Analog Interactions

Life has been wonderful and busy. As a hobby I’ve recently gotten into physical computing, and now properly armed with an Arduino board and a pile of spare parts from Sparkfun and Radio Shack alike I’ve started kinda hacking electronics and building junk. So far I’ve got nothing impressive to show for my efforts, but I’ve been learning a lot about circuits and resistors and transistors and I find myself uttering things that I never in my life thought I would say. Like, “These 1/6 watt 330 ohm resistors are absolute pussies when it comes to waterboarding. I mean breadboarding.”

But see, here’s the thing. Recently I’ve taken an interest into analog interactions, those things in the physical world that you interact with every day. You know, switches and knobs and dials and levers and the like. Or at least, that you used to interact with everyday, until someone got it in their head that everything needs to be a touch-sensitive computer screen interactive kiosk management database-backed networked system utility Ronald Reagan.

Now, I like touch screens as much as the next guy, but as humans, as physical beings that live in a physical, tangible world, I feel that touch screens are pedantic and insulting to the sophisticated sense of touch that we have developed over millennia. Thus, I’ve grown interested in 19th and early 20th century interactions, from slot machines to cash registers to antique cameras, in order to develop a interaction vocabulary that is more rich, nuanced and tactile than the ones we are currently using.

Yes, I’m looking backward to help us see forward. As the wise James Lileks recently said, “You might want to take a look into that big storehouse we call THE PAST, because it’s full of interesting, useful items.” Indeed, I’m curious about ways to take these old “analog” interactions and apply them to modern digital systems in such a way that the digital experience all but evaporates. All that remains on your interface, your beautiful hardwood interface, is levers, knobs, switches, perhaps a rotary dial. Indeed, the user would be “interacting” with a database-backed networked system, but all they would “experience” would be the physical controls and physical readouts. Like the Wooden Mirror for instance, which is backed by a digital computing mechanism, even though the computer does not constitute the experiential qualities of the interaction.

So that’s what I’m investigating, and that’s why I’m suddenly so interested in Arduino. It’s by far the easiest system available for getting started in physical computing. I can plug in a series of LEDs and push buttons, and in no time at all write a tiny script that tells a microcontroller how to interact with these input and output mechanisms. It’s cool stuff, and it gets me thinking of interactive systems beyond the conventional screen, keyboard and mouse paradigm.

Over the weekend I took a long jaunt through Noe Valley, up Twin Peaks and then down into Dolores. I ducked into an antique store to help jog my inspiration, and soon discovered that nothing in the store cost less than $3,000. There was a painting on the wall priced at $80,000. I took shallow breaths, lest my foul proletariat breath peel the varnishes from the $7,000 end tables.

On my way out I struck up a conversation with Isak Lindenauer, the curator of this fine antique store, and we proceeded to have an hour-long conversation about unconventional turn-of-the-century lamp controls that he has encountered in his profession. He mentioned a lamp switch, put out by the Wirt company in 1906, that featured not one, but two pull-chains, that one could use to adjust the brightness of the bulb. A hundred-year-old dimmer switch. Brilliant.

On Sunday I went on a 20-mile bike ride, headed south and then west past Stern Grove and Lake Merced, and taking the Ocean Highway north back to more familiar territory. I stopped at a coffee shop and struck up a conversation with an old-timer, on account of my “I’ve Been To Duluth” shirt. He was fascinated by the incredible innovation of mechanical engineers during the 19th century, and so our conversation covered the wide expanse of steam engines and books of pressure calculations. Once again the topic of interactivity came up, and we discussed railroad circuitry and analog computing machines and other technologies that seemed to come before their time.

I’m no expert on these matters, but I believe that when two random encounters in rapid succession both lead to invigorating conversations about a subject that you were already jamming on, that this is indicative that you are, dare we say, onto something.


  1. July 15, 2009 – 7:40 am

    So, I’m really digging this, Dane. Absolutely loving the fact that you’re getting into Arduino in your free time. As soon as you have something to show, I hope you do. Are you turning Steampunk? Because I want to go to there.

    Have you heard the rumors about Apple getting patents for technology that suggests the iPhone will be more tactile? I don’t think it’s enough to convince me to get an iPhone yet, but it’s an interesting idea anyway.

    Can’t wait until we’re back in school so we can have our crazy long conversations about stuff like this again.

  2. yuebwang
    July 15, 2009 – 9:23 am

    Great to see you are having fun with arduino. I am also very interested in the physical computing stuff, and I am planning and would love to do more stuff with it.

  3. July 15, 2009 – 9:50 am

    @binaebi Yes, this definitely has Steampunk connotations. The lovely Victorian/Edwardian architecture of San Francisco has definitely stoked my interest in the ornate stylings of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

    I met a bunch of Steampunkers at MakerFaire earlier this summer, and I find it a wonderful aesthetic. In addition to building interfaces, I would love to design Edwardian-era costumes for me and all my friends, complete with brass goggles and other punkish things.

    Steampunk has done a lot of the homework for me, but in the interest of historical honesty I want to look at true turn-of-the-century interactions. Steampunk is sometimes characterized as a re-imagining of the Victorian Age, riffing on the “what ifs” of airships and steam-powered computing. Mine indeed embraces this aesthetic, but in the interest of looking forward and reimaging interactions for the future, rather than an alternate-reality past.

    So yes. Steampunk for the next generation.

    @yuebwang That’s awesome! It’s really cool stuff. I might prepare a quick introduction to Arduino to present at Informatics next semester. I’m willing to guess there’s plenty of interest among others in our program.

  4. July 15, 2009 – 10:34 am

    @dane Oh now that is excellent. I’m obsessed with everything Victorian… I’ve done a lot of informal research in this area about how people used to live, social culture/dogma and all that. Which I think is why I find Steampunk so interesting; that we have this culture of bridging old and new into an alternate reality.

    If you decide to design Edwardian costumes, know that
    I will would totally wear them, and I’ll even help you make/construct the clothing

    It would be like the ultimate “T-shirt surgery” project. Plus, I have tons of research on the clothing of the era, and could point you to some awesome books. It’s kind of one of my many hobbies. I’m a big history nerd, especially when it comes to clothing.

  5. July 15, 2009 – 12:22 pm

    @binaebi Yes. Oh yes. We surely must compare notes on all matters Victorian. And make costumes. And wear these costumes with our brass welding goggles when we present our fleet of zeppelins to the world.

    Because one, it’s all about experience.

    And another, capstone projects are all about developing an unstoppable fleet of zeppelins.

  6. July 15, 2009 – 1:01 pm

    See, this is why I like you.

    Can you picture it? A fleet of zeppelins, with Dane and Binaebi at the forefront, each in our own zeppelin shouting out commands to our crews; our brass welding goggles glinting in the sunlight while our white silk scarves flow majestically behind us as we face the future of interaction design…

    It’s a beautiful thing.

  7. July 15, 2009 – 1:46 pm

    It is written. And so it shall be so.