The future of Multi-touch

by Giles Turnbull

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent months about the likelihood (or not) of Apple releasing some sort of tablet computer. Some people think Apple should; others are convinced that Apple never will. After Tuesday’s keynote, I think we will see a Mac tablet of some sort or another. Let me explain why.

The key is Multi-touch. This technology is simply too good to simply be a UI trick for cell phones. Imagine being able to shift your files around in the Finder by touching and “flicking” them to different locations. Think how you could edit photos if you could use your fingertips to zoom in, touch up, move sliders around.


2007-01-11 08:06:22
You are right on target about the potential of this new interface. Check out Jeff Han's presentation on the multi-touch interface at the TED Conference 11 months ago. I'm in higher ed and tablet computers are already making big inroads with the early adopters. This interface would be a great leap forward on that front.
Jay Elmore
2007-01-11 08:15:00
I completely agree. After watching the keynote and seeing the multi-touch demo video floating around YouTube, I was persuaded to believe that Apple could:

  • drop the cellphone elements of the iPhone

  • stretch the device out to 8" x 10" while hopefully keeping similar thickness

  • throw some e-book software on there

And presto! You have an Apple Tablet. With a nice tappable UI evolving from the iPhone, 802.11 and Bluetooth? I would so buy one of those...
2007-01-11 08:25:04
Multi-touch and the pinch gestures are nice tricks (or rather 'un-pinching', is there a word for it?) There are a few disadvantages to is as well. For instance, you must use the device two-handed if you are going to use a multi-touch gesture. Not a problem for a tablet, but less convenient on a phone.

Also, I don't think fingers are ideally suited for tasks like image manipulation (unless you are into finger painting). (this is one of the main markets for touch tablets. with a stylus...) I would imagine that even something like selecting text on a touch sensitive screen with your finger is difficult. That makes it a lot less interesting for photographers and writers.

I ran across this interesting page today: .

Gesture control from last year that looks a lot like the iPhone...

2007-01-11 08:28:41
comments ate the link
Tom Bridge
2007-01-11 08:33:55
Spot on, Giles, I think this is the beginning of a whole new interface. I expect the touchpads on future MacBooks to have access to this new MultiTouch interface method to control various and sundry tasks which would be darned cool.
Didier Daglinckx
2007-01-11 09:12:21
What about some Tiger on steroid ?

Didn't Steve told us that there were part of Tiger to be 'Top Secret' until ...

The next question is When will them annonce it ?

Probably somewhere between now and the next Apple Developer Conference !

William D. Neumann
2007-01-11 09:20:56
One place that in can really find a home for laptops is in the keyboard. I believe that it's widely assumed that this is the technology behind the old Fingerworks TouchStream keyboards. If you've never used one of those keyboards, you're really missing out. The typing surface responds to gestures, motion, tapping, and the , so not only can you use it for typing and mousing, but it responds to a whole suite of gestures that make using the computer so much easier.

They used to sell a drop in replacement keyboards for the early G4 PowerBooks, that I wish I was able to pick up. Unfortunately, since they were bought out, they no longer make the keyboards. Still, you can look around their website and see what the keyboards were capable of.

2007-01-11 09:32:18
Ummm, Pat, it doesn't require two hands. You use your finger and your thumb . . . on one hand.
2007-01-11 09:32:33
I'd like to see 8"x10" tablet iMac mini, 4"x6" or 6"x8" iMac nano! The Multi-touch finger-getures can be utilized on the mousepad of MacBook as well.
William D. Neumann
2007-01-11 09:33:47
gestures, motion, tapping, and the, so...

Ooops... that's supposed to say "gestures, motion, tapping, and the relative positions of the contact points, so...".

2007-01-11 10:07:07
"Ummm, Pat, it doesn't require two hands. You use your finger and your thumb . . . on one hand."

I suppose you could set it on the floor while you do that. Unless you can convince somebody else to hold it for you. Nope. Two hands under most conditions.

And for terminology, I would suggest "spread" for "unpinch".

Chris Hauser
2007-01-11 10:10:24
You should take look at this Video. It's the Reel of an Multi-Touch Research-Project.
The Photo-Sorting looks familiar to the iPhone-Demo, and the landscape demo is what i like to see as next by apple .
Adam Rice
2007-01-11 10:11:28
I agree. And it may be wishful thinking, but I can imagine yet another application. An outboard screen tethered to a desktop Mac. I have mused about secondary screens on desktops (sort of like MS's Sideshow, only...not), and I think a good gestural interface would make one that much more valuable.

The same secondary screen could also be a widescreen iPod when untethered.

Chris Hauser
2007-01-11 10:16:29
I think, you don't need an secondary Screen anymore, because you'll get an endless scaleable Workspace. Watch the full Videoand see the Synthesiser-Reel.
2007-01-11 10:53:53
Wonderful innovation to admit. I think lots of people are headbanging in many companies since Steve announced that they've filed +200 patents for the technology involved in this. This is serious when you think that MS is even trying to get the patent of RSS. However what worries me is that iPhone screen WILL BE full of scratches. This is not ipod. You even can care more about your iPod but this is call phone. There WILL BE TIMES that we'll be throwing it in our pockets. Just to see the consumer reaction I'll wait a bit when it's available.
2007-01-11 11:18:43
all I can say is that after waching the keynote,I raised my finger to the screen and tried to switch apps and then just shock my head at how quickly i except and wanted this technology on my Imac
2007-01-11 12:45:47
Multi-touch on larger screens is also inherently multi-user. A tablet sized screen is more or less a single-person sort of interface, but a 17" screen laid flat on a table could easily be a collaborative tool with multiple people working on it at once.

The problem with tablets today is that they're shoe-horning a desktop mouse-oriented metaphor into a realm that uses a stylus (or finger). While buttons are similar, the UI concepts and how we use them will likely change dramatically.

M. Scott Ford
2007-01-11 14:19:31

Multi-touch is a great technology. The trouble is that it used to be much better, when FingerWorks was still in business. I am the proud owner of their TouchStream keyboard, a combination keyboard and mouse using gestures for mousing and common tasks and typing onto a printed surface for typing. It has been rumored that Apple bought FingerWorks, and pulled these wonderful keyboards off the market.

Now many Apple products have multi-touch technology, the more recent trackpads have two finger scrolling. On the TouchStream it was three finger scrolling, but just as natural. The new iPod click wheels have a very similar feel to mousing on the TouchStream. And now the iPhone puts the multi-touch surface behind the display.

This is all really great. But I would love to have the keyboards back in production again. FingerWorks at one time was even selling versions that replaced the keyboards on PowerBooks and iBooks. Now that is a big trackpad.

Jon L
2007-01-11 14:36:06
I think the next Mac or imac should be able to have a stand that you can clip your tablet into. In other words it should be a desktop or tablet, at your leasure. With a keyboard, mouse and no mouse when used as a tablet.
Maybe to far out? Well thats the future as I see it! Jon
2007-01-11 16:01:31
> "This technology is simply too good to simply be a UI trick for cell phones."

If you think the iPhone is just a cell phone, you clearly weren't watching. It's a handheld computer that includes, among other things, phone functionality.

Although I love the possibilities of multi-touch on a more traditional computer, I still don't see a lot of mainstream uses for it. How would it be more useful for browsing the web or sending e-mail than keyboard and mouse? If it wouldn't, that's a huge part of your computer market that has no interest. Moving files around the Finder? Yeah, I'm sure we all do that all the time :) Photographers? Please, surely they're doing batch resizing, or typing the numbers in.

I also think that multi-touch is mainly cool on the iPhone because Apple has designed the hardware and the software, much like Nintendo and Wii Sports. It'd be a lot of work for, say, Adobe to add this kinda stuff to PhotoShop. I guess it might be easier for Cocoa apps if Apple provides a bunch of stuff at the OS X level, but again, I doubt there's much that would solve any actual existing widespread problems, unlike the iPhone which just made using your phone one heck of a lot nicer.

There's definitely potential there, but I don't think the benefits are great enough for us to see this until a good few years down the road, when the technology is cheaper.

Still, it'd be great fun if I was proved wrong.

2007-01-12 02:34:43
Multi-touch is clever, but as far as I can see it's only used for 1 task on the iPhone: zooming. Al the other gestures require only one finger, even scrolling. So it would seem that nearly everything we saw on tuesday could be replicated using an 'old style' touch screen. Or am I missing something?
Jon L
2007-01-12 03:27:11
What everyone is missing is the future of Apple; not computer anymore; but Apple inc.
Listen to the podcast. Jon
Chris Howard
2007-01-13 06:58:18
Giles, Steve actually said in one of his interviews - I can't remember which one - that the team researching a tablet interface showed him this interface a couple of years ago and he got all excited and realised it was perfect for a handheld device like the iPhone. And so it was born.

So it was a clear admission that Apple was serious working on a Mac Tablet, but it sounds like that project might ave got put on hold while the iPhone took over.

So I'm really optimistic the tablet will surface with a full multi-touch, Mac OS X (not just the mobile OS X in the iPhone)

2007-01-13 09:10:46
I don't think the touchscreen is right for OS X. The new hardware interface enables, and requires, a new way of thinking about what you are doing. This, along with Spotlight, really paves the way for changes extensive enough to be called OS-XI - "A whole new world at your fingertips".

2007-01-14 13:31:39
Multi-touch is just begging to be used on larger devices

Here you go

Rubin Safaya
2007-01-23 08:58:31
I've been saying this repeatedly that iPhone is just a tactical product Apple's using to test the waters of multitouch as part of a much larger strategy. Since Vista is coming out, Apple needs to up the ante to stay well ahead of Microsoft. Apple's not known to let MS catch up even a little.

My guess is Apple has working prototypes of multitouch iMacs being tested right now... and that the eventual direction, of which a revamped 10.5 might be the first step, is that we're two to three years away from the kind of interface (holographics aside) that you see in the movie Minority Report... manipulating data and information in three dimensions with physics-modeled behavior, intuitive two-handed control and gestures, etc.

And if you don't believe that, take a look at this:

Multitouch Demo

Bill Buxton
2007-01-24 13:40:14
I sure agree with you. A good place to begin thinking about the future of multi-touch is to look at its past. For this, you might be interested in its rich 25 year history:

The positive way of looking at this is that it took the mouse from 1965-1995 (release of Windows 95) to become really ubiquitous. By that measure, we still have 5 years for this to catch hold, and still meet that schedule :-)

All the best.

2007-03-02 20:07:31
For all the people who doubt the benefit of multitouch, I'd like to say I agree if it's implemented on-screen. In most of the demos, we see a user ridiculously having his hands UP while touching the screen. This is nonsense, it's too tiring to have your hands up like this. And to have screens angled like on an architect's drawing table is not the best solution either, as it takes huge space on your desk, users want their screen in front of them, etc.

So the solution, IMHO, is to leave the screen(s) in front of you BUT transform your whole desk into a multi-touch mousepad. Or part of your desk.

My carpal tunnel syndrome makes me suffer hell when using my mouse, and I am literaly dreaming of a multi-touch very large desk surface...

2007-03-02 20:11:11
I'd like to know what you all guys think of this:
- why is the open-source community only able to build software? Don't you think that the movement is strong enough to be able to start producing hardware as well? Why on Earth do we always have to wait for Jobs, Gates, IBM, Dell and the likes to shove their products in our stupid faces?

Why don't we start an OpenSource HARDWARE movement, gather capital, gather designers, developers, and use the whole spirit of OpenSource to create the hardware WE want, and WELL in advance of the diktats of capitalism?

The only problem with my theory is that we'll all die in a few years because of Hell breaking lose on the planet. Probably Bush's fault.