Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Physical Interaction in a Dematerialized World

Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Physical Interaction in a Dematerialized World

Article excerpt


Today, we can witness a striking phenomenon. As the microprocessor has found its way into our lives, the use of computation in products is widespread. This process causes a lot of products to miniaturize, and seems to completely absorb others, which then tend to disappear. This is the case with music CD's, money (coins and bills), and books. We name this process dematerialization, and in this article, we aim to open it up for design.

In the proceeding, first we give an accurate description of what we mean with the term dematerialization. We lay out the dual reality of the physical environment and the digital world, and dematerialization is defined as a movement between them. We explore benefits and pitfalls of dematerialization and express our attempt to guide it with a suitable design approach.

Second, we focus on a popular research field within Human Computer Interaction (HCI): Tangible Interaction. From its origin, Tangible Interaction has tried to reconcile the digital world with the physical environment. We consider some of its basic concepts and find inspiration in the way it approaches the interaction with digital information. We compare Tangible Interaction with the approach that is used in the design of today's digital products, and reveal the need for a third approach, which is situated somewhere in between them.

Third, we follow a research through design path (Zimmerman, Forlizzi, & Evenson, 2007) to explore this third approach. We went through two design cases, which are presented in this paper, and deduce from them the cornerstones of our approach, while elaborating this approach further.

Finally, we discuss some striking aspects of the design approach. These aspects establish the link with Rich Interaction, the interaction framework of our research group at Eindhoven University of Technology and University of Antwerp.



Dematerialization covers a large field of ongoing evolutions: miniaturization of products, servicizing, reducing material use by recycling, and the shift from matter to information. In the context of this study, we use the term dematerialization in order to describe a specific phenomenon. Dematerialization occurs when digital content becomes disengaged from its carrier (Dourish, 2001), and flows freely through networks and devices, while the carrier disappears. We illustrate this with a few examples:

* The music album has dematerialized. Traditional album carriers, CDs and LPs, have disappeared. The music itself only exists as files that are stored on digital music players and computers.

* Money is dematerializing. Coins and paper money are disappearing and being replaced by electronic payment transactions. We move to a society where the payment artifact itself has lost its physical shape and value, and is represented virtually by a number.

* Books, magazines and newspapers are dematerializing. More and more print content is moving away from hard carriers. The pattern shows content being released from material substrates to move lightly across networks and devices. Books are accessed by means of an e-reader or a tablet computer.

* Photos have dematerialized. Digital cameras have decoupled images from their material carriers, film and print paper. These carriers are replaced by the ubiquity of displays.

Together with these information carriers, a whole range of accompanying products is disappearing as well. In the case of music products, this includes the CD-box and booklet with artwork, as well as all sorts of storage and display products, like racks, shelves, and cases. In the case of money, we will witness the vanishing of money containers like wallets, purses, safe-deposit boxes, piggy banks, and cash registers.

Two Worlds

In order to give an accurate definition of the previously described phenomenon of dematerialization, we must obtain a more profound understanding of it. …

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