Tangibility of the Digital - Die Fühlbarkeit des Digitalen
Steffi Hußlein | Lars Grau | Robert Laux
if :: then :: else
Out of the machines that began as simple calculators, small control units that help us with a whole range of everyday tasks have evolved. However, they need to be instructed and as a result everyday life is becoming increasingly characterized by the necessity to direct machines, which work tirelessly because they are without will or intention, but for this very reason their functioning is difficult for us to understand. Steffi Husslein works as an interface designer at the Interaction Design Lab Potsdam, Germany and she demonstrates, using the projects she has conceived and worked on, her idea that the interaction with digital technologies will be more successful the more senses that are involved. Her co-authors Lars Grau und Robert Laux work as interaction designers; R. Laux also teaches in the ID5 project group at the University of Arts Berlin.
Humans, Objects, Machines
About 10 years ago a new way of thinking evolved in industrial design. The design of objects was, if not entirely superseded, at least expanded by the design of interactions. Although the design of objects continues to play an important role in design, the emergence of the computer and computerized products lead the interface and the dramaturgy of the interaction to be regarded as its own area of design. For a long time it was possible to assume a direct sensory interaction between the user and the product in the design of "non-automatic" products. The interplay between the action of a user and the resulting effect on the product was simply determined because although the intention of the user could change, the characteristics of the product could not do so independently. Interactive systems, on the other hand, can react differently depending on the user, condition, action, time and context. They often have their own special feedback loops, which include the user as a control factor in program processes and thus overlay and influence the processes of sensory certainty, which the user intuitively and necessarily applies to control the situation.
In order to understand and design such interaction processes well and without conflict, it is not sufficient to think of humans as a rational beings who follow the same logic as the machine in front of them. It is rather about understanding the difference between humans and machines in order to improve the human-machine interaction. To improve means for us designing intuitive human-machine interactions: "Using a technical system is intuitive, when the user can apply his knowledge with little cognitive effort to effectively solve the task."
The Topology of Interaction
The human body has a great number of biological sensors that are connected directly to the central nervous system. In order for communication with intelligent and automatic devices to succeed, the machines' technical sensors and the connected digital channels of communication need to mirror the channels of human perception.
By targeting the different channels of sensory perception, interaction designers can broaden the spectrum of possible forms of interaction and thereby develop new technical, practical and aesthetic solutions for interactive systems. In the research project "The Topology of Interaction" (Figures 1, 2), various exemplary ideas on the relevance of the human extremities and senses for media and society were developed in order to improve the experience of interactive installations.
[BU 1, 2: MID Industrial Design Institute Magdeburg, Leitung: Prof. Carola Zwick, Dipl. Des. Robert Laux. Students: André Meyer, Kristin Mitschke, Stephan Pohl, Grit Schuster - Magdeburg, 2005]
Tangible Interaction: Is analog gaining new qualities?
One possibility to keep the costs of transferring expertise and previous knowledge required for human-machine interactions for the control of and interaction with digitally-based technologies, to a minimum is to resort to the habits and intuitions that the users already have at their disposal.
Of course the ability to have processes "in one's hand", that is to be able to control them by touching and feeling, is at the center of the research interest. While keyboards only enable writing and the computer mouse only selection and arranging, tangible user interfaces, that is holdable and touchable physical objects, can be tilted, turned, thrown, arranged in net-like structures, divided, poured and be processed in many different ways.
Because TUI has to do with real and present objects, they are subject to the same laws as the human body and this analogy makes it possible for their design to - as Gibson called it - "affordance" the user to associate possibilities of action and to try and carry them out.
These forms of direct investigative manipulations of holdable and touchable objects ease the user's access to interactive systems. By using familiar patterns of action thresholds are reduced, so that spontaneous, simple and often playful actions can serve as starters in the complicated interaction with the computer.
We call it Design
Action-related models will play a decisive role in our work also in the future. The inclusion and bundling of as many senses as possible in the interaction between the human and the machine are of foremost importance to us. We assume that devices that have such bundles can open up new possibilities of communication in society: If (:if:) we design interaction processes, then (:then:) the relevance for the media signification and the competence of the participating channels involved must be understood, or else (:else:) the design will not have any relevance for society.
The following selection of our projects highlights how in the last ten years we have developed the spectrum of interaction forms and the diversity of the senses involved.
This work posed in 1998 the question of how forms of communication and interaction devices may look like in the future beyond the keyboard, display, mouse or joystick. The Virtual Labyrinth uses the experience gained by playing with small toy labyrinths that are moved in the hand to maneuver a small ball. However, the basic idea for the Virtual Labyrinth did not come about by the intention to transform a real labyrinth into a virtual one, rather it developed by taking a mouse apart. Just as in its time the then standard ball in the mouse hit sensors orientated on two-axles, which readout its rolling movements to move a cursor, now a monitor is gimbal-mounted in order to maneuver a virtual ball through a virtual labyrinth.
The monitor can be touched and moved on a frame. Its vertical position motivates the players, who often stand opposite one another, to communicate both with gestures and verbally. Because the body movements immediately lead to a virtual result, the players' communication is possible simultaneously on physical and virtual levels. A sensitive interactive interplay between the user and the "machine" develops because the virtual space can be experienced and manipulated through the use of one's own physical power.
Today the new iPod also has a similar labyrinth game. Here however, the interaction is limited to one hand and one person.
[Figure 3: Steffi Hußlein & Leon Rottwinkel. Berlin, 1998 Projectgroup ID5, Industrial Design at the University of Arts Berlin]
A situation one knows well from the fairground: Empty cans are arranged to be knocked down - in this case behind the matt screen of a monitor. A real ball invites the observer to risk a throw to cause a virtual tower of cans to collapse. The ball hits a touch-sensitive screen surface and triggers off a corresponding physical simulation - in the case of success the tower of cans collapses. This interaction pattern is a direct replay of a real example: Therefore, it is understood automatically and requires no cognitive effort from the user. However, here it is not a tower of cans but a machine that challenges the player's physical dexterity.
[Figure 4: Andrew Young. Berlin, 2003, Projectgroup ID5, Industrial Design at the University of Arts Berlin]
TYPEFIGHTER tackles the subject of interaction between humans by means of a machine. Two people communicate over a specially designed interface only by reading and writing messages, as in chatting. However, in contrast to chatting both protagonists are in the same room. The keyboard, over which they communicate, is over-dimensional and above all impact-dynamic: The intensity and speed of writing, typing, pressing, hitting and kicking each produce different fonts - the letters projected onto the display vary with regard to form and brightness according to the physical force applied.
The participants are conversation partners, team members and opponents all at the same time. In addition to words, they also exchange emotions, but emotions that are expressed in arm and leg movements and not - as is usually the case - in the modulation of the voice.
[Figure 5: Philipp Haffmans & Lars Grau. Berlin, 2002, Projectgroup ID5, University of Arts Berlin http://www.typefighter.com]
MAGIX Multimedia Gallery
The mediatectural design of the MAGIX Multimedia Gallery in Berlin stage-manages a space as a "walkable screen": Translucent glass walls can be projected with the complete color spectrum and transform the gallery space into a softly changing world of color. High-resolution screens both display artistic subject matter as well as lead interactively through product presentations. In order to run the subject matter, controls were developed that incorporate the design concept of the translucence and the changing colored lighting, and as they are pure light objects also reveal no material characteristics. With these controls the physical reality of "shadow" or "operate" should totally disappear and be dissolved in light. These "soft-keys" are situated underneath the video screen on which the user is presented with decision options between which he can choose. Each "switch" surface signals its readiness using a white ring of light and sends a commando also using a light signal.
[Figure 6: Lars Grau & Robert Laux. Berlin, 2006 http://attomaaku.com/magix+multimedia+gallery]
MYKITA Shop Berlin
The world's first MYKITA shop is situated in Berlin Mitte in a lively urban environment. The completely white interior architecture augments and accentuates a specially developed wall system to display the MYKITA glasses. The concept is supported by a light installation of white neon tubes covering the whole space. During the shop opening hours neon lights mounted behind the displays and counter play a pulsating and flickering animation. The light penetrates a white fabric sail into the retail space - different areas of the shop begin alternately to glow and pulsate. After closing time the ultrasound sensors installed on the façade take over together with the software developed especially this purpose the control of the neon light. These simultaneously reproduce the movement of passersby with the numerous neon lights. The light in the inside follows the movement of the passersby on the outside. The movement of the light attracts attention and should animate the observer on the outside to play with the light on the inside. The interactive installation deals with the tension between the real and virtual worlds, in which the user is involuntary given a digital shadow that behaves like the real one: The movement of the light corresponds to the movement of the passerby and reveals him or her in the light show. In this project, seeing and physical action are brought together into an interactive relationship and that is strengthened and intensified through the feedback of the "shadow".
[Figure 7: Lars Grau, Robert Laux & Dominik Busch. Berlin, 2007 http://attomaaku.com/mykita+shop+berlin]
 IUUI, [Intuitive Use of User Interfaces] Steffi Hußlein, Jörn Hurtienne, Johann Habakuk
Israel, Carsten Mohs, Martin Christof Kindsmüller, Herbert A. Meyer, Anja Naumann, Anna
E. Pohlmeyer, Massachusetts and the IUUI Research Group, designreport, 11/07
 Gibson James J., The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1982