Will Touch Screens Ever Take Over?

I tend to agree with David Pogue in his latest Scientific American piece on why touch screens will not take over. Perhaps it is possible for touch screens to solve for all these problems, but I think the energy could be better spent on something superior to touch screens.

It’s not that I think touch screens are going away, I just don’t think it’s the ideal medium for larger touch screen interfaces. In my mind, the Iron Man J.A.R.V.I.S. is the perfect example of where we will eventually get. Where AI (Siri’s mature brother) and touch interfaces have merged to become a more intuitive and usable user experience.

Touch does have it’s place in interaction, both in the physical world as well as the cyber world. However just as we don’t feel our way through the world, I don’t think touch screens will ever be a solid solution for interacting with technology. We’ll find a hybrid that lets the user decide what method works for them at a given moment and a given task.

Confession: I’m A Touchscreen Snob

Continental Touchscreen

I’m a touchscreen snob, and I bet you are too. I bet every human being is. We get upset when things don’t react as expected and we get frustrated when things aren’t instant. Statistically this page loads on average under 2 seconds and it’s likely still too long for you. It’s not just touch screens. For example, 100 ms increase in load time of Amazon.com decreased sales by 1%. We’re an impatient species.

I took the above photo on a 757-200 equipped with touch screens on the back of every seat. I remember the days with only a handful of TV’s, or that big projector thing up front on planes, so I appreciate that a choice of entertainment is an upgrade. Lets take a look at it’s sins as it makes a great example:

Resistive Touchscreen

I’m virtually certain based on it’s poor performance it’s a resistive touchscreen. Unresponsive, and it requires a lot of pressure which the person in the seat in front of you enjoys for 8 hours. Resistive touchscreens are much more cost effective, though I wonder that difference is splitting hairs on a $65-80 million aircraft given there are only ~200 seats and the displays are relatively small.

There was a time when nobody would notice, but even a Droid v1’s touch screen is more responsive, and that phone is extensively laggy.

Poor Contrast

Part of this is likely because of the substrate used for resistive touchscreens, but the poor contrast is obviously an issue. Color reproduction is bad, but that’s not a deal killer, it’s a nitpick. Contrast is critical especially on a vehicle where lighting varies from dark to virtually unfiltered sunlight glaring on the display. Contrast controls are minimally helpful here.

Laggy

I suspect these are units are just terminals, so the performance can sometimes lag. It’s forgivable and likely will not be an issue in future generations. Thanks to the mobile revolution low powered ARM chips can be found everywhere. The need for these things to be dumb to save space and power is drawing to a close.

Sound

I’ve yet to figure out why airlines can’t manage to get rid of the noise in the lines. Sure when you use the $0.25 headsets they hand out you can’t tell the difference. But when you use your own higher quality headset you sure can. Given a cheap mp3 player can manage it, I wonder why this is so difficult. Weight?

My second gripe about sound is the volume differences. The movie is set to a comfortable level. If the crew takes over to show a video of your destination or a safety video, it’s uncomfortably loud. If the captain speaks, it’s painful. This is more than a nuisance, this is actually a safety issue.

The Future Of Tablet Computing & Netbooks

Two of the biggest buzzwords in mobile computing right now (besides iPhone and Android) are Tablet Computing and Netbooks. Many people expect one of them to be the successor to laptops. I don’t think it will be quite that simple.

Tablet Computing

Modern tablet computing designs are really all based on Allan Kay’s 1968 Dynabook design. While never constructed, it’s almost obvious design has influenced many companies to make desktops and laptops that are controlled via a touchscreen. PDA’s and smartphones also follow this basic design closely, though I wouldn’t really consider these devices to be tablet computers.

A few laptops manufacturers offer a tablet variant of a laptop. One of the most popular is Lenovo’s X Series. It’s a regular laptop minus some modifications to allow for a touch display and a special hinge system. All the power of a laptop with the convenience (and cool factor) of a touch screen.

The downsides of this are obvious. Laptops aren’t that light, they are power hungry and have moving parts (hard drives in particular). They also don’t come cheap.

Netbooks

Netbooks have gained considerable ground in the past year. A netbook is really no different than a typical laptop except it’s smaller, lighter, more power efficient (thanks to a slower power efficient cpu and smaller screen) and cheaper. By focusing on a handful of terminal activities such as browsing the web and email they can scale back on most of the fancy hardware.

One of the most popular Netbooks is the ASUS Eee PC. It’s advantages over a typical laptop are it’s low cost, small size, and weight.

The downsides here are speed, small screen and small keyboard.

The Merge

CPU’s have advanced significantly in the past few years. One of the most obvious changes is multiple cores. Another less obvious but equally important evolution is power efficiency thanks to a new breed of chips like the Intel Atom.

Touchscreens have gotten significantly better. The most obvious is the iPhone’s capacitive touchscreen. As opposed to resistive touchscreens and a stylus the ability to handle multitouch revolutionizes the interface.

Solid State Storage (SSD) has also dropped in price and increased in availability. This means that storage is faster, consumes less power and more reliable in a mobile device than previous hard drive technology would allow.

Users have also evolved in computer usage. Several years ago almost everyone used an email client. Now many are using webmail only thanks to improved interfaces. Even spreadsheets and office documents can be handled with a web interface. The need for client side computing is becoming less of a necessity for many people. Wireless networks have only sped this up.

I suspect that due to these current trends tablets and netbooks will blur and move towards a new category of ultraportable computing. Obviously just small evolutionary changes could drastically change this but that’s how I interpret the current trends.

Apple today offers laptops with dual GPU’s to save power and allow for higher performance by selecting the GPU. I suspect it’s even possible to eventually see dual CPU’s where one could be selected for performance, and another for better power consumption (great for when just browsing the web).

I suspect the rumor of an Apple tablet coming Q3 will fall largely along these lines and accelerate the merge between tablet computing and netbooks. Time will tell.