Fall 2009 Course Round-up

It’s been a little disorienting, being back on a college campus. Mostly it’s the sheer number of people that I really notice – CMU has 6,000 undergrads and 5,000 graduate students in a campus space maybe 75% of the size of MIT’s campus. Moreover, much of CMU’s campus is open, visible grassy fields connecting seperate buildings (as opposed to MIT’s buildings on top of other buildings) – so the constant flow of people between places is plainly visible from everywhere on campus. That said, the fact that I’m the oldest student seemingly everywhere I go can’t be helping.

Anyhow, enough with my identity crisis. :) I started writing this post to document my courses for the fall semester, so here we go. I’ll update this post as my schedule changes (though hopefully, it won’t.)

My Fall 2009 MTID schedule:

Tangible Interaction Design Studio: The only truly required class in the Masters of Tangible Interaction Design, 9-18 units of Tangible Interaction Design Studio are required every semester a student is enrolled in the program. This class is taught by MTID’s founder/advisor/fearless leader, Professor Mark Gross. In the fall studio, students begin to form their MTID Advisory Committee by finding a professor or two somewhere at CMU with which to design and build a “tangible interaction design” project over the entire semester. The end deliverable is a single, large project intended to tie together a student’s classwork for the semester.
The name “Studio” is probably somewhat misleading here – unlike, say, a typical undergraduate architecture studio, Professor Gross seems to prefer a much more experimental teaching style. Rather than having all MTID students do common exercises, each student defines and builds a project that “asks a question” of their choice. This works nicely for the three of us currently in the program, as we are all coming at the field from very different angles, and are hoping to learn tangible interaction design for very different reasons. The space I’m particularly interested in is that of public computing (both in the sense of public as in urban and shared space, and public as in community and government influenced and/or controlled). More on that to come.

Making Things Interactive: A de facto MTID requirement (to the extent that Professor Gross believes in hard requirements), this class builds a basic understanding of how physical objects can be integrated with technology, along with the reasons one might want to do such a thing. This boils down to a basic understanding of sensors, motors/mechanical activity, electronics, and Arduino programming. The end deliverable is a single, tangible interactive object or environment – not unlike the studio, except that the project is only done in the last month of this course, with the prior months spent on “mini-projects” designed to master Arduino and the various other skills. I’ve learned all of those skills independently of each other, but I have yet to really hone the ability to tie them all together in physical projects – hence my needing to take this course parallel to the studio. (Future MTID students who come with tangible computing projects under their belt would probably be given a pass on this requirement, but don’t quote me on that.)

For those reading back in Boston, this class is in every way analogous to the MIT Media Lab’s “Tangible Interfaces” class. Which isn’t shocking, given that Professor Gross worked with (maybe under?) Nicholas Negroponte in the 1980’s, back before Negroponte co-founded the MIT Media Lab. In much the same way that MIT Media Lab and MIT Design Lab are kinda-sorta (and officially) part of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, the MTID is kinda-sorta (and officially) part of CMU’s School of Architecture.

For those reading back in Boston who are NOT in design or computer science, this class is not unlike a class at the MIT Media Lab, a group at MIT world-renowned for convincing companies to give them money to let them build really cool and useful shit with technology. The hope is that by taking this class (and this degree), I’ll be able to keep making cool and useful shit for a living, except that I’m focusing more on things you can actually physically touch and experience, in addition to websites like this one. :)

“Visualizing Information”/Design Drawing I: Exactly what it sounds like. For engineers entering the MTID program, one of the skills we’re encouraged to pick up is that of visual communication – the ability to express ourselves and our ideas visually. The three of us engineers in the program (we have no traditional artists/designers enrolled yet, sadly) all decided that the best place to start with this was through classes in good old fashioned pen and pencil sketching.
I believe that pencil sketching is particularly important for me now as a tangible interaction designer, even moreso than in my previous HCI and interaction design roles. As a screen interaction designer back in Boston, I was able to do very compelling design mockups by combining Visio, Omnigraffle and other visual approximation tools. I personally grew to prefer pencil and paper sketches on the job, but they were not truly necessary – in a pinch, I could become fast enough at Visio that all of the basic screen affordances could be mocked up for a ten screen application in, say, a day. However, how does one begin to digitally prototype a physical form – let alone a form with both digital and physical interactivity? Programs like CAD are often too heavy-handed for very rough thinking, and once you’re embedding technology into an environment, you’re talking about having to combine many different digital and physical design prototyping tools (in those cases where useful tools exist). Someday the design tools will catch up to this field – but for today and tomorrow, it’s going to be that much more important that my rough visual sketches and storyboards are clear and compelling.

Activating Environments: A class in how technology can be designed for and integrated into built and natural environments. The class so far seems to combine traditional readings on theories of place (from fields like urban studies) and ubiquitous computing with the development of hands-on design skills useful in examining the nature of environments and quickly prototyping potential interactions for them. Ok, now I’m just regurgitating the syllabus – to put it another way, the class seems to study technology instances as elements of a lived ecosystem of real-world and digital interactions, and how we can design for the health of those ecosystems. It touches on ideas of interaction design, public services (and public service) and government that I’ve been interested in since finishing my Master’s thesis. In fact, the professor for this class, Professor Eric Paulos, is a guy whose work has kept crossing my paths through HCI, mobile computing and IxD for years now. Anyhow, it’s been a pleasure so far (all two lectures) to take his class and finally see him in action.

(audit) Principles of Human Robot Interaction: I hate to short-change this class, but you’re probably tired of reading all of this. (In much the same way that I’m sorry I can’t take this class for credit – but there’s simply only so many hours in the day.) So suffice it to say that this class brings up a myriad of awesome questions pertaining to the design of robots and the theories behind what makes robot computing different than other forms of technology. It’s nice to get a look at robotics in particular, a field I know little about – my only past exposure is three weeks as a freshman being chased by Harvard police while putting up subject-recruitment posters for roboticist Cynthia Breazeal (of Kismet fame). It has a project requirement, which I probably won’t have time to do, as well as a ton of readings in philosophy, AI, psychology, technology and design, which I am doing basically so the professor lets me attend his swell lectures.

By the way, this is the part of the blog where I realize that I’m creating one of the only student accounts in existence of a degree program that, hopefully, lots of people in the future will consider becoming a part of (and perhaps even Google, leading them to this post). So let me caveat now – everything I say here is my informal impression of the program, and should be taken with a grain of salt. The program is so new that it is constantly changing, and for all I know some of what I’m saying is incorrect even today (or perhaps is correct, but not for the reasons I think it is.) All requirements and rules (and lack thereof) are only made and set by the Masters of Tangible Interaction Design program and the Carnegie Mellon Department of Architecture.

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