Tangible computing

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Tangible computing deals with tangible objects that are interfaced with computers.

Tangible Bits is the vision of the tangible media group at MIT. The group is “designing "tangible user interfaces" which employ physical objects, surfaces, and spaces as tangible embodiments of digital information. These include foreground interactions with graspable objects and augmented surfaces [...]”.

Accoding to E. Hornecker (retrieved 17:04, 12 April 2010 (UTC)), based on Ullmer and Ishii's most wide spread definition on tangible interfaces:

Generally graspable and tangible interfaces are systems relating to the use of physical artifacts as representations and controls for digital information. A central characteristic of tangible interfaces is the seamless integration of representation and control, with physical objects being both representation of information and as physical controls for directly manipulating their underlying associations. Input and Output devices fall together. There are six characteristics concerning representation and control:

  1. Physical representations are computationally coupled to underlying digital information.
  2. Physical representations embody mechanisms for interactive control.
  3. Physical representations are perceptually coupled to actively mediated digital representations. (visual augmentation via projection, sound...)
  4. Physical state of tangibles embodies key aspects of the digital state of a system. (TUIs are persistent: turn off the electrical power and there is still something meaningfull there what can be interpreted)
  5. Tangible interfaces rely on a balance between physical and digital representations. Digital representations are needed to mediate dynamic information.
  6. The elements of TUIs are spatially re-configurable (in contrast to tangible digital appliances)

See also: Internet of things, LEGO Mindstorms, Ubiquitous computing, Fab lab

Embodied cognition and interaction

“Embodied interaction is the creation, manipulation, and sharing of meaning through engaged interaction with artifacts” (Dourish, 2001, cited by Bekker et al. 2009).

“Embodied cognition emphasizes how the particulars of human bodies acting in physical, social, and cultural environments determine perceptual and cognitive structures, processes and operations” (Antle, 2009, cited by Bekker et al. 2009))

A framework for tangible interaction

The framework is structured around four themes […..]. Themes are:

  • Tangible Manipulation refers to the material representations with distinct tactile qualities, which are typically physically manipulated in tangible interaction.
  • Spatial Interaction refers to the fact that tangible interaction is embedded in real space and interaction therefore occurs by movement in space.
  • Embodied Facilitation highlights how the configuration of material objects and space affects and directs emerging group behavior.
  • Expressive Representation focuses on the material and digital representations employed by tangible
(Hornecker and Bluur, 2006, cited by Bekker et al. 2009)

In education

Bekker et al. (2009) design “objects that provide multiple players diverse opportunities to create shared meaning in playful contexts. We follow a research through design approach in which we design different versions of Playful Interaction (PI) concepts, where the variations are used to study the influence of different design decisions on the users' behavior. We base the design variations on existing theories about behaviour change, exercise psychology and developmental psychology.)”


The simplest way to get started is to embed near field communication tags or QR Codes into objects. These can contain information that can be read by cellphones and other devices.


  • High-Low Tech group (MIT Media Lab). Explore the intersection of computation, physical materials, manufacturing processes, traditional crafts, and design.


  • Anderson, Stephen, P. Learning and Thinking with Things, in Follet, J. (ed.). Designing for Emerging Technologies. O'Reilly free version
  • Antle, A. (2009) Embodied Child Computer Interaction: Why embodiment matters, Interactions, March + April 2009, 27-30.
  • Bekker, Tilde and Eggen, Berry, (2008) Designing for Children’s Physical Play, (2008), CHI 08 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems, Florence, Italy, 2871-2876. Abstract/PDF.
  • Bekker, M.M. and Sturm, J. (2009) Stimulating Physical and Social Activity through Open-Ended Play , Interact 2009, Uppsala, Sweden, 952- 953. PDF
  • Benford. S.; H. Schnadelbach, B. Koleva, B. Gaver, A. Schmidt, A. Boucher, A. Steed, R. Anastasi, C. Greenhalgh, T. Rodden, and H. Gellersen, Sensible, sensable and desirable: a framework for designing physical interfaces. PDF.
  • Dourish, P. (2001) Where the action is: The foundations of embodied interaction. Cambridge University Press.
  • Hornecker, E. and Buur, J. (2006) Getting a grip on tangible interaction: a framework on physical space and social interaction, Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in computing systems table of contents, Montréal, Québec, Canada,: 437 - 446
  • Ishii, Hiroshi (2008). Tangible Bits: Beyond Pixels, Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Tangible and Embedded Interaction (TEI'08), Feb 18-20 2008, Bonn, Germany. PDF
  • Pallotta. V, P. Bruegger, and B. Hirsbrunner, Kinetic User Interfaces: Physical Embodied Interaction with Mobile Pervasive Computing Systems, in: Advances in Ubiquitous Computing:Future Paradigms and Directions, IGI Publishing, February, 2008. Preface
  • Ullmer, Brygg (1997). Models and Mechanisms for Tangible User Interfaces. Thesis (M.S.)--Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Program in Media Arts & Sciences, 1997.
  • Ullmer, B. and Ishii, H. 1997. The metaDESK: models and prototypes for tangible user interfaces. In Proceedings of the 10th Annual ACM Symposium on User interface Software and Technology (Banff, Alberta, Canada, October 14 - 17, 1997). UIST '97. ACM, New York, NY, 223-232. http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/263407.263551