Design of Tangible User Interfaces

hanging twines One important interface concept in ubiquitous computing are Tangible User interfaces. TUIs don't live on screens. They are physical things in the real world, which we can touch and with which we can interact. This interaction then invokes functions in a computer. For the design of physical things there is a science and a profession: product design. Coupling physical things to computers, on the other hand, is a topic for computer scientists and engineers. The most promising team for the design of a tangible user interface thus seemed to be a combination of product designers and computer scientists.

Cooperation with Saarbrücken School of Arts

pyramidIn the Summer semester of 2004 we held an interdisciplinary project with students of Saarland University and the design branch of the Saarbrücken School of Arts, HBKS. We formed teams of mostly 2 design students and 2 computer science students. These teams then developed a basic concept for a specific tangible user interface. The task of the computer scientists was, to ensure that the device could be built from a technical point of view. The task of the design students was to create a visually and haptically pleasing and ergonomic appearance of the object.

onionThe teams were coached by a Diplom designer as well as a Diplom computer scientist, and progress was discussed in weekly meetings. After developing the initial design, more and more functional prototypes of the TUIs were built by the teams. Towards the end of the semester, a fully functional prototype from each group had to be demonstrated to the public.

A selection of results and their media echo

flip'n twistFour of the project groups decided to design a TUI for the control of digital media, such as music, in a living environment. They each emphasized different aspects of the physical design and took different technical approaches. These four objects and their development process were presented in a paper at CHI 2005. One other group decided to build an interactive beer mat with which one could not only order another drink, but also vote and play pub games by simple physical gestures. This object was published in a poster at Ubicomp 2005 and triggered a storm of  media response. The press craze started with an article in the british "New Scientist" and resulted in 3 TV features, more than 20 radio interviews and more than 100 citations in international print media, the most prominent of which was the front page of the German BILD newspaper.