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.

  • Tim Thompson

    Aren't there some rumors bubbling around that Apple may also be working on a multi-touch controller device for music production? This will be an interesting battle. In any case, a new generation of interface devices is a good thing!

  • http://www.cutwithflourish.com ed

    I hope it works better than the digidesk. That thing looked far less polished than Jeff Han's work.

    Couldn't Apple make Leopard multi-touch capable? Using Spaces to flick between Ableton, MAX/MSP and a built in multi-touch control interface on different screens would be nice.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Yeah, isn't that interesting about the Leopard delay until the fall … not sure I'd place the odds too high, but it's certainly possible some multi-touch control is the hold-up. Zoom in Google Maps on the iPhone can't be the only reason Apple worked on multi-touch research.

    That aside, looking a couple of years out it seems like both Apple and MS would be nuts not to be working on OS-level support. The fact that the OS only understands a single-position mouse is this huge barrier, and one that should be fixable.

  • sean

    The MS site has some vids up now:
    http://www.microsoft.com/surface/

  • Gilbert Bernstein

    So they finally got around to announcing this.

    Unless they've changed their plan up since 2005, it won't be commodity priced. I was told they were aiming for more of a high end user (read money, money) crowd as the early adopters. It's supposed to be more of a family piece, literally a whole freaking table.

  • http://www.jatunmusic.com dead_red_eyes

    Peter/guys … have you seen this thing yet?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSZ8e1itk44

    I saw it via MusicThing today. It's a video of a Multi Touch Console in action at some supergeek conference – it was also at the Superbooth at MusikMesse this year. It's an open source design, put together by designers/programmers in Berlin. It runs on a cheap PC, a bog standard projector, an OEM camera, some wood, some reinforced glass, some lights and a projector screen. The software is free as well!

    Link to the MusicThing article : http://musicthing.blogspot.com/2007/05/incredilbe

  • sean

    Here's a vid from popular mechanics:
    http://www.techcrunch.com/2007/05/29/microsoft-an

    initially intended for commercial use it will run 5 – 10K USD

  • http://www.cutwithflourish.com ed

    ha. The first video on the surface site is like the Jeff Han TED speech turned into a cheesy ad, but putting drinks on it should make it work like a reactable.

    I have the feeling that the novelty of dealing with large quantities of digital media (photos, mp3s, etc) manually will get old very quickly. I think they need some of the sorting, piling and selecting tools that the Bumptop had.

    The interactions with phones/credit cards were interesting.