There has been a lot of noise recently about Touch-based interfaces…
Apple was the first company to really bring touch based interfaces into the mainstream. The runaway success of the iPhone and it’s “Multi-touch” interface has spawned a rush by device manufactures to integrate some form of touch into their products. Unfortunately, I think many device manufacturers are taking the wrong lesson from Apple’s success in this area.
Touch is not a virtue in and of itself.
If a manufacturer simply adds Touch as an overlay to an existing product, it’s probably more about marketing than usability, and most likely isn’t going to add much value to it. A well executed Touch implementation requires an optimized combination of both hardware and software. That’s the reason Touch based technology works so well on the iPhone – it was designed from the ground up as touch device.
I’m starting to see Touch show up more in full sized computing platforms as well. In fact, Microsoft’s new Windows 7 OS, just released to public beta last week, has been designed specifically to embrace Touch as an input method.
This is certainly a good thing.
However, developers in this space need to keep a couple of things in mind. Touch isn’t optimal for everything a user does. They need to be selective about how it is applied – the needs of the user have to come first. Also, the intended size of a device’s Touch surface needs to influence product design. Think about the iPhone. It has a small 3.5″ screen that is relatively easy to interact with directly. That identical interface could become far less convenient on a device with a much larger Touch surface. To better appreciate what I’m saying, take a quick look at this video:
If direct Touch were the primary interface method for a screen that size (I’m guessing about 20″), it would quickly become tiring to use – even excluding the typing examples. The problem you have with larger Touch surfaces is that movements and gestures are one-to-one with the size of the screen. If you wanted to move something from one side of the screen to the other, you’d need to hold your arm up – unsupported – and drag your finger at least 10″ across the surface. That may be OK for infrequent activities, but could become physically tiring for the numerous daily computing activities most people need to do. (This is probably one of the sub-conscious resistance points people have had to tablet based computing as well.)
So what’s Apple doing in this area?…
Apple clearly understands Touch computing, and has repeatedly shown incredible skill in the design of their user interfaces. So it’s interesting that instead of using direct Touch on any of their laptops, Apple has decided to focus on optimizing their trackpad design to embrace Touch-like features.
Because trackpads are flat, “relative motion” devices. Using a trackpad, you can move from one side of a display to the other – regardless of size – by moving your finger just a couple of inches. This approach also allows a display to be placed at an optimal viewing position, while keeping the trackpad on a flat surface – a better ergonomic solution for most people. As this video shows, impressive Touch like capability can still be deliver through this arrangement:
So are there places that ‘large format’ touch interfaces can work well?…
Absolutely! Advertising, data/image visualizations, and gaming/social computing are just a few of the areas where a large direct Touch display can bring a lot of value. The best commercial example of a large direct Touch display implementation was Microsoft’s Surface computing platform – a device I’ve been very impressed with.
Touch based technology, as well as other organic technologies like Speech Recognition and Machine Vision, can open up possibilities for completely new types of computing devices. Trying to squeeze them in to the existing keyboard/mouse/display model of computing really sells them short. The compromises that requires could ultimately turn people off and delay their broad adoption.
When it’s done right, however, it can launch a revolution.
Just look at the iPhone…