by: Dominic Basulto
Every now and then, there's a paradigm shift within an industry or field. Sometimes the change is subtle, other times, it is in-your-face obvious. The roll-out of the Microsoft Surface computer within months of the Apple iPhone launch signal a paradigm shift in the way that we interface with our digital devices.
Writing in TIME magazine, Lev Grossman talks about the new paradigm of touch in one of the most compelling tech articles I've read this year:
"The two best demos I've seen this year were from two very different companies, Apple and Microsoft, and oddly enough, they were in many ways demos of the same product. One is a gimme: the iPhone, Apple's brilliant deconstruction of the common cell phone, due out June 29. The other is a product mysteriously code-named Milan, from a new branch of Microsoft called, not much less mysteriously, surface computing. What the two have in common is a very advanced touch screen."
As Grossman explains, the Apple iPhone completely changes our notion of what touch screens are supposed to do:
"We've been conditioned to hate touch screens; we've all spent way too much time timidly caressing tiny laptop trackpads and jabbing fingers at the grubby, unresponsive touch screens on ATMs. But the iPhone's screen is another animal altogether. It's extremely sensitive, like a trackpad, but not oversensitive. There's software in there designed to filter out inadvertent touches, interpret gestures and anticipate what you're groping for. Unlike a trackpad, which goes berserk if you try to touch it in two places at once, the iPhone's touch screen can handle multiple touches… The iPhone takes the graphical-user interface–the GUI, in the parlance, pronounced "gooey"–a step further and makes it a tactile user interface. You're viewing a little world where data are objects, and instead of just pressing your nose up against the glass, you can reach in and pinch and touch those bits and bytes with your hands. The word is made flesh. Any realer and it would be Tron."
What's fascinating is that Microsoft seems to have stumbled on the same idea, but via a completely different type of technology:
"Imagine an iPhone the size of a coffee table, and you'll have some idea of what Microsoft has been working on for the past five years. Milan is, in fact, a table, with a large touch screen for a tabletop; the format will remind the nostalgic among you of the old cocktail-style arcade games. Like the iPhone, Milan's screen can accommodate multiple touches at once. My first reaction was that I was looking at a patent death match in the making, but the underlying mechanisms turn out to be very different: Milan uses a system of infrared cameras to keep track of where your fingers are, whereas the iPhone senses your fingers' electrical properties."
With Microsoft and Apple leading the way, what's next for the technology industry?
"Touch screens are unlikely to stop there. They're just too useful. Once you use an iPhone, you'll get twitchy fingers. You'll wonder why you can't swipe your finger across your laptop screen to jump backward and forward in your browser. The touchability exposes the mouse as the crude finger substitute that it really is. Look at the success of Nintendo's Wii, which works on the same principle, converting physical movements into virtual ones. People are ready to break the fourth wall of computing and put their fingers directly on the data. This is manual-free computing, instinctive and intuitive, with zero learning curve."
[image: TIME magazine]