Course Description

Physical computing, in the broadest sense, means building active and interactive physical systems by the use of software and hardware that can sense and respond to the analog world. Physical computing provides an introduction to applied robotics and basic electronics with a focus on creating interactive electronic devices for visual art, theater, and performance. The course will also include an introduction to the use of the MaxMSP software package for creating interactive audio and video systems. Students will be introduced to new methods to present media: whether viewed as interactive sculpture, live video installation, wearable devices, or responsive environments. Physical Computing allows students to experiment with how media can respond to physical and environmental input, and how generative behaviors, mingling live events and synthetic responses, can become part of our media expression.

Course Goals

This course introduces students to range of new technical skills: building electronic circuits, simple programming of a micro controller, and learning the basics of Max/MSP/Jitter software to control and generate real-time output. The requirements of each project build upon the previous, adding new skills gradually, while maintaining a balance between technique and concept.  At the same time, the course will challenge students to think beyond the technical skills involved, to engage with concepts of interaction design, installation, performance, wearable and environmental design. This course will provide students basic knowledge of electronics and electricity, an understanding of micro-controllers and physical computing technologies, an understanding of the value of active experimentation to discover new forms of analog and digital technologies, as well as theoretical groundwork for understanding how new media and technological artworks effect one’s culture and society.


Using the open source Arduino microcontroller and Max/MSP/Jitter software, this class introduces students to making stand-alone active and interactive devices as well as sensor circuits that can “talk” and “listen” to a PC. The class will present simplified steps to the technical aspects of physical computing, easing the learning curve and focusing attention on the concept and content of physical/media relationships. Students will be challenged to visualize new correspondences between the virtual world of digital media and the physical world of bodies and spaces.

Digital DNA by Andrew Zajack, Ping sensor mounted on top of a servomotor scans the architecture of a space. The values recorded by the sensor control a visual representation of the space and are graphed in MaxMSP Jitter.
More examples of student work are available here.

Reading List

Getting Started with Arduino
What’s a Microcontroller (PDF)
Physical Computing

URLs may also be assigned, such as:
Crossings: eJournal of Art & Design:

Example Class Schedule

Week 1 – What is physical computing? Background and examples. Electrical and electronic fundamentals
Week 2 – Intro to electronics continued. Soldering and reading schematics.
Week 3 – When is a switch more than a switch? Analog vs Digital.
Week 4 – Arduino and intro to programming.
Week 5 – Sensors and transducers – the active becomes interactive.
Week 6 – Designing circuits.
Week 7 – Circuit bending and off the shelf solutions.
Week 8 – Intro to MaxMSP
Week 9 – Interfacing MaxMSP and the Arduino
Week 10 – Signal processing with MaxMSP. Morphing audio and video in real time.
Week 11 thru 16 – Special topics and in class workshops.