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

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

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

Brain Scanning

The second half of the film is all about retrieving the data from Johnny’s implant without the full set of access codes. Johnny needs to get the data downloaded soon or he will die from the “synaptic seepage” caused by squeezing 320G of data into a system with 160G capacity. The bad guys would prefer to remove his head and cryogenically freeze it, allowing them to take their time over retrieval.

1 of 3: Spider’s Scanners

The implant cable interface won’t allow access to the data without the codes. To bypass this protection requires three increasingly complicated brain scanners, two of them medical systems and the final a LoTek hacking device. Although the implant stores data, not human memories, all of these brain scanners work in the same way as the Non-invasive, “Reading from the brain” interfaces described in Chapter 7 of Make It So.

The first system is owned by Spider, a Newark body modification
specialist. Johnny sits in a chair, with an open metal framework
surrounding his head. There’s a bright strobing light, switching on
and off several times a second.

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Nearby a monitor shows a large rotating image of his head and skull, and three smaller images on the left labelled as Scans 1 to 3. Continue reading

High Tech Binoculars

In Johnny Mnemonic we see two different types of binoculars with augmented reality overlays and other enhancements: Yakuz-oculars, and LoTek-oculars.

Yakuz-oculars

The Yakuza are the last to be seen but also the simpler of the two. They look just like a pair of current day binoculars, but this is the view when the leader surveys the LoTek bridge.

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I assume that the characters here are Japanese? Anyone?

In the centre is a fixed-size green reticule. At the bottom right is what looks like the magnification factor. At the top left and bottom left are numbers, using Western digits, that change as the binoculars move. Without knowing what the labels are I can only guess that they could be azimuth and elevation angles, or distance and height to the centre of the reticule. (The latter implies some sort of rangefinder.) Continue reading

Intermission

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At this point there is still an hour of film and a dozen interfaces to go. Fortunately, by abandoning a strict chronological approach these can be grouped into four types of interfaces.

  1. The LoTeks and Yakuza both use a kind of high tech binoculars.
  2. Johnny enters cyberspace to try and find the download access codes for the data, an attempt that fails.
  3. Retrieving the data without the codes needs two brain reading medical scanners and a final LoTek brain hacking device.
  4. In between action scenes Johnny and others make video phone calls using a variety of different gadgets.
    The last of these phone calls itself demonstrates two interesting interfaces, a puppet avatar and a cringing computer.

In this remaining hour Johnny is always accompanied by Jane, the other lead character. She won’t appear in any of these discussions though, because she never uses any interfaces. Jane is a bodyguard, who relies on simple but reliable blades and throwing spikes for weapons. She has an augmented nervous system, with sockets in her arms that we briefly see connected to some electronic medical equipment, but alas we never learn the full extent of her capabilities. I suggest reading Neuromancer if you’re interested in cyberpunk body modifications, as Jane is just a renaming of Molly who appeared in the original Johnny Mnemonic short story and Neuromancer.

There is also Anna, the former CEO of Pharmakom who is now a “neural net persona” within the Pharmakom mainframe after being “imprinted” shortly before her death. She appears every so often on computer screens to both Johnny and Takahashi. I don’t consider her to be an interface, as the interaction between her and other characters is simple conversation and she is treated no differently to an intrusive video phone caller. Chris may wish to jump in and provide his own analysis though. 🙂

 

Door Bomb and Safety Catches

Johnny leaves the airport by taxi, ending up in a disreputable part of town. During his ride we see another video phone call with a different interface, and the first brief appearance of some high tech binoculars. I’ll return to these later, for the moment skipping ahead to the last of the relatively simple and single-use physical gadgets.

Johnny finds the people he is supposed to meet in a deserted building but, as events are not proceeding as planned, he attaches another black box with glowing red status light to the outside of the door as he enters. Although it looks like the motion detector we saw earlier, this is a bomb.

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This is indeed a very bad neighbourhood of Newark. Inside are the same Yakuza from Beijing, who plan to remove Johnny’s head. There is a brief fight, which ends when Johnny uses his watch to detonate the bomb. It isn’t clear whether he pushes or rotates some control, but it is a single quick action. Continue reading

Talking Technology

We’ve seen four interfaces with voice output through speakers so far.

  1. The message centre in the New Darwin hotel room, which repeated the onscreen text
  2. The MemDoubler, which provided most information to Johnny through voice alone
  3. The bathroom tap in the Beijing hotel which told Johnny the temperature of the water
  4. The Newark airport security system

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Later, in the brain hacking scene, we’ll hear two more sentences spoken.

Completionists: There’s also extensive use of voice output during a cyberspace search sequence, but there Johnny is wearing a headset so he is the only one who can hear it. That is sufficiently different to be left out of this discussion.

Voice is public

Sonic output in general and voice in particular have the advantage of being omnidirectional, so the user does not need to pay visual attention to the device, and, depending on volume and ambient noise, can be understood at much greater distances than a screen can be read. These same qualities are not so desirable if the user would prefer to keep the message or information private. We can’t tell whether these systems can detect the presence or absence of people, but the hotel message centre only spoke when Johnny was alone. Later in the film we will see two medical systems that don’t talk at all. This is most likely deliberate because few patients would appreciate their symptoms being broadcast to all and sundry.

Unless you’re the only one in the room

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The bathroom tap is interesting because the temperature message was in English. This is a Beijing hotel, and the scientists who booked the suite are Vietnamese, so why? It’s not because we the audience need to know this particular detail. But we do have one clue: Johnny cursed rather loudly once he was inside the bathroom. I suggest that there is a hotel computer monitoring the languages being used by guests within the room and adjusting voice outputs to match. Current day word processors, web browsers, and search engines can recognise the language of typed text input and load the matching spellcheck dictionaries, so it’s a fair bet that by 2021 our computers will be able to do the same for speech.

Airport Security

After fleeing the Yakuza in the hotel, Johnny arrives in the Free City of Newark, and has to go through immigration control. This process appears to be entirely automated, starting with an electronic passport reader.

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After that there is a security scanner, which is reminiscent of HAL from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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The green light runs over Johnny from top to bottom. Continue reading