Hands-on Learning through Tangible Interaction

Over the past two decades, Tangible Interaction has grown as a field of study to be the subject of prolific and visionary research across the globe. The focus of this research has been widely varied, from assisted living to art installations. Tangibles for learning, however, have been a consistent theme over the years, as the potential of tangible systems for this purpose has become more and more apparent. Tangible Interaction as a framework for developing pedagogical systems and products has the ability to excite and engage students with topics in ways not achievable using traditional teaching tools. In the following, the underlying concepts of this area are discussed, along with the potential benefits they present for learning.

What is Tangible Interaction?

Put simply, Tangible Interaction refers to the concept of interacting with the digital world using physical objects, gestures and behaviours in familiar or intuitive ways. People can access and manipulate digital data instinctively using recognisable objects and motions. For example, a student could receive reminders about what books to bring to class or if they are running late from their digitally-augmented schoolbag through audio, visual or haptic outputs. Another example is Reactable (see fig. 1), a Tangible Interaction interface designed to support multi-user creation and interaction with music through the movement of plastic cubes on a digitally-mediated table. In a world dominated by screen-based technologies, the field of Tangible Interaction has come to be regarded as an effective way to engage people and provide them with a novel yet instinctive method of engaging with the digital world.

Figure 1: Reactable, a Tangible Interaction interface for creating and interacting with music by manipulating physical cubes on a table top (

How can it benefit learning?

Tangible Interaction allows students to go beyond the screen and actually physically interact with objects that reveal information on the subjects they are learning. A number of concepts behind Tangible Interaction support this, including the idea of multi-sensory interfaces and support for experimentation.

The concept of multi-sensory interfaces is a common theme in Tangible Interaction design. Traditional learning techniques generally engage just two senses – hearing and vision – when providing access to information. Tangible Interaction promotes the concept of engaging multiple senses including vision, hearing, touch and even smell and taste as a medium for interacting with data. For example, students could learn about the flow of electricity through a circuit by connecting different digitally-augmented objects representing electrical components that change weight depending on the amount of ‘current’ flowing through them. In this scenario, the students’ sense of touch would be engaged in relating the weight of an object to a metaphor for the amount of current flowing through it.

Tangible objects, by their very nature, support exploratory activities. Students can play and experiment with tangibles in a way that chalk-and-talk or screen based information delivery methods do not encourage. This opens up the possibility for students to learn through discovery, and engage with the lesson material on a more personal and motivated level.

The above gives just a brief glimpse at the opportunities for enhancing the learning experience presented by the field of Tangible Interaction. There are still countless unexplored avenues for designing tangibles that can engage students and provide deeper insights into learning material. The field holds great promise for the development of new learning strategies, and presents an exciting view into the future of education.