Internet 2021

The opening shot of Johnny Mnemonic is a brightly coloured 3D graphical environment. It looks like an abstract cityscape, with buildings arranged in rectangular grid and various 3D icons or avatars flying around. Text identifies this as the Internet of 2021, now cyberspace.

Internet 2021 display

Strictly speaking this shot is not an interface. It is a visualization from the point of view of a calendar wake up reminder, which flies through cyberspace, then down a cable, to appear on a wall mounted screen in Johnny’s hotel suite. However, we will see later on that this is exactly the same graphical representation used by humans. As the very first scene of the film, it is important in establishing what the Internet looks like in this future world. It’s therefore worth discussing the “look” employed here, even though there isn’t any interaction.

Cyberspace is usually equated with 3D graphics and virtual reality in particular. Yet when you look into what is necessary to implement cyberspace, the graphics really aren’t that important.

MUDs and MOOs: ASCII Cyberspace

People have been building cyberspaces since the 1980s in the form of MUDs and MOOs. At first sight these look like old style games such as Adventure or Zork. To explore a MUD/MOO, you log on remotely using a terminal program. Every command and response is pure text, so typing “go north” might result in “You are in a church.” The difference between MUD/MOOs and Zork is that these are dynamic multiuser virtual worlds, not solitary-player games. Other people share the world with you and move through it, adventuring, building, or just chatting. Everyone has an avatar and every place has an appearance, but expressed in text as if you were reading a book.

guest>>@go #1914
Castle entrance
A cold and dark gatehouse, with moss-covered crumbling walls. A passage gives entry to the forbidding depths of Castle Aargh. You hear a strange bubbling sound and an occasional chuckle.

Obvious exits:
path to Castle Aargh (#1871)
enter to Bridge (#1916)

Most impressive of all, these are virtual worlds with built-in editing capabilities. All the “graphics” are plain text, and all the interactions, rules, and behaviours are programmed in a scripting language. The command line interface allows the equivalent of Emacs or VI to run, so the world and everything in it can be modified in real time by the participants. You don’t even have to restart the program. Here a character creates a new location within a MOO, to the “south” of the existing Town Square:

laranzu>>@dig MyNewHome
laranzu>> @describe here as “A large and spacious cave full of computers”
laranzu>> @dig north to Town Square

The simplicity of the text interfaces leads people to think these are simple systems. They’re not. These cyberspaces have many of the legal complexities found in the real world. Can individuals be excluded from particular places? What can be done about abusive speech? How offensive can your public appearance be? Who is allowed to create new buildings, or modify existing ones? Is attacking an avatar a crime? Many 3D virtual reality system builders never progress that far, stopping when the graphics look good and the program rarely crashes. If you’re interested in cyberspace interface design, a long running textual cyberspace such as LambdaMOO or DragonMUD holds a wealth of experience about how to deal with all these messy human issues.

So why all the graphics?

So it turns out MUDs and MOOs are a rich, sprawling, complex cyberspace in text. Why then, in 1995, did we expect cyberspace to require 3D graphics anyway?

The 1980s saw two dimensional graphical user interfaces become well known with the Macintosh, and by the 1990s they were everywhere. The 1990s also saw high end 3D graphics systems becoming more common, the most prominent being from Silicon Graphics. It was clear that as prices came down personal computers would soon have similar capabilities.

At the time of Johnny Mnemonic, the world wide web had brought the Internet into everyday life. If web browsers with 2D GUIs were superior to the command line interfaces of telnet, FTP, and Gopher, surely a 3D cyberspace would be even better? Predictions of a 3D Internet were common in books such as Virtual Reality by Howard Rheingold and magazines such as Wired at the time. VRML, the Virtual Reality Markup/Modeling Language, was created in 1995 with the expectation that it would become the foundation for cyberspace, just as HTML had been the foundation of the world wide web.

Twenty years later, we know this didn’t happen. The solution to the unthinkable complexity of cyberspace was a return to the command line interface in the form of a Google search box.

Abstract or symbolic interfaces such as text command lines may look more intimidating or complicated than graphical systems. But if the graphical interface isn’t powerful enough to meet their needs, users will take the time to learn how the more complicated system works. And we’ll see later on that the cyberspace of Johnny Mnemonic is not purely graphical and does allow symbolic interaction.

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Skyways

BttF_013When driving in the sky along with other flying cars that fill the skies in 2015, Doc follows a proscribed path in the sky called a “skyway.” Lanes are distinguished by floating lightposts, which the pilot keeps to his left. It all seems a little chaosy, but so does driving in Mumbai to the outsider, and it works if you know how. The other brilliance of the skyway is that suddenly flying cars make some sense systemically. Before this, I certainly thought of flying cars as personal helicopters, taking you from point to point. But of course that becomes an air traffic control nightmare. Much better to adapt a known system that puts the onus of control to the operators.

Less successful are the road signs. 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.

Gauges

Along the bottom of the HUD are some small gauges, which, though they change iconography across the properties, are consistently present.

IronMan1_HUD07

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

Virtual 3D Scanner

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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.

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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

Fhloston evacuation

TheFifthElement-FhlostonEvacuation-001

When Fhloston Paradise’s bomb alarms finally go off (a full 15:06 after Zorg’s bomb actually starts. WTH, Fhloston?) four shipwide systems help evacuate the ship.

First, a klaxon is heard on a public address system across the ship. A recorded female voice calmly announces that…

This is a type A alert. For security reasons the hotel must be evacuated. Please proceed calmly to the lifeboats located in the main hallways.

This voice continues to speak a warning countdown, repeating the remaining time every minute, and then when there’s less than a minute at 15 second intervals, and each of the last 10 seconds.

Second, in the main hallway, small, rows of red beacon lights emerge out of the floor and begin flashing and blinking. They repeatedly flash in order to point the direction of the lifeboats.

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Third, in the main hallway large arrows on the floor and “LIFEBOAT” lettering illuminate green to point travelers towards ingress points for individual lifeboats.

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Fourth, the lifeboats themselves eject from the ship to get the passengers far from danger.

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Awesome

  • The voice warning is a trope, but a trope for a reason. For visually impaired guests and people whose attention is focused on, you know, escape, the audio will still help them keep tabs on the time they have left.
  • The racing lights provide a nice directionality (a similar interface would have helped Prometheus).
  • The arrows and beacons require no language skills to comprehend.

Awful

  • The voice warning and the “LIFEBOAT” signs do require language to comprehend. They couldn’t have used Running Man?
  • You know when’s a crappy time to add trip hazards to the floor? When a herd of panicked humans are going to be running over it. Seriously. There is no excuse for this.
  • The beacons and the arrows should be the same color. Green is the ISO standard for exit, so while we’re moving the beacon lights to the ceiling where they belong, we can swap them out for some #33cc00 beacons.
  • The green arrows at first seem badly placed as it’s difficult to see when there’s a crowd of people, but then you realize that when the room is empty, people will see and follow them. People in a crowd will just follow whatever direction the horde is currently going, and seeing the arrows is unnecessary. But in a light crowd, people will get a glimpse of the arrow and become stressed out over an occluded, potentially life-saving signal or worse, get trampled to death trying to stop and read it to make sure everyone is going the right way, so ultimately awful. Put that up on the ceiling or high on the walls, too. Because people genuinely panic.

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