Note to readers: The author and editor of this series of posts would like to be Matrix-style cool, competent, stylishly-dressed world-changers with superhuman abilities. In reality we are much closer to the protagonists of Johnny Mnemonic: always frantically improvising to stay one step ahead of disaster with a mix of clunky technology. (And we don’t even have a cybernetic dolphin helping out.) So, um, yeah. This post is out of order. Sorry. Please pretend you haven’t read Cyberspace: the Hardware yet. OK. On to an analysis of the phone system.
The video phones in Johnny Mnemonic all seem easy to use and reliable, but this is generally true of all phones in film and TV, video or otherwise. The audience want to see the characters communicate, not struggle with technology – unless difficulty or failure is necessary for the plot!Continue reading →
And finally we come to the often-promised cyberspace search sequence, my favourite interface in the film. It starts at 36:30 and continues, with brief interruptions to the outside world, to 41:00. I’ll admit there are good reasons not to watch the entire film, but if you are interested in interface design, this will be five minutes well spent. Included here are the relevant clips, lightly edited to focus on the user interfaces.
Johnny and Jane have broken into a neighbourhood computer shop, which in 2021 will have virtual reality gear just as today even the smallest retailer has computer mice. Johnny clears miscellaneous parts off a table and then sits down, donning a headset and datagloves.
Headsets haven’t really changed much since 1995 when this film was made. Barring some breakthrough in neural interfaces, they remain the best way to block off the real world and immerse a user into the virtual world of the computer. It’s mildly confusing to a current day audience to hear Johnny ask for “eyephones”, which in 1995 was the name of a particular VR headset rather than the popular “iPhone” of today.Continue reading →
As mentioned, Johnny in the last phone conversation in the van is not talking to the person he thinks he is. The film reveals Takahashi at his desk, using his hand as if he were a sock puppeteer—but there is no puppet. His desk is emitting a grid of green light to track the movement of his hand and arm.
The Make It So chapter on gestural interfaces suggests Takahashi is using his hand to control the mouth movements of the avatar. I’d clarify this a bit. Lip synching by human animators is difficult even when not done in real time, and while it might be possible to control the upper lip with four fingers, one thumb is not enough to provide realistic motion of the lower lip.Continue reading →
This post is about the speculative suicide kit called Quietus that appears in Children of Men.
Suicide is not an easy topic and I will do my best to address it seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.
In fact because this is a serious life-and-death issue, I’m going against my usual scifiinterfaces tack of thinking through this as a real-world product. While I believe in our right to self-direct our deaths with dignity in the face of terminal illness or longterm suffering, I also believe that it should be handled by caring, informed, and professional people rather than a kit. So, instead, I’m only going to address the design in the context of the film. It would take much more research, time, and the input of many professionals to confidently design for such a product in the real world.
So, on to Quietus, as part of the movie.
When Theo visits his friend Jasper’s home, we are introduced to the blue kit, open on the coffee table between them. Theo reads out of a booklet that comes with it, “Is there a chance it will not work for me? There have been no cases of anyone surviving who has taken the preparation.” Afterward their conversation quickly veers off in another direction.
In the subsequent scene, when Theo is woken up by an alarm on his television, an ad for Quietus is playing. In it we read the tagline, “You Decide When,” and read three benefits being sold by the ad.
Up to £2,000 to your next of kin.
Painless transition guaranteed.
The visuals include a man determinately drinking some clear blue liquid in a glass with a Quietus logo, before standing up and walking across a beach toward the surf, only to fade away.
Later, when Theo runs after one of London’s double-decker busses, we see the video ad again on the side of the bus, repeating the tag line and the benefit, “Up to £2,000 to your next of kin.”
In a deeply moving scene (among many in this film) Jasper eventually uses the kit to kill his longtime-unresponsive wife Janice, before the Fishes extremist group comes to their house to kill them.
Quietus is not central to the plot. There are other ways Jasper could have spared his wife a terrible death or mistreatment at the hands of the Fishes.
Rather, Quietus is a narrative, worldbuilding prop that helps us understand the world of the story. It helps us to understand that people are so desperate and depressed they are willing, at mass scale, to consider suicide. It helps us to understand that the government is facing such a terrible lack of resources that it has to incentivize this suicide to keep its population to some manageable level, to those who can still press on. It helps to underscore how important the sound of children’s voices are to most of the world’s sense of hope and purpose.
Given that narrative purpose, the design of the kit is sublime.
The name frames the kit as a positive, peaceful thing. Even the “–us” suffix helps tell the story by appealing to a collective sense. It’s to “quiet us.” The word sounds Latinate and thereby educated, medical, trustworthy. It focuses on a result, i.e. quiet, and distracts from its morbidness.
The logotype looks like it is set in a modified Times New Roman or Garamond (can anyone identify it?), and the letter spacing is wide; signaling familiarity, trust and serenity.
The kit comes with a glass with the logo to give a sense of ritual and importance, reinforce the brand promise, and help the participants get the measurements right.
The repeated use of sky-blue color and white beams in the ad, the box, and the liquid speak to freedom, spirituality, and something greater than ourselves.
The professional design of the kit (its advertisement, the printed graphics on the box) and its high production quality (a glass, a little bottle for the drug, the glossy cardboard of the 4-color printed box, the vacuum-formed plastic that holds these and the booklet) helps us understand the scope of the initiative. This is not something a ragtag group has cobbled together, but an expensive, professional offering.
The reimbursement helps us infer that the reasons the government is offering it are financial.
Welcoming “illegals” reinforces that politically, this world is defined by the refugee crisis, which points to the larger infertility world crisis that gave it rise.
I can imagine two improvements that might increase believability for the story.
The logotype on the glass should be the same one as everywhere else. (We see a closeup of the different logo in the TV ad, see above.) I suspect this is a production error, but the angles of the Futura-like typeface seem cold and precise, off-brand from what we see elsewhere. It doesn’t add anything to have them mismatched, and detracts a bit from the professional, trustworthy veneer.
The organization promises a financial incentive to participants’ next of kin. This adds a believability complication. How would the organization confirm deaths while protecting against fraud?
1. Someone contacts Quietus and says, “I’m about to kill myself with Quietus. Send the money to mycousin John at the following account.” (1a. Doesn’t actually kill themselves. 1b. May actually be the John in question.)
2. Someone contacts Quietus and says, “I’ve just found the body of my cousin John, and a note reading I am to receive money from Quietus.” (2a. John may not be dead. 2b. John may not even be aware of this scam. 2c. Or the cousin may have killed John.)
Presuming that the government still seeks to process cadavers rather than let them decay at the place of death, the local coroner would still be involved in processing the body, and could be used as the source of confirmation of actual death, identity of the body, and relationship to the recipient. To embody this, there would need to be some easy way (and incentive) for the coroner to report the death back to Quietus. This points at a missing artifact in the movie.
I’d recommend a bracelet or necklace in the kit with a blue Quietus background, the logo, and a QR code or large ID number, meant to be worn by the participant prior to taking the drink and later noticed and used by the coroner. Medicalert would be a good, recognizable model for production. In the scene, Jasper would glance at it briefly and discard it, but it would be a nice rounding out of the logic of the service.
OMG y’all. We totally got asked on a date and we should totally go.
So I happen to be in NYC for the Interaction17 conference this week, and agreed with the guys from the Decipher SciFi podcast that we should hang out. So it’s late notice, but we have a plan: Join us at 7:25 P.M. to watch The Space Between Us, and then hangout and chat about it afterward? There may even be podcast recording and interface redesigning, it’s hard to say. Providing you’re not into The Big Game.
When Luke is driving Kee and Theo to a boat on the coast, the car’s heads-up-display shows him the car’s speed with a translucent red number and speed gauge. There are also two broken, blurry gauges showing unknown information.
Suddenly the road becomes blocked by a flaming car rolled onto the road by a then unknown gang. In response, an IMPACT warning triangle zooms in several times to warn the driver of the danger, accompanied by a persistent dinging sound.
The characters in Johnny Mnemonic make quite a few video phone calls throughout the film, enough to be grouped in their own section on interfaces.
The first thing a modern viewer will note is that only one of the phones resembles a current day handheld mobile. This looks very strange today and it’s hard to imagine why we would ever give up our beloved iPhones and Androids. I’ll just observe that accurately predicting the future is difficult (and not really the point) and move on.
More interesting is the variety of phones used. In films from the 1950s to the 1990s, everyone uses a desk phone with a handset. (For younger readers: that is the piece you picked up and held next to your ear and mouth. There’s probably one in your parents’ house.) The only changes were the gradual replacement of rotary dials by keypads, and some cordless handsets. In 21st century films everyone uses a small sleek handheld box. But in Johnny Mnemonic every phone call uses a different interface.
First is the phone call Johnny makes from the New Darwin hotel.
As previously discussed, Johnny is lying in bed using a remote control to select numbers on the onscreen keypad. He is facing a large wall mounted TV/display screen, with what looks like a camera at the top. The camera is realistic but unusual: as Chapter 10 of Make It So notes, films very rarely show the cameras used in visual communication.Continue reading →