What Is Physical Interaction?

In ITP, Physical Computing

I touched on the notion of interactive environments in my first post on our Fantasy Device exercise, however, I’d like to take a closer look at what defines physical interaction.


Chris Crawford does a really nice job at describing what makes something interactive. His criteria is an experience where two actors are listening, thinking and speaking. All three of these need to by done well because the quality of the interaction will only be as strong as the weakest link. Now that we have a general concept of what interactivity is, we need to go a step further and apply that specifically to the physical environment.

My attempt at an encompassing way to describe physical interaction would be any tool or spatial environment that has a physical interface, which listens, processes and speaks. A good physical interface would leverage concepts familiar to the target demographic to facilitate and encourage the participant’s engagement with it. In the case of an interactive environment, where the interactivity is based less on direct action between a participant and a tangible object, but instead, a responsive environment that changes based on the participants presence or actions within the environment, I believe a strong physical interface would be something that clearly communicates the affect the participants actions on the environment.

One last thing that really interests me with interactivity as a medium is its ability to evolve with the participant or user. When some looks at a painting and their interest in the piece begins to wane, there is little that painting can do to recapture that person’s attention; however, interactivity allows the artist or technologist to sense that a person may begin disengaging and can adapt accordingly.

An example of something not interactive

I think Bill Viola’s “The Veiling” is a strong example of something I experienced that could be perceived as something interactive but actually is not. Unfortunately, I could not find a great video or image but this piece is a really stunning use of video projection and space.

While visiting one of his retrospective exhibitions, I entered a room that had projector screens of all the same size spaced out in a line. There were two projectors on either end facing in opposite directions playing the same video in unison. Since the projector screens were some what translucent, the video projection would get lighter in opacity and larger (due to the distance from the projector) the further the projection screen was from the actual projector.

bill viola - the veiling

The result was a beautiful experience where you could walk around all the projector screens to view the video from different angles and perspectives. While one could believe this was interactive, as they could walk around the screens to alter their experience, it was not. Their was no element of the listening, thinking and speaking present. Whatever the participants did, the video installation did not change, and therefore, it was not interactive.

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