Tangible Time Tracking – An Alternation between Ready-to-Hand and Present-at-Hand

Time Tracking with Tangible Interaction

By Alexandra Kandler

Flexibility in work-related context is often seen as the freedom of the 21st century. Home office and flexitime are concepts supposed to enable us to create a satisfying work-life-balance. It’s a lovely sunny day, you have a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the day, or you want to devote some spare time for social commitment? Take off a few hours and work in the evening, on the weekend or on a rainy day instead. Flexible working hours are not only great for outdoor-lovers, but also for those who take care of others, for instance their children, animals or elderly relatives. At the same time, it requires more effort to track the worked hours than a regular nine-to-five-job does. The same applies for freelancers who work for various clients and need to keep track of the hours worked to be able to charge their customers. Whenever I worked in home office, I noticed how much additional time I’ve spent on listing my working hours and all the breaks in a spreadsheet – just doing some laundry or cooking lunch ended up in many small interruptions instead of one time each for starting and ending my work.


Image 1.  Placing ZEI° next to the working space.

One day I stumbled upon a crowdfunded solution called ZEI° that’s supposed to solve said problem. ZEI° is a small device in the shape of an octahedron that can be placed right next to your working place. Due to its shape, the device can be placed so that one side is always facing towards the user (see Image 1). By labelling each of the sides, eight different activities can be tracked by simply turning around the polygon (see Image 2).


Image 2. Turning ZEI° when switching activities.

ZEI° is connected to your phone or computer via Bluetooth and automatically tracks the times spent on each of the activities. It can be integrated to many already existing applications in order to store the tracked times, for instance Toggl, Trello, Google Calendar, Apple Calendar, Wunderlist etc. Once you want to stop the tracking, you can place the device in its docking station (see Image 3).

According to Hornecker, the term Tangible Interaction comprises “user interfaces and interaction approaches that emphasize tangibility and materiality of the interface[,] physical embodiment of data[,] whole-body interaction[, and] the embedding of the interface and the users’ interaction in real spaces and contexts” (Hornecker n.d.).


Image 3. ZEI° placed in docking station.

ZEI° is a physical interface which is meant to be touched by the user for an interaction. The data on the octahedron (different activities) are embodied by whatever label, text or drawing the user put on the respective side of the polygon, while the temporal data is being added to the tracking software. In addition to that, only one side is facing towards to the user, which shapes the embodiment even more. Furthermore, the device and the interaction are taking place in real spaces, primarily in the context of work. The device does not require an interaction with the whole-body. Yet, I would argue that ZEI° is a device that provides tangible interactions.


Image 4. Tangible interaction framework. From Hornecker and Buur 2006, p.4.

Further on, Hornecker and Buur introduced a new framework which focuses on the physical space and the social interaction of tangible interaction (Hornecker & Buur 2006). The framework encompasses four different themes explained hereinafter from specific to general and each of them applied to ZEI°.

Firstly, Tangible Manipulation means that the material can be physically manipulated (Hornecker & Buur 2006). Even though the whole shape of ZEI° cannot be manipulated, the labels on each side can be manipulated by writing or putting stickers on them. The main tangible interaction, turning the polygon, results in manipulating which activity is being tracked. This is a Haptic Direct Manipulation – the user can “grab, feel and move ‘the important elements’” (Hornecker & Buur 2006, p. 4). Furthermore, it shows a good Isomorph Effect (Hornecker & Buur 2006, p. 4) since it easy for the user to understand how an action is related to its effect. Turning the device results in a change of tracking another activity, placing the device in the docking station pauses the tracking just like ‘parking’ it. However, ZEI° might be what the authors criticize about many tangible interfaces: it aims for “direct one-to-one mapping, remaining literal and missing out opportunities for employing magical metaphors” (Hornecker & Buur 2006, p. 4). Also, ZEI° is meant to be a time-tracking device, and fulfils this purpose, but I would argue that there is potential to go enhance its functionality. Why not give any feedback to the users to know how much time they have already spent on one task? This could especially be relevant for freelancers who are paid by the hour. A small buzz or a timer could for instance provide feedback on how much time is left for a certain task.

The second theme is called Spatial Interaction and relates to an embedding in a real space and hence interacting by moving in space (Hornecker & Buur 2006). Both applies for ZEI°, it is embedded in the real world, for instance on the user’s desk, and moved in reality. However, the device does not provide any location-based tracking functionality. What if it would also include a feature to track whether the user is working in the office or at a client? Further on, the device has Configurable Materials – labels on sides can be changed – and a Non-fragmented Visibility – everybody can see which activity is being tracked and follow the labels as visual references (Hornecker & Buur 2006, p. 5). As explained before, it does not involve a Full-Body Interaction, but it shows a Performative Action (Hornecker & Buur 2006, p. 5) – communicating that the user is working vs. switching to another activity by moving the arm and hand to turn the device while remaining at the work space.

Third follows the theme Embodied Facilitation focusing on the impact on social behaviour within a group (Hornecker & Buur 2006). The way ZEI° is designed, it is mainly used by users for tracking their individual working times and not for group interactions. It is lacking any kind of collaborative functions, which could be relevant for working in projects.

Expressive Representation is the last theme of the framework and comprises three main concepts. First, ZEI° shows a Representational Significance since its representations are meaningful and of long-lasting
importance (Hornecker & Buur 2006, pp. 5). This can be monetary reasons like charging clients, ensuring not to work too much to have free time or a good work-life balance, or simply to keep track of time spent of different activities. Second, Hornecker and Buur name Externalization (Hornecker & Buur 2006, pp. 5). Whether this is applicable for ZEI° depends on the way it is used, but in general it serves as a basis to communicate working hours and e.g. project extents to other stakeholder, such as clients or employers. Third, the Perceived Coupling (Hornecker & Buur 2006, p. 6) of ZEI° is obvious. The link between turning the device to another side and thus tracking another activity is clear – assuming the labelling is well chosen and coherent.

Concept of Ready-to-Hand and Present-at-Hand

As introduced in his book “Sein und Zeit”, Heidegger distinguishes the two terms zuhanden and vorhanden (Heidegger 1967, p. 71). Those German expressions can be translated to ready-to-hand (zuhanden) and present-at-hand (vorhanden) and describe the human interaction with objects in the real world (Dourish 2001, p. 109). When we use an object, this object can either be in the foreground of our perception and interaction. We are aware of its existence as well of the interaction with it. This is called present-at-hand. Once an object moves to the background and becomes invisible for the user, it is described as ready-to-hand. By acting through an object the object becomes functional. The object is being used, but the interaction with it and its existence are not obvious to the user.

When applying this concept to the tangible time tracking device ZEI°, one can see that the device is extremely present, once the user wants to switch a task or an activity. By taking the polygon in the hand, turning it until the right side is facing up, and placing it back down on the table, the interaction with the device is in the foreground. The user is acting through the object by manipulating the tracked time by turning the device. That’s what Heidegger describes as present-at-hand.

But once the users are focused on the actual work, they are unlikely to think about the interaction with the device. The users are actively working, but at the same time being tracked by the device. For them it seems like they are passive in regards of interacting with the device. However, the users are still interacting with the device even though there is no physical interaction visible. Not touching the device informs the device that the time shall be tracked until the device is turned again. The device is ready-to-hand – through non-interaction in this specific case.

Stating that „Zuhandenes »gibt es« doch nur auf dem Grunde von Vorhandenem“ (Heidegger 1967, p. 71), Heidegger emphasises that things being ready-to-hand, can only exist on the basis of things that are present-at-hand. This means, only because ZEI° is existing and its existence is in the foreground when turning the polygon, it can fade to the background once the users are bound up in their work. The states of present-to-hand and ready-to-hand are alternating in about the same pattern as the user switches activities – respectively turns the device – and is actually working.



Dourish, P., 2001. Where the action is, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Heidegger, M., 1967. Sein und Zeit 11th ed. E. Husserl, ed., Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag.

Hornecker, E., Tangible Interaction. In: The Glossary of Human Computer Interaction. Available at: https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/book/the-glossary-of-human-computer-interaction/tangible-interaction [Accessed March 29, 2017].

Hornecker, E. & Buur, J., 2006. Getting a Grip on Tangible Interaction: A Framework on Physical Space and Social Interaction. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in computing systems – CHI ’06. p. 437. Available at: http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1124772.1124838.


Image 1: http://www.worlds50.com/2016/09/zei-octahedron-that-makes-time-tracking.html

Image 2: https://timeular.com/

Image 3: https://timeular.com/

Image 4: Hornecker & Buur 2006, p. 4





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