MetaCube Paper

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MetaCube: Using Tangible Interactions to Shift Between Divergent & Convergent Thinking

A research Paper submission By Haig Armen, 2015

For many decades, we have observed and studied how people create, what the characteristics of creative people are and what the process of creativity is. Many of these studies have focused on the cognitive abilities of individuals – what happens in our minds when we are creative? This paper describes a research tool for building a better understanding about how creative teams move between divergent, exploratory and convergent ways of thinking. With the proliferation of embedded technologies, there are emerging opportunities for employing tangible or embodied interaction within the creative process. In this paper, we make the case that the creative process can be augmented, observed and supported by metaphorical interactions via a hand-held tangible computing device.

Author Keywords

Interaction design; Tangible user interfaces; Embodied interaction; Design research; People-centered approach; Metaphor; Creative Process; Divergent-Convergent Thinking

ACM Classification Keywords

Human-centered computing, Interaction design theory, concepts and paradigms, Human-centered computing, Collaborative and social computing devices

General Terms
Design; Human Factors; Theory

Today’s contemporary design teams have a wide array of tools to aid in the design process and even the most digital savvy teams still use tangible tools like whiteboards to help in the brainstorming sessions. There has been a great deal of studies in the area of creative process in the context of design and

brainstorming, predominantly about the varying exercises in divergent (generative), exploratory (connecting & combining ideas) and convergent (analytical) cognitive modes. Yet how teams or individuals transition between these modes of thinking relatively unexplored. This project explores how a tangible object might emphasize meaningful gestural interactions not as a departure from, but rather as an integrated part of the creative process. We propose that a tangible user interface will help in the creative process by shedding light on the transitions between modes of thinking. Tangible analogical interactions can be a powerful way to support modes of cognitive activity and ultimately provide a better understanding of when different strategies may be most effective. In this paper, we call to question the connection between tangible gestural interactions as analogical mappings to abstract modes of cognition by way of a conceptual prototype called the MetaCube.

To best understand how a tool could improve the creative process we first observe that creative teams are most productive when shifting between divergent and convergent modes of thinking. The ability to efficiently shift between modes may be an important feature underlying the capacity to be creative [12], and possibly, of particular importance in professions such as design [8]. There are a wide variety of creative activities, exercises and games that have been categorized into divergent and convergent categories [7] that act as useful frameworks for creative thinking and conceptual development. Physically interacting with an analogical concept makes the abstract become more concrete.
Building from the theory of embodied interaction we propose a tangible computing device that helps to bring a clearer collective understanding of how we shift cognitive modes using tangible interaction. Beyond embodied interaction, this case additionally considers the importance of flow within creative sessions as well as their collaborative nature. We hypothesize that by building a better understanding of how, when and why we shift our cognitive modes in creative sessions we can begin to create frameworks of knowledge around the collective creative process. The MetaCube project revolves around the following research question: Does rotating a tangible computing cube help creative teams better observe and gain insight into shifting between divergent, explorative to convergent cognitive modes based on specific time intervals?

Case studies of this type are important at this juncture in the area of tangible computing; as designers strive to understand what the most natural gestural affordances are for tangible user interfaces (TUI). Discovering ways of encouraging people to interact using analogy are crucial for the Interaction Design field to create a vernacular around these gestural interactions. Does turning an object towards you imply ‘inward-looking’ convergent, logical and critical thought? Does rotating an object to the right signify thinking into the future or conversely the act of rotating an object to the left representing thinking about the past or precedence of a problem space?
Although cognitive modes in the creative process have been well documented, it is unclear that there are best practices in the frequency and periods in which to transition from one mode to another. Furthermore, though there are many generative and analytical activities, little has been discovered about whether certain combinations of activities are better or worse than others, or whether randomization of activities fosters effective creative thinking. Furthermore, flexible thinking involves the ability to shift cognitive functioning from common applications to the uncommon; namely, breaking through cognitive blocks and restructuring thinking so that a problem is analyzed from multiple perspectives.[12] Yet “Most do not easily switch divergent and convergent thought, but they need to do so because continued learning that blocks ideation is not helpful to the overall effort, and neither is continued ideation that blocks solution choice [2,9].
By decoding the transitions in cognitive mode we can begin to understand where we have trouble shifting and can address and improve our abilities to move easily between cognitive modes. The MetaCube aims to demystifying these mode transitions by employing theories in embodied interaction. Using tangible tools to help in brainstorming can prove to be extremely effective. As Lakoff and Johnson [10] point out, metaphor and analogy are more than mere language and literary devices, but rather conceptual in nature and represented physically in the brain. As a result, such metaphorical brain circuitry can affect behavior profoundly. For example: you may recognize that Shakespearean tragedies have a similar structure: a phase of increasing conflict between opposed sides or characters, a major confrontation between the opposed characters, and a phase in which the opposition is worked out and resolved in one character’s victory and the other’s defeat. It may then occur to you that this structure is very like the shape of a pyramid isosceles triangle, which rises from a baseline to a central point and then falls back to its baseline. You have then perceived an analogy between a temporal phenomenon and a spatial one. In the case of the MetaCube, the device represents a noun, in the context of a brainstorming session this may be the problem at hand and the act of rotating the cube is analogous to seeing the problem from another perspective. In another case study Antle [1] elaborates: Gestures may lighten the cognitive load because they are a motor act; because they help people link words to the world (e.g. deictic gestures); or because they help a person organize spatial information into speech (e.g. iconic or metaphoric gestures).
Along with modulations in cognitive modes, flow is a crucial aspect of the creative process, specifically in brainstorming sessions. In Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal book, Flow [4] is described as a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. When exploring the requirements of our MetaCube, we must consider the flow of the individuals in the creative team. The momentum and immersion can only be achieved with the absence of interruptions from the creative team. Achieving momentum in a creative brainstorming session requires time management. Commonly time is blocked out and a facilitator is tasked with being timekeeper. A number of questions arise; what should the time period between cognitive modes be? Should each mode take the same amount of time? One of the widely adopted time blocking methods for focused periods of concentration is the Pomodoro Technique [3], which suggest 25-minute increments of activity followed by 5-minute breaks. The research on collaborative creativity is extensive and widely varying based on the type of creativity and field. The most relevant conclusions that can be draw are that shared engagement fluctuates with changes in activities within creative teams. This finding suggests that careful consideration must be taken in designing a device that will keep people’s attention on brainstorming and topics of discussion rather than on the tools being used. It is clear that a device for collaborative creativity will require the affordances of many to interact with it, not just an experience for an individual. The device will require the capability of providing a feedback mechanism that will communicate to a number of people within the context of a room and not necessarily one person like most computing devices.

Related Work
Although there are no examples of work directly related to this area on inquiry, there are a few good examples of conceptual design projects that are at all related that we may draw possible considerations from. The research project, “A cube to Learn” by Terrenghi, Kranz, Holleis and Schmidt [10] describes a Learning Cube as a novel tangible learning appliance used as general learning platform for teaching vocabulary and 3D views to children through gestures and test-based quizzes. In 2001, Terry [11] outlines a project called Task Blocks that employs blocks as the tangible interface representing computational functions for creative exploration within the programming context. The design of the system encourages hands-on, active experimentation by allowing users to directly insert, delete, or modify any function in the computational “pipeline”.


The goal of the device is to aid creative teams to collectively shift modes of thinking without losing their momentum as well as regulating the frequency of the mode transitions. The MetaCube has the potential to become a powerful tool for facilitating creative sessions by providing users with gestural affordances that create analogies while modulating through various creative thought modes. The design of the prototype must reflect the collaborative nature of creative problem-solving teams. When providing feedback to the user/team it is important that the device is able to communicate to more than one person. If color is the main mechanism to communicate the cognitive mode, it is imperative that the color be visible from all viewing angles if the team is sitting around the cube. Although seemingly unimportant, the shape of the cube is instrumental in implying specific gestural affordances. Unlike a sphere a cube’s physicality suggests rotational gestures on the X and Z-axis. Additionally, the device could possibly communicate the changing of cognitive modes using sound or wirelessly transmitting information but these options were shelved to concentrate on the core of the study, opting for a subtle non-digital form of user feedback.


By creating MetaCube – a small hand-held tangible prototype capable of measuring its own rotation, we are able to address our research question. Participants use the MetaCube by rotating its orientation to mark the transition from one way of thinking to another. Imagine the scenario where a member of a creative team in a brainstorming session is prompted to pick up and rotate the MetaCube tool. The MetaCube’s orientation triggers a new glowing color that marks the transition between one way of thinking to another. The team has been told in advance the following light mappings:

1. Blue glow indicates divergent (generative) thought mode
2. Green glow represents exploratory mode
3. Red glow signifies convergent (analytical) thought mode
4. Flashing light of any color prompts rotating the cube
For example rotating the cube in one orbit would yield divergent thought mode and rotating the cube in another orbit indicates that participants proceed with convergent activities. The working prototype will be able to detect rotation and its own orientation. Once rotated on its X-axis or Z-axis the object is triggered and communicates its new cognitive mode to the team. The cube will utilize an Inertia Measurement Unit (IMU) – 5 Degrees of Freedom IDG500/ADXL335, which is essentially a combination integrated circuit board with both accelerometer and gyroscopic sensors to sense orientation and rotation. An important key feature of the MetaCube is the specific time intervals that prompt the members of the creative team to interact and change cognitive modes.

In the initial stage of exploration the modes will be communicated by use of contrasting colors and later iterations by include broadcasting activities via web applications served by the cube to surrounding computers. With a built-in web server the MetaCube could dynamically creates activity cards that are served to the client-side browsers of the team connected to the cube via a wifi network. These last features were not included in the original prototype as it was beyond the core research question.


To begin to validate the hypothesis of this study the MetaCube prototype acts as a proof of concept. The basic prototype was assembled and programmed to test amongst participants in a number of informal settings. The purpose of the cube is first explained to participants prior to their brainstorming activities. A simple creative process will be facilitated and the use of the cube will be observed and captured to later reflect upon. During the session participants’ reactions were observed, anything they said and their facial expressions, we tried to capture. Participants were then asked the following types of questions: Did the cube help or distract the team’s creative flow? Did rotating the cube strengthen the idea of shifting modes of thinking? Did the colored light help users understand the shift in modes? Could this method of observing shifting cognitive modes be useful for creative teams? We were able to informally test our assumptions by putting the prototype into a brainstorming session and explaining how the team could use it to help them shift between divergent and convergent creative activities. Our observations were generally positive but further formal studies would be necessary to draw definite conclusions.

The people within the observation session welcomed the idea and felt it was an intriguing idea in the context of creative problem solving. The interaction paradigm was easily understood and the team was able to integrate the MetaCube into their flow. The following findings were discovered from our informal study: 1. The cube helped the team creatively once the members of the team all understood its purpose. 2. Rotating the MetaCube did indeed strengthen the idea of shifting modes of thinking both for individuals and for the team as a collective. 3. The colored light did help understand the mode changes but a legend mapping the colors to mode was frequently glanced at. 4. There was a great deal of agreement that by observing shifting cognitive modes both teams and people would become more effective during creative problem-solving sessions. Additionally, we observed that although the cube was able to indicate the change in cognitive mode, the team still broke their flow by having to discuss which creative activity they would proceed with. This suggests that there is the opportunity for the device to communicate an activity.


After creating MetaCube and later presenting and explaining its purpose to various designers and writers the response was generally of interest and many began to think of other analogies to apply to the rotational interaction. Ideas were generated about ‘hinging’ from one way of thinking to another and using the metaphorical expression of “taking a 180 degree turn” to represent a pivot in direction. There was a slight cognitive disconnection between the six sides of a cube and the three cognitive modes. This added an element of unpredictability to using the MetaCube, which not all participants understood. Although this research tool was created primarily to experiment with ideas for the creative process, the prototype and its reception act as an informal validation of a possible product. In the initial conceptualization of the MetaCube it was decided that not having the cube display any digital information to minimize the perception of a computing device was in retrospection, a good decision and any further exploration of this idea will be to continue following this same line of reasoning.


In this paper we present a short study that investigates the benefits of a tangible computing device that enables hands-on interaction to help creative teams while brainstorming. Our contributions include a concept-driven design project and prototype. We concluded that the MetaCube shows promise as a unique tangible non-disrupting way of conducting collaborative creative brainstorming sessions. The physical interactions gave the creative teams a concrete way of thinking about when and how to transition from one way of thinking creatively to another. We concluded that effective Tangible User Interfaces (TUI) design can result in epistemic, exploratory, collaborative and cognitive benefits within the context of collaborative creative contexts.


1. Antle, Alissa N. Exploring how children use their hands to think: an embodied interactional analysis. Behaviour and Information Technology (2011)

2. Brophy, D.R. Comparing the Attributes, Activities, and Performance of Divergent, Convergent & Combination Thinkers. Creativity Research Journal. 2001

3. Cirillo, Francesco. The Pomodoro Technique FC Garage GmbH 2013

4. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial (2007)

5. Gray, Dave, Brown, Sunni and Macanufo, James. Gamestorming. O’Reilly. 2010

6. Hatchuel, Armand. Le masson, Pascal. and Weil, Benoit Teaching innovative design reasoning: How concept knowledge theory can help overcome fixation effects. Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design, Analysis and Manufacturing, Cambridge 2011

7. Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. Metaphors We Live By. The university of Chicago press. 1980

8. Pringle, Andrew J. Shifting between modes of thought: a mechanism underlying creative performance. 8th ACM conference on Creativity and Cognition, 2011

9. Sak, Ugur and Maker, C. June. Divergence and convergence of mental forces of children in open and closed mathematical problems. International Education Journal, 2005

10. Terrenghi, Lucia, Kranz, Matthias, Holleis, Paul and Schmidt, Albrecht. A cube to learn: a tangible user interface for the design of a learning appliance. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing April 2006

11. Terry, Michael. Task Blocks: Tangible Interfaces for Creative Exploration. CHI ’01 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (2001)

12. von Oech, R. (1992). Creativity Whack Pack, Stamford, CT: U.S. Games Systems, Inc

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