Touched by an interface

So I’m attending the opening days of the O’Reilly Emerging Technology 2006 conference in sunny San Diego. One of the highlights of the morning sessions today was from Jeff Han of New York University. Han wowed the crowd this morning with his session, “The Future of Interfaces Is Multi-Touch.”

While OS X users like to think that we have the best computer interface out there, Han demoed a computer interface much more closely resembling something from science fiction. We’ve all used a touch-screen before, be it at an ATM or a kiosk of some kind. This turns the idea of a desktop (Finder, in OS X-speak) and extends it to infinity, literally. Instead of a single pointer interface (such as using a mouse), you touch the screen and you can interact with it at various points using your fingertips as something more than a single mouse pointer.

On a large touch screen, Han could use his fingers as a pencil or paintbrush to draw pictures just as you would if you were finger-painting. He then switched from drawing to organizing photos. Yes, we all love iPhoto, Aperture, Flickr and all those other things. But what if there was a way to create a digital light table that was infinite in size? That’s what Han’s interface does.

Han dragged the photos about the screen, much like you would move physical printed photos about a real table. He could enlarge them at will by just dragging them with his fingers—as if they were elastic. He could take stacks of photos and rotate them at will, just as if they were right in front of him. If he ran out of space, he could simply drag his finger to the side of his current workspace (think scrolling on Google Maps) and add more space. The workspace could be zoomed in and out with simple finger dragging.

While it’s not clear exactly how the computer industry migrates from the desktop metaphor that we’ve used for 20-odd years (thanks to the original Macintosh, and before that, the Xerox Alto) to something like what I saw Tuesday morning, Jeff Han’s multi-touch interface is worth a look. You can see for yourself with this video demo of his screen creation.

I hope that Apple is paying attention to this, so that within a couple of generations of OS leaps, we can get to an interface that is much more natural to use and is as easy to understand as driving a car.

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