The Tactile Experience
Form is an important element in
tangible interaction, as it visually
signals and physically embodies
functionality, expresses cues for
understanding, and provides the
script for interaction. Carnegie
Mellon’s School of Design focuses
on physical embodiment through
projects about people’s relationship with objects and systems.
Students explore the role and
impacts of object forms with the
intention of developing artifacts
that are useful, usable, desirable,
and that exhibit permanence.
We encourage our students to
look past cosmetic aspects of
form to consider objects as communicators that will elicit a continuing dialog with people.
In one exercise, students
design a set of simple hand
tools that facilitate and express
a function. Students structure semantic cues and form
language to visually inform
the mind, physically engage
the body, and guide the hand
for interaction (see Figure
2). Drawing inspiration from
Neolithic hand tools, they consider body position, movement,
ceremony, and utility to guide
form development. This exercise
is a primer for interaction and
subsequent study in the industrial design curriculum that
emphasizes the role and impact
of form in shaping people’s
behavior and experience.
Students are given design
problems that require them
to use physical form to medi-
ate and facilitate interaction.
They develop sensitivity to
form through experiments
with materials and purpose-
ful play. The specimens shown
in Figure 3 engage students in
form development, construc-
tion, and physical manipulation.
Throughout the curriculum, stu-
dents engage with mechanical,
embedded, intelligent, and/or
adaptive systems that encourage
new forms of interaction (see
Figure 4). They learn to use form
language, aesthetics, ergonom-
ics, and the traditional methods
of industrial design in making
interactive products under-
standable and appropriate.
• Figure 3: Top, forms in various materials invite touch and
manipulation (Mark Baskinger).
The wooden forms were found
in a lakeside market in Taiwan.
Bottom, “interactables” that
encourage form development,
construction, and physical
manipulation (Mark Baskinger
and Jason May).
January + February 2010
Form connects with computing
through sensors and effectors.
Sensors provide input. The simplest and cheapest sensor is a
switch; today, buttons dominate
our interaction with electromechanical products. Well-positioned switches can sense
how an object is being held.
Sensors abound—for temperature, movement, pressure, force,
moisture, chemicals, stretch
and strain, and so on. Effectors
provide output. Long popular
as indicators, LEDs mounted
beneath a translucent skin can
change an object’s color. And
there’s audio: Everything beeps
and buzzes, but what do these
sounds tell us? We could do so
much more with sound design.
Motors, too, are effectors, providing motion and other physical
action. For example, vibrator
motors in cell phones bring a
physical quality to digital interaction. Touch and light make a
simple and compelling combination: The Hit Me interactive
light (see Figure 5) lights up in
different patterns, depending
on how it is touched or grasped.
Less common are effectors such
as the nitinol muscles in Greg
Saul’s paper robots or the ther-mochromic paint that colors his
lamps (see Figure 6).