ETech 09: Siftables

Jeevan Kalanithi and David Merrill: “Cookie Scale Computing: Human-Computer Interfaces as Piles of Gesture Sensitive Displays” on Wednesday morning at ETech 09. A talk about Siftables. Probably best if you visit the site and watch the video there to get an idea of what these things actually are, as it probably won’t come across solely in text.

Cookie scale computing

How do we design for when computers go from the size of a candy bar (like the iPhone) to the size of a small cookie?

Computers and mobile phones pull us out of our environment into another world. This is a problem. They provide a narrow channel between the physical world we live in and the virtual world of all this information on which we rely. How can we make an interface that provides a better overlap between these two domains?

When we had punch cards you had to double and triple check your cards before using them. Time was scarce. Many people wanted to use the computer. Now we have rapid prototyping and can keep trying new ideas over and over.

A study with Tetris players: how many rotations would a player apply to a piece before dropping it? The better the player, the more rotations they did. For computations that are mentally expensive it’s easier to do that manipulation with a representation outside of your head. Another experiment with Scrabble tiles. The group that was allowed to rearrange the tiles rather than do it all in their head did better.

Related work

  • Tangible: How to make interfaces to computers that aren’t keyboards or mouse.
  • Ubicomp: Things that bring information to us when we’re not at our computer.
  • Gestural: Mouse, sketchpad, Wii.
  • Tabletop: React table, multitouch.
  • Sensor networks: Lightweight and battery powered.

Lucid Touch — a touchscreen you touch from behind so you don’t obscure the image.

Fitbit — sends information about your activity to the internet.

Vitality — smart pill bottle cap.


Came from playing with childrens’ building blocks. Small square blocks with the front face a screen. They can display colour graphics, communicate wirelessly, sense motion, detect when its near other blocks.

Multi-Object gestures:

  • Group. You can group items into one siftable.
  • Incline. Indicate strength of a relationship between two things shown on the siftables by tilting the devices toward or away from each other.
  • Pour. Send an attribute, like a colour, from one siftable to another.
  • Making a list by putting them in a pile.
  • Thumping. Slap the surface the siftables are on to give them a signal.

Key features of Siftables:

  • Multi-person. Easy for several people to collaborate on using them because they’re physical, not on a screen.
  • Anywhere tabletop.
  • 3D interaction. Aware of 3D movement.
  • Two-handed, all-fingers, bodily interaction
  • Offload working memory, mental computation.

They show videos of a series of blocks being used as a game, like Scrabble tiles. Or being used to do simple equations with numbers and symbols. And being used as a musical sequencer, with siftables as instruments, musical filters, tempo controller, etc.

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