When I reviewed JazzMutant’s Lemur at the end of 2005 (printed in the February 2006 Keyboard Magazine), I wondered if what we were really waiting for wasn’t a computer screen. At the time, I wrote:
There’s no question that multi-touch touchscreens represent the future of computer interfaces, and the Lemur is the biggest leap yet toward that science fiction future. For now, the challenge is that the Lemur’s features lie somewhere between a computer display and music controller, without effectively supplanting either one. The Lemur sacrifices the sensitivity and tactile feedback of physical controls in the name of flexibility, but that payoff is limited by the restrictions of its pre-built interface objects and the difficulty of configuring new layouts and assigning them to software controls.
If the Lemur could be truly fused with the computer display, rather than requiring an entirely independent interface, it would become a must-buy.
At the same time, I marveled at what multi-touch could mean: interfaces that were as flexible as software, powerful live performance capabilities, and the ability to navigate sound spatialization and timbre in new, freer ways. Rather than a solution in search of a problem (as multi-touch image resizing is, arguably), these were tasks that just weren’t possible via any other interface.
The video above, showing multi-touch integrated with the next version of Windows 7 (expected at the end of next year), demonstrates one thing to me: multi-touch is coming, and it’ll be mainstream. And that’s huge for creative performance.
Microsoft demonstrates Multi-touch at D: All Things Digital Conference [Windows Vista Team Blog]
When Touch Makes Sense
Ironically, because Microsoft is the first to show off this technology in something resembling a consumer-ready, standard computer, people are lukewarm. (Do you think the reaction would have been this way if it had been Apple showing the same demo?) Now, I’m all for skepticism. It’s nice to see Lifehacker asking its readers whether touch is really necessary. That was the question I asked in regards to the Lemur, as well: touch isn’t the answer to everything. You lose tactical feedback, and a certain amount of accuracy. On the multi-touch iPhone, this is an especially big deal: I can easily out-type any iPhone user on my Blackberry, and multi-touch doesn’t mean a whole lot on a small form factor that can only comfortably accommodate one or two fingers at a time. Lastly, no technology can change the physical size of your finger relative to, say, a stylus.
But when it comes to music performance, I’m convinced multi-touch can be very powerful. Forget Microsoft’s lame piano demo or obligatory but meaningless photo resizing. Onstage, a multi-touch display is ideal. You can make quick gestures, quickly point at stuff without taking your eyes off the screen, and use large-scale interfaces built for performance. Imagine reaching over to quickly swap instruments, or switch between song sets, or make a rapid gesture to adjust the timbre of a sound, or navigate surround sound spatialization. And imagine that you’ll be able to do this without having to content with another piece of gear, as on the Lemur, but on a mainstream laptop, with any software you like.
What’s ultimately fantastic about the Microsoft announcement is that it should have implications beyond just Windows. Unlike the proprietary, one-device iPhone, having Windows 7 support multi-touch means lots of hardware should follow, with the economy of scale and access that everyone may benefit. Even Microsoft’s commitment to the relatively niche-oriented tablet PC has driven down digitizer prices (a step, not incidentally, toward this announcement). You can buy an affordable tablet PC right now with Linux installed, if you like. While Microsoft has a leg up in the enabling software for multi-touch, I don’t think it’ll be impractical for other frameworks or open-source frameworks to follow. In fact, the real challenge is to think about interface design in a new way. (In an interview with CDM, the developers of the upcoming Circle soft synth specifically mentioned thinking about making touch work in future as a design goal, and they use the cross-platform JUCE framework.)
And while they didn’t make a specific announcement, I would expect Microsoft to be likewise aggressive about promoting multi-touch capabilities in their own application development frameworks. Ultimately, I believe the most interesting multi-touch interfaces will continue to come from individual developers and researchers, not the likes of Microsoft and Apple. That’s been true already, so imagine what will happen when those folks have cheap hardware ready to go and can focus on design. The OLPC project, of course, promised a multi-touch laptop replacement, as well; that’s basically just a mock-up and I’ll believe it when I see it, but someone is going to deliver a multi-touch machine soon. (It’ll be interesting to see if we hear anything from Apple, as well.)
Yep, I Want It
Don’t get me wrong: tangible, hardware controls aren’t going anywhere. On the contrary, I think the experience of using multi-touch displays, which even with haptics are a long way from giving real tactile feedback, reminds us of the range of ways in which software design and hardware interface can fuse. But by going beyond QWERTY and mouse/trackpad, multi-touch displays could make for an exciting future.
And in answer to Mary Jo Foley’s question, do I want multi-touch in a laptop? Not only do I, but stand next to me or any other digital musician struggling with a tiny trackpad onstage, and you’ll see why.