A few weeks ago (Feb. 10 – 17) I went to Barcelona, Spain for TEI (The Conference on Tangible Embedded and Embodied Interaction) and for a little personal time off. I have been wanting to go to TEI for a few years and this year I was fortunate enough to be able to take a week off from work to check it out. Due to a blizzard in NY my flight out got delayed a few days so I missed the workshops on Sunday and was too jet lagged on Monday to comprehend much, so this is mostly from Tuesday and Wednesday, and grouped by the themes from the talks.
Michael Horn talked about the role of Cultural Forms in Tangible Interaction Design, basically how cultual forms and social constructions affect the way we relate to objects. This may be physical but it could also be entirely based on patterns of a social activity. He briefly shared this project that he’s working on that aims to teach programming by combining story books, stickers, and animation. I got really excited about this project and would love to get involved or build upon this somehow.
Some of his conclusions:
- Think about the types of activities and interaction you want to create
- Think about cultural forms that match your goals
- Design tangible systems to evoke the desired forms
Majken Kirkegaard Rasmussen talked about Magical Realities in Interaction Design. She references Bruce Tognazzini and Sam de Jongh Hepworth‘s earlier writings about magic and design. Given my interest in the magic & design connection I really enjoyed her talk. She highlighted four types of magic:
- Mind over matter: Thinking about something and making it happen. eg. Necomimi
- Animation: Making something alive. eg. Hemmert’s Ambient Life project.
- Non permanence: Things that don’t last. eg. ZeroN
- Sympathetic: Things that adapt. eg. Lumen
She also poses a few questions to think about when thinking about magic.
- Are breaches of causality experienced as magical or have we gotten used to it
- How to ask questions related to magic?
- Can the magic last beyond the first encounter?
- Where is it useful to create interfaces that challenge our perception and expectations? What might the price of doing so be?
Panel: The beauty of the paradigms encounter
In a panel discussion between Jelle Van Dijk, Andy Boucher, Nicholas Villar, Travis Kirton, and Michael Horn there was discussion about the various perspectives of the people who come to a conference as trans-disciplinary as TEI. When you have people coming from design to science to sociology, how does that affect the way projects are talked about and evaluated? How do you reconcile the need to be “more scientific” and the need to be accommodating of the diverse ways projects can contribute to the conversation. While some valued seeing things work functionally others were interested in the expressive communication of an idea. Should peer reviews be based on written papers? How do you formalize something as expressive as arts research?
There were also a series of video interviews from various people. Common aspirations among the interviewees was a desire to get more overlapping trans-disciplinary collaboration and a desire to get more research out into the real world, outside of academia. They hope that the conference spurs more than just a transfer of ideas but inspires the creation of real things. And at the same time tangible interaction doesn’t necessarily have to mean digital.
Compare & Contrast
Michael Poor shared some empirical research around the benefits of various levels of “closeness” in interfaces and how they effect problem solving. While many people tout the benefits of tangible interaction, there has been little research to prove the effectiveness so far. And so they tested the speed and accuracy of mouse/keyboard, touch screen, and tangibles.
- mouse: quite fast yet inefficient
- tangibles: more efficient, yet slower
- touch: both more efficient and faster
Ali Mazalek talked about research around the use of virtual tools and how that translated into real world mastery. When we use tools in real life, they become extensions of our human body. So do virtual tools (like simulations) help us in real life? Prior research has found that tool appropriation only happens if the tool is used purposely, not if its just being held. But using virtual tools does significantly improve reaction time with the real world version of that tool.
Ilhan Aslan researched the “semantic weight” of interface elements. While we know the size of distance, object size, and hit are are all important interface factors to consider, what about the content of these things? For instance, does it matter if you’re dragging an apple or an elephant on the screen? He found that semantically “heavy” objects dragged faster, and images had more of an effect than words.
David Holman is working on a project called Unifone, which explores the use of auxiliary touch gestures on the side of the phone as input. Basically instead of just touching the screen you can squeeze various zones on the side to activate common mobile tasks such as halted scrolling, navigation.
Robert Kowalski talked about Cubble, which is a multi-device hybrid system aimed to make people in long distance relationships feel closer. It consists of both hardware and a mobile app where people could send pulses of color to their significant other in various forms.
From the user feedback it seemed it was normally the women who defined / coded the various color meanings. And men were happy that the overal interaction was less awkward than normal communication and decreased the need for text messaging. While this was touted as a benefit I have some problems with this on a few levels, but I’ll save the detailed rant on this for later.
Gestures & Toolkits
Christian Weichel is working on a new way to prototype enclosures for electronics, where the shape of the final object is determined by the type of components you are putting into the prototype and after its created its laser cut. It’s an interesting way to approach design.
There were a few more talks and several interesting demos but it’s taken me so long to get this post together I feel like I ought to just wrap this up for now. Overall, some interesting work, though oddly it sort of made me realize how lately I’ve actually been drawn back to creating screen-based interactions. Earlier, when I had just started getting introduced to the whole idea of Tangible Interaction as a field of research I remember being really excited by it, I had been wanting to go to this conference for several years. But oddly, after having gone I noticed I spent most of my time after the conference thinking about ideas for a totally digital web app. But I still feel like the trip was super helpful overall to give me some time and space to really reflect and think about the things I’m really interested in.