What is Physical Interaction?

Introduction to Physical Computing / Week 1 / What is Physical Interaction?

Prior to laying out my ideas about physical interaction, I’d like to talk about interaction as a concept.

noun: interaction; plural noun: interactions
1. reciprocal action or influence.


Simply put, interaction is a reciprocative conversation.
And Chris Crawford puts forth the concept of interactivity in a very articulate manner. An interaction is a conversation between two subjects that involves listening, thinking and speaking (input, process and output). My understanding of interaction is an experience where the user talks to a system, the system understands the needs of the user, and reciprocates.

“Interaction: a cyclic process in which two actors alternately listen, think, speak” – Chris Crawford

There are misinterpretations of interaction these days, which weren’t clear enough to me before I went through the reading. The reading clearly draws lines between visual experience, user interfaces and interactivity. Visual experiences, such as books or films or music, can be highly immersive and can shift the listener/viewer to a different space of experience/contemplation. However, that’s an extreme reaction and not interaction. Such visual mediums do not think or listen, they simply talk. Similarly, user interfaces are forms through which the user interacts with a system. Such interfaces are generally not involved in the functioning of the system. An interactive system is one, which through an understanding of function and form, conducts all the three tasks in an effective and reciprocative manner. While the function can be designed well through implementation of concepts such as machine learning and thorough algorithms, the form can be bettered through graphic design and animation.

Moving on, physical interaction is about tools. Tools, that can think, that accentuate human capabilities through intuitive and easy-to-use design, and have an effective function. This is something that is resonant in Bret Victor’s rant. His singular point in the article is to question why technology is still hanging onto the two dimensional surface. He poignantly remarks that a two dimensional device no matter how advanced, is eventually going to using two fingers. His vision involves working towards developing a better system that can develop over the many other human capabilities. And this can be done via good physical interaction.

“With an entire body at your command, do you seriously think the Future Of Interaction should be a single finger?” – Bret Victor

For me, a good and very basic example of good physical interaction would be a musical instrument. Lets say, a drum kit. Through the use of the human limbs, the drum kit reciprocates and is capable of producing various amplified sounds, something that accentuates the human capability to produce music. Mr. Victor might agree to this. But Mr. Crawford might not. Since, the drum kit doesn’t think. But what if it did? Maybe, the drum kit could modulate the volume levels by determining the extent of the theater. Or maybe, the drums could preset themselves based on which song is to be played next. Both the readings have given me a clearer definition of interaction, and have raised some interesting questions in my head. I’m anticipating that the coming months will give me many opportunities to ask similar questions to myself, and look for possible solutions.

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