Give your computer the finger: Touch-screen tech is coming of age

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Touch on a grander scale


But not all the advances in touch technology are going into tiny mobile screens. Microsoft's Surface computer uses a two-way touch screen that is 30 inches across, big enough for several people to sit around and use simultaneously. It is intended to lie flat and present a 360-degree user interface.

Cameras embedded inside Surface sense user input in the form of touch and gestures (finger movements across the screen) and can capture the information needed to identify objects laid on it. This information is shipped to a garden-variety Windows Vista PC for processing and the results returned to Surface by a Digital Light Processing projector. It is a vision-based system, not capacitive or resistive as are many conventional touch devices.

Microsoft's Surface computer.

Microsoft is working with several commercial partners, including Starwood Hotels & Resorts, to introduce Surface, which is due to ship in the spring. It will initially target leisure, entertainment and retail applications, says Mark Bolger, director of marketing for Surface Computing. For example, he says, one could imagine a hotel guest using a "virtual concierge" in a Surface computer in the lobby to manipulate maps, photos, restaurant menus and theater information.

Bolger says Surface has four defining characteristics, traits likely to be seen in many future touch-based devices: direct interaction (no keyboard or mouse), multi-touch interface, multi-user input and object recognition -- for example, a waiter places a bottle of wine on Surface and it brings up pictures of the winery.

Just what is meant by "multi-user" is a matter of some disagreement. Adam Bogue, a vice president of business development at Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories in Cambridge, Mass., says MERL's DiamondTouch Table is the only truly multi-user touch device available because it is the only one that can identify different users who are touching it simultaneously. "Our whole approach has been to support small-group collaboration," he says.

With DiamondTouch, the user literally becomes part of the system. Multiple antennas embedded under the surface transmit small radio-frequency signals to the fingertips of users. Explains Bogue, "When you touch the table, you are capacitively coupling yourself to the signals, completing a circuit through you and into your chair. Each chair is wired into a separate receiver channel."

MERL's DiamondTouch Table

MERL made its first DiamondTouch device in 2001 and has since sold more than 100 of them to university labs and to a few companies looking to incorporate the device into their own systems. MERL is now working on applications, the first ones in GIS and CAD, and it sells a kit of software and hardware that companies can use to develop their own applications. At the end of January, Bogue says, Mitsubishi will announce that it is spinning off the DiamondTouch business to an independent company to be called Circle Twelve Inc.

something here about moving even bigger than tabletops? Wall stuff like what Jeff Han does? Link to some cool videos?

Beyond touch


Pradeep Khosla, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says touch technology will proliferate, but not by itself. "When we talk face to face, I make eye gestures, face gestures, hand gestures, and somehow you interpret them all to understand what I am saying. I think that's where we are headed," he says. "There is room for all these things, and multi-modal gestures will be the future."

Microsoft researcher Bill Buxton also anticipates a fusion of different interaction technologies. "There's been this notion that less is more -- you try to get less and less stuff to reduce complexity," he says. "But there's this other view that more is actually less -- more of the right stuff in the right place, and complexity disappears."

In the office of the future, Buxton predicts, desktop computers might be much the same as they are today. "But you can just throw stuff, with the mouse or a gesture, up onto a wall or white board and then work with it with your hands by touch and gesture standing up. Then you'll just pull things into your mobile and have this surface in your hand. The mobile, the wall, the desktop -- they are all suitable for different purposes."

Will that be the end of the WIMP interface? Tufts reseacher Jacob advises users not to discard their keyboards and mice anytime soon. "They really are extremely good," he says. "WIMP almost completely dislodged the command-line interface. The WIMP interface was such a good invention that people just kind of stopped there, but I can't believe it's the end of the road forever."

Buxton agrees. "WIMP is the standard interface going back twenty-plus years, and all the applications have been built around that," he says. "The challenge is, without throwing the baby out with the bath, how do we reap the benefits of these new approaches while preserving the best parts of the things that exist?"

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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