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This content is taken from the Lancaster University & Institute of Coding's online course, Introduction to Physical Computing. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 16 seconds With physical computing, we mean a combination of hardware, software, and various types of materials that allows us to prototype new designs and new products that somehow interface with the real world. So while physical computing might be new term, the reality is is that physical computing is everywhere. Computers nowadays are an almost any electric device you can think of. For example, in cars, airplanes, TVs, dryers, boilers, even in traffic lights, there are small computers that collect information about the environment and then make some sort of decision. These computers they often change their behaviour directly based on information or contacts that they receive from the real world.

Skip to 1 minute and 2 seconds So in the example of cars, they might have sensors that will tell you something about how fast or how slow you’re driving. An airplane nowadays is flied by wire, so everything’s controlled directly by a computer. But even like a traffic light might change its operation depending on the cues that it’s detecting. So physical computing is really concerned with the development of this new class of hardware devices that can sense information about the real world, but also act back in the real world. And the symbiosis between what’s happening in the real world and what’s happening on the computer device is what physical computing is all about.

Skip to 1 minute and 39 seconds So physical computing is very much about a conversation between the physical and the virtual world. In the physical world, there’s all sorts of energy, such as light, temperature, or movement, that we might want to capture and translate into electrical energy or data that we can actually store and use in a computer. This process of converting physical energy into electrical energy and vice versa is called transduction. And the devices that we use to perform this transduction are transducers.


Physical computing can be broken down into different parts: hardware, which includes the computers themselves and the sensors and actuators that gather and display data; and software, where all the decisions are made about what the computer actually does.

In this step Dr Steven Houben from Lancaster University gives us his introduction to physical computing and some examples of the hardware involved.

In the next step, he will follow up on more hardware commonly found in physical computing: the transducers.

Over to you:

As you listen to Steve’s presentation, think about a physical computing device that you have close at hand - for example, your watch or even a doorbell.

What information are the input transducers, or sensors, relaying to the computer?

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This video is from the free online course:

Introduction to Physical Computing

Lancaster University