After reading the first two chapters of Chris Crawford’s The Art of Interactive Design and Bret Victor’s A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design, the question “what is physical interaction?” reminds me of another question I’ve been trying to answer a lot recently, which is “what is ITP?” With both, it seems that the more you think about it and the more you try to come up with a solid answer, the more inadequate your definition feels.
Crawford addresses this subjectivity, but nonetheless puts forth a definition of interactivity as a conversation “in which two actors alternately listen, think, and speak.” He describes interactivity as something that exists on a continuum rather than in absolutes, and defines it also by what it is not: reaction and participation, for example. Upon first thought, a conversation makes sense to me as a starting point for thinking about how to define interaction. A conversation isn’t static or predictable; it’ll change and adapt according to what each participant says in each turn. Sounds interactive to me!
But does it still count as interactive if there are no humans in the conversation? The video above showing two AI chatbots talking to each other is certainly a conversation (as well as a pretty cool piece of digital technology), but I wouldn’t classify it as interactive because people are not a part of the actual interaction. At least until we consider robots as people, which as far as I know, hasn’t happened yet.
Victor’s rant, similarly, encourages us to consider people when designing for interactivity. This is where the physical part kicks in. His blog post rages against the prevailing vision of the future that’s entirely screen-based, or as he calls it, “Pictures Under Glass.”
“We live in a three-dimensional world,” he writes. “I believe that our hands are the future.”
Physical interaction necessarily involves the body. Of course, as Victor argues, hands are under-considered as tools in design, but we should also think about the ways we can use other parts of the body to creative physical interaction. And to consider this in terms of sense, what else can we use besides touch? It’ll be interesting to design for interaction by sound, sight, smell and taste too.
What makes for good physical interaction? Maybe it’s what McLuhan considers to be “cool media,” or something that requires more active participation on behalf of the person or user to get something out of it. Or maybe it’s the other way around—something that gives you a wider array of output depending on how you interact with it. Like the way that light switch that turns the lights on and off is less of an interactive experience than a dial that allows you to change your lights to all colors of the rainbow.
But does more interaction mean good interaction? Does it make it a better interaction if you end up with stronger feelings about the experience? Or does that just make it better art? Maybe, the best physical interaction is one where the output is an experience tailored completely uniquely to your input, like a conversation. (Between humans.)