DePaul's School of Design will be introducing a "Designing for Physical Technology" minor next Fall that I've been working on with my co-conspirator LeAnne Wagner. With this new minor, we have the ability to empower students across disciplines to think about how technology and the physical world can work together in less traditional, boundary pushing ways. To consider the applications of embedded technologies, desktop fabrication, and robotics in our day-to-day lives.

Anyway, given that this is a pretty new area in academia, I thought sharing some of this program with the public would be the appropriate thing to do. You can skip to the bottom for a glimpse into some of the classes we've introduced.


The term "Physical Technology" has recently been coined to describe systems that allow users to interact with their physical environments. Everyday examples of physical technology include home security systems and remote control cars. In a security system, motion detector sensors and cameras feed data to a computer that is programmed to handle motion detection events by sounding an alarm, informing the police, or recording videos of the scene. A remote control car contains motors that are controlled wirelessly by the user using buttons or a joystick on a micro-controller (i.e., a really small computer). At a hardware level, physical technology refers to systems that use sensors or similar input hardware to provide data to a program - running on a micro-controller - which controls motors, displays, and other output hardware. On a more abstract level, physical technology allows users to interact with their physical environment, whether for purely practical reasons or for entertainment or art.

Even though the term "Physical Technology" is relatively new, such systems have been developed and used for a while. Scientists have been using them to obtain and process physical measurements; examples include systems to monitor the weather, volcano activity, and air quality. Traffic engineers use physical technology systems to monitor traffic conditions and aerospace engineers use them to explore other planets using autonomous rovers. The scientists and engineers who develop physical technology systems use their technical background and plain old know-how to build the systems, often using ad-hoc hardware, communication protocols, and software.

While physical technology used to be the province of scientists and engineers, recent developments are enabling far more widespread uses. New $30 credit-card size computers such as the Raspberry Pi and micro-controllers such as the Arduino as well as the mass production of cheap electronic components---such as sensors, displays, and motors---make the development of physical technology system quite affordable. To help matters further, computer scientists have standardized the Input/Output communication protocols between the computer and peripheral devices and they have developed software libraries that make it much easier to program systems using mainstream programming languages such as Python. Overall, Physical Technology System development has become cheaper and standardized, and well within the abilities and means of a broader set of industries as well as individuals.

Physical computing systems are increasingly being used to make our cars safer and our appliances more convenient to use. Toy manufacturers are using them to make ever more sophisticated interactive toys such as remote control helicopters. Sensor networks are used in parking garages to determine and show which spots are available. Artists are also using them to create physical environments that patrons can interact with. Individuals interested in physical technology have created DIY and DIWO (Do-It With Others) communities and a “maker culture'' supported by media outlets such as Make magazine.

Given the explosion of physical technology applications and given that developing such systems is well within the ability of students with some knowledge of programming and mathematics, it is becoming our responsibility to offer a curriculum that enables students to participate in the development of physical technology systems in their profession. Such students include Computer Science majors, but also students majoring in Physics, Environmental Science, Geography, Design, Cinema, Art, etc.

A key aspect of a Physical Technology system is that users interact with it. While computing engineers can build systems, they are not trained to design them in a way that results in a successful user experiences. Students studying design and human computer interaction can contribute their knowledge, adding the lens of experience design and usability to physical technology, and ultimately resulting in more successful projects.

As the commercial application and growth of physical technology products becomes a larger part of the consumer experience, the demand for well designed products also increases. The average user has high expectations of not only how their product looks, but also how it works. We can attribute these evolving consumer preference to companies like Apple and Google, who have lead the way in setting a high bar for aesthetics and intuitive user experiences. We can also argue that companies like these have paved the path for collaboration, encouraging engineers and designers to work together, drawing on their respective strengths to create the revolutionary products that are redefining lifestyles and professional practices.

Through the traditional user-centered design (UCD) processes of research, synthesis, ideation, and prototyping students will work together to make their pieces come to life and test with real users. UCD is an iterative methodology that designers use to develop empathy for their users, learning about needs, preferences and motivations that inform and help identify insights and opportunities for innovation. The process relies on structured interactions with potential users throughout the creation process, employing tools and methods of information gathering and testing to help shape and define the project during critical points development and refinement.

The introduction of advanced and accessible physical technology is also influencing the fine arts and fashion industry. For example, the size and affordability of micro-controllers has opened the door for physical technology to be integrated in wearable fashion and costumery to enhance expression and interactive elements. Installation artists and designers are also incorporating physical technology to create interactive experiences in galleries and museums as well.

Through this minor we aim to create a collaborative culture that not only allows students to learn from each other, but also asks them to exercise leadership and practice of their domain knowledge. The content of the proposed minor will focus on building critical knowledge in the area of physical technology, but we believe the team-building skills and cross-disciplinary learnings will be an equally valuable derivative outcome as well. Through this minor students will be uniquely positioned to work in a growing area of design and technology with comprehensive knowledge of what makes a successful product from multiple viewpoints.


Design and Fabrication for Physical Space Workshop

This workshop introduces students to design principles for public spaces and physical interaction. Students will explore space through wayfinding, installations, kiosks and other projects to understand the role technology plays in varying environments. A focus on 3D design principles and ergonomics will be a prominent theme throughout the course. Students will experiment with various materials, including cloth, clay, 3D printing and other 3D modeling materials.

Hardware Design Basics Workshop

This workshop applies problem solving and programming skills toward building physical systems using an array of fundamental skills. The course will cover basic electronics and hardware skills like soldering, circuit building, and basic programming for an electronic prototyping platform to interface with digital and analog inputs (sensors), control motors, and use displays. Throughout the workshop you will work in groups to build basic physical systems (e.g., controlling LEDs) to moderately sophisticated ones (e.g., developing remote controls).

Designing for the Internet of Things

From everyday household items like thermostats and locks to cities developing arrays of climate and traffic sensors, the world is increasingly becoming an interconnected system of aware and responsive devices. This course will cover the development and evolution of our connected world, and the possibilities for designing future products. Students will be introduced to ambient intelligence through exercises, collaborative projects, in-depth discussions, and instructor-led tutorials. The course will cover ambient sensing, communication, embedded systems, and designing experiences for the Internet of Things. Students will be familiar with the considerations involved in designing an interconnected system, and work in groups to prototype an “IoT” product.

Designing for Autonomy

Through the emergence of open source software, as well as widely-available and inexpensive hardware, creating autonomous robots has become easier than ever. This hands-on course will cover the evolution of robotics, including the concepts and philosophy behind autonomy that govern seemingly organic behavior. Student groups will use a framework to develop robots with a wide range of behaviors, including following, patrolling, avoiding, and exploring. Accompanying lectures will cover the theory and practical application behind designing for organic behavior.

Physical & Interactive Exhibits

With the introduction of new, widely-available interactive technologies, physical computer-based exhibits are adapting to incorporate multi-touch interfaces, motion-sensing spaces, and interconnected systems. In this workshop, students will explore the development of interactive exhibits while utilizing skills in interaction design, physical technology, and desktop fabrication. Accompanying lectures will cover the affordances of physical space in design and the utilization of augmented reality, real-time sensing, eye tracking, and other technologies while rethinking how technology is used in museums and other public spaces.

Games and Play in Physical Space

This course introduces hardware design and programming to designers and artists. Students will cover the knowledge needed to craft interactive experiences using microcontrollers, electronics, and programming. Students will experiment with circuitry, soldering, and designing for an electronic prototyping platform while developing small-sized physical games. No prior programming experience is required.