Part 2: Physicality


The 2nd part of Don Norman’s two part essay on “The Next UI Breakthrough” appears in the July/August 2007 edition of ACM Interactions. In it, he describes how physicality is now being re-introduced into the user interface for computers. He describes physicality as more extensive than tangible computing and “embodiment” (Paul Dourish’s explication of computing that is both social and tangible because the manipulation and handling of objects is always part of social activities.) For Norman, “physicality” is something new in that it is a return after a period of user interfaces in which mechanical manipulation of things like knobs and dials and switches was avoided in favor of things like the so-called soft switches. Now switches and dials have returned, as have more advance interface forms that can respond to gesture.

Physicality: the return to physical devices, where we control things by physical body movement, by turning, moving, and manipulating appropriate mechanical devices.

We have evolved as physical creatures. We live in a complex, three-dimensional world filled with physical objects. We are analog beings in an artificial world of digital devices, devices that abstract what is powerful and good from the physical world and turn it into information spaces, usually in arbitrary ways. These new approaches put the body back into the picture. They require us to control through physical action rather than virtual, which means through mechanical devices, not electronic or graphic.

I’d speculate that part of the return has to do with the fact that the old metaphors of turning a knob, for example, are effective and meaningful. But beyond just switches and control inputs, Norman seems to be speculating that the return to physicality will present opportunities for new kinds of interaction, beyond just switching things on or off, and, hopefully, for interaction beyond typing. Despite Norman’s observation that we’re returning to physical controls, one form of physical control — the keyboard — has never left. I’d be interested in forms of user interface that didn’t even touch the kinds of computing models that keyboards enforce. Can there be a form of computing that relies entirely on physical movement rather than tapping on little plastic squares?