In-class: Musical instrument with ultrasonic distance sensor

Get the code: ping_scale

My partner and I used the PING))) Ultrasonic Distance Sensor to play a musical scale with square waves generated by Arduino's tone().  

The sensor provides a time value for how long a sound wave takes to return after bouncing off of an object, which can be used to determine the distance from that object.  In this case, the object was my own hand.

We physically limited the scale to 32" to keep things manageable (the sensor a maximum range far greater than that).  Dividing this distance into 8 discrete parts gave us the "keys" for a one-octave scale.

We mapped the parts to the notes, and when my hand was a certain distance from the sensor, the corresponding tone was played.

Response: When and Why Incentives (Don’t) Work to Modify Behavior

This reading discussed the reasons behind why some incentives fail to modify, or even worsen, certain behaviors.  An oft-cited example of this effect is the introduction of financial incentives when donating blood.  This makes the contrast between traditional and behavioral economics very clear - offering money to incentive an action is classically supposed to work, and yet the rate of blood donation fell, only recovering once the incentive was removed from play.

The blood donation example seems to relate to an aspect of persuasive design mentioned by this week's guest speaker, Sarah Newhall, of Blue State Digital.  She noted that it's important to "make feel people like their actions matter" when engaging users in campaigns designed to strengthen the relationship between those users and a given brand.  In this case, the "brand" is the blood donation (or perhaps the Red Cross), and people feel their actions matter by knowing that their contribution could potentially save lives.  This feeling is powerful enough on its own, and any financial incentive changes the dynamic by compromising the person's ability to feel connected to the action in question.

Response: Bad elevators

I observed the people using the left bank of elevators in the Tisch School of the Arts to determine what interactions take place and how they happen.  Like most elevators, they have buttons which illuminate when pressed to show which floors have been selected.  Unfortunately, there are two main problems with these buttons.  The first is that pressing the buttons is fairly unreliable, and the second is that the buttons' illumination is extremely faint.

For the frequent elevator user accustomed to accurate button inputs and clear signaling, the Tisch elevators can be challenging.  Pressing the button once, however firmly, does not guarantee anything, and you can forget about a casual glance at the button panel, unless you want to go somewhere other than where you want to go.

The experienced Tisch elevator user knows the ways of reducing the chances of accidentally skipping your desired floor.  They know that repeatedly jamming the button improves your odds of the elevator system registering your button press.  They also know that there is no possible way to tell what floors have been selected unless you get your eyes within an inch or two of the button panel.  For those who don't want to stoop, repeatedly jamming the button regardless of if that button has already been pressed usually does the trick.

The transaction time is a few seconds longer than it has to be, which is plenty annoying, but the real downside is that the current state of interaction creates a feeling of uncertainty for everyone in the elevator, and worse, causes problems for people with physical disabilities who often have to take the elevator.

Lab: Foam labyrinth

For class this week, we made objects out of 2" insulation foam. I made a 12"x12" labyrinth. Curves were a required feature for this project so I created a design using circular arcs and right angles. The first step was to settle on a sketch.

After I had committed to the sketch, I cut a 12"x12" square from my foam sheet and drew a 1-inch grid on the surface. Using the grid I was able to map my sketch onto the foam. The picture below shows the foam halfway through the cutting process; I had already removed the square corners from the bottom of the foam.

Once the individual pieces were cut and sanded, I attached them with nails to a 12"x12" foamcore sheet which served as the surface of the labyrinth.

My measurements were initially correct but my cutting and sanding introduced some error into the final product. The width between two adjacent walls of the labyrinth should always be 1" but there are places where this is not the case, due to my inaccuracy in cutting and sanding the circular arcs. However, I gained a lot of confidence using both the bandsaw and the belt sander, which will help when using wood next week.

Response: "The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster

"The Machine Stops" is a short story by E. M. Forster, originally published in 1909, which describes a future in which humans no longer live on the surface of Earth; instead, they inhabit underground rooms which offer complete insulation from the natural environment. "Buttons and switches everywhere" are used to "summon" physical objects, control the artificial climate,  and communicate with other humans, making it unnecessary to ever leave one's room.  An entity called "the Machine" runs these systems, and, because humans depend so heavily on it for survival, the Machine is often regarded with divine fervency.

It's hard to imagine living in the world of "The Machine Stops," and yet it's relatively easy to analyze current technologies to predict similarly dystopian scenarios for our own future.  For some, personal computing and the ubiquity of mobile devices symbolizes a loss of human-to-human interaction unmediated by computers.  Others, like Google co-founder Sergey Brin, do recognize that these technologies can be "socially isolating" but work to reduce the effect.

The irony is that many current technologies designed to connect people also have the side effect of causing social isolation, perhaps due to the immense difficulty of creating artificial experiences that rival in-person interaction.

What, at a basic level, do you think is required in technologies that facilitate and/or simulate true human experiences?  Given our current communication and social technologies, are you confident that new technological paradigms will alleviate this problem of social isolation?

Lab: First Arduino program

Get the code: _3_speed_blinking

Our first Arduino circuit consisted of a switch controlling two LEDs.  The default state was the red LED on and the yellow LED off.  Pressing the switch reversed this (yellow on, red off).

After getting this working, I decided to try something more complicated.  I programmed the LEDs to blink at three different rates and use the switch to change speeds, partially by adapting this Arduino blinking example for use with two LEDs at once.

Overall the setup works well, although there is a small bug in the program that is unnoticeable during normal use. Bonus points if you can find it.

In-class: Foamcore cube

We constructed 3" foamcore cubes, starting from the diagram below:

First, we cut a 9"x12" rectangle from the larger foamcore sheet.  Within this rectangle exists the area for the 6 sides of the cube.  Drawing the diagram lines on the foamcore allowed us to keep track of where to cut and where to score.

Removing the excess from the rectangle created a cross-shaped piece of foamcore, which was then cut and scored to form the joints for the sides of the cube.

Cutting through the foam on both sides of the joint at 45ยบ created a V-shaped trough that helped the cube to maintain square corners when folded up.

Once completely folded, the cube was kept together by using adhesive transfer tape on the edge of the joints.

Response: The Power to Persuade

Carrots and Sticks by Ian Ayres

As our final project depends on the ability to change behavior, this reading provides insight into how such changes can be caused simply by the passing of time.  Ayres discusses hyperbolic discounting, the notion that people, when offered a future reward, will "manifest increasing impatience as the time before the moment of the reward shrinks."

In other words, when offered a choice between two rewards (one small reward sooner or one larger reward later), people's choices change as the time of the reward nears.  This preference reversal is the key to applying this phenomenon to change a given behavior.

Additionally, there are various types of systems designed for effecting behavioral change. Commitments, incentives, and anti-incentives can all be used for achieving the same end but their respective modi operandi suit the changing of some behaviors far better than others.

The important questions to ask when designing such a system are:
  • To what? - "the exact form of the substantive commitment"
  • To whom? - "who else should be party to the deal"
  • With what consequence? - "the consequences of failing to keep [the] commitment"

Deformable display from paper, Kinect, and projector

Flexpad is a technology that allows for the manipulation of a display, in this case a sheet of deformable paper material, to directly affect the image on that display.  It uses the Microsoft Kinect to sense physical changes and translate them into a correspondingly deformed image.

An apparent difficulty in this prototype is keeping the image perfectly aligned on the sheet - the blank edge of the sheet is frequently visible as the system constantly adjusts the projection to fit. However, this technology might be more successfully applied to a stationary object, perhaps mounted on a table or wall.  The system's response to the manipulation of an object seems quite accurate, and it is only the moving of the object through space that seems to cause problems.

The obvious drawback of this technology is that it requires not only an external sensor (the Kinect) but an external projector as well.  This is why I think it would be so much more useful if the object to be manipulated was physically anchored in some way.

In-class: Understanding electricity

We spent most of today's class building basic circuits.  One of the goals for the class to create a zoetrope using a small motor.  My partner and I did not make it that far but we did make a few different basic circuits, including this one:

I had mounted my Arduino on the breadboard earlier but it was not used in today's circuits. The active components include:

  • 12V power supply
  • Voltage regulator (5V)
  • Three switches (in parallel)
  • LED

This is the corresponding circuit diagram:

Pressing at least one switch made the LED turn on.  This particular circuit was very helpful in my understanding of the differences between connections in parallel and in series.  A circuit like this can be thought of as an OR logic gate, where it takes just one switch to turn on the LED.  If the switches were instead wired in series, all three would need to be pressed at the same time in order to turn on the LED, as would be the case with an AND logic gate.

Response: Defining physical interaction

The Art of Interactive Design by Chris Crawford
"A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design" by Bret Victor

Crawford and Victor both agree that two-way communication or signaling is a necessary aspect of interactivity. However, while Victor espouses the implicit physical interaction with a book or a glass of water, Crawford denies such objects' interactive capabilities.

Unfortunately, I think Crawford mistakes content for medium. A book's content is its words and images, and its medium is the physical presence of its paper, pages, and binding.  Both content and medium must be analyzed together as parts of a whole system in order to understand that system's level of interactivity.

It is true that a book's content does not change, but it can be argued that its physicality does change. As a book is read and manipulated, its physicality is altered depending on, among other things, the way the book is handled and the page currently being read. Similarly, a glass of water changes through the act of holding, drinking, and refilling.

I would define physical interaction as two-way communication or signaling based on an object's physicality and/or the physical senses of the user. An object could be said to be physically interactive if it can both accept and provide sensory information to and from a user. Good physical interaction, then, requires the manipulation of physicality and sense in meaningful ways to achieve some end.

Apple TV is an example of digital technology that is not very interactive by the above definition. The interaction is mediated through single button-presses that keeps the user sensorially disconnected from the technology.

Fall 2013 courses

Applications (Nancy Hechinger)

This introductory class is designed to allow students to engage in a critical dialogue with leaders drawn from the artistic, non-profit and commercial sectors of the new media field, and to learn the value of collaborative projects by undertaking group presentations in response to issues raised by the guest speakers. Interactive media projects and approaches to the design of new media applications are presented weekly; students are thus exposed to both commercial as well as mission-driven applications by the actual designers and creators of these innovative and experimental projects. By way of this process, all first year students, for the first and only time in their ITP experience, are together in one room at one time, and as a community, encounter, and respond to, the challenges posed by the invited guests. The course at once provides an overview of current developments in this emerging field, and asks students to consider many questions about the state of the art. For example, with the new technologies and applications making their way into almost every phase of the economy and rooting themselves in our day to day lives, what can we learn from both the failures and successes? What are the impacts on our society? What is ubiquitous computing, embedded computing, physical computing? How is cyberspace merging with physical space? Class participation, group presentations, and a final paper are required.

Physical Computing (Tom Igoe)

This course expands the students' palette for physical interaction design with computational media. We look away from the limitations of the mouse, keyboard and monitor interface of today's computers, and start instead with the expressive capabilities of the human body. We consider uses of the computer for more than just information retrieval and processing, and at locations other than the home or the office. The platform for the class is a microcontroller, a single-chip computer that can fit in your hand. The core technical concepts include digital, analog and serial input and output. Core interaction design concepts include user observation, affordances, and converting physical action into digital information. Students have weekly lab exercises to build skills with the microcontroller and related tools, and longer assignments in which they apply the principles from weekly labs in creative applications. Both individual work and group work is required.

Materials and Building Strategies (Peter Menderson)

You’ve built a foam prototype. Your project idea is now out in the open sitting on a table where you and your teammates can look at it. It’s not quite what you thought it would be when you made your first rough sketch, there’s even something a little goofy about it, but then there’s also that interesting curve that you hadn’t envisioned. Your teammates have also noticed some things that you hadn’t thought of. You see where you can reshape the foam to make the prototype both look and work better. You’ve made your first step; you’ve moved your project forward. Removing barriers to creative problem solving and learning the steps for advancing a project are the dual purposes of this course. You’re asked to make things over and over during your time at ITP. This class helps you to break out of 2-d screen and keyboard thinking and take advantage of the discoveries that inevitably occur when you're thinking in 3-d by manipulating materials with your hands, observing the results, and refining successive iterations of your idea. From techniques for prototyping and making small objects to fabrication methods for kiosks, you’ll get hands-on experience with a variety of materials and methods. You have an idea for a wearable device? Mock it up with the sewing machine. You're thinking about a squeezable children’s toy with sensors? Make a mold and cast some sensors inside soft rubber. You want to build an installation? Make a foam core model of the space and get a valuable preview of your project installed. During the course you'll be introduced to building in a variety of materials. You’ll make objects of wood, foam, plastic, metal, clay, plaster, rubber, paper and fabric. You’ll move a project from sketch to prototype to presentation and learn to incorporate the lessons of the process into your final product. By taking notice of the unexpected your original concept will evolve, and amplified by those revelations it will surprise you and delight your audience.

Designing for Persuasion (Katherine Dillon)

In subtle and not-so-subtle ways technology is influencing our behavior – from buying more books on Amazon than we intended to, to helping us change bad personal habits to leveraging the voices of many– technology presents an opportunity to be an agent of change. This 2 pt course will explore how technology can be used to influence behavior. We will look at a number of behavioral theories including incentive–based design, gamification and social influence. We will review case studies on how these techniques have been used to effectively affect behavior. After researching theories on behavior motivation each student will identify a problem or issue that they hope to influence. Students will document the problem, develop a concept to influence the behavior associated with that problem and prototype (or build) their solution. They will test their solution and draw conclusions from the experiment. Projects can attempt to influence social change at a large, social scale or at a personal level. The unifying theme behind the projects will be that they intend to inspire positive change.

Visual Language (Katherine Dillon)

The goal of this course is to provide students who are new to the principles of visual design with the practical knowledge, critical skills and confidence to effectively express their ideas in a visually pleasing and effective way. Over the course of 7-weeks an overview of the many tools and techniques available to convey an idea, communicate a message and influence an experience will be presented, discussed and applied. Topics covered in the course include: typography, color, composition, branding, logo and information design. This class is intended for students who do not have formal graphic design or visual arts training but recognize the powerful impact of visual decisions in their work.