form+zweck 22
Die Fühlbarkeit des Digitalen


: Caroline Hummels | Joep Frens | Richard Appleby | Kees Overbeeke | Stephan Wensveen

The Power of Embodiment for Design and Vice Versa


The process which began not so long ago under the term tangible user interfaces has broadened out greatly today and differentiated itself. What are the reasons for this differentiation? Why are new concepts and thus also new ideas which emphasise the process of interaction being introduced by some? And what prompts others to no longer place any particular emphasis on the processes of tangibility and graspability, but to speak of embodied interaction in more glowing terms?
How do interactions appear when we look at them from a product-centred perspective? What changes, if we do not understand interactions with objects which are digitally enhanced, as interactions between Man and machine, but as the utilisation of useful things in the everyday world?
We came to know Caroline Hummels after her training as a product designer, through the numerous projects which she developed over the course of many years at the TU Delft (often in connection with her teaching there) and through the inspiring reflections with which she provides her work in multidisciplinary social-cultural, anthropological and aesthetic contexts and discussions. She is interested in the social and emotional dimension of interactive processes. Early on, she already used the term feedback to characterise relationships between objects and users.


Caroline Hummels was involved in organising the first TEI 2007 in Baton Rouge and has been working for approximately a year as a professor in the Faculty of Industrial Design at the TU Eindhoven.

Since the computer has entered our daily and social life, it is no longer just a means to perform our work, but it helps us to pursue our lives. This development has connected the worlds of industrial design (ID) and human computer interaction (HCI), leading to the introduction of fields like social computing, tangible interaction and embodied interaction. In this paper we, ID people, explain why we are not merely focusing on tangible interaction, but have expanded towards embodied interaction. Embodied interaction is a term originally coined by Paul Dourish (2001a) which refers to products, objects, conversations, actions etc. that unfold in the world and are meaningful in the social and physical world. So, "the ways in which we experience the world are through directly interacting with it, and that we act in the world by exploring the opportunities for action that it provides to us - whether through its physical configuration, or through socially constructed meanings. In other words, they share an understanding that you cannot separate the individual from the world in which that individual lives and acts." (pp16-17)
The physical and social world is inherently meaningful for people. For example, we perceive the world in terms of what we can do with it, in terms of our skills, especially our perceptual-motor and social skills. This meaning emanates directly from our physical interaction with the world and people around us. We show examples of this ‘inherent meaningfulness' with work from our teaching and conclude with the importance of design for embodied interaction.

From tangible to embodied interaction: meaningful interaction
Although this is a special issue about tangible interaction, we would like to explain why we shifted the focus of this paper towards embodied interaction, integrating tangible interaction with social computing.
Tangible interaction has grown from an experimental interaction style for interacting with computers into a research area in its own right. Our work revolves around interaction and we have ventured into the realm of tangible interaction in the past. Yet, we have also critically reflected on the concept of tangible interaction. We approach interaction from a product centric point of view. We explore possible ways of interacting with highly interactive and intelligent systems, products and services. We have experienced that the concept of tangible interaction changes when it is considered in the context of consumer products instead of HCI, as Hornecker and Buur (2006) also reveal. We think two reasons are paramount in setting us apart from the usual research area of tangible interaction and turning us to embodied interaction.

Firstly, and this is a fundamental difference in our eyes, we are not so much interested in what something "is", we are more concerned with what you can "do" with something; what it ‘means' for us. Where the common HCI implementation of tangible interaction reflects a data centred view, in a product context, tangible interaction is the means to reach functionality. This changes the focus from physicalising computer data like documents, images, or audio-files to creating meaning for interaction with products.
Physically interacting provides us with information about the world around us and ourselves, at the same time. This basic principle, which is the leitmotiv for all our work, is rooted in Gibson's ecological theory of perception (1986). Gibson states that the world unfolds itself in possibilities for action as reflected in our skills. We perceive the world in terms of what we can do with it. It affords action to an organism on the scale of that organism. For example, a chair affords sitting to an adult person, whilst it affords stability to a small child who wants to stand up. The meaning directly emanates from the process of physically interacting with the world.
Of course, one could say that most products, even the digital ones are tangible and require by nature that one holds them, moves them and operates the functional parts. In our opinion, being tangible is not one of the core aspects of tangible or embodied interaction. The essence lies in the meaning and richness of the actions as Djajadiningrat et al. state:
‘‘From a product design perspective, however, tangibility is not the most challenging concept within augmented reality. Clearly, unlike software, electronic consumer products are tangible to start with. What is new is not so much the tangibility of the interaction as the richness of the interaction.''
Dourish extends this idea of meaningfulness into a social context stating that "the design concern is not simply what kinds of physical skills, say, we might be able to capitalize upon in a tangible interface, or what sorts of contextual factors we can detect and encode into a ubiquitous computing model. Instead, we need to be able to consider how those skills or factors contribute to the meaningfulness of actions." (Dourish, 2001b).

Secondly, we believe that embodied interaction can get human and social values back in balance with efficiency and logic. With the ending of the modernist tradition with its technology push and its passion for the logical, we no longer have a clear unifying ideology (Branzi, 1989). So we do not only have to develop the next generation of digital products with which we can pursue our lives, we also have to decide what kind of life and society we want these products to support. Buchanan (1998), Marzano (1996), Borgmann (1987) and Saul (1997) have all pleaded for respect and humanism, for ‘real' individualism, where the individual is part of society and takes responsibility for that society. We full-heartedly support this view and hope that we have finally entered an era that respects a person as a whole (with a mind, heart and body), and exploits all of his skills (perceptual-motor, cognitive, emotional and social) (Wensveen et al, 2004). It implies that we shouldn't design ‘objective' products for a universal audience or "the consumer" in an anonymous setting. Instead products could be seen as personal and social pathways that allow individuals and groups to find and create their own experiences (Hummels, 2000). Embodiment can help to shape people's engagement with reality, especially because technology strongly influences our culture and people's everyday lives (Verbeek, 2002).

The remaining part of this paper is used to exemplify this inherent meaningfulness, the foundation and power of embodied interaction. We discuss two designs from our students, namely Fida and Scope.

Fida is designed by our ID MSc students John Helmes and Mehmet Yalvaç, in collaboration with Ralph Zoontjens, Leonie Hurkx, Marcel Verbunt, and Benjamin Voss. They designed the device for the Microsoft Research Design Expo 2007, as part of the MasterClass ‘Interaction Design'.

The design
Fida is a small sphere that allows a child to capture emotionally intense moments and confide emotions indirectly to the parent. The emotional message takes the form of a spoken message, a colour, a personal note or a combination of the three, leaving more freedom in emotional expression for the child. It can be left in various places such as under a pillow or in a parent's coat. Functioning as a communication trigger, Fida brings back direct and intimate communication. Although the design process was focused on children experiencing their parents' divorce, Fida ultimately provides a platform to trigger intimate communication between the child and another person in both positive and negative situations.

Meaningful interaction
When we unravel the meaningful aspects of Fida, and consider Dourish's remark that we need to consider how the physical skills or contextual factors contribute to the meaningfulness of actions, we see that Fida tries to evoke and express meaning in different ways, both physically and socially. Let us explain this meaning in a short scenario.

Simone's parents divorced last year and they decided that Simone would live with her mother. Simone misses her father but she finds it hard to confront her mother with this. Therefore, she has bought a Fida to let her mother know that she loves her, but that she would like to spend more time with her father. She assumes when looking at the ‘beak' and the large hinges, that she can squeeze Fida to open it. Due to the size of the ball and because she needs a tiny bit of force to overcome the tension of the spring that closes the beak afterwards, Simone holds Fida close to her mouth, thus strengthening an intimate feeling needed for recording these emotionally tense moments. While recording Simone sees that LEDs in the opened beak gradually decrease in intensity and number to show the remaining time for recording. Simultaneously she sees that the message is being stored inside Fida, by LEDs within the hinges that gradually increase in intensity and size in a breathing-like rhythm. When Simone unconsciously puts more pressure on Fida while speaking about her urge to see her father more often, the frequency of the LEDs breathing rhythm increase. After having recorded the message, Simone closes the ‘beak' and Fida is emitting a coloured light at the opposite side of the ‘beak'. Because her mother loves green, she changes this coloured light by shaking Fida until it turns green. She then places it on her mother's desk and goes upstairs again to continue her homework.
When Simone's mother, Anne, comes back from an errand, she sees a green Fida blinking on her desk expressing some kind of urgency. Anne squeezes Fida open and hears Simone's message. Because the volume of the recording is fairly soft, Anne hold Fida close to hear ear, which gives her an intimate feeling of Simone whispering in her ear. At the end Anne tries to play the message again, but she notices that the message is gone. She makes two cups of tea and walks upstairs to discuss the message with Simone.

Scope is designed by Bas Groenendaal (2007) in his master graduation project in Industrial Design.

The design
Scope is a photo camera that stimulates the psychosocial development of underprivileged children, especially children living in (former) warzones. Scope departed from Phototherapy, where photography is used as part of a therapeutic process that is under the guidance and care of a trained professional (Weiser, 1999), although the final design could also be used outside the scope of Phototherapy. Scope uses the benefits of photography for these children to enhance their feeling of empowerment, strengthen their notion of identity and the environment, and develop social skills (Sitvast, 2004). These goals were translated into two principles: ‘framing' and ‘self portraiture'.
Framing: Scope is held like a steering wheel and the frame is used to observe the surrounding world. Squeezing the two semi-rings together makes a photo.
Self-Portraiture: Scope can be opened where the bottom half functions as stand. A mirror can be slit down for taking self-portraits.

Meaningful interaction
When we unravel the meaningful aspects of Scope, and again focus on how the physical skills or contextual factors contribute to the meaningfulness of actions, we see that Scope beautifully integrates the physical and the social as the following scenario shows.

Omar lives in the asylum seekers centre (ASC) in Eindhoven where he participates in a phototherapy project to deal with his past. During this project he uses Scope to take photographs. Today he is making photos of his family in the ASC. Omar interacts directly through the frame of Scope with that what he can see, since there is no screen or viewfinder on the camera. He becomes a part of the ‘scene' together with his brother who he is photographing, because he cannot hide behind the camera. After having photographed his brother's face, simply by to squeeze the ring, Omar and his brother are making fun by holding Scope in unusual positions and making photos. Today's project finishes with a self-portraiture. Omar opens Scope and places it on the bottom half. He slides down the mirror to orient the frame towards oneself. After having tried several faces and decided to go for a tough look, he pushes the camera button on the stand that sets the timer to five seconds. Five LEDs on the front side of the camera show the countdown and prime Omar for ‘le moment supreme'.

The power of design for embodied interaction
As we explain in the beginning of this text, we think two reasons are paramount in turning to embodied interaction: 1) physically interacting with the world provides meaning and 2) embodied interaction gets human and social values back in balance. We used Fida and Scope to exemplify these two issues. For example, the shape and action possibilities of Fida, and feed-forward and feedback provided by Fida, do not only guide Simone in her actions, it also gives her a way to capture emotionally intense moments in a way that fits the situation. It is not an anonymous recording device with buttons, but the design is developed in such a way that it enhances intimacy, both for the sender and receiver. Moreover, by limiting the recordings to be played once, and the recording time, Fida emphasizes the ‘trigger for communication' function, instead of replacing direct and personal communication.
Scope shows basically the same rationale. The shape and action possibilities change the process of photographing completely. With an ordinary camera the photographer is standing next to the scene looking at it as an outsider, even if the subject is waving or smiling at him or should we say at the camera. Scope drags the photographer back into the scene and makes photographing a social act. Even the actual click is incorporated in this process. Due to the simplicity of squeezing the ring, the child can focus completely on the context. Moreover, not having the result (photo or digital image) immediately after the photo is taken stimulates to focus on looking, the frame, the subject and themselves.
Both Fida and Scope breathe different values than nowadays communication devices and cameras. They do not focus on efficiency, multi-functionality and cognitive structures of the interface that require extensive manuals to understand them. Fida and Scope value the whole set of perceptual-motor, cognitive, emotional and social skills.

We would like to end with the ‘vice-versa' from the title. We believe that to realise the full and beautiful potential of embodied interaction, designers need to provide a more luminary vision and direction for this process and to use their designerly skills to develop appealing and innovative concepts, especially on an interaction level. Products like Fida and Scope open up meaning, because they allow freedom of interaction within a certain setting and range that is set by the design itself that was carefully created as a continuous process of designing, building and validating. The richness of the interaction created by Industrial Design people can bring the framework of embodied interaction one step further. Moreover, the process is extremely important, because meaning emanates from the process of physically interacting with the social world, which requires prototypes that can be tested like Fida and Scope. Therefore, we would like to invite the design world to share their view on embodied interaction through their designs.

We like to thank Bas Groenendaal, John Helmes, Mehmet Yalvaç, Ralph Zoontjens, Leonie Hurkx, Marcel Verbunt, Benjamin Voss for sharing their work and demonstrating why designerly skills are important for doing research on embodied interaction. Moreover, we like to thank the Microsoft Research Design Expo team and especially Bill Buxton for their trust in our department, their feedback during the entire process and for inviting us to participate in the MSR Design Expo.

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