PICOJames Patten, Jason Alonso, and Professor Hiroshi Ishii / 2005


We are working to create a new type of human-computer interface, called PICO, by combining some of the usability advantages of mechanical systems with the abstract computational power of modern computers. Long before modern electronic computers were developed, people relied on mechanical devices to perform computation. While mechanical systems can be applied to only a limited set of relatively simple computational tasks, the ability to observe the details of their operation makes many of them easy to understand and use. In contrast, modern computers can handle tasks that are more abstract and complex, but the processes through which computation occur are hidden and difficult to understand.

We are merging software-based computation with dynamic physical processes that are exposed to and modified by the user in order to accomplish his or her task. By designing interfaces that employ the dynamic behavior of objects in the physical world, such as motion in response to physical forces, as an interface vocabulary we aim to create interfaces that allow people and computers to collaborate in novel ways. To explore this idea we are creating and testing an interface for planning cellular telephone networks on an actuated tabletop sensing surface. Objects on this surface are moved under software control using electromagnets, but also by users standing around the table. With this method, PICO users can physically intervene in the computational optimization process of determining cellphone tower placement. We plan to investigate whether the communication bandwidth afforded by an interface that heavily engages the sense of touch can change the approach that experts take to solving some types of optimization problems.