Category Archives: Hans & Umbach

Hans and Umbach: Soldering and Building

The Hans and Umbach Electro-Mechanical Computing Company

Phew, have we got a treat for ya’ll! Last night Hans was able to tame the wild beast that is Adobe Premiere Pro, and compiled some videos of Umbach (or was it Hans?) building some stuff with Arduino.

First up, the boys soldered together an Arduino Proto Shield kit from Adafruit. You can witness their amazing efforts in super-speed time, where sixty minutes of inhaling metallic fumes has been condensed into three power-packed minutes!

After that, the boys took their new creation and built a three-channel LED color mixer, out of a few potentiometers and one of these kick-ass triple output LEDs from SparkFun.

A huge shout goes out to Ryan Rapsys of Erratik Productions for the music!

Hans and Umbach: Atoms Are the New Bits

The Hans and Umbach Electro-Mechanical Computing Company

Needless to say, Hans and Umbach are extremely excited about this new article in Wired magazine, which champions a trend of garage tinkerers and other DIYers acting in concert to bring the world its next generation of products. Just as the internet democratized digital publication, so will new prototyping technologies democratize physical production.

We’d better get crackin’.

Hans and Umbach: Taking Stock

The Hans and Umbach Electro-Mechanical Computing Company

I’ve been haphazardly collecting electronics since this past summer, so one of the first things I needed to do was survey all the stuff I have at my disposal and organize the heck out of it. This spread is already outdated, as my orders from Sparkfun and Adafruit arrived last week, but it still gives a nice overview.

Hans and Umbach: Taking Stock

Here’s everything. Well, here was everything. There is far more everything now.

Hans and Umbach: Taking Stock

Buttons, switches and all that good stuff.

Hans and Umbach: Taking Stock

Tools. Tools are good.

Hans and Umbach: Taking Stock

Arduino-specific stuff, including some handmade battery and AC adapters. This last week I received a second Arduino and two Proto Shield kits, so now I’m truly ready to rock.

Introducing the Hans and Umbach Project

The Hans and Umbach Electro-Mechanical Computing Company

Last summer I began thinking about something that I referred to as “analog interactions”, those natural, in-the-world interactions we have with real, physical artifacts. My interest arose in response to a number of stimuli, one of which is the current trend towards smooth, glasslike capacitive touch screen devices. From iPhones to Droids to Nexus Ones to Mighty Mice to Joojoos to anticipated Apple tablets, there seems to a strong interest in eliminating the actual “touch” from our interactions with computational devices.

Glass capacitive touch screens allow for incredible flexibility in the display of and interaction with information. This is clearly demonstrated by the iPhone and iPod Touch, where software alone can change the keyboard configuration from letters to numbers to numeric keypads to different languages entirely.

A physical keyboard that needed to make the same adaptations would be quite a feat, and while the Optimus Maximus is an expensive step towards allowing such configurability in the display of keys, its buttons do not move, change shape or otherwise physically alter themselves in a manner similar to these touch screen keys. Chris Harrison and Scott Hudson, two PhD students at CMU, built a touch screen that uses small air chambers that allow it to feature physical (yet dynamically configurable) buttons.

From a convenience standpoint, capacitive touch screens make a lot of sense, in their ability to shrink input and output into one tiny package. Their form factor allows incredible latitude in using software to finely tune their interactions for particular applications. However, humans are creatures of a physical world that have an incredible capacity to sense, touch and interpret their surroundings. Our bodies have these well-developed skills that help us function as beings in the world, and I feel that capacitive touch screens, with their cold and static glass surfaces, insult the nuanced capabilities of the human senses.

Looking back, in an effort to look forward.

Musée Mécanique

Much of this coalesced in my mind during my summer in San Francisco, and specifically in my frequent trips to the Musee Mecanique. Thanks to its brilliant collection of turn-of-the-century penny arcade machines and automated musical instruments, I was continually impressed by the rich experiential qualities of these historic, pre-computational devices. From their lavish ornamentation to the deep stained woodgrain of their cabinets, from the way a sculpted metal handle feels in the hand to the smell of electricity in the air, the machines at the Musee Mecanique do an incredible job of engaging all the senses and offering a uniquely physical experience despite their primitive computational insides.

Off the Desktop and Into the World

It’s clear from the trajectory of computing that our points of interaction with computer systems are going to become increasingly delocalized, mobile and dispersed throughout our environment. While I am not yet ready to predict the demise of computing on a desktop (either through desktop or laptop computers alike), it is clear that our future interactions with computing are going to take place off the desktop, and out in the world with us. Indeed, I wrote about this on the Adaptive Path weblog while working there for the summer. Indeed, these interactions may supplement, rather than supplant, our usual eight-hour days in front of the glowing rectangle. This increased percentage of time that a person in the modern world would spend interacting with computing, even through any number of forms and methods, makes it all the more important that we consider the nature of these interactions, and deliberately model them in such a way that leverages our natural human abilities.


One model that can offer guidance in the design of these in-the-world computing interactions is the notion of embodiment, which as stated by Paul Dourish describes the common way in which we encounter physical reality in the everyday world. We deal with objects in the world–we see, touch and hear them–in real time and in real space. Embodiment is the property of our engagement with the world that allows us to interpret and make meaning of it, and the objects that we encounter in it. The physical world is the site and the setting for all human activity, and all theory, action and meaning arises out of our embodied engagement with the world.

From embodiment we can derive the idea of embodied interaction, which Dourish describes as the creation, manipulation and sharing of meaning through our engaged interaction with artifacts. Rather than situating meaning in the mind through typical models of cognition, embodied interaction posits that meaning arises out of our inescapable being-in-the-world. Indeed, our minds are necessarily situated in our bodies, and thus our bodies, our own embodiment in the world, plays a strong role in how we think about, interpret, understand, and make meaning about the world. Thus, theories of embodied interaction respect the human body as the source of information about the world, and take into account the user’s own embodiment as a resource when designing interactions.

Exploring Embodied Interaction and Physical Computing

And so, this semester I am pursuing an independent study into theories of embodied interaction, and practical applications of physical computing. For the sake of fun I am conducting this project under the guise of the Hans and Umbach Electro-Mechanical Computing Company, which is not actually a company, nor does it employ anyone by the name of Hans or Umbach.

In this line of inquiry I hope to untangle what it means when computing exists not just on a screen or on a desk, but is embedded in the space around us. I aim to explore the naturalness of in-the-world interactions, actions and behaviors that humans engage in every day without thinking, and how these can be leveraged to inform computer-augmented interactions that are more natural and intuitive. I am interested in exploring the boundary between the real/analog world (the physical world of time, space and objects in which we exist) and the virtual/digital world (the virtual world of digital information that effectively exists outside of physical space), and how this boundary is constructed and navigated.

Is it a false boundary, because the supposed “virtual” world can only be revealed to us by manipulating pixels or other artifacts in the “real” world? Is it a boundary that can be described in terms of the aesthetics of the experience with analog/digital artifacts, such as a note written on paper versus pixels representing words on a screen? Is it determined by the means of production, such as a laser-printed letter versus a typewriter-written letter on handmade paper? Is a handwritten letter more “analog” than an identical-looking letter printed off a high-quality printer? These are all questions I hope to address.

Interfacing Between the Digital and Analog

Paulo's Little Gadget by Han

I aim to explore these questions by learning physical computing, and the Arduino platform in particular, as a mechanism for bridging the gap between digital information and analog artifacts. Electronics is something that is quite unfamiliar to me, and so I hope that this can be an opportunity to reflect on my own experience of learning something new. Given my experience as a web developer and my knowledge of programming, I find electronics to be a particularly interesting interface, because it seems to be a physical manifestation of the programmatic logic that I have only engaged with in a virtual manner. I have coded content management systems for websites, but I have not coded something that takes up physical space and directly influences artifacts in the physical world.

Within the coding metaphor of electronics, too, there are two separate-but-related manifestations. The first is the raw “coding” of circuits, with resistors and transistors and the like, to achieve a certain result. The second is the coding in Processing, a computer language, that I write in a text editor and upload to the Arduino board to make it work its magic. Indeed, the Arduino platform is an incredibly useful tool for physical computing that I hope to learn more about in the coming semester, but it does put a layer of mysticism between one and one’s understanding of electronics. Thus, in concert with my experiments with Arduino I will be working through the incredible Make: Electronics: Learning by Discovery book, which literally takes you from zero to hero in regards to electronics. And really, I know a bit already, but I am quite a zero at this point.

In Summary

Over the next few months I aim to study notions of embodiment, and embodied interaction in particular, in the context of learning and working with physical computing. As computing continues its delocalization and migration into our environment, it is important that existing interaction paradigms be challenged based on their appropriateness for new and different interactive contexts. The future of computing need not resemble the input and output devices that we currently associate with computers, despite the recognizable evolution of the capacitive touch screen paradigm. By deliberately designing for the embodied nature of human experience, we can create new interactive models that result in naturally rich, compelling and intuitive systems.

Welcome to the Hans and Umbach Electro-Mechanical Computing Company. It’s clearly going to be a busy, ambitious, somewhat dizzying semester.

Version Zwei


Apologies to any Germans in the audience for brutalizing your beautiful native tongue.

Going Indie

It’s barely December, but I’m so sick and tired of this semester that I’m already working on next year. Kate was nice enough to get me Phaeton as an early Christmas present, and so I’ve been working on the art direction for my independent study next year:

The Hans and Umbach Electromechanical Computing Company

This is gonna be a fun one.

From Analog Interactions to Tangible Bits

I spent a great deal of time this past summer turning the idea of “analog interactions” over in my head, carving and sanding and refining it through a series of essays.

It largely started in my post Analog Interactions, where I discussed my recent forays into Arduino and my increasing interest in historic, richly tactile interactions. Following that, in Scope I offered a brief summation of my obsessive excursions to the Musée Mecanique (caution, the link is LOUD) in San Francisco, studying their incredible collection of turn-of-the-century penny arcade machines.

Most recently, last week Adaptive Path published my blog post regarding my vision for the future of computing, as an embedded series of tangible, tactile interactions that reimagine the input and output devices we traditionally use to interact with computers. Off The Desktop and Into The World is thus my latest effort to describe a world of computing that naturally integrates with our rich human tradition as physical, feeling beings that exist in a physical, richly sensual world.

In pursuing my capstone project this year I’m continuing with this line of inquiry, but within a more specific context. As I move to introduce a level of academic rigor to my interest in these analog interactions, I believe Hiroshi Ishii’s Tangible bits: towards seamless interfaces between people, bits and atoms is going to be a key on-ramp into the conversation.

UPDATE: Holy shit. Did I read this paper in a dream or something? The parallels are uncanny. For instance:

As an example, they described two cold steel benches located in different cities. When a person sits on one of these benches, a corresponding position on the other bench warms, and a bi-directional sound channel is opened. At the other location, after feeling the bench for “body heat,” another person can decide to make contact by sitting near the warmth.

What Ishii describes here is effectively a networked version of the Hot Seat:



Home Sweet Home

Maybe you’ve already heard, but I recently helped launch Adaptive Path’s new home page. A few of the other kind folks at the office designed it, and I cut it up into its hot-and-buttery front-end code. I used for the pixel-perfect CSS grid system, and cooked up some slick back-end code for streaming our recent essays and blog posts into their proper sections.

What’s more, I wrote some tight little scripts to hit up our Twitter feed and pull down our most recent tweets. Javascript implementations are nice for low-volume sites, but when you get as much traffic as AP you need something a bit more robust. I developed a lightweight caching module that wraps around our call to the Twitter API, keeping our tweets fresh without hitting Twitter on every single (insanely frequent) page load.

Meanwhile, I’ve pretty much been living at Musée Mécanique the last two weekends, digesting their incredible collection of antique coin-operated arcade machines. While these pictures certainly won’t leave that familiarly cold smell of metal on your hands after you’re done handling them, I’ve nevertheless been dropping my observations into a set on Flickr.

Drop Coin Here

The Cail-O-Scope

Love Tester


Musée Mécanique

Musée Mécanique

Baseball Score-Board

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.

Sublety and Nuance in Physical Interaction

I had a great conversation during tea time at Adaptive Path this evening with Jesse James Garrett, about the role of subtlety and nuance in physical interaction design. Central to the conversation was Microsoft’s Project Natal, an upcoming system for the Xbox 360 that lets you use your full body to control games.

While large motions, like punching and kicking the air, make for an impressive flourish, it’s interesting to consider what a system like this would look like in a few years, as it becomes increasingly fine-tuned. What if it knows where each one of my fingers is, like a musical instrument? What kind of interactive applications could this have in a non-game environment? Or, as Jesse mused, how can we learn from gaming to bring more game-related themes, from the concept of play to the interactive vocabularies we establish therein, into everyday computer-mediated interactions?

Part of Jesse’s work on the Ajax approach to web development was based on a desire to make web interactions feel more game-like in nature. Before we had instant asynchronous updates, whether backed by XML or not, the web had a distinctly evaluative feel to it. The cost of submitting web input was high, as it resulted in a long pause before I would know whether or not my submission had been accepted. Games typically offer instantaneous feedback and so this delayed, high-cost transaction felt more like taking an exam than playing a game. Thus, the web-two-point-oh-social-media-user-generated-content revolution is not about Ajax or Prototype or Scriptaculous or jQuery or MooTools, but about removing the barriers of time and cost previously associated with contributing to the web.

And so, with sophisticated physical input devices on the horizon, how can we use the most familiar input devices ever, our own bodies, to enhance our computer-mediated experiences? Further, given the fine-grained control we have over our physical selves, how can we draw on the rich human tradition of having a body and allow people to interact with a system in a more subtle and nuanced manner?

Just something I’m pondering.