Experimental Interaction

I’m teaching a course in the coming semester titled “Experimental Interaction”. One nice, but somewhat frightening, thing is that my brief for what to teach in the course is, pretty much… “experimental interaction”. Which has meant a need to consider what the two words even mean, separately and in conjunction. You know, so I can manage to teach students something useful about the concept.

My basic strategy in the course is to lean more toward offering the students “provocations” with which to experiment. Thus, there will be lectures covering different technologies (multitouch, augmented reality, exertion interfaces) and different conceptual frames (time, failure, abuse). After all, the point in a class like this is to experiment, I think, rather than to think about “what it all means”.

Nonetheless, I’ve gradually moved toward conceptualising experimental interaction in three related ways, which I’m hoping will help in developing a useful perspective on it: as science, as art, and as play.

Experimental interaction as science allows us to view it as a more or less formal process. There are two key elements. One is that the science view implies that you are actually testing something – that you have something you want to find out about. The other is that you develop a systematic way to carry out the test (with control groups, experimental conditions, and the like). In this context we might see experimental interaction as developing a hypothesis, say, about how people will react to something like “co-operative multitouch play” and then running a test which enables us to pass some sort of judgment.

Experimental interaction as art brings us more toward self-expression. Here the “experimental” is about controverting expectations and that kind of thing, perhaps shocking people into particular realisations, making them view an interaction from a different perspective, turning things on their heads. When an artist (whose name utterly eludes me unfortunately) feeds the people who come into the gallery as his artwork, we could say it’s a form of experimental interaction between him and the audience. Importantly in this context it seems important that the interaction means something. Presumably something new.

Experimental interaction as play brings us purely into a world of novelty, and particularly the question “what if?” From a play perspective, experimental interaction is when we take the interactive thing given to us and stretch it, try unusual combinations of input, perhaps do the “wrong” thing. This is a fairly natural attitude for many players of video games – we shoot the good guy to see what will happen, we jump off the cliff, we use the jet-pack indoors. From a designer’s perspective, experimental interaction as play seems to suggest we purposefully attempt to create objects/games which encourage this attitude in the player. The classic contemporary example of this is the “sandbox” game, in which a system is placed before the player with the understand they will try many different courses of action, asking “what if?”

These three perspectives on experimental interaction have certainly helped me in at least slightly taming the wild beast that it might otherwise become. While the commandments “do anything” or “do something never seen” might initially appear inspirational, they can quickly become a nightmare.

By attempting to tie “experimental interaction” down a little we can liberate ourselves to experiment.

21 August 2010
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