Good-Bye Mouse and Keyboard, Hello Fingers

Let Your Fingers Do the WalkingI like my fingers.

They can do really cool things, like tickle my son, or point a visitor in the right direction. They help me figure out a melon’s ripeness. They’re good at manoeuvring a thread through the eye of a needle.

In fact, my fingers are really quite capable of a wide variety of wonderful things. I bet yours are, too.

It’s nice to see that the technology industry is finally figuring this out. More and more devices are being introduced that can truly be called digit-al (get it?).

Because of this I’d say we’re on the cusp of a minor computing revolution.

The method of controlling technology by moving your fingers over a screen is called “touch computing,” and it will soon liberate us all from the painful limitations of the keyboard and mouse.

Touch computing isn’t especially new. We’ve had touch screens on kiosks for years and even my own mobile phone, a 2-year-old Palm Treo, is touch-capable.

The difference is that “touch” is no longer such a specialty technology. It’s becoming more accessible to the finger-tips of average consumers. It’s also becoming more capable, having matured through its use in niche technologies such as the Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC).

UMPCs are basically handheld computers. However, most don’t offer a trackpad or keyboard, as you’d find on a laptop. Instead, they are driven by touch, typically with a stylus, which is basically a plastic, inkless pen. Of course, fingers work too, but with less precision.

Despite their styluses, UMPCs are not great for “digital ink,” or actually writing on the screen. They use “passive” touch displays, which cannot discriminate what type of object is touching them.

That’s where the Tablet PC comes in. They’re larger, more the size of a standard notebook computer, and they typically don’t respond to fingertip touch. Instead, the Tablet PC is operated using an intelligent stylus that communicates with the “active” touch screen. As a result, Tablet PCs excel at digital inking.

To date, however, both UMPCs and Tablet PCs have really just replaced the experience of a using a mouse with either a stylus or a finger. While this is still pretty cool, upcoming technology will soon make these devices seem downright old-fashioned.

Apple’s iPhone, for example, is a touch-driven device that can respond to up to 16 simultaneous points of contact. UMPCs and Tablet PCs can handle only one.

That means that you can use multiple-fingers to register control instructions on the iPhone. For example, using a forefinger and thumb together to “squeeze” an image larger and small has been demonstrated.

The iPhone also responds to touch-based gestures. Long lists of items, such as songs or contacts, can be scrolled through by swiping a finger up and down the screen at variable speeds.

Even more interesting, XM (the satellite radio company) recently patented a method of combining touch with the unique attributes of our fingers (PDF).

In essence, each finger would mean something different to a computer. Tapping the screen with your thumb might tune a radio to a particular station, whereas a forefinger might represent a particular phone number you want to dial.

XM’s patent is particularly interesting because it represents the best potential replacement for the physical keyboard.

So far most touch screen devices, including Apple’s iPhone, just fake a keyboard by displaying a graphical representation on-screen. You’re supposed to “type” on the displayed picture.

The problem with this, of course, is the lack of tactility. Because you can’t feel the keys, you really can’t take your eyes away from the screen to be certain you’re hitting the correct characters.

Using XM’s touch method, each finger combination could represent a different letter or symbol. Tapping once with the index finger on your right hand could represent the letter “A,” tapping with both index fingers together could mean “B.” Screen location wouldn’t matter anymore.

In fact, keyboards wouldn’t matter anymore.

Two companies, Toshiba and an Italian design firm called V12, have both demonstrated conceptual laptops that do away with a physical keyboard. Instead, a second display on the bottom of the unit contextually adapts as an input and control device.

For writing, it might display a keyboard. If you’re working with video, it would change into an editing console.

Nintendo’s DS handheld game system is a good example of this two-screen control methodology already on the market.

Considering that the layout of the QWERTY keyboard was originally designed for maximum inefficiency and the mouse only makes use of one of our hands, touch computing offers substantial benefits to computer users.

The only question that remains is, how long until someone invents the ticklish computer?

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, April 6, 2007.