Musicians, behind the technological curve? Not when it comes to interface design: we’ve been consistently ahead. Little wonder, as digital musicians look for ways of making digital media more expressive, with centuries of physical interface design in musical instruments to push those demands further.
In other words, Microsoft is up to something, and I look forward to whatever it is, but it’s the long view that will ultimately matter more.
Numerous outlets are reporting that Microsoft is expected to introduce its gestural, multi-touch technology, called PlayTable. I’m not quite sure why the product name sounds ripped off from the ReacTable. But, while I’m interested to see what Microsoft is doing, I’ll give the ReacTable the edge, unless Microsoft open-sources its software, builds a library for Processing, and starts touring with Bjork. (I’ll take Radiohead + PlayTable. No? Not happening?)
I do think, though, that after over two decades of mainstream computer software interfaces using basic pointing devices not far removed from joysticks, multi-touch is pretty inevitable at this point. So the real question here is, can Microsoft deploy the technology, or is this just another prototype? Even Apple’s iPhone uses only the most basic two-fingered gestures, and still says nothing about what Apple might ultimately do with their hardware and OS.
Also, now that multi-touch technology is starting to grow, it’s time for the tech blogs to understand not all the technologies are equivalent. We have multi-touch built into hardware, and multi-touch built into displays. We have display technology that works with embedded hardware (like LCDs), and display technology that requires projection (and thus, lots more space, as with the frustrated total internal reflection system employed by Jeff Han and many of the tables-with-blocks-on-them schemes). We have systems that use touch against undifferentiated surfaces (like the JazzMutant Lemur) and systems that provide tactile feedback (like the blocks). My sense is that what we’re really waiting for is multi-touch as a commodity, not one-product innovations. Look no further than touchpads, displays, mice, laser optics, keyboards, sensors, circuits, microprocessors … you get the idea. From DIY to mass-market products, each of these has depended on basic hardware building blocks that can be had on the cheap.
One good piece of news, though: the more these technologies proliferate, the less likely a single company will be able to control patents on the general techniques — hardware specifics, yes, but not generalities. And the more likely hardware will become available to the rest of us to use.
In fact, if we got something useful from Microsoft, it’d be operating system-level multi-touch intelligence more than hardware. That would give others a platform on which to build a variety of hardware, which might finally break up the rigidity of computer design (Mac and PC alike) that has reigned effectively since the Apple II.
If you think about the current restrictions of music software, a lot of them have to do with the pointing interface. Heck, some musicians like QWERTY keyboards so much, they build them into instruments. The problem remains pointing. So, nothing against the mouse, but if multi-touch really does go mainstream, the possibilities for music software look good indeed.
That may be quite a few midnights, though. Let’s sleep on it.