Introduction to Physical Computing
Fridays 12:30p-3p
Instructor : Scott Fitzgerald
email: scott [at]

office hours: Wed evenings (?)

class syllabus
class administrave poop

Class Description : 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 interpret. You'll learn about the sensors that do this, and about very simple computers called microcontrollers that read sensors and convert their output into data. Finally, you'll learn how microcontrollers communicate with other computers.
Physical computing takes a hands-on approach, which means that you 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 expression.

Check out the syllabus page each week for notes pertinent to the last class.

I have (liberally) borrowed from Jeff Fedderson's and Tom's Physical Computing sites for content and layout.

There is a physical computing flickr page for the labs.

Other current class pages :
Tom's classes
Greg Shakar
Todd Holubek
Carlyn Maw

My fall of 2005 class site

General Physical Computing pages at ITP:
Physical Computing Home
Tom's Pcomp site
Dano's Pcomp site

Lab Assignment:
There is a lab activity for nearly every class in the first half of the semester. They are very short, simple activities. These are the basic steps you need to go through to understand the principle discussed in class each week. They're designed to help you not only to understand the technical details, but also to get a feel for what the technologies we're discussing can do, so that you can incorporate them into actual applications. There are application suggestions in many of them as well. I expect that each student will at least complete the steps outlined in the lab activity each week, so that you understand practically what it is we're talking about. Document any discoveries you make, pitfalls you hit, and details not covered in the class or the lab that you think will be useful for your fellow students and future students in this class.

There are two production projects (midterm, final)and one observation project during the semester. In these projects, you will observe and document a possible situation in which you might use physical computing techniques and develop a prototype to fit the situation. In the production projects you will also test it and report on it.

For the first two projects, you will be assigned to work in a group. For the final project you may work alone or in groups, as you choose.

Journal & Documentation:
You must keep a weekly online journal for this class. The purpose of the journal is twofold. First, it is a valuable way for you to communicate to me that you are keeping up with the work in the class. I will read the journal to see how students are doing, and the journal should be updated regularly throughout the semester. At a minimum, reference to each week's work is expected, as well as reference to the readings, and thorough documentation of the three main projects. You may choose to document your major projects in a separate individual or group site if you choose, but you will be expected to link your site to the main site, and contribute to the class site as well nonetheless. Please avoid flash, shockwave, or other sites that are not text-searchable, as they won't show up on search engines for others to use.

Blogs are great for documenting your process, as they're usually defaulted to organizing the information chronologically. However, projects summarized in a blog can be confusing. It's often worthwhile to set up a separate page or pages to summarize your projects when they're done.

You should document your projects thoroughly. Plan in advance, and perhaps as a group, to have what you need to document at least your midterms and finals. Photos, video, drawings, schematics, and notes are all valuable forms of documentation. Explain the project at the beginning of your documentation, so that people who come to the site from outside this class will understand the overview before they get the explanation.

Don't overload your notes with code. If you've made a big improvement on an existing piece of code, post your new code, and link to the code you based it on (just as you would in citing a pervious author in a paper). If you only changed one part of an existing program, post only the part you changed, and link to the original. Make sure any code you post is well-commented, so you and others can understand what it does.

Always cite the sources of your code, the places you learned techniques from, and the inspirations of your ideas. This is the equivalent to citing your sources in a written paper, and copying code or techniques without attribution is plagiarism. few ideas come out of the blue, and your readers can learn a lot from the sources you learned from or were inspired by.

Work on this as you go, don't put it off until the end. Your fellow classmates will find your notes as useful too.

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. Late attendance affects your grade adversely. If you're going to be late or absent, please let me know in advance. If you have an emergency, please let me know as soon as possible.

Please turn in assignments on time as well. For every week an assignment is late, it loses a letter grade, e.g. 1 week late means a maximum possible grade of A-, 2 weeks is a maximum B+, and so forth.

You are welcome to use your laptop in cass when I am speakng, or when it is relevant to the classwork being presented. However, during discussions and when your fellow students are talking, please be respectful of everyone's time and close the lid.

See my notes on the syllabus page . You will end up spending money on materials in this class. It can be done reasonably inexpensively by scavenging and reusing parts, but more ambitious projects will inevitably make demands on your budget.

Below are recommended texts for the course in general. Individual instructors may have their own recommendations as well. All of them are good inspirational guides for physical computing and computing in general. They are not assigned, but pick up at least one of them and incorporate it in your midterm journal, if nothing else.

Physical Computing: Sensing and Controlling the Physical World with Computers
Dan O' Sullivan and Tom Igoe ©2004
Thompson Course Technology PTR;
ISBN: 159200346X
Yeah... this should be required reading. Anyone who is reading this page and notices I don't mention it in class the first day, call me out on it.

The Design of Everyday Things
Donald A. Norman ©1990 Doubleday Books; ISBN: 0385267746
If you design at all, or work with people who do, read this. A lucid approach to the psychology of everyday interaction and how the objects we deal with could be better designed to match the strengths and weaknesses of the way we think. His predictions about physical interaction design and information design, some accurate and some not, are interesting history lessons eleven years after the first edition.

The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size
Tor Nørretranders ©1998 Viking Press; ISBN: 0670875791
Makes the case that much of our experience of the world does not come to us through our consciousness; in fact, the majority of it dealt with pre-consciously.

Understanding Interactivity
Chris Crawford, ©2000
Self-published and written in a very casual style, this book nevertheless is an excellent and concise summary of what interaction design is, why it is important, and what problems it brings with it. Anyone seriously interested in interaction design, physical or not, should read this book.

The following are good references for electronics hobbyists.

Getting Started in Electronics
Forrest M. Mims III, ©1983, Forrest M. Mims III
A very basic introduction to electricity and electronics, written in notebook style. Includes descriptions of the basic components and what they do, and how they relate to each other.

Practical Electronics for Inventors
1st Edition. Paul Scherz, ©2000, McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing; ISBN: 0070580782
A more in-depth treatment of electronics, with many practical examples and illustrations. An excellent reference for those comfortable with the basic topics. The use of plumbing systems as examples to demonstrate electric principles makes for some very clear illustrations of how different components work. Good chapters on sound electronics and motors as well.