Interactivity, Feedback

Posted on Sep 12, 2013 in Physical Computing
Interactivity, Feedback

To be completed…

Thoughts on physical interaction after prototype exercises and reading Bret Victor and Chris Crawford’s definitions of interactivity:

A short comment on argument styles in the above:

Back in the 1950s there was a lovely debate between Sartre and Barthes or, if you please, What is Literature? (Qu’est ce que la littérature?) and Zero Degree Writing (Le degré zéro de l’écriture). Sartre, the existentialist, argued that more or less, you might butcher a piece of text or be a complete hack with no true skills, but the attempt to communicate (as an enactment and display of communist commitment) was the important part. In essence, writing may not be transparent, but content and container were to some degree separable. Barthes, on the other post-modern hand, set himself the task of searching for that un-entangled, perfectly translucent, ‘zero degree’ shell, knowing that it was an impossibility (an enjoyable analytic labyrinth to wander through); in his view, content and container, form and argument were deeply dependent on each other, mutually shaped, inflected, and nuanced.

Crawford and Victor make for a similar pair, but not perhaps in quite the way that was pedagogically intended (although the contrast is useful). It just strikes me as interesting to examine their very different uses of text-as-tool: Victor’s rant takes a blog format, uses an array of media, and works with basic graphic hierarchies to engage his audience. Even if his larger article is addressing the wider somantic and phenomenological prospects for interaction, he can and does effectively sculpt the textual format into a successful package. Crawford, on the other, is our unfortunate Sartre. His tone tries to be light, but is patronizing. His illustrations are useless and seem to be inspired by avoiding royalty fees. I will admit right now that I don’t know his interaction design work, but (with hearty emphasis) I can’t quite invest in his conversational model of interaction (listening, thinking, responding) knowing how little he considers or respects his readers. He himself notes that you must ‘spik well’ to hold a conversation, but he doesn’t seem to apply that at the scale of style or tone. He could be a bad writer, with bad editors. Or, he’s a designer who hasn’t thought about how a person/market/audience will consume/handle/engage his tool/object/book.


Perhaps, its a devil’s advocate performance – butcher the audience relationship to show how important it could be with devices or on-screen. Maybe that’s next chapter.  I guess the writing makes me wonder how limited his notions of rewarding feedback are (outside spreadsheets with instant updates, etc., etc.).

So that’s my rant, to accompany Victor’s rant, about interactive design. But what, exactly, do I mean beyond the negative definition of Crawford’s rhetorical demonstration?


My (evolving) definition of interaction:

A stumbling answer in a few iterations:

First, in simple  and then wordy english, interaction is input, transformation, output or (wordy) focused, semi-intuitive human gestures registered by a constructed environment or object which triggers actions/transformations with an output that is recognized as being the product/related to those control gestures.

If Victor is interested in Needs, Technologies, and Capabilities, I guess I’m interested in how technologies and capabilities are formed in/through cultural and material feedback. Not that need isn’t also very slippery…



Second, let me semi-illuminate this with an example that relates to Victor’s piece:

I think Victor’s intro of the hand-tool is useful (if broad) since there is an explicit registration of activity in a hammer; You try to hit a nail and you hit your thumb or the wood or the nail or nothing… all of which are separate ‘if’ opportunities leading to different action or further iteration (swinging again, swearing, etc.). And it is easy enough to understand the transfer of force through a tempered material as a sort of ‘thinking,’ which might better be called transformation.  Things like grip (up or down handle), pivot (swinging from wrist, elbow, sholder, standing posture)  and so on both alter the performance of the machine, are recognizable to users, and could be digitally adapted for other processes.


Adjacent to the hammer, (here from Crawford’s mentions/dismissals) there are interaction ideas from human factor/time motion studies that are useful when considered not as an end (more productive, quicker processes) but as a method (an anthropology of object-human relationships). For example, the Gilbreth’s first books on motions and efficiency are on bricklaying (not hammers, but close). And, in fact, this taps into Victor’s whole body model of sensorial spectrum as potential interface triggers and registers. In essence, in order to lay bricks with less effort, Frank Gilbredth invents a series of platforms and moving shaffold containers to put things (bricks, mortar, tools) within arms reach. Of course, to establish the parameters of ‘arms reach,’  Gilbreth not only photographs and sketches the way people handle bricks, but also looks around at existing practices and all of the weight transfer mechanisms from the entire production and logistical chain.


Selecting, scaling, and re-encorporating these devices he creates an adapted scaffold ‘environment’ to incorporate the bricklayers themselves. In place of the electric processes we’re learning, Gilbreth’s ‘brick-machine’ is a classic, mechanical-energetic-extensive array of paired pullies, levers and human force that acts the way switches and resistors do,  altering the flow of bricks to the target ‘arms-reach’ in much the same way of providing or controlling voltage to a specific light or motor.  (It maybe 1909 and a far cry from conversation, but the Gilbreths offer a model of human-centered research to create a mechanism that transforms several types of human input- gestures and force on bricks, rope, trowels- into a coordinated environment/directed process that outputs pristine walls or wall segments… lather, rinse, repeat and viola, Chicago!) And of course, for those of us arriving in the land of loops, it’s hard not to examine his engineering diagrams and speculate on their pixel equivalent. The material metaphor doubles as a simple screen, which admittedly, is a bit less ambition in defining interaction, but pairs well with our simple understanding of programming.


Maybe we could say that just as Crawford’s iteration creates a conversation, iteration of this model makes buildings.

Third, a summary: As an someone coming out of both art-history and landscape, this more extensive, environmental model of capability/interaction is appealing for two reasons:

  • As in Victor, the mechanical system of the Gilbreths raises the question of what sensorial capabilities might be triggered or responsive. This, in turn, opens up questions of design in general and how, at the level of anthropology, we relate to objects, environments, etc. Now, I think Victor doesn’t quite addresses all the learning embedded in our intuitive actions and interactions. The Gilbreths, for their part, are addressing the habits of skilled craftsmen and have thus tried to explicate prior learning as well as anticipating some adjustment and acclimation from workers. In an era of ambient sensors, it’s an open question of how close to ‘familiar’ movements our interactive gestures might be (a simulacra of everyday movement) and/or how much designers could take advantage of our rather quick capacity to alter, adapt, and habituate ourselves to invented sensorial re-combinations.
  • Nothing in Crawford address the materiality of actors/computers. I think our notions of interaction need tap cultural, spatial, and material imagination. Even if he suggests dancer interaction or some theatrical measure of feedback, I just can’t get over how ‘idealizing’ the metaphor of speech or conversation seems. If we consider computers as computers- environments for operations with defined components- (water computing, electric computing, mechanical computing, organic computing or all the above in combo) it seems easier to use our spatial imagination to consider potential inputs, outputs, and manipulation at each stage of an operation.



Good/Interesting physical interaction:

Clearly, I’ll ad a few more this evening as I stumble across them… (scanning interactive art blogs and coops, as opposed to thinking about everyday objects for the moment):

Kobakant’s Perfect Human (after Leth and Von Trier): Keeping with environments of registration/processing, I just thought this was an interesting way to re-stage Leth’s original, consumer anthropologies, by asking actors to perform audience mirroring.

I’m not sure how much the contacts of soft-electronic suit can capture, in terms of posture and movement precision, just given the way the voice/audio triggers don’t appear to be very sensitive. As a restaging of film, it strikes me that the play of visual crops might be replicated by moving in and out of the target area (which is not happening), but it’s an open question of how kobkant’s decided to remapped and translate portions of the  original.

Overall, the shift from consumer/anthro stylization to public interaction is interesting, but I also wonder if the push for literal, spatial engagement doesn’t ultimately miss out on the ‘still’ or controlled cultural criticims that the media bracketing at work in the cultural criticism of Leth or Barthes (on objects, not humans).



Random Lab Questions:


  • Are we placing the resistor after the switches in our circuits for simple safety reasons? (Just curious, since the Arduino book sets up the simple circuits with the resistors first.)
  • When we have LED series after the switch and resistor, my voltage value for the switch and resistor start to diverge. How does the math work? The resistor + LEDs covers the 5Vs but how should the switch be conceptualized within that relationship?
  • Yeh, parallel circuits! Can’t wait to dig through those switch bins for crazy combos.