Physical User Interfaces

Worth: 20%

You are to design a physical user interface appliance using Phidgets. Your design process will follow the pattern of your previous assignments, and thus will not be repeated here.

Assignment type

Choose one of the following. For all projects, you will need to show the intended location of these appliances, e.g., as a sketch or photo of the physical setting, plus provide a scenario of use that rationalizes your choice.

  • Aging in place: Monitoring and communicating with an aging parent. Create a set of appliances. The first unobtrusively monitors an aging parent for information that will indicate the on-going health of that parent. The second appliance will display that information in an aesthetic form in the caregiver's home. Note that attention must be paid to privacy concerns, aesthetics, respect (between caregiver and aging parent), etc. Ideally, the display appliance will serve as both a background and foreground display.
  • Physical manifestation of digital information. Take a source of digital information, and display some of its relevant properties via a physical appliance. Examples are numerous, so we will leave that up to you. Ideally, your appliance will combine background (ambient) display with foreground detail, and will be interactive to the point that some manipulation of that digital information is allowed.
  • Tagging the physical environment with digital information. Using RFID tags as the primary technology, develop an application that allows one to link digital information to the physical world. Examples can include physical books that access electronic information, tablets or laptops that serve as contextual viewers of information associated with physical artifacts, and much much more. Your project may also emphasize how people create these links.
  • A physical game based on digital control. Create a game - any age category is ok - that uses physical input and output devices under program control. While a screen may be used, it must be a secondary aspect of the project i.e., the emphasis must be on the physical control.
  • Propose your own. You may propose your own project, but it must be approved by Nic and/or Saul before proceeding.


Grading will be based in a large part on:

  • the design process (as in other assignments)
    • professional and complete execution of sketches and portfolio/video summary
    • professional application of 'out of the box' design principles, design creativity, implementation quality, and packaging
  • the scenario of use, including its believability
  • the aesthetics of the final design (e.g., how the physical devices are packaged)
  • the actual functionality of the phidgets and its controlling software
  • a working system (required)


  1. Sites
  2. Phidget hardware
    • We will give you a stock set to get you going.
    • We have a complete stock of almost everything Phidgets Inc. sells (see ). Ask for some if you need specific (or more) devices. While we cannot guarantee we can get it to you, we will try.


Exercise Objectives

Pedagogical Objectives

Design a specific physical user interface that uses your knowledge of ubiquitous computing, tangible bits, and even groupware,

Apply your theoretical knowledge of ubiquitous computing, tangible media, groupware to design creation.

Generate sketched designs in your sketchbook of possible physical user interfaces and their surrounding physical concepts.

Develop skills designing out of the box devices using sensors, motors, rfid tags, etc. and how they fit into the environment.

Implement and package your design on the class web site so others can try it.

Learn how to program phidgets, and practice techniques for implementing designs.

Create a video-based portfolio summary

Experience creating a demonstration video

Demonstrate your system

Engage in design critiques