In the late 1970's, Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy hosted a show that will be immediately recognizable to those of a certain age, "In Search Of." The documentary-style investigative program typically highlighted such fare as Sasquatch, UFOs, and the Loch Ness Monster, and I'm guessing its eventual demise had more to do with a lack of tier-one topics than with ratings.
Most of the questions addressed by "In Search Of" remain as unanswered now as they were 30 years ago, and that's true whether you were a believer or not, I guess. But I'm reminded of Mr. Nimoy's less-famous TV role this week not because of a resurgence in Chuckacabra sightings--though that would of course be excellent--but rather because of the unique computer that's been sitting on my desk for the past few weeks. It's an HP TouchSmart PC, an all-in-one desktop computer with multi-touch capabilities. And it's starting to make a believer out of me.
I borrowed the TouchSmart in order to complete a book about Windows 7, and it's been loaded up with the Release Candidate (RC) version of that OS, the multi-touch drivers that enable Windows 7's otherwise hidden multi-touch features, and some touch-specific games and applications that, in many cases, were ported over directly from Microsoft'stable. (Others will be packed and delivered with touch-capable PCs when Windows 7 ships.)
The HP TouchSmart PC.
Windows 7's multi-touch capabilities are pervasive in the system, a fact that isn't obvious until you're using touch-capable hardware. Before seeing this in action, I had reacted with horror to the notion that anyone would want such a thing. After all, the multi-touch iPhone smart phone I've been using for the past two years is wonderful, but it's also a smudge magnet. And I already have a pretty expensive widescreen PC display. Why, I thought, would anyone want to touch a screen like that? It's almost blasphemy.
Until, of course, you actually do it. Microsoft has been in search of (ahem) natural PC interfaces for some time. It briefly attempted to provide Pen services in Windows as far back as the early 1990s, has been working on pen-based Windows Mobile/Window CE derivatives since the mid-1990s, launched the innovative Tablet PC platform in 2002 (also a pervasive and "first class" Windows interface) and then extended that with touch services over time, including a short generation of ill-fated Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs).
But multi-touch, in tandem with a full-sized computing device, like the HP TouchSmart I've been testing, really puts all this work in perspective and drives home the fact that Microsoft, after all of this supposed failure, may have been onto something after all.
Sure, my kids were drawn immediately to the TouchSmart. And they intuitively grasped the power and entertainment value in such things as multi-touch Paint (which turns Windows' classic applet into a usable finger-painting solution), two player games like air hockey, and even educational titles like Virtual Earth, which present a full-screen earth that you can spin, zoom in on, and otherwise manipulate with your fingers.
Multi-touch finger-painting in Windows 7.
A multi-touch air hockey game.
But I'm not just talking about frivolous activities like that. What I discovered in using the TouchSmart is that I missed the freedom and immediacy of interaction that multi-touch provides when I moved back to my normal PC. I found myself reaching up to tap the Start button and other on-screen interfaces. And then, realizing my mistake, I felt an odd void. Interacting with the PC in this fashion isn't just obvious. It's desirable. And I found myself returning to the TouchSmart again and again, and rejecting the suddenly old-fashioned PC I normally use.
It's probably not hard to imagine double-tapping a screen to open a folder, or dragging icons with your finger to copy items from one location to another. But it's quite a different thing to actually experience it. In fact, it's becoming increasingly apparent to me that this sort of interface will eventually reduce training costs for new users because using a computer in this fashion doesn't just mimic the real world, it allows objects in the PC to be manipulated in almost exactly the same way. Suddenly the PC desktop is not as much of an abstract metaphor anymore.
The interesting thing about this, to me, is that I was onboard for the beginnings of Microsoft's Pen and Tablet PC waves, and neither was as seamless as this. With the Tablet, in particular, Microsoft touted how these devices would lead to more natural computing scenarios, where someone would sit in a comfortable chair, legs crossed, and write on the screen just as they did on a pad of paper. That never really happened though, because the people who really need to process words need a keyboard. And interacting with the screen with a stylus isn't just unnatural, it's counter-productive.
Touch interfaces extend the good stuff in the Tablet PC platform with a more natural interaction model, and depending on the PC of the future you use, you should be able to move between at least two or three of available interaction models--mouse, keyboard, pen/stylus, touch/multi-touch--picking the one that makes the most sense for what you're doing at the time. That's what natural computing is all about, really, and I think that this touch capability--now a fully integrated and seamless part of Windows--will finally make the promises of the Tablet PC a reality for everyone.
As reviewer, I've discovered that one of the ways in which you can judge a product is to see how much you miss it when you go back and use a prior version. In this sense, generally, Windows 7 gets high marks because I really do miss many of the small improvements Microsoft has crafted in this release when I return to Vista and, even more so, XP. Add multi-touch to the mix, however, and the differences shoot through the roof: Windows 7 with multi-touch is a sensational upgrade, an absolute no-brainer.
Someone has to call Leonard Nimoy: It looks like we've finally solved one of the mysteries of the cosmos. Natural PC interfaces are here to stay.
An edited version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul