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Intro to Physical Computing Syllabus

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Introduction to Physical Computing - Summer 2009

May 18th - June 26th 2009
Instructor: Rory Nugent (rory.nugent at nyu.edu)
Class Hours: Tuesday & Thursday, 3:15 - 6:10p
Office Hours: Tuesday & Thursday, 6:10 - 7:10p
Additional office hours by request

Physical Computing Resident: Hyeki Min, Office Hours


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 to use sensors to detect changes in energy given off by our bodies (in the form of sound, light, motion, and other forms) and feed these values into a very simple computer called a microcontrollers that will also control output of the circuit. The microcontroller used in this class is called Arduino, is much more accessible than previous microcontrollers and is intended specifically for artists and hobbyist. The core technical concepts of the class include digital, analog and serial input and output. You'll also 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. Students have weekly lab exercises to build skills with the microcontroller and related tools, and longer assignments in which they apply the principles from weekly labs in creative applications. Both individual work and group work is required.

Student Blogs


Participation & Attendance: 20%
Lab Assignments: 15%
Satellite Assignment(s): 5%
Midterm: 20%
Final: 20%
Journal: 20%


The following books will be used as readings and references throughout the duration of the class. While none of the books below are mandatory purchases, some of the weekly readings will come from these books, and others come highly recommended as supplementary reading if you find yourself enjoying the subject matter. I will provide you with the weekly reading assignments in a physical or digital format.


See http://itp.nyu.edu/physcomp/Intro/Supplies


Week 1: Basic Electronics, Introduction to Microcontrollers

Class 1 (05/19)

Class 2 (05/21)

  • Class Topics
    • Introduction to Microcontrollers, e.g. Arduino
    • Programming: Basics, Variables, Structure, Controls, Arduino IDE (Integrated Development Environment)
    • Discuss your midterm project
  • Assignments
  • Readings
    • Getting Started with Arduino, pp. 19-51
    • 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. )

Week 2: Programming, Analog Input and Output

Class 3 (05/26)

Class 4 (05/28)

  • Class Topics
    • Analog Output: Overview, Components, PWM (Pulse Width Modulation), Servos, Sound, Arduino
      • Reference(s)
        • "Analog Output" from Tom Igoe
        • Getting Started with Arduino, pp. 56-62
        • Physical Computing, pp. 112-127
    • Choose midterm partners and brainstorm
  • Assignments
  • Reading
    • Norretranders, The User Illusion, Chapter 6: The Bandwidth of Consciousness

Week 3: Serial Communication

Class 5 (06/02)

Class 6 (06/04)

Week 4: Midterm, Movement

Class 7 (06/09)

Class 8 (06/11)

Week 5: Project Development, Extra Topics

Class 9 (06/16)

Class 10 (06/18)

Week 6: Final Workshop and Presentations

Class 11 (06/23)

  • Final Project Workshop

Class 12 (06/25)

  • Final Presentations
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