Talking Technology

We’ve seen four interfaces with voice output through speakers so far.

  1. The message centre in the New Darwin hotel room, which repeated the onscreen text
  2. The MemDoubler, which provided most information to Johnny through voice alone
  3. The bathroom tap in the Beijing hotel which told Johnny the temperature of the water
  4. The Newark airport security system

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Later, in the brain hacking scene, we’ll hear two more sentences spoken.

Completionists: There’s also extensive use of voice output during a cyberspace search sequence, but there Johnny is wearing a headset so he is the only one who can hear it. That is sufficiently different to be left out of this discussion.

Voice is public

Sonic output in general and voice in particular have the advantage of being omnidirectional, so the user does not need to pay visual attention to the device, and, depending on volume and ambient noise, can be understood at much greater distances than a screen can be read. These same qualities are not so desirable if the user would prefer to keep the message or information private. We can’t tell whether these systems can detect the presence or absence of people, but the hotel message centre only spoke when Johnny was alone. Later in the film we will see two medical systems that don’t talk at all. This is most likely deliberate because few patients would appreciate their symptoms being broadcast to all and sundry.

Unless you’re the only one in the room

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The bathroom tap is interesting because the temperature message was in English. This is a Beijing hotel, and the scientists who booked the suite are Vietnamese, so why? It’s not because we the audience need to know this particular detail. But we do have one clue: Johnny cursed rather loudly once he was inside the bathroom. I suggest that there is a hotel computer monitoring the languages being used by guests within the room and adjusting voice outputs to match. Current day word processors, web browsers, and search engines can recognise the language of typed text input and load the matching spellcheck dictionaries, so it’s a fair bet that by 2021 our computers will be able to do the same for speech.

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Airport Security

After fleeing the Yakuza in the hotel, Johnny arrives in the Free City of Newark, and has to go through immigration control. This process appears to be entirely automated, starting with an electronic passport reader.

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After that there is a security scanner, which is reminiscent of HAL from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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The green light runs over Johnny from top to bottom. Continue reading

Brain Upload

Once Johnny has installed his motion detector on the door, the brain upload can begin.

3. Building it

Johnny starts by opening his briefcase and removing various components, which he connects together into the complete upload system. Some of the parts are disguised, and the whole sequence is similar to an assassin in a thriller film assembling a gun out of harmless looking pieces.

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It looks strange today to see a computer system with so many external devices connected by cables. We’ve become accustomed to one piece computing devices with integrated functionality, and keyboards, mice, cameras, printers, and headphones that connect wirelessly.

Cables and other connections are not always considered as interfaces, but “all parts of a thing which enable its use” is the definition according to Chris. In the early to mid 1990s most computer user were well aware of the potential for confusion and frustration in such interfaces. A personal computer could have connections to monitor, keyboard, mouse, modem, CD drive, and joystick – and every single device would use a different type of cable. USB, while not perfect, is one of the greatest ever improvements in user interfaces. Continue reading

The Memory Doubler

In Beijing, Johnny steps into a hotel lift and pulls a small package out his pocket. He unwraps it to reveal the “Pemex MemDoubler”.

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Johnny extends the cable from the device and plugs it into the implant in his head. The socket glows red once the connection is made.

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Continue reading

Hotel Remote

The Internet 2021 shot that begins the film ends in a hotel suite, where it wakes up lead character Johnny. This is where we see the first real interface in the film. It’s also where this discussion gets more complicated.

A note on my review strategy

As a 3D graphics enthusiast, I’d be happy just to analyze the cyberspace scenes, but when you write for Sci Fi Interfaces, there is a strict rule that every interface in a film must be subjected to inspection. And there are a lot of interfaces in Johnny Mnemonic. (Curse your exhaustive standards, Chris!)

A purely chronological approach which would spend too much time looking at trees and not enough at the forest. So I’ll be jumping back and forth a bit, starting with the gadgets and interfaces that appear only once, then moving on to the recurring elements, variations on a style or idea that are repeated during the film.

Description

The wakeup call arrives in the hotel room as a voice announcement—a sensible if obvious choice for someone who is asleep—and also as text on a wall screen, giving the date, time, and temperature. The voice is artificial sounding but pleasant rather than grating, letting you know that it’s a computer and not some hotel employee who let himself in. The wall display functions as both a passive television and an interactive computer monitor. Johnny picks up a small remote control to silence the wake up call.

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This remote is a small black box like most current-day equivalents, but with a glowing red light at one end. At the time of writing blue lights and indicators are popular for consumer electronics, apparently following the preference set by science fiction films and noted in Make It So. Johnny Mnemonic is an outlier in using red lights, as we’ll see more of these as the film progresses. Here the glow might be some kind of infrared or laser beam that sends a signal, or it might simply indicate the right way to orient the control in the hand for the controls to make sense. Continue reading

Bridge VP: Hello

The main interface on the bridge is the volumetric projection display. This device takes up the center of the bridge and is the size of a long billiards table. It serves multiple purposes for the crew. The first is to display the “Golden Record” message.

Hello, Deadly World

Prometheus broadcasts a message to LV223 in advance of its arrival that appears to be something like the Voyager Golden Record recording. David checks on this message frequently in transit to see if there is a response. To do so he stands in a semi-circular recess and turns a knob on the waist-high control panel there counter clockwise. It’s reasonable that the potentiometer controls the volume of the display, though we don’t see this explicitly.

The computer responds to being turned on by voice, wishing him “good morning” by name, confirming that it is still transmitting the message (reinforced by a Big Label in the content itself), and informing David that there has been “NO RESPONSE LOGGED.”

The content of the display is lovely. Lines of glowing yellow scaffolding define a cube, roughly a meter on a side. Within is a cacophony of anthropological, encyclopedic information as video and images, including…

  • Masterworks of art such as Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo (better known as the Mona Lisa).
  • Portrait of Abraham Lincoln
  • Chemical structures (I could not identify the exact chemicals)
  • Portrait of a young Beethoven
  • The periodic table of elements
  • Mathematical equations
  • A language frequency chart
  • The language-learning A.I. seen elsewhere in the film
  • Musical notation
  • Sonograms of fetuses in utero
  • Video of tribal makeup
  • Video of Noh theater in Japan
  • Video of a young prodigy playing violin in a field

These squares of translucent information are dispersed within the cube semi-randomly. Some display on a sagittal plane. Some on a coronal plane. (None on a transverse plane.) Though to an observer they are greatly overlapped, they do not seem to intersect. Some of these squares remain in place but most slide around along a y- or x-axis, a few even changing direction, in semi-random paths. Two are seen to rotate around their y-axis, and the periodic table is seen to divide into layered columns.

This display quickly imparts to the audience that the broadcast message is complex and rich, telling the vicious, vicious aliens all they need to know about humans prior to their potential contact. But looking at it from a real-world perspective, the shifting information only provides a sense of the things described, which could really work only if you already happened to have existing knowledge of the fundamentals, which the unknown aliens certainly do not have. A better way to build up a sense of understanding was seen in the movie Contact, where one begins with simple abstract concepts that build on one another to eventually form a coherent communication.

In contrast, this display is one of ADHD-like distraction and “sense” rather than one of communication and understanding. But there’s a clue that this isn’t meant to be the actual content at all. Looking closely at the VP, we see that that the language-learning module David uses is present. Look in the image below for the cyan rectangle in the left of the big yellow cube.

Since we know from seeing David use it elsewhere in the film that that module is interactive, and this VP display does not appear to be, we can infer that this is not the actual content being broadcast. This is more like cover art for an album, meant only to give a sense of the actual content to the humans on the “sender” side of the message. In this simple example of apologetics, we see that the complexity that worked for audiences would work equally well for users.

Later in the film we see David turn the display off. Though his hand is offscreen, the click we hear and his shoulder movement seem to indicate that uses the same knob with which he turned it on. After he does so, the display decays in layers common to the movie’s “yellow scaffold” VPs, as a hum slows to a halt.