Physical Computing and Fabrication

2016 Digital Humanities Summer Institute (June 13-17, University of Victoria,

Instructors: Tiffany Chan, Katherine Goertz, Danielle Morgan, and Jentery Sayers

DHSI Director: Ray Siemens | DHSI Associate Director: Constance Crompton | DHSI Assistant Directors: Jason Boyd, Diane Jakacki, and Jentery Sayers


Theme: “From This to That”

Throughout the week, we will survey physical computing and digital fabrication techniques by modelling, fabricating, programming, and repurposing objects as both bits and atoms. This process of converting objects from this material into that material involves negotiations between screen media and tactile media. It also prompts attention to the relations between form and use, metaphor and matter, code and composition, surface and depth. Instead of reducing these relations to digital-analog, electronic-print, or new-old binaries, we will approach them as entanglements of history, technology, and culture, where composing or thinking with media is actually quite messy. In fact, highlighting the mess or mangle of things will nudge us to experiment with the contingencies of otherwise routine conversions (e.g., from page to screen, from bits to atoms, from atoms to bits, from idea to prototype back to idea).

By the end of the week, you should:


Physical computing “means building interactive physical systems by the use of software and hardware that can sense and respond to the analog world. While this definition is broad enough to encompass things such as smart automotive traffic control systems or factory automation processes, it is not commonly used to describe them. In the broad sense, physical computing is a creative framework for understanding human beings’ relationship to the digital world. In practical use, the term most often describes handmade art, design, or DIY hobby projects that use sensors and microcontrollers to translate analog input to a software system, and/or control electro-mechanical devices such as motors, servos, lighting, or other hardware.” More care of Wikipedia.

Digital modelling and fabrication involve “a process that joins design with the construction / production through the use of 3-D modelling software and additive and subtractive manufacturing processes. These tools allow designers to produce material digitally, which is something greater than an image on screen, and actually tests the accuracy of the software and computer lines.” More care of Wikipedia.


Before or during the course, it would be great if you could install and experiment with the following software on your own machine:

In some cases (e.g., CorelDRAW and PhotoScan), you may want to consider trial licenses. Also, feel free to start an account with GitHub, if you don’t already have one.


To the course, you should bring your own laptop, if possible. We will bring the following for you to use:

We (the instructors) also have access to computer numerical control (CNC) equipment for digital fabrication on the UVic campus. The four of us will be using this equipment to cut, mill, engrave, and design components before and during DHSI. You do not need to provide your own components.

Favourite Projects

Throughout the week, we (the instructors) will share our favourite physical computing and fabrication projects, including projects that inspired many of our experiments. As you’ll likely notice, they represent an array of disciplines, including design, literary studies, sculpture, sound art, history, media studies, cultural studies, and engineering. In many ways, physical computing and fabrication are by necessity either interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary practices.

Schedule for the Week

Monday, June 13th (10:15-4:00) - From Bits to Atoms

Tuesday, June 14th (9:00-4:00) - From Page to Screen (to Prototype?)

Wednesday, June 15th (9:00-4:00) - From Atoms to Bits

Thursday, June 16th (9:00-4:00) - From Idea to Prototype to Idea

Friday, June 17th (9:30-12:00) - From Prototype to Exhibit

Suggestions for Prototyping

Below are some practical suggestions for prototyping with physical computing and fabrication techniques. These are clearly biased. Feel free to take them or leave them.

Before You Start Prototyping

As You Prototype

After You Prototype


For your reference, below we’ve compiled some “core” and “related” publications (with URLs, where applicable) corresponding with the course activities, workshops, and discussions. We obviously don’t expect you to read them in advance, but they may be informative during or after the course. Where possible, excerpts are available via your DHSI CoursePak.

Core Reading

Related Reading