Danish Centre for Design Research

PhD Dissertation Challenges Traditional Interaction Design

Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann used the inter­active training equip­ment TacTowers in her experiments to pro­mote physical interaction among individuals. With the equipment, elite team handball players can train specific skills in a more focused way than in the conventional training on the handball court.Photo: Kaj Grønbæk
Send article
Print/pdf Subscribe Facebook

Interaction design can easily incorporate both a body element and an empathy element. This was demonstrated by Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann, who as part of her PhD project developed interactive exercise equipment for team handball players and computer-based play equipment for children. She defended her dissertation, Designing with the Body in Mind, on 23 January 2012 at the Aarhus School of Architecture.

By Hans Emborg Bünemann

PHD DEFENCE  The Nintendo Wii game Wii Sports had just hit the stores when Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann from the Aarhus School of Architecture embarked on her PhD project in 2007 within the field of kinaesthetic interaction design. Wii illustrates how interactive technology can be used to engage the human body in computer games. Suddenly, we could play tennis with each other in the living room. Or could we? Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann thinks not.

A Ball for Every Player

In her PhD dissertation, Designing with the Body in Mind – Kinesthetic Empathy Interaction, she addresses the possibility of promoting human-to-human physical interaction through the design of interactive systems.
“When people play Wii games they use their bodies to control the character on the screen – that’s the kinaesthetic element. The computer reads and translates their movements, and because the players are side by side they only have a peripheral sense of each other’s actual movements. In a sense, the players are not playing with each other but with the computer and the computer screen, which they are completely dependent on visually. The body relationship between the players – the empathy element – is absent,” she explains.

As an analogy to the situation where the individual participants in a computer game only interact with the screen, Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann points to soccer.
“What would happen if each player had his or her own ball instead of the two teams having to share a ball? That’s actually the case with many interactive systems – one person, one computer! That creates a tendency to focus on the individual rather than the things we share, on a human level.”

The Empathy Element

This observation was an essential point in Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann’s PhD project. She asked herself how one might design the interaction to enhance physical interaction between the players?
“My goal was to examine what can be done to achieve kinaesthetic interaction with a strong element of empathy, that is, where the human-to-human physical interaction plays a key role. On a theoretical level, I have addressed how people perceive and respond to each other’s movements. I combined this with theory on psychomotor skills, which combines the psychological and the physiological understandings of the body,” she explains.

Prototypes for Children and Athletes

Based on these theories, Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann developed two prototypes that work without a computer screen. She conducted experiments to investigate how interactive tools can facilitate user interaction to promote learning and the development of physical skills.
“In my project I demonstrate that we can design an interactive product to promote direct user interaction. The product engages us and motivates us to interact with each other and not just with the product,” she says.

The two prototypes in the project experiment with enhancing the direct, physical interaction between the users within the respective frameworks of children’s play and sports.

BodyQuake is computer-based playground equipment. It contains a variety of games where the participants use their bodies to cooperate, compete and apply tactical thinking.
Illustration: Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann

For Children…

One prototype, BodyQuake, challenges children’s balance and coordination especially. But it also contains a tactical element, Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann explains, again turning to soccer to illustrate her point.
“When young children play soccer, they all chase after the ball. They need to understand the benefit of positioning themselves in relation to each other in order to begin to grasp the tactical aspect of the game,” she says.
“Similarly, the individual participants in the games that can be played with BodyQuake have to read the others’ movements while also thinking two or three steps ahead when they respond with their own bodies.”

And for Athletes…

The other prototype, TacTowers, was developed as part of the research project iSport. The purpose of TacTowers is to help elite team handball players train their ability to respond to the movements of players on the opposing team. The players can hone their ability to feint and to predict the other players’ actions on the court. This requires paying constant attention to the other player as well as the digital information from the four interactive towers.

Kinaesthetic Empathetic Interaction. In her PhD project, Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann demonstrates how the design of an interactive system can enhance the interaction between users who are in the same room. Click on the illustration to see the full design taxonomy. 
Illustration: Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann

A Tool for the Interaction Designer

An important contribution from Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann’s PhD project is a design taxonomy, that is, a categorisation of design concepts. She explains that the taxonomy offers a systematic overview of key concerns for interaction designers who want to incorporate physical human-to-human relations in their work.

In this taxonomy Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann identifies so-called design sensitivities: topics that interaction designers should address when designing products for multiple simultaneous users. This makes it a useful tool in the practical work with kinaesthetic empathetic interaction. Among the topics that the taxonomy puts on the agenda are:

  • How does the product motivate the user to use it?
  • How does the user receive feedback from the product (the system)?
  • How does the user receive feedback from the other users?

“These are the sorts of questions that one has to keep in mind when designing products aimed at promoting interaction – perhaps even empathetic interaction – among users,” Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann points out. 

PhD Defence

Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann defended her PhD dissertation, Designing with the Body in Mind – Kinesthetic Empathy Interaction, on 23 January 2012 at the Aarhus School of Architecture.

You can read the summary of the dissertation here.

Evaluation Committee

  • Caroline Hummels, professor at the Technical University in Eindhoven, The Netherlands
  • Thomas Binder, associate professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design
  • Claus Peder Pedersen, associate professor at the Aarhus School of Architecture (chairman of the evaluation committee) 


  • Peter Gall Krogh, professor at the Aarhus School of Architecture
  • Kaj Grønbæk, head of research and innovation at the Alexandra Institute and a professor in the Department of Computer Science, Aarhus University

Additional Information

Shortly after handing in her PhD dissertation, Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann joined Digital Experiences, Concept Lab, LEGO Systems A/S as a digital product designer.

Link to Maiken Hillerup Fogtmann’s research at READ.

See also the articles:

Using a Ph.D. Degree – in a Business Career, Mind Design #43, November 2011.

Research Through Design in Sport Science, Mind Design #22, October 2009.

Mind Design #47, 2012

Edited and published by the Danish Centre for Design Research

Reproduction allowed and encouraged with indication of source