ITP Thesis Week 2009
Monday, May 4 - Friday, May 8

Mud Tub

Thomas Gerhardt

The Mud Tub is an experimental organic interface that lets users control a computer while playing in the mud.

By sloshing, squishing, pulling, punching, etc, in a tub of mud (yes, wet dirt), users control games, simulators, and expressive tools; interacting with a computer in a new, completely organic, way. Born out of a motivation to close the gap between our bodies and the digital world, the Mud Tub frees the traditional computer interaction model of it’s rigidity, allowing humans to use their highly developed sense of touch, and creative thinking skills in a more natural way.

The Mud Tub occupies a space similar to other experimental human-computer interfaces, like, multi-touch surfaces, body controllers, augmented reality systems, etc, which push the boundaries of codified interaction models, and drive the development of innovative software applications. Beyond its role as a research topic, the Mud Tub also exists as an open-sourced hardware/software platform on which interactive artists and designers explore new methods for creating and displaying their work.

Where the Mud Tub differs from the field though, is it’s use of a richly textured organic substance that takes advantage of human ingenuity and complex sensory ability; pioneering a new open-ended interaction typology where prescriptive goals are centered around states, rather than specific user manipulation. I.e., instead of having an user click a mouse button with their pointer finger, or gesture with two fingers in a specific way, he or she is simply asked to create a state in the Mud Tub surface, which can be accomplished in any manner of ways, including digging, molding, pressing, piling, etc. This creates a “buffer” between physical user action and digital result that allows for user improvisation and makes the system inherently adaptable.

Exploring unique and natural physical interactions, especially ones that involve rich tactile feedback, has been directly or indirectly a part of my work as an artist and designer for some time. My previous work has consisted of everything from bringing sweat, grunts, and arm wrestling to the classic game Tetris, to constructing squishy circuits with conductive felt; all projects which sought to bring organic (and human) qualities to our experiences with the digital world.

With my most current work, the Mud Tub, I am particularly excited to see the impact mud has on an user’s attitude toward interacting with computers; they instantly seem to “feel at home,” as if they had found something missing. This spark I see in people is what keeps my research into organic interfaces moving forward; next, I plan to expand upon the case study applications, initially developed for the Mud Tub, by forming collaborations with artists and designers who can provide rich content for the Mud Tub via it’s API built on top of the open source platform Processing. The future is exciting.