Making Things Interactive 2019 Syllabus

Course Overview

48-339 Making Things Interactive, Fall, 2019
Instructor: Jet Townsend, Adjunct Professor, School of Architecture; Designer, Fabricator, Hacker
Class/Lab Location: T/R 18:30-19:50, IDEATE @ Hunt Library, room A10
Office Hours: Thursday, 16:30-18:30 Hunt Library, room A10
Course Blog:

Course Description

From the CMU catalog:

In this hands-on design-build class you will learn the skills to embed sensors and actuators (light, sound, touch, motion, etc.) into everyday things (and places etc.) and to program their interactive behavior using a micro controller. You’ll also dive into the fields of VR/AR/MR and experiment with combining these disciplines with physical computing. Through weekly exercises and a term project the class will introduce basic analog electronics, micro controller programming, projection mapping and virtual reality; as well as exploration into using kinetics and materials to make the things you design perform. Emphasis will be on creating innovative experiences. The graduate edition of this course will require additional work including a paper that can be submitted to a peer-reviewed interaction design conference such as CHI, UIST, or TEI. Students from all disciplines are welcome: but please note that the class demands that you master technical material. Experience in at least one of: programming, electronics, or physical fabrication is strongly recommended. (Participants will provide their own supplies and materials.)

Making Things Interactive (MTI) is a project-based course where physical computing and interaction design are used to create new forms of technology-mediated interaction. This course covers aspects of conceiving, designing, developing, and improving software and hardware interactions. The course is organized around a series of practical exercises and studies which lead to the use of more complex circuits, software, sensor processing, kinematics, actuation, and time-based interaction.

The capstone of this class is a final project where students can show they understand both the design, development and fabrication steps of creating an artifact and the software development and design skills of creating an interaction.

This course is part of the Integrative Design, Arts, and Technology program at Carnegie Mellon University and makes use of the new IDeaTe@Hunt Collaborative Making Facility in the lower level of Hunt Library.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this course the student will be able to:

  • understand the fundamentals of tangible (physical) interaction design
  • develop and apply an aesthetic view of interactions
  • analyze existing interaction systems and provide a response / critique
  • respond to a generic request for a set of features with the software, hardware, and environment to implement those features
  • understand and leverage the capabilities of embedded systems, laptops, and cloud services and how they are used in interaction
  • develop and appreciate for why things are done as well as how

Teaching Philosophy

This course operates under the following principles from IDeATe:

Immersion: Language shapes thought; thinking clearly about engineering and computing requires precise use of language. The course emphasizes correct use of technical terminology from the start, even as the meaning incrementally becomes understood.

Experiential Learning: We learn by doing. The course emphasizes immediate application of theory into practical demonstration; it is the success and especially the failure of the experiment which creates a vivid understanding of the principles.

Cooperative Learning: We teach each other. Articulating an explanation develops and tests knowledge and hones the skill of knowing the bounds of one’s own knowledge. Sometimes we will teach each other incorrectly, but careful attention to further evidence will correct this over time.

Self-motivation: Students are responsible for their own progress. Wherever possible, the driving motivation will be a self-chosen goal, divided into manageable subproblems. The desire for the goal prompts autonomous exploration. If you ever find the course dull, that is an opportunity to reflect on what you are trying to achieve and choose a new objective.

Critical Thinking, Reflection and Writing: Understanding develops through reflection, and the best discipline for reflection is writing and drawing. Mere repetition of the examples does not build skill; it is the process of reflection which integrates experience into knowledge which can be applied to novel situations.

Collaboration: The aim of IDeATe is to train each student to be excellent in one area of technology or arts and be able to collaborate within diverse cohorts of technology and arts experts. Collaborative skill requires excellence in one’s own areas of expertise, an ability to translate ideas across disciplinary bounds, and a proficiency in negotiation and compromise.

Essential Skills

The activities, exercises and graded projects in this course address a wide range skills and mindsets needed to work in the ever evolving field of tangible interaction.


Grades are important to the university, how a student is performing in this class should be apparent from in-class interactions, civics points, and critiques. Please ask me in person or in email if you ever have any question about your grade or class performance.

This class is graded using a mixture of requirements from Design, Architecture, and Engineering colleges.  Grades will come from a combination of critiques, exercise reviews, original writing, and class participation, or “civics points”. There are no exams in this class, however we will have the occasional 1-2 page writing assignment based on a reading, this will be given Tuesday and due Thursday.

Most grading is a matter of two points, this will be used for simple assignments, civics points, etc:

0: incomplete, late, does not satisfy requirements

1: complete: meets the requirements

2: excellent: surprises the class, creates a new insight into a requirement, goes beyond the requirements.

Critiques and In-Class Review

Critiques and exercise reviews include the following areas of grading, with each element rated on the 2 points scale.

Concept. The core elements of the project, how they relate to the requirements, how they extend the requirements and how they meet contextual and outside constraints.

Deliverables. How the concept was executed and delivered.

Documentation. The quality and clarity of the documentation, the correct amount of detail, the presentation quality of the documentation.

Critique elements. How the project is presented during a critique including signage, quality of images and sound, and how all of this relates to the original requirements.

How to have a good critique:

Give a brief verbal overview of your idea and execution. Rehearse this ahead of the crit so that you know how long it actually takes.

Demonstrate or perform your interaction, rehearse this ahead of the crit so you can discover any needs related to power or space.

Be prepared to describe the relationship between your concept and your execution, what you changed and what you left out of the execution and why.

In a crit we might explore other options or executions that you could have explored, which is not negative feedback. This is especially likely when we have guests from outside the class as part of the crit. This an exploration of your concept where we can reflect on how a visitor or an expert in your domain would have approached the execution.

Writing Assignments and “Civics Points”

Writing assignments are reflections and personal statements and are graded pass/fail based on whether or not they were turned in on time.

Class participation aka “civics points” are related to how the student participates in the class from the perspective of other students. Yes, this is vague, but so are the relationships you will have with coworkers, clients, and vendors.

Grades for Late Projects

Please note that project deadlines are strict and outlined in the Lateness Policy section below.

Extra Credit

Extra credit comes mostly from contributing to the class blog, in particular to the “Looking Outwards” category. Students are also encouraged to comment on one another’s assignments on the blog, providing feedback on solutions and alternative paths for a concept.

Final Grade

A good, successful score will typically be around %60, final grades will be based on weighted point totals. For non-stats people, this means that if you do all the work correctly and on time you will pass the class.

Grading breakdown:

  • 20% Final Crit
  • 30% Three Section Crits
  • 30% Weekly Assignment
  • 15% Journal Papers (grad) or Looking Outward (undergrad)
  • 5% Civics

    General Course Policies


Attendance is required. Designated class hours are the most effective time for communicating among group members and instructors.

Attendance will be recorded for each class period and considered during final grading. Unexcused absences during crits are as serious as missing a scheduled exam.

Physical Computing Lab

The classroom for the course in the IDeATe Physical Computing Lab in Hunt A10.
The lab inventory of components and materials is available online as a Google Sheet named Physical Computing Lab Inventory, with separate tabs for tools and materials.
All lab users are expected to abide by the Physical Computing Lab Policies.

Late Assignments and Grading

All assignments must be submitted by the required deadline, unless prior authorization is obtained from an instructor and documented in email. Verbal authorization is not sufficient: any verbal discussion of late submission must be documented with an emailed request and reply.

Assignments received within 24 hours of the deadline will receive half-score. Assignments received later than 24 hours will not be examined and receive zero score.

Assignments bounced for revision at the discretion of the instructor must be returned within 24 hours if not otherwise specified. This rule is meant to allow a grace period for reports which overlook a required element; please do not assume that incomplete work can be resubmitted. Please remember that something is always better than nothing. If the deadline is imminent, please submit whatever text, images, and drawings you can rather than do nothing. Always ask for an extension rather than silently fail to deliver.

Project Reports

Each assignment serves both learning and evaluative goals. Fulfilling the assignment is an essential step in the learning process, and the result also demonstrates learning success. Please take careful note of the requirements for each assignment: they represent a contract between student and instructor.

The objective of assigning reports is to encourage evaluative thinking throughout the process of development. Writing and sketching is much faster than physically building something, and writing the core of the report first is a great way to clarify a concept. It is highly recommended to consider the report requirements throughout your process, e.g., by taking in-process notes and photos, and fully drawing out designs.


All projects require an accompanying report as a blog post to our course website. We use a WordPress blog to distribute assignments, collect deliverables, and assign grades.

The following specifies the detailed requirements for all reports:

All report documents must be submitted as a blog post to our course website.

Each report should clearly attribute the contribution of each group member. Individual grades may be adjusted from group grades if it becomes apparent that contribution is not equitable. A separate confidential peer evaluation may be requested individually from each group member at the instructor’s discretion.

Reports must include a statement of objectives, general descriptive text, narrative, results, photos, technical documentation, and citations of related work.

Any project photos must be embedded within the blog post.

Project videos must be uploaded to the hosting service of your choice and embedded in the blog-post.

Project videos must adhere to the minimum (1 min) and maximum (3 min) duration limits.

Project videos require a title and credits.

In general, enough technical documentation must be provided that a person of equal skill could replicate the construction of the project.

All program source code is required and must be provided within the single zip file linked within the blog post.

Electronic schematics must be provided as embedded elements or links in the blog post. Hand-drawn or illustrated schematics are acceptable, a Fritzing sketch is preferred.

Mechanical drawings or sketches must be provided, clearly specify the scale and units.
Any original CAD files are required. Multi-file designs (typical for SolidWorks) must be provided as links in the blog post.

Project Gallery

Projects of merit may be requested to provide a version of their project documentation for the IDeATe public project gallery. This will not be required or graded, but represents an opportunity to have your work publicly presented as part of the IDeATe portfolio and should need only minimal additional effort to prepare.

Class time, One-on-ones, Homework, Projects and Time Management

A 12-unit course should take about 12-hours of time per week including class hours. In our case, that generally means 4 hours of class-time and 8 hours of out-of-class work. Keep track of how much time you spend on this course. If you are spending a lot more than 12 hours and you are concerned about this course’s demands in relation to your other coursework, please make an appointment with the instructor to discuss your situation.


Take care of yourself. Do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle this semester by eating well, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, getting enough sleep and taking some time to relax. This will help you achieve your goals and cope with stress.

All of us benefit from support during times of struggle. You are not alone. There are many helpful resources available on campus and an important part of the college experience is learning how to ask for help. Asking for support sooner rather than later is often helpful.

If you or anyone you know experiences any academic stress, difficult life events, or feelings like anxiety or depression, we strongly encourage you to seek support. Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) is here to help: call 412-268-2922 and visit their website at Consider reaching out to a friend, faculty or family member you trust for help getting connected to the support that can help

If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal or in danger of self-harm, call someone immediately, day or night:
CaPS: 412-268-2922
Re:solve Crisis Network: 888-796-8226

If the situation is life threatening, call the police:

On campus: CMU Police: 412-268-2323
Off campus: 911