After selecting its location from a map, Johnny is now in front of the virtual entrance to the hotel. The virtual Beijing has a new color scheme, mostly orange with some red.
The “entrance” is another tetrahedral shape made from geometric blocks. It is actually another numeric keypad. Johnny taps the blocks to enter a sequence of numbers.
The tetrahedral keypad
Note that there can be more than one digit within a block. I mentioned earlier that it can be difficult to “press” with precision in virtual reality due to the lack of tactile feedback. Looking closely, here the fingers of Johnny’s “hands” cast a shadow on the pyramid, making depth perception easier.Continue reading →
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.
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.
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 →
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 →
Since Tony disconnected the power transmission lines, Pepper has been monitoring Stark Tower in its new, off-the-power-grid state. To do this she studies a volumetric dashboard display that floats above glowing shelves on a desktop.
The display features some volumetric elements, all rendered as wireframes in the familiar Pepper’s Ghost (I know, I know) visual style: translucent, edge-lit planes. A large component to her right shows Stark Tower, with red lines highlighting the power traveling from the large arc reactor in the basement through the core of the building.
The center of the screen has a similarly-rendered close up of the arc reactor. A cutaway shows a pulsing ring of red-tinged energy flowing through its main torus.
This component makes a good deal of sense, showing her the physical thing she’s meant to be monitoring but not in a photographic way, but a way that helps her quickly locate any problems in space. The torus cutaway is a little strange, since if she’s meant to be monitoring it, she should monitor the whole thing, not just a quarter of it that has been cut away.
When we first see the HUD, Tony is donning the Iron Man mask. Tony asks, JARVIS, “You there?” To which JARVIS replies, “At your service sir.” Tony tells him to Engage the heads-up display, and we see the HUD initialize. It is a dizzying mixture of blue wireframe motion graphics. Some imply system functions, such as the reticle that pinpoints Tonys eye. Most are small dashboard-like gauges that remain small and in Tonys peripheral vision while the information is not needed, and become larger and more central when needed. These features are catalogued in another post, but we learn about them through two points-of-view: a first-person view, which shows us what Tony’s sees as if we were there, donning the mask in his stead, and second-person view, which shows us Tony’s face overlaid against a dark background with floating graphics.
This post is about that first-person view. Specifically it’s about the visual design and the four awarenesses it displays.
In the Augmented Reality chapter of Make It So, I identified four types of awareness seen in the survey for Augmented Reality displays:
The Iron Man HUD illustrates all four and is a useful framework for describing and critiquing the 1st-person view. Continue reading →
One computer in the control room is dedicated to showing the status of the Jeeps out on tour, and where they currently are on the island.
Next to the vehicle outline, we see the words “Vehicle Type: Ford Explorer” (thank you, product placement) along with “EXP” 4–7. EXP 4 & 5 look unselected, but have green dots next to them, while EXP 6 & 7 look selected with red dots next to them. No characters interact with this screen. Mr. Arnold does tap on it with a pen (to make a point though, not to interact with it).
On the right hand side of the screen also see a top-down view of the car with the electric track shown underneath, and little red arrows pointing forward. Below the graphic are the words “13 mph”. The most visible and obvious indicator on the screen is the headlights. A large “Headlights On” indicator is at the top of the screen, with highlighted cones coming out of the Jeep where the headlights are on the car. Continue reading →
The first computer interface we see in the film occurs at 3:55. It’s an interface for housing and monitoring the tesseract, a cube that is described in the film as “an energy source” that S.H.I.E.L.D. plans to use to “harness energy from space.” We join the cube after it has unexpectedly and erratically begun to throw off low levels of gamma radiation.
The harnessing interface consists of a housing, a dais at the end of a runway, and a monitoring screen.
Fury walks past the dais they erected just because.
The housing & dais
The harness consists of a large circular housing that holds the cube and exposes one face of it towards a long runway that ends in a dais. Diegetically this is meant to be read more as engineering than interface, but it does raise questions. For instance, if they didn’t already know it was going to teleport someone here, why was there a dais there at all, at that exact distance, with stairs leading up to it? How’s that harnessing energy? Wouldn’t you expect a battery at the far end? If they did expect a person as it seems they did, then the whole destroying swaths of New York City thing might have been avoided if the runway had ended instead in the Hulk-holding cage that we see later in the film. So…you know…a considerable flaw in their unknown-passenger teleportation landing strip design. Anyhoo, the housing is also notable for keeping part of the cube visible to users near it, and holding it at a particular orientation, which plays into the other component of the harness—the monitor.
When the Rodger Young is destroyed by fire from the Plasma Bugs on Planet P, Ibanez and Barcalow luckily find a functional escape pod and jettison. Though this pod’s interface stays off camera for almost the whole scene, the pod is knocked and buffeted by collisions in the debris cloud outside the ship, and in one jolt we see the interface for a fraction of a second. If it looks familiar, it is not from anything in Starship Troopers.
The interface features a red wireframe image of the planet below, outlined by a screen-green outline, oriented to match the planet’s appearance out the viewport. Overlaid on this is a set of screen-green rectangles, twisting as they extend in space (and time) towards the planet. These convey the ideal path for the ship to take as it approaches the planet.
I’ve looked through all the screen grabs I’ve made for this movie, and there no other twisting-rectangle interfaces that I can find. (There’s this, but it’s a status-indicator.) It does, however, bear an uncanny resemblance to an interface from a different movie made 18 years earlier: Alien. Compare the shot above to the shot below, which is the interface Ash uses to pilot the dropship from the Nostromo to LV-426.
It’s certainly not the same interface, the most obvious aspect of which is the blue chrome and data, absent from Ibanez’ screen. But the wireframe planet and twisting rectangles of Starship Troopers are so reminiscent of Alien that it must be at least an homage.
Planet P, we have a problem
Whether homage, theft, or coincidence, each of these has a problem as far as the interaction design. The rectangles certainly show the pilot an ideal path in a way that can instantly be understood even by us non-pilots. At a glance we understand that Ibanez should roll her pod to the right. Ash will need to roll his to the left. But how are they actually doing against this ideal? How is the pilot doing compared to that goal at the moment? How is she trending? It’s as if they were driving a car and being told “stay in the center of the middle lane” without being told how close to either edge they were actually driving.
Rectangle to rectangle?
The system could use the current alignment of the frame of the screen itself to the foremost rectangle in the graphic, but I don’t think that’s what happening. The rectangles don’t match the ratio of the frame. Additionally, the foremost rectangle is not given any highlight to draw the pilot’s attention to it as the next task, which you’d expect. Finally that’s a level of abstraction that wouldn’t fit the narrative as well, to immediately convey the purpose of the interface.
Show me me
Ash may see some of that comparison-to-ideal information in blue, but the edge of the screen is the wrong place for it. His attention would be split amongst three loci of attention: the viewport, the graphic display, and the text display. That’s too many. You want users to see information first, and read it secondarily if they need more detail. If we wanted a single locus of attention, you could put ideal, current state, and trends all as a a heads-up display augmenting the viewport (as I recommended for the Rodger Young earlier).
If that broke the diegesis too much, you can at least add to the screen interface an avatar of the ship, in a third-person overhead view. That would give the pilot an immediate sense of where their ship currently is in relation to the ideal. A projection line could show the way the ship is trending in the future, highlighting whether things are on a good or not so good path. Numerical details could augment these overlays.
By showing the pilot themselves in the interface—like the common 3rd person view in modern racing video games—pilots would not just have the ideal path described, but the information they need to keep their vessels on track.
The interfaces aboard the Rodger Young in combat are hard to take seriously. The captain’s interface, for instance, features arrays of wireframe spheres that zoom from the bottom of the screen across horizontal lines to become blinking green squares. The shapes bear only the vaguest resemblance to the plasma bolts, but don’t match what we see out the viewscreen or the general behavior of the bolts at all. But the ridiculousness doesn’t end there.
After he is spurned by Carmen and her new beau in the station, Rico realizes that he belongs in the infantry and not the fleet where Carmen will be working. So, to cement this new identity, Rico decides to give in and join his fellow roughnecks in getting matching tattoos. The tattoos show a skull over a shield and the words “Death from Above”. (Incidentally, Death From Above is the name of the documentary detailing the making of the film, a well as the title of a hilarious progressive metal video by the band Holy Light of Demons. You should totally check it out.) Continue reading →