Interactables, Episode #1

Authors: Mikael Wiberg
Posted: Wed, December 12, 2012 - 5:33:59

This is my first blog post for interactions. I am honored by the invitation to serve as a blogger and I truly look forward to writing in this forum during the coming year. I hope it will spin off into a number of discussions valuable to us as an interaction-oriented community. Hopefully it will also work as a way of reaching out, and as a medium for potential readers currently outside the community to reach in and engage in discussions on interactions. 

I have tried to think about how I would like to frame my blogging activity. For sure, I could blog about different things happening and how they relate to digital interaction or interaction design and HCI. Still, it feels like I would like to frame my blogging to some extent, to create and communicate through a format for you to recognize. I thought about a theme and I came up with one which will unveil itself over a number of upcoming blog posts, or as I like to think of them, episodes of short reflections. Let me tell you a short story about how this theme and framing emerged. 

The thing is that I have one of these small black notebooks. I always bring it with me. It´s a great tool for sketching and for note-taking activities. It is great to have in meetings, but also as a tool for reflecting on ideas. It is indeed an object that speaks back to me—as a mirror of conversations, as a reflection of ideas, and as a medium in conversations. In short, I like it.

In this notebook I keep a small, very lightweight, but very robust piece of technology. This is in fact a short piece of conductive thread (kept in the notebook since the TEI´10 ACM conference hosted at the MIT Media Lab). Of course, this piece of conductive thread is an evocative object to me. It brings back memories from the e-textile workshop I participated in during the TEI´10 conference. But it is also an evocative object in how it works as a reminder about how computing can be very different from how we might most commonly frame it (as boxes of different width, height and depth). This piece of conductive thread is a true everyday reminder of how computing nowadays can come in many different forms. The dominant form is still through screen-based interaction in how it presents itself. Cloud services are now quickly establishing themselves as a backbone for ubiquitous and networked services, and "there´s an app for that" seems to establish itself as the preferred choice of box for anyone who wants to act modernly in the fast-growing landscape of digital services and products. Still, the conductive thread suggests that computing can be interwoven into the fabrics of everyday life—literally.

Looking at the field of HCI today there is a growing interest in smart materials like conductive treads. Researchers in our field are curious to learn more about the potential of these new materials for interaction design and for rethinking what interaction can be about. However, the trend is clear. The future of interaction lies not only in the potential of new/smart materials or in rethinking the interfaces and services we have already seen. That would help but it is still limiting our imagination. We should not make the mistake of limiting our imagination by considering only digital materials.

HCI, interaction design, and ultimately, the re-imagination of interaction, is not bounded by the science of (only) the artificial, i.e., constrained to consider only man-made objects. In the design of waterfall displays now commercially available interaction designers and engineers have already re-imagined water and gravity as potential elements to re-activate through computing to enable new "screens" or interfaces for interactions. It might be our mission to push this even further, a thought we developed in other writings [1,2].

The other day I received a great gift from my collaborator and friend at NYU. It was a notebook. However, it was not only a simple physical notebook, but rather came with a potential for computing, and as such it came with a potential for re-imagining interaction. This notebook appears to be like any other notebook. It is made out of paper. It has a cover and it includes pages. It also supports sketching and note taking with any available pen. It does not present itself as a representation of a notebook, but is in fact a notebook in its most traditional sense. But still, as I said, it also comes with the potential for computing. The notebook is an "interactable", i.e., a potential material or object for interaction, gracefully integrated in a composition of physical and digital materials that includes the notebook, any available pen, a mobile app, special physical tags that can be used with this notebook, a cloud service, and a web interface. This enables the archiving of physical notes, sharing and further editing of notes, replication of notes, and even searching and querying of notes. From this perspective, the notebook and the pen, and even the sketching and note-taking activities, are potentially part of a computational act—these materials are all potential interactables. So, if these interactables are the footprints of an archeology to be invented, what kinds of interactions can we imagine? What kinds of interactions are these interactables a footprint of?

In my coming blog posts my intention is to review interactables—these materials and objects out there that are right now quickly becoming aligned in acts of computation and interaction. While I prepare for the next blog post I invite you all to discuss interaction design and interactions beyond only computational objects and materials, and in fact, beyond any man-made material to envision or maybe to re-envision any material or object as a potential for rethinking interaction. Let´s go for it: let´s imagine, let´s re-imagine, let´s activate, and let´s re-activate!


1. Wiberg, M. and Robles, E. Computational compositions: Aesthetics, materials, and interaction design. International Journal of Design 4, 2 (2010), 65-76.

2. Robles, E. and Wiberg, M. From materials to materiality. interactions 18, 1 (Jan.+Feb. 2011), 32-37.

Posted in: on Wed, December 12, 2012 - 5:33:59

Mikael Wiberg

Mikael Wiberg is Professor of Informatics in the Department of Informatics at Umeå University, Sweden.
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