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.

Colonial One

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Colonial One is a luxury passenger liner in commercial service until the war with the Cylons breaks out.  The captain and co-pilot are not military pilots, and most passengers are dignitaries or VIPs visiting the Galactica for the unveiling of it as a museum.

Compared to military cockpits and the CIC aboard the Galactica, Colonial One’s cockpit has simple controls and an unsophisticated space-borne sensor system.  Also unlike the Galactica or the Raptors, no one on Colonial One calls their space-borne sensor system the “Dradis”.  At the center of each control console is a large gimbal-based horizon indicator.

image07The sensors show a simple 2-d representation of local space, with nearby contacts indicated as white dots.  There is no differentiation between ‘enemy’ and ‘friendly’ contacts.  Likewise, the image of a Cylon missile (shown above) is the same indicator as other ships.  There is no clear explanation of what the small white dots on the background of the image are, or what the lines indicate.

When the Cylon fighters show up, the crew has some unknown way besides this screen of knowing the Cylons have just jumped into contact range, and that they have launched missiles at Colonial One.  How the crew determines this isn’t shown, but both the crew and Apollo are confident that the assessment is correct.

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When Laura Rosilyn tells the crew to send a message on a specific frequency before the missile attack, the crew uses the same keypad to send alpha-numeric signals over a radio/faster-than-light (FTL) link as to enter information into their flight computers.  The FTL link appears to connect every planet in the Colonies together in real time: we don’t get any sense of delay between the attacks happening and the entire civilization reacting to it in real time.

The largest usability concern here is Mode Switching, and making it clear whether the crew is entering information into the ship or into the radio.  Given that we see the crew interact most with the ship itself, the following procedure would make the most sense:

  1. Entering information into the ship is the primary ‘mode’
  2. An explicit command to switch over to the radio link.
  3. Crew enters the given information into the link
  4. On ‘enter’, the interface flips back over to entering information into the ship.

With a larger budget, the Dradis is a better system (at least with the improvements installed)

Other Systems

A large amount of space inside the cockpit is given over to communication controls and a receiver station.  At the receiver station, Colonial One has a small printer attached to an automatic collector that prints off broadcast messages.  The function and placement of the printer appears similar to weather printers on modern passenger jets.

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The cockpit is very utilitarian, and the controls look well used.  These are robust systems and look like they have been in place for a while.  Despite the luxury associated with the passenger compartment, the crew have been granted no special luxuries or obvious assisting equipment to make their job more comfortable.

If we look at a current (or, up until very recently current) pattern: the Space Shuttle has a very similar layout.  It is intended to also enter the atmosphere, which Colonial One is shown with the equipment to do, and maintains a 2.5D movement concept.  Given that it’s a commercial ship with direct paths to follow, Colonial One does not need the complicated controls – that are shown to be very difficult to master – that are present on ships like the Viper.

Overall, a solid pattern

In-universe, this ship was not designed for combat, and is woefully unprepared for it when it arrives.  The sensor system and the controls appear specialized for the job of ferrying high-paying customers from one planet to another through friendly space.  Other ships also have the same level of manual controls and physical switches in the cockpit, though it is impossible to tell whether this is because Colonial One was built in the same era as the Galactica, or whether the builders wanted extra reliability in the controls than ‘modern’ electronics provided.

As long as the pilots are as well trained as current-day commercial pilots, the banks of controls would provide solid spatial grouping and muscle memory.  There might be some room to shrink the number of controls or group them better, but we lack the context to dig into that particular issue.

One minor fix would be the possibility of mode errors for the keypad.  It is not obvious when the crew changes from “I want to enter information into Colonial One to change operating parameters” and “I want to send a message to someone else”.  A clear way to indicate that the keyboard is sending information to the ship, compared to sending information to the radio system, would clear up the possibility of a mode-switch error.  Common options could be:

  • A large switch close by that changed the color of the lights
  • A bi-directional light with labels on which mode it’s in
  • or distinct separation between the Pilot’s keyboard and the Co-pilot’s keyboard

Of the three, a clear distinction between pilot’s keyboard and co-pilot’s keyboard would be the most secure; provided that there was a switch in case of emergency.

The Colonial One copies many interface patterns from modern airliners.  Since the airline industry has one of the best and most sophisticated UI design in practice right now, there are very few obvious recommendations to make, and credit should be given for how realistic it looks.

Viper Controls

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The Viper is the primary space fighter of the Colonial Fleet.  It comes in several varieties, from the Mark II (shown above), to the Mark VII (the latest version).  Each is made for a single pilot, and the controls allow the pilot to navigate short distances in space to dogfight with enemy fighters.

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Mark II Viper Cockpit

The Mark II Viper is an analog machine with a very simple Dradis, physical gauges, and paper flight plans.  It is a very old system.  The Dradis sits in the center console with the largest screen real-estate.  A smaller needle gauge under the Dradis shows fuel levels, and a standard joystick/foot pedal system provides control over the Viper’s flight systems.

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Mark VII Viper Cockpit

The Viper Mk VII is a mostly digital cockpit with a similar Dradis console in the middle (but with a larger screen and more screen-based controls and information).  All other displays are digital screens.  A few physical buttons are scattered around the top and bottom of the interface.  Some controls are pushed down, but none are readable.  Groups of buttons are titled with text like “COMMS CIPHER” and “MASTER SYS A”.

Eight buttons around the Dradis console are labeled with complex icons instead of text.

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When the Mk VII Vipers encounter Cylons for the first time, the Cylons use a back-door computer virus to completely shut down the Viper’s systems.  The screens fuzz out in the same manner as when Apollo gets caught in an EMP burst.

The Viper Mk VII is then completely uncontrollable, and the pilot’s’ joystick-based controls cease to function.

Overall, the Viper Mk II is set up similarly to a WWII P-52 Mustang or early production F-15 Eagle, while the Viper Mk VII is similar to a modern-day F-16 Falcon or F-22 Raptor .

 

Usability Concerns

The Viper is a single seat starfighter, and appears to excel in that role.  The pilots focus on their ship, and the Raptor pilots following them focus on the big picture.  But other items, including color choice, font choice, and location are an issue.

Otherwise, Items appear a little small, and it requires a lot of training to know what to look for on the dashboards. Also, the black lines radiating from the large grouper labels appear to go nowhere and provide no extra context or grouping.  Additionally, the controls (outside of the throttle and joystick) require quite a bit of reach from the seat.

Given that the pilots are accelerating at 9+ gs, reaching a critical control in the middle of a fight could be difficult.  Hopefully, the designers of the Vipers made sure that ‘fighting’ controls are all within arms reach of the seat, and that the controls requiring more effort are secondary tasks.

Similarly, all-caps text is the hardest to read at a glance, and should be avoided for interfaces like the Viper that require quick targeting and actions in the middle of combat.  The other text is very small, and it would be worth doing a deeper evaluation in the cockpit itself to determine if the font size is too small to read from the seat.

If anyone reading this blog has an accurate Viper cockpit prop, we’d be happy to review it! 

Fighter pilots in the Battlestar Galactica universe have quick reflexes, excellent vision, and stellar training.  They should be allowed to use all of those abilities for besting Cylons in a dogfight, instead of being forced to spend time deciphering their Viper’s interface.

Introducing Hugh Fisher

Hi there. Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your name, where are you from, how do you spend your time?

I’m Hugh Fisher (or Hugo if you’re French, Spanish, or Italian and rightly appalled by English spelling and pronunciation). I’ve lived most of my life in Canberra, Australia. I’ve been playing around with computer graphics for one purpose or another since the days of the Apple 2, and occasionally manage to get paid for doing so. Outside of that I draw, read a lot, and play tabletop roleplaying games. When I want to be a bit more active, I’m doing casual jogging, archery, or ultimate frisbee.

jm-00-hughpic

What are some of your favorite sci-fi interfaces (Other than in Johnny Mnemonic)? (And why?)

I’m a sucker for old school monochrome text and wireframes, so Alien and Aliens, Star Wars: A New Hope, and classic Battlestar Galactica. And not just the graphics, but also the physical keys, sliders, and joysticks—none of your shiny smooth glass. For color and animation, the BBC Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Strangely, I’m also fond of the very modern full body gestural interfaces seen in Iron Man and Ender’s Game.

Why did you decide to review Johnny Mnemonic in particular?

Because I’m a William Gibson fan and interested in virtual reality. It’s a terrible film, but I’ve always liked the presentation of a futuristic VR Internet. More about this when we get into the film…

What was your biggest surprise when doing the review?

The number of different interfaces and devices was one—I had no idea how much work I’d inadvertently signed up for. I was also surprised to realise that an awful lot of the film makes no sense at all if you haven’t read everything by William Gibson.

What else are you working on?

I’m building up a toolkit of Python code for 3D graphics and the Microsoft Kinect for a couple of artistic/fun interactive projects. I’m also drawing science fictional sheep, and learning about the new edition of the Paranoia RPG.

The Galactica Phone Network

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The phone system aboard the Galactica is a hardwired system that can be used in two modes: Point-to-point, and one-to-many.  The phones have an integrated handset wired to a control box and speaker.  The buttons on the control box are physical keys, and there are no automatic voice controls.

In Point-to-point mode, the phones act as a typical communication system, where one station can call a single other station.  In the one-to-many mode the phones are used as a public address system, where a single station can broadcast to the entire ship.

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The phones are also shown acting as broadcast speakers.  These speakers are able to take in many different formats of audio, and are shown broadcasting various different feeds:

  • Ship-wide Alerts (“Action Stations!”)
  • Local alarms (Damage control/Fire inside a specific bulkhead)
  • Radio Streams (pilot audio inside the launch prep area)
  • Addresses (calling a person to the closest available phone)

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Each station is independent and generic.  Most phones are located in public spaces or large rooms, with only a few in private areas.  These private phones serve the senior staff in their private quarters, or at their stations on the bridge.

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In each case, the phone stations are used as kiosks, where any crewmember can use any phone.  It is implied that there is a communications officer acting as a central operator for when a crewmember doesn’t know the appropriate phone number, or doesn’t know the current location of the person they want to reach.

Utterly Basic

There is not a single advanced piece of technology inside the phone system.  The phones act as a dirt-simple way to communicate with a place, not a person (the person just happens to be there while you’re talking).

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The largest disadvantage of this system is that it provides no assistance for its users: busy crewmembers of an active warship.  These crew can be expected to need to communicate in the heat of battle, and quickly relay orders or information to a necessary party.

This is easy for the lower levels of crewmembers: information will always flow up to the bridge or a secondary command center.  For the officers, this task becomes more difficult.

First, there are several crewmember classes that could be anywhere on the ship:

  • Security
  • Damage Control
  • Couriers
  • Other officers

Without broadcasting to the entire ship, it could be extremely difficult to locate these specific crewmembers in the middle of a battle for information updates or new orders.

Unconventional Enemy

The primary purpose of the Galactica was to fight the Cylons: sentient robots capable of infiltrating networked computers.  This meant that every system on the Galactica was made as basic as possible, without regard to its usability.

The Galactica’s antiquated phone system does prevent Cylon infiltration of a communications network aboard an active warship.  Nothing the phone system does requires executing outside pieces of software.

A very basic upgrade to the phone system that could provide better usability would be a near-field tag system for each crew member.  A passive near-field chip could be read by a non-networked phone terminal each time a crew member approached near the phone.  The phone could then send a basic update to a central board at the Communications Center informing the operators of where each crewmember is. Such a system would not provide an attack surface (a weakness for them to infiltrate) for the enemy, and make finding officers and crew in an emergency situation both easier and faster: major advantages for a warship.

The near field sensors would add a second benefit, in that only registered crew could access specific terminals.  As an example, the Captain and senior staff would be the only ones allowed to use the central phone system.

Brutally efficient hardware

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The phone system succeeds in its hardware.  Each terminal has an obvious speaker that makes a distinct sound each time the terminal is looking for a crewmember.  When the handset is in use, it is easy to tell which side is up after a very short amount of training (the cable always comes out the bottom).  

It is also obvious when the handset is active or inactive.  When a crewmember pulls the handset out of its terminal, the hardware makes a distinctive audible and physical *click* as the switch opens a channel.  The handset also slots firmly back into the terminal, making another *click* when the switch deactivates.  This is very similar to a modern-day gas pump.

With a brief amount of training, it is almost impossible to mistake when the handset activates and deactivates.

Quick Wins

For a ship built in the heat of war at a rapid pace, the designers focused on what they could design quickly and efficiently.  There is little in the way of creature comforts in the Phone interface.

Minor additions in technology or integrated functionality could have significantly improved the interface of the phone system, and may have been integrated into future ships of the Galactica’s line.  Unfortunately, we never see if the military designers of the Galactica learned from their haste.

Dradis Console

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Dradis is the primary system that the Galactica uses to detect friendly and enemy units beyond visual range.  The console appears to have a range of at least one light second (less than the distance from Earth to the Moon), but less than one light minute (one/eighth the distance from Earth to the Sun).

How can we tell?  We know that it’s less than one light minute because Galactica is shown orbiting a habitable planet around a sun-like star.  Given our own solar system, we would have at least some indication of ships on the Dradis at that range and the combat happening there (which we hear over the radios).  We don’t see those on the Dradis.

We know that it’s at least one light second because Galactica jumps into orbit (possibly geosynchronous) above a planet and is able to ‘clear’ the local space of that planet’s orbit with the Dradis

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The sensor readings are automatically interpreted into Friendly contacts, Enemy contacts, and missiles, then displayed on a 2d screen emulating a hemisphere. A second version of the display shows a flat 2d view of the same information.


Friendly contacts are displayed in green, while enemy units (Cylons) are displayed in red.  The color of the surrounding interface changes from orange to red when the Galactica moves to Alert Stations.

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The Dradis is displayed on four identical displays above the Command Table, and is viewable from any point in the CIC.  ‘Viewable’ here does not mean ‘readable’.  The small size, type, and icons shown on the screen are barely large enough to be read by senior crew at the main table, let alone officers in the second or third tier of seating (the perspective of which we see here).

It is possible that these are simply overview screens to support more specific screens at individual officer stations, but we never see any evidence of this.

Whatever the situation, the Dradis needs to be larger in order to be readable throughout the CIC and have more specific screens at officer stations focused on interpreting the Dradis.

As soon as a contact appears on the Dradis screen, someone (who appears to be the Intelligence Officer) in the CIC calls out the contact to reiterate the information and alert the rest of the CIC to the new contact.  Vipers and Raptors are seen using a similar but less powerful version of the Galactica’s sensor suite and display.  Civilian ships like Colonial One have an even less powerful or distinct radar system.

 

2d display of 3d information

The largest failing of the Dradis system is in its representation of the hemisphere.  We never appear to see the other half of the sphere. Missing half the data is pretty serious. Theoretically, the Galactica would be at the center of a bubble of information, instead of picking an arbitrary ‘ground plane’ and showing everything in a half-sphere above that (cutting out a large amount of available information).

The Dradis also suffers from a lack of context: contacts are displayed in 3 dimensions inside the view, but only have 2 dimensions of reference on the flat screen in the CIC.  For a reference on an effective 3d display on a 2d screen, see Homeworld’s (PC Game, THQ and Relic) Sensor Manager:

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In addition to rotation of the Sensor Manager (allowing different angles of view depending on the user’s wishes), the Sensor Manager can display reference lines down to a ‘reference plane’ to show height above, and distance from, a known point.  In Homeworld, this reference point is often the center of the selected group of units, but on the Dradis it would make sense for this reference point to be the Galactica herself.

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Dradis Contact

Overall, the crew of the Galactica never seems to be inhibited by this limitation.  The main reasons they could be able to work around this limitation include:

  • Extensive training
  • Effective communication between crew members
  • Experience operating with limited information.  

This relies heavily on the crew operating at peak efficiency during an entire combat encounter.  That is a lot to ask from anyone.  It would be better to improve the interface and lift the burden off of a possibly sleep deprived crewmember.

The Dradis itself displays information effectively about the individual contacts it sees.  This isn’t visible at the distances involved in most CIC activities, but would be visible on personal screens easily.  Additionally, the entire CIC doesn’t need to know every piece of information about each contact.

In any of those three cases, crew efficiency would be improved (and misunderstandings would be limited) by improving how the Dradis displayed its contacts on its screen.