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What is Physical Interaction?

Posted on September 11th, by amoeboar in classes, pcomp. No Comments

Before getting into a description of how tools define our user experiences, Brett Victor first defines a tool with the following: “a tool addresses human needs by amplifying human capabilities.” This is a good defnition, because Victor argues that a tool essentially “converts what we can do into what we want to do.” Instead of talking about needs or technology, Victor instead opts to talk about the oft-neglected element in his definition: human capabilities. He argues that a good tool is only as good as how it is benefiting the natural capabilities of the user, and I would argue that a tool that doesn’t do this is only getting in the way of what humans try to express.

He brings up a great point about the current trends of “interactive” technologies: that they often involve some sort of touch-screen interface, a techlology he lumps together as “Pictures Under Glass.” This phrase does a good job of illustrating the glassy and far-removed nature of these types of technologies from organic, natural human experience. A picture is just that: a snapshot, a memory. A moment that did exists but no longer exists. Siding your finger across it does little to return the user to the experience represented in the picture, and on the contrary I believe it alienates him further. Victor says that “Pictures Under Glass sacrifice all the tactile richness of working with our hands, offering instead a hokey visual facade. [It] is an interaction paradigm of permanent numbness. It’s a Novocaine drip to the wrist. It denies our hands what they do best.”

A great emphasis is placed on these kinds of technologies, and a great de-emphasis on what makes interaction interactive in the natural world, before the advent of technology: the richness of tactile experience. Before computers, humans came pre-built with all kinds of sensors, in their fingertips, muscles and eyeballs. We have weight sensors for knowing when a glass of water is almost empty. We have acute intuition for the subtle contours and textures of everyday objects, a sensory perception we almost always take for granted. Likewise, objects give this type of feedback to us, and in that way they are responding to our interaction with them. Much of this is lost in interactive communication as knew technologies are being developed, and its why, although there are pioneers who laud the advent of innovative knew technologies, there is almost always a tinge of regret or sadness that the future looks sterile, disconnected, and well, glassy.

Victor asks the question that, if “our hands feel things, and our hands manipulate things, why aim for anything less than a dynamic medium that we can see, feel, and manipulate?” With an entire body at our command, should the Future Of Interaction really be limited to a single finger?

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Chris Crawford’s defines interaction as “a cyclic process in which two actors alternately listen, think, and speak.” In techno-terms, this can be understood in terms of “input, process and output.”

Crawford says that in order to interact well, both actors in a conversation must perform all three steps well, and that doing a good job with one does not compensate for a bad job with the others. In design, the most common error arises from a failure to appreciate this principle.

So what isn’t interactive? Crawford says that printed books aren’t, because a book can;t listen or think. While the argument can indeed be made that an actor is turning the pages of a book and therefore interacting with it, it doesn’t fit his definition f interactivity in that the book doesn’t listen, nor does it respond. According to Crawford, a line needs to be drawn on what is interactive and what isn’t, or else the next time you walk into a store, you might see “New! Improved! Interactive!” on the side of a box of laundry detergent.

Crawford feels that interactivity has always been there (I agree, and I said so in my argument above about sensory perceptions), but what’s new is mechinization and an automation of mechinization. He says that the majority of human interaction has resisted mechanization, and largely because computers can’t (and won’t ever) overcome the major difference from humans in that computers cannot grasp emotional situations like humans can.

Crawford says that “interactivity is superior to all other forms of human expression in one way: it engages the human mind more powerfully than any other form of expression. By contrast, non-interactive forms of expression do not hold our attention so tenaciously.” When I consider all the most memorable, profound, provocative moments in my life, they are almost always associated with experiences during which I was fascinated, consumed, or otherwise utterly engaged. We are most engaged when the mechanisms secretly at work within our minds have us locked into a silent feedback cycle of output, processing, and input. Active, direct involvement always demands greater attention than passive observation. As the Chinese proverb says, “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.”

Lastly, Crawford argues that “well-executed expressions in other media will always outperform interactive expressions in their superior texture, polish, and detail, but the interactive expression has its own unbeatable advantage: people identify more closely with it because they are emotionally right in the middle of it.”

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