What future Touch in Computing ?

Posted on June 29, 2012

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Touch screen technology dates to 1971, when Dr. Sam Hurst of Oak Ridge National Laboratory was teaching at the University of Kentucky. Scroll forward to the prospect of Windows 8 and touch is about to hit the desktop primetime where none have gone before with any real success before.

I am talking about PC desktops here, as we all know touch hit the mainstream consumer consciousness with the advent of smartphones and latterly the Apple iPad generation of tablet devices. Tablet devices that may aspire to replace your desktop but are little more than pumped up large screen smartphones.

Touch has proven itself on the personal portable hand held devices where simplicity and minimalist interface challenge is key, and devices are almost exclusively single user. Fingers are ubiquitous and the constraining resource limitations across battery and power utilisation of portable devices means functionality expectation will never challenge that of a desktop experience consequently touch has never been put to the acid test of power desktop usage.

The game however is changing with Windows 8 taking touch to the desktop, albeit with a very tablet focused User Interface (UI). Windows 8 is designed with Touch foremost in mind, and that is what comes across in the Developer Proview and latterly the Consumer preview. I will defer further opinion on Windows 8 till it has RTM’d (release to market), as much of the preview experience may be better polished for the final release so I will not go off half-cocked here.

The question on the minds of industry watchers is will touch make a successful transition from small and discrete portal devices where it is in its element to the larger desktop form factor, across the consumer market share and ultimately the enterprise?

Touch has already demonstrated early adopters in the high priced large conferencing flat screen space, and Microsoft has been quick to stake a claim on that market with the acquisition of Perceptive Pixel a leader in 85inch touch screen hardware.

With the mega screens came the first signs of challenge for touch, issues not pertinent on its home turf the personal portal device space. The prevalence of alcohol based hand washing aids alongside the new generation of touch conferencing displays pointing at the first smoking gun, the hygiene challenge, a tactile artefact residues that are unavoidable. Largely because in the real world people have natural oils on their fingers amongst other detritus and glass is one of the worst surfaces to keep clean under finger assault conditions. This is heralding a new set of challenges including:

Hygiene

Individuals willingness to share surfaces in a world of extremely varied levels of personal hygiene.

Having played with some of the HP Touchsmart desktop units I can categorically state that Touch on a desktop whilst it has all the prospects of a great user experience, in reality leaves a very grubby feeling behind and is not endearing. Furthermore there is nothing that drives some users (yours truly included) to despair is the pointing and grubbing up of my screen.

A tip to the investor in you, the prevalence of alcohol based hand washing aids will see a boom in that supply chain market, along with screen wipes. Oh yes don’t forget the prospect of health warning signs, that seem to be mandatory in corporations, more familiar in urinals than desktops to ‘Please Wash Your Hands’ before using!

Do not underestimate the impact of hand washing aids. The skin is a highly efficient barrier protecting our soft centers from continuous assault from outside. But modern detergents and cleaning agents represent the biggest threat to that armour. Once breached whilst the skin is agile in its ability to repair, it can take on manifold stress responses that could drive any HR department’s sick leave register into meltdown.

This is not just some speculative pitch The Spyglass Consulting Group study reports 79% of the doctors interviewed indicated they believed that mobile devices caused infection-control risks, and represent challenges in the health industry as touch devices make inroads.

This is containable on devices that are largely personal and single use, but take this into the shared and collaborative space of the desktop and conference room the implications are clear, once a device is touched (infected) it becomes a vector of contamination.

This begs the question of the sensibility in testing touch devices in public spaces such as technology stores. Next time you’re in such a store take 5 minutes to observe your fellow humans as they prod and tap the hardware on display. Note the casual and largely unconscious random orifice excavation that goes on, and put a tick against the number of times the offending hand is washed before it re-engages the hardware!

Heralding the new age of ‘Touch Screen Transmitted Disease’ (TSTD) .

Time & Material Cost

Is there enough benefit gain from using touch the familiar mouse/trackpad and keyboard that will see users put up with staring at and through grubby screens?

Do the time and materials impact analysis of touch on a user’s working day.

Health

To quote the venerator of ‘the digit’ former Apple CEO Steve Jobs at a press conference in October 2010: "Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical."

Jobs is not alone in this, Quote: "You don’t see a lot of touchscreen notebooks because it is not intuitive to reach up and start touching the screen when there is a good keypad," says Paul Moore, senior director product management at Fujitsu, one of the world’s biggest laptop makers.

The more perpendicular the screen, the more "dorsiflexion" or angular bending of a joint, in this case your wrist o type or touch, puts unnatural pressure on the median nerve and other structures in the wrist. So as touch goes broader spectrum could we see a parallel growth in carpal tunnel syndrome in years to come, and what next generation Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) incidents?

In summary Touch does not harmonise with desktop PC use. Challenges noted above aside, users have struggled with keyboard and mouse hygiene and health issues and survived, but not without cost, touch will simply add to that.

So what are the alternatives?

I have been a great fan of Pen input for years, enjoying the ability to keep my notes in electronic form, and Windows 8 delivers in trumps to the Stylus/Pen user, better than any other OS to-date. The iPad fails miserably where it could excel, but that is an artefact of Steve Jobs intransigence and veneration of ‘the finger’.

But Stylus / Pen is not the answer, and only a surrogate fingers breadth away from the full touch challenge in itself.

Since upgrading to Xbox Kinect I have been an ardent supporter of Gesture based input.

Gesture

Gesture is a term that has been used inappropriately by some manufacturers in the past in the context of touch ‘gestures’.

I refereeing to Gesture firmly in the gesticulatory context of motion and excludes touch entirely.

Gesture sits perhaps 18 month’s behind Touch in the evolution curve but does not befall the challenges of Touch, albeit with its own, but those are largely technical of which the main technical challenge is shared with Touch. That being the pixal level accuracy of the interpreted gesture on the screen.

Microsoft Kinect is already showing the way in leaps and bounds, with the Windows Desktop SDK available and vendors exploring the possible with fledgling prototypes such as:

The big tick in the box for gesture comes from Microsoft who confirmed that they have hybrid Asus laptop devices in official prototype featuring the Kinect for Windows. Furthermore Windows 8 would require almost zero change to adapt to Gesture.

So there is a real hardware event horizon for the Widows 8 revolution, and that is the penetration of next generation interfacing. Touch for a year till the technology catches up then I fancy gesture based computing will come into its own and touch will be relegated back to its sweet spot in the personal portable device space. That having been said choice is the word here and consumers like nothing more than that as do vendors endeavouring to differentiate through innovation.

We are getting to a market density where there is unlikely to be any clear winner, choice and innovation will foster niches for all types of pure and blended interface modes. Watch this space….

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