Portable brainwave detector


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.


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.


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.

Atom transmitter


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.


Dianthus calling


Alphy’’s first action in the film is to announce a call from Dianthus, President of Earth and Rotating Premier of the Sun System. During Alphy’’s announcement, a free-standing mock-classical sculpture of a woman shifts to enlarge the crescent frame she holds above her shoulder. This becomes the organically-shaped view screen for the videophone conference between Barbarella and the President.


When it is fully extended, the frame fills with the video feed from Dianthus. No camera mechanism is seen. The gaze matching (see Chapter 4, Volumetric Projection) is handled somewhat mysteriously. For an early part of the conversation Dianthus is looking directly at her breasts rather than her eyes. Barbarella was steeped in the sexual freedom utopia tropes of its day, but this actually seems to be an error in presentation, since neither acknowledges it. Also Dianthus appears at several distances and heights during the course of the fall, sometimes sitting and sometimes standing. He must have had a cameraman. This isn’t inconceivable for a President of Earth, but not yet scalable for mass market use.


When during the call Barbarella gets upset at the possibility of “archaic insecurity,” she crosses to the far side of the statue. This reveals that the display surface is two-dimensional, and displays perfectly from both sides. During her movement, Dianthus follows her and turns around to talk with her from the other side of the statue. We do see at the beginning of the conversation that his camera moves, so he has some kind of different setup than hers. This raises some curious questions about what Dianthus is seeing from his side of the exchange, but alas, we are never shown, so it is an exercise left for the designer/fan.

As with the Purple Drank, controls are never seen for this communication. Alphy handles absolutely everything.

Aperture Door


After the ship crash lands on Tau Ceti (damaged as it was from the magnetic disturbances), Barbarella decides to leave the ship and explore. She enters a simple airlock and then opens a circular aperture door on the far side. Unfortunately we never see the controls. The door is a few feet up on the side of the ship, and Barbarella must step down. It is not clear if there is an alternate or accessible method of exit in more standard landings.

When we see her re-entering the door later, the tail of the furs she wears gets caught in the aperture. This suggests that it is a manual or a time-based control rather than a smarter sensor or artificial intelligence like Alphy.




Barbarella’’s onboard conversational computer is named Alphy. He speaks with a polite male voice with a British accent and a slight lisp. The voice seems to be omnidirectional, but confined to the cockpit of the space rocket.


Alphy’’s primary duties are threefold. First, to obey Barbarella’’s commands, such as waking her up before their approach to Tau Ceti. Second, autopilot navigation. Third, to report statuses, such as describing the chances of safe landing or the atmospheric analysis that assures Barbarella she will be able to breathe.



Whenever Alphy is speaking, a display panel at the back of the cockpit moves. The panel stretches from the floor to the ceiling and is about a meter wide. The front of the panel consists of a large array of small rectangular sheets of metal, each of which is attached on one side to one of the horizontal bars that stretch across the panel. As Alphy talks, individual rectangles lift and fall in a stochastic pattern, adding a small metallic clacking to the voice output. A flat yellow light fills the space behind the panel, and the randomly rising and falling rectangles reveal it in mesmerizing patterns.

The light behind Alphy’’s panel can change. As Barbarella is voicing her grave concerns to Dianthus, Alphy turns red. He also flashes red and green during the magnetic disturbances that crash her ship on Tau Ceti. We also see him turn a number of colors after the crash on Tau Ceti, indicating the damage that has been done to him.

In the case of the conversation with Dianthus, there is no real alert state to speak of, so it is conceivable that these colors act something like a mood ring, reflecting Barbarella’’s affective state.


Like many language-capable sci-fi computer systems of the era, Alphy speaks in a stilted fashion. He is given to “computery” turns of phrases, brusque imperatives, and odd, unsocialized responses. For example, when Barbarella wishes Alphy a good night before she goes to sleep, he replies, “Confirmed.”

Barbarella even speaks this way when addressing Alphy sometimes, such as when they risk crashing into Tau Ceti and she must activate the terrascrew and travel underground. As she is piloting manually, she says things like, “Full operational power on all subterranean systems,” “45 degree ascent,” and “Quarter to half for surfacing.”


Nonetheless, Alphy understands Barbarella completely whenever she speaks to him, so the stilted language seems very much like a convention than a limitation.


Despite his lack of linguistic sophistication, he shows a surprising bit of audio anthropomorphism. When suffering through the magnetic disturbances, his voice gets distressed. Alphy’’s tone also gets audibly stressed when he reveals that the Catchman has performed repairs “in reverse,” in each case underscoring the seriousness of the situation. When the space rocket crashes on Tau Ceti, Alphy asks groggily, ““Where are we?” We know this is only affectation because within a few seconds, he is back up to full functioning, reporting happily that they have landed, ““Planet 16 in the system Tau Ceti. Air density oh-point-oh-51. Cool weather with the possibility of stormy precipitations.”” Alphy does not otherwise exhibit emotion. He doesn’t speak of his emotions or use emotional language. This convention, too, is to match Barbarella’s mood and make make her more comfortable.


Alphy’s sensors seem to be for time, communication technology, self-diagnostics, and for analyzing the immediate environment around the ship. He has actuators to speak, change his display, supply nutrition to Barbarella, and focus power to different systems around the ship, including the emergency systems. He can detect problems, such as the “magnetic disturbance”, and can respond, but has no authority to initiate action. He can only obey Barbarella, as we hear in the following exchange.

Barbarella: What’s happening?
Alphy: Magnetic disturbances.
Barbarella: Magnetic disturbances?…Emergency systems!
Alphy: All emergency systems will now operate.

His real function?

All told, Alphy is very limited in what he can do. His primary functions are reading aloud data that could be dials on a dashboard and flipping switches so Barbarella won’t have to take her hands off of…well, switches…in emergency situations. The bits of anthropomorphic cues he provides to her through the display and language confirm that his primary goal is social, to make Barbarella’s adventurous trips through space not feel so lonely.

Sci-Fi Purple Drank


After Alphy sings to wake her from her 154-hour sleep, Barbarella turns to one of a pair of transparent plastic domes beside her bed. As Alphy announces that she should “prepare to insert nourishment,”” a tall cylindrical glass, filled with a purple fluid, rises from a circular recession. All Barbarella has to do is lift the hinged dome, grab the glass, and drink. When she’s done she puts the glass back into the plastic dome, and Alphy takes care of the rest.

Sharp-eyed readers may note that there are two sets of rectangular buttons in the dome. Each set as one black, one gray, and one white button. We don’t see these buttons being used.

As an interface, this is about as simple as it gets.

  • Human has need.
  • Agent anticipates need.
  • Agent does what it can to address the need.
  • Agent provides respectful, just-in-time instructions to the human on her part.
  • Human has need satisfied.

Seriously, this bit from 1968 is the future.



The Shagpile Cockpit


Barbarella’‘s rocket ship has a single main room, which is covered wall-to-wall with shagpile carpet. The visual panel of her voice-interface computer, called Alphy, is built into the wall near the back. On the right side of Alphy sits the video phone statue. To the left a a large reproduction of Seurat’’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte masks a door to exit the ship.


A recessed, circular seating space near the front acts as the cockpit. From this position Barbarella can see through a large angled viewport. One nice aspect of the design of the cockpit is that when things are going poorly for the rocket ship, and Barbarella is being buffeted about, the pile keeps the damage to a minimum and, the recessed cockpit is likely to “catch” her and hold her there, in a place where she can try and remedy the situation. (This is exactly what happens when they encounter “magnetic disturbances” on their approach to Tau Ceti.)

Magnetic Disturbances

The control panel for the ship is a wide band of roughly 60 unlabeled black, white, and gray keys, curving around the pilot like amphitheater seating. The keys themselves are random lengths, stacking in some places two and three to a column. Barbarella presses these keys when she must manually pilot the ship, at one point pressing a particular one several times in quick succession. That action suggests not controls for building up commands like a computer keyboard, but rather direct-effect controls, like an automobile dashboard, where each key has a different, direct effect.


This keyboard panel lacks any clues as to the functions of the keys for first-time users, but the high-contrast and cluster patterns make it easy for expert users like Barbarella (being as she is a 5-star double-rated Astro-Navigatrix) to visually locate a particular key amongst them. But there’s a lot that could be improved. First and most obvious is that the extents of the keyboard are quite spread out from her immediate reach. Bringing them within easy reach would mean less physical work. We also know that like an automotive dashboard, unless these keys are all controlling things with direct, obvious consequences, some status indicators in the periphery of her vision would be damned handy. And even with the unique key configuration, Barbarella would have an even easier time of it with physically differentiated controls, ideally with carefully designed affordances.

The other features of the cockpit, including a concave panel in the wall to her left with large, round, colored lights, and a set of large, reflective black domes on the right hand side of the cockpit, are not seen in use.

Gravity controls


In what may be the only mid-title interface use seen in sci-fi to date, after Barbarella completely strip-teases her space suit off, she restores artificial gravity to her space rocket. To do this, she floats to a panel and depresses one of a set of four transparent, underlit buttons. The row of buttons dim as she depresses one of them, and she drops to the fur-lined floor.

This moment quickly sets the tone for the design of the film, which is more whimsy than utility.

Wouldn’t push buttons be easy to accidentally bump while floating around in zero-g?

Why are they a hard material shaped kind of like bullets? Wouldn’t a softer material and gentler shape reduce the risk of injury?

Why are there four buttons? Are there four levels of artificial gravity that she can induce? Wouldn’t that work better as a dial? Or four different speeds of transitioning gravity? Shouldn’t the controls look a bit different to indicate their different functions?

Why does the gravity shift so suddenly? That could prove dangerous if she was precariously positioned in the air, especially with the bullet shapes protruding from the floor. Best would be a more gradual transition from zero- to one-g.

In zero-g, pushing the button would simultaneously push her away from the wall, increasing the height of her fall. Shouldn’t she have a handle to grip and keep herself anchored?

Then again, why does she need a physical control at all? Once she has her helmet off, why not just speak to Alphy (the conversational computer that we’ll meet in a later post) and have him turn it on slowly?


Despite these questions, there are three things I really like about the design of this control.

  1. The floor is covered in fake fur, which cushions her fall a bit. Hopefully there is padding beneath the fur lining as well, though this is less necessary if the transition is made more gradual.
  2. The control is placed on the floor, which means—since she has to be near it to activate it—her fall is minimized. Of course this raises questions about accidental deactivation later by a foot or a sexy space pillow fight, but let’s presume that’s a different control entirely for safety reasons. Then a design improvement might be to have the buttons recess into the floor after activation.
  3. The buttons are dim when the gravity is turned on. Ordinarily buttons should be illuminated when a system is on, but humans are best adapted to working with gravity, so the on switch should draw attention.

Helmet transition


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.


Barbarella: Overview

Release Date: 10 Oct 1968, USA


Barbarella, since she is a ““5-star double-rated Astro-Navigatrix,”” is enjoined by the President of Earth to find the lost scientist Durand-Durand, who knows the secret to the Positronic Ray and thereby threatens intergalactic peace. Barbarella crash lands on the planet Tau Ceti where she meets an eclectic cast of characters including the winged Pygar and the Resistance fighter Dildano, who help her find Durand-Durand in the city of SoGo and defeat him, letting him sink to his doom in the belly of the evil creature Mathmos.