Gesture recognition and touch controls are changing the way we use computers – we examine the rise of touchscreen and the latest models
If there’s one thing that most technology pundits will happily agree on, it’s that time is running out for the keyboard and mouse. Keyboards have been giving us RSI for donkey’s years; the computer mouse became popular in the 1980s and PC users have been more or less stuck with a combination of the two ever since. However, touchscreen devices, such as tablet computers and smartphones, are on the rise.
Soon we might well be able to consign the keyboard and mouse to history and let our fingers do all the talking instead. And we are not talking about some kind of far-flung future, either. Touch and gesture control already come built into many devices and it won’t be too long before it becomes part of the mainstream. Read on to find out why this will be a good thing for just about everyone.
Improvements in touchscreen technology
Touch control is not a particularly new idea. British computer engineers were experimenting with it as far back as the mid-1960s and graphics tablets, which enable PC users to ‘draw’ using a touchpad and stylus, have been in common use since the 1980s.
Early PDAs, such as the Psion Series 5, which was released back in 1997, used touchscreen-based input and, in some cases, included a type of handwriting recognition that could turn your scribbles into editable text.
Touchscreens have also found their way into everything from cashpoint machines to electronic kiosks and medical machinery. You may have signed for a parcel delivery on a touchscreen device, for example.
Recently, however, touch controls have made the crossover from specialist and industrial use to become part of everyday technology. This is thanks to several factors. First of all, the technology behind touch control has become much better. Early touchscreens used grids of infrared beams to detect finger movements and were unreliable.
The latest capacitive touch-sensitive screens provide support for multi-touch recognition – they can recognise more than just a single stylus or finger jab at a time. In fact, the latest touchscreens can pinpoint three, four, five or more separate points of contact.
Along with hardware improvements, software developers have created clever operating systems and applications that can interpret not only straightforward taps but also a range of touch-based gestures. This has allowed us to use swipes, flicks, pinches and other multi-finger movements to interact with devices.
A good example of this might be scrolling on a touchscreen device, such as an iPhone or Android smartphone from the likes of HTC or Samsung. To move up and down through a web page on a PC, we would normally use a scroll wheel on a mouse or the arrow keys on our keyboard.
On an iPhone, though, you can scroll by simply flicking your finger up or down on the screen itself. This and similar gestures are intuitive, so you don’t feel like you are learning how to use a phone or computer all over again.
Finally, the staggering popularity of smartphones in recent years has helped to drive down the costs of producing touch-control components which, in turn, has helped push the technology forward.
Tablet computers before the iPad
Think of touchscreen controls and Apple’s iPhone and iPad should be the first devices that come to mind. Apple didn’t invent touch or gesture control but it has been one of the pioneering forces behind popularising alternative ways to interact with technology.
Take the iPhone, for example. The device includes support for intuitive gestures and also contains an accelerometer and positioning technology, which can be used to control the device in other ways.
Shake your iPhone after you have mistyped a word and it will undo the action, for example. Apple continues to find new ways to improve the control schemes of its iOS operating system, too. The iPhone 4S introduced a type of speech recognition called Siri that allows users to control the device using natural spoken commands.
And it’s not just the portable devices benefitting from Apple’s thinking. All Mac laptops come with a multi-touch trackpad, and the latest version of Apple’s OS X operating system – called Lion – saw the company applying many of the best features of its iPhone and iPad control systems to its laptop and desktop computers. For example, iMacs and Macbooks all support a range of intuitive swipes, taps and other gestures that work in tandem with on-screen animations.
But there's much more to tablet computing. Nintendo’s DS handheld games console would be another example of the technology. You might even think of Android-based tablet PCs, such as Samsung’s Galaxy Tab range. Look at that list of products again. One name is conspicuous by its absence, and that’s Microsoft.
As it happens, Microsoft was an early advocate of the tablet computer. The firm created an often overlooked Tablet Edition of Windows XP in 2002. Suffice to say it wasn’t a hit. In retrospect there were two main problems.
First, the system was clumsy; Windows XP had originally been designed for keyboard and mouse control and couldn’t convincingly work in a tablet format by just adding support for touchscreens. There were no real gestures involved; tapping with a stylus instead of clicking with a mouse was the main feature of the control scheme.
Second, Microsoft couldn’t set its own prices for tablet computers, since they were made by third-party manufacturers. At the time, touchscreens were expensive to produce, which meant XP tablets went on sale at prices that were much higher than the average person could afford.
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