Introduction to Physical Computing 

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In our daily interactions with computer devices and wearable technology, and even in spaces like art museums that fuse digital art with augmented reality, physical computing plays a vital role. It transforms how we experience and connect with technology. As a growing area in computer science, it enables engineers to integrate hardware and software to interact with the physical world. 

Have you ever watched a Marvel movie? Think of Iron Man or the Avengers. If yes, you’ve probably seen Tony Stark and his incredible suit, and if you haven’t here is a bit of a breakdown. Tony Stark is a main character in Marvel movies and he is known for his “Iron Man Suit” which he uses to wrestle with the villains who affect the peaceful universe. The Iron Man suit in itself, is a blend of arts and technology that represents a human-computer interaction system. 

This article explores the meaning of physical computing, its impact on our digital world, and the differences between it and other computer science terminologies, through the lens of one of our experts, Luis Ángel Arízaga Díaz.

What is Physical Computing? 

Physical computing is a discipline that combines hardware and software to create an interactive system. This interactive system involves the communication between the software and the physical world. It is the ability to build a tangible interactive system using hardware and software. 

Physical computing uses microcontrollers, actuators, sensors, and embedded systems engineering to develop interactive systems that enable human interaction. It uses an approach that allows humans to communicate with computers. For example, consider an arcade dancing game that allows humans to do exactly what they see on the computer screen. 

In simple terms, it is the process of combining input and output systems to work together in response to human interaction and communication. In building a physical computing system, engineers make use of microcontrollers or processing units like Raspberry Pi and Arduino.

A Raspberry Pi is a single-board computer, while an Arduino is an open-source platform that consists of a hardware circuit board (or microcontroller) and a software component. The general structure of a fully built system consists of a sensor that measures some natural phenomena such as temperature, acceleration, pressure, etc., a microcontroller or processing unit that has been programmed to utilize the data from the sensor to execute a specific action via an actuator. 

The Importance of Physical Computing 

Imagine your interaction with your smartwatch during your gym session or workout period. The human interaction with the smart device is considered an element of physical computing. Physical computing penetrates various aspects of our lives, and here are some reasons why it is considered important:

Improves Innovation 

As a discipline of computer science, physical computing boosts innovation. This is because it involves the combination of software and hardware. In the real sense, physical computing enhances products and services across various industries. In the entertainment industry, for instance, physical computing has contributed significantly to the development of immersive experiences. 

Game centers and parks can now create different attractions that allow visitors to react to technological outputs in real time. For example, the integration of virtual reality devices in the gaming industry. The use of VR goggles and joysticks that contain sensors and actuators has revolutionized the gaming industry. Every gesture the gamer makes is interpreted and processed in real-time. Such technology has provided both software and hardware engineers the foundation to build more engaging and personalized experiences for users.

Initiates Computational Solutions 

In today's technologically driven world, physical computing plays a crucial role in problem-solving and developing solutions through computational thinking. Using algorithms and data structures, problems can be broken down into bits and components. Take, for example, a smart home thermostat system that uses sensors or circuits to monitor the temperature inside the home. By doing this, the user can interact with the thermostat, adjust the temperature, or program it to automatically adjust the temperature at a set time, maybe at night or when no one is at home, to conserve energy and be more efficient.

Advancing Technology and Functionality

 

With physical computing, the future of technology can be advanced in various ways. Industries such as robotics, automation, and emerging applications like the Internet of Things (IoT) and wearable technologies use physical computing to enhance efficiency. In robotics, for example, physical computing enables the creation of machines and the ability to interact with these machines to perform specific tasks.

In addition, physical computing can improve the functionalities of technological devices. Smartwatches can now respond to human needs and activities. Their built-in sensors assist individuals in supporting a healthy lifestyle by monitoring their health.

Read more: 5 Key Digital Transformation Strategies For Software Companies

How Physical Computing Impacts The Digital World 

Physical computing influences different sectors of the economy, including healthcare, retail, hospitality, entertainment, and many more. It enhances customer experience in retail by identifying frequently bought products and also managing inventory stock through efficient means. By considering these factors, the shopping experience can be significantly improved. In hospitality, physical computing contributes to user experience through interactive customer service solutions, and in the gaming industry, it allows gamers to use motion sensors and VR technology to immerse themselves in a more realistic and engaging gaming environment.

A primary component of physical computing is embedded systems. An embedded system is a small computer that is part of a programming system. It is the combination of computer hardware and software to perform specific tasks. It enables the presence of physical computing in different areas. By expanding the potential of technological devices, physical computing is contributing to the rapid growth of technology across various sectors of the economy.

What is the difference between physical computing and robotics? 

Physical computing differs from robotics. Although physical computing involves human interaction or response to stimuli, it is not robotics. Robotics involves building machines that can perform tasks autonomously.

In robotics, there is no need for human interaction. Robots are built to operate on their own without the need for human intervention.

While robots are intended to perform tasks independently, physical computing requires human interaction to function effectively.

What is the difference between physical computing and computational physics?

 

Physical computing is often confused with computational physics; however, the two terms mean different things. Physical computing focuses on human interaction with technology through words, signals, movements, and actions. Computational physics involves the use of computer science and technology to solve complex problems in physics. It is the process of performing physics calculations using a computer.

Programming Languages Used In Physical Computing 

Microcontrollers play a key role in building physical computing systems. They are the brains of these systems. A microcontroller is a small computer with circuits that control physical inputs and outputs. Engineers program these microcontrollers to interact with sensors. 

In building a physical computing system, it is important to consider the skilled tech experts needed to fill these roles. In building a physical computing system, it is important to consider the skilled tech experts needed to fill these roles. Although physical computing consists of both software and hardware aspects, software engineers should understand the programming languages according to the device they'll use. Some of the programming languages used in these areas are C, C++, Python, Java, and others. At Devsu, there are experienced software engineers proficient in these programming languages.

In conclusion, physical computing is a modern aspect of computer science that is gradually making waves in the industry and improving the performance of technological devices. It adopts a hands-on approach to design solutions for complex problems, thereby bridging the gap between the physical world and digital computation. 

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