10 – Tangible, Embodied Interaction

Tangible and embodied interaction is all about the process of making seamless connections between the physical and the digital.

This week, we discussed Weiser’s research at XEROX PARC, in which he defines interactions at 3 levels, (1) the inch, (2) the foot, and (3) the yard level. While his use of non-metric units of measurement is abhorrent, the meta message remains relevant: applications can make the environment responsive to people (and animals, and plants) as they move around and interact with objects. This is happening now with (1) small devices and the emergence of mobile phones, (2) medium-sized devices and the emergence of tablets and digital paper, and (3) larger-sized devices such as collaborative surfaces and whiteboards.

Interaction happens in the world, and the world lends form, substance, meaning to the interaction.

Tangible Interaction is about adding computational power to physical objects.

Through effective integration of these principles, simple interaction components such as how the mouse cursor on the screen become extensions of our bodies.

There are two superb examples that I’ve been waiting all semester to write about, because they really tie in all the concepts from social and mobile computing: MIT’s the Sixth Sense Project, and Corning’s A Day Made of Glass.

Both of these projects mark a distinct break from the traditional mouse-keyboard-screen approach to interaction, and instead create an immersive experience of a completely different type. One stitches together the digital and non-digital social world by projecting identity cues onto others, and one seams together collaborative learning environments with cloud-based servers and multi-touch canvases.

Using Weiser’s analogy, these might be considered scales in the multi-meter range (and even kilometre, in the sense that instantaneous collaboration is possible at scales of this magnitude), for example real-time telepresent surgery and medical diagnostics, or classroom resource sharing across communities and continents alike.

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