Hardware, Software & the Internet of Things
June 23–25, 2015 • San Francisco, CA

The physical world as interface to the digital world

Valentin Heun (MIT Media Lab)
2:05pm–2:45pm Thursday, 06/25/2015
Location: Herbst Pavilion
Average rating: ****.
(4.60, 10 ratings)

Prerequisite Knowledge



Physical things have been crafted and shaped by designers over centuries to fit the human body. Because of their physical shape and appearance, we can access and control them easily.

Increasingly, physical objects are becoming networked into the so-called “Internet of Things.” What is it that makes this vision of Internet-connected things so appealing? The promise is that this technology offers significant interaction benefits, such as that one can control or check on things when not physically present. Things can work together to provide a better overall functionality or even use the wisdom of the crowd. Finally, there is a wider variety of functionality that allows personalizing the experience in ways beyond what is possible using purely physical objects.

Unfortunately, the use of networked objects today is not at all easy. For example, if you want to modify the functionality of a light that uses the current app-centric approach, you need to take your phone out of your pocket, unlock it, open an app, search for the light within a menu, and eventually access the functionality. A process that previously only required tapping a physical switch now requires multiple steps. In addition, the more objects one has, the more complicated it becomes to find them in the app’s drop-down menus.

In this talk I will present my solution to this interface problem. I will present a tool called the Reality Editor that offers product designers a simple solution for creating connected objects by using web standards and Arduino, and offers users a simple solution for editing the objects’ behavior with an augmented-reality interface that eliminates complicated steps and abstractions.

These new physical objects are called Hybrid Objects, as they share the best characteristics of virtual and physical interfaces: A virtual interface for occasional editing, connecting, and learning about the object, as well as physical interfaces that serve for everyday operations. Using this approach, the physical world itself becomes the main interface, and the smartphone in your pocket acts as a magnifying glass that can be used to edit this reality when needed.

Photo of Valentin Heun

Valentin Heun

MIT Media Lab

Valentin Heun is a PhD student in the MIT Media Lab Fluid Interfaces Group. He is interested in transferring benefits from our shared digital experiences to our physical reality. Prior to his arrival in the group, Valentin cofounded an HCI company supported by an entrepreneur’s scholarship from the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology. He holds a master’s of science from the MIT Media Lab, the German Diplom (eq. master’s) in design from the Bauhaus-University Weimar, and has pursued interdisciplinary studies in the field of design and engineering at the Pratt Institute New York, Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, and Johann-Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt.