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.

 

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.

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

Dat glaive: Enthrallment

Several times throughout the movie, Loki uses places the point of the glaive on a victim’s chest near their heart, and a blue fog passes from the stone to infect them: an electric blackness creeps upward along their skin from their chest until it reaches their eyes, which turn fully black for a moment before becoming the same ice blue of the glaive’s stone, and we see that the victim is now enthralled into Loki’s servitude.

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You have heart.

The glaive is very, very terribly designed for this purpose. Continue reading

Scav dual-monoculars

As Jack searches early in the film for Drone 172, he parks his bike next to a sinkhole in the desert and cautiously peers into it. As he does so, he is being observed from afar by a sinister looking Scav through a set of asymmetrical…well, it’s not exactly right to call them binoculars.

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They look kind of binocular, but that term technically refers to a machine that displays two slighty-offset images shown independently to each eye such that the user perceives stereopsis, or a single field in 3D. But a quick shot from the Scav’s perspective shows that this is not what is shown at all. Continue reading

Drone Programmer

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One notable hybrid interface device, with both physical and digital aspects, is the Drone Programmer. It is used to encode key tasks or functions into the drone. Note that it is seen only briefly—so we’re going off very little information. It facilitates a crucial low-level reprogramming of Drone 172.

This device is a handheld item, grasped on the left, approximately 3 times as wide as it is tall. Several physical buttons are present, but are unused in the film: aside from grasping, all interaction is done through use of a small touchscreen with enough sensitivity to capture fingertip taps on very small elements.

Jack uses the Programmer while the drone is disabled. When he pulls the cord out of the drone, the drone restarts and immediately begins to try and move/understand its surroundings.

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When Drone 172 is released from the Programmer cable, it is in a docile and inert state…

Continue reading

The SandPhone

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Not everyone is comfortable giving over to the flimsy promise of Carrousel [sic]. Some citizens run, and Sandmen find and terminate these cultural heretics.

Sandmen carry a device with them that has many different uses. It goes unnamed in the movie, so let’s just call it the SandPhone. It is a thick black rectangle about 20cm at its long edge, about the size of a very large cell phone. Near the earpiece on one broad side is a small screen for displaying text and images. Below that is a white line. The lower half of this face is metallic grill that covers a microphone. On the left edge is a momentary button that allows talking. Just above this is a small red button. When not in use, the device is holstered on the sandman’s belt.

The SandPhone lets the Sandman receive information through a display that can show both image and text. The Sandman sends back information and requests by voice in a CB radio metaphor.

Notifications

The first time we see the device is when Logan and Francis are attending Carrousel. Somehow, on his belt it catches his attention. With the crowd too loud for sound, and no evidence it’s light, my bet’s on haptics. Realizing he’s got a message, he picks it up, presses the edge button and the screen displays two lines of text:

RUNNER: GREAT HALL
ENTRANCE WEST.

He then puts the device to his face as we would a cell phone and shouts, "Affirmative!" as loud as he can.

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Perp wayfinding

Running with the device outside the Great Hall, Logan uses the SandPhone as a detector. By holding it flat out in front of him he hears a rhythmic pulse. Turning it this way and that, he listens for the change in pitch. It rises when he is pointing towards the targeted runner.

Bio identification

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When he and Francis have terminated the runner, he snaps the device off his belt, and pressing the edge button, he reports back to dispatch, "Runner terminated, 0.31. Ready for cleanup." Then by placing the device near the head of the dead runner, the device displays on the screen the last photographic image of him on file. Since the face on the SandPhone screen does not match the face he sees before him, Logan lifts the device to his face and, holding the edge button, requests an identity check of dispatch. Instantly he pulls the device away from his face to show the text:

IDENT. AFFIRM
NEW YOU #483
FACE CHANGE.

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Send backup

Much later in the film we see Logan alert dispatch to the location of the underground hideout by reaching down to the holstered device and pressing the white line button on its face. Its screen pulses green, and his position is highlight on the runner board (see below) at dispatch. Minutes later the location is raided by Sandmen.

Analysis

The first thing to note is that this is pretty close to a modern smart phone. He receives images and text messages, can talk to dispatch, and it has a biometric capability for identifying citizens. It’s tempting to paint this as visionary, but keep in mind that the first mobile phone was demonstrated in 1973, three years earlier, so it’s likely that the film makers were riffing off of the demo technology they’d heard about or maybe even seen in person.

We evaluate an interface’s design by how well it helps its user achieves his goals. (Even if those goals are anethma. That’s how we judge an interface.) In this case, the SandPhone helps Logan get the information he needs, when he needs it, across multiple channels. It doesn’t distract him with other functions. It’s context aware and doesn’t apparently have battery issues.

There are improvements of course.

We should make sure his hands are free by making the information available as an augmented reality display instead of a handheld device. This would also give him the information privately rather than display it for anyone (notably members of the resistance) to see it. Wayfinding would be more sensible as an overlay to his vision through this device.

Some surface tweaks might also be made, such as giving him a means of text input so he wouldn’t have to shout above the roar of Carrousel. Some silent means of input would help for when he needs to provide silent input as well. First I thought optical inputs might be ideal, given the augmented reality, but we don’t want his eyes distracted like that, even for the duration of glances. Instead some other gestural input—perhaps a face twitch or subvocal input—that lets him keep the rest of his body tense and ready for action.

Citizen biometrics should be a background fact, given the penopticon of Dome City. The information would come to him when he gets his assignement. But turn those same biometrics around on Logan, and his body could request reinforcements before he even thought to do so manually. When his heart rate elevates and galvanic skin response lowers, dispatch would know something was up, and route backup immediately.

A strategic interaction designer would even ask why he has to chase runners at all, when predictive algorithms could guess which citizens were likely to run and take action to forestall their rebellion. But then we’re into Minority Report, and this needs to stay Logan’s Run.

Injection radiocarbon dater

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Shaw uses a handheld device to perform a real-time carbon dating on an alien cadaver. This device is a cylinder with thick-gauged needle. White rings around the base and a big button on its side indicate power. When pressed into the alien tissue, the date appears on a small screen along its side along with four beeps. Shaw then turns it off with the press of the button.

Though the device has a very little screen time, it seems simple to use, suited to purpose, and with nothing extraneous. A simple device that as far as we see is well done.

Security and Control’s control

The mission is world-critical, so like a cockpit, the two who are ultimately in control are kept secure. The control room is accessible (to mere humans, anyway) only through a vault door with an armed guard. Hadley and Sitterson must present IDs to the guard before he grants them access.

Sitterson and Hadley pass security.

Truman, the guard, takes and swipes their cards through a groove in a hand-held device. We are not shown what is on the tiny screen, but we do hear the device’s quick chirps to confirm the positive identity. That sound means that Truman’s eyes aren’t tied to the screen. He can listen for confirmation and monitor the people in front of him for any sign of nervousness or subterfuge.

Hadley boots up the control room screens.

The room itself tells a rich story through its interfaces alone. The wooden panels at the back access Bronze Age technology with its wooden-handled gears, glass bowls, and mechanical devices that smash vials of blood. The massive panel at which they sit is full of Space Age pushbuttons, rheostats, and levers. On the walls behind them are banks of CRT screens. These are augmented with Digital Age, massive, flat panel displays and touch panel screens within easy reach on the console. This is a system that has grown and evolved for eons, with layers of technology that add up to a tangled but functional means of surveillance and control.

The interfaces hint at the great age of the operation.

Utter surveillance

In order for Control to do their job, they have to keep tabs on the victims at all times, even long before the event: Are the sacrifices conforming to archetype? Do they have a reason to head to the cabin?

The nest empties.

To these ends, there are field agents in the world reporting back by earpiece, and everything about the cabin is wired for video and audio: The rooms, the surrounding woods, even the nearby lake.

Once the ritual sacrifice begins, they have to keep an even tighter surveillance: Are they behaving according to trope? Do they realize the dark truth? Is the Virgin suffering but safe? A lot of the technology seen in the control room is dedicated to this core function of monitoring.

The stage managers monitor the victims.

There are huge screens at the front of the room. There are manual controls for these screens on the big panel. There is an array of CRTs on the far right.

The small digital screens can display anything, but a mode we often see is a split in quarters, showing four cameras in the area of the stage. For example, all the cameras fixed on the rooms are on one screen. This provides a very useful peripheral signal in Sitterson and Hadley’s visual field. As they monitor the scenario, motion will catch their eyes. If that motion is not on a monitor they expect it to be, they can check what’s happening quickly by turning their head and fixating. This helps keep them tightly attuned to what’s happening in the different areas on “stage.”

For internal security, the entire complex is also wired for video, including the holding cages for the nightmare monsters.

Sitterson looks for the escapees amongst the cubes.

The control room watches the bloody chaos spread.

One screen that kind of confuses us appears to be biometrics of the victims. Are the victims implanted with devices for measuring such things, or are sophisticated non-invasive environmental sensors involved? Regardless of the mechanisms, if Control has access to vital signs, how are they mistaken about Marty’s death? We only get a short glance at the screen, so maybe it’s not vital signs, but simple, static biometrics like height, and weight, even though the radiograph diagram suggests more.

Sitterson tries to avoid talking to Mordecai.

Communications

Sitterson and Hadley are managing a huge production. It involves departments as broad ranging as chemistry, maintenance, and demolitions. To coordinate and troubleshoot during the ritual, two other communications options are available beyond the monitors; land phone lines and direct-connection, push-to-talk microphones.

Hadley receives some bad news.