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Encountering the Digital: Representational and Experiential Embodiment in Tangible User Interfaces

This dissertation is concerned with the concept of »embodiment« in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). It investigates the issue by the means of Research Through Design
The notion of »embodiment« has many meanings in HCI. It is therefore the aim of this work to contribute to its clarification. I propose a distinction between two major meanings: »embodiment« in the sense of »representation« and »embodiment« in the sense of how the experience of one’s socio-physical world is fundamentally grounded in having a living body. I propose to name these two meanings »representational embodiment« and »experiential embodiment«.
Having separated the two meanings, I then look at those moments in which they encounter: I investigate moments in which »embodied« users face »embodiments« of digital information. These moments of encounter appear to be a central aspect of Tangible User Interfaces (TUIs), which are often concerned with making digital information graspable. Therefore, I focus on TUIs, pursuing the question of how the design of the »representational embodiments« of digital information affects the user’s experience of the interaction.
RTD is a research concept that promises to offer a new, »designerly« perspective on a subject matter. There are different approaches to RTD, of which I have chosen Findeli’s model of Project-Grounded Research (PGR). I introduce RTD and PGR, contextualising them in their historical context. I underline the central roles of the prototype and the »project« in PGR. I also relate RTD to its academic reference points: action research and grounded theory. Afterwards, I transform my research question into a design question, namely how the »embodiments« of digital information could be designed in a way that is oriented to the users’ »embodiment«.
In everyday language, physical (e. g. »disk size«, »data mining«) and social metaphors (»smart phone«, »battery life«) are often used to describe concepts of interacting with digital information. These metaphors form the starting point of my investigation into TUIs that make digital information graspable through socio-physical manifestations – through shape change, weight shift, and life-like signals. I describe the prototypes and report several previous studies that were conducted with them. These assess, for example, the accuracy at which users could feel the shifted weight on the phone’s inside, or the experiences of users carrying the »living mobile« for a weekend.
I then report a comparative study of the three prototypes and three vibration-based comparison prototypes. In this study, I make use of the Repertory Grid Technique (RGT). RGT is based on so-called »personal constructs«, which the users name themselves, as to describe the prototypes (e. g. »knowledge required – easy to understand«, »biological – technical«, »exciting – boring«). The users then use their own personal constructs to rate the prototypes. The findings of the RGT study indicate that the interaction with the Shape-Changing Mobile, Weight-Shifting Mobile, and Ambient Life prototypes was experienced by the users as novel and interesting, but at times also as irritating, and even annoying. The mixed results from this study can be described as three »two-sided coins«: the interaction with the prototypes was rated as rich in associations, but requiring prior knowledge and, at times, disappointing. It was rated as permanent, but at times annoying. Lastly, it was described as cute, but sometimes creepy.
I conclude that the encounter of »representational embodiment« and »experiential embodiment« can open a conceptual space for interaction design that is rich in opportunities, but also rich in challenges. It is this space that I set out to explore with this dissertation.
In summary, the main contributions of this dissertation are a separation of different meanings of »embodiment« in HCI and a study of TUI prototypes that explore the encounter of these meanings.
Berlin, 2014-02-05

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Encountering the Digital
Universität der Künste Berlin