Phone System Analysis

Note to readers: The author and editor of this series of posts would like to be Matrix-style cool, competent, stylishly-dressed world-changers with superhuman abilities. In reality we are much closer to the protagonists of Johnny Mnemonic: always frantically improvising to stay one step ahead of disaster with a mix of clunky technology. (And we don’t even have a cybernetic dolphin helping out.) So, um, yeah. This post is out of order. Sorry. Please pretend you haven’t read Cyberspace: the Hardware yet. OK. On to an analysis of the phone system.

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The video phones in Johnny Mnemonic all seem easy to use and reliable, but this is generally true of all phones in film and TV, video or otherwise. The audience want to see the characters communicate, not struggle with technology – unless difficulty or failure is necessary for the plot! Continue reading

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.

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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

Talking to a Puppet

As mentioned, Johnny in the last phone conversation in the van is not talking to the person he thinks he is. The film reveals Takahashi at his desk, using his hand as if he were a sock puppeteer—but there is no puppet. His desk is emitting a grid of green light to track the movement of his hand and arm.

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The Make It So chapter on gestural interfaces suggests Takahashi is using his hand to control the mouth movements of the avatar. I’d clarify this a bit. Lip synching by human animators is difficult even when not done in real time, and while it might be possible to control the upper lip with four fingers, one thumb is not enough to provide realistic motion of the lower lip. Continue reading

Sci-fi Interfaces and Decipher SciFi go to the movies

OMG y’all. We totally got asked on a date and we should totally go.

So I happen to be in NYC for the Interaction17 conference this week, and agreed with the guys from the Decipher SciFi podcast that we should hang out. So it’s late notice, but we have a plan: Join us at 7:25 P.M. to watch The Space Between Us, and then hangout and chat about it afterward? There may even be podcast recording and interface redesigning, it’s hard to say. Providing you’re not into The Big Game.

Here’s a link to the event details.

https://www.facebook.com/events/1302970839741111/1304373202934208/?notif_t=like&notif_id=1486263480732356

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Luke’s predictive HUD

When Luke is driving Kee and Theo to a boat on the coast, the car’s heads-up-display shows him the car’s speed with a translucent red number and speed gauge. There are also two broken, blurry gauges showing unknown information.

Suddenly the road becomes blocked by a flaming car rolled onto the road by a then unknown gang. In response, an IMPACT warning triangle zooms in several times to warn the driver of the danger, accompanied by a persistent dinging sound.

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It commands attention effectively

Props to this attention-commanding signal. Neuroscience tells us that symmetrical expansion like this triggers something called a startle response.  (I first learned this in the awesome and highly recommended book Mind Hacks.) Any time we see symmetrical expansion in our field of vision, within milliseconds our sympathetic nervous system takes over, fixes our attention to that spot, and prompts us to avoid the thing that our brains believe is coming right at us. It all happens way before conscious processing, and that’s a good thing. It’s evolutionarily designed to keep us safe from falling rocks, flying fists, and pouncing tigers, and scenarios like that don’t have time for the relatively slow conscious processes.

Well visualized

The startle response varies in strength depending on several things.

  • The anxiety of the person (an anxious person will react to a slighter signal)
  • The driver’s habituation to the signal
  • The strength of the signal, in this case…
    • Contrast of the shape against its background
    • The speed of the expansion
  • The presence of a prepulse stimulus

We want the signal to be strong enough to grab the attention of a possibly-distracted driver, but not strong enough to cause them to overreact and risk control of car. While anything this critical to safety needs to be thoroughly tested, the size of the IMPACT triangle seems to sit in the golden mean between these two.

And while the effect is strongest in the lab with a dark shape expanding over a light background, I suspect given habituation to the moving background of the roadscape and a comparatively static HUD, the sympathetic nervous system would have no problem processing this light-on-dark shape.

Well placed

We only see it in action once, so we don’t know if the placement is dynamic. But it appears to be positioned on the HUD such that it draws Luke’s attention directly to the point in his field of vision where the flaming car is. (It looks offset to us because the camera is positioned in the middle of the back seat rather than the driver’s seat.) This dynamic positioning is great since it saves the driver critical bits of time. If the signal was fixed, then the driver would have his attention pulled between the IMPACT triangle and the actual thing. Much better to have the display say, “LOOK HERE!”

Readers of the book will recall this nuance from the lesson from Chapter 8, Augment the Periphery of Vision: “Objects should be placed at the edge of the user’s view when they are not needed, and adjacent to the locus of attention when they are.”

Improvements

There are a few improvements that could be made.

  • It could synchronize the audio to the visual. The dinging is dissociated from the motion of the triangle, and even sounds a bit like a seat belt warning rather than something trying to warn you of a possible, life-threatening collision. Having the sound and visual in sync would strengthen the signal. It could even increase volume with the probability and severity of impact.
  • It could increase the strength of the audio signal by suppressing competing audio, by pausing any audio entertainment and even canceling ambient sounds.
  • It could predict farther into the future. The triangle only appears once the flaming car actually stops in the road a few meters ahead. But there is clearly a burning car rolling down to the road for seconds before that. We see it. The passengers see it. Better sensors and prediction models would have drawn Luke’s attention to the problem earlier and helped him react sooner.
  • It could also know when the driver is actually focused on the problem and than fade the signal to the periphery so that it does not cover up any vital visual information. It can then fade completely when the risk has passed.
  • An even smarter system might be able to adjust the strength of the signal based on real-time variables, like the anxiety of the driver, his or her current level of distraction, ambient noise and light, and of course the degree of risk (a tumbleweed vs. a small child on the road).
  • It could of course go full agentive and apply the brakes or swerve if the driver fails to take appropriate action in time.

Despite these improvements, I believe Luke’s HUD to be well designed that gets underplayed in the drama and disorientation of the scene.

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Video Phone Calls

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.

New Darwin

First is the phone call Johnny makes from the New Darwin hotel.

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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

Syd’s dash display

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If Jasper’s car is aftermarket, Syd’s built-in display seems to be more consumer-savvy. It is a blue electroluminescent flat display built into the dashboard. It has more glanceable information with a cleaner information hierarchy. It has no dangerous keyboard entry. All we see of the display in these few glimpses is the speedometer, but even that’s enough to illustrate these differences.

3 of 3: Brain Hacking

The hospital doesn’t have the equipment to decrypt and download the actual data. But Jane knows that the LoTeks can, so they drive to the ruined bridge that is the LoTek home base. As mentioned earlier under Door Bombs and Safety Catches the bridge guards nearly kill them due to a poorly designed defensive system. Once again Johnny is not impressed by the people who are supposed to help him.

When Johnny has calmed down, he is introduced to Jones, the LoTek codebreaker who decrypts corporate video broadcasts. Jones is a cyborg dolphin. Continue reading

Jasper’s car dashboard

Jasper is a longtime friend of Theo’’s who offers his home as a safe house for a time. Jasper’’s civilian vehicle features a device on its dashboard that merits some attention. It is something like a small laptop computer, with a flat screen in a roughly pill-shaped black plastic frame mounted in the center of the dashboard. The top half of this screen shows a view from a backwards-facing camera mounted on the vehicle.

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Continue reading