Tangible and social interaction

Posted on 18 March 2005 in Interaction design, Research, Social, Technology, Ubicomp

Brief history of interaction

(Based on Dourish, see reading recommendations, below)

Each successive development in computer history has made greater use of human skills:

  • electrical: required a thorough understanding of electrical design
  • symbolic: required a thorough understanding of the manipulation of abstract languages
  • textual: text dialogue with the computer: set the standards of interaction we still we live with today
  • graphic: graphical dialogue with the computer, using our spatial skills, pattern recognition, and motion memory with a mouse and keyboard

    We have become stuck in this last model.

    Interaction with computers has remained largely the same: desk, screen, input devices, etc. Even entirely new fields like mobile and iTV have followed these interaction patterns.


  • Tangible: physical: having substance or material existence; perceptible to the senses
  • Social: human and collaborative abilities, or ‘software that’s better because there’s people there’ (Definition from Matt Jones and Matt Webb)


    Dourish notes in the first few chapters of his book that as interaction with computers moves out into the world, it becomes part of our social world too. The social and the tangible are intricately linked as part of “being in the world”.

    What follows are examples of products or services we can use or buy right now. I’m specifically interested in the ways that these theories of ubiquitous computing and tangible interaction are moving out into the world, and the way that we can see the trends in currently available products.

    I’m aware that there are also terrifically interesting things happening in research (eg the Tangible Media Group) but right now I’m interested in the emergent things that start to happen effects of millions of people using things (like Flickr, weblogs, Nintendo DS, and mobile social software).

    Social trends on the web

    On the web the current trend is building simple platforms that support complex social/human behaviour

  • Weblogs, newsreaders and RSS: simple platform that has changed the way the web works, and supported simple social interaction (the basic building blocks of dialogue, or conversation)
  • Flickr: a simple platform for media/photo sharing: turned into a thriving community: works well with the web by allowing syndicated photos, bases the social network on top of a defined funciton
  • Others include del.icio.us, world of warcraft, etc.

    Social mobile computing

    On mobile platforms most of the exciting stuff is happening around presence, context and location

  • Familiar strangers: stores a list of all the phones that you have been near in places that you inhabit, and then visualises the space around you according to who you have met before. More mobile social software
  • Mogi: location based game, but most interestingly supports different contexts of use: both at home in front of a big screen, and out on a small mobile screen.

    Social games

    Interesting that games are moving away from pure immersive 3D worlds, and starting to devote equal attention to their situated, social context

  • Nintendo DS: PictoChat, local wireless networks that can be adapted for gameplay or communication (picture chatting included as standard)
  • Sissyfight: very simple social game structure, encourages human behaviour, insults
  • Habbohotel: simple interaction structures, (and fantastic attention to detail in iconic representations) support human desires. Now a very large company, in over 12 countries, based on the sales of virtual furniture
  • Singstar: entirely social game, about breaking social barriers and mutual humiliation: realtime analysis/visualisation of your voice actually makes you sing worse!

    Tangible games

  • Eyetoy: Brings the viewer into the screen, creates a performative and social space, and allows communication via PS2
  • Dance Dance Revolution: taking the television into physical space
  • Nokia wave-messaging: puts information back into space, and creates social and performative opportunities (Photo thanks to Matt Webb)


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