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 →
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 →
And finally we come to the often-promised cyberspace search sequence, my favourite interface in the film. It starts at 36:30 and continues, with brief interruptions to the outside world, to 41:00. I’ll admit there are good reasons not to watch the entire film, but if you are interested in interface design, this will be five minutes well spent. Included here are the relevant clips, lightly edited to focus on the user interfaces.
Johnny and Jane have broken into a neighbourhood computer shop, which in 2021 will have virtual reality gear just as today even the smallest retailer has computer mice. Johnny clears miscellaneous parts off a table and then sits down, donning a headset and datagloves.
Headsets haven’t really changed much since 1995 when this film was made. Barring some breakthrough in neural interfaces, they remain the best way to block off the real world and immerse a user into the virtual world of the computer. It’s mildly confusing to a current day audience to hear Johnny ask for “eyephones”, which in 1995 was the name of a particular VR headset rather than the popular “iPhone” of today.Continue reading →
This post is about the speculative suicide kit called Quietus that appears in Children of Men.
Suicide is not an easy topic and I will do my best to address it seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.
In fact because this is a serious life-and-death issue, I’m going against my usual scifiinterfaces tack of thinking through this as a real-world product. While I believe in our right to self-direct our deaths with dignity in the face of terminal illness or longterm suffering, I also believe that it should be handled by caring, informed, and professional people rather than a kit. So, instead, I’m only going to address the design in the context of the film. It would take much more research, time, and the input of many professionals to confidently design for such a product in the real world.
So, on to Quietus, as part of the movie.
When Theo visits his friend Jasper’s home, we are introduced to the blue kit, open on the coffee table between them. Theo reads out of a booklet that comes with it, “Is there a chance it will not work for me? There have been no cases of anyone surviving who has taken the preparation.” Afterward their conversation quickly veers off in another direction.
In the subsequent scene, when Theo is woken up by an alarm on his television, an ad for Quietus is playing. In it we read the tagline, “You Decide When,” and read three benefits being sold by the ad.
Up to £2,000 to your next of kin.
Painless transition guaranteed.
The visuals include a man determinately drinking some clear blue liquid in a glass with a Quietus logo, before standing up and walking across a beach toward the surf, only to fade away.
Later, when Theo runs after one of London’s double-decker busses, we see the video ad again on the side of the bus, repeating the tag line and the benefit, “Up to £2,000 to your next of kin.”
In a deeply moving scene (among many in this film) Jasper eventually uses the kit to kill his longtime-unresponsive wife Janice, before the Fishes extremist group comes to their house to kill them.
Quietus is not central to the plot. There are other ways Jasper could have spared his wife a terrible death or mistreatment at the hands of the Fishes.
Rather, Quietus is a narrative, worldbuilding prop that helps us understand the world of the story. It helps us to understand that people are so desperate and depressed they are willing, at mass scale, to consider suicide. It helps us to understand that the government is facing such a terrible lack of resources that it has to incentivize this suicide to keep its population to some manageable level, to those who can still press on. It helps to underscore how important the sound of children’s voices are to most of the world’s sense of hope and purpose.
Given that narrative purpose, the design of the kit is sublime.
The name frames the kit as a positive, peaceful thing. Even the “–us” suffix helps tell the story by appealing to a collective sense. It’s to “quiet us.” The word sounds Latinate and thereby educated, medical, trustworthy. It focuses on a result, i.e. quiet, and distracts from its morbidness.
The logotype looks like it is set in a modified Times New Roman or Garamond (can anyone identify it?), and the letter spacing is wide; signaling familiarity, trust and serenity.
The kit comes with a glass with the logo to give a sense of ritual and importance, reinforce the brand promise, and help the participants get the measurements right.
The repeated use of sky-blue color and white beams in the ad, the box, and the liquid speak to freedom, spirituality, and something greater than ourselves.
The professional design of the kit (its advertisement, the printed graphics on the box) and its high production quality (a glass, a little bottle for the drug, the glossy cardboard of the 4-color printed box, the vacuum-formed plastic that holds these and the booklet) helps us understand the scope of the initiative. This is not something a ragtag group has cobbled together, but an expensive, professional offering.
The reimbursement helps us infer that the reasons the government is offering it are financial.
Welcoming “illegals” reinforces that politically, this world is defined by the refugee crisis, which points to the larger infertility world crisis that gave it rise.
I can imagine two improvements that might increase believability for the story.
The logotype on the glass should be the same one as everywhere else. (We see a closeup of the different logo in the TV ad, see above.) I suspect this is a production error, but the angles of the Futura-like typeface seem cold and precise, off-brand from what we see elsewhere. It doesn’t add anything to have them mismatched, and detracts a bit from the professional, trustworthy veneer.
The organization promises a financial incentive to participants’ next of kin. This adds a believability complication. How would the organization confirm deaths while protecting against fraud?
1. Someone contacts Quietus and says, “I’m about to kill myself with Quietus. Send the money to mycousin John at the following account.” (1a. Doesn’t actually kill themselves. 1b. May actually be the John in question.)
2. Someone contacts Quietus and says, “I’ve just found the body of my cousin John, and a note reading I am to receive money from Quietus.” (2a. John may not be dead. 2b. John may not even be aware of this scam. 2c. Or the cousin may have killed John.)
Presuming that the government still seeks to process cadavers rather than let them decay at the place of death, the local coroner would still be involved in processing the body, and could be used as the source of confirmation of actual death, identity of the body, and relationship to the recipient. To embody this, there would need to be some easy way (and incentive) for the coroner to report the death back to Quietus. This points at a missing artifact in the movie.
I’d recommend a bracelet or necklace in the kit with a blue Quietus background, the logo, and a QR code or large ID number, meant to be worn by the participant prior to taking the drink and later noticed and used by the coroner. Medicalert would be a good, recognizable model for production. In the scene, Jasper would glance at it briefly and discard it, but it would be a nice rounding out of the logic of the service.
The characters in Johnny Mnemonic make quite a few video phone calls throughout the film, enough to be grouped in their own section on interfaces.
The first thing a modern viewer will note is that only one of the phones resembles a current day handheld mobile. This looks very strange today and it’s hard to imagine why we would ever give up our beloved iPhones and Androids. I’ll just observe that accurately predicting the future is difficult (and not really the point) and move on.
More interesting is the variety of phones used. In films from the 1950s to the 1990s, everyone uses a desk phone with a handset. (For younger readers: that is the piece you picked up and held next to your ear and mouth. There’s probably one in your parents’ house.) The only changes were the gradual replacement of rotary dials by keypads, and some cordless handsets. In 21st century films everyone uses a small sleek handheld box. But in Johnny Mnemonic every phone call uses a different interface.
First is the phone call Johnny makes from the New Darwin hotel.
As previously discussed, Johnny is lying in bed using a remote control to select numbers on the onscreen keypad. He is facing a large wall mounted TV/display screen, with what looks like a camera at the top. The camera is realistic but unusual: as Chapter 10 of Make It So notes, films very rarely show the cameras used in visual communication.Continue reading →
If Jasper’s car is aftermarket, Syd’s built-in display seems to be more consumer-savvy. It is a blue electroluminescent flat display built into the dashboard. It has more glanceable information with a cleaner information hierarchy. It has no dangerous keyboard entry. All we see of the display in these few glimpses is the speedometer, but even that’s enough to illustrate these differences.
The second half of the film is all about retrieving the data from Johnny’s implant without the full set of access codes. Johnny needs to get the data downloaded soon or he will die from the “synaptic seepage” caused by squeezing 320G of data into a system with 160G capacity. The bad guys would prefer to remove his head and cryogenically freeze it, allowing them to take their time over retrieval.
1 of 3: Spider’s Scanners
The implant cable interface won’t allow access to the data without the codes. To bypass this protection requires three increasingly complicated brain scanners, two of them medical systems and the final a LoTek hacking device. Although the implant stores data, not human memories, all of these brain scanners work in the same way as the Non-invasive, “Reading from the brain” interfaces described in Chapter 7 of Make It So.
The first system is owned by Spider, a Newark body modification
specialist. Johnny sits in a chair, with an open metal framework
surrounding his head. There’s a bright strobing light, switching on
and off several times a second.
Nearby a monitor shows a large rotating image of his head and skull, and three smaller images on the left labelled as Scans 1 to 3. Continue reading →
After fleeing the Yakuza in the hotel, Johnny arrives in the Free City of Newark, and has to go through immigration control. This process appears to be entirely automated, starting with an electronic passport reader.
The Internet 2021 shot that begins the film ends in a hotel suite, where it wakes up lead character Johnny. This is where we see the first real interface in the film. It’s also where this discussion gets more complicated.
A note on my review strategy
As a 3D graphics enthusiast, I’d be happy just to analyze the cyberspace scenes, but when you write for Sci Fi Interfaces, there is a strict rule that every interface in a film must be subjected to inspection. And there are a lot of interfaces in Johnny Mnemonic. (Curse your exhaustive standards, Chris!)
A purely chronological approach which would spend too much time looking at trees and not enough at the forest. So I’ll be jumping back and forth a bit, starting with the gadgets and interfaces that appear only once, then moving on to the recurring elements, variations on a style or idea that are repeated during the film.
The wakeup call arrives in the hotel room as a voice announcement—a sensible if obvious choice for someone who is asleep—and also as text on a wall screen, giving the date, time, and temperature. The voice is artificial sounding but pleasant rather than grating, letting you know that it’s a computer and not some hotel employee who let himself in. The wall display functions as both a passive television and an interactive computer monitor. Johnny picks up a small remote control to silence the wake up call.
This remote is a small black box like most current-day equivalents, but with a glowing red light at one end. At the time of writing blue lights and indicators are popular for consumer electronics, apparently following the preference set by science fiction films and noted in Make It So. Johnny Mnemonic is an outlier in using red lights, as we’ll see more of these as the film progresses. Here the glow might be some kind of infrared or laser beam that sends a signal, or it might simply indicate the right way to orient the control in the hand for the controls to make sense.Continue reading →
The Galactica’s fighter launch catapults are each controlled by a ‘shooter’ in an armored viewing pane. There is one ‘shooter’ for every two catapults. To launch a Viper, he has a board with a series of large twist-handles, a status display, and a single button. We can also see several communication devices:
Ear-mounted mic and speaker
Board mounted mic
Phone system in the background
These could relate to one of several lines of communication each:
The Viper pilot
Any crew inside the launch pod
Crew just outside the launch pod
CIC (for strategic status updates)
Other launch controllers at other stations
‘On call’ rooms for replacement operators
Each row on the launch display appears to conform to some value coming off of the Viper or the Galactica’s magnetic catapults. The ‘shooter’ calls off Starbuck’s launch three times due to some value he sees on his status board (fluctuating engine power right before launch).
We do not see any other data inputs. Something like a series of cameras on a closed circuit could show him an exterior view of the entire Viper, providing additional information to the sensors.
When Starbuck is ready to launch on the fourth try, the ‘shooter’ twists the central knob and, at the same time and with the same hand, pushes down a green button. The moment the ‘shooter’ hits the button, Starbuck’s Viper is launched into space.
There are other twist knobs across the entire board, but these do not appear to conform directly to the act of launching the Viper, and they do not act like the central knob. They appear instead to be switches, where turning them from one position to another locks them in place.
There is no obvious explanation for the number of twist knobs, but each one might conform to an electrical channel to the catapult, or some part of the earlier launch sequence.
Nothing in the launch control interprets anything for the ‘shooter’. He is given information, then expected to interpret it himself. From what we see, this information is basic enough to not cause a problem and allow him to quickly make a decision.
Without networking the launch system together so that it can poll its own information and make its own decisions, there is little that can improve the status indicators. (And networking is made impossible in this show because of Cylon hackers.) The board is easily visible from the shooter chair, each row conforms directly to information coming in from the Viper, and the relate directly to the task at hand.
The most dangerous task the shooter does is actually decide to launch the Viper into space. If either the Galactica or the Viper isn’t ready for that action, it could cause major damage to the Viper and the launch systems.
A two-step control for this is the best method, and the system now requires two distinct motions (a twist-and-hold, then a separate and distinct *click*). This is effective at confirming that the shooter actually wants to send the Viper into space.
To improve this control, the twist and button could be moved far enough apart (reference, under “Two-Hand Controls” ) that it requires two hands to operate the control. That way, there is no doubt that the shooter intends to activate the catapult.
If the controls are separated like that, it would take some amount of effort to make sure the two controls are visually connected across the board, either through color, or size, or layout. Right now, that would be complicated by the similarity in the final twist control, and the other handles that do different jobs.
Changing these controls to large switches or differently shaped handles would make the catapult controls less confusing to use.