Tactile computing

Quartz had a nice piece last week on computer-mediated interaction with three-dimensional objects. I’ve seen work done by the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab, and it always seemed more gimmicky than anything else. But the guy featured on Quartz, Oliver Kreylos at UC Davis, is doing some remarkable work. The one that really impressed me was the interactive sandbox where he uses a Microsoft Kinect to figure out where the surface of the sand is, and then he uses video to paint a contour map down onto the sand. Build a mountain range and he’ll calculate the map.

The video is worth watching. You get a sense for how much insight people can derive from an interactive surface like this, and the approach is a nice mix of high-tech and low-tech.

When you virtualize something into the digital ether, it vanishes in some important sense. Think of a library of CDs disappearing into MP3s on a hard drive. You gain convenience, but you lose the tactile persistence of physical objects. The music that you own becomes more forgettable. In the last few years, I’ve moved from CDs and even MP3s to a music subscription program (MOG) that comes in by WiFi to wireless speakers around the house. It’s terrifically convenient. But my wife was complaining that she liked the old CD player better. “How can you say that” I said, “when you can listen to any CD in the world with this thing?” But in truth, I understand. She liked having the physical CDs sitting around. They reminded her what she liked and what she wanted to listen to.

Here is the problem: You’re sitting around and you think, what do I want to listen to? So you go to your music service and stare at a search box. You could play anything. But you have to THINK of it first. And that’s expensive.

We could just keep the CDs sitting around as big physical reminders, but why not use something smaller? It occurred to me that we might use chips, blank poker chips, as physical reminders of the various digital artifacts we own. Here is a collection of music chips that my wife made. You see them in bowl and you pick one up. And then you think, “Why yes, I would like to listen to some Joe Jackson.”


I’m trying this with music, but this approach would work with any digital artifact: a movie, a program, a book, Stick a little bar code on it, and the computer could help you act on it. The sensible interface of the future will have more PUI (physical user interface) to mix with the GUI.

One thought on “Tactile computing”

  1. Hi, Ned, great post. The problem of course is that there are many of us who would see the Stevie Wonder chip right next to the Alanis Morissette chip and think “those need to be sorted by category or something”. Maybe a few different bowls at first, then eventually you realize the best way to manage these chips is in a relational database.

    Just kidding. On a related note, all my life information stuff is in various databases/apps/GUIs, but they all funnel into a PUI – a piece of paper I carry around – that I call my Next List: a list of one of each book/movie/TV show/boardgame/house project/hot errand I’ll turn to next when the moment comes.

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