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 →
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 Battlestar Galactica is a twisting and interlocking series of large hallways that provide walking access to all parts of the ship. The hallways are poorly labeled, and are almost impossible for someone without experience to navigate. Seriously, look at these images and see if you can tell where you are, or where you’re supposed to head to find…well, anything.
Billy (a young political assistant steeped in modern technology) finds this out after losing the rest of his tour group.
The hallways lack even the most basic signage that we expect in our commercial towers and office buildings. We see no indication of what deck a given corridor is on, what bulkhead a certain intersection is located at, or any obvious markings on doorways.
We do see small, cryptic alphanumerics near door handles:
Based off of current day examples, the alphanumeric would mark the bulkhead the door was at, the level it was on, and which section it was in. This would let anyone who knew the system figure out where they were on the ship.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.
The security alert occurs in two parts. The first is a paddock alert that starts on a single terminal but gets copied to the big shared screen. The second is a security monitor for the visitor center in which the control room sits. Both of these live as part of the larger Jurassic Park.exe, alongside the Explorer Status panel, and take the place of the tour map on the screen automatically.
After Nedry disables security, the central system fires an alert as each of the perimeter fence systems go down. Each section of the fence blinks red, with a large “UNARMED” on top of the section. After blinking, the fence line disappears. To the right is the screen for monitoring vehicles. Continue reading →
In the last post we went over the Iron HUD components. There is a great deal to say about the interactions and interface, but let’s just take a moment to recount everything that the HUD does over the Iron Man movies and The Avengers. Keep in mind that just as there are many iterations of the suit, there can be many iterations of the HUD, but since it’s largely display software controlled by JARVIS, the functions can very easily move between exosuits.
Along the bottom of the HUD are some small gauges, which, though they change iconography across the properties, are consistently present.
For the most part they persist as tiny icons and thereby hard to read, but when the suit reboots in a high-altitude freefall, we get to see giant versions of them, and can read that they are:
One computer in the control room is dedicated to showing the status of the Jeeps out on tour, and where they currently are on the island.
Next to the vehicle outline, we see the words “Vehicle Type: Ford Explorer” (thank you, product placement) along with “EXP” 4–7. EXP 4 & 5 look unselected, but have green dots next to them, while EXP 6 & 7 look selected with red dots next to them. No characters interact with this screen. Mr. Arnold does tap on it with a pen (to make a point though, not to interact with it).
On the right hand side of the screen also see a top-down view of the car with the electric track shown underneath, and little red arrows pointing forward. Below the graphic are the words “13 mph”. The most visible and obvious indicator on the screen is the headlights. A large “Headlights On” indicator is at the top of the screen, with highlighted cones coming out of the Jeep where the headlights are on the car. Continue reading →
Jurassic Park’s weather prediction software sits on a dedicated computer. It pulls updates from some large government weather forecast (likely NOAA). The screen is split into three sections (clockwise from top left):
A 3D representation of the island and surrounding ocean with cloud layers shown
A plan view of the island showing cloud cover
A standard climate metrics along the bottom with data like wind direction (labeled Horizontal Direction), barometric pressure, etc.
We also see a section labeled “Sectors”, with “Island 1” currently selected (other options include “USA” and “Island 2”…which is suitably mysterious).
Using the software, they are able to pan the views to the area of ocean with an incoming tropical storm. The map does not show rainfall, wind direction, wind speed, or distance; but the control room seems to have another source of information for that. They discuss the projected path of the storm while looking at the map.
The park staff relies on the data from weather services of America and Costa Rica, but doesn’t trust their conclusions (Muldoon asks if this storm will swing out of the way at the last second despite projections, “like the last one”). But the team at Jurassic Park doesn’t have any information on what’s actually happening with the storm.
Unlike local weather stations here in the U.S., or sites like NOAA weather maps, there is in this interface a lack of basic forecasting information like, say, precipitation amount, precipitation type, individual wind speeds inside the storm, direction, etc… Given the deadly, deadly risks inherent in the park, this seems like a significant oversight.
The software has spent a great deal of time rendering a realistic-ish cloud (which, we should note looks foreshadowingly like a human skull), but neglects to give information that is taken for granted by common weather information systems.
When the park meteorologist isn’t on duty, or isn’t awake, or has his attention on the Utahraptor trying to smash its way into the control room, the software should provide some basic information to everyone on staff:
What does the weather forecast look like over the next few hours and days?
When the weather is likely to be severe, there’s more information, and it needs to urgently get the attention of the park staff.
What’s the prediction?
Which parts of the park will be hit hardest?
Which tours and staff are in the most dangerous areas?
How long will the storm be over the island?
If this information tied into mobile apps or Jurassic Park’s wider systems, it could provide alerts to individual staff, tourists, and tours about where they could take shelter.
Make the Information Usable
Reorienting information that is stuck on the bottom bar and shifting it into the 3d visual would lower the cognitive load required to understand everything that’s going on. Adding in visuals for other weather data (taken for granted in weather systems now) would bring it at least up to standard.
Finally, putting it up on the big monitor either on demand or when it is urgent would make it available to everyone in the control room, instead of just whoever happened to be at the weather monitor. Modern systems would push the information information out to staff and visitors on their mobile devices as well.
With those changes, everyone could see weather in real time to adjust their behavior appropriately (like, say, delaying the tour when there’s a tropical storm an hour south), the programmer could check the systems and paddocks that are going to get hit, and the inactive consoles could do whatever they needed to do.
After following a beacon signal, Jack makes his way through an abandoned building, tracking the source. At one point he stops by a box on the wall, as he sees a couple of cables coming out from the inside of it, and cautiously opens it.
I can’t talk much about interactions on this one given that he does not do much with it. But I guess readers might be interested to know about the actual prop used in the movie, so after zooming in on a screen capture and a bit of help from Google I found the actual radio.
When Jack opens the box he finds the repeater device inside. He realizes that it’s connected to the building structure, using it as an antenna, and over their audio connection asks Vika to decrypt the signal.
The desktop interface
Although this sequence centers around the transmission from the repeater, most of the interactions take place on Vika’s desktop interface. A modal window on the display shows her two slightly different waveforms that overlap one another. But it’s not clear at all why the display shows two signals instead of just one, let aside what the second signal means.
After Jack identifies it as a repeater and asks her to decrypt the signal, Vika touches a DECODE button on her screen. With a flourish of orange and white, the display changes to reveal a new panel of information, providing a LATITUDE INPUT and LONGITUDE INPUT, which eventually resolve to 41.146576 -73.975739. (Which, for the curious, resolves to Stelfer Trading Company in Fairfield, Connecticut here on Earth. Hi, M. Stelfer!) Vika says, “It’s a set of coordinates. Grid 17. It’s a goddamn homing beacon.”
At the control tower Vika was already tracking the signal through her desktop interface. As she hears Jack’s request, she presses the decrypt button at the top of the signal window to start the process.
There is one display on the bike to discuss, some audio features, and a whole lot of things missing.
The bike display is a small screen near the front of the handlebars that displays a limited set of information to Jack as he’s riding. It is seen used as a radar system. The display is circular, with main content in the middle, a turquoise sweep, and a turquoise ring just inside the bezel. We never see Jack touch the screen, but we do see him work a small, unlabeled knob at the bottom left of the bike’s plates. It is not obvious what this knob does, but Jack does fiddle with it. Continue reading →