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

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.

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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

Stark Tower monitoring

Since Tony disconnected the power transmission lines, Pepper has been monitoring Stark Tower in its new, off-the-power-grid state. To do this she studies a volumetric dashboard display that floats above glowing shelves on a desktop.

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Volumetric elements

The display features some volumetric elements, all rendered as wireframes in the familiar Pepper’s Ghost (I know, I know) visual style: translucent, edge-lit planes. A large component to her right shows Stark Tower, with red lines highlighting the power traveling from the large arc reactor in the basement through the core of the building.

The center of the screen has a similarly-rendered close up of the arc reactor. A cutaway shows a pulsing ring of red-tinged energy flowing through its main torus.

This component makes a good deal of sense, showing her the physical thing she’s meant to be monitoring but not in a photographic way, but a way that helps her quickly locate any problems in space. The torus cutaway is a little strange, since if she’s meant to be monitoring it, she should monitor the whole thing, not just a quarter of it that has been cut away.

Flat elements

The remaining elements in the display appear on a flat plane. Continue reading

Iron Man HUD: 1st person view

When we first see the HUD, Tony is donning the Iron Man mask. Tony asks, “JARVIS, “You there?”” To which JARVIS replies, ““At your service sir.”” Tony tells him to “Engage the heads-up display,” and we see the HUD initialize. It is a dizzying mixture of blue wireframe motion graphics. Some imply system functions, such as the reticle that pinpoints Tony’s eye. Most are small dashboard-like gauges that remain small and in Tony’s peripheral vision while the information is not needed, and become larger and more central when needed. These features are catalogued in another post, but we learn about them through two points-of-view: a first-person view, which shows us what Tony’s sees as if we were there, donning the mask in his stead, and second-person view, which shows us Tony’s face overlaid against a dark background with floating graphics.

This post is about that first-person view. Specifically it’s about the visual design and the four awarenesses it displays.

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In the Augmented Reality chapter of Make It So, I identified four types of awareness seen in the survey for Augmented Reality displays:

  1. Sensor display
  2. Location awareness
  3. Context awareness
  4. Goal awareness

The Iron Man HUD illustrates all four and is a useful framework for describing and critiquing the 1st-person view. Continue reading

Ford Explorer Status

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One computer in the control room is dedicated to showing the status of the Jeeps out on tour, and where they currently are on the island.

Next to the vehicle outline, we see the words “Vehicle Type: Ford Explorer” (thank you, product placement) along with “EXP” 4–7.  EXP 4 & 5 look unselected, but have green dots next to them, while EXP 6 & 7 look selected with red dots next to them.  No characters interact with this screen. Mr. Arnold does tap on it with a pen (to make a point though, not to interact with it).

On the right hand side of the screen also see a top-down view of the car with the electric track shown underneath, and little red arrows pointing forward.  Below the graphic are the words “13 mph”.  The most visible and obvious indicator on the screen is the headlights.  A large “Headlights On” indicator is at the top of the screen, with highlighted cones coming out of the Jeep where the headlights are on the car. Continue reading

J.D.E.M. LEVEL 5

The first computer interface we see in the film occurs at 3:55. It’s an interface for housing and monitoring the tesseract, a cube that is described in the film as “an energy source” that S.H.I.E.L.D. plans to use to “harness energy from space.” We join the cube after it has unexpectedly and erratically begun to throw off low levels of gamma radiation.

The harnessing interface consists of a housing, a dais at the end of a runway, and a monitoring screen.

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Fury walks past the dais they erected just because.

The housing & dais

The harness consists of a large circular housing that holds the cube and exposes one face of it towards a long runway that ends in a dais. Diegetically this is meant to be read more as engineering than interface, but it does raise questions. For instance, if they didn’t already know it was going to teleport someone here, why was there a dais there at all, at that exact distance, with stairs leading up to it? How’s that harnessing energy? Wouldn’t you expect a battery at the far end? If they did expect a person as it seems they did, then the whole destroying swaths of New York City thing might have been avoided if the runway had ended instead in the Hulk-holding cage that we see later in the film. So…you know…a considerable flaw in their unknown-passenger teleportation landing strip design. Anyhoo, the housing is also notable for keeping part of the cube visible to users near it, and holding it at a particular orientation, which plays into the other component of the harness—the monitor.

Avengers-cubemonitoring-03 Continue reading

Escape pod and insertion windows

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When the Rodger Young is destroyed by fire from the Plasma Bugs on Planet P, Ibanez and Barcalow luckily find a functional escape pod and jettison. Though this pod’s interface stays off camera for almost the whole scene, the pod is knocked and buffeted by collisions in the debris cloud outside the ship, and in one jolt we see the interface for a fraction of a second. If it looks familiar, it is not from anything in Starship Troopers.

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Rodger Young combat interfaces

The interfaces aboard the Rodger Young in combat are hard to take seriously. The captain’s interface, for instance, features arrays of wireframe spheres that zoom from the bottom of the screen across horizontal lines to become blinking green squares. The shapes bear only the vaguest resemblance to the plasma bolts, but don’t match what we see out the viewscreen or the general behavior of the bolts at all. But the ridiculousness doesn’t end there.

Boomdots_8fps Continue reading

Tattoo-o-matic

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After he is spurned by Carmen and her new beau in the station, Rico realizes that he belongs in the infantry and not the fleet where Carmen will be working. So, to cement this new identity, Rico decides to give in and join his fellow roughnecks in getting matching tattoos.  The tattoos show a skull over a shield and the words “Death from Above”. (Incidentally, Death From Above is the name of the documentary detailing the making of the film, a well as the title of a hilarious progressive metal video by the band Holy Light of Demons. You should totally check it out.)  Continue reading

Gravitic distortion

As Ibanez and Barcalow are juuuuuust about to start a slurpy on-duty make out session, their attention is drawn by the coffee mug whose content is listing in the glass.

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Ibanez explains helpfully, “There’s a gravity field out there.” Barcalow orders her to “Run a scan!” She turns to a screen and does something to run the scan, and Barcalow confirms that “Sensors [are] on” As she watches an amber-colored graticule distort as if weighed down by an increasingly heavy ball while a Big Purple Text Label blinks GRAVITIC DISTORTION. Two numbers increment speedily at the bottom-right edge of the screen and modulus at 1000. “There,” she says.

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So many plot questions

  • What kind of coffee cups can withstand enough gravity to tip the contents 45 degrees but remain themselves perfectly still and upright?
  • Why did they need the coffee cup? Wouldn’t their inner ear have told them the same thing faster?
  • Why is the screen in the background of the coffee cup still blinking OPTIMAL COURSE?

Of course we have to put these aside in favor of the interaction design questions.

First the “workflow”

Why on earth would they need to turn on sensors? Aren’t the sensors only useful when they’re sensing? If you have a sense that something is wrong, turning on the sensors only confirms what you already know. This is still more of that pesky stoic guru metaphor. This should have been an active academy that warned them—loudly—the moment nearby gravity started looking weird.

The visualization is not bad…

Let’s pause the criticism for one moment to give credit where credit is due. The grid vortex is a fast and reliable way to illustrate the invisible problem that they’re facing and telegraph increasing danger. Warped graticules have been a staple of depicting spacetime curvature since Disney’s 1979 movie The Black Hole.

The gravity well as depicted in The Black Hole (1979).

The gravity well as depicted in The Black Hole (1979).

This is also the same technique that scientists use to depict the same phenomenon, so it’s got some street cred, too.

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The same thing can be shown in 3D, but it’s visually noisier. Moreover, the 2D version builds on our sense of basic physics, as we can easily imagine what would happen to anything nearing the depression. So, it’s mostly the right display.

…But then, the interaction

Despite the immediacy of the display, there’s a major problem. Sure, this interface conveys impending doom, but it doesn’t convey any useful information to help them know where the threat is coming from or what to do about it after they know that doom impends. (Plus, they had to turn it on, and all it tells them is, “Yep, looks pretty bad out there.”) To design this right, they need a sense of the 3D vector of the threat as compared to their own vector, and what the best available options are.

Better: Augmented reality to telegraph the invisible threat

Fortunately, we already have the medium and channel for Ibanez and Barcalow to immediately understand the 3D direction of the threat in the real world and most importantly, in relation to the ship’s trajectory and orientation, since that’s the tool they have on hand to avoid the threat. We’ve already seen that volumetric projection is a thing in this world, so the ship should display the VP just outside the ship’s viewports. The animation can illustrate the threat coming from the outside on the outside, and fade once the threat gets to be in a range of visible light. In this way there’s no 2D to 3D interpretation. It’s direct. Where’s the unexpected gravitic distortion? Look out the window. There. There is the the unexpected gravitic distortion. The HUD display would need to be aimed at the navigator’s seat, but for very distant objects, e.g. out of visible light range, the parallax shift wouldn’t be problematic for other locations on the bridge. You’d also have to manage the scenario where the threat comes from a direction not out the window (like, say, through the floor) but you can just shift the VP interior for that.

Including a screen comp by Deviant artist scrollsofaryavart.

Including a screen comp by Deviant artist scrollsofaryavart.

Next, you could use VP inside the ship to show the two paths and point of collision, as well as best predicted paths (there’s that useful active academy metaphor again.) Then we can let Ibanez trust her own instincts as she presses the manual override to steer the ship clear. I don’t have the time to comp an internal VP up right now, so I’ll rely on your imagination to comp this particular part of a much better solution than what we see on screen.