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March 21, 2005

Where The Action Is:


The Foundations of Embodied Interaction

"Where the Action Is--by Paul Dourish--draws on recent research trends in interactive systems to explore the foundations of a new model of using and experiencing computer systems -- what I call "embodied interaction."

The idea of Embodied Interaction reflects a number of recent trends that have emerged in the area of Human-Computer Interaction. For instance, "tangible computing" (as conducted, for example, by Hiroshi Ishii and colleagues at the MIT Media Lab), is an area of HCI research where people are exploring how we can move the interface "off the screen" and into the real world. In this model, we can interact with physical objects which have become augmented with computational abilities. This lets designers offer new sorts of metaphors, or take advantage of our physical skills (like being able to use two hands, or to rearrange space to suit our needs), or even to directly observe and respond to our physical activities in the world (perhaps by knowing where we are and who we're with, and responding appropriately).

A second trend is what I call "social computing," which is the attempt to incorporate sociological understandings into interface design. This approach to HCI design recognises that the systems we use are embedded in systems of social meaning, fluid and negotiated between us and the other people around us. By incorporating understandings of how social practice emerges, we can build systems that fit more easily into the ways in which we work.

These two areas of research -- tangible and social computing -- have been conducted largely as independent research programs. However, I believe that they have a common foundation, and that that foundation is the notion of "embodiment." By embodiment, I don't mean simply physical reality, but rather, the way that physical and social phenomena unfold in real time and real space as a part of the world in which we are situated, right alongside and around us.

The reason that the idea of embodiment is an important one is that it isn't new. In fact, "embodiment" is at the centre of phenomenology, an important strain of philosophical thought beginning at the end of the nineteenth century. Phenomenology rejects the Cartesian separation between mind and body on which most traditional philosophical approaches are based. The idea of disembodied rationality, phenomenologists argue, arises because we think about cognition only in those immediately apparent problem cases where some problem appears in the world that needs to be solved. This ignores 99% of our daily lives, the mundane everyday existence in which we simply go our about business. In place of the Cartesian model, phenomenology explores our experiences as embodied actors interacting in the world, participating in it and acting through it, in the absorbed and unreflective manner of normal experience.

Since the phenomenological tradition has taken the idea of embodiment as a central one, it seems like a good place to turn for help in developing an understanding of the role that embodiment can play in interactive systems. Drawing from the writings of a number of phenomenologists, and especially from Heidegger, Schutz and Wittgenstein, Where the Action Is develops an understanding of embodied interaction organised in terms of the creation, manipulation and communication of meaning, and the establishment and maintenance of practice. Rather than embedding fixed notions of meaning within technologies, embodied interaction is based on the understanding that users create and communicate meaning through their interaction with the system (and with each other, through the system).

On the basis of this understanding, we can set out a range of design principles that are reflected by systems exploiting embodied interaction. This principles not only reflect important issues for design practice, but they also provide a framework for analysing embodied interaction in existing systems."

Posted by jo at March 21, 2005 07:57 AM