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.

Why not go wireless? Wireless devices remove the need for a physical connection, but this means that anyone, not just you, could potentially connect. So instead of worrying about whether we have the right kind of cable, we now worry about the right kind of Bluetooth pairing and WiFi encryption password scheme. Mobile wireless devices also need their own batteries, which have to be charged. So wireless may seem visually cleaner, but comes with its own set of problems.

As of early 2016 we have two new standards, Lightning and USB-C, that are orientation-independent (only fifty years after audio cables), high bandwidth, and able to transmit power to peripherals as well. Perhaps by 2021 cables will have made a comeback as the usual way to connect devices.

2. Explaining it

Johnny explains the process to the scientists. He needs them to begin the upload by pushing a button, helpfully labelled “start”, on the gadget that resembles an optical disk drive. There’s a big red button as well, which is not explained but would make an excellent “cancel” button.

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It would be simpler if Johnny just did this himself. But we will shortly discover that the upload process is apparently very painful. If Johnny had his hands near the system, he might involuntarily push another button or disturb a cable. So for them, having a single, easily differentiated button to press minimizes their chance of messing it up.

1. Making codes

He also sticks a small black disk on the hotel room’s silver remote control. The small disk is evidently is a wireless controller or camera of some kind. The scientists must watch the upload progress counter, and as it approaches the end, use this modified remote to grab three frames from the TV display, which will become the “access code” for the data. (More on this below.)

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None of the buttons on this remote have markings or labels, but neither Johnny nor the scientist who will be using it are bothered. Perhaps this hotel chain tries to please every possible guest by not favouring any particular language? But even in that case, I’d expect there to be some kind of symbols on the buttons and a multilingual manual to explain the meaning of each. Maybe Johnny spends so much time in hotel suites that he has memorised the button layout?

Short of a mind reading remote that can translate any button press into “what the user intended”, I have to admit this is a terrible interface.

(There is a label on the black disk, but I have no idea what it means or even which script that is. Anyone?)

0. Go go go

Johnny plugs in his implant, puts on a headset with more cables, and bites down on a mouthguard. He’s ready.

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The scientist pushes the start button and the upload begins. Johnny sees the data stream in his headset as a flood of graphics and text.

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Why does he need the headset when there is a direct cable connection to the implant? The movie doesn’t make it explicit. It could be related to the images used as the access code. (More on this below.) Perhaps the images need to be processed by the recipient’s own optic nerve system for more reliable storage?

Still, in the spirit of apologetics we should try to find a better explanation than “an opportunity for 1995 cutting edge computer generated graphics.” Perhaps it is a very flashy progress indicator? Older computer systems had blinking lights on disk drives to indicate activity, copied on some of today’s USB sticks. Current-day file upload or download GUIs have progress bars. As processing and graphics capabilities increase, it will be possible for software to display thumbnails or previews of the actual data being transferred without slowing down.

Unfortunately there is an argument against this, which is that the obvious upload progress indicator is a numeric display counting gigabytes down to zero, and it makes a fast chirping sound as a sonic indicator as well. The counter shows the data flowing at gigabytes per second, the entire upload lasting about a minute. There’s also the problem that it’s not Johnny who is interested in knowing whether the upload is scientific data rather than, say, a video collection; but the scientists, and they can’t see it.

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As the counter drops below one hundred, the scientist points the remote with black disk at the TV display, currently showing a cartoon, and presses the middle button. The image from the TV appears overlaid on the data stream to Johnny. This is a little odd, because Johnny assured the scientists that he wouldn’t know what the access codes were himself. Maybe these brief flashes are not enough time for him to remember these particular images among the gigabytes of visual content. But the way they’re shown to us, I’ll bet you can remember them when they come up again later in the plot.

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Two more images are grabbed before the counter stops. When the upload finishes, the three images are printed out. (In the original film this is shown upside down, so I have rotated the image.)

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Tagged

So what are the images for? The script isn’t clear. I suggest that the images are being used as the equivalents of very large random numbers for whatever cryptography scheme protects the data against unauthorised access. Some current day systems use the timing of key presses and mouse movements as a source of randomness because humans simply can’t move their fingers with microsecond precision. Here, the human element makes it impossible to predict exactly which frame is chosen.

Humans also find images much easier to recognise than hundred digit numbers. Anyone who has seen the printout will be able to say whether a particular image is part of the access code or not with a high degree of confidence. In computer systems today, Secure Shell, or ssh, is a widely used encrypted terminal program for secure access to servers. Recent versions of ssh have a ‘randomart’ capability which shows a small ASCII icon generated from the current cryptographic key to everyone who logs on. If this ASCII icon appears different, this alerts everyone that the server key has been changed.

There’s one potential usability problem with the whole “pick three random images” mechanism. The last frame was grabbed when the counter was very close to zero. What would have happened if he had been too slow and missed altogether? Wouldn’t it be more reliable to have the upload system automatically grab the images rather than rely on a human? Chris suggests that maybe it secretly did grab three images that could have used without human input, but privileged the human input since it was more reliably random.

Quick aside: You may be asking, if images would be so wonderful, why aren’t we using them in this way already? It’s because our current security systems need not just very large random numbers, but very large random numbers with particular mathematical properties such as being prime. But let’s cut Johnny Mnemonic some slack,  saying that by 2021 we may have new algorithms.

OK, back to the plot.

-1. Sharing the codes

The access codes are to be faxed from Beijing to Newark, although this gets interrupted by the Yakuza intruders. This is yet another device with unmarked buttons.

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This device makes the same beeps and screeches as a 1990s analog fax machine. Since we’ll later learn that all the fax messages and phone calls are stored digitally in cyberspace, this must be a skeuomorphism, the old familiar audio tones now serving just as progress indicators.

As with other audio output, the tones allow the user to know that the transmission is proceeding and when it ends without having to pay full attention to the device. On the other hand, there is potential for confusion here as the digital upload is (presumably) much faster. Most current day computer systems could upload three photos, even in high resolution, well before the sequence of tones would complete. Users would most likely wait longer than actually necessary before moving on to their next task.

-2. Washing up

During the upload Johnny clenches his fists and bites his mouthguard. When the upload finishes, he retreats to the bathroom in considerable pain. At one point blood flows from his nose, and he swipes his hand over the tap to wash it down the drain. The bathroom announces that the water temperature is 17 degrees. We’ll come back to this later.

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As Make It So emphasises in the chapter on brain interfaces, there is nothing in our current knowledge to suggest that writing or reading memories to or from a human brain would be painful. On the other hand, we know that information in the brain is the shape of the neurons in the brain. Who knows what side effects will happen as those neurons are disconnected and reconnected as they need to be? We don’t know, so can’t really say whether it would hurt or not.

-3. Escaping the Yakuza

As mentioned in a prior post, while he is in the bathroom, the motion detector Johnny installed on the hotel door isn’t very effective and the Yakuza break in, kill everyone else, and acquire the second of the three access code images. Johnny escapes with the first image and flies to Newark, North America.

 

Motion Detector

Johnny, with newly upgraded memory, goes straight to the hotel room where he meets the client’s scientists. Before the data upload, he quickly installs a motion detector on the hotel suite door. This is a black box that he carries clipped to his belt. He uses his thumb to activate it as he takes hold and two glowing red status lights appear.

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Once placed on the door, there is just one glowing light. We don’t see exactly how Johnny controls the device, but for something this simple just one touch button would be sufficient.

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A little later, after the brain upload (discussed in the next post), the motion detector goes off when four heavily armed Yakuza arrive outside the door. The single light starts blinking, and there’s a high pitched beep similar to a smoke alarm, but quieter.

Analysis

A sonic alarm is good, because it is omnidirectional. But being omnidirectional it might also notify the would-be attackers that they have been detected. Here the designers have erred too far on the side of caution. The alarm is so quiet that none of the scientists notice, and Johnny himself is lucky to be within a few metres when it goes off. The Yakuza burst in and slaughter the unaware scientists. It would almost certainly have been better for the alarm to be configured as loud as possible, ensuring everyone who needed to hear did so. And while the attackers would have been alerted, they might have been deterred by the thought of witnesses arriving.

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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Analysis: The jack

The jack looks like an audio plug, and like most audio plugs is round and has no coronal-orientation requirement. It also has a bulbous rather than pointed tip. Both of these are good design, as Johnny can’t see the socket directly and while accidentally poking yourself with a headphone style point is unlikely to be harmful, it would certainly be irritating.

The socket’s glow would be a useful indicator that the thing is working, but Johnny can’t see it! Probably these sockets and jacks are produced and used for other devices as well, as red status lights are common in this world.

There are easier and more convenient fictional brain plug interfaces, such as the neck plugs previously discussed on this website for Ghost In The Shell. But Johnny doesn’t want his implant to be too obvious, so this not so convenient plug may be a deliberate choice. Perhaps he tells inquisitive people that it’s for his Walkman.

Analysis: The device

The product name got a few chuckles from audiences in the 1990s, as the name is similar to a common classic Macintosh extension at the time, the Connectix RAM Doubler. This applied in-memory lossless data compression techniques to allow more or larger programs to run within the existing RAM.

The MemDoubler is apparently a software or firmware updater, modifying Johnny’s implant to use brain tissue twice as efficiently as before. It has voice output, again a slightly artificial sounding but not unpleasant voice. This announces that Johnny’s current capacity is 80 gigabytes. As the update is applied, a glowing progress bar gradually fills until the voice announces the new capacity of 160G.

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(Going from 80G to 160G seems quaint today. But we should remember that the value of a mnemonic courier is secrecy, not quantity.)

Why does the MemDoubler need voice output? For such a simple task, the progress bar and a three digit numeric counter would seem adequate. But if there are complications—which for something wired into the brain might have an all too literal meaning for “fatal error”—a voice announcement would be able to include much more detail about the problem, or even alert bystanders if Johnny is rendered unconscious by the problem. (Given how current software installers operate, Johnny is fortunate that the MemDoubler did not insist on reciting the entire end user license agreement and warranty before the update could start.) Maybe the visual should be the default (to respect his professional need for secrecy), and the voice announcement adopted in an alert mode.

It’s also interesting that Johnny installs this immediately before he needs it, in the lift that is taking him to the hotel room where he will receive the data to be stored. Suppose someone else had been in the lift with him? In this world of routine body implants doubling your memory is probably not a crime, but at the time of writing diabetics will inject themselves in private even though that is harmless and necessary. Perhaps body-connected technology will be common enough in 2021 that public operation is considered normal, just as we have become accustomed to mobile phone conversations being carried out in public.

The Doctor’s Office

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The doctor’s office is a stark, concrete room with a single desk framed under large windows and a tall vaulted ceiling.  Two chairs sit on a carpet in front of the desk for patients.  A couple pieces of art and personal photos line the room, but they are overwhelmed by the industrial-ness of the rest of the space.

When the doctor enters, he carries a large folder with the patient’s health information and background on paper.  He then talks with the patient directly, without help from notes or his patient’s folder.

There is no visible computer in the room.

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While not a traditional interface, this office is interesting because it lacks any traditional interactive features of a futuristic doctor’s office; things like holograms, giant computer screen walls, and robots are completely absent.

It is also the patient’s interface to the medical industry and its news for her. And it can use some improvement.

Authority Figure

In this situation, the Doctor is acting as an authority figure to tell Laura what her diagnosis is and how likely she is to recover.  The office is setup to put all the focus on the doctor, and his method of entry adds to the power focused on him.

Even the lack of computer indicates that the doctor is alone in the final call of what the diagnosis is.  There is no intermediary between caregiver and patient.

This sets up a psychological condition where the patient is not in a position to question the doctor’s advice or diagnosis.  The doctor tells the patient what they have, and the patient has to deal with it.

Medical Goals

Here, the doctor’s goal should be to help the patient through the situation and give them the best chance possible to recover.  Generally, this means making sure:

  • The patient understands their situation
  • Knows what their options are
  • and follows through on the best plan of treatment.

From the transcript:

(In a large room, looking up through a glass ceiling. Ships are flying past overhead. Camera pans down to Laura Roslin, sitting in a chair in front of a desk. She’s looking out the window, and jumps at the sound of the door. A doctor in a white coat walks in.)

Doctor: I’m afraid the tests are positive. The mass is malignant. It’s advanced well beyond our…

(Noises drown him out [Laura no longer paying attention]—we see a ship taking off and then moving through space.)

As we are shown by Laura’s reaction to the doctor’s first words, she completely fails to understand the second two points.  The doctor’s emphasis on power has scared Laura so badly that she can only focus on the fact that she has cancer.  She leaves without being confident in her plan of care or her chances of survival.

That means that she is unlikely to follow through on the plan of care (which is exactly what we see later on), and she is unlikely to continue trusting that doctor (which we don’t see, only because the doctor’s office is violently removed from the planet along with pretty much everything else shortly after the visit).

Help the Patient

Research is now showing (a white-paper by Samira Pasha in 2013 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24089182) does a good job of collecting previous research and showing the importance of good design in the garden) that patients do better when surrounded by greenspace and people who are willing to talk to them in ways they can understand.  Doctors who explain a patient’s options well are shown to improve the rates at which patients follow through on their treatments.

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Ulfelder Healing Garden, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA.  Photo by Naomi Sachs

Immediate improvements could include the following:

  • Add plants and trees
  • Take more care with the patient’s state of mind
  • Lower the ceiling to create more personal space
  • Refrain from invoking authoritarian criticism

Adding in more plants and trees to the office would have an immediate benefit for both the patient (Laura) and the doctor.  Explaining the options more confidently and with a greater care towards the patient’s emotional state would give Laura a better chance to actually take the doctor’s advice.
Additionally, that giant binder of Laura’s medical history is impossible for a reasonable patient to read through and understand.  A basic overview and history could remind Laura of the procedures she’s been through and the encounters she’s had with various doctors.  This could be followed by a summary sheet with the doctor’s recommendations and links to relevant treatment information.

Don’t Intimidate

A doctor’s job should not be to intimidate their patient with the doctor’s skill and experience.  Instead, they should be focused on helping their patient through a very tough time in their life.  Various tools can help both the patient and doctor in this situation.  By restructuring the office to be more inviting and creating effective summaries of patient encounters, both the patient and doctor can create positive outcomes for the patient’s health.

Galactica’s Wayfinding

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The Battlestar Galactica is a twisting and interlocking series of large hallways that provide walking access to all parts of the ship.  The hallways are poorly labeled, and are almost impossible for someone without experience to navigate. Seriously, look at these images and see if you can tell where you are, or where you’re supposed to head to find…well, anything.

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Billy (a young political assistant steeped in modern technology) finds this out after losing the rest of his tour group.

The hallways lack even the most basic signage that we expect in our commercial towers and office buildings.  We see no indication of what deck a given corridor is on, what bulkhead a certain intersection is located at, or any obvious markings on doorways.

We do see small, cryptic alphanumerics near door handles:

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Based off of current day examples, the alphanumeric would mark the bulkhead the door was at, the level it was on, and which section it was in.  This would let anyone who knew the system figure out where they were on the ship.

Labeling doors like this led to Billy accidentally entering a bathroom without any clue what was behind the door.

 

Effective Wayfinding

People moving through labyrinthian spaces need to know two things from their environment: Where they are, how to get wherever they are going.  Presumably, the Galactica has such a cryptic system because it was an active warship and didn’t want an enemy boarding team to find a “This way to the CIC!” sign.

With its transition to a museum, the Galactica should have had more effective signage added.  In her introduction, Laura Roslin said she wanted to put in a fully networked system of digital signage, but this would likely be overkill for the situation.  

Given its purpose as a warship, the Galactica should have been built with major corridors, minor corridors, and maintenance access.  Good signage could direct people to the major corridors from anywhere in the ship, and then only the major corridors would need specific signage to get visitors to other sections of the ship.  Supplemental signage could provide direct line navigation to interesting points such as the CIC.

Cryptic labeling is fine for a highly trained workforce, but is inadequate for the majority of visiting users.

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

Bulkhead Doors

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At every major intersection, and at the entrance to each room, the Battlestar Galactica has very large pressure doors.  These doors each have a handle and a large wheel on each side.  During regular operation crewmembers open the door with the handle and close it firmly, but do not spin the wheel.  Occasionally, we see crew using the wheel as a leverage point to close the door.

 

Sealing it off

We never directly see a crewmember spin the wheel on the door after it closes.  While Chief Tyrol is acting as head of damage control, he orders all bulkheads in a section of the ship sealed off.  This order is beyond the typical door closing that we witness day-to-day.

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This implies that the door has three modes: Open, Closed, and Sealed.

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Crewmembers could use the door most of their day in an open or closed mode, where an easy pull of the handle unlatches the door and allows them to enter or leave quickly.  In an emergency, a closed door could be sealed by spinning the valve wheel on one side of the door.

 

Danger?

As with other parts of the Galactica, the doors are completely manual, and cannot be activated remotely. (Because Cylon hacking made them go network-less.) Someone has to run up to the door in an emergency and seal it off.

One worry is that, because there is a valve wheel on both sides, an untrained crewmember might panic and try to unseal the door by turning it in the wrong direction.  This would endanger the entire crew.

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The other worry is that the valve spins along a single axis (we see no evidence either way during the show), requiring the crew to know which side of the door they were on to seal it against a vacuum.  “Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey” would fail in this instance, and might cause hesitation or accidental unsealing in an actual emergency.

Ideally, the doors would have wheels that spun identically on either side, so that a clockwise spin always sealed the door, and a counter-clockwise spin always unsealed it.

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Current water-tight doors have two sides, the ‘important’ side and the ‘unimportant’ side.  The important side faces towards the ‘center’ of the vessel, or the core of the larger block of the ship, and can be sealed off quickly from that side with a wheel and heavy ‘dogs’.

Weathertight doors have a handle-latch on both sides that is connected (much like a doorknob), and can seal/unseal the door from either side.

If there is a technical limitation to that mechanism (unlikely, but possible), then a large and obvious graphic on the door (a clockwise or counterclockwise arrow) could serve to remind the crew which direction of turn sealed the door.  In this case, sealing the door is the primary action to call out because it is the action done under a panic situation, and the action most easily forgotten in the heat of the moment.

Otherwise, the doors could be a danger to the crew: the crew on the ‘safe’ side could seal the door against depressurization, but crew on the ‘unsafe’ side might try to unseal it to save themselves in a panic.

Air pressure might keep the door properly closed in this instance, but it is still a risk.

 

Effective?

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We see during the damage control incident that the doors are quickly closed and sealed by the crew, even in an emergency, making the rest of the ship airtight.  This either shows that the doors are effective at their job, or the crew is very well trained for such a situation.

Like the rest of the Galactica, the technology relies on people to work.  A couple hints or minor tweaks to that technology could make the crew’s lives much easier without putting them at danger from the Cylons or the empty void of space.

And now after the trailer: Johnny Mnemonic

The “Internet 2021” shot introduces the cyberspace interface and environment that forms the backdrop for the film. (There’s also a lengthy and unhelpful text crawl, but we’ll pass over that.) Now let’s introduce the film using plain words instead.

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When discussing the interfaces in a film it helps to know a little about the context in which it was made. I’ll talk more about this at the end, but for now you need to know that Johnny Mnemonic was released in 1995 and is both a cyberpunk and virtual reality film.

Cyberpunk was a subgenre of science fiction which began in the 1980s. Cyberpunk authors were the first to write extensively about personal computing technology, world wide computer networks, and virtual reality. By the end of the 1990s cyberpunk ideas had been absorbed into mainstream science fiction.

At the time of writing, 2016, virtual reality is a hot topic with megabytes devoted online to the prospects and implications of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and others. This “VR Boom” is actually the second of these, not something new. The first virtual reality boom took place in the mid 1990s, and Johnny Mnemonic was released in the middle of it. By the end of the 1990s virtual reality, like cyberpunk, had largely faded away.

Everything about the cast and crew

Everything about the tropes

Find it on iTunes (US)

Buy from Amazon

The plot.

Johnny Mnemonic takes place in 2021. It’s a cyberpunk world, with corporations that are more powerful than governments and employ Yakuza gangsters to do their dirty work. There’s also a serious new disease, Nerve Attenuation Syndrome, with no known cure. The Johnny of the title is a mnemonic courier, someone who physically transports important data from place to place by embedding it in their brain. He needs to do one last job before retiring.

In a Beijing hotel he uploads 320G of “data” from a small group of renegade scientists employed by the Pharmakom medical corporation, to be delivered to Newark, New Jersey. The 320G is significant because it has overloaded Johnny’s capacity, and he will die if the data is not downloaded soon. In what will be a recurring plot element, heavily armed thugs who want to prevent the data being released kill the scientists and attempt to kill Johnny. During the fight, three images, the “Access Code” needed to download the data, are partly lost.

Johnny arrives in Newark, where the same people try to kill him again. He is rescued by the other lead character, Jane, a bodyguard who comes to his aid on the promise of lots of money. On the run from an ever-increasing number of people trying to find and kill them, Johnny and Jane fall in with the LoTeks, resistance fighters who hack into corporate networks and release information that corporations want to keep secret. (The LoTeks themselves are not against technology, but their chosen lifestyle restricts them to using what they can scavenge rather than being lavishly equipped with the latest and greatest.)

Johnny learns in quick succession that Jane has early onset NAS symptoms and that the “data” locked up in his head is a cure for NAS. As a cyberpunk corporation, Pharmakom is naturally keeping it secret just to make more money. Without the full access code, the only hope to extract the data is Jones, a cybernetically enhanced dolphin working with the LoTeks. After a last climactic battle, Johnny with the help of Jones is able to “hack his own brain” and recover the data, the cure is released to the world, and Johnny and Jane can live somewhat more happily (this is cyberpunk) ever after.

Johnny Mnemonic (in this review always referring to the film, not the short story, unless stated otherwise)  is packed with interfaces, of which the most interesting and memorable is an extended cyberspace scene around the middle. Like the gestural interface of Minority Report, it is a wonderfully, almost obsessively, detailed imagining of the near future. The value of these predictions, as with most science fiction, is not whether they were correct or not. Predictions are much more interesting for what they tell us about the hopes, expectations, and dreams at the time they were made. Johnny Mnemonic, made in 1995 and set in 2021, shows us how the Internet and World Wide Web were expected to develop over the next twenty five years. As I write this, there’s five years to go.

Let’s jack in and see how it holds up!

Viper Launch Control

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The Galactica’s fighter launch catapults are each controlled by a ‘shooter’ in an armored viewing pane.  There is one ‘shooter’ for every two catapults.  To launch a Viper, he has a board with a series of large twist-handles, a status display, and a single button.  We can also see several communication devices:

  • Ear-mounted mic and speaker
  • Board mounted mic
  • Phone system in the background

These could relate to one of several lines of communication each:

  • The Viper pilot
  • Any crew inside the launch pod
  • Crew just outside the launch pod
  • CIC (for strategic status updates)
  • Other launch controllers at other stations
  • Engineering teams
  • ‘On call’ rooms for replacement operators

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Each row on the launch display appears to conform to some value coming off of the Viper or the Galactica’s magnetic catapults.  The ‘shooter’ calls off Starbuck’s launch three times due to some value he sees on his status board (fluctuating engine power right before launch).

We do not see any other data inputs.  Something like a series of cameras on a closed circuit could show him an exterior view of the entire Viper, providing additional information to the sensors.

When Starbuck is ready to launch on the fourth try, the ‘shooter’ twists the central knob and, at the same time and with the same hand, pushes down a green button.  The moment the ‘shooter’ hits the button, Starbuck’s Viper is launched into space.

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There are other twist knobs across the entire board, but these do not appear to conform directly to the act of launching the Viper, and they do not act like the central knob.  They appear instead to be switches, where turning them from one position to another locks them in place.

There is no obvious explanation for the number of twist knobs, but each one might conform to an electrical channel to the catapult, or some part of the earlier launch sequence.

Manual Everything

Nothing in the launch control interprets anything for the ‘shooter’.  He is given information, then expected to interpret it himself.  From what we see, this information is basic enough to not cause a problem and allow him to quickly make a decision.

Without networking the launch system together so that it can poll its own information and make its own decisions, there is little that can improve the status indicators. (And networking is made impossible in this show because of Cylon hackers.) The board is easily visible from the shooter chair, each row conforms directly to information coming in from the Viper, and the relate directly to the task at hand.

The most dangerous task the shooter does is actually decide to launch the Viper into space.  If either the Galactica or the Viper isn’t ready for that action, it could cause major damage to the Viper and the launch systems.

A two-step control for this is the best method, and the system now requires two distinct motions (a twist-and-hold, then a separate and distinct *click*).  This is effective at confirming that the shooter actually wants to send the Viper into space.

To improve this control, the twist and button could be moved far enough apart (reference, under “Two-Hand Controls” ) that it requires two hands to operate the control.  That way, there is no doubt that the shooter intends to activate the catapult.

If the controls are separated like that, it would take some amount of effort to make sure the two controls are visually connected across the board, either through color, or size, or layout.  Right now, that would be complicated by the similarity in the final twist control, and the other handles that do different jobs.

Changing these controls to large switches or differently shaped handles would make the catapult controls less confusing to use.

 

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.