Cyberspace: the hardware

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.

Click to see video of The cyberspace search.

Click to see Board conversation, with Pharmakom tracker and virus

First, what hardware is required?

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.

jm-30-hardware-a

Headset

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

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Military navigation

The C-57D is a military vessel with much of its technology feeling like that of a naval vessel.

Lt. Farman navigates the ship towards Altair.

The navigator, called an astrogator, sits at a station on the bridge facing a large armillary. He has a binocular scope into which he can peer to see outside the ship. Within easy reach to the left is a table-top panel of concentrically arranged buttons. To his right is a similar panel. Directly in front of him, beyond the scope, is a massive armillary that is the centerpiece of the bridge.

A model of United Planets Cruiser C-57D sits at the center of the ship’s armillary.

A model of the C-57D sits at the center of a transparent globe, which rotates in turn inside of another transparent globe. The surface of the interior globe is detailed with a graduated ring around its equator, semi-meridians extending from the poles, and a number of other colorful graduations. The outer, stationary globe has markings on the surface, which seem to describe stars and major constellations as dots and lines.

The utility of the armillary is somewhat questionable. From a relatively fixed position like the Earth, the celestial sphere doesn’t change. But while astronavigating, the celestial sphere would change. Even though Altair is a relatively close to Earth, the change in position of the stars on the celestial sphere would likely be significant to correct positioning. So, for this to be useful, the markings on the outer sphere should be dynamic. Of course in the short sequence we see the armillary in use, we would not see the markings change, but there are no visual cues that it is dynamic in this way.

Additionally it should be noted that the biggest and most important things with which Lt. Farman would be concerned, i.e. the star Altair and planet Altair IV, are not represented in the display at all and represents a major failing of the design.

The crew makes it safely through decelleration.

One of the movie’’s technology conceits is that deceleration from light speed is a shaky business. To protect the crew during this phase of travel, they stand atop deceleration stations. These small cylindrical pedestals have matching extensions from the ceiling that look vaguely like circular ventilation grills. Ten seconds before deceleration, the lights dim, a beeper sounds ten times, and the crew members step onto the pedestals. They fade from view in a beam of fuzzy aquamarine light. They fade back into view as the blue light disappears. During the period when the crew has passed from view, one would expect the ship to be shaking violently as discussed, but this doesn’’t happen. Nonetheless, as the crew steps out of the station, a few are holding their necks as if in pain.