Unencumbered Interactive Installations for the Entire Body

by Don Ritter


Many interactive artworks are currently being created which provide interactive experiences to single viewers who are usually outfitted with various input and output devices, such as a mouse, data glove or head mounted display. Less common are installations which provide interactive experiences to groups of viewers who are unencumbered.

The most popular formats of presenting interactive media currently are the CD-ROM and World Wide Web. Many people are not exposed to interactive installations which are experienced by multiple users simultaneously without any physical input devices.

Although the intellectual experience of screen based interactive art may be satisfying, the physical experience of sitting in a chair, clicking a mouse and entering keystrokes is not satisfying to the physical body. If interactive art is going to become an influential and cultural medium, the entire body--and not just the index finger-- must be involved in the interactive and aesthetic experience.

This paper and presentation will discuss the aesthetics of multi-user and unencumbered interactive installations and present documentation on works of this type.



Some of the concepts being covered in this paper will not be new for many readers. The goal of this paper, however, is to stress the importance of these concepts collectively and their relevance to making interactive media a cultural art form.

Many interactive works currently being created and exhibited are providing experiences to single users one at a time. These users are often encumbered with various input or output devices attached to their bodies, such as a mouse, data glove, or helmet. Less common are installations which provide interactive control to an unencumbered group of users simultaneously, without the use of any physical input or output devices.

Over the past five years, the most popular formats of presenting interactive media have become the CD-ROM and the World Wide Web(WWW). The popularity of these media have become so widespread, that some people working in new media are unaware of the existence of interactive installation art which does not require physical input devices or output devices attached to hands, body or head. Ironically, unencumbered interactive installations existed many years prior to CD-ROM's, the WWW or even the computer mouse, such as the responsive sculptures of Nicolas Schoffer from the 1950's (Burnham, 1968), or the "Artificial Reality" environments of Myron Krueger from the 1970's (Krueger, 1991).

The perspective of this paper is that the experience of interactive art should be an aesthetically pleasing experience not only for the mind, but also for the body. This goal can be obtained only when the human manipulation of an interactive system becomes physically enjoyable and also conceptually relevant.

Related to the aesthetic experience of interactive art is the social situation surrounding the experience. Art forms are typically experienced by groups of people in galleries, museums, theaters and festivals. The reason for this group experience is probably related to humans being social creatures who need and enjoy interacting with each other. In contrast, most users of the World Wide Web and of CD- ROM's are probably undertaking the interactive experience while being physically alone.

The remainder of this paper will expand on the unencumbered interface for the entire body, interactivity as content, and simultaneous interactivity for multiple users.


After having worked with computer systems for twenty years, I have yet to use a commercially available system which is physically enjoyable for my body. Although the experience of screen based interactive art may be satisfying intellectually and aesthetically, the physical experience of sitting in a chair, staring at a small screen, making small hand motions, and depressing the index finger is an experience for my body which is physically similar whether one is using tax return software or an artistic CD-ROM. If interactive art is going to become an influential and cultural medium, perhaps the entire body--and not just the index finger--should be involved in the interactive experience.

Although the general area of aesthetics in the arts has developed over thousands of years of writings and discussions, the topics typically encompassed by the established field of aesthetics may not be sufficient when dealing with digital art. Aesthetic discussions usually deal with the experience of image or sound by the eyes and ears. In this paper, the aesthetic experience will be considered from the perspective of the entire body, including hands, arms and legs. Consideration must be given to these body parts when using interactive media because a human typically indicates decisions through physical movements, in addition to experiencing images and sounds through eyes and ears.

To judge the quality of a physical experience when using an interactive medium, I have coined the phrase "physical aesthetics," which refers to the pleasantness or unpleasantness of a physical experience. For example, most people, I expect, would prefer riding a bicycle to making small wrist motions with a computer mouse on a pad. The reason is probably because the body enjoys making large motions, such as peddling, which permits the full use and expansion of many muscles in the legs. The small movements required to use a mouse are not satisfying to the majority of muscles in the body that idly wait for action from the user who, at some point in time, will get up and go to the washroom.

I have also created a measurement know as PAPS (Physical Aesthetics Pleasantness Score) which is used to rate the pleasantness of a physical experience. A higher number indicates a more pleasant experience while a lower score indicates a less pleasant experience. Although no empirical testing has been performed on this concept, I expect the following results might be obtained for some popular physical activities:

Activity: PAPS
riding a bicycle: 28
swimming: 27
walking: 14
sitting in a chair: 6
making small wrist motions: 3
tapping the index finger: 3

This has been a rather long explanation to the conclusion that using a mouse is not a physically enjoyable experience. Most computer users, however, spend hours every day making small finger and wrist motions while their bicycles sit idle.


Other than 3D cinema which requires viewers to wear special glasses, the experience of art typically does not require the attachment of devices onto the viewer. One walks into a gallery and simply views paintings, or sits on a chair and watches a film. The experience of interactive art through the use of a physical device, such as a data glove or a mouse, is inconvenient and frustrating to users who often need to be trained on the use of the technology.

The popular computer mouse is a low cost standardized input device that has been designed to accommodate hardware and software manufacturers. As mentioned in the previous section, the physical experience of using a mouse is not very pleasant, yet most of us have spent hundreds and probably thousands of hours torturing our wrists and index finger by using this device.

The use of a computer mouse, however, is very convenient for some tasks, such as pointing to a word or entering a number in a spread sheet program. These tasks themselves, however, would not be classified as aesthetic experiences, so the use of a mouse is not necessarily a problem in this case. Most people working in electronic media are using computers equipped with a mouse as the input device for popular graphics and sound software. Once again, the use of a mouse for these applications seems to be appropriate.

When experiencing interactive art as a cultural medium, however, the supposed intention is to create an overall aesthetic experience. The use of any encumbered device, such as a mouse, can only detract from this experience because the physical motions required by an encumbered input device are typically not pleasant.

Exhibiting interactive works which require a physical input device has other problems in addition to the aesthetic concerns. Because it is a physical device, access to an interactive work is often limited by the quantity of devices. One mouse supports one user at a time in an exhibition, and the result is a lineup of anxious viewers waiting to spend their 5 minutes on the interactive computer.

Considering the disadvantages of encumbered input devices, the popularity of interactive works being exhibited in museums, galleries and festivals is surprising.


Creating interactive works which use commercially available input devices is undoubtedly convenient. Perhaps it is time, however, to have the entire body participate in the interactive experience.

In my interactive video-sound installation "Fit" (1993), viewers use their entire body to interact with a video projection of an aerobics instructor. The aerobics instructor stands in silence while being viewed from a distance. When a viewer approaches, however, music begins and the instructor begins exercising. If a viewer stops to observe the image, the instructor also stops exercising and the music will cease. Each time the viewer moves his or her body, the aerobics instructor begins a new exercise, such as stride jumps, arm exercises and knee bends in synchronization with music. If a viewer moves or exercises nonstop, the tempo of the music will increase over time accompanied with faster routines by the instructor. If a viewer exercises for 30 seconds nonstop, the instructor and music will be presented at a dizzying rate. Within "Fit," viewers have opportunity to use their entire body during the interactive experience without the use of an encumbered input device.


While writing this paper, I entered the phrase "interactive definition" into a popular WWW search engine and subsequently received 81,109 items. The first site contained definitions of computer terminology and listed "interactive" as being:

"Accepting input from a human. Interactive computer systems are programs that allow users to enter data or commands. Most popular programs, such as word processors and spreadsheet applications, are interactive."

Based on the definition "Accepting input from a human," it appears that most items in our world, including door knobs, tooth brushes and shoe laces are interactive. Within this paper, however, I will use a definition of interactive as being a reciprocal relationship between a user and a medium: a person provides input and a medium responds. The topic of this section of the paper, however, is not the definition of interactive media, but rather, its function within an art medium.

Prior to the popular mouse and keyboard input devices, computer systems where not interactive, being they did not accept input directly from a human and they did not provide an immediate response after receiving input.

Most people are accustomed to light switches, water faucets, stove controls and other modern devices which provide light, water and heat in response to a physical gesture. Many interactive computer based works are providing interactive experiences that are similar to using a light switch: a button is pressed and a light turns on, the mouse is clicked and an image is displayed. Although this capability provides a convenience when dealing with events over time, the physical gestures expressed by a viewer are not related to the response. Moving a mouse to a certain position and pressing the button can provide millions of different images, text or sound as determined by the programming.

This approach to the creation of an interactive experience is lacking in the formation of a meaningful relationship between the physical gesture and the interactive response. It is likely that the experience of interactive media will be more satisfying aesthetically if a conceptual relationship exists between the human gesture and the interactive response. Interactivity can be used as content.

In my interactive video-sound installation "TV Guides" (1995), viewers encounter a living room environment containing a television. The television plays live programs which are heard and displayed on the television's screen. The imagery on the television, however, is overlaid with cross hairs within a circle, giving the impression that the programs and the viewer are separated by a type of viewing scope. In response to any form of movement by the viewers, the television sound fades out and the cross hairs recede into a small circle, followed by text on the screen which requests viewers to remain still. The television imagery and sound will resume only after all viewers within the installation have remained still for at least 5 seconds. Each time the sound and image of the television is switched off in response to viewers' movements, a slightly different text message is provided on the screen of the television, such as "Please Remain Still," "Be Calm," or "Just Relax."

This installation is being discussed because it demonstrates how interactivity can be used as content rather than just a technical component of an interactive work. Through its interactive response, "TV Guides" alludes to the function that television has in controlling the masses. Unless viewers remain completely passive and motionless while seated in front of the television, they will not receive their reward, the programs and advertisements. Even when viewers attempt some form of independence and make a physical motion, the television attempts control by instructing them to "Please Remain Still."


Museums, theaters, galleries and festivals contain groups of people looking at art works while simultaneously looking at each other. People enjoy and apparently need the presence of others, or as Aristotle stated "Man is by nature a social animal." (Politics, 328 BC).

Being that we enjoy group experiences, it seems inappropriate that our institutions of aesthetics, the museum, is now exhibiting interactive works to be experienced by single users who line up waiting for their five minutes to use the mouse, data glove or other physical input device. Although it may be convenient to write a letter or send an email on a single user computer system, this single user design was intended for business purposes and not necessarily for the experience of interactive art.

The popularity of the "personal computer" has become so widespread that it may be difficult to conceptualize of a single computer system that can be used by multiple persons simultaneously. This design, however, was the most popular format used in main frame computers of the 1970's, prior to the introduction of small computers designed for use by single individuals.

Although the World Wide Web can be viewed as a single interactive system being used by multiple users, this system actually contains millions of personal computers, servers, disk drives, keyboards, routers, modems and mice costing an unimaginable amount.

The popular explanation for the personal computer is that the single user design is convenient and also economical. Who, however, is receiving the economic benefits of the single user design? It seems likely that the manufacturers of computer hardware and software will obtain more profit if their products are used by single users rather than single computers used by groups of users. This situation can be viewed as an inefficient use of technology benefiting business.

" has lost his central place, that he has been made an instrument for the purposes of economic aims, and that he has been estranged from, and has lost the concrete relatedness to his fellow men and to nature."
(Fromm, 1955)

In my interactive sound installation "Intersection" (1993) viewers encounter the sounds of speeding cars traveling across a completely dark exhibition space(35x50 ft, 10x17m). The illusion of traffic is created using various car sounds which are played through four pairs of stereo speakers placed at either end of four invisible lanes. As visitors walk through the installation, their presence in front of an approaching car will cause it to "screech" to a halt and remain "stopped" with its engine idling, while traffic continues in the other lanes. When a visitor leaves a lane containing a "stopped" car, this car quickly accelerates across the space. If a visitor remains standing in a lane with a "stopped" car, subsequent cars traveling down that lane will "smash" into the stopped car. Like an actual freeway, "safe areas" exist between each lane where a visitor may stand without affecting the flow of traffic.

"Intersection" was purposely design to accommodate a large number of people simultaneously. Although the installation is controlled by a single computer, each lane acts as an isolated system and operates independently of the other lanes. As multiple visitors enter the installations, the overall audio environment is likely to contain sounds of cars accelerating, screeching, idling, and smashing into each other, typically combined with the gasps and sometimes screams of the visitors. The installation has accommodated up to 150 visitors simultaneously without any person using a physical input device.


The previous section of this paper proposes that single user computer systems are an inefficient use of technology and, therefore, more profitable to manufacturers. The creation of an interactive work which can accommodate many viewers simultaneously can provide a more efficient and possibly more sociable environment for viewers. This form of design, however, also has the potential to use the multiple user design as content for the work.

In my interactive video-sound installation "Skies" (1998), people experience cooperation between themselves and cooperation with nature. Viewers walk onto a video image(7x5m, 20x15 ft) projected onto a floor and discover black paths. The installation can accommodate an unlimited number of visitors simultaneously, although at least five people are required to activate all the paths at one time

Discovery of the paths by viewers within "Skies" causes presentation of different images and sounds, according to the specific paths being displayed. When no paths are active, the video imagery is a night sky. The discovery of any one of the five paths presents sky sequences, including lightning with the sounds of thunder. When two paths are discovered, the sequences contain water imagery, such as swimming fish or waves. The meeting of water with land, such as lily pads on water, is presented when three paths are activated. The discovery of four paths provides land imagery, and five paths causes a dream like sequence of the sun breaking through clouds. Thirty- two different video sequences and sound tracks are contained within the installation, their selection determined by the specific combination of paths being displayed.

The interactive component of this installation was designed to be meaningful, because the viewers--possibly strangers to each other-- have to cooperate with each other in order to experience the entire work. When this work has been exhibited, viewers began speaking to each other as they attempted to discover all the levels and sequences of imagery. Their cooperation with the nature imagery--as detected by the interactive system--is the content of the work.

"Skies" also demonstrates the other concerns expressed in this paper: unencumbered interactivity, the whole body participating in the interactive experience, multiple users accommodated simultaneously, and interactivity as content.


The goal of this paper is not to propose that encumbered input devices, such as the mouse, are not useful. The mouse has been very important in creating an inexpensive and standardized human interface for many applications of computer graphic and interactive technology.

Although the intellectual experience of screen based interactive art may be satisfying, the physical experience of sitting in a chair, clicking a mouse and entering keystrokes is not satisfying to the physical body. If interactive art is going to become an influential and cultural medium, the entire body--and not just the index finger-- must be involved in the interactive and aesthetic experience.


Burnham, Jack (1968) "Beyond Modern Sculpture" New York: George Braziller
Fromm, Erich (1955) "The Sane Society" New York: Henry Holt and Co.
Krueger, Myron (1991) "Artificial Reality II" Reading, MA: Addison Wesley