What is physical computing?

TLDR: Inventing new things and applying current technology in creative ways will require code, electronics, and vivid imagination: in other words, technical skill and creative thinking are needed together. Creative thinking requires curiosity, tools to imagine, and the willingness to explore and play with new technology. But that’s not all: If you want to sell the ideas you come up with, you will need a voice, you will need to promote yourself to a healthy degree, and you will need to work well with other people. That’s a lot to learn. For educators, here lies the opportunity and the challenge. A good way to be exposed to some of these areas is to study technology through the lens of physical computing. And so….

What is Physical Computing?

Physical computing refers to interactive digital systems that sense and respond to the world around them. Or, as expressed by Hanley Weng:

Physical Computing commonly describes the building of interactive physical systems that begins and ends with how humans express themselves physically.

How is this different from the normal relationship we have with electronics and computers? It is different because the focus is on the interactivity: the relationship people have with technology, and how they interact with them.

The traditional way we deal with computers (including the miniaturized supercomputers we carry in our pockets and bags) is via clicking with mice, typing with keyboards, and scrolling and tapping with touch-sensitive LCDs. We get response back via vibration, info displayed on screens, and sound. And when we think of computer interfaces, we assume there is a keyboard, a screen, speakers, and a mouse, and everything we consider afterwards is limited to within these boundaries. The design of software and apps is also narrowed to within these limits.

In physical computing though, the human body and how it can be used to interact is taken as the boundary, and we design within the limits of its expression. Physical computing looks at how this interaction can be changed, short-circuited (in other words, bypassed and modified from the normal interaction), and how digital information can be experienced by all the senses, and interacted with in new and strange ways using all parts of the human body.

In physical computing, we look deeply at how energy given off by our bodies, in the form of heat, light, sound, motion and so forth, into digital signals that are interpreted by some programmable device: in other words, sensors. We also can translate digital information back into some form of output as heat, light, sound, motion.

Prototyping and Experimentation

There is nothing traditional about physical computing. In fact, one key point of physical computing is to take a critical, creative approach to the normal way we interact, and find new and unusual ways to create interaction. This hacking and creativity requires the most hands-on approach possible, which means you work with electronics building circuits, soldering, writing code, building structures and packages to contain this system of sensors and actuators, and studying how it fits in with the physical of the human body.

Practical Application of Physical Computing

This isn’t to say that physical computing is just about experimentation and play: the insight gained from this process leads to new ways to interact, especially for new devices that make use of new technologies. Below are a few examples of how important the application and study of this field is:

Art of Lindsay Balfour
  • Art – Interactive mixed-media art would not be possible without the ability to measure user input and produce some kind of response, whether it be light, sound, or algorithm-based text and generated images. Artists who can produce devices that use code and hardware can express ideas and experiment on many levels.
  • Product Design – Smartwatches have not been around for a decade, and already are a normal part of life. To get the design simplified, and to make them as comfortable and as logical to use as possible took much experimentation in physical computing. In fact, the entire field of wearables is a child of physical computing, and these devices will become increasingly common in the very near future.
  • Commercial Applications – Exoskeletons are now in production and being used in certain industrial and medical applications. These devices are an extension of the human body, but to be safe and comfortable to use, deep understanding of how humans naturally move and apply the right levels of force is essential to designing exoskeletons that manipulate, grasp and move correctly, making this an important field of physical computing.
  • Scientific Applications – Scientists need to gather data from all kinds of environments and situations, and sometimes they cannot find an off-the-shelf system: it may well be that they have an extremely unique need, and so crafting their own sensor devices is necessary. If they have knowledge of practical electronics, and simple coding ability, they have a superpower that will allow for hand-crafted devices that fill their exact need.
  • Education – For all the fields above, the practitioner of various fields who at least possess basic ability with physical computing will do well. Youths who are exposed to physical computing ideas will understand better how IOT works, how sensors work and how to use them practically, as well as understand the powers and limits of technology. I am biased, but I cannot stress how important physical computing can be in education – it can erase fear of technology, give students the most practical skills imaginable, insights into how technology actually works, the ability to craft sensing devices, and even a deeper understanding of cyber-security. Beyond this, physical computing makes a good entry point for learning coding, as it allows for quick and visual feedback of what code is actually doing. It is, after all, all about interactivity in the real world, where we can see, hear, feel, and visualize.

Paul Hoets is a freelance maker who lives in South Korea. If you liked this article and would like to contribute to his empire of dirt, silicon and tech. education, buy him a coffee!