I aim to shape products, interfaces and services that mediate meaningful dialogues between people, systems and their environments within everyday life.

Posts tagged ‘tangible’


Bret Victor’s Rant of the Future of Interaction Design

As a reaction to Microsoft’s recent future vision video, software engineer (and a former concept designer at Apple) Bret Victor wrote a fantastic post entitled “A Brief Rant On The Future Of Interaction Design.”

Victor rants that this future vision is not visionary at all. It focuses too much on screen interaction, which is is not that much different from our experience with our current devices. Case in point, look at all these ‘future’ interactions in Microsoft’s concept:

Each one of these scenes involves a flat screen. Yet, Victor also points out (and passionately so) that each interaction touchpoint involves the use of… hands! As humans, we have not only our fingers but our hands, arms and entire bodies that enable us to manipulate and interact with the natural world and to understand the tactile feedback we receive in return. So why should we be limited to finger pointing on a screen?

He illustrates the many ways in which we can use our hands to manipulate things that we could not possibly express via screen-based interactions:

Rather than limiting people to finger tapping/swiping, we should be inspired by our own human capabilities to design and enable a richer and more expressive interaction with our future tools.

Despite how it appears to the culture at large, technology doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t emerge spontaneously, like mold on cheese. Revolutionary technology comes out of long research, and research is performed and funded by inspired people.

And this is my plea — be inspired by the untapped potential of human capabilities. Don’t just extrapolate yesterday’s technology and then cram people into it. […] Pictures Under Glass is old news. Let’s start using our hands.

Victor ends with a question that nicely sums up his entire point:

With an entire body at your command, do you seriously think the Future Of Interaction should be a single finger?


Fun. Cubed.

Combining aspects of Lego, video game, and board games, Sifteo Cubes are a new way to play. The prototype concept was introduced in a 2009 TED talk by David Merrill, and now these interactive wireless blocks are coming to market. Showcasing innovating interaction design, these 1.5″-inch cubes with full colour screens are motion- and context-aware allowing players to shake, tilt, jolt, rotate, slide and click to affect neighbouring tiles.

They pioneer something the company calls “Intelligent Play,” which is a vaguely elevated term for a toy that manages to be both fun and smart. They’re video games for people who hate video games. […] “We’re not trying to compete with Nintendo, Microsoft, EA and others,” Sifteo spokesman Paul Doherty tells Co.Design. “We’re trying to create games that promote learning, spatial reasoning and truly interactive play.”

See the Sifteo cubes in action:

via Co.Design


MIT’s Recompose Concept

MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group have developed Recompose, an experimental touch interface that provides tactile feedback.

Recompose is a new system for manipulation of an actuated surface. By collectively utilizing the body as a tool for direct manipulation alongside gestural input for functional manipulation, we show how a user is afforded unprecedented control over an actuated surface.

Made up of motorized tiles that pop up/down, the 3D interface can be directly manipulated by pressing down on the tiles or simply using gestures by waving your had over various areas of the surface, which move in response to your input. The feedback is a 3D visualization of the user’s physical interaction with the tiles. A camera and projector, combined with computer vision are used to recognize and understand the language of the physical interactions.

via Fast Company



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Electro-pop artist, Calvin Harris, uses bodies as a human synthesizers to create music using Bare Conductive, a skin-safe conductive ink. By applying ink onto the skin, a closed circuit can be created via touch, gesture and movement to allow electrical currents to flow through. Watch the making of video below.

Here is a video explaining more about Bare and the exploration of the technology through dance and movement.


Microsoft’s Tangible Vision

I found a video from Microsoft Research envisioning applications for touch interfaces. What I found really neat was the similarity of the bowl idea to my marble player, in which media storage devices are thrown in and images are projected onto the si

des (@1:30 in the video).


Inspiration: Bubblegum Sequencer

Bubblegum Sequencer is another inspirational tangible device allowing one to create drumloops by physically organizing gumballs a grid of holes.

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Marble Interactions

Exploring marble games and contraptions and different forms for my Memory Marbles.

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Sketching out possible interactions with Memory Marbles.




Vending Machine Evaluation

To evaluate our new vending machine re-design, we prototyped a life-sized physical model on which to conduct our user testing. We tested the prototype with 3 users and came up with some initial results to help us make improvements on the next design iteration.


User Testing


In general, users liked the coin bucket for dropping change all at once and especially the idea of being able to pay for a drink with a combination of coins and Octopus card. Having a touch-based screen with clear icons made it easier to make selections and updating the screen view based on context made it easier to understand (for example, only showing pictures of the available drinks). Additionally, users enjoyed ease of collecting the drink without needing to bend down to pick it up.

However, our interface and screen flow still didn’t easily support the task of buying multiple drinks or different kinds of drinks in one transaction. Thus, we re-thought our interface as a single dynamic screen to provide clear feedback of user choices and actions through animations. For ease of use, the interface supports variations of actions, whether it be simple selection and/or drag & drop, allows mistake fixes, and provides prompts to help users when no input/action has been received for a while.




Fast prototyping of a physical model allowed us to quickly test and validate our ideas while highlighting problems to solve in the next iteration. In the book The Art of Innovation, one IDEO designer talks about “build[ing] to learn.” And indeed, our prototype helped us shape an improved vending machine concept that was understood by everyone and created an enjoyable user interaction and experience.


Brainstorming a New Vending Machine

After our analysis of our campus vending machines we came up with some design design requirements to consider for a new concept:

  • natural and intuitive gestures and process
    • selection, payment and receive drink
    • does not require any learning
  • contextualized interaction based on learning and social awareness
  • easy-to-use interface to reduce errors
    • more accessible to everyone
  • encourage exploration and and browsing
  • enjoyable, delightful, and sociable user experience

We first conceptualized the idea of having a window through which a user can physically pick out a drink but the logistics of controlling when and how many drinks can be grabbed was a bit of an issue.


We then decided on incorporating a contextualized touch screen interface to give users a (virtual) tangible interaction while providing visual information and creating an enjoyable experience.


Attraction and Engagement

When not in use, the vending machine’s screen displays featured and most popular drinks to draw attraction from passersby. Sensors can detect when a person is standing in front of the machine, which will then display the drink menu.

Drink Selection: Menu Display

The menu displays large icons detailing the images of available drinks and associated prices. As opposed to the current design, the menu does not show any repetition of drinks, nor does it show drinks that are sold out. Users simply need to touch the icon of a drink to view drink details (nutritional value, volume, etc.) rather than map their drink decision to a button they need to press, reducing selection errors. After viewing details, users can decide to pay for their selected drink or go back and view other choices.


As opposed to paying first before selecting a drink, our concept accepts payment after the user has already selected a drink. A bucket container for coins allows just one gesture of dropping coins instead of inserting coins individually into a slot.

Drink Collection

Users can easily grab their drink at arm level with little effort.


Analyzing Vending Machine Interaction

We focused our analysis on the drink machines we found on the HK PolyU campus and examined the current task scenario of buying a drink. James documents his experience as follows:


After walking through the scenario we documented the problems we encountered:


  • requires preselecting monetary amount for desired drink
  • narrow coin slot is quite cumbersome and time-consuming
  • requires adequate control of manual dexterity
  • using the Octopus card
  • close proximity to the card reader will inadvertently process the transaction automatically when selecting a deduction amount
  • confusion between product interface and associated transaction interface

Information and Selection

  • pressing wrong button accidentally
  • not realizing desired drink is sold out


  • physically bend down, flip up flap, reach into machine to pick up drink
  • problematic for those with physical limitations
  • not enjoyable or hygenic to stick hand in the dark, unclean slot

User Experience


Source: http://www.uselog.com/2007/11/please-do-not-hump-vending-machine.html

We encountered a lot of interaction points that provide an experience that is not enjoyable nor delightful. If we look at the vending machine with goals of convenience offering quick, self-service for purchasing small snacks and refreshments, we can liken them to convenience stores like 7-11. Let us consider the advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages Customers have visual information of the actual drinks and availability. They can use the physical action of picking up a drink, read the information, re-select, etc. before making a decision. Payment is easy and natural via cash (bills and coins) or Octopus. Additionally, going to a store is a sociable activity; people tend to go as a group eat together afterward.

Disadvantages Stores are located in certain locations and only open only during particular hours, so people are limited to location and time. Another problem customers encounter are long lineups during busy hours.

Social and Cultural Dimensions

An interesting side observation we noted was the role of communication and cultural dimensions that played into people’s decisions and behaviours in relation to the use of the vending machine. In a collectivist society such as Hong Kong, people tend to look to others for decision-making cues; that is, people are influenced by what they see others doing. In our studio, there have been “trends” of popular drinks that everyone will start drinking. Once somebody has started to drink melon soy milk and continue that pattern, others will notice and subsequently try out the drink as well. And now, the melon soy milk will often be sold out!


Vending Machines as Tangible Interaction

In my Tangible Interaction workshop lead by Philip’s creative director Paul Neervoort, we’re examining existing examples of physical interaction and finding solutions to improve the interaction.

I considered the example of the vending machine, in which the physical action sequence of inserting coins, pressing a button to select a drink and bending down to collect the drink completes the interaction process. In Hong Kong, rather than inserting coins however, one may simply swipe the Octopus to deduct the stored-value on the card rather than using coins.

The swooping action of inserting coins/swiping card and collecting the drink is quite simple and universal among vending machines, but let’s examine the problems one may encounter with this existing model.

Firstly, the insertion of coins one by one into a narrow slot is quite cumbersome and time-consuming, requiring adequate control of manual dexterity. In the case of using the Octopus card, when approaching the machine with card in hand to select the money value to deduct from the card, close proximity of the hand to the card reader will inadvertantly process the transaction automatically. So, if one was in the process of reaching (and holding the card) to toggle the charge value from HKD$5.50 to $4.50, the proximity of the card would “doot” and deduct $5.50, effectively charging $1 extra for the user’s preferred drink or forcing the user to select a more expensive drink he did not want. A frustrating experience indeed, but perhaps not as much as Japan’s confusing vending machine payment method using mobile phones.

The next consideration is the way a user can select a drink. The traditional machine displays all the products at once, allowing the user to quickly scan the available choices. Buttons act as the input selection, but sometimes the user may accidentally press the wrong button and get stuck with something that she didn’t want.


Source: http://springwise.com/marketing_advertising/samsung_and_coke_launch_touch-/

Samsung has actually developed a uVending touch-screen technology for vending machines to add some more interactivity.

From this demo, I actually don’t see much value in being able to “interact” virtually with the product, and I would much rather get a quick overview of all the available product options with one glance rather than scroll through individual products.

Finally, there’s the final action of receiving the drink. Most vending machines I have encountered requires the user to bend down and reach through a flap to collect the item. Is it necessary to make the user expend extra energy to buy a drink, especially for those that have physical limitations?

These are general issues to think about when we further explore ideas and solutions to create an easier and more appropriate vending machine interaction.

Below I found a fun video of a student project of a redesigned vending machine experience.  Some of its design elements addresses the issues I have just discussed.