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Midterm Assignment

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The goal of this assignment is to observe an existing physical behavior or task and to either re-design the tool for doing that action, or to design a new tool to do it. Your focus in this assignment should be on careful and timely sensing of the relevant actions of the person or people that you're designing this for, and on clear, prompt, and helpful response. Any interactive system is going to involve systems of listening, thinking, and speaking from both parties. Whether it involves one cycle or many, the exchange should be engaging.

You will work in groups for this assignment. The groupings will be determined by your instructor.

Document your work thoroughly online as you go. Include details of all phases of the project. Include a project summary as well, explaining what the system you built is, what it does, and what purpose it's intended to serve. Your summary should introduce the project, but it may be the last thing you write.

A few examples:

Musical Instruments are excellent things to build for this assignment. Performing music involves a sustained engagement between the performer and the instrument. The feedback fro mthe instrument has to be immediate and clear in order for the performer to continue playing. The interface has to be flexible so that the musician can exercise her creativity in playing, but has to have some boundaries so that she knows what the instrument can do and what it can't do.

Game interfaces are also good candidates for this project. Like musical instruments, they involve constant back-and-forth interaction and immediate response. They are often simpler than musical instruments. In fact, the standard game controller has gotten so standard that the action of many games is artificially adapted to the needs of the controller, not the physical expressiveness of the player. Pick a specific game and see if you can change that.

Assistive devices are good candidates for this project as well. Whether it's something as simple as a reaching device (think of pickle pickers) or something more complex, these devices are very demanding of clear, reliable response.

Remote control systems work for this assignment as well. They require not only a clear interface, but must also return enough information on the remote system's action to let you know that you're doing the right thing. Whether it's a remote controller for your home electrical devices or a Mars rover controller, the need for clarity and good feedback are equally essential to the person who it's made for.

There are many other good applications for this project. Discuss the specifics of yours with your instructor.

You'll do this project in three weeks:

Week 1: Observations and planning

Choose an action that produces changes in a medium. It might be strumming a guitar (the medium is sound), hammering a nail (the media are wood, nails, and sound), flying a model plane (the media are the plane and the air). What tool or device is the action taken on? What is the goal of the activity? Observe a person or people engaged in the activity. What are the physical parameters of that activity? What does the person engaged in it do with their arms, their legs, their hands or feet, their head? How do they change their posture? Where do they need to focus their attention? Is there a secondary focus of attention (for example, if two limbs are used independently)? What physical elements of the activity make it engaging? What elements make it difficult, painful, or boring?

Do the action multiple times (perhaps 100 times), or have someone else do it. Record the action, with a video camera, or sensors feeding a graphing program, or in some other way. What patterns appear when the action is repeated?

What are the physical characteristics of the medium that you have to take as given? What physical input to the tool or device suggest or mirror those characteristics? For example, how actions you take on an audio mixer mirror the inherent characteristics of sound? How does the arrangement of controls on a VCR suggest what each control does?

Plan out your protoype based on your observations, and figure out what you need for it. If you need to order stuff for it, do so early.

Week 2: Early prototype and test

Now that you've observed one tool or device that manipulates the medium you observed, create another one. Either modify an existing device so that it affords changes to the medium that it didn't previously, or make a whole new tool to manipulate the medium in new ways.

Ask yourself (and your intended users) why someone should use your device to do the job. Don't assume that someone will want to use it, or even know how to use it. Make the functions apparent, and figure out what will make a person want to use your device. How will it make their experience of the activity better?

Is your device dependent on other devices, or on a specific location, or on the arrangement of elements in a space? Where is is best used? What social situations (i.e in private, in front of an audience, in a crowd) are best for its use? How will you ensure that those conditions are met?

Get the thing working in week 2. Then get other people to use your device, instrument or tool. Try as much as possible to tell them only what they need to get started. For example, if you made a musical instrument, just tell them how to produce changing tones; don't tell them what to play. If you made a device that writes text in response to eye movements, don't tell them what to write, just tell them how to make letters. Observe how your users use your device. Take notes on where they defy your assumptions as to how the tool is to be used. Ask them how they think the device works (their mental model of the action). Listen to what they have to say, and figure out where their mental model diverges from your model of how it works. Use this information to make the tool better.

Week 3: Final prototype

Based on all the information you've gathered, iron out any bugs, make any necessary interface revisions, and complete your device, instrument, or tool. Finalize the documentation of the process.

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