The Next Goldrush? MultiTouch Screen Apps

The Holy Grail of screen technology is the gesture-activated virtual screen portrayed in Stephen Spielberg’s 2002 blockbuster futuristic film Minority Report. Technologists inspired by the brilliant effects have been laboring ever since to interact with screen images, getting them to do what we want them to do by a mere wave of the hand or point of an index finger.

The iPhone’s introduction of multitouch was an astounding innovation that brought Spielberg’s vision closer to actualization. But the Apple device still requires physical contact with the surface of the device, whereas the next generation of virtual screens will liberate our hands from any contact whatsoever.

Where are we on the continuum between touchscreens and Minority Report‘s magic one?

Rebounding from an Apple-led consumer flight to handhelds, a number of PC manufacturers are developing applications designed to lure consumers back to their desks and, according to Ashlee Vance of the New York Times (PC Touch Screens Move Ahead), high on the list are touchscreens. For instance, Hewlett-Packard is pushing the TouchSmart, a desktopper with an upright screen on which you can access every function with your stylus or index finger. TouchSmart offers a variety of great applications. Vance points out that “Customers can turn these machines into bespoke kiosks for, say, ordering merchandise at a sporting event or flipping through a menu while waiting at a restaurant.” Indeed, touch screens are commonly used for keeping track of tables and food orders at restaurants. They can also be embedded in homes to control lights, music, thermostat, etc., and in he kitchen to follow recipes.

However, after you’ve worked an iPhone screen with multitouch, one-finger functionality feels pretty limited, and we have to wonder how practical the TouchSmart approach is for business offices. Here’s a simple test: next time you’re sitting in front of your desktop monitor, try stretching your arm out and poking the screen every time you want to open a file, drag, drop, highlight, cut and paste or perform some other task. Do we really want to reach out to our screen every time we want to move something around or shift to another function? Don’t be surprised if your arm grows weary and your back strained. Let’s face it: some functions are best left to keyboard commands or mouse navigation. And – sitting at a desk is not necessarily where today’s sedentary or peripatetic computer users want to be. If you’re thinking about students, so am I. We’ll get to them in a moment.

You can google lots of HP promotional videos and demonstrations and decide for yourself.

But soon, even five digits may be passé. Enter advanced multitouch and an Israeli outfit called N-trig. Its advanced PC screen technology called “DuoSense” enables users to use both hands as well as a pen.

N-trig is the only industry provider to offer a combined pen, touch and multi-touch solution, having overcome the technological hurdles of combining the two seamlessly in a single device. DuoSense is an intelligent digitizer, fully compatible with Microsoft natural input standards. N-trig’s DuoSense digitizers are are easily integratable, support any type of LCD, keep devices slim, light and bright, can support numerous applications, and can be implemented in a broad range of products ranging from small notebooks to large LCDs.

For a cool demo check out this video of N-trig. By the way, if you’re fascinated by the possibilities and have some clever ideas of your own for Windows 7 apps, N-Trig offers a $900 touchscreen kit that software developers that can use to develop their own.

Note that N-trig’s demonstration is being performed on a tablet computer, as well as on a convertible laptop/slate. Why tablets? Aren’t they just a niche? So far, yes. But that’s going to change big time. There’s a whole population of computer users that is simply not deskbound. It’s called students, and, as we have stated in these pages again and again, the only viable computer product for students is the tablet. “Textbooks and other illustrated books simply cannot be crammed into anything smaller than a screen close to the size of a laptop,” I wrote. “Tablets have all the virtues of laptops PLUS touchscreen functionality. For students, reading books on an e-reading device is highly desirable but not as imperative as the ability to handwrite notes on their device’s screen.”

Students will certainly give N-trig’s DuoSense two thumbs up, plus the other eight digits as well. “Such touch software can handle lots of fingers hitting a screen at once rather than just relying on one or two digits, as most of today’s touch screens do,” writes Vance.

In anticipation of a major push into the tablet market, Microsoft is reported to have invested $24 million in N-trig, and the forthcoming Windows 7 (look for it in 2010) “supports gestures such as pinching and fingertip scrolling,”reports Wired. “Other Windows programs, such as Paint, will also include new brushes designed for multi-touch and features such as panning across a page in Internet Explorer.” But the outer limits of known touchscreen tech is Microsoft Surface’s Cynergy Labs, and it’s likely that Surface will dominate the field until 3D replaces it. Check out these dumfounding videos.

Microsoft’s Surface is probably the direction consumers will go over the next few years, but shimmering on the distant horizon is a means of projecting action onto a screen without any contact whatever. We caught a glimpse of this with the wearable “Sixth Sense” device demonstrated at a recent TED (Technology Entertainment Design) conference. But for a mind-bending look at the state of the art of virtual, check out Project Natal by Microsoft designed for XBox 360. Stephen Spielberg, eat your heart out.

Richard Curtis

This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times. Every blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers. Without them our free society would not only be impoverished but imperiled. We must strive to find a way to rescue the industry, even if it means nothing more than buying a paper on the street. Support your local newspaper.

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