What is physical interaction?
A physical interaction is an exchange between a person and and object, or machine, where both are intelligently responding to what is being expressed. A good physical interaction is one where the person can tell, or figure out, how to communicate to the object or machine based on design or cues that the object or machine affords resulting in an exchange that makes sense to the person. Then, the interaction invites continued interaction by being responsive, engaging, and maybe even fun. Chris Crawford included “The first rule in business is that you must identify your basis of competitive advantage and then exploit it to the fullest” in the “Computer’s Basis of Competitive Advantage” section of The Art of Interactive Design, which in this context I immediately translated in my mind to: a good interaction lets people do what they do best while letting a computer do what it does best.
What is the potential?
Bret Victor went even further, giving a sort of urgent, almost moral imperative to push interaction design forward, saying, “…Visions matter. Visions give people a direction and inspire people to act, and a group of inspired people is the most powerful force in the world. If you’re a young person setting off to realize a vision, or an old person setting off to fund one, I really want it to be something worthwhile. Something that genuinely improves how we interact.” This reminded me of Jason Pontin of MIT Technology Review, when reflecting on drones used for warfare he wrote, “Technological advances are not the same as progress.” In a way Victor’s rant was a critique from the opposite end–sometimes achieving some ends are unnecessarily hindered by poor or thoughtless selection of tools. If we want to use technology to progress rather than to stagnate, or worse, regress, then maybe as an extension of this, interactions should facilitate the expression of the best parts of human nature. How can we apply these kinds of principles when we design things?
Non-interactive digital technology
Examples of digital technology that are not interactive could include almost anything that presents information or media, on the web or otherwise, that is not responsive to the person consuming the information. The expected train arrival in the subway, based on the subway schedule or sensors (depending on the city), communicates information digitally, but does not react in any way when people are annoyed or in a rush. In large part the movies, music, text, and art we view online is not interactive, although some online experiences are specifically designed to be interactive. I am not sure if sites like Netflix or Youtube should be considered interactive–I think they are in the sense that they learn about you and make suggestions based on your previous behavior. Maybe this could be considered a conversation about your likes and interests.