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Physical computing is an approach to learning how humans communicate through computers that starts by considering how humans express themselves physically.
A lot of computer interface design instruction takes the computer hardware for given -- namely, that there is a keyboard, a screen, perhaps speakers, and a mouse -- and concentrates on teaching the software necessary to design within those boundaries. In physical computing, we take the human body as a given, and attempt to design within the limits of its expression.
Students begin by learning how a computer converts the changes in energy given off by our bodies, in the form of heat, light, sound, and so forth, into changing electronic signals that it can read interpret. They learn about the sensors that do this, and about very simple computers, called microcontrollers, that read sensors and convert their output into data. Finally, they learn how microcontrollers communicate with other computers. This hands-on technical learning is accompanied by discussions of interaction design practice, and observation of everyday activities. Students develop design, observation, and technical skills concurrently, through practice.
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.
Study in the area begins with the Introduction to Physical Computing course. Advanced courses in the area focus in on specialized techniques in the field, or particular applications. Courses such as Advanced Technology, Networked Objects, Sensor Workshop, and Sustainable Energy introduce advanced methods and special topics in the area.
The most effective way for students to learn more about physical computing is to put the methods learned in the introductory course into practice in other courses in the department. Many of the production classes at ITP lend themselves to applications of physical computing techniques. Courses such as Developing Assistive Technology, Designing Experience, New Interfaces for Musical Expression, Interactive Design for Children, and Toy Design Workshop are excellent application areas for physical computing.