as the characters arrived one by one over slow serial port links. On any more recent computer it actually takes extra programming to achieve this effect, as the normal display of text is so fast that we would perceive it as instantaneous. But people like to see incremental text, or have been conditioned by film to expect it, so why not?


The binoculars detect Johnny’s implant. It might just be possible to detect this passively from infrared or electronic signals, but more likely the binoculars include a high resolution microwave radar as well. If there had been more than one person in view, the bounding box would indicate which one the text refers to. And note that the last line of text is a different color. What that means is unclear here, but it becomes clear (and I’ll discuss it) later.

The second time we see the LoTek binoculars is when a lookout spots Street Preacher, a very bad guy and another who wants to remove Johnny’s head. Once again the binoculars have performed more than just a visual scan.


The binocular view and overlay are being relayed to another character, the LoTek leader J-Bone who can watch on a monitor. Here the film anticipates the WiFi webcam.


The overlay text now changes.


Narrow AI?

This is interesting, because the binoculars can not only detect implants and other cyborg modifications, but are apparently able to evaluate and offer advice. It appears that the green text is used for the factual (more or less) information about what has been detected, while yellow text is uncertain or or speculative.

Does this imply a general artificial intelligence? Not necessarily. This warning could be based solely on the detected signature, in the same way that current day military passive sonars and radar warning receivers can identify threats based on identifying characteristics of a received signal. In the world of Johnny Mnemonic it would make sense to assume that anyone with full custom biomechanics is extremely dangerous. Or, since Street Preacher is a resident rather than a stranger and already feared by others, his appearance and the warning could have been entered into a LoTek facial recognition database that the binocular system uses as a reference.

These textual overlays are an excellent interface, not interfering with normal vision and providing a fast and easy-to-understand analysis. But, the user must have faith that the computer analysis is accurate. There’s no reason given as to why any of the text is displayed. If Johnny was carrying an implant in his pocket instead of his brain, would the computer know the difference?

An alternative approach would be some kind of sensor fusion or false spectrum display, with the raw infrared or radar image overlaid over the visuals and the viewer responsible for interpreting the data. The problem with such systems is that our visual system didn’t evolve to interpret such imagery, so a lot of training and practice is required to be both fast and accurate. And the overlay itself interferes with our normal visual recognition and processing. If the computer can do a better job of deciphering the meaning of non-visual data, it should do so and summarise for the human viewer.

Further advantages of this interface are that even a novice sentry will benefit from the built-in scanning and threat analysis, and the wireless transmission ensures that the information is shared rather than being limited to the person on watch.


6 thoughts on “High Tech Binoculars

  1. I don’t recognize the other characters but the upper left is indeed “高さ” (takasa), height/altitude.

  2. Denis is right ^^

    I wanna help since I learnt how to check for Japanese/Chinese characters. The only thing I’m not sure is the correct translation to English (this I let the choice to you because I’m a foreigner).

    Height, altitude (高さ-takasa)
    Distance, range (距離-kyori)
    Magnification, diameter (倍率-bairitsu).

    I had a hint on the meaning of this because height in Chinese is written 高級 (gaoji), quite a similar thing in Jap hehe.

  3. Thank you both.

    Any thoughts on why the numbers are in western digits? Without knowing what the characters mean, it would be difficult for a Westerner to figure out what the numbers represented, so why bother mixing languages?

    • Hi!

      I guess the numbers are digits (as opposed to asian pictogram numbers) because the asians are used to work with digits since the “westernization” of their countries. Still wait for someone to confirm though.

      As for why are the interface in Japanese, I don’t know. I guess it means that in that world, the jap culture and stuff is so popular that even the westerners know how to read it.

      It has been quite a fantasy in some authors’ mind in the 80’s. The “asianization” of western culture, all the asian corporation names over the streets, the Blade Runner-style and stuff…

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