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Computing Takes on a Human Touch

Multi-Touch is more natural

Multi-Touch is more natural

When you learn how to climb, you are taught to keep three points of contact on the rock face. One of your hands or feet is constantly feeling for a good toe-hold or hand-hold to keep you in contact with the rock. Your instinct to begin with is to use your elbows and knees or to hang onto the rope. You grip that rock with everything you have got. You suddenly become aware of the utter reliance you have on touch, feel and strength. 

In computing, the only rock or silicon you are in touch with has always been the chip and the screen but through another medium to make something happen. Your surface has pretty much always been a keyboard and a mouse and the only touching you did was on the buttons of those devices. It meant you had to learn another skill to use the computer, namely typing, albeit with only two fingers if you did not do the whole touch-typing thing. It was intimidating when you were new to a computer. 

There have been touch-screen applications around for a while, such as those at airports and rail stations to provide you information, and they have always been single digit affairs when you interacted with them. Tablet PC’s came along and brought you a bit closer, but you often had to use a stylus to connect with the screen. 

Microsoft’s Windows 7 has many new aspects and the touch screen capability is much vaunted. It enables you to interact with your touch screen directly without the need for a mouse or keyboard. You will notice that the Microsoft guy is using one finger to interact with the screen. This is not new, to be honest. If you have had an iPhone or a touch screen PDA then this will feet a bit passé.

For me, the big deal with this technology is the size of the touch screen. Instead of a screen the size of a small notepad, you will be able to interact much more fliudly with the computer than previously possible. There is just more ‘elbow room’ in which to view photos or documents, and as someone that prefers a dual screen set up with my PC, this will be a huge benefit. 

What’s more interesting in this market of interactive displays is ‘multi-touch’ technology. Computing which enables you to use not just one finger on the screen but several fingers. You can even use a mix of fingers and a stylus. Multi-touch screens and technology make a large leap of progress in how you interact with a computer. Furthermore, our computer screens have been viewed by most of us in a vertical positions when we are facing them at a desk. Multi-touch screens make horizontal positions much easier to adopt so we will start to see multi-touch screens in schools, service industries and situations where a keyboard is inappropriate.

Multi-touch technology removes the necessity to write on the screen with a keyboard or to point and click with a mouse. Some of the technologies, such as Microsoft’s surface computing, recognise documents or items placed on the surface. So, the ability to learn how to use the hardware and software using multi-touch technology will have a major barrier removed. 

One particular area which will benefit from the use of multi-touch technology is in eBook readers. With the work in the publishing industry that I do, the current eBook devices don’t have multi-touch screens and, therefore, the reading experience is not as good as a book in some respects. If there was the ability to ‘pinch’ areas of the screen to zoom in on interesting details or photos then the eBook devices would be far more interesting and more natural to use.

If you want to see more of this technology in action, then you should spend some time at the ‘Interactive Displays‘ show in San Jose, California this month between 21st April and 23rd April. The leading multi-touch manufacturers will be exhibiting their technologies.

Two Handed, Ten Fingered Computing

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I was a bit of an academic ‘waste of space’ at school. One teacher, who was trying to be supportive, said to a gang of about five of us one day, “Many other teachers think of you as wasters”. That was a surprise.

Most people studying for their ‘A’ levels studied three subjects. My poor results at ‘O’ level meant that I was doing just two ‘A’ levels which meant that I had some spare time to fill.

I was duly dispatched to study statistics ‘O’ level and, much to my embarrassment at the time, typing. Well, I failed the statistics exam, although I quite enjoyed the  lessons, and I passed the typing exam.

For many years, the typing qualification was useless. In the Army, I was learning how to clean weapons, carry out platoon attacks and lead a team.

When I left the British Army, I soon found myself working with computers and I quickly picked up touch typing, which had been a distant memory from school.

How ironic. That one skill is probably the single largest barrier for people learning how to use a computer effectively. Typing with two fingers is no fun and it is exhausting if you are looking at your fingers all of the time.

The use of computers in schools, business and the home is now all pervasive but there has been little change in the format of the computer and how we interact with it for a long time, until recently.

Apple really kicked things off with its iPhone, allowing you to touch the screen with more than one finger or your stylus (which I was always losing).

Suddenly, the computer, albeit a pocket-sized computer, was something the masses were touching.

For sure, there have been ‘Tablet PC’s’ around for some time. But they never had the capability to recognise more than one item touching the screen at once.

Last week, I saw ‘Microsoft Surface’ computing for the second time at the BETT Show in London. The beauty of it is that it is a touch screen computer but the screen is the size of a small table. And, you can touch it with more than one finger.

Big deal. But, the beauty is that a user can, say, bring up a picture imageand move it around the screen with one hand while bringing another picture into view with the other hand. This is technically difficult to do. Imagine having ten people using ten mice on the same computer!

Suddenly, this technology breaks a barrier by removing the tools, such as mice, keyboards, pens and single digits, which have traditionally required us to learn a new skill just to start using the computer.

Now, the computer is a step closer to us.

I can see some great applications for these computers in schools helping Classroom Assistants to help children with reading and arithmetic, to help them become more engaged in the most important skills. 

The price of a ‘surface computer’ is pretty steep now but they will become increasingly popular and accessible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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