Syllabus Fall 2020


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: If you plan to use the shop at 370 Jay, 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.
  • Individual instructors may modify this structure as they go, depending on each class’ need.

Class Expectations

The assignments in this class consist of weekly lab assignments throughout the semester; readings, discussion, and class participation; and three project assignments in which you’ll build interactive devices. 

Lab Assignments

There are lab assignments for most weeks of the semester. These are practical exercises that will help you to learn the technical material of the class. Each week you should review the topic notes or videos explaining that week’s materials, then do the labs, and write about your progress, your failures, and your questions. Class time most weeks will start with your questions and progress from the labs.

Project Assignments

You’ll complete three project assignments in this class. The briefs for these are on the assignments page. The material in the labs will provide the techniques you need, and the class discussion will help you to come up with the ideas for each of these. Some of these will be group assignments. You’ll show your project assignments in class in weeks 5, 10, and 14. You will be expected to document your projects on your blog as well.


Document your progress in the class online in a regular blog as you go. At a minimum, you should summarize any insights you have in each week’s lab assignments, and 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.  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. Read each week’s material before class, do the labs, and prepare questions.

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. There is no specific assignment for these, but they will likely come up as references in the class discussion.

A longer list of both technical and conceptual source material can be found on the Books page.

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. Share your notes with your classmates 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 is the week to week schedule for the semester. The class pages, linked by each week, detail the topics to be covered that week and the assignments for the following week.

Semester Overview Fall 2020

Class & DatesTopic list (F2020)Assignment Due (F2020)Post-Class Work
What is physical interaction
* Descriptions
* pics
* videos
Shop for parts
Set up a blog and send link to instructor
Electronics Labs
Quiz 1
Electrical basics: voltage, current, resistance
* System diagrams (block diagrams of components in the system)
* Circuit Drawings (Fritzing or other)
* Schematics (Fritzing or other)
Electronics Labs
Questions from Quiz 1
Do Digital I/O + Analog Input labs
Do Quiz 2
Microcontroller, Digital & Analog InMicrocontroller I/O labs
Questions from Quiz 2
Do Analog Out Labs
Do Quiz 3
Blog Project 1 idea
Make playtest plan
Build cardboard prototype
Analog Out:
* PWM, Tone
Microcontroller Analog Out Labs
Questions from Quiz 3
Project 1 idea
Build Project 1 device
Blog project process
Show assignment 1Project 1: physical I/O device dueBlog remaining Project 1 documentation
Review labs so far
Catch-up and Datasheets
Documentation from Project 1Do Serial 1 labs
Asynchronous serialQuestions from first serial labsDo Serial 2 labs
Blog Project 2 idea
Async serial 2: protocolsDo second serial labs
Project 2 idea
Do I2C/SPI labs
Synchronous serialQuestions from I2C/SPI labsBuild Project 2 device
Blog project process
Show assignment 2Project 2: media device dueBlog remaining Project 2 documentation
Electrical basics: current & energy
Motors & Movement
Blog Project 3 idea
Review Labs for Project 3 techniques
User testingProject 3 ideaMake and blog playtest plan
Build and test cardboard prototype
More User TestingBuild Project 3 device
Blog project process
Show finalAssignment 3: Final device dueBlog remaining Project 23documentation

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 and tools guide page. The ITP shop and equipment room stock parts for you to “try before you buy.” They’re there for you to get to know a sensor or part to see if it will do what you need. 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 or lab.

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 digest and then apply the material. When possible, work with your peers, whether in person or online. It’s useful to have access to people tackling the same topics, to second-years, residents, and full-time faculty. Our time together each week, and your access to each other is what distinguishes studying physical computing at ITP from, say, just reading the internet.

  • 30%   Lab work and in-class participation
  • 50%   Project assignments
  • 20%   Blog & documentation

Participation & Attendance

The class meetings for Fall 2020 will be held over teleconference, at the scheduled class times. Should conditions allow, instructors will make their own arrangements for outside-of-class-meeting activities on the ITP floor at 370 Jay St., such as office hours, project reviews, or whatever is deemed safe and appropriate. Attending in-person sessions will be completely optional and do it so only if you feel comfortable and safe about it.

The most valuable thing we can do when we are in person or online in a class meeting together is to discuss and practice the subject that you’re learning. Showing up on time, engaging in the class discussion, turning in assignments on time, and offering support to your classmates through advice and critique is a major part of your success in this class.

Although a considerable amount of the class material is available online, you should attend the class meetings whenever possible. This class is a workshop and seminar, not a lecture class. It relies heavily on group discussion and participation in class time. As long as your physical environment and internet bandwidth allow you to, we expect you to join the online class meetings on-time and participate actively, with your camera on so we can see and interact with each other. Class goes best if you join the conversation with respect and consideration for your classmates, and ask questions verbally or in chat during the class. Edutopia has a set of hand signals which can be useful in class as well, which classes can adopt. If you can’t join class meetings in this way, please let your instructor know in advance so we can plan accordingly. We will do everything we can to accommodate students, but we need to know in advance in order to do so.

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.

Personal Device Use

The quality of the class depends in large part on the quality of your attention and active participation. As class will be take place via Zoom you will certainly have your computer open. Please use your computer to engage in class and class material and refrain from checking email, social media and extracurricular activities. This is especially important during student presentations, feedback sessions and class discussions. Please silence any devices that you’re not actively using to connect to class, and turn off notifications that might disrupt the discussion. If you have an emergency that might require you to leave during class, please tell your instructor ahead of time.

ITP Code of Conduct

As with all activities at ITP and IMA, we’ll be following the ITP/IMA code of conduct. Please consider it as a guide for projects you might make or see in this class, and how we behave with respect to each other in class.

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 or programming code or images 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.