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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Next

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

Atom transmitter

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To equip Barbarella for her perilous task, Dianthus sends her things using the atom transmitter. The device looks like a glowing table with a plastic dome sealing the top. One section of the dome is hinged on one side so it can be lifted and set back into place. The sender places the item to send on the surface and lowers the lid. The table glows brightly and the object disappears.

A “boing” noise repeats while the item is in transit. The person receiving enters a shared three digit number into her machine. (Dianthus has her set her “personal atom transmitter to 0-3-5.”) The receiving table begins to glow brightly. The transmitted item appears, the “boing” noise stops, and the table dims.

In this way Dianthus equips Barbarella with weapons and a means to identify Durand-Durand.

Let’s bypass the whole question of whether teleportation is possible. The key information a sender must provide is which matter is to be sent and when to send it. People are generally pretty good at simple physics, so using a physical space with a tangible interface to provide both sets of information is going to be pretty usable. This is also at a very comfortable height for placing and viewing objects.

The device, in turn, needs to communicate when it is in progress and when it is done. If Make It So has taught us nothing else, it’s that technology glows, so using light to communicate this state also makes quite a bit of sense. Using a transparent material lets the user see the progress and visually confirm that yep, it’s been sent.

The receiver needs to know when something is being sent to her and the ability to retrieve it. Having those things be similar to the sender’s device makes it easy to learn, once, and to infer use from watching the sender.

There are all sorts of exception case questions that would need to be answered for a complete design of such a system, but for the basic interaction of atom transferrance, this is a pretty awesome design.

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