Trend or Fad: The iPhone and Touch Interfaces PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 08 September 2008 00:00

There’s no doubt that Steve Jobs is one of the best marketers the world has ever seen, Apple consistently turns each new product launch into an event and in so doing generates substantial leveraged news flow that generates huge consumer interest at a relatively low cost. The latest product to receive the Steve jobs treatment is the iPhone, which entered the market with a huge amount of fanfare and queues of willing buyers to match.

Packed with innovative features that include a high resolution screen, a multi-touch user interface, and deeply integrated into the ever-expanding Apple media suite, the iPhone has sparked much debate about the future of mobiles and in particular about touch screens and rich media. Some are saying that the iPhone is the harbinger of things to come while others point to the fact that the lack of a keyboard and inbuilt battery are serious shortcomings and that the offerings from others such as Blackberry, Nokia, Samsung, LG, and HTC will shortly close any perceived gap.

Personally, I think that the iPhone’s current incarnation may end up being a fad, but that the behaviors enabled by the technologies presented within its platform, most significantly multi point touch, are most definitely trends that will continue for years to come. Here’s why….

Multi Touch changes the game

Perhaps the most talked about iPhone feature, the iPhone’s multipoint touch interface. is important since it removes a barrier between the user and the information being viewed. No longer does a mouse, a trackball, or touch pad abstract the pointing, selection, and dragging functions from the information being displayed. Furthermore, the iPhone’s use of multiple points affords the inclusion of new gestures such as rotation and zoom.

The iPhone employs touch for selection, (not new) and also for resizing and positioning (new for a mass market consumer device, see the end of this article for other companies in this space). It would appear that the implementation for these tasks has been well executed, with many users reporting that they now find it hard to browse the web on non-apple devices that don’t incorporate multiple touch. Conversely, many business users, heavy texters, twitterers complain that the touch interface realisation of a keyboard does not work at all well, there are no keys to click and give feedback and the size of the keyboard is fixed which can be a problem for those with big fingers. For these folks, the blackberry still wins hands down.

Multi Touch Enables Proprioception

Both of the positive and negative reviews of the iPhone are linked to the phenomenon of proprioception or muscle memory. There are numerous examples of proprioception enhancing real world performance typically in sport; Golfers talk about their swing feeling right and hitting the ball cleanly, Baseball Pitchers talk about days where every pitch goes where its intended, and biathlete shooters talk about how they can unconsciously time their shots between heartbeats to ensure greater accurately. All are examples of complex highly precise motions that are learned and relearned though practice.

So with this in mind, let’s go back to looking at why the iPhone’s touch interface works well for entertainment and browsing but not for typing. In the case of browsing, absolute positioning is not important, its the relative position of where the gesture starts and stops that determines interface behaviour and also affords the user the ability to adjust on the fly for any mis-registration to create a seamless experience. However, in the case of typing absolute positioning is everything. The tactile feedback of a key press, exactly how the finger strikes the centre of the edges of the keypad, provides the necessary feedback to the user as to where the touch has been made. While the absence of tactile feedback is not crucial for one off selection it is essential for typing since their presence allows the user to rapidly adjust for position of each of the numerous subsequent key-strokes.

Proprioception Aids Reasoning as well as Memory

The other perhaps more important aspect of touch interfaces relates to the way it helps us remember where things are. One simple example of this of how we know where we’ve read up to in a book that we’ve put down previously. Another example relates to how people organize their workspaces.

I’m sure most people have come across someone who has an office full of piles of paper for the various things that they work on. I know a number of Lawyers, Managers, Architects, Designers, Musicians, Researchers, and Technologists who have offices that resemble this description. Funny thing is that if you ask them where a particular, paper, report, or article is most of them will know exactly which pile and how far down in the pile it is.

The simple facts are that the physical act of touching information makes it easier to recall where things are and also make connections between different pieces of information.

Multi-touch and Proprioception Will End the WIMP Paradigm's Dominance

It’s my belief that the most interesting opportunities for multiple touch interfaces will stem from these memory augmentation and connection effects. And further that we are about to see the emergence of a new type of interface paradigm that will radically alter if not supplant the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menu, Pointer) interface paradigm that has dominated computing for the past 20 years.

While the iPhone is the best publicly known example of a multi-touch interface that affords true proprioception, it should also be noted that both Microsoft's Surface initiative http://www.microsoft.com/surface/ and PerceptivePixel (http://ww.perceptivepixel.com) have been working on desktop multi touch interfaces for a number of years.

  • Microsoft’s Surface project has seen the deployment of their multi-touch tables as a sales aid by AT&T, in Casinos in Harrah’s, and as Lobby Entertainment in Sheraton Hotels.
  • Perceptive Pixel has concentrated on the Defence and Geo Spatial information Systems market in the US.
There are many ploughs in this field, it will be interesting to see how this plays out….
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written by white iphone 4, April 06, 2011
great post, i have learned a lot from your post. what you said are very useful,greatly widen my horizon white iphone 4
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Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 September 2008 18:35