Jurassic Park (1993)

Our first example is a single scene from Jurassic Park, set entirely in the control room of Isla Nublar. Apologies in advance for repeating some material already covered by the book and website, but it is necessary to focus on the aspects that are of interest to this study.

Drs. Sattler and Grant enter the control room along with Lex and Tim. Jurassic Park (1993)

The eponymous Jurassic Park is heavily automated, with the entire park designed to be controlled from the computer systems in this room. Villainous computer system designer Nedry took advantage of this to shut down systems across the entire park, releasing all the dinosaurs, to cover his industrial espionage. Most of the park staff had already been evacuated due to a storm warning, and the small team of core technical staff who remained have, by this point in the film, all been killed by dinosaurs. (Including Nedry—who, had he been given time for extrospection, would probably have rethought those aspects of his plan concerning the release of carnivorous dinosaurs.)

Four of the survivors have gathered in the control room after managing to restore the power, but must still restart the various computer systems. They have discovered that the computer control extends down to door locks, which are consequently not working and have suddenly become the number one priority due to the velociraptors trying to break in.

Our interface user is Lex, a teenage visitor, being given an advance tour of the park before its official opening. The others are Dr Grant, paleontologist; Dr Sattler, paleobotanist; and Lex’s younger brother Tim, dinosaur enthusiast. As a self -described computer hacker Lex is easily the best person qualified to work with the computers as everyone else in the room only has expertise in subjects more than sixty-six million years old.

Lex sitting before the computer and looking at the /usr directory in the 3D file browser. Jurassic Park (1993)

The computers were all rebooted when the power came back on but the programs that control Jurassic Park did not automatically restart. Dr. Sattler spent a moment in front of the computer with Lex, but all she seemed to do is deactivate the screen saver. It’s up to Lex to find and start whatever program runs the security systems for the control room.

Backworlding aside: Unix-savvy viewers might be wondering why these control programs, since they are critical to the park functionality, don’t automatically start when the computer is rebooted. I hazard that perhaps normally they would, but Nedry turned this off to ensure that no-one could undo his sabotage before he got back.
The file system of the computer is rendered as a tree, with directory names (/usr in the image above) shown as text labels, the contents of each directory shown as LEGO-like blocks, and lines linking directories to subdirectories.

The park directory, and two levels of subdirectories in the distance. Jurassic Park (1993)

Most of the information is drawn on a flat two-dimensional plane. The third dimension is used to present information about the number of, and perhaps sizes, of the files in each directory. Note in the image above that the different directories below the foremost park block have different sized heights and areas.

Rendering this plane in perspective, rather than as a conventional 2D window, means that areas closest to the viewpoint can be seen in detail, but there is still some information given about the directories further away. In the image above, the subdirectory of park on the right is clearly smaller than the others, even though we can’t make out the actual name, and also has a number of larger subdirectories.

Up close we can see that each file can have its own icon on top, presumably representing the type of file.

Individual blue files within one directory, and subdirectories beyond. Jurassic Park (1993)

The viewpoint stays at a constant height above the ground plane. Moving around is done with the mouse, using it as a game-style directional controller when the mouse button is held down rather than as an absolute pointing device. It is almost “walking” rather than “flying” but there is a slight banking effect when Lex changes direction.

Closeup of Lex’s hand on the mouse, pressing the left mouse button. Jurassic Park (1993)

Here Lex has browsed through the hierarchy and discovered a promising file. She selects it, but we don’t see how, and a spotlight or sunbeam indicates the selection.

The “Visitors Center” icon highlighted by a beam from above. Jurassic Park (1993)

This is the last of the 3D interactions. The 3D file browser is just a file browser, not an entire operating system or virtual environment, so opening a file or program will open a new interface.

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When Lex runs this program (again, we don’t see how) it is in fact the security system controller for the visitor centre, including the control room. This has a conventional 2D GUI interface and she immediately switches everything on.

The 2D GUI. Security window in green on left, boot progress screen in blue on right. Jurassic Park (1993)

Success! Well, it would be if the control room did not also have very large windows which are apparently not velociraptor-proof. But the subsequent events, and interfaces, are not our concern.

Analysis

This isn’t a report card, since those are given to complete films or properties, not individual interfaces. But we can ask the same questions.

How believable is the interface?

In this case, very believable. The 3D file browser seen in the film is a real program that was shipped with the computers used in the film. It was created by the manufacturer Silicon Graphics as a demonstration of 3D capabilities, not as an effect just for this film.

How well does the interface inform the narrative of the story?

It supports the narrative, but isn’t essential — there’s plenty of drama and tension due to the velociraptors at the door, and the scene would probably still work if the camera only showed Lex, not the interface. The major contribution of using the 3D file browser is to keep the technology of Jurassic Park seemingly a little more advanced than normal for the time. Apart from dinosaurs, both the book and the film try not to introduce obviously science fictional elements. A 2D file browser (they did exist for Unix computers at the time, including the SGI computers shown in the film) would have been recognisable but boring. The 3D file browser looks advanced while still being understandable.

How well does the interface equip the characters to achieve their goals?

The most interesting question, to which the answer is that it works very well. One problem, visible in the film, is that because the labels are rendered on the 2D ground plane, users have to navigate close to a file or a folder to read its name. Rotating the names to vertical and to always face the user (“billboarding”) would have made them recognisable from further away.

Both at the time of the film and today some computer people will argue that Lex can’t be a real computer hacker because she doesn’t use the command line interface. Graphical user interfaces are considered demeaning. I disagree.
Lex is in a situation familiar to many system administrators, having to restore computer functionality after an unexpected power loss. (Although the velociraptors at the door are a little more hostile than your typical user demanding to know when the system will be back up.) Earlier in the film we saw Ray Arnold, one of the technical staff, trying to restore the system and he was using the command line interface.

Ray Arnold sitting before SGI computer, typing into blue command line window. Jurassic Park (1993)

So why does Lex use the 3D file browser? Because, unlike Ray Arnold, she doesn’t know which programs to run. Rebooting the computers is not enough. The various programs that control Jurassic Park are all custom pieces of software developed by Nedry, and nothing we’ve seen indicates that he would have been considerate enough to write a user guide or reference manual or even descriptive file names. Everyone who might have known which programs do what is either dead or off the island.

Lex needs an interface that lets her quickly search through hundreds or even thousands of files without being able to specify precise search criteria. For a problem involving recognition, “you’ll know it when you see it”, a graphical user interface is superior to a command line.

Film making challenge: diegetic computers

Writing for SciFiInterfaces can be quite educational. Chris asked me to write about the “diegetic” aspects of rendering 3D graphics in film, and I agreed to do so without actually knowing what that meant. Fortunately for me it isn’t complicated. Diegetic images or sounds belong to what we see in the scene itself, for instance characters and their dialog or hearing the music a violinist who is on-screen is playing; while non-diegetic are those that are clearly artefacts of watching a film, such as subtitles, voice overs, or the creepy violin music that is playing as a character explores a haunted house—we don’t imagine there is some violinist in there with them.

So, SciFiinterfaces.com focuses on the diegetic computer interfaces used by characters within the film or TV show itself. We’ve just been discussing the 3D file browser in Jurassic Park. Which, since it was a real interactive program, just meant pointing a camera at the actor and the computer screen, right?

It’s not that easy. Our human eyes and brain do an enormous amount of interpolation and interpretation of what we actually see. There’s the persistence of vision effect that allows us to watch a film in a cinema and see it as fluid motion, even though for a significant percentage of the time we’re actually looking at a blank wall while the projector shutter is closed. Cameras, whether film or digital, take discrete snapshots and are not so easily fooled, leading to various odd effects. One example that’s been known since the early days of filmmaking is that at certain speeds spoked wheels can appear to be rotating far more slowly than expected, or even to be rotating backwards.

Jurassic Park was made in the days when television sets and computer monitors used Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) technology. A CRT cannot display an entire frame at once, instead starting at the top left and drawing pixels line by line (“scan lines”) to the bottom. Just as the top line of pixels fades out, the new frame begins. At 50 or 60 frames a second we see only continuous moving images thanks to our persistence of vision; but a camera, usually running at 24 frames a second, will capture a dark line moving slowly down the screen and the images themselves will flicker. This was a common sight in TV news reports and sometimes in films of the time, when computer monitors were in the background. Here’s a shot from the 1995 film The Net where the new frames have been half-drawn:

View from above of computer expo. The two stacked monitors center right are not genlocked, showing crawl lines. The Net (1995)

One technique that avoids this is to film the computer interface in isolation and composite the graphics into the footage afterwards. This is very easy in the 21st century with all digital processing but Jurassic Park was made in the days of optical compositing, which is more expensive and limits the number of images that can be combined before losing picture quality.

So to shoot CRT monitors with their graphics live, the camera shutter opening must be synchronised to the start of each frame. In TV studios and film sets this is done with genlocking, connecting all the monitors and cameras via cables to a single electronic timing signal. This was apparently the technique used in Jurassic Park, with impressive results. In one control room scene the camera pans across at least eight different monitors, and none of them are flickering.

Section No9’s crappy security

GitS-Sec9_security-01

The heavily-mulleted Togusa is heading to a company car when he sees two suspicious cars in the parking basement. After sizing them up for a moment, he gets into his car and without doing anything else, says,

"Security, whose official vehicles are parked in the basement garage?"

It seems the cabin of the car is equipped to continuously monitor for sound, and either an agent from security is always waiting, listening at the other end, or by addressing a particular department by name, a voice recognition system instantly routs him to an operator in that department, who is able to immediately respond:

"They belong to Chief Nakamura of the treaties bureau and a Dr. Willis."

"Give me the video record of their entering the building."

In response, a panel automatically flips out of the dashboard to reveal a monitor, where he can watch the the security footage. He watches it, and says,

"Replay, infrared view"

After watching the replay, he says,

"Send me the pressure sensor records for basement garage spaces B-7 and 8."

The screen then does several things at once. It shows a login screen, for which his username is already supplied. He mentally supplies his password. Next a menu appears on a green background with five options: NET-WORK [sic], OPTICAL, PRESSURE, THERMO, and SOUND. "PRESSURE" highlights twice with two beeps. Then after a screen-green 3D rendering of Section 9 headquarters builds, the camera zooms around the building and through floorplans to the parking lot to focus on the spaces, labeled appropriately. Togusa watches as pea green bars on radial dials bounce clockwise, twice, with a few seconds between.

The login

Sci-fi logins often fail for basic multifactor authentication, and at first it appears that this screen only has two parts: a username and password. But given that Togusa connects to the system first vocally and then mentally, it’s likely that one of these other channels supplies a third level of authentication. Also it seems odd to have him supply a set of characters as the mental input. Requiring Togusa to think a certain concept might make more sense, like a mental captcha.

The zoom

Given that seconds can make a life-or-death difference and that the stakes at Section 9 are so high, the time that the system spends zooming a camera around the building all the way to the locations is a waste. It should be faster. It does provide context to the information, but it doesn’t have to be distributed in time. Remove the meaningless and unlabeled dial in the lower right to gain real estate, and replace it with a small version of the map that highlights the area of detail. Since Togusa requested this information, the system should jump here immediately and let him zoom out for more detail only if he wants it or if the system wants him to see suspect information.

The radial graphs

The radial graphs imply some maximum to the data, and that Nakamura’s contingent hits some 75% of it. What happens if the pressure exceeds 37 ticks? Does the floor break? (If so, it should have sent off structural warning alarms at the gate independently of the security question.) But presumably Section 9 is made of stronger stuff than this, and so a different style of diagram is called for. Perhaps remove the dial entirely and just leave the parking spot labels and the weight. Admittedly, the radial dial is unusual and might be there for consistency with other, unseen parts of the system.

Moreover, Togusa is interested in several things: how the data has changed over time, when it surpassed an expected maximum, and by how much. This diagram only addresses one of them, and requires Togusa to notice and remember it himself. A better diagram would trace this pressure reading across time, highlighting the moments when it passed a threshold. (This parallels the issues of medical monitoring highlighted in the book, Chapter 12, Medicine.)

SECURITY_redo

Even better would be to show this data over time alongside or overlaid with any of the other feeds, like a video feed, such that Togusa doesn’t have to make correlations between different feeds in his head. (I’d have added it to the comp but didn’t have source video from the movie.)

The ultimately crappy Section No9 security system

Aside from all these details of the interface and interaction design, I have to marvel at the broader failings of the system. This is meant to be the same bleeding-edge bureau that creates cyborgs and transfers consciousnesses between them? If the security system is recording all of this information, why is it not being analyzed continuously, automatically? We can presume that object recognition is common in the world from a later scene in which a spider tank is able to track Kunasagi. So as the security system was humming along, recording everything, it should have also been analyzing that data, noting the discrepancy between of the number of people it counted in any of the video feeds, the number of people it counted passing through the door, and the unusual weight of these "two" people. It should have sent a warning to security at the gate of the garage, not relied on the happenstance of Togusa’s hunch and good timing.

This points to a larger problem that Hollywood has with technology being part of its stories. It needs heroes to be smart and heroic, and having them simply respond to warnings passed along by smart system can seem pointedly unheroic. But as technology gets smarter and more agentive, these kinds of discrepancies are going to break believability and get embarassing.

Virtual 3D Scanner

GitS-3Dscanner-001

Visualization

The film opens as a camera moves through an abstract, screen-green 3D projection of a cityscape. A police dispatch voice says,

“To all patrolling air units. A 208 is in progress in the C-13 district of Newport City. The airspace over this area will be closed. Repeat:…”

The camera floats to focus on two white triangles, which become two numbers, 267 and 268. The thuck-thuck sounds of a helicopter rotor appear in the background. The camera continues to drop below the numbers, but turns and points back up at them. When the view abruptly shifts to the real world, we see that 267 and 268 represent two police helicopters on patrol.

GitS-3Dscanner-008

Color

The roads on the map of the city are a slightly yellower green, and the buildings are a brighter and more saturated green. Having all of the colors on the display be so similar certainly sets a mood for the visualization, but it doesn’t do a lot for its readability. Working with broader color harmonies would help a reader distinguish the elements and scan for particular things.

colorharmonies

Perspective

The perspective of the projection is quite exaggerated. This serves partly as a modal cue to let the audience know that it’s not looking at some sort of emerald city, but also hinders readability. The buildings are tall enough to obscure information behind them, and the extreme perspective makes it hard to understand their comparative heights or their relation to the helicopters, which is the erstwhile point of the screen.

perspectives

There are two ways to access and control this display. The first is direct brain access. The second is by a screen and keyboard.

Brain Access

Kusanagi and other cyborgs can jack in to the network and access this display. The jacks are in the back of their neck and as with most brain interfaces, there is no indication about what they’re doing with their thoughts to control the display. She also uses this jack interface to take control of the intercept van and drive it to the destination indicated on the map.

During this sequence the visual display is slightly different, removing any 3D information so that the route can be unobscured. This makes sense for wayfinding tasks, though 3D might help with a first-person navigation tasks.

GitS-3Dscanner-010

Screen and keyboard access

While Kusanagi is piloting an intercept van, she is in contact with a Section 9 control center. Though the 3D visualization might have been disregarded up to this point as a film conceit, here see that it is the actual visualization seen by people in the diegesis. The information workers at Section 9 Control communicate with agents in the field through headsets, type onto specialized keyboards, and watch a screen that displays the visualization.

GitS-3Dscanner-036

Their use is again a different mode of the visualization. The information workers are using it to locate the garbage truck. The first screens they see show a large globe with a white graticule and an overlay reading “Global Positioning System Ver 3.27sp.” Dots of different sizes are positioned around the globe. Triangles then appear along with an overlay listing latitude, longitude, and altitude. Three other options appear in the lower-right, “Hunting, Navigation, and Auto.” The “Hunting” option is highlighted with a translucent kelley green rectangle.

After a few seconds the system switches to focus on the large yellow triangle as it moves along screen-green roads. Important features of the road, like “Gate 13” are labeled in a white, rare serif font, floating above the road, in 3D but mostly facing the user, casting a shadow on the road below. The projected path of the truck is drawn in a pea green. A kelley green rectangle bears the legend “Game 121 mile/h / Hunter->00:05:22 ->Game.” The speed indicator changes over time, and the time indicator counts down. As the intercept van approaches the garbage truck, the screen displays an all-caps label in the lower-left corner reading, somewhat cryptically, “FULL COURSE CAUTION !!!”

The most usable mode

Despite the unfamiliar language and unclear labeling, this “Hunter” mode looks to be the most functional. The color is better, replacing the green background with a black one to create a clearer foreground and background for better focus. No 3D buildings are shown, and the camera angle is similar to a real-time-strategy angle of around 30 degrees from the ground, with a mild perspective that hints at the 3D but doesn’t distort. Otherwise the 3D information of the roads’ relationship to other roads is shown with shape and shadow. No 3D buildings are shown, letting the user keep her focus on the target and the path of intercept.

GitS-3Dscanner-035