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 →
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.
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 itcan 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.
Much of the control of Morbius’ highly technological house is given to wave-over switches. These devices sit on the tops of tables, and illuminate briefly when they detect a hand moving above them. Each is keyed to a different job.
Alta must beam Robbie several times before he arrives.
One of these devices summons Robbie. After waving her hand several times over it, Alta expresses her frustration when Robbie finally arrives. “Where have you been?” she asks, “I’ve beamed and beamed.” It hints at the need for some feedback from Robbie that he has heard the summons and is coming.
With a wave of his hand Morbius activates the security shutters around his house.
Another hand wave device closes or opens the protective metal shutters that seal Morbius’ house.
To see the outdoors better, Morbius waves off the indoor lights.
Another one allows him to turn off interior lights, which he uses in the film to see what is approaching so noisily.
One interesting fact of these interfaces is that they lack any affordance for their cause and effect. How is a new user meant to know to wave? How would she know what would happen as a result? Though this is generally inadvisable, we can imagine that Morbius only ever planned for he and Alta to use it.