Work With Me

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In 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.

Han’s 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.

The 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.

That 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.”