Interaction Design WikiPhysical Computing

Physical Computing HS2019

Lecturers: Luke Franzke & Florian Bruggisser

Course Overview

In this course, we will look at physical computing as a method of interaction design. Our definition of Physical Computing refers to the use of hardware and software to make interactive objects that can respond to events in the real world. These events may be general knowledge about the environment (temperature, brightness, etc.) or user interactions (keystroke, motion, speech, etc.). These devices might respond with direct feedback through displays or actuators, or by performing actions in a digital environment. The challenge of physical computing is to make the interface between human and machine as simple and intuitive as possible by taking physical human abilities and habits into account.

Course Goals

The students learn how to handle hardware and software in order to prototype their own ideas. The students develop an understanding of the characteristics of physical interactions and demonstrate them through functional prototypes. From a technical perspective, students learn the basics of electronics, microcontroller programming (Arduino), working with digital and analogue sensors and actuators.

Course Structure

The course takes place in two separate blocks: Physical Computing Basics in the first two weeks and the Main Project in the last two weeks. In the first block, students will work individually through the introductory topics, while the Main Project is in groups of two to three students. 

Personal Material

Please bring your personal computer to all classes. If you have a newer MacBook with USB C, bring an adapter to work with standard USB cables. A personal notebook is also recommended. 

Expectations and Grading

Grades will be based on group presentations, class participation, home assignments, documentation and final work. An attendance of min. 80% is required to pass the course.

Individual Work (40%) 

  1. Workbook documentation of all exercises and minor projects from weeks 1 and 2.
  2. Document every circuit you built (or attempted to build) with a photo. Include your code when appropriate, a drawn schematic of each circuit and include notes/observations.  
  3. Presentation of Minor Project.

Group Work (60%)

  1. Final Prototype of Object
  2. Final Presentation
  3. Standard IAD Documentation 
    • Video (Making of, Final Prototype)
    • Image selection
    • Short Documentation (PDF)

Final Presentation notes:

  1. Introductory Lecture 
  2. Project Briefs 2019
  3. Project box 2020
  4. Exercises
  5. Course Resources
  6. Project References
  7. Physical Computing Literature References
  8. Physical Computing Lab - Sensors

Topic 2019: Empathetic Machines: 

Can interactions between human and machines be more effective if we can empathise with the device because of it's anthropomorphic behaviour? Can such devices, in turn, empathise with us? We are social animals, and a large portion of our brain is dedicated to social tasks, from recognising emotions to predicting the thoughts and intentions of other humans and creatures. It, therefore, makes sense that we utilise these capabilities when designing interactions. 
But how might everyday interactive devices be improved by anthropomorphic characteristics? Would we be more likely to partake in sustainable consumption of electronics if devices were more sympathetic? This year's Physical Computing project will attempt to answer some of these questions while drawing inspiration from robotics to physically prototype interactive devices with empathetic qualities and anthropomorphic behaviours. 

Distinctly non-human forms can be highly evocative of human qualities, and basic geometric forms can convey agency and complex behaviours through motion alone (Heider and Simmel 1944). For this reason, we will focus on primitive forms with expressive behaviour through motion, using simple electromechanical actuators, in combination with sensors and microcontrollers. 

2019 Topics Readings


Morning: 09:00 - 12:00,  Afternoon: 13:30 - 17:00


Tuesday 17.09 (4.K15)

Wednesday 18.09 (4.K15)

Thursday 19.09 (4.K15)

Friday 20.09 (4.K15)




Getting Started with Arduino 3rd Edition: p.37-40

Make: Electronics 2nd edition: p.1-40

Electronic Basics (sparkfun)

  • Digital Components
  • Digital Interfaces
  • I2C, SPI, UART
  • Neo Pixel
  • Ultra Sonic Distance Sensor



  • Parallel/Series Circuits
  • Capacitors
  • Soldering


  • Minor Project Start 
  • Repetition Time

(14:00 Student Essay Feedback with Martin and Joëlle Individual) 

(LF, FB)


Tuesday 24.09 (4.K15)

Wednesday 25.09 (4.K15)

Thursday 26.09 (4.K15)

Friday 27.09 (4.K15)


  • Neo Pixels






Individual Minor Project

Individual Minor Project


PCB Milling

Individual Minor Project

Individual Minor Project

Individual Minor Project

13:30 Presentation.

14:30 Cleanup and documentation


Wednesday 23.10 (5.D02)

Thursday 24.10 (5.D02)

Friday 25.10 (5.D02)


Main Project Kickoff

Robotics input (LF)

Main Project Ideation 

Computer Vision Input 


Prototyping & Design Concept

13:30. Guest Lecture: James Bern from ETH Computational Robotics Lab  (5.T09)

15:00 Topic Presentation 

Soldering 2 (LF) 

EAGLE CAD & PCB Milling (LF)

13:30 Mentoring  (LF & FB)

16:30. Guest Lecture: Maria Smigielska (5.T04)


Tuesday 29.10 (Atelier)

Wednesday 30.10 (Atelier)

Thursday 31.10 (Atelier)

Friday 01.11 (Atelier)


Prototyping / Mentoring (LF)


Final Build

Final Build


Prototyping / Mentoring (LF)

Meeting Jürgen and Karmen 14:00 - 15:00 (5.D02). 

Prototyping / Mentoring

Final Build

Final Build

W5Tuesday 05.11

MorningSetup Final Presentation  (4k.15)


Final Presentation 14:30  (4k.15)

Documentation and feedback 15:15 - 17:00