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Imagine a world without keyboards. Futurist Ray Kurzweil did 10 years ago when he predicted that by 2009 most portable computers would not have them any longer. Chances are you're still using a mouse and keyboard to point and click your way through this post (and the thousands of other Web pages you view every week). Yet a change is fast approaching, and it's based on touch.
Gesture-based interaction has been around since the dawn of computing, really, and Kurzweil's vision has come true, at least in part, thanks to the widespread adoption of trackpads for laptops (not to mention their predecessors: the trackball, stylus, and light pen). Meanwhile, touch-enabled screens are all around us: in ATMs, GPS navigation systems, grocery checkout lines, bars and restaurants, and TV (think CNN's election maps, and remember Star Trek: The Next Generation from the 1980s?). Yet single-user desktop systems are still mostly dependent on mice and keyboards.
With the advent of Apple's wildly popular iPhone (soon to be joined by the Palm Pre), we've gotten a taste of the potential of multi-touch technology, at least for mobile devices. Now they're being joined by a new wave of interactive walls and tables: Microsoft's Surface, Hitachi's StarBoard, and Sony's new multi-touch LCD screen.
The New Metaphors of Touch
Multi-touch and other touch surfaces offer a more intuitive and natural interaction with PCs, transforming the way we use computers, much the way GUI systems did when they were introduced 25 years ago. While some tasks may still be easier to perform using traditional input devices like the keyboard and mouse, multi-touch is ideal for manipulating objects; creating, editing, and scanning pictures; navigating maps; and even surfing the Web. Gesture-based human/computer interaction represents an evolutionary step, not just in the design of hand-held devices and PCs but also in the look, feel, and functionality of websites.
"Pinch," "de-pinch," "flick," "stretch." This is the growing vernacular of multi-finger and gesture motions. Our current devices (mouse, trackpad, etc.) are designed to focus on a single point and manipulate that point around the screen. With multi-touch, no longer are you limited to double-clicking, dragging, button-pushing, and working pull-down menus. You can sketch, paint, re-size, and crop with a single finger, multiple fingers, multiple hands, and even multiple users. Objects become things you swipe, zoom, push, pull, spin, rotate, and flip.
A More Interactive, Collaborative Experience
Following the introduction of the iPhone, Surface, TouchSmart TX2 multi-touch tablet, and N-trig's DuoSense digitizers, we wonder, too, what's coming next? More intriguing for us as a Web hosting company is how this will transform the online experience: the look and feel of websites, their functionality, and your interaction with them?
There are a few hints of the multi-touch future to come. Bill Buxton is a pioneer in the field of multi-touch. His "Multi-Touch Systems That I Have Known and Loved" outlines degrees of freedom, a concept central to expanding the boundaries of how we interact with computers:
"The richness of interaction is highly related to the richness/number of degrees of freedom (DOF) and, in particular, continuous degrees of freedom, supported by the technology. The conventional GUI is largely based on moving around a single 2-D cursor, using a mouse, for example. This results in 2DOF. If I am sensing the location of two fingers, I have 4DOF, and so on."
DOF then opens up nearly endless possibilities for one-surface computing based on your actions: discrete or continuous, horizontal or vertical orientation, pressure sensitivity, angle of approach, friction, and so one, all influenced by the single or multiple points and gestures you use.
Multi-Touch Made Real
Buxton, Kurzweil, and visionary Jefferson Han provide only a glimpse of what tomorrow's multi-touch websites might look like. No one really knows for certain. Yet they will likely contain at least a few of the following elements:
- Virtual buttons and signatures;
- A faster, more efficient GUI in which the user can customize their own site menu size and shape: for example, by representing layers as individual cards of a card deck;
- Items with 3-D characteristics, with fronts and backs that can be flipped over and rotated.
Joel Eden, a user experience consultant, provides some excellent suggestions for "Designing for Multi-Touch, Multi-User, and Gesture-Based Systems," listing several characteristics that apply as much to website design as to software development. These include:
- Affordances: focus on features, actions, and interactions that can be represented visually;
- Engagement: focus users on simple, quick, natural interactions;
- Feedback must be immediate and easily noticeable by all concurrent users;
- Don't make us think: minimize hidden functionality, except for contextual features that only make sense when revealed during specific interactions.
It may not be time yet to ditch your keyboard and retire your mouse. But sometime between the iPhone and Surface table-top computing, laptop and desktop multi-touch applications will emerge. Interested in a sneak peek at what a multi-touch website might look like? Take a look at these prototypes, and share your examples and ideas!