New multitouch screens tickle the imagination

We were born with sensitive fingertips and spent our first months experiencing our world primarily through touch. Fast-forward to later in our development. We learn about computers — one of the most important modern sources of communication, interaction and business. And what happens to tactile experience? Poof! Gone, or at least gone dormant. Instead, we risk carpal tunnel and terminal boredom (both meanings) as we literally beat out our thoughts into keyboards, one letter and mouse click at a time.

It’s no wonder that a computing system designed to provide just a few scraps of visceral pleasure would generate a cult following. But even Apple’s desktop systems are limited by a keyboard and mouse as primary input devices. Bigger rewards can only come when we find better ways to receive our thoughts and intentions. The keyboard and mouse must go.

Wired magazine knew this when one of its recent Expired/Wired triads was the following:

Expired: Keypad

Tired: Scroll Wheel

Wired: Multitouch

Although these blurbs never explain themselves, I’m fairly sure the editors of Wired were thinking about the work of Jefferson (Jeff) Han. His work in creating a multitouch monitor is old hat to a lot of tech people, but it’s still a miracle to the uninitiated. And it sure looks like the way we’re headed in computer interfaces. Han created a new way for touch screens to receive feedback from fingers and hands based on pressure and movement.

Some of Han’s supporting software concepts have already been applied elsewhere, to smaller screens. For instance, the idea of two opposing fingers widening or coming together as a way to move or “flick” a virtual wheel is at play on the new Apple iPhone touch screen. But what is particularly exciting about Han’s creation is that, similar to the Nintendo Wii gaming device, his screen gets us up and moving. The Wii is even being used in retirement communities. And similar to the Wii, Han’s multitouch screen is an interface that meets our bodies and brains more than half way. Far more. Neither system requires an instruction manual.

Here are two more reasons why I think this is taste of things to come for information workers everywhere:

  1. It is more natural — and I suspect far more productive — to think conceptually while manipulating ideas with a swipe of your hand rather than pinning them to a board like so many dead specimens, using words, paragraphs and tables. When we play games, do we scroll through a deck of cards? Do we type a ball into far left field?
  2. Human backs were not built for 90 degree angles. A recent study found the most comfortable sitting posture for your spine is 135 degrees. Which basically has you working from a fully-reclined dentist chair! Instead, why not stand? Notice in this YouTube video how Jeff Han shifts his feet in a subtle dance. Sign me up for that job!

Voice recognition and multitouch screens are, in my humble opinion, a combination we’ll be seeing in offices sooner rather than later. Your thoughts?