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

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.

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

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

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

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.

 

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.

Captain’s Board

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The Captain’s Board is a double hexagon table at the very center of the CIC.  This board serves as a combination of podium and status dashboard for the ship’s Captain.  Often, the ship’s XO or other senior officers will move forward and use a grease pen or replacement transparency sheet to update information on the board.

image05For example, after jumping from their initial position to the fleet supply base in the nebula, Colonel Tigh replaces the map on the ‘left’ side of the board with a new map of the location that the Galactica had just jumped to.  This implies that the Galactica has a cache of maps in the CIC of various parts of the galaxy, or can quickly print them on the fly.

After getting hit by a Cylon fighter’s nuclear missile, Tigh focuses on a central section of the board with a grease pen to mark the parts of the Galactica suffering damage or decompression. The center section of the board has a schematic, top-down view of the Galactica.

During the initial fighting, Lt. Gaeda is called forward to plot the location of Galactica’s combat squadrons on the board.  This hand-drawn method is explicitly used, even when the Dradis system is shown to be functioning.

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The transparency sheets are labeled with both a region and a sector: in this case, “Caprica Region, SECT OEL”.  More text fills the bottom of the label: “Battlestar Galactica Starchart…”

Several panels of physical keys and low-resolution displays ring the board, but we never see any characters interacting with them.  They do not appear to change during major events or during shifts in the ship status.

The best use of these small displays would be to access reference data with a quick search or wikipedia-style database.  Given what we see in the show, it is likely that it was just intended as fuigetry.

 

Old School

Charts and maps are an old interface that has been well developed over the course of human history.  Modern ships still use paper charts and maps to track their current location as a backup to GPS.

Given the Galactica’s mission to stay active even in the face of complete technological superiority of the opponent, a map-based backup to the Dradis makes sense in spite of the lack of detailed information it might need to provide.  It is best as, and should be, a worst-case backup.  

Here, the issue becomes the 3-dimensional space that the Galactica inhabits.  The maps do an excellent job of showing relationships in a two dimensional plane, but don’t represent the ‘above’ and ‘below’ at all.  

In those situations, perhaps something like a large fish tank metaphor might work better, but wouldn’t allow for quick plotting of distance and measurements by hand.  Instead, perhaps something more like the Pin Table from the 2000 X-Men movie that could be operated by hand:

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It would provide a shake-resistant, physical, no-electricity needed 3-D map of the surrounding area.  Markups could be easily accomplished with a sticky-note-like flag that could attach to the pins.