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.


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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Internet 2021

The opening shot of Johnny Mnemonic is a brightly coloured 3D graphical environment. It looks like an abstract cityscape, with buildings arranged in rectangular grid and various 3D icons or avatars flying around. Text identifies this as the Internet of 2021, now cyberspace.

Internet 2021 display

Strictly speaking this shot is not an interface. It is a visualization from the point of view of a calendar wake up reminder, which flies through cyberspace, then down a cable, to appear on a wall mounted screen in Johnny’s hotel suite. However, we will see later on that this is exactly the same graphical representation used by humans. As the very first scene of the film, it is important in establishing what the Internet looks like in this future world. It’s therefore worth discussing the “look” employed here, even though there isn’t any interaction.

Cyberspace is usually equated with 3D graphics and virtual reality in particular. Yet when you look into what is necessary to implement cyberspace, the graphics really aren’t that important.

MUDs and MOOs: ASCII Cyberspace

People have been building cyberspaces since the 1980s in the form of MUDs and MOOs. At first sight these look like old style games such as Adventure or Zork. To explore a MUD/MOO, you log on remotely using a terminal program. Every command and response is pure text, so typing “go north” might result in “You are in a church.” The difference between MUD/MOOs and Zork is that these are dynamic multiuser virtual worlds, not solitary-player games. Other people share the world with you and move through it, adventuring, building, or just chatting. Everyone has an avatar and every place has an appearance, but expressed in text as if you were reading a book.

guest>>@go #1914
Castle entrance
A cold and dark gatehouse, with moss-covered crumbling walls. A passage gives entry to the forbidding depths of Castle Aargh. You hear a strange bubbling sound and an occasional chuckle.

Obvious exits:
path to Castle Aargh (#1871)
enter to Bridge (#1916)

Most impressive of all, these are virtual worlds with built-in editing capabilities. All the “graphics” are plain text, and all the interactions, rules, and behaviours are programmed in a scripting language. The command line interface allows the equivalent of Emacs or VI to run, so the world and everything in it can be modified in real time by the participants. You don’t even have to restart the program. Here a character creates a new location within a MOO, to the “south” of the existing Town Square:

laranzu>>@dig MyNewHome
laranzu>> @describe here as “A large and spacious cave full of computers”
laranzu>> @dig north to Town Square

The simplicity of the text interfaces leads people to think these are simple systems. They’re not. These cyberspaces have many of the legal complexities found in the real world. Can individuals be excluded from particular places? What can be done about abusive speech? How offensive can your public appearance be? Who is allowed to create new buildings, or modify existing ones? Is attacking an avatar a crime? Many 3D virtual reality system builders never progress that far, stopping when the graphics look good and the program rarely crashes. If you’re interested in cyberspace interface design, a long running textual cyberspace such as LambdaMOO or DragonMUD holds a wealth of experience about how to deal with all these messy human issues.

So why all the graphics?

So it turns out MUDs and MOOs are a rich, sprawling, complex cyberspace in text. Why then, in 1995, did we expect cyberspace to require 3D graphics anyway?

The 1980s saw two dimensional graphical user interfaces become well known with the Macintosh, and by the 1990s they were everywhere. The 1990s also saw high end 3D graphics systems becoming more common, the most prominent being from Silicon Graphics. It was clear that as prices came down personal computers would soon have similar capabilities.

At the time of Johnny Mnemonic, the world wide web had brought the Internet into everyday life. If web browsers with 2D GUIs were superior to the command line interfaces of telnet, FTP, and Gopher, surely a 3D cyberspace would be even better? Predictions of a 3D Internet were common in books such as Virtual Reality by Howard Rheingold and magazines such as Wired at the time. VRML, the Virtual Reality Markup/Modeling Language, was created in 1995 with the expectation that it would become the foundation for cyberspace, just as HTML had been the foundation of the world wide web.

Twenty years later, we know this didn’t happen. The solution to the unthinkable complexity of cyberspace was a return to the command line interface in the form of a Google search box.

Abstract or symbolic interfaces such as text command lines may look more intimidating or complicated than graphical systems. But if the graphical interface isn’t powerful enough to meet their needs, users will take the time to learn how the more complicated system works. And we’ll see later on that the cyberspace of Johnny Mnemonic is not purely graphical and does allow symbolic interaction.

Helmsman’s HUD


Aboard the Fhloston Paradise luxury liner, we are treated to a quick view of the ship’’s wheel. The helmsman stands before the wheel, in the middle of a ceiling-mounted translucent yellow cylinder that drops just below shoulder level. This surface acts as heads-up display that is visible only from the inside.


The content of the display is a 3-D, featureless, blue graticule with an overlay featuring target brackets, various numeric data strangely labeled with various numbers of ““m””s and “n”s, and a green, faint outline of a railing, as if the helmsman was looking out from a Lawnmower Man interpretation of an Age of Sail wheelbridge. At the top of the display are three yellow-outline rectangles with no content. In the center-top of his view is a compass readout, with a rolling counter display that appears to show bearing.

In practice, the Captain calmly gives an order to a barker, who confirms with a, “Yes, sir” before walking to the edge of the cylinder and shouting the same order, “HELM ONE OH EIGHT!” To confirm that he heard the message, the helmsman repeats the order back and turns the wheel. The helmsman wears a headset that amplifies his spoken confirmation back to everyone on the bridge.

Sometimes a Human is the Best Interface

The Captain doesn’t want to shout or wear a headset. He’s a gentleman. But if the helmsman is going to be trapped in the yellow cone of silence, there must be an intermediary to convey the commands and ensure that they’re carried out. Even if technology could solve it better, I have the sense that navies are places where traditions are carried on for the sake of tradition, so the human aspect of this interaction doesn’t bother me too much. It does add a layer of intermediation where data can go wrong, but the barker and the helmsman each repeat the command loudly, so the Captain can hear and error-check that way.

Long live the HUD

On the plus side, showing the graticule grants a sense of speed and (kind-of) bearing that would be much more difficult to do on the surface on all-water planet like Fhloston Paradise. So that’s nice.

But that information would be even more useful if it was backed up by some other contextual information like the clouds, the position of the sun, or, say, anything else on the surface of the planet toward which they might be barreling. A simple highly-transparent live feed of a camera from somewhere would have been more useful.


And of course I can’t let the silly nonsense data on the edges just go. Shipmen love their sea-salted jargon, but they also love effectiveness, and there is no sense to labeling one variable “nm” and the next “nmn,” much less a whole screen of them. They would be difficult to distinguish at the very least. Certainly there’s no use to having two variables labeled just “m” with no other contextualizers. Even if it was better labeled, presenting this information as an undifferentiated wall of data isn’t helpful. Better would be to turn some of these into differentiable graphics that help the helmsman see the information and not have to read it. In any case, the arbitrary blinking on and off of data just needs to stop. It’s a pointless distraction unless there is some monitoring data that is trending poorly and needs attention.

Sometimes an AI is the Best (Secret) Interface

Finally, if you obsess over editing details (and you are reading this blog…) you’ll note that the bearing indicator at the top begins to change before the helmsman moves the wheel. It even moves before the helmsman repeats the order. It even begins before the the barker shouts the orders. (Reminiscent of the chem department flub from Cabin I covered earlier.) It looks like the HUD designers wanted movement and mistimed it before the events in the scene.

But we don’t have to leave it there. We’ve already noted that seamen love standing on tradition. What if this whole interface was vestigial? If the ship has a low-level AI that listens to the captain, it wouldn’t need to wait for any of the subsequent human processes: the barker, the helmsman repeat, or the wheel turning. Each of these acts to confirm the command, but the ship can go from the first order when it has a high degree of confidence. This would also excuse the nmnmmnonsense we see on the HUD. The display might have degraded to displaying noise, but no one needs to fix it because the ship runs just fine without it.

Thinking that the Fhloston Paradise might have been a bioship only makes its destruction from a Zorg Mangalore Zorg bomb only makes its destruction much more tragic, but also more heroic as it died saving the people it had been programmed to serve all along.