Getting Physical


Alan Dix
Lancaster University

Keynote given at OZCHI 2003 Brisbane, Australia, 26-28 Nov 2003.


Things related to topics I talked about ...

I explore some of the interactions between evolutionary psychology and cognition in several essays including imagination and rationality and driving as a cyborg experience
The relationship between cavemen, leg length and delays in file renaming are in a short paper called natural time
More about the Wason card test and counting teddy bears in "Being Playful – learning from children", the keynote I did at Interaction Design and Children 2003
Analysis of everyday appliances and physical design described in Aladdin's lamp: understanding new from old
This work is being done as part of the project
I also mentioned .:thePooch:. ... lots of fun work in performance arts

send a virtual cracker
(Christmas bon bon to those in OZ!)

third edition out now!!

alan in OZ

download slides (PDF, 893K)
... and see a few of my photos


In our conferences on human­computer interaction, we obviously focus on the way people engage with the electronic world. In addition, in the technology pages of any newspaper we see phrases such as 'information society', 'electronic commerce', 'virtual reality'. Parallel to the world of concrete, steel and glass that we have built around ourselves, we have also constructed an information world that undergirds the more tangible fabric of 21st century society.

In Australia, the glass and concrete of cities and suburbia hang precariously to the edge. Beyond this coastal fringe, the rock and earth shrugs off all but the most tenuous signs of technological construction. Similarly, beyond the rational focus of much of our information-centred activities, lie deeper and more primitive layers. Beneath our shells of rayon, nylon and PVC, we are not far different from Neanderthals.

Our minds are designed for interacting with the physical world and many of the most successful interface paradigms draw on our deep and innate understandings of the real: direct manipulation, virtual reality and more recently tangible interactions. Designing novel tangible artefacts is hard because they are a new paradigm and so there is no body of design knowledge to draw on. However, our lives are surrounded with appliances and electronic consumer goods, many of which exploit our virtuosity with the physical in the subtleties of their design.

In this talk, we will explore a little of the archaeology of the mind and how it affects our day-to-day lives. We will also see how studying mundane interactions with ordinary electronic devices can help us build a conceptual design repertoire to apply to novel tangible devices.

brief bio

I have long hair, a beard and am the son of a carpenter. Thereafter all pretensions to saintliness end.

I began as a bearded mathematician at Cambridge, worked as a research scientist at the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering (lots of brightly painted tractors), a Cobol programmer for Cumbria County Council (lots of beige and brown ICL mainframes), then in 1984, thanks to Alvey (the UK 5th generation programme), I became a bearded computer scientist. I worked for almost 10 years at York University before moving to become a Reader at Huddersfield in 1994, where I lead the HCI Research centre hci@hud, and chaired the HCI95 conference. I was Associate Dean of the School of Computing at Staffordshire University for two years (lots of meetings) and am now a Professor of Computing at Lancaster University. I have written and edited several books (see my web pages), including a big textbook on Human-Computer Interaction and a smaller textbook on Artificial Intelligence.

In general I'm interested in just about anything!

There is a summary cv at:
And lots of things at my home page:
Including things to play with, such as Alan's puzzle square:
and poems and things:


Alan Dix 5/12/2003