Jasper’s home alarm

When Theo, Kee, and Miriam flee the murderous Fishes, they take refuge in Jasper’s home for the night. They are awoken in the morning by Jasper’s sentry system.


A loud cacophonous alarm sounds, made up of what sounds like recorded dog barks, bells clanging, and someone banging a stick on a metal trash can lid. Jasper explains to everyone in the house that “It’s the alarm! Someone’s breaking in!”

They gather around a computer screen with large speakers on either side. The screen shows four video feeds labeled ROAD A, FOREST A, FRONT DOOR, and ROAD B. Labels reading MOTION DETECTED <> blink at the bottom of the ROAD A and ROAD B feeds, where we can see members of the Fishes removing the brush that hides the driveway to Jasper’s house. 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

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.


The first computer interface we see in the film occurs at 3:55. It’s an interface for housing and monitoring the tesseract, a cube that is described in the film as “an energy source” that S.H.I.E.L.D. plans to use to “harness energy from space.” We join the cube after it has unexpectedly and erratically begun to throw off low levels of gamma radiation.

The harnessing interface consists of a housing, a dais at the end of a runway, and a monitoring screen.


Fury walks past the dais they erected just because.

The housing & dais

The harness consists of a large circular housing that holds the cube and exposes one face of it towards a long runway that ends in a dais. Diegetically this is meant to be read more as engineering than interface, but it does raise questions. For instance, if they didn’t already know it was going to teleport someone here, why was there a dais there at all, at that exact distance, with stairs leading up to it? How’s that harnessing energy? Wouldn’t you expect a battery at the far end? If they did expect a person as it seems they did, then the whole destroying swaths of New York City thing might have been avoided if the runway had ended instead in the Hulk-holding cage that we see later in the film. So…you know…a considerable flaw in their unknown-passenger teleportation landing strip design. Anyhoo, the housing is also notable for keeping part of the cube visible to users near it, and holding it at a particular orientation, which plays into the other component of the harness—the monitor.

Avengers-cubemonitoring-03 Continue reading


Regular readers will have noticed that Starship Troopers is on a bit of pause of late, and the reason is that I am managing a bizarrely busy stint of presentations related to the scifiinterfaces project. Also it’s Halloweek and I want to do more spooky stuff. Last week I wondered e-loud if Gozer from Ghostbusters was a pink Sith, but this post is actually talking about a bit of the interfaces from the movie.

When the Ghostbusters are called to the Sedgewick Hotel, they track a ghost called Slimer from his usual haunt on the 12th floor to a ballroom. There Ray dons a pair of asymmetrical goggles that show him information about the “psycho-kinetic energy (PKE) valences” in the area. (The Ghostbusters wiki—and of course there is such a thing—identifies these alternately as paragoggles or ectogoggles.) He uses the goggles to peek from behind a curtain to look for Slimer.


Far be it for this humble blog to try and reverse-engineer what PKE valences actually are, but let’s presume it generally means ghosts and ghost related activity. Here’s an animated gif of the display for your ghostspotting pleasure.


As he scans the room, we see a shot from his perspective. Five outputs augment the ordinary view the googles offer.

Continue reading

Rodger Young combat interfaces

The interfaces aboard the Rodger Young in combat are hard to take seriously. The captain’s interface, for instance, features arrays of wireframe spheres that zoom from the bottom of the screen across horizontal lines to become blinking green squares. The shapes bear only the vaguest resemblance to the plasma bolts, but don’t match what we see out the viewscreen or the general behavior of the bolts at all. But the ridiculousness doesn’t end there.

Boomdots_8fps Continue reading

Collision Alarm

Holy dreck this fuigetry.

After letting Captain Deladier know what’s up with the giant asteroid looming spinning ever closer, Barcalow’s attention is grabbed by a screen immediately before him. It’s the collision alarm.

Prepare your eyes.


This is the interface equivalent of running around screaming in an Ed Wynn voice while flailing your arms over your head. Sure, it’s clear something’s wrong, but other than that, it’s not helping.

Sure, there’s the buzzing and the giant yellow, all-caps text that blinks COLLISION ALARM. There’s a pea green bar that seems to be indicating steadily decreasing distance or time or something that is running out. Those two are helpful. The rest of this information is a pile of nonsense.

  • Blinking? If the pilot has seconds to act, isn’t there a risk that when he glances at the screen for a split second, that he’ll miss something?
  • What’s with the blue waves rippling out from the representation of the ship? If it’s a collision, wouldn’t you expect something to be represented as coming toward the ship, and maybe a line describing its path, and a point illustrating point of impact?
  • Why do all of the NV need to be labeled as such? Why do they need to blink randomly? How is that useful information?
  • How do those numbers link to those labels? Isn’t that asking the navigator to do a lot of visual work in a crisis?
  • What does it mean for the ESTIMATED MASS to be changing to zero and suddenly jump again? Because that would better fit a Cthulu alarm, as the physics of the Old World no longer applied. Stell’bsna n’ghft. Y’hah.
  • What does it mean for the APPROXIMATE SPEED to start so low, rise to nearly 1000, and fall again? What outside force is acting on this mass? (Or is it a function of the mass changing? Anyone care to do the speculative math?)
  • The DISTANCE TO OBJECT does in fact decrease like you might expect it to at the beginning. But then it drops to zero. Shouldn’t they be dieing instead? Oh, but then it jumps again.
  • Why is time contained in a single number? Does the Federation use some Metric version of time?
  • How can OBJECT TRAJECTORY be a single digit? It’s a multivariate concept.
  • Why are there no units? As in, anywhere?
  • How could OBJECT BEARING change to zero and then jump back up again just like ESTIMATED
  • …wait…
  • …Are you kidding me?

And that’s when I went, frame by frame, and captured the data points. Here they are, visualized as a graph over time. Notice anything?


OK, let me just line those up for you.


I know sci-fi interfaces are often made under time pressure, but it really lets me down when they just copy and paste numbers. Like we won’t, many years later, analyze it frame-by-frame for a blog. Sheesh.

Urgency requires focus

Of course this is a narrative interface, meant to communicate to an audience in about a second that things are very very bad for the Rodger Young. Of course it’s rooted in a mechanical metaphor where dumb, fixed sensors with thresholds would go all calamity when things went pear-shaped.

We don’t live in that world anymore. Urgency requires focus, and when circumstances are dire, yes, the pilot needs to know the direness of the problem, but then they also need to focus on fixing that problem. Urgency interfaces should…

  1. Get attention, and once they have it ease up on the attention getting, since it becomes a distraction.
  2. Illustrate the problem, including time-until-anticipated.
  3. Illustrate what the computer is doing about it (if it’s agentive, which the Rodger Young is clearly not.)
  4. Illustrate the best options available and provide a means to enact those.

Note that the COLLISION ALERT does two and a half of those. It gets Barcalow’s attention, shows the problem with a label, and a green bar shows time remaining. That’s maybe a tenth of the screen. Then it tries its very, very best to distract the user from that useful information with blinking, semi-random nonsense. Was this thing designed by the bugs?