What is Interaction?

On the face of it, interaction isn’t difficult to conceptualize or define.

I act on a thing. The thing reacts. Perhaps this reaction prompts me to further or differently act on the thing, in order to achieve my original goal or to work towards achieving a new one. Either way, this relay of action and reaction intertwines into a sort of dance—a pas de deux between the thing/machine/system and I, in which we exchange a series of variable moves. This dance is entered into in a variety of contexts: from simple or complex productivity tasks (i.e. taking the steps to gradually put together the website on which these words appear) to entertainment or play situations (navigating a virtual environment populated by A.I.-powered avatars). Similarly, good interaction design varies with context. Sometimes, it is determined by the delight that is produced in the course of an interaction. Other times, by the expediency with which it allows me to accomplish a given task.

Interaction becomes more complicated in the era of ubiquitous, pervasive, and ambient computing. When computation is embedded in the environment in far more ways than are readily apparent to me, interaction ceases to be a deliberate, delimited, and easily definable dance and becomes something messier, something that more closely resembles the complexity of actual lived life.

As interaction shifts from the center of my attention (i.e. the desktop/laptop directly in front of me) to the periphery, interaction becomes ever more tacit and increasingly depends on senses other than sight and touch. For years now, designers on the graphical side of things (i.e. Kenya Hara) as well as the computational side of things (i.e. Paul Dourish) have been advocating for an increase in attention to what Brett Victor calls “the untapped potential of human capabilities.” As peripheral sensing gains prominence in the field of interaction design, more senses will inevitably be called upon in exciting and original ways, and familiar ones (sight, touch) will be treated more holistically, the expansiveness and subtlety of their sensing capabilities better appreciated.

As interaction design increasingly relies on environmental perception, it will change shape and incorporate more and more knowledge from disciplines such as architecture, philosophy, art history, and practices such as sport, cooking, and dance. As Malcolm McCullough writes, “In contrast to earlier stage of interface design aimed at building attention-saturating virtual worlds, this new paradigm in information technology turns to building physical backgrounds. There more that principles of locality, embodiment, and environmental perception underlie pervasive computing, the more it all seems like architecture.” And indeed, while the design of these spaces and situations will likely still be called interaction design, it’s unclear whether our relation to them can still be understood under the rubric of interaction. Do we interact with the ambient orb, for example? Or do we just sense it?



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