Give your computer the finger: Touch-screen tech arrives

Time to kiss your mouse goodbye?

The WIMP human-computer interface may have an uninspiring name, but Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointing devices have dominated computing for some 15 years. The keyboard, mouse and display screen have served users extraordinarily well.

But now the hegemony of WIMP may be coming to an end, say developers of technologies based on human touch and gesture. For evidence, look no further than Apple's one-year-old iPhone. From a human-interface point of view, the combined display and input capabilities of the iPhone's screen, which can be manipulated by multiple fingers in a variety of intuitive touches and gestures, is nothing short of revolutionary, researchers say.

The iPhone isn't the only commercial device to take the human-computer interface to a new level. The Microsoft Surface computer puts input and output devices in a large, table-top device that can accommodate touches and gestures and even recognize physical objects laid on it. And the DiamondTouch Table from Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories (MERL) is a touch- and gesture-activated display that supports small group collaboration. It can even tell who is touching it.

These devices point the way toward an upcoming era of more natural and intuitive interaction between human and machine. Robert Jacob, a computer science professor at Tufts University in the US, says touch is just one component of a booming field of research on "post-WIMP interfaces," a broad coalition of technologies he calls "reality-based interaction."

Those technologies include virtual reality, context-aware computing, perceptual and affective computing, and tangible interaction -- in which physical objects are recognized directly by a computer. This ascendance of reality-based interaction is driven by four "real-world themes," he says -- naive physics, body awareness, environmental awareness and social awareness.

"What's similar about all these interfaces is that they are more like the real world," Jacob says. For example, the iPhone "uses gestures you know how to do right away," such as touching two fingers to an image or application, then pulling them apart to zoom in or pinching them together to zoom out. (These actions have also found their way into the iPod Touch and the track pad of the new MacBook Air.)

"Just think of the brain cells you don't have to devote to remembering the syntax of the user interface. You can devote those brain cells to the job you are trying to do," Jacob adds. In particular, he says, the ability of the iPhone to handle multiple touches at once is a huge leap past the single-touch technology that dominates in traditional touch applications such as ATMs.

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