Learning and Thinking with Things


Tangible Interfaces

The study of how humans learn is nothing new and not without many solid advances. And yet, in the rush to adopt personal computers, tablets, and similar devices, we’ve traded the benefits of hands-on learning and instruction for the scale, distribution, and easy data collection that’s part and parcel to software programs. The computational benefits of computers have come at a price; we’ve had to learn how to interact with these machines in ways that would likely seem odd to our ancestors: mice, keyboards, awkward gestures, and many other devices and rituals that would be nothing if not foreign to our predecessors. But what does the future hold for learning and technology? Is there a way to reconcile the separation between all that is digital with the diverse range of interactions for which our bodies are capable? And how does the role of interaction designer change when we’re working with smart, potentially shape-shifting, objects? If we look at trends in technology, especially related to tangible computing (where physical objects are interfaced with computers), they point to a sci-fi future in which interactions with digital information come out from behind glass to become things we can literally grasp.

One such sign of this future comes from Vitamins, a multidisciplinary design and invention studio based in London. As Figure 5-1 shows, it has developed a rather novel system for scheduling time by using... what else... Lego bricks!

Vitamins Lego calendar—

Figure 5-1. Vitamins Lego calendar[]

Vitamins describes their Lego calendar as the following:

.. .a wall-mounted time planner, made entirely of Lego blocks, but if you take a photo of it with a smartphone, all of the events and timings will be magically synchronized to an online digital calendar.

Although the actual implementation (converting a photo of colored bricks into Google calendar information) isn’t in the same technical league as nanobots or mind-reading interfaces, this project is quite significant in that it hints at a future in which the distinctions between physical and digital are a relic of the past.

Imagine ordinary objects — even something as low-tech as Lego bricks — augmented with digital properties. These objects could identify themselves, trace their history, and react to different configurations. The possibilities are limitless. This is more than an “Internet of Things,” passively collecting data; this is about physical objects catching up to digital capabilities. Or, this is about digital computing getting out from behind glass. However you look at this, it’s taking all that’s great about being able to pick up, grasp, squeeze, play with, spin, push, feel, and do who-knows-what-else to a thing, while simultaneously enjoying all that comes with complex computing and sensing capabilities.

Consider two of the studio’s design principles (from the company’s website) that guided this project:

  • ? It had to be tactile: “We loved the idea of being able to hold a bit of time, and to see and feel the size of time”
  • ? It had to work both online and offline: “We travel a lot, and we want to be able to see what’s going on wherever we are.”

According to Vitamins, this project “makes the most of the tangibility of physical objects, and the ubiquity of digital platforms, and it also puts a smile on our faces when we use it!”[] Although this project and others I’ll mention hint at the merging of the physical and the digital, it’s important to look back and assess what has been good in the move from physical to digital modes of interaction — and perhaps what has been lost.

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