Course Overview

Tangible user interfaces emerge as a novel human-computer interaction style that interlinks the physical and digital worlds.
Extending beyond the limitations of the computer mouse, keyboard and monitor, Tangible user interfaces allow users to interact with digital information through grasping and manipulating physical objects, and through gestures. By allowing users to draw on their natural skills for interacting with digital information, tangible user interface could reduce the cognitive load required for performing a computetional task, and offer an intuitive and collbaorative interface to support activities such as learning, problem solving, design, and entertainment.

Building a tangible user interface (TUI) is a complex process that encompasses multidisciplinary knowledge including computer science, art, and social sciences. Successful design depends on many factors including physical form, social settings, and aesthetics, in addition to well-designed software and electronics. Students will be introduced to conceptual frameworks of tangible interaction, the latest research in the field, and a variety of techniques for designing and building tangible user interfaces including programming a multi-touch surfaces and a variety of microcontrollers.

Students will work in a team of three to invent and build a novel tangible user interface.

Prerequisite: CS220 or CS230, or Permission of instructor.

Topics List

  • Introduction to tangible interaction
  • Application domains
  • Framworks and taxonomies
  • Gestural interfaces
  • Surface computing
  • Physical computing: microcontrollers, sensors, and actuators
  • Rapid prototyping
  • Iterative design techniques

Reading Materials

As tangible interaction is an emerging field of research, there is no text book for this course.
We will handout research papers, articles, and manuals during the course.
All reading materials will be available through the course Google Drive folder.

Course Requirements

The course requires active participation in class through discussion and hands-on activities.
Students are required to prepare for class by reading and responding to questions about their reading prior to lecture.

There are 3 homework assignments in this course that explore conceptual and technical aspects of tangible user interfaces.

In addition, the course has a final project that requires students to work in teams to design, implement and evaluate a mobile user interface.
As part of your team project, you will be expected to do the following:

  • Develop a conceptual design for your tangible user interface, including sketches,story board, and specification of behavior.
  • Build the tangible user interface you have designed. This is an iterative process in which you will re-design, build, and evaluate several times.
  • Document your tangible user interface with pictures, video, diagrams, and text in a web page that will remain a part of the Tangible User Interface Course online gallery.
  • Present the tangible user interfave you have built at the course open house.
  • Reflect on your own learning and contribution to the project.

Finally, the coure has a mid term exam.


Your grade for the course will be determined by the following factors:
1. Your participation - including your contribution to discussion in class as well as your responses to questions about readings (%10).
2. Your group tangible user interface project (%35).
3. Your homework assignments (%30).
4. Midterm exam (%25).

Collaboration Policy

We strongly encourage you to get to know all of your classmates and to collaborate extensively with them.
Because of the interdisciplinary nature of this course, you may be strong in some areas but weak in others. Please share your strengths, and feel free to ask others for help. 
In your individual homework assignments and mid-term exam, all observations, reflections, code, and documentation should be in your own.

Here is a summary of our collaboration policy:

  •  Assignments: Individual or rotating pairs of students
  •  Project: Teams of 3 students
  •  Midterm exam: Absolutely no collaboration

Laboratory and Computing Environment

Classes will be held in the Human-Compiter Interaction Lab (SCI E125).

You will have access to these rooms 24 hours a day, 7 days a week during the semester; details will be announced in class.
Science Center policy requires that every student have a "buddy" when working after hours.

The lab is equipped with a 3D printer, PC and Mac computers, Multitaction displays, VR and AR headsets, and other sesing technologies.

If you have a PC or Mac OS X laptop you can use it for this class if you like. We will primarily use the following applications during the course:

  • Multitaction CornerStone SDK
  • Arduino development environment

Each student should back up her work onto their Google accounts.

Final project team will be given a Google Drive folder where all project files (code, web pages, pictures, video) should be stored. Details will be provided in class.

Schedule (Under construction)

Date Topics Reading and Assignments
Thursday, 9/7 Introduction and historic overview of TUIs, course logistics
Shaer & Hornecker Chap. 1, 2
Entry questionnaire, HW1 out
Monday, 9/11 Device Ecology

The computer of the 21st century
Reading response

Thursday, 9/14 Survey of TUIs, mapping the design space

Tangible Bits
Shaer & Hornecker Chap. 4 (optional Chap. 5)
(optional Ubicomp without Borders)

Reading response
Student Questionnaire in
HW1A in

Monday, 9/18

Introduction to Physical Computing
Sensors workshop - class ends at 1pm (pizza)

How to Build Smart Appliances
Shaer & Hornecker Chap. 7
Reading response
HW1B in, P0 out

Thursday, 9/21 (Rosh Hashana)

Conceptual design (with Lauren)

Tangible Interaction (Hornecker & Buur e-reserve)
Solid Diagrams (e-reserve)

Monday, 9/25

Guest speaker: Brygg Ullmer

Tangible User Interfaces in Perspective

Shaer & Hornecker Chap. 3

Reading response

Thursday, 9/28

Introduction to Surface Computing

Surface lab 1 (Multitaction)

Informing the Design of Direct Touch Tabletops (e-reserve)

Reading response

HW2 out

Monday, 10/2

Surface Lab 2 (Multitaction)

The state-transition model of input (e-reserve)

Thursday, 10/5

Visit to Maker Space - Fabrication (class meets at the entrance to Clapp Library)

The Digital Fabrication Revolution
Substraction and Addition (e-reserve)

P0 in, P1 out

Monday, 10/9 (Fall break - No class)


Thursday, 10/12 Surface Lab 3 (Multitaction)


Monday, 10/16 Surface prototyping (with Lauren, ACM ISS)  
Thursday, 10/19

Surface prototyping (with Lauren, ACM ISS)

HW2 in
Monday, 10/23

Conceptual design presentations
(Class ends at 1:15pm, lunch will be served)

P1 in, P2 out

Thursday, 10/26

Intro to electronics Lab 1

Basic electricity - Currents and amps

Basic Electricity - What is voltage?

Basic electricity - What is resistance and Ohm’s Law?

Reading (video) response

Monday, 10/30

Prototyping Wearables - class ends at 1:00pm (lunch will be available)

Wearable computing

Thursday, 11/2

Project work - prototyping

Introduction to basic electronics

Monday, 11/6

Intro to electronics Lab 2

Arduino Explained

Thursday, 11/9

Intro to electronics Lab 3

HW3 out
Monday, 11/13 Prototyping

Thursday, 11/16 Conceptual foundations

Shaer & Hornecker Chap. 6

Monday, 11/20 Proof of concept presentations

P2 in, P3 out,

Thursday, 11/23 (Thanksgiving break - No class)  

Monday, 11/27

Evaluating tangible user interfaces

Shaer & Hornecker Chap. 9

HW3 in

Project plan due (P3)

Thursday, 11/30


Shaer & Hornecker Chap. 5, Progress report due (P3)

Monday, 12/4 Midterm exam (in class)



Thursday, 12/7 Future Directions for TEI

Radical Atoms: Beyond Tangible Bits
Shaer & Hornecker Chap. 10

Monday, 12/11 Final project presentation (class starts at 12PM)


Orit Shaer, Computer Science
Office hours:
Mondays 2:30-3:30pm
Tuesday 10:30-12:00pm
Wednesday 11:00-1:00pm

Teaching Assistants

Amal Tidjani '18

Meeting time and room

Monday, Thursday, 11:10-12:20 pm
Science Center, HCI Lab, room E125

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