Tangible Bits (Ishii & Ullmer)
This reading introduces the various HCI experiments of MIT Media Labs as well as past experiments at Xerox PARC. The goal of each experiment was the bridge the gap between “the worlds of bits and atoms,” or to make the Graphical User Interface (GUI) into a Tangible User Interface (TUI). Many different kinds of non-visual feedback are discussed. For example, mapping manipulation of virtual objects with physical “bricks,” thus allowing a more physical interaction than a simple keyboard, mouse, and monitor. Physical objects can also represent forms of data, exemplified by the marble answering machine, for which a voice message is mapped to a specific physical marble, and playback or returning a call can be done by simply placing the marble in a slot. Another example of physical representations of data is the barcode scanning of blocks that represented URLs to whiteboard notes and information.
Audio can also be used as a sort of feedback. In MIT’s ambientROOM, a toy car model could represent the website of that specific car company, and audio feedback in the form of raindrops represent the amount of traffic the website is currently receiving. Sporadic drops of water could mean the website is not advertised very well, or a loud downpour could represent a huge amount of traffic.
The reading ends with a digital computing object, the abacus, as having both physical and digital uses and representations. 2-year-old Ishii recalls using the abacus as a musical instrument, make-believe train, and a backscratcher; but it also doubled for his mother as a digital calculator, and its sound provided feedback for when she was busy and unable to play. In the same way, the idea of “tangible bits” is to make an object multi-purposed in computational media.