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 →
Biff(2015) pays for his taxi ride to the McFly household with his thumbprint. When the ride ends, a synthesized voice gives the price one-seven-four-point-five-zero. The taxi driver presents him with a book-sized device with the price at the top on a red 7-segment LED display. Biff presses his thumb on a reader at the bottom that glows white as it scans. When the payment is verified, the thumbprint reader and the price go dark as a sound plays like a register.
For due diligence, let me restate: multimodal biometric or multifactor authentication is more secure.
When Korben gets in his taxi and sits down, it recognizes this and in a female version of the hazy synthesized voice heard in the 4 a day cigarette dispenser, prompts him to “Please enter your license.” Korben fits his license into a small horizontal slot mounted in the ceiling of the cab, just above the driver’s seat near the windshield. He slams it in. It verifies that he’s authorized and starts the cab, including lighting the taxi light up top. It tells him, “Welcome on board, Mr. Dallas. Fuel level 10.”
Korben steers with an X-shaped control yoke. We never see his feet, so don’t know if he has any foot pedals. He has a throttle that maps like a boat throttle: push forward to increase thrust.
In the central dashboard he has an underlit panel of toggle buttons. Each button has a single function, which is printed on its surface.
Main controls: Docking lock, Automatic, Emergency power, Power. Light controls: Auxiliary lights, Parking lights, Smog lights, Main lights. Alerts: Power level low, Power failure, Light failure, Environment warning
Two small panels to his left provide him a similar array of “comfort controls”, “taxi controls”, and “main panel one.” A more free-form keyboard sits beneath a vertical grayscale monitor, crammed full of unreadable text and, occasionally, annoyingly, blinking.
The buttons across these panels are completely labeled, lit for easy reading in the dim cabin light, clustered in meaningful groups, and nicely positioned so that Korben can utilize his spatial memory to map the functions. But they are also labeled in all capital letters and aren’t much differentiated beyond that, which might require Korben to take his eyes off the road to target a particular one, which could increase the odds of an accident. Better inputs using physical controls would have more physical differentiation so he could find them with just one hand, labeling that was easier to read at a glance, and the most common controls right on the yoke near his fingers.
In the scene, Korben reaches to the center panel and presses “power.” The voice confirms that he’s using “Propulsion 2-X-4,” (whatever that means.) Then Korben presses “Docking lock,” which releases the mechanical hold on the taxi.
The voice reminds him sternly that he has five points left on his license, and as the garage door opens, to “Have a nice day.” Lights on either side of the garage door shine green, signaling to him that the skyway is clear. But on pulling out, they turn red just as a car passes and Korben has to slam on the brakes.
Of course the humor comes from how these interfaces aren’t entirely helpful, and the green lights shouldn’t tell him the same information he can see with his own eyes. It should be doing a bit of calculation to signal if it’s clear for the next several seconds so he can safely pull out. But of course doing that right would ruin the joke. Maybe we’re meant to understand that Korben just can’t afford any but the crappiest versions of technology.
Later, when Leeloo does her daring cliff dive from the side of a building and crashes through the roof of his cab, Korben struggles to maintain control of it and get the hell out of the way of oncoming traffic. During the chaos, the computerized voice tells him, “You’ve just had an accident.” Korben sardonically shouts, “Yes! I know I just had an accident, you daffy bastard.” It continues adding unhelpfully, “You have one point left on your license.” Of course the fun is how annoying the taxi is, but let’s just be explicit: the cab should wait until it senses that Korben has regained control before burdening his attention with this information, and possibly making it worse.
When Korben risks it all to help Leeloo, the speaker cover near where his license is lodged glows bright red as it says, “One point has been removed from your license…” Korben, furious and with zero points left on his license and nothing to lose, rips the device off his ceiling to shut the daffy bastard up.