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 →
The hospital doesn’t have the equipment to decrypt and download the actual data. But Jane knows that the LoTeks can, so they drive to the ruined bridge that is the LoTek home base. As mentioned earlier under Door Bombs and Safety Catches the bridge guards nearly kill them due to a poorly designed defensive system. Once again Johnny is not impressed by the people who are supposed to help him.
When Johnny has calmed down, he is introduced to Jones, the LoTek codebreaker who decrypts corporate video broadcasts. Jones is a cyborg dolphin.Continue reading →
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.
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 →
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 →
Several times throughout the movie, Loki uses places the point of the glaive on a victim’s chest near their heart, and a blue fog passes from the stone to infect them: an electric blackness creeps upward along their skin from their chest until it reaches their eyes, which turn fully black for a moment before becoming the same ice blue of the glaive’s stone, and we see that the victim is now enthralled into Loki’s servitude.
As Jack searches early in the film for Drone 172, he parks his bike next to a sinkhole in the desert and cautiously peers into it. As he does so, he is being observed from afar by a sinister looking Scav through a set of asymmetrical…well, it’s not exactly right to call them binoculars.
They look kind of binocular, but that term technically refers to a machine that displays two slighty-offset images shown independently to each eye such that the user perceives stereopsis, or a single field in 3D. But a quick shot from the Scav’s perspective shows that this is not what is shown at all. Continue reading →
One notable hybrid interface device, with both physical and digital aspects, is the Drone Programmer. It is used to encode key tasks or functions into the drone. Note that it is seen only briefly—so we’re going off very little information. It facilitates a crucial low-level reprogramming of Drone 172.
This device is a handheld item, grasped on the left, approximately 3 times as wide as it is tall. Several physical buttons are present, but are unused in the film: aside from grasping, all interaction is done through use of a small touchscreen with enough sensitivity to capture fingertip taps on very small elements.
Jack uses the Programmer while the drone is disabled. When he pulls the cord out of the drone, the drone restarts and immediately begins to try and move/understand its surroundings.
When Drone 172 is released from the Programmer cable, it is in a docile and inert state…
Ghostbusters have a handheld device that detects “psycho-kinetic energy” (PKE), called, appropriately, the P.K.E. Meter.
Early in the library scene, Spengler is holding the device up in front of his eyes when he explains to Stentz that, “It’s moving.” So theoretically, there is some way by which it helps locate the source of PKE concentration. When we see the front of the device, it’s a bunch of small indictor lights, and impossible to make any sense of what we see there. (In fact, the later scene seems to have the orientation of the device horizontally flipped.) The inscrutability of the interface is fine, diegetically, since it’s a custom device built by scientists for themselves, but as they try and hire new ghostbusters and train them, they’re going to want to think about ease-of-training.
You might think that that green display we see in this first scene is pointing in a cardinal direction, i.e. just behind Spengler, but when we see the same device later, right next to the Keymaster, those indicator lights are spinning around a center that’s off the edge of the screen, so, again, the meaning of these lights is inscrutable.
Its most salient feature are the two arms that rotate out from either side, which are topped with a line of amber lights. When in the presence of high levels of PKE, the arms raise up and the lights blink more rapidly. At max PKE, the arms extend horizontally and the lights blink quite rapidly (see above). Unlike the user interface, these little guys are awesome. Let me explain why.
Both their lights and their extension help convey immediately the main point of the device: more PKE nearby. Notably they do so using two hard-to-miss signals that build on universal mental maps: up equals more, and faster blink is more urgent. Even if you can’t parse the UI, you get this. The immediacy means a lower cognitive load for the ghostbuster who’s attention needs to be on the environment around them primarily and on this device secondarily. Having physical motion and blinking even means it could be well in their peripheral vision and still convey the information. But it gets better. Even if it was out of sight, the motors that move the arms would provide a bit of sound and even haptic information that something has changed.
And lastly, we should keep in mind that ghostbusting is a service, and the customers are a vital part of that equation. Even if they don’t use it directly, they see it being used, and what it conveys to them as a touchpoint is important. If they are doubting, for example, the existence of ghosts, the little arms and lights would provide an immediately-understandable sense of whoa, and there’s a direct-feedback loop to verify that it’s not random. It’s detecting something in the environment. That would give the customers and onlookers a confidence that is important to new businesses operating within dubious domains.
So, seriously, those PKE arms are awesome and now I wish I had gone as a P.K.E. Meter for Halloween this year. Well, there’s always next year maybe at a sci-fi interfaces all-costume Halloween ball.
Not everyone is comfortable giving over to the flimsy promise of Carrousel [sic]. Some citizens run, and Sandmen find and terminate these cultural heretics.
Sandmen carry a device with them that has many different uses. It goes unnamed in the movie, so let’s just call it the SandPhone. It is a thick black rectangle about 20cm at its long edge, about the size of a very large cell phone. Near the earpiece on one broad side is a small screen for displaying text and images. Below that is a white line. The lower half of this face is metallic grill that covers a microphone. On the left edge is a momentary button that allows talking. Just above this is a small red button. When not in use, the device is holstered on the sandman’s belt.
The SandPhone lets the Sandman receive information through a display that can show both image and text. The Sandman sends back information and requests by voice in a CB radio metaphor.
The first time we see the device is when Logan and Francis are attending Carrousel. Somehow, on his belt it catches his attention. With the crowd too loud for sound, and no evidence it’s light, my bet’s on haptics. Realizing he’s got a message, he picks it up, presses the edge button and the screen displays two lines of text:
RUNNER: GREAT HALL ENTRANCE WEST.
He then puts the device to his face as we would a cell phone and shouts, “Affirmative!” as loud as he can.
Running with the device outside the Great Hall, Logan uses the SandPhone as a detector. By holding it flat out in front of him he hears a rhythmic pulse. Turning it this way and that, he listens for the change in pitch. It rises when he is pointing towards the targeted runner.
When he and Francis have terminated the runner, he snaps the device off his belt, and pressing the edge button, he reports back to dispatch, “Runner terminated, 0.31. Ready for cleanup.” Then by placing the device near the head of the dead runner, the device displays on the screen the last photographic image of him on file. Since the face on the SandPhone screen does not match the face he sees before him, Logan lifts the device to his face and, holding the edge button, requests an identity check of dispatch. Instantly he pulls the device away from his face to show the text:
IDENT. AFFIRM NEW YOU #483 FACE CHANGE.
Much later in the film we see Logan alert dispatch to the location of the underground hideout by reaching down to the holstered device and pressing the white line button on its face. Its screen pulses green, and his position is highlight on the runner board (see below) at dispatch. Minutes later the location is raided by Sandmen.
The first thing to note is that this is pretty close to a modern smart phone. He receives images and text messages, can talk to dispatch, and it has a biometric capability for identifying citizens. It’s tempting to paint this as visionary, but keep in mind that the first mobile phone was demonstrated in 1973, three years earlier, so it’s likely that the film makers were riffing off of the demo technology they’d heard about or maybe even seen in person.
We evaluate an interface’s design by how well it helps its user achieves his goals. (Even if those goals are anethma. That’s how we judge an interface.) In this case, the SandPhone helps Logan get the information he needs, when he needs it, across multiple channels. It doesn’t distract him with other functions. It’s context aware and doesn’t apparently have battery issues.
There are improvements of course.
We should make sure his hands are free by making the information available as an augmented reality display instead of a handheld device. This would also give him the information privately rather than display it for anyone (notably members of the resistance) to see it. Wayfinding would be more sensible as an overlay to his vision through this device.
Some surface tweaks might also be made, such as giving him a means of text input so he wouldn’t have to shout above the roar of Carrousel. Some silent means of input would help for when he needs to provide silent input as well. First I thought optical inputs might be ideal, given the augmented reality, but we don’t want his eyes distracted like that, even for the duration of glances. Instead some other gestural input—perhaps a face twitch or subvocal input—that lets him keep the rest of his body tense and ready for action.
Citizen biometrics should be a background fact, given the penopticon of Dome City. The information would come to him when he gets his assignement. But turn those same biometrics around on Logan, and his body could request reinforcements before he even thought to do so manually. When his heart rate elevates and galvanic skin response lowers, dispatch would know something was up, and route backup immediately.
A strategic interaction designer would even ask why he has to chase runners at all, when predictive algorithms could guess which citizens were likely to run and take action to forestall their rebellion. But then we’re into Minority Report, and this needs to stay Logan’s Run.