Putting our arms around the future of touch

At a conference in San Jose, a small group aims to figure out not just where the science of touch and gestures are headed, but also where the dollars are.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read

SAN JOSE, Calif.--The success of Nintendo's Wii and Apple's iPod have shown the consumer appeal of devices that respond to human touch and movement, but a quick glance around the San Jose Hilton showed just how young the industry is.

While this week's RSA 2009 show fills the Moscone Center a little ways up north in San Francisco, the Interactive Displays 2009 conference barely fills a mid-size ballroom here. Its show floor more closely resembles a science fair than the glitz of a big-time trade show.

But if you used one of the interactive displays here to show a heat map of this industry, it would glow red hot. That's because touch displays, for years relegated to kiosks and industrial uses, are quickly becoming mainstream. Hewlett-Packard and Dell already have touch-capable machines, while Microsoft is set to make gesture input standard with Windows 7.

Photos: Many uses for multitouch

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And while the show is small, the 270 attendees are more than the show's organizers had expected, leading to a shortage of dishes, but an abundance of energy.

Speakers at the conference include big names like Microsoft and multitouch pioneer Jeff Han, while the small show floor serves as a showcase for start-ups, along with those that supply the base components needed to power touch screens and other interactive displays.

Among those young companies is a San Jose-based outfit called 22miles. Like many of the companies here, its core business has been one-off projects for hotel displays. But the company is also hard at work on technologies that go way beyond powering an interactive directory.

With a swipe of his finger, CEO Joey Yu Zhao pulled up a prototype interactive TV application. A video of a basketball game started playing. Zhao used a finger to pause the game and then swiped his finger to play in slow motion.

With a two-finger swipe, the video played faster and with three fingers it played faster still. Zhao even did his Mike Fratello impression, circling one of the players in red with another swirl of his finger, much as the "telestrator czar" does on TV.

In another corner of the cramped hallway that serves as the show floor, Canada's GestureTek showed some of its wares. On the floor is the kind of display that has become common at malls and other places, while another setup featured a driving game that can be controlled with nothing but a user's two hands, gesturing in mid-air.

It's intuitive, but tricky to master. One uses their hands as a steering wheel, spreading their hands out to accelerate and bringing them together to slow down. (As the video below shows, I'm not very good at it, but the idea is quite fun.)

"It's a really fine line for us between something that really works...and falling into a gimmick."
--Jeff Han, multitouch pioneer

On stage, speakers discussed both new areas for exploration as well as the key hurdles the industry still faces--issues of cost, size, and accuracy.

As far as what's in the future, one interesting topic had to do with displays that themselves can mold or "deform" themselves in response to touch.

Such technology is not here today, but is probably not more than three to five years out, said Christophe Ramstein, chief technology officer at Immersion, a company known for its force feedback technology. Ramstein said he is talking with a lot of large companies about the potential of that area.

"It's a big area," Ramstein said. "They are interested."

In his speech, Han talked about what he and his company--Perceptive Pixel--are up to these days. Although a lot of the company's business is in the industrial and government space, Han noted that his company has become best known for the touch wall systems it has sold to broadcasters like CNN, which used them in its election coverage.

"We actually didn't think broadcast was an area for us," Han said. "They found us at a military trade show."

He also showed a clip of the "Saturday Night Live" parody of the election coverage, saying it makes an important point. "It's a really fine line for us between something that really works...and falling into a gimmick," Han said.

Han also took the crowd on a bit of a journey back in time, reminding folks that while the multitouch business is young, its technology roots stretch back decades.

For his own part, Han said he was inspired by seeing a PBS documentary in the early 1980s that showed Microsoft researcher Bill Buxton, then at the University of Toronto, using multitouch to compose music on a computer. The computer itself was a green screen with an ancient processor and little memory, but the key underlying concept was already there.

"Sometimes it takes that long for these things to marinate and gestate," Han said.

And while things are now taking off, Han urged the crowd not to forsake quality in the rush to take advantage of a hot market. "That will ruin it and mess it up for all of us, and that would be a real shame," Han said.