“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

  • Marshall McLuhan

I had the pleasure of visiting Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects at the MOMA on Friday. Here’s a brief description of the exhibit from the website:

The exhibition focuses on objects that involve a direct interaction, such as interfaces, information systems, visualization design, and communication devices, and on projects that establish an emotional, sensual, or intellectual connection with their users.

My Physical Computing instructor, Tom Igoe, asked our class to answer the following questions upon visiting the exhibit:

How would you define physical interaction? What makes for good physical interaction? Are there works from Talk to Me or others that you would say are good examples of digital technology that are not interactive? Defining physical interaction can take on many definitions, but a general understanding could be applied through defining physical artifacts:

Physical artifacts are those whose primary design intent is the mechanical transportation or transformation of matter.

So in the context of physical interaction we could say: physical interactions are those whose primary intent is the mechanical transportation or transformation of matter.

Don Norman, academic in the field of design and usability, and author of The Design of Everyday Things lays out a concise idea of what design should do, which is applicable to good physical interaction as well. Good physical interaction follows “natural mappings between intention and the required actions; between actions and the resulting effect…” (The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman, p. 188)

I noticed a couple exhibits where I was slightly dubious of whether “interactivity” could be applied to their medium. My doubts stemmed from reading Chris Crawford’s The Art of Interactive Design overall guidelines in the first chapter, “What Exactly Is Interactivity?” He makes the case that traditional media as we know it is not interactive. This includes reading books, watching television, and listening to music.

A few of the exhibits were precisely that; the purpose of certain installations were to watch and/or listen, not interact with the device or installation. Though these installations made great use of “digital technology,” I was a passive user experiencing the installation instead of interacting with it. I am a huge fan of Nicholas Felton’s data visualization work, and enjoyed David McCandless’s The Hierarchy of Digital Distractions, but they fall under passive user experience.

Talk to Me is a thought-provoking exhibit, and I suggest experiencing it for yourself. It runs through November 7th.