Cyberspace: Beijing Hotel

After selecting its location from a map, Johnny is now in front of the virtual entrance to the hotel. The virtual Beijing has a new color scheme, mostly orange with some red.


The “entrance” is another tetrahedral shape made from geometric blocks. It is actually another numeric keypad. Johnny taps the blocks to enter a sequence of numbers.

The tetrahedral keypad


Note that there can be more than one digit within a block. I mentioned earlier that it can be difficult to “press” with precision in virtual reality due to the lack of tactile feedback. Looking closely, here the fingers of Johnny’s “hands” cast a shadow on the pyramid, making depth perception easier. Continue reading

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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

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.


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

Video call

After ditching Chewie, Boba Fett heads to a public video phone to make a quick report to his boss who turns out to be…Darth Vader (this was a time long before the Expanded Universe/Legends, so there was really only one villain to choose from).

To make the call, he approaches an alcove off an alley. The alcove has a screen with an orange bezel, and a small panel below it with a 12-key number panel to the left, a speaker, and a vertical slot. Below that is a set of three phone books. For our young readers, phone books are an ancient technology in which telephone numbers were printed in massive books, and copies kept at every public phone for reference by a caller.

faithful-wookiee-video-call-04faithful-wookiee-video-call-05 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.


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.


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

Avengers, assembly!


When Coulson hands Tony a case file, it turns out to be an exciting kind of file. For carrying, it’s a large black slab. After Tony grabs it, he grabs the long edges and pulls in opposite directions. One part is a thin translucent screen that fits into an angled slot in the other part, in a laptop-like configuration, right down to a built-in keyboard.

The grip edge

The grip edge of the screen is thicker than the display, so it has a clear, physical affordance as to what part is meant to be gripped and how to pull it free from its casing, and simultaneously what end goes into the base. It’s simple and obvious. The ribbing on the grip unfortunately runs parallel to the direction of pull. It would make for a better grip and a better affordance if the grip was perpendicular to the direction of pull. Minor quibble.

I’d be worried about the ergonomics of an unadjustable display. I’d be worried about the display being easily unseated or dislodged. I’d also be worried about the strength of the join. Since there’s no give, enough force on the display might snap it clean off. But then again this is a world where “vibrium steel” exists, so material critiques may not be diegetically meaningful.


Once he pulls the display from the base, the screen boops and animated amber arcs spin around the screen, signalling him to login via a rectangular panel on the right hand side of the screen. Tony puts his four fingers in the spot and drags down. A small white graphic confirms his biometrics. As a result, a WIMP display appears in grays and amber colors.


Briefing materials

One window on the left hand side shows a keypad, and he enters 1-8-5-4. The keypad disappears and a series of thumbnail images—portraits of members of the Avengers initiative—appear in its place. Pepper asks Tony, “What is all this?” Tony replies, saying, “This is, uh…” and in a quick gesture, places his ten fingertips on the screen at the portraits, and then throws his hands outward, off the display.

The portraits slide offscreen to become ceiling-height volumetric windows filled with rich media dossiers on Thor, Steve Rogers, and David Banner. There are videos, portraits, schematics, tables of data, cellular graphics, and maps. There’s a smaller display near the desktop where the “file” rests about the tesseract. (More on this bit in the next post.)


Insert standard complaint here about the eye strain that a translucent display causes, and the apology that yes, I understand it’s an effective and seemingly high-tech way to show actors and screens simultaneously. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.

The two-part login shows an understanding of multifactor authentication—a first in the survey, so props for that. Tony must provide something he “is”, i.e. his fingerprints, and something he knows, i.e. the passcode. Only then does the top secret information become available.

I have another standard grouse about the screen providing no affordances that content has an alternate view available, and that a secret gesture summons that view. I’d also ordinarily critique the displays for having nearly no visual hierarchy, i.e. no way for your eyes to begin making sense of it, and a lot of pointless-motion noise that pulls your attention in every which way.

But, this beat is about the wonder of the technology, the breadth of information SHIELD in its arsenal, and the surprise of familiar tech becoming epic, so I’m giving it a narrative pass.

Also, OK, Tony’s a universe-class hacker, so maybe he’s just knowledgeable/cocky enough to not need the affordances and turned them off. All that said, in my due diligence: Affordances still matter, people.

Zorg’s desk


When Zorg begins to choke on a cherry pit, in his panic he pounds a numeric keypad on his desk, clearly hoping that this will contact someone or help him in some way. His clumsy mashing instead causes a number of bizarre things to happen around his office; i.e. the doors lock, a lifejacket inflates (bearing the charming label “HEAD THROUGH HOLE”), a cactus raises and lowers, a Rolodex of photographs appears and spins wildly, a rack begins to shoot plastic wrapped tuxedo shirts into the air, cards spit out of a slot, and a strange piglet-sized, hairless pet with a trunk is roused from its napping place as it raises to the surface of the desk and stares at Zorg helplessly.

In the talk I give about the lines of influence between interfaces in sci-fi and the real world, I cite this as a negative example of affective computing.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, affective computing largely deals with giving computers a sense of emotion or empathy for their users. In this case, of course Zorg doesn’t want to summon his elephantito from its adorable genetically modified slumber. He’s panicking. He wants help. The joke in the scene is largely about how the unfeeling technology on which Zorg relies is of little practical value in a crisis, but we know that a smarter design would have accounted for this case of panicked mashing.

If (a bunch of key chords are pressed rapidly in succession) {summon help}.

Interaction designers should take care to learn from this fictional example that though some scenarios may be rare, they may be dire enough to demand design attention.


This poor Ouliman Akaptan is named Picasso, designed by Hélène Girard.

For a general analysis, I find the number pad to be the worst choice of input for this system. On the plus side it’s useful for arbitrarily-long combinatorial and chorded input. It’s for this reason the telephone network system adopted this strategy to provide access to any one of its 10,000,000,000 nodes. (And that’s only with a ten digit number.) Fine. If Zorg needs a phone pad for dialing numbers than give him a phone. But for this desk interface, it burdens his long-term memory, forcing him to remember the codes for the things he wants. If he really has only around a dozen or so things to control, give him individual controls that are well grouped, distinguished, labeled, and mapped. Also in taking this tack, someone in his service might have thought to give the vengeful, psychopathic industrialist an actual panic button.