In Search of ... Natural PC Interfaces

Touch-capable hardware and Windows 7 make a believer out of Thurrott

In the late 1970's, Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy hosted a documentary-style investigative program whose name will be immediately recognizable to those of a certain age: "In Search Of." Most of the mysteries addressed by Nimoy’s show 30 years ago still remain unanswered, unless you already believe in Sasquatch, UFOS, and the Loch Ness monster. But I'm reminded of Mr. Nimoy's show because of the unique computer that's been sitting on my desk.

It's an HP TouchSmart PC, an all-in-one desktop computer with multi-touch capabilities. And it's starting to make a believer out of me—at least as to the existence of “natural” PC interfaces.

I borrowed the TouchSmart to complete a book about Windows 7, and it's been loaded up with Windows 7 RC, the multi-touch drivers that Windows 7's otherwise hidden multi-touch features, and some touch-specific games and applications that, in many cases, were ported over directly from Microsoft's Surface table. (Others will be packed and delivered with touch-capable PCs when Windows 7 ships.)

Windows 7's multi-touch capabilities are pervasive in the system but aren’t obvious until you're using touch-capable hardware. Previously, I had reacted with horror to the notion that anyone would want touch-capable hardware. After all, my two-year-old multi-touch iPhone is wonderful, but it's also a smudge magnet.

Why would I want to touch my pretty-expensive widescreen PC display? It's almost blasphemy.

Until you actually do it. Multi-touch in tandem with a full-sized computing device like the HP TouchSmart drives home the fact that Microsoft might have been on to something after all.

The company briefly attempted to provide Pen services in Windows in the early 1990s and has been working on pen-based Windows Mobile/Window CE derivatives since the mid-1990s. It launched the innovative Tablet PC platform in 2002, then extended that with touch services, including the ill-fated Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs). Enter now the TouchSmart PC.

Sure, my kids were drawn immediately to the TouchSmart. And they grasped the power and entertainment value in such things as multi-touch Paint (which turns Windows' classic applet into a usable finger-painting solution), two-player games like air hockey, and even educational titles like Virtual Earth, which presents a full-screen earth that you can spin, zoom in on, and otherwise manipulate with your fingers.

But all fun aside, what I discovered in using the TouchSmart is that when I moved back to my normal PC, I missed the freedom and immediacy of interaction that multi-touch provides. I found myself reaching up to tap the Start button and other on-screen interfaces.

Interacting with the PC in this fashion isn't just obvious, it’s desirable. It's increasingly apparent to me that this sort of interface will eventually reduce training costs for new users because using a computer in this fashion doesn't just mimic the real world, it allows objects in the PC to be manipulated almost exactly as they’d be in the real world.

I was onboard for the beginnings of Microsoft's Pen and Tablet PC waves, but neither was as seamless as this. With the Tablet, in particular, Microsoft touted how it would lead to more natural computing scenarios, but that never really happened. Interacting with a screen via a stylus isn't just unnatural, it's counter-productive.

Touch interfaces extend the good stuff in the Tablet PC platform with a more natural interaction model, and depending on the PC you have in the future, you should be able to move between at least two or three available interaction models--mouse, keyboard, pen/stylus, touch/multi-touch--picking the one most suited for what you're doing at the time. That's what natural computing is all about, really, and I think that this touch capability--now a fully integrated and seamless part of Windows--will finally make the promises of the Tablet PC a reality for everyone.

As a reviewer, one of the ways I judge a product is to see how much I miss it when I go back to using its predecessor. In this sense, Windows 7 gets high marks because I miss many of the small improvements Microsoft has crafted in this release when I return to Vista and, even more so, XP.

Add multi-touch to the mix and the differences shoot through the roof: Windows 7 with multi-touch is a sensational upgrade, an absolute no-brainer.

Someone has to call Leonard Nimoy. It looks like we've finally solved one of the mysteries of the cosmos: Natural PC interfaces are here to stay.

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