In the days when Macintoshes all came with 9” monochrome displays, I once came upon a woman in a computer store trying to make sense of Apple’s boxy beige computer. Looking at the display, she tried to activate an on-screen button by tapping the mouse against the screen rather than sliding it around the desk to control the cursor. In doing so, she demonstrated that direct manipulation of on-screen items is often more intuitive than indirect input devices such as a keyboard and mouse.
That was a principle that Apple would come to embrace many years later when it put a touch screen in its Newton PDA and–far more successfully–created the iPhone’s “pure touch” experience. As Steve Jobs introduced the latter, he decried styluses. He also published a manifesto against Adobe’s Flash in which he berated the multimedia technology for not being designed for touch since it included support for interactions that involved hovering the mouse pointer, a gesture that didn’t exist on the iPhone.
Still, the fact that touch is intuitive doesn’t mean that hovering is obsolete. Samsung would go on to enable hovering in a touch interface with its popular Galaxy Note phone’s S Pen stylus, and Apple itself would receive a patent for a touch-and-hover panel.
The hovering issue illustrates just one of the limitations of touch interfaces as they are popularly implemented in smartphones today. Seven years after the iPhone, though, device developers are augmenting touch for a host of reasons, including device screen size, aesthetics, familiarity, and backward compatibility in an array of products:
Just as Apple has steadfastly kept touch out of its past with the Macintosh, it is limiting its role in its future with the Apple Watch. In some ways, the touch implementation in Apple Watch is more sophisticated than in the iPhone in that it can distinguish between taps and presses. However, Apple says the watch’s crowning interface achievement is the small dial on its side used in place of features such as multitouch pinch-and-zoom on the watch’s small display. The adoption of the digital crown is in part to differentiate from touch-screen-based Android Wear watches, although other smartwatch companies such as Pebble have eschewed touch screens altogether.
Microsoft, which overreacted to the popularity of touch by trying to force it into every corner of Windows 8, has scaled back to enhance usability for keyboard and mouse users in its successor, Windows 10. While touch will still be the primary user interface on phones and small tablets, laptops will default into an environment that looks more like Windows 7. Two-in-one devices such as Surface will optionally return to a keyboard-and-mouse-first interface when connected to a keyboard. And of course, the company is putting Windows 10 in new device classes such as the HoloLens that have no physical screen to touch.
The Keys digital instrument and MIDI controller from Opho has a number of innovations, such as the ability to extend its playing area by placing two or more units next to each other. On one hand, the very premise of a music keyboard implies a touch-sensitive surface. However, to keep the size of the device as small as possible while allowing a full-sized surface, its designers relied on gestures to issue commands such as “octave up,” or “octave down,” which are activated by swiping one’s hand left or right over the keyboard. Keys raised about $140,000 on Indiegogo, blowing past its $50,000 campaign goal.
Taking on challenges that have faced previous Android-based game consoles and even the recently announced NVIDIA Shield set-top, the ZRRO Android set-top and controller enhances connectivity with the vast library of Android games via a controller that detects where your thumbs are hovering. In doing so, it allows one’s focus to stay on the TV screen. The product squeaked past its $200,000 campaign goal on Kickstarter.
Touch interfaces were with us long before the iPhone and they will surely endure for many years. In fact, with support for features such as hovering and force sensitivity, they are still improving. And with the Internet of things adding Internet connectivity to everything from door locks to light bulbs, we’ll likely continue to exert a degree of control over many of these devices through touch interfaces as smartphones and tablets evolve into control hubs. However, as computing moves into new form factors with new demands, it’s clear that the touch-only era that the iPhone seemed to usher in isn’t the future of user interfaces after all.