The Editor’s Spotlight, Part 2 — TOCHI Issue 23:4 — Adding Physical Objects to an Interactive Game Improves Learning and Enjoyment


Adding Physical Objects to an Interactive Game Improves Learning and Enjoyment

This delightful contribution explores EarthShake, a mixed-reality game that helps children learn some basic principles of physics by bridging the physical and virtual worlds via depth-sensing cameras.

The work includes not only an interactive prototype that is put to the test by 4-8 year old children (a particularly demanding user demographic if ever there was one!), but also through careful experimental design that teases out many insights illustrating how and why the use of three-dimensional (3D) physical objects in mixed-reality environments can produce better learning and enjoyment than flat-screen 2D interaction.

Computer technologies can be especially empowering when brought to bear in the context of the physical environment. This has long been suspected as a benefit of so-called “tangible interfaces”—that is, interfaces employing physical stand-ins or props as proxies for digital objects—yet precisely how, or why, or under what circumstances tangibles might bring benefits has remained murky, particularly when combined with mixed-reality environments, i.e. sensing systems that detect the 3D world and incorporate it directly into the interactive experience. One can hypothesize many possible reasons that tangibles could be beneficial to learners in mixed-reality environments:

Is it the three-dimensional nature of the objects?

Do the potential benefits derive from making interaction more enjoyable?

Or perhaps it is the embedding in reality, and the sensory cues that the real world affords, that forms the critical difference—as compared to watching videos of the same activities, for example.

In addressing these questions, the carefully controlled studies isolate various possible effects and confounds, and thereby convincingly demonstrate many aspects of exactly how these mixed-reality environments benefit learners. The results demonstrate that learning benefits accrue through embodied cognition, improved mental visualization (as evidenced by children’s hand gestures, for example), and via the mere observation of physical phenomena in the full richness of sensory cues available in the real world—cues that are inherently absent when watching a video recording of the same activity on a flat, two-dimensional screen.


Nesra Yannier, Scott Hudson, Eliane Wiese, Ken Koedinger. 2016. Adding Physical Objects to an Interactive Game Improves Learning and Enjoyment. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 23, 4, Article 26 (August 2016), 33 pages.



The Editor’s Spotlight, Part 1 — TOCHI Issue 23:4 — Rituals of Letting Go: An Embodiment Perspective on Disposal Practices Informed by Grief Therapy

TOCHI Issue 23:4 is now available on the ACM Digital Library.

This month’s TOCHI has an unusually rich and far-ranging set of contributions, some of which forced me to confront deep personal truths (more about that shortly, in this post).

And while there were several articles that piqued my curiosity, two in particular caught my editorial eye. The first of these is featured below, the second will appear shortly in a follow-up post.



Rituals of Letting Go: An Embodiment Perspective on Disposal Practices Informed by Grief Therapy

This article offers a great example of the rich insights that can be unpacked by a thorough qualitative analysis of an HCI design context—in this case, the challenges of loss and grief that we all must eventually confront, and which therefore may be the essence of the human condition itself.

This unique problem takes on some strange twists in this modern era, when many of the “possessions” representative of our loved ones who have passed on assume an online and digital, rather than physical, form. How can one confront such an overwhelming task—going through thousands of digital photos, or blog posts, or a Facebook timeline which may not even be under your direct control—in such circumstances?

Furthermore, one might naturally assume that one always wants to retain such digital possessions, whereas the reality is much more complicated. Indeed, to move on, what many people need is in fact a therapeutic way of letting go—an end-goal spectacularly ill-suited to the inflexible, binary, and non-embodied methods that computers and web services currently offer us for deleting digital objects (or massive collections thereof).

And I have to admit, this article really hit home because it represents a very deep, dark hole that I have fallen into myself: Kerrie, my first spouse, died at the tender age of 29, just as I was embarking on my career at Microsoft Research. As I tried to put my life back together, one problem I had to confront was what to do with my wife’s greeting, which may have been the only recording I had of Kerrie’s voice, on our voice mail. While I will leave the solution that I came up with to the reader’s imagination, I can assure you that hitting some Delete button is about as far as you can get from a satisfactory solution to such a dilemma, and indeed there are no easy answers.

Because people flattened by such events (which the authors astutely expand to encompass related circumstances such as stillbirth, separation and divorce, as well as death itself) are in no condition to participate in some focus group or contextual inquiry, the article takes the clever indirection of working with professional grief therapists, all of whom helped clients to prepare “rituals of letting go” so as to move on with their lives—a new life that by necessity could no longer could include their loved one.

And indeed, the problems faced and the type of rituals enacted depend strongly on such circumstances, leading to a vocabulary of action and intent that the authors characterize in a rich design space. The work also suggests many new design directions and possibilities for HCI and sustainable, full life-cycle design to help people divest themselves of emotionally charged digital possessions.

To riff on the novel direction of release-centric interactions suggested by the article, imagine, for example, a digital-photo locket explicitly designed for letting-go such that each time you choose to open it, it displays a photo (or a voice message…) of a loved one for the very last time; when you decide to close it, an embodied act, the echoes of the emotionally-charged digital artifact would drift away on a chill wind and be gone forever, allowing the survivor—if only symbolically, and in a small way—to move on.

The article is rich with provocative examples, situations, and design questions of this sort, and reading it may very well forever change how you think about the design of photo repositories, voice messages, texts, and other such digital possessions.


Corina Sas, Steve Whittaker, and John Zimmerman. 2016. Rituals of Letting Go: An Embodiment Perspective on Disposal Practices Informed by Grief Therapy. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 23, 4, Article 21  (August 2016), 37 pages.



A Quick Update on the TOCHI Editorial Board

The TOCHI journal continues to strive for greater heights.

And in recent events, as an institution it has grown far wiser as well.

Because I am happy to report that four illustrious new members have graciously accepted my invitation to serve on the Editorial Board:

Pourang P. Irani (University of Manitoba);

  — Per Ola Kristensson (University of Cambridge);

  — Wendy E. Mackay (Université de Paris-Sud); and

  — Albrecht Schmidt (University of Stuttgart).

Each of them are accomplished innovators, lecturers, and researchers—if not a force of nature in their own right—and I’m very excited for the vision and guidance they will all bring to the board. And these reinforcements arrive just in time, too, as TOCHI is on a record pace for new submissions this year, with manuscript #155 having just entered the queue as of mid-July.

And that doesn’t even count the revisions.

So needless to say, there’s plenty of editorial work to go around. Our average response time continues to hew to about 50 days, although admittedly this obscures a highly bimodal distribution: we decline many submissions within a few days, while those that go through full external reviews usually take longer. We strive to issue a decision letter within 90 days, but that isn’t always possible—especially during the summer, when almost all prospective reviewers (somehow having the gall to enjoy their sunny holidays) tend make themselves rather scarce!

And if your manuscript has been with us for more than 90 days, please do feel free to query so that we can check on its status. Such queries, when necessary, often constitute a useful prod to stir reviewers and editors (including myself!) to imminent action.

Perhaps now is also a good time to remind everyone, oh ye of the faithful TOCHI readership, that 2016 will herald the first annual TOCHI Best Paper Award. We expect to make our selection(s) in early 2017, with all papers published in Volume 23 being eligible. I would love to receive your nominations for our best papers published in 2016, to be sure they receive full due consideration for the award. Just drop us a line at And please do include a brief statement as to why you think the paper is especially deserving—that may be just the thing necessary to push it over the top, given the consistent excellence of all the work that we publish.