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.

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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.

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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.

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Worst

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.

Best

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

Cyberspace: the hardware

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.

Click to see video of The cyberspace search.

Click to see Board conversation, with Pharmakom tracker and virus

First, what hardware is required?

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.

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Headset

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

Talking to a Puppet

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.

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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

Video Phone Calls

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.

New Darwin

First is the phone call Johnny makes from the New Darwin hotel.

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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