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.



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.


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

The plastic educator

Dr. Morbius introduces the Krell “plastic educator,” saying, ““As far as I can make out, they used it to condition and test their young, in much the same way as we once employed finger painting among our kindergarten children.””

Morbius grasps the educator’s head mount.

The device is a station at which the learner sits. There is a large dashboard before him, in turn before a space enclosed in a tetrahedral encasement of plastic. To his right is a large column made of plastic with red and yellow graduations running up the side. Inside the column is a strange shape like a lathed accordion, terminating in a pulsing ring that indicates a level against the graduations. An arced panel hangs from the ceiling with other printed graduations with lines of light above and below. Blue neon squiggles blink randomly along the walls.

Morbius demonstrates proper placement of the educator interface.

To activate the station, the learner grasps a pair of curved metal arms, which are connected at a hinged base and tipped with crystal orbs. He leans forward, rests his forehead on a third arm, and pulls the pair of arms to rest on his temples. He turns a pair of dials on the dashboard before him, and the crystal orbs on all three arms glow, indicating that the headset is operational.

Morbius points to the intelligence indicator.

Adams and Doc try to guage their own IQs.

The device’’s immediate result is that the accordion shape inside the column rises such that the lit ring indicates the intelligence of the user. (To Adams’ and Doc’’s dismay, their readings are much lower than Morbius’.)

With the press of a lever Morbius manifests a thought visually.

The primary function of the device is for the user to make a thought of theirs manifest in the tetrahedral space. The user concentrates on the thing, and then pulls a lever at the base of the headset. A red ring at the base of the headset illuminates, and a material appears above a pedestal at the base of the tetrahedron. By concentrating, the user shapes this material into the desired thing. Morbius shapes it into an image of Alta. The image is a scaled, translucent, volumetric display of Alta, which moves and smiles just as she would.

The projection ceases immediately when the mechanism is removed.

To stop using the device and shut down the projection, the learner simply lifts the lever and removes the headset from contact, and the orbs, the red ring, and the volumetric projection all fade within moments.

Finished with his demonstration, Morbius turns the educator off.

Turning the dashboard off requires a user to turn two free-spinning dials that sit to each side of the headset inwards. The lights of the dashboard fade.

Military navigation

The C-57D is a military vessel with much of its technology feeling like that of a naval vessel.

Lt. Farman navigates the ship towards Altair.

The navigator, called an astrogator, sits at a station on the bridge facing a large armillary. He has a binocular scope into which he can peer to see outside the ship. Within easy reach to the left is a table-top panel of concentrically arranged buttons. To his right is a similar panel. Directly in front of him, beyond the scope, is a massive armillary that is the centerpiece of the bridge.

A model of United Planets Cruiser C-57D sits at the center of the ship’s armillary.

A model of the C-57D sits at the center of a transparent globe, which rotates in turn inside of another transparent globe. The surface of the interior globe is detailed with a graduated ring around its equator, semi-meridians extending from the poles, and a number of other colorful graduations. The outer, stationary globe has markings on the surface, which seem to describe stars and major constellations as dots and lines.

The utility of the armillary is somewhat questionable. From a relatively fixed position like the Earth, the celestial sphere doesn’t change. But while astronavigating, the celestial sphere would change. Even though Altair is a relatively close to Earth, the change in position of the stars on the celestial sphere would likely be significant to correct positioning. So, for this to be useful, the markings on the outer sphere should be dynamic. Of course in the short sequence we see the armillary in use, we would not see the markings change, but there are no visual cues that it is dynamic in this way.

Additionally it should be noted that the biggest and most important things with which Lt. Farman would be concerned, i.e. the star Altair and planet Altair IV, are not represented in the display at all and represents a major failing of the design.

The crew makes it safely through decelleration.

One of the movie’’s technology conceits is that deceleration from light speed is a shaky business. To protect the crew during this phase of travel, they stand atop deceleration stations. These small cylindrical pedestals have matching extensions from the ceiling that look vaguely like circular ventilation grills. Ten seconds before deceleration, the lights dim, a beeper sounds ten times, and the crew members step onto the pedestals. They fade from view in a beam of fuzzy aquamarine light. They fade back into view as the blue light disappears. During the period when the crew has passed from view, one would expect the ship to be shaking violently as discussed, but this doesn’’t happen. Nonetheless, as the crew steps out of the station, a few are holding their necks as if in pain.