Reaction to Physical Computing’s Greatest Hits (and Misses)

Reading Tom Igoe’s “Greatest Hits” article reinforces the point that it isn’t so much about what form of interaction you choose, but the idea behind the interaction. Ideas give meaning to technology: they turn a bunch of pressure sensors on a glove to into a portable drum kit or a networked LED into a remote hug. Ideas don’t care about how you make things: when you can describe the idea without even mentioning what sensor you’re using or what neat trick you used to hook everything together, users can fully connect with your project and experience it on a more meaningful level.

So what makes it so compelling to categorize all these different forms of interaction? When you put the technology first, users are going to see the technology first. As the world of physical computing continues to grow, more people will look at the touch glove and recognize it as “another drum glove project” or the networked LED as “another remote hug project.” Of course this is not to say nobody should do those projects: they are well documented, meaning they have a great potential to be learned from and developed with a strong idea. But for big projects, it does mean they need to be pushed and they need to have a “reason to be” beyond a desire to play around with the technology.

Observing Interaction at the Museum of Natural History

This weekend I took a trip with some classmates to the excellent American Museum of Natural History here in New York. There were plenty of interactive components to exhibits, mostly in the (rather disappointing) Creatures of Light exhibit. One particular setup had users press a button to flash a light, mimicking a firefly’s bioluminescence, which when done in the correct pattern would cause a group of LEDs to flash in response. The goal was to simulate how males use certain patterns of flashing to attract females.

Though the interaction itself was simple, the instructions and lack of feedback caused confusion for most users. A placard next to the light switch prominently displayed four light flashing patters in morse code style notation, two for male and two for female. Further down on the placard, beyond where I would imagine most people stopped reading, it was stated confusingly that in this scenario the user plays the role of the male. This left the users I observed (and myself) unsure over what to do next.

The next issue was feedback. The only feedback received was of success: when a user flashed the correct pattern, the “females” flashed back. If the user didn’t flash the right pattern, they received no notification as to what they did wrong. Flashing at the wrong speed, flashing to wrong pattern and not holding down the button for long enough were three problems I could imagine users having, but because there was no feedback I am unsure if any of those things even mattered.

This is something one sees often in websites: if the nonfunctioning of the product is the user’s fault but they receive no indication of that fact, they will mistake nonfunctioning for malfunctioning and blame the product. That is what happened in this case.

Processing Spirograph

I was showing some of my Processing experiments to classmates here at ITP and it was asked – nay, demanded – that I post about them on my blog. So I’ll kick things off with this little Spirograph-inspired play-thing, which creates some pretty beautiful objects with a relatively small amount of code:

Click through for the code and an explanation of what’s going on here.

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As part of our Applications presentation (see also: Dreamachine), I built Atmosfear, an atmospheric audio experience made possible by the laptops of our fellow classmates. Everyone was asked to visit the website and select a fear. Their computers then played a series of sounds, mostly taken from, which all together created a spooky and discomforting environment for about five minutes. You can try it out yourself, though it probably won’t be as effective solo as having a hundred other people with you. For that, check out the sound clip below, which I recorded in the auditorium.

Listen to the beginning of Atmosfear

Building a Dreamachine

A group of classmates and I will be giving a presentation next week to our Applications class. It will be in response to a presentation we saw last week from Kevin Cunningham of 3-Legged Dog, a workspace and accompanying theater group that blends technology with performances and art installations.

As part of our presentation, we built a Dreamachine – a device that creates a strobe-like effect to stimulate the eyes. Using plans modified from 10111, we spent last Friday afternoon planning and assembling the machine. The plan was blown up to a 50″ square piece of heavy paper which was wrapped around a foam base and supported by some narrow aluminum poles. Watch the video of the finished device below, and click below that to see the construction pictures.

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