Spring 2022 - IAT 884 G100

Special Topics IV (3)

Tangible Computing

Class Number: 2287

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    Jan 10 – Apr 11, 2022: Mon, 10:30 a.m.–1:20 p.m.




The course covers the historical and current research agenda for a broadly defined class of computational systems, known as Tangible Computing or TEI (Tangible, Embodied and Embedded Interaction), that include user interfaces, interaction approaches and computational systems that emphasize the tangibility and materiality of the interface, physical embodiment of data, hands-on and/or whole body interaction, and the embedding of computation in real spaces, objects and contexts. Tangible computing spans a variety of disciplines including human-computer interaction and interaction design, and utilizes interactive technologies including sensing systems, actuators, microcontrollers and/or hybrid physical-digital and/or multimodal displays.

The course is designed as a content area course for students interested in the design, prototyping and evaluation of tangible computing systems. It will not cover mobile devices or large display environments.

The course has two main aims:

  1. To familiarize students with and help them critically analyze the history, foundations, agendas, issues, research methods and current and critical research projects and papers in the broadly defined area of tangible, embodied and embedded computing.
  2. To provide the opportunity to develop hands-on technical skills in prototyping simple sensor, actuated or camera vision based tangible computing systems in order to explore simple, topical research questions.

Who should take this course

Graduate students in Interactive Arts and Technology, Psychology, Sociology, Computing, Communications, Engineering, Education, or Contemporary Arts.

Pre-requisites and course enrolment

Students should have an introductory course in research methods and/or research design such as IAT 804. Students will benefit from having completely a foundational multimedia programming computation course (e.g., java, processing) such as IAT 800 and/or a design methods course such as IAT 832 Exploring Interaction. However, neither of these courses are prerequisites. Students interested in tangible, surface, embedded or interactive environments will benefit from having clearly defined research questions for their tangible computing project and/or thesis work in place early in the course. 


Learning Outcomes

The overall learning goals for the course are for students to understand and be able to discuss the main philosophical, cognitive, social and technical influences in the field of tangible, embodied and embedded computing, to be able to analyze and critique current research in the field and develop the technical skills to build simple research prototypes. By the end of the course, if you are successful in meeting learning outcomes, you will be able to: 

  • Understand and explain the historical development of research in tangible, embodied and embedded computing.
  • Understand and explain the main taxonomies, foundational theories and the significance of key research projects that have defined the current state of research in tangible, embodied and embedded computing.
  • Critically analyze the research methods and results of a variety of tangible, embodied and embedded computing projects found in published conference and journal proceedings.
  • Propose and rigorously justify a research approach, research question(s) and a particular prototype design as a means to creating new knowledge in tangible, embodied and embedded computing.
  • Design and technically implement a simple research prototype using that approach, which addresses specific research question(s).
  • Design and author a top tier (short/long) conference paper of 1) a design rationale for your research prototype that addresses a knowledge gap in the field and/or 2) a viable, rigorous and theoretically grounded research study that can be used to evaluate human use of your research prototype.


This course builds a foundation for research in new forms of interaction and new styles of interfaces by providing an introduction to historical origins and development of tangible computing as a representative class of a new interactive technology. This foundation will be used to analyze taxonomies, issues, explore theoretical underpinnings and analyze critical and innovative research in tangible computing and related fields. Students will have the opportunity to propose, justify, plan, design, build and demonstrate a simple research prototype and design and write an accompanying research paper. The course includes a workshop component where students learn through hands-on activities about sensors, electricity, simple circuits, microcontrollers, actuators, data processing and logic, camera vision, networking, and communication protocols.   


  • Workshop Exercises 20%
  • Seminar Participation 20%
  • Demonstration of working research prototype 25%
  • Research paper 35%



A workshop materials "kit" will be distributed before/at the beginning of class. It will contain all the required materials for the workshops, except the camera vision module. You may be required to borrow, purchase or find other materials to make your research prototype. The library has a diverse collection of equipment that may be of use.


Brygg Ullmer, Orit Shaer, Ali Mazalek and Caroline Hummels. In press. Weaving Fire into Form: Aspirations for Tangible and Embodied Interaction, ACM Press. (Pre-Print available on course website or from instructor – this copy will not be for distribution beyond your personal use).

Additional readings will be posted on course web site.


Orit Shaer and Eva Hornecker. 2010. Tangible User Interfaces: Past, Present, and Future Directions. Foundations and Trends in Human-Computer Interaction. Now Publishers. 

Workshop Resource: Tom Igoe and Dan O'Sullivan. 2004. Physical Computing: Sensing and Controlling the Physical World with Computers. Course Technology Press.

Graduate Studies Notes:

Important dates and deadlines for graduate students are found here: http://www.sfu.ca/dean-gradstudies/current/important_dates/guidelines.html. The deadline to drop a course with a 100% refund is the end of week 2. The deadline to drop with no notation on your transcript is the end of week 3.

Registrar Notes:


SFU’s Academic Integrity web site http://www.sfu.ca/students/academicintegrity.html is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating.  Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the University community.  Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the University. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the University. http://www.sfu.ca/policies/gazette/student/s10-01.html


Teaching at SFU in spring 2022 will involve primarily in-person instruction, with safety plans in place.  Some courses will still be offered through remote methods, and if so, this will be clearly identified in the schedule of classes.  You will also know at enrollment whether remote course components will be “live” (synchronous) or at your own pace (asynchronous).

Enrolling in a course acknowledges that you are able to attend in whatever format is required.  You should not enroll in a course that is in-person if you are not able to return to campus, and should be aware that remote study may entail different modes of learning, interaction with your instructor, and ways of getting feedback on your work than may be the case for in-person classes.

Students with hidden or visible disabilities who may need class or exam accommodations, including in the context of remote learning, are advised to register with the SFU Centre for Accessible Learning (caladmin@sfu.ca or 778-782-3112) as early as possible in order to prepare for the spring 2022 term.