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Intro to Physical Computing Syllabus

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Introduction to Physical Computing - Summer 2012

Syllabus Main? Labs & tutorials Books and Readings Parts & Supplies ClassPages

21 May - 29 June 2012
Instructor: Scott Fitzgerald (scott.fitzgerald at nyu.edu)
Class Hours: Tuesday & Thursday, 6:30p - 9:25p
Office Hours: TBA

Link to printable syllabus

Physical Computing is an approach to learning how humans communicate through computers that starts by considering how humans express themselves physically. In this course, we take the human body as a given, and attempt to design computing applications within the limits of its expression.

To realize this goal, you'll learn how a computer converts the changes in energy given off by our bodies (in the form of sound, light, motion, and other forms) into changing electronic signals that it can read interpret. You'll learn about the sensors that do this, and about very simple computers called microcontrollers that read sensors and convert their output into data. Finally, you'll learn how microcontrollers communicate with other computers.

Physical computing takes a hands-on approach, which means that you spend a lot of time building circuits, soldering, writing programs, building structures to hold sensors and controls, and figuring out how best to make all of these things relate to a person's expression.

Student Blogs

If you don't send your blog to me, everyone will know when they come to this page! Massive public shaming to follow!


See http://itp.nyu.edu/physcomp/Intro/Supplies for a description of what you're getting. Kits (supplied by adafruit) are for sale at the NYU computer store for ~$90. It will include pretty much everything you'll need to do the basic classwork.

Some additional supplies are available in the shop, and feel free to use what is in there. However, dont go overboard (using an LED or 2 is fine, using 100 for your Glow-o-tron is not).


As we have fewer (but longer!) course meetings, we will follow the regular course, but lose some time for the final project.

The syllabus is broken down into:

  • Concepts we'll discuss in class. Course notes are linked so you can read them before class, to know what we're talking about.
  • Lab exercises that illustrate the concepts. You're not required to show your lab work in class, but do them each week to learn, and come in with questions if you have any. If you did something you're proud of, feel free to bring it in, though this is optional.
  • Production assignments larger assignments which have scheduled times you'll be expected to show them in class.
  • Reading to be read in the week they're assigned. Will come up in discussion the week after, usually.
  • Blog assignments Writing the week when it's assigned. Will come up in class from time to time. Read each other's stuff too.
  • Due dates for production assignments

Week 1 : Electricity, Hello Arduino!

Class 1



  • Lab: Setting up a breadboard
  • Lab: Electronics
  • Lab: Switches



Observation. Pick a piece of interactive technology in public, used by multiple people. Write down your assumptions as to how it's used, and describe the context in which it's being used. Watch people use it, preferably without them knowing they're being observed. Take notes on how they use it, what they do differently, what appear to be the difficulties, what appear to be the easiest parts. Record what takes the longest, what takes the least amount of time, and how long the whole transaction takes. Consider how the readings from Crawford reflect on what you see.


  • Crawford, The Art of Interactive Design, chapters 1 and 2 (note: you will need to sign into NYUHome to view this. From your NYUHome home page, click "Research" then "books24x7.com" then search for "The Art of Interactive Design" by Chris Crawford. Alternately, try this link. ) For those without Books24x7 access, you can also find the readings on Google Books here.

Class 2



  • Lab: first Arduino program



Fantasy Device. Think of a fantasy device you've always wanted. Doesn't have to be physically possible, but it has to have a physical interface. Design what the physical interface was. Document your design on your blog, and bring it in for the class. Your mock-up doesn't have to work, and it can be made out of any materials you're comfortable with. Make this a quick sketch, just enough so that your classmates have a sense of what they would do to use your device.

Code From Class

Week 2 : Going beyond digital

Class 3


  • Fantasy Device



  • Lab: Analog in; tracking changes with variables


Sensor walk. Take a walk around your neighborhood, or a different one. Take a count of every interaction with a sensor you see. These might include:
  • Pushbuttons on an ATM
  • motion sensors on doors, faucets, etc.
  • Floor mats
  • Cameras
Take pictures or video as appropriate, of the most interesting ones.


Code From Class

Class 4



  • Lab: servo/analog out
  • Lab: Tone output



Stupid Pet Trick. Make a simple physically interactive device that uses the skills you've learned in the labs. It must respond to a physical action or series of actions a person takes, and it must be amusing, surprising, or otherwise engaging.It doesn't have to be practical, or complex, as long it shows that you understand the basics of digital and analog I/O and how to use them. If you're unfamiliar with the term "stupid pet trick," Googling the term may provide you inspiration for the tone of this project.
  • a love-o-meter, a device that tells you what a good lover you are, based on how it measures some action you take
  • a combination lock, a device whose response is "unlocked" by a specific series of actions in a particular order from the user
  • a light mixer, a device that mixes colors of light from some analog input (to simplify, use LEDs as lights)
  • a tone mixer, same concept as the light mixer, but that mixes audible tones

Code From Class

Week 3 : Talk to me! Communication with other things

Class 5




  • Lab: Serial Output


  • Norretranders, The User Illusion, Chapter 6: The Bandwidth of Consciousness If you can't access the reading, email me

Code From Class

Class 6


  • serial communication week 2
    • multiple sensors
    • Interpreting bytes: ASCII vs. binary
    • handshaking/call-and-response


Things we covered in class


  • Lab: Multiple Serial Output

Week 4 : Controlling high current loads, making things move


  • Stupid Pet Trick

Class 7




Final project. Create a physically interactive system of your choice. 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 effective 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.
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.
A few examples:
Musical Instruments. 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. 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. 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. 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 Scott.

Class 8


  • complex data communications
    • configuration vs. communication (command move vs. data mode)
    • addressing
    • Bluetooth serial as example
    • protocols discussion
    • Optional Bluetooth Lab

Week 5 : Additional concerns, other types of wireless communication

Class 9

  • Mopping up, checking on any outstanding issues on what we covered so far.


  • Final Project concept. Explain the concept of your final project online. Write it and/or illustrate it so that readers who are not in this class can get a clear and concise idea of what you plan to make for the final.

Class 10

  • Final project reports, interface proposals. Bring in a prototype interface for your final project. To be discussed further in class.


  • describe the technical system for your final project.

Week 6 : Holy Mackerel, this is already over?

Class 11

  • final project workshop. Discuss any technical issues

DIY function

int 555One=9;
int 555Two=10;
int 555Three=11;

void setup(){
 //set all 555 pins as outputs 

  //turn one of the three on to start
  digitalWrite(555Two, HIGH);

void loop(){
  // do this forever
   //do that thing to 555One

    //do that thing to 555Two
   // do it to 555three

void doThisThingOnce(int whatPin){
  digitalWrite(whatPin, HIGH);
  digitalWrite(whatPin, LOW);


Wyna Pseudo code for steppers

int numberOfSteps=0;

void setup(){



void loop(){

 int analogInput = analogRead(A0);

if(numberOfSteps>10 && numberOfSteps<3000){

if ( analogInput > 100  && analogInput<500 ){
  numberOfSteps = numberOfSteps+10;
else ( analogInput <1023 && analogInput>512}
  numberOfSteps = numberOfSteps-10;



Kristen arrays

int sequence1[] = {
  2, 5, 6, 10 , 12, 6, 6, 6 };
int delays1[] = {
  250, 500, 60, 100, 120, 60, 60, 60 };

void setup(){

  for(int i = 2; i < 13 ; i++) {
    pinMode(i, OUTPUT);  


void loop(){


    for(int i = 0; i < 9 ; i++) {
      digitalWrite(sequence1[i], HIGH);  
      digitalWrite(sequence1[i], LOW);  




Class 12

  • Final Project demonstrations


  • finish the documentation for your final project.



Participation & Attendance: 40%
Production Assignments: 40%
Journal: 20%

Participation & Attendance

Showing up on time, engaging in the class discussion, and offering advice and critique on other projects in the class is a major part of your grade. Please be present and prompt. Lateness will hurt your grade. If you're going to be late or absent, please email your instructor in advance. If you have an emergency, please let your instructor know as soon as you can. Please turn in assignments on time as well.


Laptop use is fine if you are using your laptop to present in class, or if we're in the middle of an exercise that makes use of it. Whenever classmates are presenting or we're in the midst of a class discussion, however, please keep your laptop closed. The quality of the class depends in large part on the quality of your attention and active participation, so please respect that and close your lid.

Mobile Phones

Please put them on vibrate or turn them off before you come to class unless they are part of your project. If you have an emergency that requires you to answer your phone during class, please tell your instructor ahead of time.

Lab Assignments?

There is a lab activity for nearly every class in the first half of the semester. They are very short, simple activities. These are the basic steps you need to go through to understand the principle discussed in class each week. They're designed to help you not only to understand the technical details, but also to get a feel for what the technologies we're discussing can do, so that you can incorporate them into actual applications. You should at least complete the steps outlined in the lab activity each week, so that you understand practically what it is we're talking about. Document on your blog any discoveries you make, pitfalls you hit, and details not covered in the class or the lab that you think will be useful for your fellow students and future students in this class.

Production Assignments

For production assignments, you'll be expected to present your project in class on the day that it's due. If you're working in a group, all group members should be present, and should participate equally in the presentation.

Journal & Documentation

You are expected to keep an online journal of your progress. The purpose of the journal is twofold. First, it is a valuable way for you to communicate to your instructor that you are keeping up with the work in the class. We read the journals to see how students are doing, so you should update your journal regularly throughout the semester. At a minimum, reference to each week's work is expected, as well as reference to the readings, and thorough documentation of the production projects and technical research. Second, the journal is a way to document your work for your own use and that of others. Many ITP students have found themselves using their journals as a place to store notes, code samples, and more.

Good documentation habits for this class:

You may choose to document your major projects in a separate individual or group site if you choose, but you will be expected to link your site to the main site, and contribute to the class site as well nonetheless. Please avoid flash, shockwave, or other sites that are not text-searchable, as they won't show up on search engines for others to use.

Blogs are great for documenting your process, as they're usually defaulted to organizing the information chronologically. However, projects summarized in a blog can be confusing. It's often worthwhile to set up a separate page or pages to summarize your projects when they're done.

You should document your projects thoroughly. Plan in advance, and perhaps as a group, to have what you need to document at least your midterms and finals. Photos, video, drawings, schematics, and notes are all valuable forms of documentation. Explain the project at the beginning of your documentation, so that people who come to the site from outside this class will understand the overview before they get the explanation.

Don't overload your notes with code. If you've made a big improvement on an existing piece of code, post your new code, and link to the code you based it on (just as you would in citing a pervious author in a paper). If you only changed one part of an existing program, post only the part you changed, and link to the original. Make sure any code you post is well-commented, so you and others can understand what it does.

Always cite the sources of your code, the places you learned techniques from, and the inspirations of your ideas. This is the equivalent to citing your sources in a written paper, and copying code or techniques without attribution is plagiarism. few ideas come out of the blue, and your readers can learn a lot from the sources you learned from or were inspired by.

Good documentation should include a description and illustration of your project. You should include what it looks like, what it does, what the user or participant does in response. It should give enough information that someone from outside ITP, who's never seen the project, can get an understanding of what your project is.

You should also include a section describing the workings of the project, aimed at a more informed reader (me, or next year's classmates), so that the details of production are clear. It doesn't have to include every scrap of code and circuit diagram, but it should make clear what the major components of the system are, and how they communicate, and what the code, if any, does.

Work on this as you go, don't put it off until the end. Your fellow classmates will find your notes as useful too.

Pictures and video help a lot.

Some good project summary sites:

A few good recent sample journals:

Syllabus Main? Labs & tutorials Books and Readings Parts & Supplies ClassPages
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