February 2006, a New York University research scientist named Jeff Han
took the stage at TED, the big-ideas conference in Monterey, California.
Standing behind a sort of glass easel, wearing a black turtleneck and
jeans, he could barely contain his excitement. “I really, really
think this is going to really change the way we interact with machines
from this point on,” he said. As he began to demo his new
“multitouch” screen—resizing photographs with a pinch,
pawing across digital maps, and tossing documents around like playing
cards—the audience gasped in delight. Hyperbole aside, Han was
right. After two decades of pointing and clicking, here was the
possibility of interacting directly with our data. With the sweep of a
hand, he had softened the hard line between the physical and virtual
worlds—the line that keeps most of us glued to a keyboard and a
mouse day in and day out.
The next part of the story you already
know. Last January, another man in a black turtleneck and jeans stood up
in front of a bigger audience and announced the iPhone. A few months
after that, you could buy one (more than four million of us have) and a
new interface settled into everyday life. But we still only use it at a
small scale, even if it’s obvious that the Han-style interface
would “really really” change the way we work.
achievement occupies a strange place in the public consciousness,
simultaneously accessible and still in the far-off future. Through his
newly-founded company, Perceptive Pixel, Han has been selling his
multitouch screens to some major players. The military reportedly bought
one. So did CNN, which re-christened theirs the “Magic Wall”
and inaugurated it with an attempt to visually explain the Iowa
caucuses. But with prices starting at $100,000, the screen is too rich
for most designers’ blood.
Most, but not all. Doug Look, senior
strategic designer for Autodesk Labs, the experimental workshop of the
billion-dollar design software company, has been playing with one since
last July. Autodesk bought the 4-by-8-foot screen to begin expanding on
“these new forms of human-computer interaction,” as Look put
it. “We just wanted to get our hands on one, literally, to explore
how it might be used in the design world.” The thrill is twofold:
being able to manipulate digital models directly, and being able to do
that in a group, since there’s room for more than one person at a
time in front of the screen. “People really want that more
connective experience with their software and hardware,” Look
says. But Autodesk is still only experimenting. While the Perceptive
Pixel screen can be used with a conventional operating system, it only
really comes to life with multitouch, which requires tweaking existing
programs. Autodesk has done that back-end work with Design Review, their
reviewing and markup program, but using the giant screen for actual
design work is still in the future.
Today—and for the rest of
us—the more obtainable and reasonably priced option is something
like the interactive whiteboards sold by SMART Technologies. You
don’t get the magic of using two hands at once, but you do get a
big screen you can control and write on with a stylus, for a mere few
thousand dollars. I used one at a conference last year and was surprised
how satisfying it was to be able to reach right out to the screen.
Sharing links in the middle of a conversation was as intuitive, and so
much more social, than huddling around a laptop or working with a
projector. I loved the idea of dragging paragraphs around the
screen—even if I had to use a stylus to do it. The most surprising
thing is that these screens aren’t already everywhere, especially
since SMART has been quietly making interactive whiteboards in some form
or another since the early ’90s. But, not being the sleekest of
boxes, they may be losing out due to a lack of glamour.
award undoubtedly goes to the most familiar, and universally desired, of
immersive screen technologies: a sleek, flat 30-inch desktop monitor.
(Or better yet, a pair.) If multitouch is still a toy, big monitors are
powerful tools—if you believe the cottage industry of researchers
and technology consultants (paid, inevitably, by the monitor-makers
themselves) that has repeatedly set out to prove exactly how much more
productive extra screen real estate can make you. Commissioned by Apple,
Paris-based Pfeiffer Consulting sat designers down in front of a 17-inch
monitor, first, and then a 30-inch monitor, and asked them to reposition
elements in InDesign and drag and drop between Photoshop images.
According to the study (available, of course, on Apple’s website)
the large display more than halved the time each task took. Pfeiffer
multiplied those seconds into hours, and those hours into dollars, and
came to the conclusion that a creative director billing $300 an hour
will save $17,624.81 a year with all the extra screen space.
money could be used to buy an even bigger monitor—but one that has
more than just size on its side. At January’s Consumer Electronics
Show in Las Vegas, the hardware company Alienware, known primarily for
gaming PCs, showed off a prototype of a 42-inch-wide monitor that wraps
around you in a wide curve like a giant pair of sunglasses. Alienware
plans to put it on the market later this year, though they have yet to
release a projected price for their monster.
But all large
mouse-controlled monitors can reach a point of diminishing returns: the
cursor becomes hard to track, and your menus are too far away.
It’s the kind of thing that drives Jeff Han nuts. “I kind of
cringe at the idea that we’re going to introduce a whole new
generation of people to computing with the standard mouse and pointer
interface,” he told the TED audience. Waving his hands across the
screen like Martha Graham, he said, “This is really the way we
should be interacting with machines from this point on.”