When designers want to explore new ideas they often work with their hands. They put away their computers so they can quickly sketch out concepts and diagrams and they gesture to visualize form and function. They manipulate material in hand to understand its potential and they construct physical models to see spatial relationships in three dimensions. The benefit of working with their hands is that they don’t need to think much about it, they can just do it. There is little risk involved in terms of the time commitment and there is big reward in terms of the information gathered. When working with one’s hands there is freedom to test and feel out ideas all with a tangible immediacy.
This is different from how we work with computers. Computers require specialized training and advanced planning. One must learn the software—its interface, commands, and the language to control and produce effects on screen. You have to learn the hardware too—operating simple devices like keyboards, screens, printers, and plotters, and more recently more technical devices like 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC machines. Why is this?
What’s happened to the way designers work with their hands—drawing, crafting, and model making, for example, and why can’t the way we work with computers and other technologies be like that?
Daniel Smithwick, David Kirsh, and Larry Sass
To study how designers explore ideas when making physical models we ran an experiment in which architects and undergraduate students constructed a dream house made of blocks. We coded their interactions in terms of robotic pick and place actions: adding, subtracting, modifying and relocating blocks. Architects differed from students along three dimensions. First, architects were more controlled with the blocks; they used fewer blocks overall and fewer variations. Second, architects appear to think less about house features and more about spatial relationships and material constraints. Lastly, architects experiment with multiple block positions within the model more frequently, repeatedly testing block placements. Together these findings suggest that architects physically explore the design space more effectively than students by exploiting material interactions. This embodied know-how is something next generation robots will need to support. Implications for material-based robotic interaction are discussed.
Daniel Smithwick, Larry Sass, and David Kirsh
In order to creatively interact with robots we need to understand how creative thinkers work with objects to explore new ideas physically. Our approach involves comparing the model-making strategies of architects with students to expose the creative extras architects bring to working with physical models. To study this we coded students and architects performing a design task. Architects differed from students along three dimensions. First, architects were more selective; they used fewer blocks overall and fewer variations. Second, architects appear to think more about spatial relationships and material constraints. Lastly, architects more often experiment with re-orientations: they position a block one way to see its relations to its neighbors; they reposition it another way to see how that changes how things look and feel. These findings suggest that designers interact with the material more effectively than students. This embodied know-how is something next generation robots can support and possibly enhance.
Daniel Smithwick and David Kirsh
To study the cognitive role that tangible objects play in design thinking, we gave 17 architects and novice students a set of blocks and asked them to design their dream house. Although the blocks seem simple they are filled with perceptual surprises. We regard manipulating blocks as a form of physical thinking because through interaction designers increase the dimensionality of their design space. This happens because a) perceptual ambiguity leads to multiple semantics - multiple ways of identifying what shapes are out there, and b) kinesthetic and other forms of non-visual interaction enables designers to feel inertia, mass, force and gravity and thereby encounter blocks and their relations in additional ways. The effects of tangibility and enactive forms of perception is that the design space expands, often leading architects to more divergent thinking. Physical interaction broadens the basis of creativity.
Offered in the IAP session of 2015, 10 graduate and undergraduate students across many departments learned how to design for robotic assembly, along with operation and programming of a Kuka robotic arm.
January Term 2015
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