Interaction Words

October 3, 2015

INST-INT is a conference for people who design, build, fund, and participate in interactive installations. In 2015, it occurred in Minneapolis at the beginning of October.

I just got back from INST-INT. What a great group of people!

Many of the speakers were working on very similar projects this year. I think it was telling that, in spite of many similarities, few speakers use the same vocabulary to talk about their work. Because we all came from different backgrounds, we all drew on different metaphors. The most common language was stolen from art theory and criticism — but I think that is not a language particularly well suited to describing interactive work.

On the flight home, I brainstormed some possible vocabulary words that would let us have richer, more meaningful conversations about the similarities and the differences between the many works discussed at INST-INT — because without rich vocabulary, we risk a wide variety of work turning into one undifferentiated blur.

An important part of descriptive vocabulary is that it does not become tainted with connotations of good and bad. These are words that should be used like the words we use to describe color. “Crimson” doesn’t make a painting successful; and “chartreuse” doesn’t make a painting fail. The words give us a common language to describe the work to ourselves and to each other. While we’re working, we can evaluate our choices by using those words in context to shed light onto the effects those choices might have.

In the spirit of Tom Freidman, I’m going to follow each potential vocabulary word with a list of questions we could ask about an interactive work.


I heard lots of people using the words “user” and “audience” to describe the people who are interacting with the work. I think those are poor choices. “Audience” is weak because it’s passive — audiences watch. What happens when we want to talk about people who are watching but not interacting? Those people are the audience. Similarly, “user” is weak because implies a one-sided intention on the part of the actor. Users use tools to accomplish goals. It connotes a commercial relationship.

Actor is a strong word. Let’s steal it from the theater. Actors play parts and take actions, often in front of an audience. Actors are live collaborators. Interactor is also available for situations where actor might be ambiguous.

Toni Dove’s Artificial Changelings is a perfect example of a work when calling the interactor anything else seems insane — they’re making real aesthetic choices about the art they’re interacting with.

  • Who is the actor? Is there one? Are there many? Or none at all?
  • Where are they from? Why are they in the space? Where will they go next?
  • What limitations does the work place on who can be an actor? Do they need to be able to stand up? Push hard? Use both hands?
  • What about mental, emotional or contextual constraints? Do they need a smartphone? Do they need to be willing to expose something private about themselves?


Let’s steal the word affordance from design. An affordance is a potential for action offered by an object or an environment. Doorknobs afford twisting, handles afford holding. We need to be able to talk about both the intended and unintended affordances of our work and the environments our work is placed in.

Kawandeep Virdee’s talk was almost entirely about the discovery of expected and unexpected affordances.

  • How does the actor learn which actions will garner responses?
  • What can the actor do? What might they do?
  • What options are obvious? Which are hidden?
  • What unexpected or unexplored affordances does the work or the space offer? Could the work be inclusive of those potential actions?
  • Could affordances be added? Purposefully removed?


Let’s steal the word persistence from fluid dynamics.

A lot of the work we saw at INST-INT this year existed very much in the moment. The consequences of an actor’s choice last only a few seconds, and then (like a the beginning of each episode of a sitcom) the world resets to exactly how it was before.

Moment Factory’s Megaphone is an example of a really effective use of persistence. Despite only one actor participating at a time, the audience can see the summed result of the whole evening’s actions.

But this is not always the case; and it’s work being able to talk about how long the consequences of an action continue to effect the work.

  • When an actor takes an action, is the result visible instantly? Is it still visible in 2 minutes? In 2 hours? In two days? In two years?
  • How does the result decay over time?
  • What information remains, and what information is lost?
  • How many actors and actions can the system represent simultaneously?


Let’s steal the word distance from computer science. Computer science uses the word distance in the usual sense (spatial distance) but also defines more arcane forms of distance.

The actor is always somewhat removed from the result of their action — I yell over here, and a few seconds later lights go on over there. That is a gap in both time and in space. Those gaps can be very large (the actor is on the other side of the planet, the result occurs weeks or years later) or very small.

When the spatial distance is small, the work gains intimacy for the actor, but loses accessibility to a large audience. When the temporal distance is small, the work becomes more responsive, but that can cause the actor to be frenetic. Both are effects that Daniel Rozin hinted at, when talking about the differences between his mirrors

There is also conceptual distance. When the actor’s voice returns represented as light, there is a gap — the actor is aware of a certain distance between sound and light. If the actor moving an arm results in a one-to-one motion of an artificial arm, the conceptual distance is very small. If a whisper into a microphone results in an animate vegetable doing back-flips, the conceptual distance is very large.

Cyril Diagne showed us a machine from Lab 212: when an actor blows on a little paper pinwheel, a giant industrial fan blows back. The conceptual distance there was very small. There was a few seconds’ delay — a distance in time that related well to the change in scale.

Compare that to Christopher Coleman and Laleh Mehran’s Unclaimed, which is based on the same action — blowing — but the result is a fluid simulation visualized with LEDs, and, simultaneously, a billowing plastic canopy. The conceptual distance is somewhat larger. In both works, the connection between action and result is still strong and both works are effective; but the conceptual distance of Unclaimed speaks to its life as a metaphor; while the conceptual closeness of the fan piece gives it a sense of play and lighthearted poetry.

  • How far is the actor from the result of their action, and how does that compare to the size of the space they occupy?
  • How long does it take between the action and the result?
  • How conceptually similar are the action and the result?


We can’t steal this one from anywhere, ‘cause I made it up.

Many, many of the works at INST-INT involve a single interaction, where one action yields one result. Because the actor rarely has any prior experience with the unusual sorts of devices that are common in interactive art, it is often important to keep the learning curve very short.

It is the easiest type of interaction to understand; the insight comes practically instantly: “I yell; it lights up;” “I blow; it blows back;” “I wave, it waves too,” Because it’s safe and easy for novice actors to understand, it understandably gets used a lot.

I’d like to call this atomic interaction an “I do this; it does that” interaction, or IDTIDT (EYE-dit IH-dit) for short. More complex interactions can be build from several IDTIDT interactions, but not all interactions can be decomposed this way. When one action yields several results, or it takes several actions to get one result, that’s a different beast.

  • How broad or narrow is the set of actions that will garner a response from the work?
  • How broad or narrow is the set of responses?
  • What makes it simpler or more complicated for the actor to connect their action to the result?

Motion words

Dancers appeared as interactive media designers more than once over the course of INST-INT 2015. Ruairi Glynn dropped multiple hints about ways to talk about motion — he made it clear that the moment something moves, the quality of motion is how it conveys meaning; he also pointed out in passing that dance already has a vocabulary for describing the qualities of motion: Labanotation. Labanotation is far outside the scope of this little post, and I am not the person to write about it — but we should all read up, and start describing the motion of actors and the motion of kinetic works along meaningful, descriptive axes like direct/indirect, strong/light, sudden/sustained, bound/free.

What else?

This is by no means an exhaustive list — it’s just the first few words that occurred to me, on the plane, as useful bridges between the speakers at this year’s conference. What have I missed? Which words are obvious bad choices? Which are terms of art everyone in the interactive installation world has been using for years and I just never noticed?