Cyberspace: Bulletin Board

Johnny finds he needs a favor from a friend in cyberspace. We see Johnny type something on his virtual keyboard, then selects from a pull down menu.

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A quick break in the action: In this shot we are looking at the real world, not the virtual, and I want to mention how clear and well-defined all the physical actions by actor Keanu Reeves are. I very much doubt that the headset he is wearing actually worked, so he is doing this without being able to see anything.

Will regular users of virtual reality systems be this precise with their gestures? Datagloves have always been expensive and rare, making studies difficult. But several systems offer submillimeter gestural tracking nowadays: version 2 of Microsoft Kinect, Google’s Soli, and Leap Motion are a few, and much cheaper and less fragile than a dataglove. Using any of these for regular desktop application tasks rather than games would be an interesting experiment.

Back in the film, Johnny flies through cyberspace until he finds the bulletin board of his friend. It is an unfriendly glowing shape that Johnny tries to expand or unfold without success.

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After some more virtual typing, the bulletin board reveals itself as a cube that spins and expands. It doesn’t fill the entire screen, but does reveal the face of Strike, the owner of the bulletin board. His face is stylized as if by a real time image processing filter of the type built into most static image editors today. Strike tells Johnny to go away.

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Johnny doesn’t give up and the conversation continues. The cube now expands to fill the screen, with Johnny looking into the cube and Strike’s face on the back wall.

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Johnny raises his hands and makes a threatening gesture, saying that he could crash Strike’s entire system. In cyberspace, his fingertips now have blades.

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The face retreats in cyberspace, becoming smaller and further away. I’d like to think that Strike leaned back, and that has been mapped into a cyberspace equivalent move. The real world gesture carries its meaning to cyberspace.

A short while ago the Yakuza leader Shinji ordered the tracker to “initiate the virus.” It is at this point that we see the effect, with the cube carrying the image of Strike melting away under a bright light.

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While visual representations of cyber attacks are common in books and now TV and films, real world computer designers complain that no system under attack would waste processing power on rendering special effects. This is true for the defenders, but the attackers might want to show their power with a flashy display. Or perhaps these visual effects are generated by Johnny’s own cyberspace system, the 2021 equivalent of today’s warning message that a web site certificate cannot be verified. It’s certainly more attention-grabbing than a small padlock icon disappearing from one corner of your browser window.

At this point the Yakuza arrive in reality, and Jane takes the headset off and drags Johnny out of the shop.

 

Cyberspace: Newark Copyshop

The transition from Beijing to the Newark copyshop is more involved. After he travels around a bit, he realizes he needs to be looking back in Newark. He “rewinds” using a pull gesture and sees the copyshop’s pyramid. First there is a predominantly blue window that unfolds as if it were paper.

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And then the copyshop initial window expands. Like the Beijing hotel, this is a floor plan view, but unlike the hotel it stays two dimensional. It appears that cyberspace works like the current world wide web, with individual servers for each location that can choose what appearance to present to visitors.

Johnny again selects data records, but not with a voice command. The first transition is a window that not only expands but spins as it does so, and makes a strange jump at the end from the centre to the upper left.

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Once again Johnny uses the two-handed expansion gesture to see the table view of the records. 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.

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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.

Helmet transition

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The spherical helmet that Barbarella wears with her environmental suit can change from completely reflective to completely translucent. To do so she reaches with both hands and touches controls (never shown) on the back of the helmet to activate the transition. Over 40 seconds the reflectivity withdraws into the base of the helmet, revealing Barbarella’’s face through the glass.

Direct exposure to most of the electromagnetic spectrum is dangerous. To avoid Barbarella’s accidentally frying her own head in space, the suit must be designed against accidental activation. The strategy shown is called two-hand trip, which requires two hands to touch different controls at the same time to start the process. This is most often used in machines where you want hands out of the way of processes that could pinch or cut, but that aren’t dangerous after the process begins. In this case it’s less about mechanical danger than the risks with exposure.

Another strategy would be to use two-hand control, which would require constant contact during the transition. But since this transition is so slow (and presuming there is some undo mechanism that we never see) having this “two-hand trip” is not disastrous. If something or someone accidentally tripped it, she has more than enough time to recover.

On the other hand, 40 seconds is a long time for anyone to wait for things in the days of switchable glass. If your Barbarella was less dreamy-eyed & patient than this one, you might have to make a different tradeoff.

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