If you were bummed that the multi-touch Apple tablet didn't materialize over the summer, here's something that should whet your appetite once again: BumpTop just released a video of a new multi-touch 3-D display for Windows 7. It overlays your desktop, to make navigating files and applications easier. You can only wonder at what's being digested in the guts of Apple HQ, over at One Infinite Loop.
BumpTop's big innovations lie in the ability to do all sorts of new, organizing gestures—things such as "lassoing" a group of icons, shoving them aside, or creating piles of icons that you can then flip through.
There's one thing that hits you about all this: The tool seems to recreate the experience of shuffling all the junk that litters your real-life desk. And that's a good thing: For all the hubbub about paperless offices, paper persists.
Why? Just take a look at the desk you're sitting at now. Paper, despite its messiness, is unparalleled in creating a map of the priorities inside your brain. Look around— I'm guessing all the piles on your desk are a pretty great model of what's preoccupying you at this very second. It's the very essence of how we order the stuff in our lives, but not at all what we do on computers, which are organized to recreate file cabinets and databases, rather than attention spans and importance. Apps like BumpTop are aiming squarely at closing this gap.
What's next? It sounds crazy, but my hope is that we'll finally have computer files that show visual cues about their age and frequency of use. I mean, think about what this does for you in the real world. Look around your desk, and it's easy to spot the papers that you really need, because they're marked up, annotated, and coffee-stained. That's exactly what computers lack, but it's exactly what makes even the messiest paper file easy to navigate when you're pressed. Imagine if instead you had a computer desktop with "files" that changed their appearance or size based on how much you used them, or what you used them in relation to. (There's no reason your computer can't link the fact that whenever you open XYZ Excel file, you're more likely to need ABC Powerpoint presentation; in fact, this very sort of semantic linkage is what's behind Google Wave.) Graphics and processing power are finally opening the possibility of doing this in a richly intuitive way.
That's really the big lesson. People were once drunk on the idea of the paperless office. Then the reality set in. The analog world isn't as dumb as it seems. Physical objects are loaded with visual cues that allow us to track them in our minds, visually and intuitively—with little effort. By moving real-life objects around, we basically create an external version of the stuff inside our brains.
And that's the grand challenge of interface design—mapping the visual and tactile cues that can be carried over from the real world to computers.