TEI 2015 conference

US flagsThe Tangible Embodied Interaction 2015 conference and workshops, led by Bill Verplank and Wendy Ju, took place at Stanford University in mid-January. As would be expected from a multi-disciplinary gathering there was a broad range of perspectives shared, prototypes exhibited, and collaborative creative investigations initiated. Of particular interest was the presentation about the pioneering work of Interval Research that brought the question from MIT Media Lab’s Hiroshi Ishii – who summed up many recent conversations I’ve been having – “If we knew all of this in the 90s then why did it all go into the black hole of the smartphone?”. Indeed, across the 90s and early noughties there was much work undertaken in industry and university research labs, and artists’ and designers’ studios, that really needs to be revisited to inspire and inform today’s researchers and practitioners.

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Tangible gestural interaction workshop participants

Tangible gestural interaction workshop participants

In order to provide a sense of the TEI 2015 experience, this article provides a brief glimpse of some of the work presented:

Joyce Ma, from San Francisco’s Exploratorium, discussed the challenges of tangible embodied interaction ‘in the wild’. She spoke of the museum’s focus on science, art and human perception, and the team’s desire to encourage people to ask and answer their own questions, whether through exploring a cognitive phenomenon, biological phenomenon or physical phenomenon. Supporting social learning is central to the Exploratorium’s strategy.

Joyce explained that “science has entered into the land of big data” and as such it was important for visitors to have opportunities to explore large authentic scientific datasets in ways that offer playful interactions to promote engagement, and allow multi-user interactions to foster learning with one another. The literature suggests that tangible user interfaces are good at enabling social learning interaction, and the centre has been asking itself ‘how can we design an exhibit that can help our visitors explore scientific datasets in a hand-on science museum?’.

She went on to describe a comparative study between physical rings and virtual rings that a person could move over an interactive table in order to see digital information about the oceans. Was there a difference between the experiences of the two types of ring? Was the physical or the virtual lens different? In fact, they discovered that while the material object appeared to attract people initially, the actual time spent with the exhibit or inquiry about the content was not of significant difference between the physical and virtual lenses.

In addition, Joyce also noted the design challenge for tangible user interfaces at the Exploratorium, “you don’t want the object to be too interesting as the experience becomes about the object and not about the information”.

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Frank Wilson’s opening keynote acknowledged the prodigious technical advancements of our era before going on to weave a contextual narrative describing the unbreakable connections between body and mind, and explaining his thesis that the ancestral human hand, wrist and arm coevolved with the brain over years. He made a call to not diminish the body in the learning experience, and offered an equation: Hand+Brain=Self.

Meg Withgott looked back at Interval Research’s work and noted that already in 2015 much computing is embedded in the world, and our environments can be magically modified by computing, so how do we create meaning-rich, collaboratively constructed, multi-person interfaces?

How are we going to deal with all the smart objects that are going to fill our environments?

How do we understand the impacts on people of these connected devices?

Who gets to programme the environment that controls our life?

Meg reminded us that participants/users/humans are rooted in the real world, and a design challenge for tangible user interfaces is to be sensitive to our social and cognitive abilities, as well as our vulnerabilities.


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Caroline Hummels from the Department of Industrial Design in Eindhoven put forward her seven principles to design for embodied sensemaking, i.e. human sensemaking using sensorimotor couplings to support social coordination between people. She based her work upon the design of a tangible mobile design and sensemaking studio that she developed specifically for encounters between two people in order to sketch a future at the cross-section of their disciplines:

1. Social situatedness – cognition is an ongoing achievement of social coordination in a setting, so it is important to design things that can be used and made sense of in situation

2. Social scaffolding – based on Andy Clark’s concept of cognitive scaffolds, Caroline has created a mobile studio that uses tools, props, phones, iPads etc (a tangible interaction kit) to act as instruments to explore and record ideas and insights

3. Traces – if you have objects and scaffolds and are able to make scenarios, then you want to be able to see or leave the traces, as you can then stimulate the creation of future scaffolds

4. Interactive imaginary – Goldschmidt (1991) introduced the concept in the realm of sketching with paper and pen, and Caroline provides physical 3D objects and uses them with interviewees in such a way that stimulates imagination. “…our D&S studio stimulates ambiguity, openness and confusion in order to trigger imagination, storytelling and inviting people to ‘sketch’ a future. The ambiguity and openness stimulate people in their sensemaking process.’

5. Dialogical system – citing Steffensen (2012) and Sennett (2012), Caroline is travelling  the world, having face-to-face conversations with people whom she admires in order to stimulate curiosity and better understand creative thinking

6. First person perspective – exploiting bodily skills in a co-design process has a positive influence on engagement and cooperation. She has designed an open material and digital platform to stimulate the enactment of personal creative skills through encouraging bodily engagement…’The listener has to get out of his/her own perspective trying to understand the other, and through a process of social coordination become more aware of his/her own view and expand the understanding of each other and the situation.’

7. Catalysing engagement – exploiting bodily skills in a co-design process positively.

Caroline thinks that by people touching material objects and creating something together that there will be different design outcomes – not necessarily better but different.

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As you can see from this swift trot around the conference, there was much to nourish the creative and intellectual juices; as many questions asked as solutions suggested. There was a diverse span of interests, with particular attention paid to wearabes, the maker and tinkerer community, and a wealth of tangible interfaces displayed. The projects that appeared to appeal to most people were those that had a simplicity to them, not necessarily technically nor conceptually but through the interaction experience. For instance, artist Lindsay MacDonald’s ‘endlessly fascinating’ elevator installation, the WoodenHaptics project which is a starting kit for crafting force-reflecting spatial haptic devices, or the BreathingFrame from Korea’s Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

Further articles about the TEI 2015 conference will follow.