• Physical Computing
  • Topic / Brief

    Lecturers: Luke Franzke & Paulina Zybinska


    In this course, we will look at Physical Computing as a method of Interaction Design. Our definition of Physical Computing refers to the use of hardware and code to make interactive objects that can respond to events in the real world. These events may be from the environment (temperature, radiation, etc.) or user interactions (touch, speech, etc.). These devices might respond with direct physical feedback and action or by performing actions in a digital environment. Physical Computing also describes the creative problem-solving process through the use of technological and functional prototypes. 

    Course Goals

    The students learn how to handle hardware and code in order to prototype their own design outcomes. The students develop an understanding of the characteristics of physical interactions and demonstrate them through functional prototypes. From a technical perspective, students learn the basics of electronics, microcontroller programming (Arduino), working with digital and analogue sensors, actuators and displays.

    Course Structure

    The course takes place in two separate blocks: Physical Computing Basics in the first two weeks and the Main Project in the last two weeks. In the first block, students will work individually through the introductory topics, while the Main Project is in groups of two to three students

    Grades will be based on group presentations, class participation, home assignments, documentation and final work. An attendance of min. 80% is required to pass the course.

    Individual Work (weeks 1 and 2, and Bits & Atoms III)40%

    • Workbook documentation of all exercises and minor projects from weeks 1 and 2 and Bits and Atoms III. 
    • Presentation of Minor Project.

    Group Work (weeks 3 and 4) 60% 

    1. Final Prototype of Object
    2. Final Presentation
    3. Standard IAD Documentation 
      • Video (Making of, Final Prototype)
      • Image selection
      • Short Documentation (PDF)

    Final Presentation notes

    • 5 minutes for presentation, and 5 minutes for feedback and discussion
    • Show the process that brought you to this outcome 
    • Live demonstration of your project 


    Documentation includes separate submissions: the individual workbook (all individual exercise), and the group documentation.
    Upload your files to: smb://fileredu.ad.zhdk.ch/DDE/BDE_VIAD/01_ABGABEN/21_HS/Physical_Computing

  • Schedule

    12.10.2021 Seminarraum 4.K15 (Luke)

    13.10.2021 Seminarraum 4.K15 (Luke + Paulina)

    • Digital Interfaces: I2C, SPI, UART  (Luke)
    • Distance Sensor and IMU:   (Luke)
    • 13:30 -15:00 Jürg Lehni Gastreferat Hörsaal 1 ( Bits & Atoms III )
    • 15:00 Neo Pixel (Paulina)

    14.10.2021 Seminarraum 4.K15 (Luke)

    15.10.2021 Seminarraum 4.K15 (Luke)

    19.10.2021 Seminarraum 4.K15 ( Luke + Paulina)

    • 13:00 Arduino & P5.js (Paulina)

    20.10.2021 Seminarraum 4.K15 (Luke + Paulina)

    • Arduino & P5.js (continued..)
    • Individual Main Assignment start

    21.10.2021 Seminarraum 4.K15 (Paulina)

    • Individual Main Assignment 

    22.10.2021 Seminarraum 4.K15 (Luke + Paulina)

    • Individual Main Assignment presentation (11:00)
    • Main Project Kickoff (13:30)
    • shiftr.io (Paulina)

    26.10.2021 Seminarraum 5.D01 (Luke + Paulina)

    • Group work

    27.10.2021 Seminarraum 5.D02 (Luke + Paulina)

    • 10:00 am Concept Presentation 
    • 13:00-14:30 Mentoring 

    28.10.2021 Seminarraum 4.D11 (Luke + Paulina)

    • 9:00-12:00 ML5 
    • 13:30-14:30 PCB Fabrication (Luke) 
    • Group work

    29.10.2021 Atelier (Luke + Paulina)

    • 10-11:30 Mentoring
    • Group work

    02.11.2021 Atelier(Luke)

    • 10:00-11:30 Mentoring 
    • Group work

    03.11.2021 Atelier (Luke + Paulina)

    • 10:00 - 11:30 Mentoring 
    • Group work

    04.11.2021 Atelier (Luke + Paulina)

    • 10:00-11:30 Mentoring 
    • Group work

    05.11.2021 Seminarraum  5.K11 (Luke + Paulina)

    • 13:00 - 14:30 Final Presentation 
    • 15:00 -15:30 Feedback

    08.11.2021  Extension: 19.11.2021

    • Documentation Deadline 

  • Materials and Resources

    Supplied Materials:

    Software (install before course begin)

    Other Tools:

    Materials you should rent or provide yourself:

    • USB A/C adapter (if you have a newer Mac computer)
    • Personal Computer 
    • Camera 
    Material Suppliers: 


    2 Pages
  • Individual Minor Assignments

    This section will be populated with every individual exercise after it's assigned. Please ensure that you document each exercise after you complete it. 

    8 Files
  • Individual Main Assignment

    Develop an interactive device, that connects a physical input to a physical output. I.E  inputs from one sensor provide the data for controlling a physical actuator, light or sound. Please write your name and devices your borrow in this google doc

    Sound (Buzzer or Loudspeaker) Movement (Motor, Solenoid, Servo)  Light (LED, Neopixel, lightbulb, laser) Tactile (vibration motor, actuator, Peltier element) Graphic Display (OLED, LCD, 7 segments, Printer, computer screen with p5.js) 
    Sound (microphone, piezo)  

    Movement (distance, motion, gesture, gyro, pressure, flex sensor)

    Atmospheric (Temperature, humidity, air quality, pressure)

    Bio-sensor (Pulse, GSR, EMG) 

    Light (colour, luminance, IR) 

    Touch (buttons, pressure, capacitance)

  • Group Assignment

    Topic 2021: Skin that Smells and Tongues that Hear: Sensory Substitution 

    Starting in the 1960's Neuroscientist Bach-y-Rita undertook groundbreaking research on the field of neural plasticity. He and fellow researchers began to see that the brain is highly adaptable and capable of physical changes in response to experiences.  Some common examples of neuroplasticity are in deaf people who develop enhanced peripheral vision, or in blind individuals where areas of the brain associated with visual processing might be adapted for echolocation. Rita quickly transferred these findings into applied research, knowing that the brain could learn to "see" with the skin, as a means to overcome blindness with technology. This field was named Sensory Substitution and primarily sought to provide sight to the blind and in other cases of sensory impairment.  

    Using the method of sensory substitution, we may learn to perceive the world in novel ways. Our physical and mental capabilities are evolved to survive in environments that are completely incongruous with our modern experience: even a photo of a spider sparks fear, yet we can not perceive and respond appropriately to harmful forms of radiation. What new forms of sensing do we need for the contemporary or future habitat? 

    The theory of Embodied Cognition stipulates that the brain does not function in void independent of the body, but that intelligence is both distributed in the body and environment. New research indicates an inseparable link between sensing and moving. The neocortex of our brains is made up of tens of thousands of Cortical Columns that repeat the same algorithms for receiving sensory information and performing motor movement. In order to sense our environment, we must move: from the focusing and positioning of the eye to see, to the movement of our fingers across a surface to understand its texture and even the positioning of our ears to hear the location of sounds. In order to perceive, we must act.  


    Design a sensory substitution device that enables us to perceive new information about our surroundings. 

    • What are sensory-motor pairings are needed for your device? Does the user move or does the device move?
    • Do you lose one sense in order to gain the new sense?
    • Does your device substitute or enhance sensory sensation?
    • What reference frames/processes do you need in order to understand this new perception? 
    • What ethical and societal issues might be involved in designing and using this device?

    Initial Concept Presentation

    Background Research:

    • Investigate 3 to 4 phenomena that we can not directly (or consciously) perceive
    • Identify sensors/devices that can measure these phenomena 

    Initial Concept development: 

    • Choose 1-2 possible modalities for perceiving your phenomena (touch, taste, smell, pain etc).
    • Create sketches and descriptions of possible sensory-substitution devices that might result.  

    Topic Reference Material: 

    Sensory substitution and the human-machine interface by PaulBach-y-Rita and Stephen W. Kercel

    Tactile sensory substitution: Models for enaction in HCI

    A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins

    The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge


    Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain

    David Eagleman Ted Talk 

    Project References

    Sensory Pathways for the Plastic Mind (Chacin_Aisen_Thesis.pdf)


    Backyard Brains Experiments


    Group 1: Janosch, Johannes, Réjane, Silvan

    LIGHT ---> SOUND

    Group 2: Bin, Eleonora, Miguel, Svenja


    Group 3: Fabrizio, Nicola, Sandro

    VISION ---> SMELL  

    Group 4: Dzhuulia, Elena, Guan, Thore


    Group 5: Daniel, Micaela, Nadia

    LIGHT ---> ?