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

Brain Upload

Once Johnny has installed his motion detector on the door, the brain upload can begin.

3. Building it

Johnny starts by opening his briefcase and removing various components, which he connects together into the complete upload system. Some of the parts are disguised, and the whole sequence is similar to an assassin in a thriller film assembling a gun out of harmless looking pieces.

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It looks strange today to see a computer system with so many external devices connected by cables. We’ve become accustomed to one piece computing devices with integrated functionality, and keyboards, mice, cameras, printers, and headphones that connect wirelessly.

Cables and other connections are not always considered as interfaces, but “all parts of a thing which enable its use” is the definition according to Chris. In the early to mid 1990s most computer user were well aware of the potential for confusion and frustration in such interfaces. A personal computer could have connections to monitor, keyboard, mouse, modem, CD drive, and joystick – and every single device would use a different type of cable. USB, while not perfect, is one of the greatest ever improvements in user interfaces. Continue reading

Internet 2021

The opening shot of Johnny Mnemonic is a brightly coloured 3D graphical environment. It looks like an abstract cityscape, with buildings arranged in rectangular grid and various 3D icons or avatars flying around. Text identifies this as the Internet of 2021, now cyberspace.

Internet 2021 display

Strictly speaking this shot is not an interface. It is a visualization from the point of view of a calendar wake up reminder, which flies through cyberspace, then down a cable, to appear on a wall mounted screen in Johnny’s hotel suite. However, we will see later on that this is exactly the same graphical representation used by humans. As the very first scene of the film, it is important in establishing what the Internet looks like in this future world. It’s therefore worth discussing the “look” employed here, even though there isn’t any interaction.

Cyberspace is usually equated with 3D graphics and virtual reality in particular. Yet when you look into what is necessary to implement cyberspace, the graphics really aren’t that important.

MUDs and MOOs: ASCII Cyberspace

People have been building cyberspaces since the 1980s in the form of MUDs and MOOs. At first sight these look like old style games such as Adventure or Zork. To explore a MUD/MOO, you log on remotely using a terminal program. Every command and response is pure text, so typing “go north” might result in “You are in a church.” The difference between MUD/MOOs and Zork is that these are dynamic multiuser virtual worlds, not solitary-player games. Other people share the world with you and move through it, adventuring, building, or just chatting. Everyone has an avatar and every place has an appearance, but expressed in text as if you were reading a book.

guest>>@go #1914
Castle entrance
A cold and dark gatehouse, with moss-covered crumbling walls. A passage gives entry to the forbidding depths of Castle Aargh. You hear a strange bubbling sound and an occasional chuckle.

Obvious exits:
path to Castle Aargh (#1871)
enter to Bridge (#1916)

Most impressive of all, these are virtual worlds with built-in editing capabilities. All the “graphics” are plain text, and all the interactions, rules, and behaviours are programmed in a scripting language. The command line interface allows the equivalent of Emacs or VI to run, so the world and everything in it can be modified in real time by the participants. You don’t even have to restart the program. Here a character creates a new location within a MOO, to the “south” of the existing Town Square:

laranzu>>@dig MyNewHome
laranzu>> @describe here as “A large and spacious cave full of computers”
laranzu>> @dig north to Town Square

The simplicity of the text interfaces leads people to think these are simple systems. They’re not. These cyberspaces have many of the legal complexities found in the real world. Can individuals be excluded from particular places? What can be done about abusive speech? How offensive can your public appearance be? Who is allowed to create new buildings, or modify existing ones? Is attacking an avatar a crime? Many 3D virtual reality system builders never progress that far, stopping when the graphics look good and the program rarely crashes. If you’re interested in cyberspace interface design, a long running textual cyberspace such as LambdaMOO or DragonMUD holds a wealth of experience about how to deal with all these messy human issues.

So why all the graphics?

So it turns out MUDs and MOOs are a rich, sprawling, complex cyberspace in text. Why then, in 1995, did we expect cyberspace to require 3D graphics anyway?

The 1980s saw two dimensional graphical user interfaces become well known with the Macintosh, and by the 1990s they were everywhere. The 1990s also saw high end 3D graphics systems becoming more common, the most prominent being from Silicon Graphics. It was clear that as prices came down personal computers would soon have similar capabilities.

At the time of Johnny Mnemonic, the world wide web had brought the Internet into everyday life. If web browsers with 2D GUIs were superior to the command line interfaces of telnet, FTP, and Gopher, surely a 3D cyberspace would be even better? Predictions of a 3D Internet were common in books such as Virtual Reality by Howard Rheingold and magazines such as Wired at the time. VRML, the Virtual Reality Markup/Modeling Language, was created in 1995 with the expectation that it would become the foundation for cyberspace, just as HTML had been the foundation of the world wide web.

Twenty years later, we know this didn’t happen. The solution to the unthinkable complexity of cyberspace was a return to the command line interface in the form of a Google search box.

Abstract or symbolic interfaces such as text command lines may look more intimidating or complicated than graphical systems. But if the graphical interface isn’t powerful enough to meet their needs, users will take the time to learn how the more complicated system works. And we’ll see later on that the cyberspace of Johnny Mnemonic is not purely graphical and does allow symbolic interaction.

Dat glaive: Mojo Radiator

Loki’s wants to take down the Avengers and the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, to disable the two greatest threats to his invading forces. To accomplish this, he lets himself get captured and the glaive taken away from him, knowing Banner would study it, fall prey to one of its terrible effects, become the ragemonster, and wreck the place.

That effect goes unnamed in the film so I’ll call it the bad mojo radiator. The longer people hang around it, the more discord it sows. In fact just before Loki’s thralls enact a daring rescue of him, we see all of the Avengers fighting in the lab, for no other reason than they stand in the glaive’s presence.

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The infighting ends suddenly when Banner unintentionally takes the glaive in hand as he attempts to silence the group. Because the threat of Hulk + glaive is enough to make other fights seem secondary. Continue reading

A Deadly Pattern

The Drones’ primary task is to patrol the surface for threats, then eliminate those threats. The drones are always on guard, responding swiftly and violently against anything they do perceive as a threat.

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During his day-to-day maintenance, Jack often encounters active drones. Initially, the drones always regard him as a threat, and offer him a brief window of time speak his name and tech number (for example, “Jack, Tech 49”) to authenticate. The drone then compares this speech against some database, shown on their HUD as a zoomed-in image of Jack’s mouth and a vocal frequency.

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Occasionally, we see that Jack’s identification doesn’t immediately work. In those cases, he’s given a second chance by the drone to confirm his identity. Continue reading

Escape pod weapons cache

I wish that the last Starship Troopers interface wasn’t this one, but so it goes.

After piloting the escape pod through the atmosphere using the meager interfaces she has to work with, it careens off of a hill to pierce the thin wall of a mountainside and landing Ibanez and Barcalow squarely in the dangerous depths of bug burrows.

After checking on Ibanez, Barcalow exits the pod and struts around to the back of it, where he pulls open a panel to access the weapons within.

So equipped, the pair are able to defend themselves at least a few moments before being overwhelmed by superior bug numbers.

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So. OK. This.

I want to ask why, in the first place, they would get out of a vehicle that can survive space, re-entry, breaking through a frakking mountainside, and crash landing without so much as a scratch. If they’d stayed there, would the bugs have been able to get at them? Couldn’t staying inside of it given them at least a fighting chance until Rico got there? The glass didn’t break when slammed at terminal velocity into stone. I think it can handle bug pincers. But I digress. that’s a question of character logic, not interfaces, so let me put that aside.

Instead, let me ask about the design rationale of putting the weapons in an exterior compartment. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put them inside the pod? If they’d landed with hostiles present outside the vehicle, what was the plan, ask them to hold on while you grabbed something from the trunk?

Additionally, it appears that there are no security features. Barcalow just opens it. Silly seeming, of course, but that’s how it should work, i.e., for the right person it just opens up. So in the spirit of apologetics—and giving it way more credit than it’s earned across this film—let’s presume that the pod has some passive authentication mechanism that biometrically checks him at a distance and unlocks the panel so that he doesn’t even have to think about it, especially in this crisis scenario.

That’s an apologetics gift from me to you, Starship Troopers, since I still have a soft spot in my heart for you.

Escape Pod

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When Vickers realizes Janek is really mutinying and going to ram the alien ship with the Prometheus, she has only 40 seconds to flee to an escape pod. She races to the escape room and slams her hand on a waist-high box mounted on the wall next to one of the pods. The clear, protective door over the pod lifts. She hurriedly dons her environment suit and throws herself into one of the coffin-shaped alcoves. She reaches to her right and on a pad we can’t see, she presses five buttons in sequence, shouting, “Come on!” The pod is sealed and shot away from the ship to land on the planet below.

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The transparent cover gives a clear view into the pod. That’s great, since if there were multiple people trying to escape, it would be easier to target an empty one. The the shape inside is unmistakeable. That’s great because at a glance even an untrained passenger could figure out what this is. The bright orange stripes are appropriately intense and attention-getting as well.

Viewers might have questions about the placement of the back-lit button panels inside the pod, seeing as how they’re in a very awkward place for Vickers to see and operate. I presume she has some other interface facing her, and the panels we see in the scene are for operating when the pod is resting on the planet’s surface and its lid opened. From that position, these buttons make more sense.

I think that’s where the greatness ends. The main consideration for an escape pod is that it is used in dire emergencies. Fractions of a second might mean the difference between safety and disintegration, and so though the cinematic tension in the scene is built up by these designed-in delays, an ideal system shouldn’t work the same way. How could it be improved? There are three delays, and each of them could be improved or removed.

Delay 1: Opening a pod

Why should she have to open the pod with a button or handprint reader or whatever that thing is? The pods should be open at all times.

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If pods had to be sealed for some biological or mechanical reason, then a pod should open up for her immediately when she enters the room. Simple motion detectors are all that is needed.

If she has to authorize for some dystopian, only-certain-people-can-be-saved corporate reason, then a voice print could work, allowing her to shout in the hallway as she runs for the pod.

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Some passive recognition would be even better since it wouldn’t cost her even the time of shouting: Face-recognition or fast retinal scan through cameras mounted in the room or the pod. Run a quick laser line across her face and she’s authorized.

Delay 2: Suiting Up

Can she put on the environment suit in the pod? Yes, the pod is cramped, but that’s the biggest delay she experiences. Increase the size of the pod slightly to allow for that kind of maneuvering, and then she can just grab the suit as she’s running by and put it on in the pod’s relative safety.

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Even cooler would be if the pod was the environment suit: All she would have to do is throw herself in the pod, activate it, and the minute she landed on LV223, the capsule transformed, Autobot-style, into an exosuit, giving her more protection and more enhancement for survival on an alien planet. Plus, you can imagine the awesomeness of letting Vickers fight the zombified Weyland Ripley-style.

Delay 3: Activation

This is one delay that I’m pretty sure can’t be either automatic or passive. The cost of making a mistake is too dire. Accidentally pressed a button? Sorry, you’re now being shot away from the mother ship faster than it can travel. Still, why does she have to hit a series of buttons here? Is it a (shudder) password, as a corporate cost-control measure? Yes, that spells dystopia, but it should be faster and more intuitive, and we’ve already authorized her, above.

Fortunately this doesn’t need much rethinking. Since we’ve already seen a great interaction used for an emergency procedure, i.e. the 5-finger touch-twist used for emergency decontamination on the MedPod, I’d suggest using that. Crew would only have to be trained once.

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The total interaction, then, should be that Vickers:

  1. Runs to the escape room
  2. Is identified passively (and notified of it by voice)
  3. Grabs a suit (this is optional if you go with the awesome exosuit idea)
  4. Throws herself into an open pod
  5. Performs a simple gesture on a touch pad
  6. Is shot away from the soon-to-explode ship

Bam! You have saved massive amounts of time, a crewmember removed from the immediate danger, and you have the setup for an awesome ending where Vickers in her exosuit can just punch the falling alien spaceship out of the the way rather than running from it like a moron.