Report Card: Barbarella

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Jean Claude Forest wrote his Barbarella strips for V-Magazine, he meant them to be sexy, camp, and perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek. Réalisme was not much on his mind. When the strip made the transition to the big screen, it kept these sensibilities firmly in place. The technology was fittingly just a collection of narrative devices, based loosely on 1960s technology paradigms and a handful of extant sci-fi tropes.

Sci: D- (1 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?

Most of the technology in Barbarella are based on popular sci-fi narrative shortcuts: False gravity, free-floating video telephony, teleportation, force fields, and yes, focused-energy weapons. These are tropes, and lots of shows throw that caution to the wind, but you should not think of this as hard sci-fi by any stretch of the imagination. The only reason this just didn’t fail out is Alphy’s artificial intelligence, though a poor cousin to HAL (2001 premiered that same year), is a prescient voice-interface to a limited agentive system that fulfills its social role.

Fi: B (3 of 4)
How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

The Positronic Ray is of course the MacGuffin of the whole adventure, so technology plays a pretty pivotal role. And in the cases where the tech moves the story along, it does it cleanly and clearly, highlighting the causes and effects that let know that the heroine is alternately controlling her ship, out of batteries for her weapon, or trapped with no apparent means of escape.

Interfaces: c (2 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Barbarella is ultimately a mixed bag for its interfaces. Sure, you have Alphy, feeding her, keeping her company, and even managing the communications tech in the background all pretty seamlesly. The shagpile cockpit is even a surprisingly solid bit of industrial design for error recovery.

There’s a bunch of other stuff that is fine, but could stand some improvements, like the portable brainwave detector and the Queen’s display controls.

And then Durand-Durand’s Positronic Ray and the Queen’s Bed Chamber Door interface were bad enough to take me out of the movie and wonder what on Tau Ceti were they thinking. They were so bad that it countered any awesomeness the filmmakers had accidentally stumbled upon.

Final Grade C (6 of 12), MATINEE

Sure, see it for the lovely camp value, space titillation, and to see how agentive technology should work. But don’t expect much other interface inspiration.

Related lessons from the book

  • Both the Dildano’s map and the Queen’s Door should tighten their feedback loops (page 20).
  • Barbarella still talks in stupid compterese when speaking with the fully conversational Alphy. She should follow human social conventions, too (page 123.)
  • Alphy avoided the uncanny valley (page 184) through disembodiment.
  • Durand-Durand failed to give Barbarella a safeword (page 303.)

New lessons

  • It’s probably a trope of its own, but Durand-Durand should provide himself Just Enough Control.
  • The gravity controls could have used a scenario to Put it in Context.
  • Both the portable brainwave detector and the energy box beg for Haptify Secrets.

The Positronic Ray

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To combat the Resistance uprising, Durand-Durand unleashes his dread Positronic Ray. To control it, he approaches a high backed chair and touches a spot on the back. The curved tip of the chair extends upwards a bit allowing him to sit down. As soon as he sits, the tip retracts to rest just above his head and the video panel slides close to him. The ray itself is mounted on a two-axis swivel just behind him, with the barrel pointing out of a horizontal window.

The interface consists of a complex array of transparent knobs mounted on a glowing flat panel, set beneath a large rectangular video screen. While he is using the weapon, we see his hands twiddling some of the shapes clockwise and counterclockwise.

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The chair interface seems fine, if technically unnecessary, giving the gunner a small ritual feeling of power. The weapons interface, on the other hand, is a disaster. It has around 50 visible controls, none labeled for what they control or their extents, none have the slightest ergonomic consideration, and few are differentiated from the others in shape or placement. Also they’re all transparent, so add a lot of visual noise to the difficultly of use.

From his video screen we can tell that there are only a number of things to control: target (coupled to the camera), beam size (coupled to the camera zoom), and a trigger. Control for these simple variables could be accomplished with a joystick for targeting, a thumb button for triggering, and a slider at his left hand for zoom/beam size. Three controls which Durand-Durand could really think of as two.

Additionally, the screen only shows him what he’s currently focused on, failing to grant any of the field awareness that he’d need to keep the enemy at bay. Ultimately it’s a weapons interface that only a pacifist could love. Admittedly, he’s a mad engineer, and not a mad interaction designer, so maybe it’s just his insanity that explains this fiddly spread of extraneous controls with poor mapping and myopic feedback.

I’d love to credit this bad interface with saving the people of the city of SoGo, but unfortunately if its destruction hadn’t come from the Positronic Ray, it would have come from being swallowed by the Mathmos. Ultimately, they were doomed.

SoGo, destroyed

Self-Destruct

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Furious at Durand-Durand’’s betrayal, the Black Queen walks to a set of five shoulder-height levers, each baroquely shaped, transparent, and hinged to a base on the floor. She pulls the middle one, and a bright white light below the base begins to glow. She then pulls the first lever. She glances at the fourth, but then changes her mind and pulls the fifth one, explaining that she is unleashing the Mathmos to devour the city. The Queen’’s brief hesitation implies that this isn’’t just an interface, but a self-destruct mechanism that must be activated in some particular, secret order to take effect. Upon completion of the sequence the city begins to fall into the liquid creature, Mathmos, that lives beneath the city.

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The Queen’s TV

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As soon as the Black Queen hears of Durand-Durand’’s betrayal, she reveals a panel that is hidden by furs. It is vertical with a handful of transparent, organically-shaped knobs. She clicks the top one out of its off position and rotates it back and forth a few times, and the panel begins to glow as a video image appears on the high walls of the chamber, showing the events happening inside the throne room.

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Later the Queen turns the top knob counterclockwise to click it back into its stop position to stop the video feed. Then she turns another one the same direction to reveal a different video feed of the labyrinth, indicating that each knob is connected to a particular view. There’s indirect evidence that the degree of rotation controls the volume of audio.

Typically remotes have separate controls for power, channel selection, and volume. Coupling them like this adds extra work to the task of switching channels. The Dark Queen has to turn one off before turning the next one on, and readjust the volume each time. If switching channels is something she does regularly, that’s going to be a pain. But if the large screen can display more than one video feed at a time, automatically diving the screen real estate equally to accomodate the multiple views, these controls make a lot of sense, even allowing her to set the volume per feed to a sensible level.

Multiple-feeds

The only thing that might improve the interface is some label to know which control displays which video feed. Seeing as how they’re translucent, I’d suggest coating them with a rear projection film and piping the video feed directly onto the button from beneath. That provides a direct mapping from the control to the display, and a glanceable preview to let the Dark Queen what might be interesting to watch in the first place.

Control

The Door to the Chamber of Dreams

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Durand-Durand forces Barbarella at gunpoint to take the invisible key she wears in a chain around her neck to the bedchamber of the Black Queen, also known as the Chamber of Dreams. There they encounter an invisible wall and have a difficult time trying to discern the location of the keyhole. Luckily, in a struggle she drops the key, and it falls through the transparent floor which ripples like water under their feet. This unlocks the invisible door and allows them both to pass into the Chamber of Dreams.

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Just within the chamber atop a pedestal sits a second invisible key that can reclose the invisible door. To imprison Barbarella and the Queen within, he rushes in, grabs the key, and throws it down to the floor before Barbarella can react.

Though of course this sequence of events is in place simply to show that Durand-Durand has imprisoned Barbarella and the Black Queen, as a system it raises many questions.

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An invisible key certainly means that it can be hidden in plain sight and so has some extra security from that perspective. But its being invisible means that recovering it when lost is problematic at best. Plus, unless it is kept somewhere on the body, the invisibility places a burden on the memory of the keeper as to where it is. (You can’t leave a physical reminder of where it is or you lose the benefit of its being invisible.) Are these costs to memory worth the mildly increased security?

Also, as we see, any spot on the floor is an acceptable target for dropping a key. At first this might seem like hyper-usability, since it’s nearly impossible to miss the keyhole, but it also means it’s hard to recover from a mistake. No, wait. It’s impossible to recover from a mistake. That is, if you fumble and accidentally drop a key, the door will activate. We don’t see a key-return mechanism, so this mistake is deeply unrecoverable. Even if that key-return mechanism is somewhere else in the palace, that’s a disaster for usability.

That might be bad enough, but when you realize that this is a royal chamber, it seems an impossible oversight, as if it were custom designed just to imprison people. The Queen seems genuinely distressed when she realizes Durand-Durand has stolen her key, insisting that they “are doomed. Dooooomed!’ but I’m pretty sure anyone who had given it just a moment’s thought before would have realized that this was the inevitable result of this ridiculous design. Maybe the true power of the Mathmos is to keep the queen perpetually blind to stupid interaction design.

The Black Queen Dreams

The Excessive Machine

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When Durand-Durand captures Barbarella, he places her in a device which he calls the “Excessive Machine. She sits in a reclining seat, covered up to the shoulders by the device. Her head rests on an elaborate red leather headboard. Durand-Durand stands at a keyboard, built into the “footboard” of the machine, facing her.

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The keyboard resembles that of an organ, but with transparent vertical keys beneath which a few colored light pulse. Long silver tubes stretch from the sides of the device to the ceiling. Touching the keys (they do not appear to depress) produces the sound of a full orchestra and causes motorized strips of metal to undulate in a sine wave above the victim.

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When Durand-Durand reads the strange sheet music and begins to play “Sonata for Executioner and Various Young Women,” the machine (via means hidden from view) removes Barbarella’’s clothing piece by piece, ejecting them through a tube in the side of the machine near the floor. Then in an exchange Durand-Durand reveals its purpose…

Barbarella: It’’s …sort of nice, isn’t it?
Durand-Durand: Yes. It is nice. …In the beginning. Wait until the tune changes. It may change your tune as well.
Barbarella: Goodness, what do you mean?
Durand-Durand: When we reach the crescendo, you will die… of pleasure. Your end will be swift, but sweet, very sweet.

As Durand-Durand intensifies his playing, Barbarella writhes in agony/ecstasy. But despite his most furious playing, he does not kill Barbarella. Instead his machine fails dramatically, spewing fire and smoke out of the sides as its many tubes burn away. Barbarella is too much woman for the likes of his technology.

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I’m going to disregard this as a device for torture and murder, since I wouldn’t want to improve such a thing, and that whole premise is kind of silly anyway. Instead I’ll regard it as a BDSM sexual device, in which Durand-Durand is a dominant, seeking to push the limits of an (informed, consensual) submissive using this machine. It’s possible that part of the scene is demonstration of prowess on a standardized, difficult-to-use instrument. If so, then a critique wouldn’t matter. But if not…Since the keys don’t move, the only variables he’s controlling are touch duration and vertical placement of his fingers. (The horizontal position on each key seems really unlikely.) I’d want to provide the player some haptic feedback to detect and correct slipping finger placement, letting him or her maintain attention on the sub who is, after all, the point.

Resistance Chutes

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In order to conduct its subversions, the Resistance has a set of secret pneumatic chutes throughout SoGo. To monitor them, they have a map of the city with the chutes drawn as lines and places within the city illuminated with small lights.

The purpose of the lights is a bit vague, since just before Barbarella leaves Resistance Headquarters, Dildano glances at the map to see a red dot flashing at the very top. Gesturing at the light he remarks, “The time is right. The Queen is in her Chamber of Dreams.” But we know from the end of the film that the Queen’s Dream Chamber is on the lowest level of the city, close to Mathmos. (It would seem the Resistance has some severe information gathering issues.) So is each location able to change color to represent prominent individuals? What if two prominent people are in the same place? How does Dildano indicate which prominent person he wishes to track? We never see these controls, and per the axiom of providing inputs near outputs, we would want them to be somewhere around here.

We do get to see one interface in action, though. The chutes themselves are controlled by a set of rather rickety knife switches with large handles. A Resistance member throws one of the switches to initiate suction in a particular tube. (Fans of Futurama should note some similarities to the public transportation system in New New York.)

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One the switch is thrown, a traveler extends his or her arms upwards, and then the tube handles the rest. The exits is ungraceful, tumbling travelers onto the floor in conspicuous places somewhere in SoGo.

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Piranha dolls

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After landing on Tau Ceti, Barbarella is captured by feral children who tie Barbarella to a set of poles and turn a set of robot dolls on her.

The dolls exhibit some crude intelligence. They walk on their own toward Barbarella. Stomoxys (or is it Glossina? It’s tough to tell with these two.) twists a knob on a control panel of four similar, unlabeled knobs, and the dolls’ piranha-toothed mouths begin to crank open and slam shut. They then attack Barbarella, clinging and biting her legs and arms.

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At first the dials seem a strange choice for a killing device, but then you realize that this isn’t mean to be efficient. Rather, the choice of dials for controls fits the childrens’ awful goal. Stop dials are best for setting variables within a range of values. The dolls must have a few variables, like walking speed, biting force, and biting speed, that the horrible children will want to play with as they entertain themselves with this torture.

And of course to “improve” this interface you might want to label the dials so a new user would know what does what, but who would really want to make torture toys more usable?

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Barbarella’s energy box

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In addition to the portable brainwave detector, Dianthus also provides Barbarella with a number of weapons from the Museum of Conflict for her mission. All of these weapons are powered by a single energy box.

We only see it in use after she fires a single shot from the smallest of the weapons. She tries a second shot, but when it doesn’’t work, she glances at a device on the cuff of her boot. The device is designed in a taijitu, a yin-yang set of lights: one red, one white. They are blinking in an alternating pattern, and after viewing it she tells Pygar, ““My energy box is completely dead.””

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Though having a visual signal is quite useful to understand the state of an invisible resource like power, the signal would be much more useful if it showed the amount of energy remaining, and gave warnings before the power was completely out. Failing all that, it would be more useful if she just put the device on the glove of her shooting hand so it was in her field of view at all times.

And though Barbarella’s culture doesn’t understand war, even a peaceful person can quickly come to realize the risk in making your available resources—like power for your weapons—wholly visible to your enemies.

Portable brainwave detector

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Through the atom transmitter Dianthus bestows several gifts on Barbarella to help her with her mission. The first of these is the “portable brainwave detector…to test for Durand-Durand’s presence.” To operate it, Barbarella must press “a contact,” (Dianthus is offscreen when he indicates the contact, but later we see her operating the leaf-like button near the wrist) and if Durand-Durand is around, the ball of lights will glow and an alarm will sound.

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The device is wearable, wrapping around Barbarella’s forearm, and held in place by a ring. This aspect of the design is good, since it means the device is ever-present for operation, and the design of it makes it lovely enough to be overlooked as a fashion accessory. In fact many characters see her wearing it and make no mention.

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Manual activation is less than ideal, though, since this might tip off the suspect. This is especially true with the blinking, glowing ball of light and audio feedback. And, in fact, this is what happens later in the film when Durand-Durand trips over the device. The blinking light and audio catch his attention, betray the device for what it is, and blow Barbarella’’s cover in the process.

Portable Brainwave Device

The best feedback would be invisible, like a haptic vibration through the cuff to her skin. Ideally, the device would be constantly on, to detect the subject passively, the moment he came into range. But presuming battery life is the issue, the activation cue should be something much more subtle, like Barbarella’s touching the back of the ring with the thumb of the same hand. Such a gesture would match the existing design of the object, be discreet to an observer, and yet still discrete enough to prevent accidental activation.