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: 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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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.

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Headset

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

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.

VR Goggles

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At the dinner table, both Marty Jr. and Marlene have VR goggles. Marty wears his continuously, but Marlene is more polite and rests hers around her neck when with the family. When she receives a call, red LEDs flash the word “PHONE” on the outside of the goggles as they ring. This would be a useful signal if the volume were turned down or the volume was baffled by ambient sounds.

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Marty Jr’’s goggles are on, and he announces to Marty Sr. that the phone is for him and that it’s Needles.

This implies a complete wireless caller ID system (which had only just been released to market in the United States the year before the movie was released) and a single number for the household that is distributed amongst multiple communications devices simultaneously, which was not available at the time (or hey, even now), so it’s quite forward looking. Additionally, it lets the whole social circle help manage communication requests, even if it sacrifices a bit of privacy.