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When Touch Is Inappropriate

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Microsoft (s MSFT) continues to push touch as a user interface, this time as a participant in the $24 million funding round for Israeli startup N-Trig, whose technology enables multitouch, or the use of more than one finger for input. Multitouch hit it big on the iPhone, where one uses multiple fingers to zoom in rather than one finger to drag things around the screen. N-Trig’s technology is also pressure-sensitive capacitive like the iPhone, rather than based on cameras, such as with the touch technologies used by HP’s (s HPQ) TouchSmart PC and the Microsoft Surface table. An article in today’s Wall Street Journal hypes Microsoft’s efforts, and spends a good amount of verbiage on how touch could replace the mouse, but won’t be useful everywhere.

Ain’t that the truth. Touch is frankly inappropriate for many tasks, from typing blog entries to dealing with Excel spreadsheets. And while Microsoft (and HP, whose TouchSmart computer is fun to play with) envisions touch being used in a family room-oriented desktop for photos and recipes, I’m not so sure. It’s awkward to page through multiple photos on a vertical screen using a monitor that’s roughly an arm’s length away. Frankly a clicker would be the best option, or barring that, a mouse. And for recipes, one look at my cookbooks, which are completely nasty — waterlogged and gummed together with random food bits — is enough to convince me that the best option is one that is not electronic.

I’m not against touch, and think it adds more usability, especially when it comes to accessing a lot of information in a small space, like on a phone — but I’m not sold on it as a mouse replacement or as a UI for a traditional computer. Now bring out the Surface table, some fun games and photo-sharing software, and I’ll embrace the touch experience, but for now I think some of the industry’s push for touch is inappropriate.

16 Responses to “When Touch Is Inappropriate”

  1. Touch doesn’t make sense for most applications today.
    And gestures won’t fix it either – they suffer from the same kind of a problem: they solve a problem for a niche of what the gadget/product is used for. Televisions are used to watch TV more than to interact, so gestures will take too much effort and will be riddled with problems (kids running around waving their hands when you watch your favorite series).

  2. “Well, now you’ve done it and opened Pandora’s box,” I touch type on my keyboard.

    So, first off, short of the brainwave interface or voice commands, touch is all we’ve got and it is the state of the art – but most of it is touching a keyboard and a mouse. If one touch types (actually I’m a rapid hunt and pecker), then one’s mind integrates the sensory of touching the keys with the letters and words on the screen, and it feels relatively seamless; and I think most everyone uses a mouse while looking at the screen, so the same thing occurs there. We’re using touch, we’re just not touching the screen. When do we need to touch the screen?

    Well I think there is a great case, but mostly it means getting over the verbal paradigm. You see with all this great technology we’re still back in the 70’s, we’re using a language interface. Language is like a good lawyer – steel trap logic in the bright hands, but it takes you done a certain path and does not encourage looking around the way a picture will.

    A good touch interface would be essential to moving forward with visual communication (please, I’m not talking about color and web design). Draw me a picture of your idea.

    But try that with a mouse (or keyboard)! It pales in comparison to pencil and paper.

    Now, if the screen were your paper, and an electronic pen your pencil, you could show me a more interesting and open world. Productivity? A (good) picture is worth a thousand words.

    Now where is the technology to process pictures as logic, as commands, as knowledge?

    Computing has not come as far as it might have. And the GUI? A misnomer. It is only half a GUI – it speaks its own language, not yours. Go ahead sketch a picture on your laptop and tell me how it responds.

  3. First, one has to understand the difference between GUI and UI. I think People do not separate the two in their thinking. So everything gets messy really fast, but especially Nintendo showed there is a difference.
    Then there is the problem of working with the system and letting the system work for you. If you do the later the manipulation of “Objects” in the system will change.
    If the spreadsheet “understands” the meaning and context of a cell, you will interact with that cell differently then you do today.
    In other words, Microsoft will create it’s usual mess until somebody shows them how to do it.

  4. A touch interface is a convenience. It doesn’t totally replace a keyboard (somebody, try to convince Steve Jobs how much we need a keyboard for the iPhone).

    Touchscreens are for devices that are close to you – you wouldn’t operate your TV with one. However, if you have a 42″ monitor for your desktop (or plugged it into your laptop), it would be really cool.

  5. Ummm… I thought the iPhone’s screen was capacitive rather than resistive – ergo it does not operate by being ‘pressure-sensitive’, but by being activated by the electrical charge in the user’s fingers…

  6. Stacey Higginbotham

    Thanks, Alex. I have a somewhat warped sense of humor.

    As for the other comments, I agree that UIs should fit the situation, which then raises the issue of how to make that possible. Do we keep a closed infrastructure as the console market does? Figure out some standards to match software to a variety of devices? What model works for general purpose computing?

  7. I agree that touching a monitor has its problems (just the fingerprints, for the OCD types – guilty). Gesture recognition makes sense, but how about a multi-touch pad that sits on the desk?

  8. I agree with Vamsi. The Wii controls let me easily interact with my Television. Like you said OM, a clicker would be great, especially if as Vamsi says, it allows for gesture movement like the Wii. I won’t always wan’t to be an arms length away. Sometimes I’d like to sit my butt down on the sofa ;)

  9. I think the best thing would be something like the Wii did to the gaming industry. We can bring to most devices and get the gesture and movement of these things for the interactivity for a broad number of devices.

  10. @Bobby: Agreed, the screen isn’t large enough to make multitouch worthwhile or practical.

    On a separate note, I’m interested in the new tech around touch input from behind the screen…this will definitely introduce new ways of using touch. But the best total interface will likely involve gestures and voice as well.

  11. Bobby Peru

    Actually multitouch is just a gimmick even on the iPhone, requires two hands to use which can be “inappropriate” in mobile situations. The zooming function could be implemented with a semitransparent zoom slider, which could be manipulated with the thumb of the hand holding the phone.

  12. I think the next big thing will be gestures, at least for stationery platforms. It’s sort of the marriage of touch and remotes and probably fills in most of the gaps between the two. Like Minority Report. Touch does seems like a good fit for mobile devices so far.