25 Years of the Mac

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The Mac at 25: Interface design

Editor’s Note: Celebrating the Mac’s 25th anniversary means more than just looking back—it also requires us to look ahead to what your computer will be like in the years to come. In this installment, we address potential innovations to interface design.

Ever since Apple introduced the world to the mouse and the window-based graphical user interface in 1984, the company has worked tirelessly to develop a more efficient, yet more powerful, user experience. It’s also worked equally hard to protect its user-interface innovations with an unending stream of patent filings.

The Way It Was: You navigated around the original Mac with the help of a single-button mouse.
That said, not all—or even most—of those patents will see the light of day. We doubt, for example, that Apple is likely to replace the Mighty Mouse with a new input device based on filing #20070152966, titled “Mouse with Optical Sensing Surface,” which spends 35 pages detailing a mouse whose entire shapely body is a multi-touch display.

Still, although patent spelunking may not be an infallible way to divine exactly what products will emerge from One Infinite Loop, it is an excellent way of gaining insight into what’s going on in the minds of Apple’s development team. A quick look at Apple’s most-recent filings shows that interface design is clearly a front-and-center concern.

The Way It Could Be?: A diagram from Apple’s patent filing for a multi-touch controlled device shows off one possible direction that interface design could follow.
Take, for example, filings for hardware devices. The frequently rumored multi-touch tablet Mac has its own 52-page filing, complete with interface details that include a full-size virtual keyboard and resizable interface elements. If you don’t want to actually touch your display, Apple also has you covered—with a filing for a proximity-sensing display that can tell not only where and how close your fingers are, but also how fast they’re moving to or away from the display’s surface.

For people who prefer physical interface devices, Apple has filed a patent for a keyboard with OLED-display keys that change appearance depending upon what you’re up to, another for a 3-D remote control that’s intriguingly Nintendo Wii-like, and yet another for a holographic display that provides a 3-D experience without geeky glasses.

Some filings seem designed to work together. Take, for example, the intriguingly conceptual “Multi-touch Data Fusion” filing, which melds a multi-touch display with other interface technologies such as an accelerometer, force sensors, eye-tracking, facial-expression detection, pupil dilation, and voice-command recognition. Pair that filing with an earlier one for a “Multi-touch Gesture Dictionary,” which assigns different meanings to different hand gestures, and you’re headed into a brave new world of computer control—one first hinted at by the four-fingered touchpads on Apple’s current laptops.

Most filings are less groundbreaking but still worth noting—for instance, the euphoniously named “Cursor for Presenting Information Regarding Target,” which enables QuickLook-like previews when you move your mouse over file icons and hyperlinks, and the equally wonderfully named “Enhancing Online Shopping Atmosphere,” which describes a Second Life–like avatar-based shopping experience, complete with helpful virtual experts (not referred to in the filing, however, as geniuses).

One recent filing that we particularly hope will come to fruition describes giving iTunes the ability to use your Mac to broadcast all of its stored tunes to your iPod or iPhone wirelessly, wherever you may have taken those two constant companions. If this dream becomes reality, you’ll no longer be limited by the storage capacity of your iPod, but only by its ability to connect to the Net.

There are, however, a few holes in Apple’s patent-protected future, even in areas where other engineers are hard at work. We couldn’t, for example, find any filings for brainwave-controlled input devices such as Emotiv Systems’ EPOC “neuroheadset” and OCZ Technology’s Neural Impulse Actuator, or for acoustically activated virtual keyboards such as those under development by the five-country Tai-Chi consortium. After all, not every interface innovation comes from Cupertino—it just seems that way sometimes.

[Rik Myslewski has been writing about the Mac since 1989. He has been editor in chief of MacAddict (now Mac|Life), executive editor of MacUser and director of MacUser Labs, and executive producer of Macworld Live. He now writes for The Register.]

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