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Interface Studies

Interface Studies

This project belongs to the following research constellations:



Jan Simons


Staff: Jan Simons, Edward Shanken, Remko Scha (UvA), Ben Salem (Newcastle), Francis Brazier, Caroline Nevejan (TU Delft).

PhD candidates: Lilia Pérez Romero, Noam Knoller, Jorge Alves Lino, Karen Lancel.

External Website


For more than a quarter of a century, the personal computer in the desk top or laptop variety has been the main portal to the virtual worlds of digital data. Since the PC with its screen, keyboard, mouse and its graphical user interface (GUI) has hardly been challenged during all this time – a remarkable feat in an age of rapid technological change – the so-called WIMP interface (‘windows, menus, mouse and pointer’) has, with a few exceptions (Hayles 1999, 2002, Hansen, 2004, Simons 2002) until recently hardly been theorized. New Media studies tended to focus on the content displayed on the screen (e.g. hypertext studies, game studies), the logic of protocols and algorithms underlying applications (e.g., software studies, internet studies, Manovich 2000, Fuller, 2003, 2007, Galloway 2004), or on processes of media convergence, social networks, and surveillance and control (Chung, 2006), taking the interfaces that mediate and organize the interaction with and experience of digital data for granted. Interfaces were mainly studied from the strictly utilitarian perspective of usability that is mainly interested in enhancing performance, productivity and efficiency.

The PC interface that constrains human-computer interaction to the minimal physical activity of key-strokes and mouse actions and watching information displayed on the screen, has for a long time provided the material basis for experiencing and conceiving the interaction with digital data and their relationship to the physical world. It inpired visions of cyberspace as a utopian world of unbounded freedom, egalitarianism, altruistic sharing and collaboration and ‘collective intelligence’ (e.g., Rheingold 1991, 1993, Lévy 1994) or, on the contrary, as an utterly dystopian universe of manipulation, control and deceit (as envisioned in fictional works such as William Gibson’s novella Neuromancer (1984) or the filmic trilogy The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, USA, 1999, 2003). In most of these visions, that imagined cyberspace as an abstract, immaterial universe of pure information, the Cartesian mind-body split made an astonishing come-back.

In the last couple of years computing has gone beyond the desk and has begun to rapidly permeate everyday life. Mobile devices, geographical information systems (GIS), geographical positioning systems (GPS) and radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies have made ‘always online everywhere’ today’s maxim. Today, most household appliances or vehicles have more computing power than the early PC’s from twenty-five years ago and so-called ‘smart buildings’ and ‘responsive environments’ are being designed and engineered that respond to and even anticipate the requirements, needs, and desires of their users (so-called ubiquitous and pervasive computing).. Computing devices become sensitive to the location, movements and actions of their owners and people with whom they are connected through digital networks. These developments not only blur the boundaries between ‘virtual’ and ‘material’ reality (as commonsensically conceived), but new mobile and wireless devices and new forms of ubiquitous, ambient and pervasive computing, also organize human-computer interaction by taking into account the whereabouts, purposes, habits, moods etc. of the users, thus putting the bodily presence and affective states of the latter center stage. Haptic and tactile interfaces (e.g. touch screens), sensors, actuators, tags, wearable computing, voice- and face recognition technologies and more will transform human-computer interaction from a mainly optical and cognitive operation into a bodily and affective experience.

The Interface Studies project aims at studying the ways in which interfaces organize, enhance or constrain the interactions between human users and computer based systems and how they shape subjectivity, agency, and affective and bodily experience. On the one hand the project will look into the historical antecedents of the current development to ubiquitous, ambient, and pervasive computing such as the works of pioneers like Myron Krueger and Roy Ascott and the theoretical (and practical) explorations of the interface by Brenda Laurel, Jaron Lanier and others. On the other hand, will look into new and upcoming developments such as the emergence of haptic and tactile interfaces, wearable computing, smart houses, and responsive environments and examine their aesthetic, kinesthetic, rhetorical, expressive, and semiotic potential.

The penetration of digital technology into virtually every aspect of everyday life has made the study of the experiential dimensions of interfaces not only an urgent matter for the humanities, but increasingly also for engineers, designers, and programmers, who are, like architects already for centuries, confronted with the social, cultural, and experiential impact of their products. The Interface Studies project aims at an interdisciplinary approach in which academics from the humanities and scientists and engineers collaborate. Therefore, we have joined forces with the Department of Industrial Design of the Technical University of Eindhoven and the Department of Engineering Systems Foundations of the Technical University of Delft.


Monthly PhD seminar