A sling ring opens magical portals of varying sizes between two locations. A sorcerer imagines the destination, concentrates, holds the hand wearing the ring upright and with the other gesticulates in a circle, and the portal opens with a burst of yellow sparks around the edges of the portal.
How might this function as technology
Teleportation, even given cutting-edge concepts of quantum entanglement, is limited to bits of information. All the writing on this topic that I can find online says that physical portals require too much energy. So we have to write the totality of this device off as a narrative conceit.
We can imagine the input working, though, as a reading-from-the-brain interface that matches a sorcerer’s mental image of a location to a physical location in the world. As if you were able to upload an image and have a search engine identify its location. That said, reading-from-the-brain has edge cases to consider.
What if the envisioned place is only imaginary?
What if the sorcerer only has the vaguest memory of it? Or just a name?
What if the picture is clear but the place no longer exists? (Like, say, Sokovia.)
Perhaps of course the portal just never opens, but how does the sorcerer know that’s the cause of the malfunction? Perhaps a glowing 404 would help the more modern sorcerers understand.
@scifiinterfaces has you covered, Steven.
The gestural component
The circular gesture is the mechanism for initiating the portal, an active meditation that likely makes concentrating on the location easier. If we had to compliment one thing, it’s that the gesture is well mapped to the shape of the portal, and having a gesture-concentration requirement ensures that portals aren’t just popping up at whim around Kamar-taj anytime someone wearing a ring remembers a place.
OK. That done, we’re at the end of the compliments. Because otherwise, it’s just dumb.
No, really. Dumb.
The physical design of the Sling Ring is dumb. Like Dumb and Dumber dumb. There are plenty of examples of objects or interfaces in movies that only exist because a writer was lazy, but the SlingRing™ deserves a special award category unto itself.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.
Logan is out and about doing his (admittedly horrible) Sandman job. While riding in a transport across the city, his attention drifts to a young lady waiting with a friend on a platform. He thinks she’s lovely and smiles. She catches his eye and smiles, too, before looking away. In the transport, he looks up at a glowing blue point on the ceiling near the windshield. It pulses in response.
In the evening Logan returns home. He passes his foyer, one wall of which shows an “art video” of beautiful people doing beautiful things in slow-mo. He gives it a glance like he always does.
He steps into the shower and the back wall is another display of the same “art video.” At one point, one of the men in the video, Carl, turns to the “camera,” smiles, and the picture freezes. A notification sound precedes a man’s voice, which says, “Hey, Logan.” Logan glances at the Carl’s image. His name and an infographic of his proposal to Logan (for shower sex) appears along with a transcript of what he’s said. Logan smiles and says, “Hey, Carl. Not tonight, buddy.” The infographic disappears and the display returns to its normal mode, but with a hint at others who are a match. One of the women in the display is Jessica, but she’s not featured yet.
Logan finishes his shower and puts on his robe. He steps to his wet bar to mix himself a drink. The wall behind the bar is yet another display. While mixing his drink he glances up to catch an image of Jessica as she looked his way on the transport and smiled. Logan says, “OK, who is she?”
A well-modulated voice answers, “This is Jessica-5. She seemed to like you. I think you’ll like her, too.” Her image freezes in the display and some icons appear around her explaining what she’s interested in, highlighting those activities that Logan shares. Logan glances at the infographics and nods at what he sees. “Hm.”
The voice replies, “She returned home a little while ago.” Logan reaches for another tumbler, but the voice interrupts, “Her public profile says she likes white wine, Logan.” Logan grabs a wine glass instead. The glowing blue point near him turns white, and Logan glances at it. It pulses and fades to blue in response. The video wall returns to life, mostly focused on flattering video of Jessica. He pours her a glass of white wine.
He walks to an alcove in his room, which contains “half” a bed that’s pushed up against the wall, which has the same “art display.” It’s currently featuring Jessica. Half a table is pushed against the same wall with a chair. Logan sets the drinks down on the table. He glances at the display, which becomes a mirror long enough for him to adjust his robe and his hair. Sitting down in the chair, he sees a few infographics appears of compatible proposals for Jessica. He looks at them, makes a few swipes to select one and adjust it for his current mood. He then looks to the wall, smiles charmingly, and says, “Hi, Jessica. My name is Logan.”
Jessica, in her apartment, has a similar alcove. She has just stepped out of the shower herself. She hears a notification and lights draw her attention to the alcove. There she sees a just-captured image of Logan in his chair offering her a glass of wine. She sees his name, a transcript, and the infographic offer above his shoulder. She sees to the side infographics of likely counteroffers she might make. Behind him she can see video of when he noticed her on the transport and other flattering video from the recent past. A different but similarly well-modulated voice says, “This is Logan, Jessica. He’s the one you saw riding by on the transport just after yoga today. He’s a Sandman.”
“A Sandman?” She takes a breath and thinks for a moment. She bites her lip before saying, coyly, “Hi there, Logan. If you’ll give me a minute to dry my hair, I’ll be right with you.”
After a beat she hears his voice reply, “I’m OK with wet hair.” She glances at a glowing blue point on the adjacent wall. It brightens a bit when she’s starting right at it. She says, “OK.” The blue dot pulses in response.
In a swirly bit of multicolored light (homage to the original), the video wall between them becomes a two-way portal, with a flickering hairline remaining at the dividing line in the walls. Logan’s half a bed joins Jessica’s half a bed to form a whole. The same thing happens with the two halves of table. Logan pushes the wine across the table surface to offer it to her. “Pleased to meet you, Jessica,” he says as the lights in their apartment dim slightly and a soft music begins to play.
What we just saw
This scenario describes several uses of The Circuit.
In the first, we see Logan express interest to the system in a particular girl.
In the next, Logan receives a proposal from a partner he’s had before, but rejects him. We see additional options for Logan after the rejection, in case Logan was in the mood, but just not with Carl. It turns out he wasn’t.
In the final use, we see useful information coming to find Logan. The Circuit makes a partner suggestion to Logan based on observed behavior out and about Dome City, and provides information for Logan to remember and evaluate her. He has a number of template scenarios and parameters that he can adjust for his proposal to Jessica. We see him confirm his interest in her directly, giving the system a biometric check on Logan’s biometrics to check for sobriety and authenticity. The system also makes a recommendation to Logan about how to make his proposal slightly more appealing.
We see the interface from Jessica’s perspective and understand that she has the same one as Logan. We see it offer her a useful warning where he runs counter to one of her implicit preferences: a disinclination towards authority figures. We see her use an explicit interaction with the circuit to indicate consent to meeting and for a similar biometric check.
We see the results of an accepted proposal: instant physical proximity for bom-chikka-fow-fow.
What we didn’t see
There are lots of features of modern matchmaking sites and apps that aren’t in evidence in this scenario. Could Carl have sent his request asynchronously hours before? What if Logan has a number of those messages? How would he “answer” them? How would they be prioritized? What if Logan had had a crappy time with Carl, how would he then blacklist him? What if Logan wasn’t interested in particular people as much as he was in particular acts some evening? How would he find a match then? What if he wanted to try something new?
There are lots and lots of juicy problems to solve, but for now, let’s stick to this scene. There are some implications for the greater diegesis, but this certainly makes a more believable future tech hookup interaction.
In the original film scene, Jessica bid a hasty retreat from his apartment after she realized he was a Sandman who had killed her Runner friend. If we’re including preferences, she would have known he was a Sandman in advance, so this surprise part of the scene has to be reconsidered. Perhaps she’s less doe-eyed innocent and instead flirting with danger. Or perhaps you add a throwaway line about Sandmen have the privilege of hiding that part of their identity in their preferences. If the plot still needs her to bug out, the arrival of boorish Francis, and her disinclination towards group scenes can do the trick.
It makes sense that the portal tech would appear in other places in Dome City, not just in apartments, so some city planning would have to happen to make the diegesis feel cohesive. (Yes, I’m offering that critique to the original. They invent teleportation and the only use they ever put it to is booty calls?)
Why is this design good for Logan, Carl, Jessica, and the other citizens of Dome City?
The ubiquitous screens function as background art when not in use, and the content reinforces Dome City’s cultural values of youth, physical appearance, and pleasure.
They afford seamless flows between living everyday life, entertaining the notion of nookie, and the actual act. It keeps them in the flow(Csikszentmihalyi) of life.
An asynchronous proposal system avoids social pressure that might trip Logan into accepting Carl to be polite. This lets both parties save face.
The proposer’s image is offered to the receiver as a gesture of good faith, but the receiver is in control of his or her privacy.
It offers bilateral control to each partner to propose, accept or reject, and pull the eject seat at any time. Neither party is privileged in the exchange.
Why is this design good for the Übercomputer?
The displays also serve to prime citizens with sensual images and, you know, get ‘em in the mood. This supports the shared goal of maximizing pleasure across the populace..
The Übercomputer’s is seen as a friendly, useful, soft-sell agent. This increases trust and reliance on it, which would help forestall revolutions like the one Jessica ends up being a part of anyway. (She’s too clever.)
Why is this design good for telling the story of Logan’s Run?
It fulfills the apparent original intent of the hookup interface in Logan’s Run in a more believable, usable way: the controls match modern trends in technology and the task at hand.
It tells the story of a massive infrastructure built just to support casual sex. That’s commitment to a bit.
It inserts the Übercomputer into citizens homes in a deep way, further exposing the intrusion of the government into private matters.
Wow. 6500 words about a single interface. What lessons can we derive from it? In this case, we ran smack dab into a terrible interface that reminded us of some of our first principles of good interaction design: