Cultivating Creativity in Tangible Interaction Design
Fred G. Martin Karen E. Roehr
Computer Science Department Art Department
University of Massachusetts Lowell University of Massachusetts Lowell
Lowell, MA 01854 USA Lowell, MA 01854 USA
+1 978 934 1964 +1 978 934 3586
ABSTRACT interfaces. Using MIT Scratch software, students created
As part of a larger team developing collaborations between screen-based interactive projects and published them on the
computing and the arts, the co-authors created a general Scratch web site.
education undergraduate course, Tangible Interaction
3 & 4. In the next two assignments, students worked with
Design. We briefly describe the course, “Tiddles” (in-class
paper and plastic. They created cardboard templates for a
exercises that promote creativity), and three exemplar
box-like game arena, followed by a cardboard puppet-
student final projects. We conclude with observations
character prototype inspired by an action verb such as
about creativity in the arts and in engineering.
“dance.” Students returned to the computer and used
Author Keywords vector-based software to re-draw their character, and
arts, computing, sensors, creativity, tangible interaction produced it in acrylic using a laser cutter. They published
ACM Classification Keywords their CAD designs with photos of the finished characters
K.3.0 General; J.5 ARTS AND HUMANITIES on the personal manufacturing web site, ponoko.com.
General Terms 5. Finally, students explicitly connected the physical to the
Design virtual using the Scratch PicoBoard, which connects light,
INTRODUCTION sound, and touch sensors in the physical world to the
The work described here is inspired by others’ scholarship animated screen world.
in teaching Tangible Interaction Design , and extends
the interdisciplinary collaborations of a team of faculty
from the co-authors’ campus .
Our Tangible Interaction Design course was offered in the
Fall 2008 semester, meeting twice a week for 75 minutes
per meeting. It has general education approval, satisfying
required science/technical distribution for liberal arts
majors, or arts/humanities distribution for science and
engineering majors. We attracted 24 students, with an
equal number in the two categories.
The course had three major components: (1) A series of 5
core assignments, (2) weekly in-class creativity-enhancing TIDDLES
exercises, dubbed “Tiddles,” and (3) a final project, which In our weekly Tiddles classroom exercises, students
was exhibited in one of two local partner museums. worked individually on a challenge that needed to be
completed in 15 minutes. Using familiar materials—paper,
The five core assignments made an explicit connection Play-Doh, and LEGO bricks—students approached
between the physical and the computational, with a focus challenges like “building a bridge between two desks,”
on design intention. “making the tallest tower,” and “making an object with
1. Based on Norman’s book The Design of Everyday magical powers” with both zeal and skill. Two insights
Things , students created photo essays of well-designed emerged from this work: (1) students’ ideas flowed more
and poorly designed things in their lives, and published freely when they made physical models than some other
their work on a course wiki. This introduced the ideas of paper-and-pencil brainstorming exercised. We noticed this
affordance and constraint in design. most clearly in the “magical object” exercise. We had tried
2. Students moved from physical interfaces to software a paper assignment prior to this task. The Tiddle was
obviously more exciting to students, as they each made
Copyright is held by the author/owner(s). Play-Doh models of their ideas, and then presented to the
C&C’09, October 26–30, 2009, Berkeley, California, USA.
class afterward. (Two concepts involving flight are shown
above). (2) Some Tiddles (e.g., bridge- and tower-building) the goal itself. Then, the physical action of kicking the ball
involved real engineering, and allowed us to engage in became kinesthetically integrated with the virtual action.
discussions about aesthetic vs. functional design. Broadly,
the Tiddles supported a welcome playfulness in the
classroom, and facilitated good sharing and discussion.
In the course final project, students were expected to
integrate the technology and design tools we had
introduced. Working in pairs, they developed an exhibit for
one of our partner museums—The Revolving Museum, a
contemporary art museum in Lowell, MA, and the
Children’s Discovery Museums in Acton, MA. The three
projects described represent the range of work in the class.
Intangible Music—Analog and Computational Theremin
Developed by two engineering majors, Intangible Music is a
two-person musical instrument that combines an analog
Theremin and a computerized drum machine. Break-beam
light sensors trigger the drum sounds, and accompanying
visual displays are shown on a computer monitor hidden
underneath the tabletop. The exhibit allows two people to
collaborate in creating music, while attracting attention from
Scooby—A Physical/Virtual Puppy others in the space.
Scooby, developed by two liberal arts majors, is a physical
and virtual puppy dog. Using a plush puppy, the students
The class introduced a variety of computational tools for
carefully installed large arcade-game buttons as the dog’s
creative expression and conversation around design intent
nose and as its two front paw-pads, and wired the three
and result. Many students had never created a web page
buttons to their PicoBoard interface. They created an on-
before, no less made an object from a CAD drawing or
screen representation of the dog with the Scratch software.
controlled on-screen action based on physical sensors. With
The virtual puppy is displayed on a netbook inside the
the Tiddles, we encouraged creativity and ideation.
plush doghouse, behind the physical puppy. By pressing
any of the physical puppy’s three buttons, the on-screen Student reaction ranged from those who were excited about
puppy reacts. The project had an immersive, dollhouse each assignment from the beginning to those who only
appeal, especially for small children. realized our intentions during the production of their final
project. Students appreciated the range of materials and tools
we introduced, and the diversity of backgrounds represented
in the class. In the future, we plan to give stronger emphasis
to graphic design and art.
This work was supported by NSF Grant 0722161, from the
Pathways to Revitalized Undergraduate Computing
Education program (CPATH).
1. Martin, F., Greher, G., Heines, J., Jeffers, J., Kim, H.J.,
Kuhn, S., Roehr, K., Selleck, N., Silka, L., and Yanco, H.
“Joining Computing and the Arts at a Mid-Size
Soccer Scratch—An Arcade-Style Video Game University.” Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges,
Soccer Scratch was created by a philosophy major and a 24(6), June 2009.
psychology major. It was a simple videogame with a visually 2. Norman, D. The Design of Everyday Things, Basic
appealing physical interface. To shoot the ball at the on- Books, 2002.
screen goalie, one kicked the wall-mounted soccer ball. In
3. Shaer, O., Horn, M.S., and Jacob, R.J.K. “Tangible User
the students’ design process, they selected a sports theme and
Interface Laboratory: Teaching Tangible Interaction
narrowed it to soccer, but had a breakthrough in their
Design in Practice,” AIEDAM Special Issue on Tangible
thinking when they changed their early software prototype
Interaction for Design, Spring 2009.
from a side-view of the soccer field to the shooter’s view of