Prototyping Tangible Input Devices with Digital Fabrication

Valkyrie Savage, UC Berkeley
Björn Hartmann, UC Berkeley

Tangible user interfaces (TUIs) are, according to Hiroshi Ishii, about “mak[ing] digital information directly manipulatable with our hands and perceptible through our peripheral senses through its physical embodiment”. Although touch screen-based interactions are increasingly popular as smartphones continue to sell, there are still strong arguments for maintaining the tangibility of interfaces: these arguments range from speed and accuracy (a gamer using a gaming console) to visibility (ability of others to learn and interact with one’s data in a shared space) to safety and accessibility (including eyes-free interfaces for driving). We have previously investigated the benefits of tangibility in How Bodies Matter.

3D printing holds obvious promise for the physical design and fabrication of tangible interfaces. However, becasue such interfaces are interactive, they require an integration of physical form and electronics. Few of the early users of 3D printing can currently create such objects. For example, we surveyed the the online community Thingiverse; presently it and sites similar to it show a definite tilt towards objects like 3D scans of artwork at the Art Institute of Chicago. These things are immobile, captured rather than designed, and intended to be used as jewelry or art pieces. A smaller set of things on the site have mechanical movement of some kind, like toy cars and moon rovers. A third, yet smaller, class are things that are both mechanically and electronically functional, like Atari joystick replacements. The users who dabble in this last sector are typically experts in PCB design and design for 3D printing.

Continue reading