Browsing Files in 3D

Be forewarned—massive spoilers ahead. (The graphic shows the Millennium Falcon sporting a massive spoiler.)

What’s this all about?

The origin story here is that I wanted to review Hackers, a film I enjoy and Chris describes as “awesome/ly bad”. However, Hackers isn’t science fiction. Well, I could argue that it is set in an alternate reality where computer hackers are all physically attractive with fashionable tastes in music and clothing, but that isn’t enough. The film was set firmly in the present day (of 1995) and while the possibilities of computer hacking may be exaggerated for dramatic purposes, all the computers themselves are quite conventional for the time. (And therefore appear quaint and outdated today.)

With the glorious exception of the three dimensional file storage system on the “Gibson” mainframe. This fantastic combination of hardware and software was clearly science fiction then, and remains so today. While one futuristic element is not enough to justify a full review of Hackers, it did start us thinking. The film Jurassic Park also has a 3D file system navigator, which wasn’t covered in depth by either the book or the online review. And when Chris reached out to the website readers, they provided more examples of 3D file systems being added to otherwise mundane computer systems.

So what we have here is a review of a particular interface trope rather than an entire film or TV show: the three dimensional file browsing and navigation interface.


This review is specifically limited to interfaces that are recognisably file systems, where people search for and manipulate individual documents or programs. Cyberspace, a 3D representation of the Internet or World Wide Web, is too broad a topic, and better covered in individual reviews such as those for Ghost in the Shell and Johnny Mnemonic.

I also originally intended to only include non-science fiction films and shows but Jurassic Park is an exception. Jurassic Park has been reviewed, both in the book and on the website, but the 3D file system was a comparatively minor element. It is included here as a well known example for comparison.

The SciFiInterfaces readership also provided examples of research papers for 3D file system browsing and navigation—rather more numerous than actual production systems, even today. These will inform the reviews but not be discussed individually.

Because we are reviewing a topic, not a particular film or TV show, the usual plot summaries will be shortened to just those aspects that involve the 3D file system. As a bonus, we can also compare and contrast the different interfaces and how they are used. The worlds of Ghost in the Shell and Johnny Mnemonic are so different that it would be unfair to judge individual interfaces against each other, but for this review we are considering 3D file systems that have been grafted onto otherwise contemporary computer systems, and used by unaugmented human beings to perform tasks familiar to most computer users.


Having decided on our topic and scope, the properties for review are three films and one episode of a TV show.

Jurassic Park, 1993

“I know this!” and Jurassic Park is so well known that I assume that you do too. We will look specifically at the 3D file system that is used by Lex in the control room to reactivate the park systems.

Disclosure, 1994

This film about corporate infighting includes a virtual reality system, complete with headset, glove, laser trackers, and walking surface, which is used solely to look for particular files.

Hackers, 1995

As mentioned in the introduction this film revolves around the hacking of a Gibson mainframe, which has a file system that is both physically three dimensional and represented on computer screens as a 3D browser.

A bar chart. The x-axis is every year between and including 1902 to 2022. The y-axis, somewhat humorously, shows 2-place decimal values up to 1. Three bars at 1.00 appear at 1993, 1994, and 1995. One also appears in 2016, but has an arrow pointing back to the prior three with a label, “(But really, this one is referencing those.)”

All three of these films date from the 1990s, which seems to have been the high point for 3D file systems, both fictional and in real world research.

Community, season 6 episode 2, “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care” (2016)

In this 21st century example, the Dean of a community college buys an elaborate virtual reality system. He spends some of his time within VR looking for, and then deleting, a particular file. 

Clockwise from top left: Jurassic Park (1993), Disclosure (1994), Hackers (1995), Community (2016)

And one that almost made it

File browsing in two dimensions is so well established in general-purpose computer interfaces that the metaphor can be used in other contexts. In the first Iron Man film, at around 52 minutes, Tony Stark is designing his new suit with an advanced 3D CAD system that uses volumetric projection and full body gesture recognition and tracking. When Tony wants to delete a part (the head) from the design, he picks it up and throws it into a trashcan.

Tony deletes a component from the design by dropping it into a trashcan. Iron Man (2008)

I’m familiar with a number of 2D and 3D design and drawing applications and in all of them a deleted part quietly vanishes. There’s no more need for visual effects than when we press the delete key while typing.

In the film, though, it is not Tony who needs to know that the part has been deleted, but the audience. We’ve already seen the design rendering moved from one computer to another with an arm swing, so if the head disappeared in response to a gesture, that could have been interpreted as it being emailed or otherwise sent somewhere else. The trashcan image and action makes it clear to the audience what is happening.

So, that’s the set of examples we’ll be using across this series of posts. But before we get into the fiction, in the next post we need to talk about how this same thing is handled in the real world.

Cyberspace: Beijing Hotel

After selecting its location from a map, Johnny is now in front of the virtual entrance to the hotel. The virtual Beijing has a new color scheme, mostly orange with some red.


The “entrance” is another tetrahedral shape made from geometric blocks. It is actually another numeric keypad. Johnny taps the blocks to enter a sequence of numbers.

The tetrahedral keypad


Note that there can be more than one digit within a block. I mentioned earlier that it can be difficult to “press” with precision in virtual reality due to the lack of tactile feedback. Looking closely, here the fingers of Johnny’s “hands” cast a shadow on the pyramid, making depth perception easier. Continue reading

Brain Scanning

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

Iron Man HUD: Just the functions

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:

Continue reading