Pushing and Rotating to Supplement Swiping


TABULA project: Tangible objects are to facilitate learning of abstract content.

  Young men in front of a multi-touch display Copyright: © Andreas Schmitter HCIC student assistants Marco Grochowski and Sebastian Huebner demonstrating the use of “tangibles” on a touch-screen display.

People who can manipulate a physical object by taking it into their hands are able to work faster and more precisely than those who perform the same operations abstractly, e.g. by swiping their fingers on a screen. Players are able to think more abstractly when they are able to move real-world playing figures on a board than when they move playing figures virtually.

These findings further encourage Professor Jan Borchers and his team from the Human-Computer Interaction Center at RWTH Aachen, HCIC, in their efforts “to make more extensive use of what evolution has given us: our entire body, and not only the tips of our fingers.” This idea provides the basis for the TABULA project, which literally seeks to turn abstract learning into tangible learning. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research, BMBF, supports the project with about one million Euros over a three-year period.

Technological Breakthrough in 2013

TABULA is based on a technological breakthrough achieved three years ago, when the Media Computing Group succeeded in developing objects that could be detected by capacitive sensors without humans having to touch them.

“Users actually had to touch the screen for the computer to react”; explains Professor Borchers. The so-called “tangibles” developed by the Group, touchable objects with a broad range of different functions, send their location signals to the computer without human agency. Drawing on this technology, Borchers and his group have teamed up with two other departments and two partners from the media sector to make learning once again a more holistic process.

Haptic Learning at the Touch-Screen Desk

Abstract processes, complex interactions and simulations represent enormous challenges to the human brain. “The dropout rates of computer science students are so high, as the content taught in the first semesters of study is extremely theoretical,” says Borchers, drawing on his own experience. TABULA is to help make exactly such content more tangible.

Students, apprentices or pupils now have the chance to jointly use an interactive tabletop featuring a display and tangibles to actively act out a simulation, which makes the underlying algorithm more graspable. As Borchers explains, “In this way, a group of learners can jointly work on and develop concepts in computer science, for example an algorithm that inserts objects into a binary tree, or the flow-based programming of filters for image processing purposes.” Over the next three years, the TABULA projects will investigate how this can be effectively achieved.

Collaboration with the Pedagogy in Computer Science and Communication Science Groups

In the TABULA project, Borchers closely collaborates with Professor Ulrik Schroeder’s Learning Technologies Group and Professor Martina Ziefle’s Chair of Communication Science at the Human-Computer Interaction Center HCIC. While Schroeder is primarily concerned with the pedagogic challenges of the new approach, Ziefle focuses on the question of user acceptance. The selection of target groups for the project accounts for its application in teaching and learning: students in the computer science teacher training degree program, trainees in mathematical-technical software development, and participants in RWTH’s InfoSphere computer science lab for pupils.

In order to make the research results immediately available for application, Borchers has joined forces with two media partners: the Elector Verlag, a leading developer and manufacturer of electronics kits, is to develop a tangibles construction kit for schools and universities, based on the research results of the project.

Furthermore, the Inside Group from Aachen, a market leader in e-learning applications, will develop a learning software demo version integrating tangibles. The overarching goal of Borchers’s Media Computing Group can be easily summarized: To make technology usable and useful in a simple way.

Source: Rauke Xenia Bornefeld