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 and interpret. You’ll learn about the sensors that do this, and about simple computers called microcontrollers that read sensors and convert their output into data. Finally, you’ll learn how microcontrollers communicate with other computers.

To learn this, you’ll watch people and build devices. You will 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 body.

Safety Requirement: Some time in weeks 1 – 3 attend a tool safety session in the shop! Even if you are an experienced fabricator, everyone is required to take a safety session if planning to use or be in the shop.

Class Structure

  • 45 – 60 minutes discussion,  questions from the homework, presentation and discussion of projects, discussion of reading material and other issues.
  • 10 minutes break
  • 60 – 90 minutes introduction to new material. Your instructor will introduce the week’s material and demonstrate that week’s labs. Feel free to bring your own components and build alongside the instructor if you find it helpful. This part of the class is also very interactive, so be prepared by reviewing the class notes in advance. Speak up when you have questions or want clarification on anything discussed or shown in the class.

Class Expectations

The production assignments in this class are: the weekly lab assignments in the first half of the semester; the midterm assignment due in week 8; and the final assignment due in week 14.  The details of the major assignments can be found on the assignments page.

Lab Assignments

There are lab assignments for every week in the first half of the semester and several in the second half, to learn specific techniques. Each weekly class page contains the labs which will be covered that week. A summary of all labs can be found on the labs page.


You’ll also be expected to document your progress in the class online in a regular blog as you go. At a minimum, you’re expected to summarize any insights you have in each week’s lab assignments, and to document your production projects and technical research thoroughly. You can find guidelines for good documentation, and several examples, on the Journals & Documentation page.


Topic notes to be covered each week are linked on that week’s class page. Read each week’s material before class and prepare questions. There are videos that demonstrate the  labs as well. The videos cover the same material as the written notes, so you can learn from whichever form you find most useful. A longer list of both technical and conceptual source material can be found on the Books page.

You’ll also be assigned some short readings to generate discussion about physical interaction design, application ideas, and other topics. These provide context and background inspiration.

Prepare for class in advance. Review the material to be covered that week, and come to class with questions prepared about that class’s material. If you have no questions, be prepared to show your work.

Commenting on each others’ work

Supporting your classmates through feedback on their work is an important part of the class, and an important part of your participation grade. When watching your classmates present their work in class, we’ll make some time for verbal comments, but you should take written notes on their presentations as well. Offer suggestions on what they did well and should continue doing, what they should stop doing, and what they could add to their work and/or their presentation to make it better. Give them these notes at the end of class. You’ll be getting the same notes from your classmates, so write in the same voice in which you’d like to hear feedback on your own work.

Week-by-Week Class Schedule

Below are the topics for each week. The class pages, linked by each week, detail the topics to be covered that week and the assignments for the following week.

Semester overview

A week-by-week summary of the class
ClassDatesTopicAssignment DuePost-Class WorkBlog
1September 4/5/6, 2019Introduction (Link to class 1)noneGet parts, set up doc site
2September 11/12/13, 2019Electricity (Link to class 2)LabsElectronics Labs; Quiz 1Lab doc
3September 18/19/20, 2019Microcontrollers, Digital I/O, Analog Input (Link to class 3)LabsDigital I/O + Analog Input labs, Quiz 2Lab doc, Observation
4September 25/26/27, 2019Analog Output (Link to class 4)LabsAnalog Out Labs + catch up, Quiz 3Lab doc
5October 2/3/4, 2019Review & Reading Datasheets (Link to class 5)
LabsCatch up on labs and documentationLab doc
6October 9/10/11, 2019Asynchronous Serial 1 (Link to class 6)
Serial Labs, Quiz 4, start midtermLab doc
7October 16/17/18, 2019Asynchronous Serial 2 (Link to class 7)LabsSerial Labs, continue midtermLab doc, Midterm doc
8October 23/24/25, 2019Project Presentations Midterms Due (Link to class 8)
Midterm Project
9October 30/31/November 1, 2019High-current loads (Link to class 9)
Final project conceptFinal concept
10November 6/7/8, 2019Final project planning (Link to class 10)Final Project Concept Build 'paper' prototype, make test planPlan, BOM, Timeline
11November 13/14/15, 2019Playtesting (Link to class 11)
Playtest of final projectUpdate project plans based on playtestingUpdate final docs
12November 20/21/22, 2019Serial 3: I2C and SPI (Link to class 12)Get final project ready for user testingProgress Report
Thanksgiving BreakNovember 27-29, 2019
13December 4/5/6, 2019User testing (Link to class 13)
User test of final projectRevisions to final based on user testingFinalize project docs
14December 11/12/13, 2019Project Presentations Finals Due (Link to class 14)Presentation of final project

Parts and Materials Used in Class

You’ll be building a lot of projects in this class, both electronic and mechanical devices. All of your projects will be rough drafts of the interaction you imagine. The electronic exercises will be demonstrated with Arduino microcontrollers and a variety of sensors and actuators. The details of what parts you need can be found on the Parts Needed for Physical Computing page. The ITP shop and equipment room stock parts for you to “try before you buy.” They’re a great way to get to know a sensor or part to see if it will do what you need. Here is a list of the E.R. parts. Please don’t hoard parts from the shop, so that others can use them as well. Take only what you need for a particular project.

Class Policies


The most important thing you can do is arrive to each class on time and be prepared to actively participate, with questions, stories of setbacks or successes you encountered in the lab, and interesting material and events related to pcomp you’ve found. Each week, you should put in adequate time to really digest and then apply the material. We’re unimpressed by last-minute cramming. Floor 4 is the best place to do your class work, as you’ll be surrounded by your peers tackling the same topics, and you’ll have access to second-years, residents, and full-time faculty. Our time together each week, and your access to the 4th floor, is what distinguishes studying pcomp at ITP from, say, just reading the internet.

  • 30%   In-class lab work and participation
    20%   Midterm Physical interaction controller project (“Stupid Pet Trick”)
    30%   Final project
    20%   Blog & documentation

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.

Personal Device Use

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.

Please put mobile devices (phones, tablets, etc.) 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.

Statement of Academic Integrity

Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work as though it were your own. More specifically, plagiarism is to present as your own: A sequence of words quoted without quotation marks from another writer or a paraphrased passage from another writer’s work or facts, ideas or images composed by someone else.

Statement of Principle

The core of the educational experience at the Tisch School of the Arts is the creation of original academic and artistic work by students for the critical review of faculty members. It is therefore of the utmost importance that students at all times provide their instructors with an accurate sense of their current abilities and knowledge in order to receive appropriate constructive criticism and advice. Any attempt to evade that essential, transparent transaction between instructor and student through plagiarism or cheating is educationally self-defeating and a grave violation of Tisch School of the Arts community standards. For all the details on plagiarism, please refer to page 10 of the Tisch School of the Arts, Policies and Procedures Handbook.

Statement on Accessibility

Please feel free to make suggestions to your instructor about ways in which this class could become more accessible to you. Academic accommodations are available for students with documented disabilities. Please contact the Moses Center for Students with Disabilities at 212 998-4980 for further information.

Statement on Counseling and Wellness

Your health and safety are a priority at NYU. If you experience any health or mental health issues during this course, we encourage you to utilize the support services of the 24/7 NYU Wellness Exchange 212-443-9999. Also, all students who may require an academic accommodation due to a qualified disability, physical or mental, please register with the Moses Center 212-998-4980. Please let your instructor know if you need help connecting to these resources.