It all started! A few days ago we had our first class at ITP, Intro to Physical Computation and we are all very excited to peak into the all the little corners of this amazing world of physical computing.

drawing by Azelia for our first team assignment: fantasy interaction device connecting wild animals with humans via brainwave scanning and touch-emotions. 

drawing by Azelia for our first team assignment: fantasy interaction device connecting wild animals with humans via brainwave scanning and touch-emotions. 



After this class’ discussion and exercise, and reading Chris Crawford’s definition and Bret Victor’s rant, how would you define physical interaction? What makes for good physical interaction? Are there works from others that you would say are good examples of digital technology that are not interactive? 


I will give it a try:

A high degree of physical interaction characterizes events between living or non-living entities that are based mainly on non-verbal/non-visual, body based forms of processed communication in a mostly limited timeframe that is perceivable by all parties.

Writing down this description with the two texts in my head I immediately had the feeling that I took the easy way out by starting  with "A high degree of ... ". I took that from Chris Crawfords definition as I liked its flexibility. It probably gets a higher degree of accuracy through that (pun intended). "Characterizes" offers the same extra space in this definition - we are talking about what main features physical interaction should show. I am then talking about "events" in my definition to highlight the fact that these interactions can happen by chance or are planned. "living or non-living entities" refers to the agents in this event: the action between them can happen between animals (includes humans), plants or any form of living entity that shows a sign of life (microbes, genes, etc as well) and everything that is not alive in a strict sense machines, mixed-agent systems, networks, ecosystems (now it is getting a bit broad). I am to an extent excluding verbal and visual interaction to focus on the physical side of things: physics here include any physically perceivable ways of communication. The human voice and even light (and therefore sight) can as well have a physical dimension, in this limited definition the focus is intentionally on the mostly (technologically) neglected parts of interaction. Here I follow Bret Victor and his call for body sensations/stimulations instead of mainly visual/audible ones. The term "processed" points out that a form of information operation should go on after each interaction on each agent's side. All agents should ideally be able to initiate those events. Furthermore operations should be understandable by each agent - this includes the dimension of time: If the interaction spans thousands of years and one agent is human, it has a lower degree of instant physical interaction. Although climate change could be seen as a sort of slow-motion physical interaction as well.

Referring to the second question on what could be seen as a "good" interaction, I would say that the points listed above attempt to come up with a flexible framework for meaningful physical interactions in our contemporary environment - with time and body-based physicality as main parts.  

Thinking of good examples for non-interactive works, something tech-related came to my mind: pretty much all of our "interactive" technology is very one-sided interactive. The (mostly) human user initiates the majority of actions and is clearly dominating the communication. This could be seen as good design - you don't wanna be dominated by a machine. But this lowers the degree of interactivity by definition. If the machine mainly follows your orders, what implications does this have in a broader sense on our behavior, our best and our worst? I am very curious about how evolution will deal with this. How will our genome be altered by these interactions and these new environments? 

I got carried away - but there is something very inspiring about this assignment. I hope I can follow up on these thoughts later in class with meaningful and really interactive physical computing projects . 

Coming back to the question: If we define interactivity like I tried to define it earlier above, the degree of interactivity of a lot of tech is very limited: As Bret Victor pointed out, most of the tools neglect 90 percent of our senses and exclusively focus on audio-visual interaction. Every social network, take Instagram or Facebook, is therefore in a strict sense only a low-level interactive technology. If we narrow it down to physical interaction, even a vacuum cleaner offers more technologically driven physical interactivity than those networks. Plus technically speaking, they merely translate (and reduce) the complexity of human interactions into arguably limited representations of the latter. So the real agents here are humans, this is not even interactive technology. It is a translation tool. Siri, Alexa or Verdana are first attempts to break out of this "translation" definition as they tend to offer a more meaningful and active processing part. But they are as well still addressing only a fraction of our interactive potential - audio and visual communication channels. Therefore it might be questionable to regard them as highly interactive technology that is stimulating and meaningful for all agents. 

We probably have to differ between interactive technologies and technologies that enable interaction. New developments in machine learning could help to move beyond the notion of technology as a tool for interaction and create new experiences that could create technologies with a higher degree of interactivity as defined earlier in this post. 

I am excited!