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.

jm-30-hardware-a

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.

jm-3-phone-hotel-c-adjusted

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

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.

jm-25-yakuza-binocs-adjusted

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

The Door

fifthelement-doorpanel

The door to unit 281-53 has security and control features that make it Not Like Our Doors.

Sweetie’s Door

Korben’s white cat is named Sweetie. After a long night of carousing the 5000 block, she wants to be let back in, so she meows at the door as soon as she hears Korben’s alarm go off. He presses the lowest on the 5-button panel and a little cat-sized door opens up to let her in. After she passes through, it immediately closes behind her.

The kitty door could be improved by lessening the work it requires of Korben to zero, by automatically opening and closing for Sweetie. Even if Korben wanted her outside for certain hours of the night, we’ve seen that the apartment knows about schedules, so could accomodate another few bytes of scheduling information. To provide automatic access, though, would require some kind of identification. Low-level tokens like an RFID on her collar could work (such systems are sold today) but Korben lives in a crime-ridden area and any criminal could swipe the collar and use it to open the kitty door to “case the joint” or use some trickery to open the big door. An implanted RFID chip would be worse since it would put Sweetie’s life at risk as a “key.” More passive systems like kitty-biometrics would be much more expensive, and all the other evidence in the film tells us that this is not a wealthy man’s apartment. Ultimately, though there are other solutions for the problem, none fit the circumstances as well.

fifthelement-052

Four out of five of the panel’s icons are clearer than those seen on the apartment’s other panels.

  • A moon (the mysterious one. Night mode?)
  • A high star (for shining a light from above the door, downward?)
  • An ajar door, for opening or closing it
  • A low star (for shining a light below on Sweetie
  • A a cat face (and cat butt?) for opening Sweetie’s door

In addition to being readable, they’re also well-mapped. The button for the human is in the middle. The cat door is lower on the panel. Let’s presume the lights are similarly well mapped.

The only difficulty this system might have is accidental activation of the wrong thing since the buttons are so similar and close together. It might not be so bad to accidentally turn on a light when you meant to open the door, but if you’d intended to turn on the light to check who’s outside and then accidentally opened the door, it could mean a home invasion. This is a Fitts’ Law problem for a doorknob. Better would be for the “knob” to be a hand’s width distant from any of the other buttons. This would also save him from having to look to target it precisely to do something as common as shutting the door.

Video peephole

Unlike adorable kittens, humans on the other side of the door may pose a threat. Korben can see who has come calling via a video monitor, located above the panel. The feed is always on. The video camera sits above the lintel and aims straight down, so Korben can see all the way to where Sweetie would be. Three buttons below the monitor are not seen in use. For most cases, the monitor would work well. Korben can glance at it from anywhere in the room and have a good idea who is there. And, since it’s a one-way system, he has time to get quick things done before answering without seeming too rude.

FifthE-doormonitor001

That said, the camera is not foolproof. Early in the film Korben checks it and though it looks as if the hallway was empty, upon opening it finds a would-be robber who has donned a “hat” with a picture of the empty hallway from the perspective of the camera. Though he’s ultimately unsuccessful in robbing Korben his ruse to appear invisible to the door monitor worked perfectly. Multiple cameras might make it harder for this trick to be effective, but some other sensors, like a weight sensor under the floor outside or heat sensor would be harder to fool.

fifthelement-061

As if that weren’t bad enough, the fact that the camera has a very limited field of view allows anyone to hide just off to the side. Cornelius uses this tactic when he uses Leeloo as a sort of video bait to get him to open the door.

FifthE-doormonitor002

FifthE-doormonitor005

This latter problem could be solved with a fisheye lens on the camera (y’know, like real peepholes), which would show him more of the hallway and reduce the places where an assailant could easily hide.