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Idealog—in the ideas business

Can touch this

Games and mobile gadgets are interactive. So why are desktops still so uncomfortable?

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[Technology]

Computers, as everyone knows, are not healthy for us. We’re not designed to sit still, tap at keyboards and stare at screens. Adding a physical aspect to technology is currently the cynosure of geek excitement.

Surprisingly, games haven’t led the way here. Microsoft dabbled in force feedback joysticks (great for aircraft simulators) and Nintendo did a fantastic job with the Wii console controller that you swing around to look like a complete berk instead of playing a real game of tennis or golf. Both are clever and fun, but not hugely useful outside games.

For a more generally useful physical IT experience, you need to go to Cupertino. Apple wasn’t the first to come out with touchscreen devices but the iPhone did it better than anyone else. Finger gestures, multi-touch and a built-in accelerometer mean the iPhone is a natural, truly personal hand-driven handheld device. You can tell how good it is by watching first-time users quickly (and literally) get to grips with the device.

Make no mistake—developing the hardware and software for touchy-feely devices is incredibly hard, but get it right like Apple did and there’s ample payback. Vodafone New Zealand CEO Russell Stanners told me recently that the user interface is the thing that drives the big iPhone sales. The successful interface enthuses developers and users alike, meaning Apple’s App Store is also firing on all cylinders and, in turn, gives businesses access to cheap, high-quality programs that they’d otherwise have to build themselves.

The iPhone was designed partly to overcome the limitations of a small form factor, so it’s not surprising to see that physical interfaces are slow to appear on larger devices like desktops and laptops. Apple is testing the waters with its new Magic Mouse that offers multi-touch and gestures and the world is eagerly awaiting its rumoured tablet which, if it actually exists, is likely to build on the iPhone/iPod designs. Microsoft is going big with the Surface multi-touch computer, essentially a big desk with a physical interface just like MI6 uses in the new Bond films.

But these solution don’t feel (apologies) compelling and I’d be surprised if they succeed in any but very narrow areas.

The best concept I’ve seen for a physical desktop interface is R Clayton Miller’s 10/GUI. It’s not realised in any solid form yet, but Miller’s idea makes sense in the way it uses all ten fingers and redesigns the visual interface to the computer while retaining the accepted way of working—that is, sitting down at a desk. (There’s a demo at www.10gui.com/video/).

10/GUI seems intuitive to use and presents information cleanly. What’s more, it should fit in with existing technology rather than requiring the lot to be redesigned in a way that breaks people’s expectations of how stuff works.

Given Apple’s proven success with its physical interfaces, Miller’s concept should end up with a large IT vendor that turns it into a truly differentiating feature to create high-margin devices aimed at early adopters willing to fork out big dollars.

That’s not to say 10/GUI couldn’t be done better or beaten to the market, so if you’re ready to be physical and interface, the opportunity is most definitely there.

To get a feel for how to make a mint out of touch, look closer to home: you’ve probably seen Auckland-based NextWindow’s touchscreens on television already, and the company is signing deals with big OEMs around the world and has become Microsoft Windows 7-certified. In the last year, NextWindow enjoyed sixfold revenue growth, proving that getting physical pays off handsomely.

Juha Saarinen is a freelance journalist who types with all ten toes

Originally published in Idealog #25, page 107

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