Jurassic Park (1993)

Our first example is a single scene from Jurassic Park, set entirely in the control room of Isla Nublar. Apologies in advance for repeating some material already covered by the book and website, but it is necessary to focus on the aspects that are of interest to this study.

Drs. Sattler and Grant enter the control room along with Lex and Tim. Jurassic Park (1993)

The eponymous Jurassic Park is heavily automated, with the entire park designed to be controlled from the computer systems in this room. Villainous computer system designer Nedry took advantage of this to shut down systems across the entire park, releasing all the dinosaurs, to cover his industrial espionage. Most of the park staff had already been evacuated due to a storm warning, and the small team of core technical staff who remained have, by this point in the film, all been killed by dinosaurs. (Including Nedry—who, had he been given time for extrospection, would probably have rethought those aspects of his plan concerning the release of carnivorous dinosaurs.)

Four of the survivors have gathered in the control room after managing to restore the power, but must still restart the various computer systems. They have discovered that the computer control extends down to door locks, which are consequently not working and have suddenly become the number one priority due to the velociraptors trying to break in.

Our interface user is Lex, a teenage visitor, being given an advance tour of the park before its official opening. The others are Dr Grant, paleontologist; Dr Sattler, paleobotanist; and Lex’s younger brother Tim, dinosaur enthusiast. As a self -described computer hacker Lex is easily the best person qualified to work with the computers as everyone else in the room only has expertise in subjects more than sixty-six million years old.

Lex sitting before the computer and looking at the /usr directory in the 3D file browser. Jurassic Park (1993)

The computers were all rebooted when the power came back on but the programs that control Jurassic Park did not automatically restart. Dr. Sattler spent a moment in front of the computer with Lex, but all she seemed to do is deactivate the screen saver. It’s up to Lex to find and start whatever program runs the security systems for the control room.

Backworlding aside: Unix-savvy viewers might be wondering why these control programs, since they are critical to the park functionality, don’t automatically start when the computer is rebooted. I hazard that perhaps normally they would, but Nedry turned this off to ensure that no-one could undo his sabotage before he got back.
The file system of the computer is rendered as a tree, with directory names (/usr in the image above) shown as text labels, the contents of each directory shown as LEGO-like blocks, and lines linking directories to subdirectories.

The park directory, and two levels of subdirectories in the distance. Jurassic Park (1993)

Most of the information is drawn on a flat two-dimensional plane. The third dimension is used to present information about the number of, and perhaps sizes, of the files in each directory. Note in the image above that the different directories below the foremost park block have different sized heights and areas.

Rendering this plane in perspective, rather than as a conventional 2D window, means that areas closest to the viewpoint can be seen in detail, but there is still some information given about the directories further away. In the image above, the subdirectory of park on the right is clearly smaller than the others, even though we can’t make out the actual name, and also has a number of larger subdirectories.

Up close we can see that each file can have its own icon on top, presumably representing the type of file.

Individual blue files within one directory, and subdirectories beyond. Jurassic Park (1993)

The viewpoint stays at a constant height above the ground plane. Moving around is done with the mouse, using it as a game-style directional controller when the mouse button is held down rather than as an absolute pointing device. It is almost “walking” rather than “flying” but there is a slight banking effect when Lex changes direction.

Closeup of Lex’s hand on the mouse, pressing the left mouse button. Jurassic Park (1993)

Here Lex has browsed through the hierarchy and discovered a promising file. She selects it, but we don’t see how, and a spotlight or sunbeam indicates the selection.

The “Visitors Center” icon highlighted by a beam from above. Jurassic Park (1993)

This is the last of the 3D interactions. The 3D file browser is just a file browser, not an entire operating system or virtual environment, so opening a file or program will open a new interface.

Tagged: 3D, 3D rendering, blue, cathode ray tube, color, comparison, constant movement, control room, cyan, desk, direct manipulation, disambiguation, finger press, flight control, flying, green, icon, interaction design, light, lighting, map, missing information, motion cue, navigating, pink, point to select, projection rays, selection, sense making, stress, up is more

When Lex runs this program (again, we don’t see how) it is in fact the security system controller for the visitor centre, including the control room. This has a conventional 2D GUI interface and she immediately switches everything on.

The 2D GUI. Security window in green on left, boot progress screen in blue on right. Jurassic Park (1993)

Success! Well, it would be if the control room did not also have very large windows which are apparently not velociraptor-proof. But the subsequent events, and interfaces, are not our concern.


This isn’t a report card, since those are given to complete films or properties, not individual interfaces. But we can ask the same questions.

How believable is the interface?

In this case, very believable. The 3D file browser seen in the film is a real program that was shipped with the computers used in the film. It was created by the manufacturer Silicon Graphics as a demonstration of 3D capabilities, not as an effect just for this film.

How well does the interface inform the narrative of the story?

It supports the narrative, but isn’t essential — there’s plenty of drama and tension due to the velociraptors at the door, and the scene would probably still work if the camera only showed Lex, not the interface. The major contribution of using the 3D file browser is to keep the technology of Jurassic Park seemingly a little more advanced than normal for the time. Apart from dinosaurs, both the book and the film try not to introduce obviously science fictional elements. A 2D file browser (they did exist for Unix computers at the time, including the SGI computers shown in the film) would have been recognisable but boring. The 3D file browser looks advanced while still being understandable.

How well does the interface equip the characters to achieve their goals?

The most interesting question, to which the answer is that it works very well. One problem, visible in the film, is that because the labels are rendered on the 2D ground plane, users have to navigate close to a file or a folder to read its name. Rotating the names to vertical and to always face the user (“billboarding”) would have made them recognisable from further away.

Both at the time of the film and today some computer people will argue that Lex can’t be a real computer hacker because she doesn’t use the command line interface. Graphical user interfaces are considered demeaning. I disagree.
Lex is in a situation familiar to many system administrators, having to restore computer functionality after an unexpected power loss. (Although the velociraptors at the door are a little more hostile than your typical user demanding to know when the system will be back up.) Earlier in the film we saw Ray Arnold, one of the technical staff, trying to restore the system and he was using the command line interface.

Ray Arnold sitting before SGI computer, typing into blue command line window. Jurassic Park (1993)

So why does Lex use the 3D file browser? Because, unlike Ray Arnold, she doesn’t know which programs to run. Rebooting the computers is not enough. The various programs that control Jurassic Park are all custom pieces of software developed by Nedry, and nothing we’ve seen indicates that he would have been considerate enough to write a user guide or reference manual or even descriptive file names. Everyone who might have known which programs do what is either dead or off the island.

Lex needs an interface that lets her quickly search through hundreds or even thousands of files without being able to specify precise search criteria. For a problem involving recognition, “you’ll know it when you see it”, a graphical user interface is superior to a command line.

Film making challenge: diegetic computers

Writing for SciFiInterfaces can be quite educational. Chris asked me to write about the “diegetic” aspects of rendering 3D graphics in film, and I agreed to do so without actually knowing what that meant. Fortunately for me it isn’t complicated. Diegetic images or sounds belong to what we see in the scene itself, for instance characters and their dialog or hearing the music a violinist who is on-screen is playing; while non-diegetic are those that are clearly artefacts of watching a film, such as subtitles, voice overs, or the creepy violin music that is playing as a character explores a haunted house—we don’t imagine there is some violinist in there with them.

So, SciFiinterfaces.com focuses on the diegetic computer interfaces used by characters within the film or TV show itself. We’ve just been discussing the 3D file browser in Jurassic Park. Which, since it was a real interactive program, just meant pointing a camera at the actor and the computer screen, right?

It’s not that easy. Our human eyes and brain do an enormous amount of interpolation and interpretation of what we actually see. There’s the persistence of vision effect that allows us to watch a film in a cinema and see it as fluid motion, even though for a significant percentage of the time we’re actually looking at a blank wall while the projector shutter is closed. Cameras, whether film or digital, take discrete snapshots and are not so easily fooled, leading to various odd effects. One example that’s been known since the early days of filmmaking is that at certain speeds spoked wheels can appear to be rotating far more slowly than expected, or even to be rotating backwards.

Jurassic Park was made in the days when television sets and computer monitors used Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) technology. A CRT cannot display an entire frame at once, instead starting at the top left and drawing pixels line by line (“scan lines”) to the bottom. Just as the top line of pixels fades out, the new frame begins. At 50 or 60 frames a second we see only continuous moving images thanks to our persistence of vision; but a camera, usually running at 24 frames a second, will capture a dark line moving slowly down the screen and the images themselves will flicker. This was a common sight in TV news reports and sometimes in films of the time, when computer monitors were in the background. Here’s a shot from the 1995 film The Net where the new frames have been half-drawn:

View from above of computer expo. The two stacked monitors center right are not genlocked, showing crawl lines. The Net (1995)

One technique that avoids this is to film the computer interface in isolation and composite the graphics into the footage afterwards. This is very easy in the 21st century with all digital processing but Jurassic Park was made in the days of optical compositing, which is more expensive and limits the number of images that can be combined before losing picture quality.

So to shoot CRT monitors with their graphics live, the camera shutter opening must be synchronised to the start of each frame. In TV studios and film sets this is done with genlocking, connecting all the monitors and cameras via cables to a single electronic timing signal. This was apparently the technique used in Jurassic Park, with impressive results. In one control room scene the camera pans across at least eight different monitors, and none of them are flickering.

Real World 3D Filing Systems

It helps to ground our critique if we consider speculative interfaces in light of real-world interfaces that support similar goals, so let’s look at some.

The two dimensional desktop metaphor developed at Xerox PARC in the 1970s and still present on personal computers today was explicitly based on the real world of offices, with desktops, sheets of paper, folders, and even trashcans. What familiar three dimensional storage systems in the real world could we use as a basis for comparison and inspiration?

The desktop GUI. Photo credit: Xerox PARC

At the small scale are kitchens and garages, which have cupboards and shelves and wall hooks. Just as some computer desktops are tidy and others are not, some people will scatter implements and ingredients in a seemingly random fashion that only makes sense to them while others insist on everything being in the right place. At the larger scale are office buildings and warehouses, with aisles and floors and rooms.

These all “work” through the use of containers for storage and spatial memory. They help the user by grouping a very large set of findable things into a smaller number of containers, and keeping those containers in a consistent physical location. In the kitchen example, you don’t have to remember where every plate or utensil is. You know they are on the upper right shelf where the plates go, or in the second drawer down where the utensils go. There is still an organization task for the containers, but it’s a smaller problem. 

There’s a more exotic candidate though, the memory palace.

For those who haven’t encountered the concept before, it is a mental discipline that improves memory recall by associating particular memories with rooms or other spatial locations in an imaginary building. As well as the “3rd floor, south corridor, room 43” coordinates, each room or memory is also associated with a particular visual design element as an additional recall cue. So, for example, if you had to remember the first elements in the Periodic Table in order, you might imagine a tiny dirigible, filled with hydrogen, flying around the front door of your home. Open the door and behind it you see helium-filled balloons welcoming you home, etc.  This is an old technology, in the sense that it has been known for at least a couple of thousand years. 

Fun aside: Memory palaces have been portrayed in some contemporary TV shows, for example Sherlock and The Tunnel. The shot below is just one small location in the wonderfully detailed interior mental landscape used by a character in season three of Sherlock. (I would love to expand on this particular memory palace, but doing so would massively spoil the episode for anyone who hasn’t seen it.)

A screen shot from the Sherlock episode, showing stacked folders and a bust on a desk in a room crammed with materials.
No description because I don’t want to spoil it. Sherlock, series 3 episode 3, “His Last Vow” (2014).

In fiction set in the present day, memory palaces are only used by characters with exceptional mental abilities for, as author John Crowley explains in the fantasy novel Little, Big (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2016): “The whole process was immensely complicated and tedious and was for the most part rendered obsolete by the invention of the filing-cabinet.”

A computer-based, three-dimensional file browser and storage system could have all the strengths of the memory palace without the disadvantages. Like a memory palace it would have the advantage over real world buildings of being infinitely extensible, unlimited by gravity or other physical considerations, and requiring no actual physical effort or materials to create. Unlike a memory palace it would retain the useful real world characteristic that if you forgot where something was you could still find it by just searching every single location.

Tagged: architecture, brain, cognitive effort, disambiguation, immersion, mapping, memory work, mental models, secret, spatial memory, wayfinding

So let’s keep these models in mind—the kitchen, the garage, and the memory palace—as we look at our fictional 3D file browsing examples, starting in the next post with Jurassic Park.

Browsing Files in 3D

Be forewarned—massive spoilers ahead. (The graphic shows the Millennium Falcon sporting a massive spoiler.)

What’s this all about?

The origin story here is that I wanted to review Hackers, a film I enjoy and Chris describes as “awesome/ly bad”. However, Hackers isn’t science fiction. Well, I could argue that it is set in an alternate reality where computer hackers are all physically attractive with fashionable tastes in music and clothing, but that isn’t enough. The film was set firmly in the present day (of 1995) and while the possibilities of computer hacking may be exaggerated for dramatic purposes, all the computers themselves are quite conventional for the time. (And therefore appear quaint and outdated today.)

With the glorious exception of the three dimensional file storage system on the “Gibson” mainframe. This fantastic combination of hardware and software was clearly science fiction then, and remains so today. While one futuristic element is not enough to justify a full review of Hackers, it did start us thinking. The film Jurassic Park also has a 3D file system navigator, which wasn’t covered in depth by either the book or the online review. And when Chris reached out to the website readers, they provided more examples of 3D file systems being added to otherwise mundane computer systems.

So what we have here is a review of a particular interface trope rather than an entire film or TV show: the three dimensional file browsing and navigation interface.


This review is specifically limited to interfaces that are recognisably file systems, where people search for and manipulate individual documents or programs. Cyberspace, a 3D representation of the Internet or World Wide Web, is too broad a topic, and better covered in individual reviews such as those for Ghost in the Shell and Johnny Mnemonic.

I also originally intended to only include non-science fiction films and shows but Jurassic Park is an exception. Jurassic Park has been reviewed, both in the book and on the website, but the 3D file system was a comparatively minor element. It is included here as a well known example for comparison.

The SciFiInterfaces readership also provided examples of research papers for 3D file system browsing and navigation—rather more numerous than actual production systems, even today. These will inform the reviews but not be discussed individually.

Because we are reviewing a topic, not a particular film or TV show, the usual plot summaries will be shortened to just those aspects that involve the 3D file system. As a bonus, we can also compare and contrast the different interfaces and how they are used. The worlds of Ghost in the Shell and Johnny Mnemonic are so different that it would be unfair to judge individual interfaces against each other, but for this review we are considering 3D file systems that have been grafted onto otherwise contemporary computer systems, and used by unaugmented human beings to perform tasks familiar to most computer users.


Having decided on our topic and scope, the properties for review are three films and one episode of a TV show.

Jurassic Park, 1993

“I know this!” and Jurassic Park is so well known that I assume that you do too. We will look specifically at the 3D file system that is used by Lex in the control room to reactivate the park systems.

Disclosure, 1994

This film about corporate infighting includes a virtual reality system, complete with headset, glove, laser trackers, and walking surface, which is used solely to look for particular files.

Hackers, 1995

As mentioned in the introduction this film revolves around the hacking of a Gibson mainframe, which has a file system that is both physically three dimensional and represented on computer screens as a 3D browser.

A bar chart. The x-axis is every year between and including 1902 to 2022. The y-axis, somewhat humorously, shows 2-place decimal values up to 1. Three bars at 1.00 appear at 1993, 1994, and 1995. One also appears in 2016, but has an arrow pointing back to the prior three with a label, “(But really, this one is referencing those.)”

All three of these films date from the 1990s, which seems to have been the high point for 3D file systems, both fictional and in real world research.

Community, season 6 episode 2, “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care” (2016)

In this 21st century example, the Dean of a community college buys an elaborate virtual reality system. He spends some of his time within VR looking for, and then deleting, a particular file. 

Clockwise from top left: Jurassic Park (1993), Disclosure (1994), Hackers (1995), Community (2016)

And one that almost made it

File browsing in two dimensions is so well established in general-purpose computer interfaces that the metaphor can be used in other contexts. In the first Iron Man film, at around 52 minutes, Tony Stark is designing his new suit with an advanced 3D CAD system that uses volumetric projection and full body gesture recognition and tracking. When Tony wants to delete a part (the head) from the design, he picks it up and throws it into a trashcan.

Tony deletes a component from the design by dropping it into a trashcan. Iron Man (2008)

I’m familiar with a number of 2D and 3D design and drawing applications and in all of them a deleted part quietly vanishes. There’s no more need for visual effects than when we press the delete key while typing.

In the film, though, it is not Tony who needs to know that the part has been deleted, but the audience. We’ve already seen the design rendering moved from one computer to another with an arm swing, so if the head disappeared in response to a gesture, that could have been interpreted as it being emailed or otherwise sent somewhere else. The trashcan image and action makes it clear to the audience what is happening.

So, that’s the set of examples we’ll be using across this series of posts. But before we get into the fiction, in the next post we need to talk about how this same thing is handled in the real world.

Report Card: Johnny Mnemonic

There are no more interfaces within the film to analyse. But before moving on to the grades, some final (and brief – I promise) discussion about cyberpunk and virtual reality.

Read all Johnny Mnemonic reviews in chronological order.

Cyberpunk Love

As stated at the beginning, Johnny Mnemonic is a cyberpunk film, with the screenplay written by noted cyberpunk author William Gibson, loosely based on one of his short stories of the same name. Why would user interface designers care? Because the cyberpunk authors were the first to write extensively about personal computing technologies, world wide networks, 2D/3D GUIs, and AI. Cyberspace, both the idea and the word itself, comes from cyberpunk fiction. Just as Star Trek inspired NASA engineers and astronauts, the cyberspace depicted by the authors inspired virtual reality programmers and designers. In the first virtual reality wave of the mid to late 1990s, it seemed that everybody working in the field had read Neuromancer.

If you’ve never read any cyberpunk and are now curious, Neuromancer by William Gibson is still the classic work. For a visual interpretation, the most cyberpunk of all films, in style and tone rather than plot, is Blade Runner. Cyberpunk founder Bruce Sterling, who wrote the foreword for “Make It So”, often writes about design; and sometimes cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson has also written interesting and thought provoking non-fiction about computers and user experience. It’s beyond the scope of this post to outline all their ideas for you, but if you are interested start with:

Bruce Sterling on Tumblr

In the Beginning was the Command Line

VR Love

Johnny Mnemonic also includes scenes set in virtual reality, a trend that began with Tron (although that particular film did not use the term). These virtual reality scenes with their colorful graphics  were most likely included to make computer systems less boring and more comprehensible to a general audience. However, these films from Tron onwards have never been successful. (If you work around computer people you’ll hear otherwise from plenty of fans, but computer geeks are not a representative sample.)

In the more recent Iron Man films, Tony Stark in his workshop uses a gestural interface, voice commands, and large volumetric projections. This could easily have been depicted as a VR system, but wasn’t. Could there be a usability problem when virtual reality interfaces are used in film?

The most common reason given for not using VR is that such sequences remind the audience that they’re watching an artificial experience, thus breaking suspension of disbelief. Evidence for this is the one financially successful VR film, The Matrix, which very carefully made its virtual reality identical to the real world. The lesson is that in film, just like most fields, user interfaces should not draw too much attention to themselves.

Sci: B (3 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

Johnny Mnemonic is a near-future film that takes itself seriously, comparable in intention if not result to Blade Runner. The title also identified it as a cyberpunk film, implying a background setting and technology for the tiny proportion of the audience who’d actually read anything by William Gibson. For those who hadn’t, the film opened with a lengthy crawl, typeset in dense caps/small caps text with red and white color shifting, which probably didn’t help.


The everyday electronics in Johnny Mnemonic include the hotel wall screen and remote, the image grabber, the fax machine. They’re all believable (we’ll pass judgement on those unmarked buttons later!)  within the world depicted. The more specialised interfaces such as the motion detector, door bomb, and binoculars likewise fit the design aesthetic and style of technology used.

The airport security scanner without human staff present wasn’t very believable even in the more relaxed era of 1995, but for how it is used rather than what it does. As a scanner and projector it’s fine.

The most important interfaces in the film are the phone system, brain technology, and cyberspace.

Of these the phone system is almost always awesome, with visible cameras and familiar controls. The photorealistic puppet avatar used by Takahashi is a little beyond today’s capabilities, but not greatly so. And it’s nicely foreshadowed by the stylized image filter that Strike uses in the bulletin board conversation. Johnny hacking a phone booth with a swipe card is the one glaring exception to believability, but even here the only effect is that Johnny can talk to someone he otherwise would have trouble reaching. I would have been happier if he’d flipped up a panel to reveal a diagnostic port to hack, but it’s not a major problem.

The cyberspace sequence was awesome in 1995 and holds up well today. The datagloves look dated to someone like me who follows virtual reality technology, but I doubt they bother anyone else. The Johnny Mnemonic cyberspace has a lot of “flashy graphics” but these don’t seem to interfere with getting work done. At the time of writing Swiss Modern minimalism is the preferred style for user interfaces, but more playful and colorful graphics have been used in the past and no doubt will be again in the future.

Lastly we have the brain technology, which starts well. The MemDoubler and Johnny’s uploading kit both look like consumer electronic devices designed for a single function. Spider and the hospital have bigger and clunkier medical gear, but this fits with their need for scavenged and multifunction technology.

Johnny Mnemonic fails when we meet Jones the cyborg dolphin and the neural interface that Johnny uses to “hack his own brain.” Now, I found these believable when I saw the original release, and when I re-watched it on DVD, but that’s because I had read all the books. It’s only when I started writing this report card that I noticed there is absolutely no indication that such interfaces are even possible before this point in the film. Contrast this with Blade Runner, which as well as replicants was careful to show us an artificial owl, a forensic analyst who could identify an artificial snake scale, and a workshop where artificial eyes were designed. If neither the evil megacorporation nor the consumer electronics industry can build a neural interface in the world of Johnny Mnemonic, it’s hard to believe the LoTeks could get their hands on one.

For believability Johnny Mnemonic is mostly awesome, but let down by the neural interfaces. I’m therefore giving it a B.

Fi: D (1 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

The interfaces in Johnny Mnemonic have varied roles within the story.


I’ll start with those that support the story by working as advertised. The video phone system, from the first hotel room call on, has the narrative function of allowing characters to communicate expressively with voice and facial expressions rather than, say, email. The phones works flawlessly without getting in the way.

The early brain technology devices also support the story. The MemDoubler explains what it does and its operation is clear. The data upload kit clearly shows the original data disk and the start, progress, and end of the upload process. The image grabber and fax machine, like the video phones, work without distracting the characters or audience.

The door bomb allows Johnny to escape from heavily armed thugs, using brains and technology rather than brute force. It fits well with his character.

The cyberspace search sequence serves two purposes. It shows Johnny being clever and figuring out where to go next, and it shows the audience that this is really a cyberpunk film with advanced computer technology. The interface performs both functions beautifully. Meanwhile the Pharmakom tracker who is also in cyberspace is performing the equivalent of “tracing the phone call” in a current day action film. His standing interface visually distinguishes him from Johnny.

However, the bulletin board conversation in cyberspace is not so good. Strike doesn’t have any useful information to give Johnny, and then he gets wiped out by a virus attack for no apparent reason as the Yakuza have already located where Johnny and Jane are.

The airport security scanner and the LoTek binoculars have the narrative function of telling us something about the characters being viewed rather than providing information to be acted on. The airport scanner and the first use of the LoTek binoculars remind us that Johnny has an implant which is important to the plot. These help the audience since said implant is otherwise invisible and rarely causes him any difficulty. The second use of the LoTek binoculars is to tell us that Street Preacher is dangerous, which we can already figure out from the trail of bodies he leaves behind him.

The motion detector is the first of the interfaces which support the narrative by not working. If it had given the alarm, the access codes might have been saved and the scientists might escape or defend themselves. The scene is structured so that only Johnny gets away because he is in the bathroom, but it could just as easily have played out with the same results if the motion detector had been missing altogether.

The brain scanners at Spider’s place and then the hospital don’t work either. The intent is presumably to emphasise how difficult it is to retrieve “the data” and increase the tension as Johnny’s time runs out. The problem is that both scanners are very obviously cobbled together from ancient junk. Instead of impressing us with how fiendishly difficult it is to crack the encryption, these instead suggest that Johnny would be much better off getting help from someone else.

And lastly, the LoTek bug dropper again functions by being a terrible interface. Nearly killing the lead characters gives Johnny an excuse for an epic rant, and a reason for tension in the subsequent debate between Johnny and the LoTeks over the download. However, again I have to wonder why Johnny didn’t immediately head back into town. These people are meant to be the only hope against the evil corporate overlords? Seriously?

Overall, the interfaces in Johnny Mnemonic are a mixed bag when it comes to the narrative, from awesome to awful. I’m giving it a D.

Interfaces: A (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

While the interfaces in Johnny Mnemonic aren’t always good for story telling, they are mostly good models for real world design. I’ll go from worst to best for an upbeat ending.



The undisputed worst interface in the film is the LoTek bug dropper. Don’t do this.

The LoTek brain scanner and decryption hardware is clunky and difficult to use. So difficult in fact that it appears only Jones the cyborg dolphin can operate it successfully. Not at all ideal for a movement devoted to making information free and available to all. But as cryptography is not my field, I’m willing to accept that perhaps there is no better interface. (If the codebreaking division of the NSA is notorious for marine odours leaking into the air conditioning and suspiciously high levels of tuna consumption, please let us know via the comments.)

The motion detector has a simple interface, but the too quiet audio alarm makes it dangerously ineffective. Easily improved, but only if someone survives and is able to post a review. The watch triggered bomb is a useful starting point for thinking about controllers for real world devices.

Numerous electronic gadgets in Johnny Mnemonic have grids of unmarked buttons, which is horrible design for consumer electronics. Fortunately they are only briefly used and not important to the plot. That said, the image grabber used as part of the upload process, with labels added, would be great for writing SciFiInterfaces reviews.

The two different brain scanners used by Spider are difficult to judge, since they’re apparently designed for specialists rather than consumers. But like the MemDoubler and uploader we saw earlier, Spider can quickly perform a diagnostic and interpret the results.

The airport security scanner appears better suited to being used by actual human beings rather than by itself. The scanner is impressive, but suppose it did detect that Johnny was carrying an illegal weapon or device? If Johnny keeps walking, there’s no evidence that it could actually stop him.

The MemDoubler is a neat piece of electronics that does one job easily and efficiently. It’s a bit chatty for something that is possibly illegal and probably meant for covert use, but it was Johnny who decided that a hotel lift was the appropriate place to use it.

The New Darwin hotel room wall screen and remote are not intrusive, simple to use, and don’t require the guest to be fully attentive. Later the Beijing hotel wall screen is equally easy to use, and the bathroom shows off context awareness.

The data uploader, once assembled, has better labels than the consumer electronics. The controls are simple and allow a novice user to carry out the upload and access code generation without problems.

The LoTek binoculars are an excellent design for a group that needs to keep an eye on who is wandering around the neighbourhood.

The various video phones, from wall screen to portable, all Just Work. The various characters use them so effortlessly that it’s easy to overlook that this is in fact awesome.


And finally the cyberspace interface was and remains my favourite, and an excellent model for any real world designers. (OK, the second layer of security that requires reshaping a pyramid could use a little work, but even that is not a bad interface.)

There are enough good designs here to outweigh the few disasters, so my rating is A.

Final Grade: B- (8 of 12)

Related lessons from the book

  • Zoomrects in the LoTek binoculars and the continuous perspective streaming of imagery during the data upload are both examples of using motion to create meaning (page 64)
  • Bright colors are used during the data upload and download, even for the presentation of scientific research and data, because Sci-Fi glows (page 40)
  • The data uploader gives off a regular chirping sound in addition to a numeric counter, conveying ambient system state with ambient sound (page 112)
  • The LoTek binoculars, and to a lesser extent the Yakuza binoculars too, place a visual signal in the user’s path (page 210) by directly overlaying text onto the image rather than having a separate display
  • Although the film does not use this excessively, the airport scanner and the brain scanner screens are mostly blue (page 42)
  • Surprisingly, the phone system mostly relies on numbers rather than names, even though the goal is to contact a person, not use an interface (page 207). Only Takahashi contacts someone by name
  • Takahashi is an example in the book of an interface that can handle emotional inputs (page 214), and we can add Johnny’s threatening gesture and Strike’s “retreat” during the bulletin board conversation
  • Takahashi is also an example of letting users alter their appearance (page 221), and we can add Jones the dolphin with a custom avatar  in cyberspace
  • In the cyberspace of Johnny Mnemonic various areas and individual buildings have their own visual style, because the visual design is a fundamental part of the interface (page 31) and creative combinations of even common stylistic choices create a unique appearance (page 73)
  • Navigation within the three-dimensional cyberspace simulates physically flying to make use of users’ spatial memory (page 62), but allows “teleporting” directly to a desired location because being useful is more important than looking impressive (page 264)
  • The cyberspace interface for the hotel and copyshop both use gesture for simple, physical manipulations and use language for abstractions (page 104)

New lesson

Not everything in virtual reality needs to be three-dimensional

The cyberspace sequence shows windows, usually in full screen mode, with two dimensional spreadsheet interfaces for tabular data. There’s no need to represent these in 3D. This rule is a combination of build on what users already know (page 19) and don’t get caught up in the new for its own sake (page 25).

Cyberspace Summary

In the five minute sequence about cyberspace, we’ve seen a variety of interface elements and actions. The single most impressive quality of the Johnny Mnemonic cyberspace is, to me, just how flexible and multi-modal it is.


Cyberspace was envisioned as a 3D spatial metaphor. Here we’ve seen that with specialized hardware, you can fly with hand gestures or voice commands. Or if you’re in a hurry, you can teleport directly. Destinations can be specified precisely with numbers or graphically by pointing. Other actions can be expressed by pointing and other gestures, or by typing in text or numbers, or by speaking.

The primary output channel is obviously visual, but voice feedback is used to indicate successful actions rather than cluttering up the screen. The visual style at the top level of interaction is three dimensional, but internal systems use more conventional 2D interfaces when 3D would be confusing or excessive. Most “applications” run in what is currently called full screen mode, but there is some evidence that the user could have multiple systems appearing side by side in a kind of three-dimensional window manager.

It’s been two decades since Johnny Mnemonic was released, but the film version of cyberspace still looks like an interface that would be both fun and effective. (OK, replace the datagloves with modern motion capture cameras.) That’s quite a lot of staying power, and it’s still worth seeing the film for these five minutes alone.


(And now, finally, after writing far more words than I’d originally intended, there are no more interfaces left to analyze in the film. Roll credits in the Report Card, coming up next.)

Cyberspace: Bulletin Board

Johnny finds he needs a favor from a friend in cyberspace. We see Johnny type something on his virtual keyboard, then selects from a pull down menu.


A quick break in the action: In this shot we are looking at the real world, not the virtual, and I want to mention how clear and well-defined all the physical actions by actor Keanu Reeves are. I very much doubt that the headset he is wearing actually worked, so he is doing this without being able to see anything.

Will regular users of virtual reality systems be this precise with their gestures? Datagloves have always been expensive and rare, making studies difficult. But several systems offer submillimeter gestural tracking nowadays: version 2 of Microsoft Kinect, Google’s Soli, and Leap Motion are a few, and much cheaper and less fragile than a dataglove. Using any of these for regular desktop application tasks rather than games would be an interesting experiment.

Back in the film, Johnny flies through cyberspace until he finds the bulletin board of his friend. It is an unfriendly glowing shape that Johnny tries to expand or unfold without success.

JM-36-bboard-A-animated Continue reading

Cyberspace: Newark Copyshop

The transition from Beijing to the Newark copyshop is more involved. After he travels around a bit, he realizes he needs to be looking back in Newark. He “rewinds” using a pull gesture and sees the copyshop’s pyramid. First there is a predominantly blue window that unfolds as if it were paper.


And then the copyshop initial window expands. Like the Beijing hotel, this is a floor plan view, but unlike the hotel it stays two dimensional. It appears that cyberspace works like the current world wide web, with individual servers for each location that can choose what appearance to present to visitors.

Johnny again selects data records, but not with a voice command. The first transition is a window that not only expands but spins as it does so, and makes a strange jump at the end from the centre to the upper left.


Once again Johnny uses the two-handed expansion gesture to see the table view of the records. Continue reading

Cyberspace: Beijing Hotel

After selecting its location from a map, Johnny is now in front of the virtual entrance to the hotel. The virtual Beijing has a new color scheme, mostly orange with some red.


The “entrance” is another tetrahedral shape made from geometric blocks. It is actually another numeric keypad. Johnny taps the blocks to enter a sequence of numbers.

The tetrahedral keypad


Note that there can be more than one digit within a block. I mentioned earlier that it can be difficult to “press” with precision in virtual reality due to the lack of tactile feedback. Looking closely, here the fingers of Johnny’s “hands” cast a shadow on the pyramid, making depth perception easier. Continue reading

Cyberspace: Navigation

Cyberspace is usually considered to be a 3D spatial representation of the Internet, an expansion of the successful 2D desktop metaphor. The representation of cyberspace used in books such as Neuromancer and Snow Crash, and by the film Hackers released in the same year, is an abstract cityscape where buildings represent organisations or individual computers, and this what we see in Johnny Mnemonic. How does Johnny navigate through this virtual city?

Gestures and words for flying

Once everything is connected up, Johnny starts his journey with an unfolding gesture. He then points both fingers forward. From his point of view, he is flying through cyberspace. He then holds up both hands to stop.


Both these gestures were commonly used in the prototype VR systems of 1995. They do however conflict with the more common gestures for manipulating objects in volumetric projections that are described in Make It So chapter 5. It will be interesting to see which set of gestures is eventually adopted, or whether they can co-exist.

Later we will see Johnny turn and bank by moving his hands independently.

jm-31-navigation-f Continue reading

Phone System Analysis

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