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.

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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

Touch Walls

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When exploring the complex, David espies a few cuneiform-like characters high up on a stone wall. He is able to climb a ladder, decipher the language quickly, ascertain that it is an interface rather than an inscription, and figure out how to surreptitiously operate it. To do so, he puts his finger at the top of one of the grooves and drags downward. The groove illuminates briefly in response, and then fades. He does this to another groove, then presses a dot, and presses another dot not near the first one at all. Finally he presses a horizontal triangle firmly, which after a beat plays a 1:1 scale glowing-pollen volumetric projection.

The material and feedback of this interaction are lovely. The grooves provide a nice, tactile, physical affordance for the gesture. A groove is for dragging. A dot or a shape is for pressing. But I cannot imagine what kind of affordances are available to this language such that David can suss out the order of operation on two undifferentiated grooves. Of course presuming that the meaning of the dot and triangle are somehow self-evident to speakers of Architect, David has a 50% chance of getting the order of the grooves right. So we might be able to cut this scene some slack.

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But a few scenes later, this is stretched beyond credulity. When David encounters a similarly high-up interface, he is able to ascertain on sight that chording—pressing two controls at once—is possible and necessary for operation. For this interface, he presses and drags 14 different chords flawlessly to open the ancient alien door. This is a much longer sequence involving an interaction that has no affordance.

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Looking at the design of the command, an evaluation depends if it’s just a command or a password. If it’s just a control that means “open the door,” why would it take 14 characters’ worth of a command? Is there that much that this door can do? Otherwise a simple press-to-open seems like a more usable design.

If it’s a door security system then the 14 part input is a security password. This would be the more likely interpretation since the chamber beyond contains the deadly, deadly xenomorph liquid. With this in mind it’s a good design to have a 14-part password that includes a required interaction with no affordance. I’m no statistician, but I think the likelihood of guessing the correct password to be 14 factorial, or around 87,178,291,200 to 1. I have no idea what the odds are for guessing the correct operation of an interaction with zero affordance. We’d have to show some aliens MS-DOS to get some hard numbers, but that seems pretty damned secure. Unfortunately, it also stretches the believability of the scene way past the breaking point, to presume that David can just observe the alien login screen and guess the giant password.