Physical Computing Course 2008

arduinocupstretchDuring fall 2008, I was one of the main teachers of the Physical Computing course at Interaction Design programme of the IT-University in Göteborg. The aim of this course was to teach students how hardware, software and other materials (such as textiles, glass, wood, metal, plastic etc) can be combined in the design of computational things for human use. It gave an overview of various design and prototyping materials for real-time interaction common in physical computing, such as sensors, motors, intelligent textiles, RFID tags etc.

This course had only been given once before at the IT-University, as physical computing used to be part of another course. It had been decided that it needed to be its own course in order to better prepare students to the following Ubiquitous Computing project course, in terms of giving them proper technical skills. However, the course as it had been previously given needed improvements, so I was more ore less given free hands to re-design its content and approach. Therefore, I changed the focus of the course from being electronic engineering oriented to design-oriented, as it belonged to a design programme: although most of the students had more of a computer science background than a design one, I considered that the very purpose of such a course should be to make them approach electronics as a design material among others. I also switched microcontroller platform from the tedious BasicX-24 to Arduino, because of its flexibility, robustness, quick learning curve and important community of users. Students also got to experiment with LilyPad, the “textile” Arduino.

The course essentially consisted of lectures and laboratory exercises (most of which I had redesigned and all of which I supervised), as well as various extra activities aimed to broaden the students’ experience of physical computing. Students were also required to study at home and hand in assignments. The development of the course was highly organic and experimental, as it had not been given in its current form before.

During laboratory exercises, student practiced working with materials of various kinds. Lab exercises were organised by themes, with one theme a week (e.g. basics of electronic circuitry, intelligent textiles, locative media, etc) and accompanied by weekly lectures about relevant physical computing projects and by home assignments (consisting mostly of writing about related projects on the course blog). While most of the week was dedicated to tutoring-style exercises, its last part consisted in the students prototyping interactive applications in groups, using the knowledge they had gained during the week and during the previous ones. This was meant to develop the students’s design skills, learn how to quickly prototype their ideas and to see what can be done with the various design materials. Another goal was to prepare them for progressively bigger and more ambitious projects. The last three days of the course therefore consisted of mini group projects where each group got to implement a working prototype of an interactive application. Resulting prototypes were demonstrated to an audience of visitors from outside of the school.

Lectures gave an in-depth understanding of the subject of physical computing by giving an overview of the field, of various key projects as well as design approaches to the combination of computing and material. They were completed with a resource database and blogging activities meant to make students learn how to research about the field by themselves.

Extra activities within the course included “soldering for dummies” and circuit bending workshops, a guest lecture by an international physical computing specialist, and attendance of relevant artistic events. Time was allocated each week for optional individual study and extra-curricular experimentation, and the labs being open 24 hours a day making equipment and material available at all time.

Besides the teaching and taking care of most of the administrational part of this course, I also initiated contact with the C:Art:Media programme of the Valand School of Fine Arts and with the School of Design and Crafts in order to nurture collaboration between our programmes, as all three of them are concerned with design, technology, materials, humans and aesthetics, and could benifit from one another’s different competence in these areas. This has so far resulted in shared seminar, exhibition invitations, study visits, up-coming workshops in commun and hopefully future collaborations between the different students in their projects.

Course website: Physical Computing 2008
Course blog: Chalmers Physcomp ‘08
Students final mini-projects: Student blog entries as mini-reports

Main teachers: Morten Fjeld, Lalya Gaye
Guest teachers: Lena Berglin (School of Textiles Borås), Taku Lippit (STEIM)
Lab assistants: Ole Ravnsborg, Pooya Keshtiari, Annika Lindstedt