Berkeley Engineering Home
Volume 2, Issue 5
July 2002

Outline List

In This Issue
The Death and Rebirth of Silicon

UC Berkeley's New Fat Pipes

Art, Technology, Process, and Product

The Tinkertoys of Nanotechnology

Berkeley Engineering History: Engelbart invents the mouse




Lab Notes, Research from the College of Engineering

Art, Technology, Process, and Product
by David Pescovitz

the Community Guitar and its inventors

The Community Guitar, seen here with its inventors, enables each user to mechanically strum a single guitar string to play a collaborative tune. (Click for larger image.)
David Pescovitz photo

At a recent wine and cheese celebration at UC Berkeley Richmond Field Station's art studios, talk of TCP/IP and wireless sensor networks seamlessly flowed into heated discussions about the aura and authenticity of art in the digital age. This surreal cross-disciplinary dialogue between artists and engineers was old-hat to the student hosts demonstrating their final projects from the Spring 2002 course "Tangible Interfaces: Crafting the Ubiquitous Experience."

Taught jointly by four instructors representing the Department of Mechanical Engineering, the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, Art Practice, and Intel Research, the course brought together engineering and art students to foster collaboration informed by deep thinking about how technology is woven into our daily lives.

"Given the fact that technology is clearly moving from outside to inside us, into our souls, it seemed important to look at the artistic side of life that adds meaning to our daily existence," says Mechanical Engineering professor Paul K. Wright.


In this project, a user's exercise pattern (see photo below) directly affects the health of the plant. (Click for larger image.)
David Pescovitz photo

Working in small teams, the students built working systems with the goal, Wright explains, "of creating an emotional interaction with the computer that affected multiple senses." For example, one project consists of a wristwatch-sized sensor that measures the wearer's physical activity. At the end of the day, the user docks the device into a computer system that controls how much light and water a plant receives based on how much exercise you've done. Another team built a coffee table containing microphones and water spouts. The louder and more constantly someone speaks, the higher and more intense the stream becomes. The point, Wright says, is to subtly and creatively let someone at the table know when they're dominating a conversation.

sensor measures wearer's physical activity

A wristwatch-sized sensor measures the wearer's physical activity as he hits a punching bag. (Click for larger image.)
David Pescovitz photo

"Someone talking too much is truly a social problem," Wright says. "The fountain is one technical solution to that problem."

The Tangible Interfaces course grew out of Wright's popular High-tech Product Design and Rapid Manufacturing class. In that course, students from numerous disciplines—from engineering to business—are required to design and build a product, and accompanying business plan, based on a core technology. For example, last year's students were provided with Berkeley and Intel-developed sensor motes that they had to transform into marketable "inconspicuous computing" products. A final tradeshow event showcased the student work, including a motorcycle helmet outfitted with a wireless communication system and a device to help parents locate lost children.

fountain responding to voice levels

Professor Paul Wright and a Tangible Interface student watch as their voice levels are expressed through spurts of water. (Click for larger image.)
David Pescovitz photo

The success of High-tech Product Design and conversations with Berkeley computer science professor and Intel Researcher Anind Dey, pioneering technology artist Greg Niemeyer, and Trevor Pering, a Berkeley engineering alum and human-computer interaction researcher at Intel, led to the Tangible Interfaces offering. The course, Wright says, is a quintessential example of the multidisciplinary approach of the Berkeley-based Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS). Indeed, while the Tangible student work is exemplary, the cross-disciplinary process was the real product.

Your Turn

Where does engineering meet art?

We want to hear from you...

"My usual work as a design engineer is very product based and business-oriented in many aspects, but Tangible gave me the chance to do more research into human-computer interaction," says mechanical engineering graduate student Nathan Ota.

Ota's Tangible Interfaces team built a multi-limbed robotic structure that could be installed in an office building to intuitively and viscerally reveal, through handshake-like gestures, who is available for an impromptu meeting at any given moment.

"Having an artistic perspective makes research a very different experience than crunching numbers and measuring angles," Ota says. "With multiple points of view, a really nice synergy develops."

Tangible Interfaces course syllabus

High-tech Product Design and Rapid Manufacturing Tradeshow 2001

Intel Research

Lab Notes is published online by the Public Affairs Office of the UC Berkeley College of Engineering. The Lab Notes mission is to illuminate groundbreaking research underway today at the College of Engineering that will dramatically change our lives tomorrow.

Editor, Director of Public Affairs: Teresa Moore
Writer, Researcher: David Pescovitz
Designer: Robyn Altman

Subscribe or send comments to the Engineering Public Affairs Office:

© 2002 UC Regents. Updated 6/20/02.