Cyberspace: Navigation

Cyberspace is usually considered to be a 3D spatial representation of the Internet, an expansion of the successful 2D desktop metaphor. The representation of cyberspace used in books such as Neuromancer and Snow Crash, and by the film Hackers released in the same year, is an abstract cityscape where buildings represent organisations or individual computers, and this what we see in Johnny Mnemonic. How does Johnny navigate through this virtual city?

Gestures and words for flying

Once everything is connected up, Johnny starts his journey with an unfolding gesture. He then points both fingers forward. From his point of view, he is flying through cyberspace. He then holds up both hands to stop.

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Both these gestures were commonly used in the prototype VR systems of 1995. They do however conflict with the more common gestures for manipulating objects in volumetric projections that are described in Make It So chapter 5. It will be interesting to see which set of gestures is eventually adopted, or whether they can co-exist.

Later we will see Johnny turn and bank by moving his hands independently.

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We also see him using voice commands, saying “hold it” to stop forward motion immediately. Later we see him stretch one arm out and bring it back, apparently reversing a recent move.

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In cyberpunk and related fiction users fly everywhere in cyberspace, a literal interpretation of the spatial metaphor. This is also how users in our real world MUD and MOO cyberspaces start. After a while, travelling through all the intermediate locations between your start and destination gets tedious. MUDs and MOOs allow teleporting, a direct jump to the desired location, and the cyberspace in Johnny Mnemonic has a similar capability.

Gestures for teleporting

Mid sequence, Johnny wants to jump to the Beijing hotel where the upload took place. To do this, he uses a blue geometric shape at the lower left of his view, looking like a high tech, floating tetrahedron. Johnny slowly spins this virtual object using repeated flicking gestures with his left hand, with his ring and middle fingers held together.

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It looks very similar to the gesture used on a current-day smartphone to flick through a photo album or set of application icon screens. And in this case, it causes a blue globe to float into view (see below).

Johnny grabs this globe and unfolds it into a fullscreen window, using the standard Hollywood two handed “spread” gesture described in Chapter 5 of Make It So.

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The final world map fills the entire screen. Johnny uses his left hand to enter a number on a HUD style overlay keypad, then taps on the map to indicate China.

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I interpret this as Johnny using the hotel phone number to specify his destination. It would not be unusual for there to be multiple hotels with the same name within a city such as Beijing, but the phone number should be unique. But since Johnny is currently in North America, he must also specify the international dialing code or 2021 equivalent, which he can do just by pointing. And this is a well-designed user interface which accepts not only multimodal input, but in any order, rather than forcing the user to enter the country code first.

Keyboards and similar physical devices often don’t translate well into virtual reality, because tactile feedback is non-existent. Even touch typists need the feeling of the physical keyboard, in particular the slight concavity of the key tops and the orientation bumps on the F and J keys, to keep their fingers aligned. Here though there is just a small grid of virtual numbers which doesn’t require extended typing. Otherwise this is a good design, allowing Johnny to type a precise number and just point to a larger target.

Next

After he taps a location, the zoomrects indicate a transition into a new cyberspace, in this case, Beijing.

Fuel cell

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Just before the spaceship takes off for Fhloston Paradise, the audience gets to see the manual interface that the airport employees use to refuel the ship. On the tarmac beneath the spaceship, the ground crewman plugs in a portable control box to the underside of the plane, and presses a button to open a hatch in the ground, from which a new, glowing green radioactive fuel cell emerges.

One of the crewmen grabs it by its circular handles at the end, removes it from the hatch, and sets it on the ground.

He then uses the plugged-in control box to open a compartment on the underside of the spaceship, from which one of the ground crew removes the spent fuel cell by hand, and inserts it into the still-open hatch.

Finally they pick up the full fuel cell and insert it into the compartment on the plane.

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This scene is there to set up how Cornelius stows away on the craft, but also serves as a cinematic pun when it crosscuts to a scene inside the ship (but which must be seen rather than read to appreciate.) For such a “throwaway” technology, it’s handled really well.

  • The ground affords natural shielding from any collection of radioactive fuel cells.
  • Being circular, the cells and the handles to manipulate the cells are orientation-less.
  • There are familiar black-and-yellow-stripe warnings on the walls of the hatch and the revealed sides of the spaceship compartment. These warnings are only visible when it’s relevant.
  • The radioactivity trefoil symbol has the same colors and appears on the fuel cell, the hatch, and the compartment.
  • Having a portable and wired control box means that it’s not readily available for any passing hackers.
  • The transparent container lets the material act as an additional warning to observers: There is danger here.
  • The transparent container lets the fuel itself tell the ground crew which cell is spent and which one is full.

All told, short of making it automated, this is how it should work.

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