What Is Physical Interaction?

Physical Computing

Interaction by definition is the iterative process of two actors listening to each other, processing the information gathered, and responding. The key factors therefore, to good interaction, are reception of information — how accurately and how fast the instruction, or data, has been transferred, the quality of processing — how well the problem is solved: the degree to which it answers the question posed, the computational efficiency of the task at hand, and finally, the return.

Interaction is only possible when all three are key factors are present and the process of exchange is repeated to solve problems. It is a spectrum, not binary, like Chris Crawford explains in his Fridge Door Game example (which is a pretty dull interaction, but could be an interaction nonetheless). It shows that some interactions are superior to others in terms of the size of the problem they solve, the responsiveness, and the engagement of a reasonable mind.

Between humans, interactions mostly take place as conversation, where language is used for both listening and responding, while the brain processes the incoming and outgoing information. Between humans and machines however, additional key factors take major roles. These are somewhat extrapolations of the original pillars of interaction, and because humans and machines have different capabilities and limitations, both have to dumb themselves down in order for the interaction to take place.

Joseph Faber’s Euphonia – as non-interactive as they come. Although it was a mechanical human voice generator, and therefore lacked any processing at all, its use at play was visionary.

Out of the numerous things humans use to interact with one another, from the spoken word to body language and pheromones, only a few sensibilities are put to use when in contact with a computer, like the written word, or touch. Similarly, amongst all the machine’s abilities, from being able to see infra-red to sensing brain waves, only those that are able to respond to a human and in turn being understood by her is one of importance, unless a proper channel is produced for others.

Physical interaction between machines and humans need to carefully and creatively consider the many degrees of abilities found in either of them. In his brief rant, Bret Victor explains that any so-called visionary future that does not take into account the strongest tool available to both humans and machines is not visionary at all.

“A tool addresses human needs by amplifying human capabilities, that is, a tool converts what we can do into what we want to do. A great tool is designed to fit both sides.”

Technology is being invented at a rapid pace and of course, the newest machinery employs the most effective technological power to source it. But what designers of interaction need to visualise further is that technology needs to bend the knee to humans and human nature.

Victor goes on to describe the extent, intensity and versatility of the the utility provided by our hands to us. He presents the inspiring vision of inventing technology that is able to take cues from all these degrees in the human hand.

A physical interaction is good, therefore, when all the three pillars of interaction are supporting and complementing the way humans interact with the world around them. Be it our hands or eyes, our gestures, our tone and emotionality or simply our appearance, if it can be successfully inputted into a machine and meticulously processed by it, and if it can churn out exactly what solves the problem, that is good interaction.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *