Physical Computing

The Virtual and the Real World

Over the last century computers have created a whole new world for us to explore, a world of abstract patterns, mathematics, and art. The virtual world, as we call it, includes the Internet and all tools and services you have ever accessed through electronic devices. The tools we have created in that world enabled much of our progress in science and mathematics, and even spurred new forms of art.

However, there is a vast class of tasks for which we need to connect the virtual world to our physical surroundings if we are to wield the powers it grants us. For instance, a weather simulator used to predict the weather needs a network of sensors that inform it of the current state of the atmosphere. On a smaller scale, a thermostat needs to measure the current temperature before it commands the air conditioner or furnace to turn on. For most of this chapter, we will focus on such smaller scales.

The engineering (and art) discipline studying these physical-virtual connections is frequently referred to as “physical computing” or “embedded electronics” (because the computing hardware is “embedded” in another device).

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