The Subtle Touch

iPadWho’d have thought a 35-year-old technology would be the next big thing in computing? Drew Turney enters the brave new world of the touch screen to find out if the claims are true…

The first time you saw a touch screen was probably at a museum exhibit or shopping centre in the early 90s, a magical tool where you simply pointed your finger to scroll through information that you either already knew, could have learned faster from the information desk, or was just as dull as the stuff in your textbooks. No wonder they faded away, only the advent of the stylus-operated PDA reminding us such a thing existed.

You might be surprised to learn that after most of the early patents from the 70s and 80s expired, R&D labs went to work and the new generation of capacitive, optical imaging and multi-point touch technology is much smarter.

The future tends to become whatever the biggest, richest vendors want it to be. Rather than tapping the vein of ten years hence, the Microsofts and Sonys of the world tend to build the future and release it to us on such a scale it becomes the default way of working, alternatives never occurring to us. Windows is only the de facto face of the personal computer because of timing and luck, after all. In a parallel universe we wouldn’t even be using mice and keyboards but for the direction technology manufacturers have taken us.

The New Touch Hucksters

Ask any gadget geek; any time Steve Jobs takes the stage at a MacWorld Expo, holds up a pretty new toy and starts using words like ‘revolution’ (and let’s face it, he does every time), it’ll probably become the standard device within a year simply because of Apple’s fierce cult of cool. There are far cheaper MP3 players than the iPod — better too, in some ways — but only Apple’s minimalist player has broken the shackles of being a mere proper noun.

So the introduction of the completely touch-activated iPhone early this year has doubtless raised the bar to a level all subsequent phone/music player models must aim at to compete.

Ordinarily, it would be just more Apple-flavoured hype, but when the world’s largest PC vendor also declares touch as the hottest thing since the keyboard, it’s time to take notice. Suddenly a new direction in personal computing does indeed seem to be looming.

The HP TouchSmart PC looks like the offspring of a TV and a giant laptop. It has a keyboard and mouse and running a full Windows Vista OS PC behind the scenes, but the important distinction from normal computing the TouchSmart PC draws is in not making you (as HP designers christened it) ‘assume the position’; sitting down, hands on keyboard.

Psychologically, when we use a PC, we’re working. Using one in the kitchen to look up a recipe requires a mental shift many of us are reluctant to make during our downtime. The TouchSmart PC’s always-on, proprietary software SmartCentre is a digital meeting room where you can add, customise and access dozens of applications from web content to leaving virtual post it notes for family members. Think of it as the first PC version of Dashboard.

But HP aims to remove some of the ‘being at work-ness’ from computing by giving you the ability to simply tap a screen and open up the wealth of information usually available only through a traditional PC.

HP’s confidence in the TouchSmart PC changing the way we relate to technology is as grandiose as the hyperbole Apple usually attracts but in this case, it might just be well placed.

Pointing with our finger has several million years of evolutionary development behind it, typing on a keyboard far less so. With two of the most influential technology makers on Earth behind such a technique, we may indeed be on the cusp of a new way of talking to our machines.