Zoology of Physical Computing
by Dennis Finnin copyright AMNH
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
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
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.
>> back to the physical computing roundup
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.