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The Zoology of Physical Computing

by Joey Stein
photos by Dennis Finnin copyright AMNH

Physical Computing: A Curious Animal

For the past four years I have been designing and creating physical computing pieces at the American Museum of Natural History. I have worked on more than two dozen exhibit elements, including new interfaces, sculptures, and spaces. The Museum has been, and continues to be, an ideal place to consolidate my long relationship with natural history and my relatively new fascination with physical computing. Now, after several years of working in the field and studying the works of others, I have begun thinking of physical computing pieces as each their own species of technology vying for small niches of cultural attention.

The fastest land mammal is the cheetah. It fills a predatory niche that no other animal occupies. If, for some reason, exceptional speed were not required, the cheetah would most likely go extinct. Its unique adaptations of paw structure and oxygen intake would no longer provide advantage in food acquisition, and it would not be able to compete with the many generally adapted predatory animals that hunt at more average speeds. Specialized organisms often have unique body shapes and functions that make them both perfectly suited to their niche, but also susceptible to even small changes in their environment or food source.

Similarly, physical computing, in many respects, can be seen as a specialized form of computing--uniquely adapting to the niche of artistic expression and cultural trends. Though we often use a general-use computer as our medium, the end result is often a sculpture or installation unique in form and function, and of highly specific use. Invariably, physical computing pieces don't score well in general utility, but achieve artistic heights and realms that no desktop alone could dream of. Like a specialized organism, the success and longevity of any given physical computing piece is relative to its targeted application, while susceptible to small cultural climactic changes.

Case Study: Shadowman--A Thin Creature Living in a Dark Gallery

The first piece I created was titled Normal Body Ecology--more affectionately known as Shadowman for the exhibit Epidemic! The World of Infectious Disease (AMNH 1998). The Museum wanted a piece that simulated the scanning of the human body in order to educate the public about the normal flora and fauna found in and on humans. There were three criteria: the results were to be made visible to the gallery, the interaction was not to make the visitor feel embarrassed, and the piece needed to be constructed with very little money. The result was Shadowman, a life-sized humanoid wire frame projection with a projected shadow that fell onto the exhibit floor. Visitors could walk on the shadow, and the corresponding parts on the wire frame would light up--showing an example of the local bacteria or fungus found there, along with a fascinating fact such as: "Did you know that you are composed of more NON-human cells than human cells?"

Once Shadowman was up, I spent a considerable amount of time watching people use it; they organized themselves to take turns, searched for messages in hard to get places, and invariably explored what lives in the human groin (which toggled back and forth from male to female). The piece was popular, and there was regularly a small group around, with a few people participating and several others watching or waiting. Though there were things about it I would have changed, I considered Shadowman a success. It proved to be intuitive and fun, and it encouraged people to interact with the intended content in a social way.

Now the Bad News

Curiously, our exhibit evaluator arrived on the scene to see what people were learning from Shadowman, and came back with dismal results. This news both surprised and disturbed me, and in my haste I immediately challenged the questions asked, the purpose, and the process. The evaluations were geared to learn if the visitors understood the purpose of Shadowman and its entire section of the exhibit. After asking questions myself, I felt many people weren't able to fully verbalize their experience, let alone the meaning behind it. To their credit, the experience was in an uncommon type of space with an unusual interface, and clear flaws were emerging.

Many of the evaluation questions hinged on information that was only found on a text panel next to Shadowman. This vital text explained the concept of "normal body ecology," and essentially prepared the visitor for exploring the interactive. The problem was that Shadowman was immediately next to it, and the difference in dynamic from static-wall-text to physical-interactive made very few people even approach the text. Additionally, though Shadowman was made using the flexibility of computers, it was installed as a sculptural element with dimensions and a presence that made it relatively inflexible to broad changes in content. Had Shadowman been implemented on a generally adapted touch screen, all the content issues could have been addressed relatively quickly and easily.

Ultimately, I felt the evaluation itself was focused more towards an analysis of the absorption of the wall text, which was physically separate from Shadowman, without exploring the value of such an interface for engaging people in a physical and social experience about normal body ecology. Shadowman's biggest strength was its ability to draw people in and create a social context for learning and exploration, filling a niche that a more standard interface could not fill.

Case Study: Mutation Station--A Sculptural Prescription for Change

Mutation Station, from the exhibit The Genomic Revolution, (AMNH 2000) was a subsequent piece of similar explorative nature. The piece concerned the topic of DNA, and here, we made sure to learn from our experiences with Shadowman.
The physical size of DNA, in combination with the complex laboratory methods required to study or manipulate it, makes DNA largely inaccessible to the public. With Mutation Station, we wanted to put the sense of power associated with the manipulation of the code of life--well hyped by the media--into the hands of the public, while educating them about point mutations.

Mutation Station is large floor-to-ceiling sculpture of DNA in which visitors can manipulate the rungs (illuminated nucleotide base pairs representing the various combinations of Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymine) to find point mutations on a fruit fly. Their progress and occasional discovery of a mutation is shown on a vertically oriented plasma display. By incorporating the text panel with the sculpture, the visitor experience and comprehension was improved from that of Shadowman.

Though Mutation Station was designed for a specific purpose and location, I hoped that its ability to show any combination of base pairs in sculptural form would add to a broader utility. I dreamed of other versions made for the classroom, which would adapt via software to shifting course work. The thinking behind this was to explore if Mutation Station was flexible enough in design to adapt and survive in a different niche. Despite the interest and much discussion to this end, a short run of multiple Mutation Stations was never created, largely because the cost proved prohibitive. Today, Mutation Station is carefully packed away somewhere in a storage facility, awaiting the right conditions to emerge for another opportunity to entertain and educate.

Fleet and Fleeting

Like a cheetah in a savanna of lions, hyenas and wild dogs, physical computing exists around the periphery of the technology industry. It survives by occupying niches that are unexplored, taking on forms that are extreme, and thriving off the whims of cultural trends and desire. Though very few physical computing pieces may survive in the long run, their variety of purpose, shape, and function make them a fascinating zoology worth exploring in all their successes, failures and idiosyncrasies. Next time you see one, take a good look, because it might be your last opportunity.

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Joseph Stein holds the position of Embedded Interaction Designer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In this capacity he has created new forms of environmental and sculptural interactives, carving inventive landscapes for the visitor experience. These highly acclaimed, award-winning exhibits have included projects such as Mutation Station and Shackleton Sextant Interactive. In addition to his work at the museum, he has taught the masters course in Physical Computing at New York University and lectured at Harvard Graduate School of Design. He has spoken about his work at numerous conferences and public gatherings, including the lab at Interval Research and the computer conference, SIGGRAPH. This past winter he held a residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute, New Mexico.


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