ITP / PComp – “Talk to Me” @ MoMA

This week marked the start of my first term at NYU’s ITP. For my class Introduction to Physical Computing (PComp), our homework included a visit to the “Talk to Me” exhibit at MoMA.

“Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects explores the communication between people and things… Whether openly and actively, or in subtle, subliminal ways, things talk to us, and designers help us develop and improvise the dialogue. The exhibition focuses on objects that involve a direct interaction, such as interfaces, information systems, visualization design, and communication devices, and on projects that establish an emotional, sensual, or intellectual connection with their users. ” – MoMA

For all those not familiar with ITP, it is the Interactive Telecommunications Program at the Tisch School of the Arts. This exhibit it perfect because it has a heavy focus on interaction and communications. In fact, several ITP student projects were featured.

We were asked to view the show after reading from Chris Crawford’s The Art of Interactive Design. He defines interactivity, “in terms of a conversation: a cyclic process in which two actors alternately listen, think, and speak.” He draws a distinction between user interface design and interactivity design. According to Crawford, interactivity design is a more comprehensive process because it focuses on the entire interaction between user and computer, controlling both the form and the function. UI achieves less, he argues, because it focuses only on the form, putting emphasis on communication over interactivity.

As such, the interaction designer looks to maximize the listening, thinking and speaking. This creates what he believes is the most engaging type of interaction. It is “superior to all other forms of human expression” because this type of active, direct involvement leads to greater understanding by the user.

The MoMA exhibit focuses on communication between people and objects. This is a slightly different take on the interaction Crawford discusses in his book because it focuses on physical interactions instead of standard software interactions. Building on Crawford’s definition of interaction as a conversation involving listening, thinking and speaking, we can reach a definition for physical interaction. We must obviously supplement his focus on words. But this is easily done if we take a more libel view of listening and speaking, allowing them to represent input and output from all the senses. This was on display at the MoMA exhibit, with pieces that could be seen, touched and smelled.

The best physical interaction pieces required the most engagement by the user, forcing them to stop being just a passive viewer at a museum show. Many also seemed to be fun and stimulating, yet with a small learning curve evident at the start. With a small bit of experimentation, these devices quickly became usable.

One of my personal favorites from the show was the MO musical objects from the Interlude project.

It assigned new sounds to everyday physical actions that were made with one of their devices in hand. At about the :50 mark, you see and hear a new take on the beat-box and sampling. It seems like a fun and unique way of taking this musical style and extending it to a wider range of people who lack the skill to play an instrument or be a dj. It seems quite possible that with these little devices and a full range of body movements, some unique new music will come to pass.

Another work that was quite interested, but not interactive according to Crawford’s definition, was the SMSlingshot.

It allows you to enter a message and then “throw” it to a nearby screen. While it is certainly a great idea and great execution, there is none of the conversation or dialogue that Crawford focuses on. People using it were simply sending random messages at the screen with little regard for what was previously on the screen or the texts. There was no dialogue, no give and take. The device’s success rides purely on the uniqueness of the technology, not the dialogue. But by changing the flow of content on the screen, the designers could curate an experience and interaction between the viewer and the screen.

Overall, I thought “Talk to Me” was a very inspiring exhibit and well worth checking out. Interactive design still has a long way to go as it transitions from standard personal computer interfaces into the post-PC era. While Apple has brought the most design changes to our lives, hopefully we will soon see an even wider array of devices and interactivity in more parts of our physical environment.