Wednesday, January 02, 2008

...directions for 2008

The first thing you may notice about what follows is that it has nothing to do with theatre (at least for now...). But on The Chatter this week (Monday, on Drivetime with Mary Wilson) we were talking about some things to watch out for in 2008, techwise. So, i thought it might be good to give a bit more background to what we (Myles Dungan was standing in for Mary Wilson, as it happens) talked about on the show. It's crystal ball gazing, so, y'know, likely to be wrong....

I suppose the main thing here is that if you want to find out where you're going, start by figuring out where you I want to talk about a couple of technologies that have been about for a few years now, but which moved into the mass market in 2007 and seem to have a lot more possibilities.

So at the risk of being completely wrong, 2008 will be a year where we see two smart technologies that first broke through in 2007 really get into their stride. The two things are not gadgets in themselves, but little features, two little upgrades -- actually, i suppose, two components -- that were added into familiar products to make them seem very unfamiliar, very fresh and unusual...and they were...the multi-touch screen and the accelerometer...better know through the products which featured them, the iPhone and the Wii. Actually, the iPhone features both -- which is presumably why it turned out to be the product of the year in 2007.

So what are we talking about? Both of these technologies offered radical ways of telling them what you wanted them to do. We have all grown used to, or grown up with mouse and keyboard, keypad interaction with our computers and mobile phones, and, to a large extent, with our computer games. Maybe the mouse had a lot of buttons, as in a standard game controller, or gamepad, for your Playstation or Xbox, but it was still a mouse for all that.

Now touch screens have been around for years...but what we got this year was the multi-touch screen. Which, as it happens, has also been around for years. This is one of those things that Apple will get -- and is to some extent is already getting -- credit for inventing. There had been touch screens before -- that is screens which you interacted with by touching. Palm devices have used them for ages, in conjunction with a stylus, a little pen which you used to tap on the screen. And all sorts of 'kiosks' in museums and the like had screens that displayed buttons which you touched to operate.

But those interaction were very simple. You touched a thin piece of plastic at one point, and it was able to detect that (usually be detecting pressure) and respond. The problem was that if you touched at more than one place, the thing got confused. So those touch screens were just fine for showing you an on-screen buttons, but they weren't much good for anything else.

Then a company called Fingerworks invented a way that you could have several fingers touching the screen at once. (You can see their site here but the company has closed down, for reason which will become apparent in a second.) Another researcher at NYU, Jeff Han, also developed a multi-touch screen that you could use several fingers on at once, and wrote some interesting bits of software that you could use with it. He's been on the conference circuit showing off his development (see his demo at the 2007 TED ) and has spun off a startup, Perceptive Pixel, to develop his tech.

The effect of all this (which has been picking up steam for about three years now!) was that you could 'touch' objects on the screen, using your fingers to twist, or push or pull them. What happened then was people began to have all sort of ideas of how you might interact with your computer that didn't involved a keyboard and a mouse, but pushing and pulling things around a screen.

Then a kind of new language of gestures began to appear for using these touch screens, so that, say, making a quick little circle on the screen with your fingers would bring up a little menu that let you open an application. One of the most famous things you could do on a Fingerworks gadget was stretch a digital photo by grabbing its sides -- on the screen -- and pulling them apart. And as everybody who has seen even the advertising for an iPhone, that is exactly what you can do there. Apple, of course, had simply bought Fingerworks and incorporated and built on that company's work -- and released it as part of the iPhone.

So, my guess would be that other phone makers will have to respond to that. And it's not simply a guess. Nokia already has shown off a prototype of a brand new phone with a touch screen for Symbian S60 phones, but the demo suggests that despite looking a bit like an iPhone, this is not a multi-touch screen, leaving Symbian and its pals still a step behind Apple.

here's a demo here:

A step in front of Apple was LG, who already has a touch screen (that many bloggers say looked remarkably similar to the iPhone) even though the iPhone came out before it.

There have also been rumours that Apple themselves might launch a bigger device with a touch screen. But even now, multi-touch (or two fingered touch is getting incorporated into laptops to replace ordinary trackpads. (Though as apple recently litigated into retirement one of the most famous Apple rumour blogs, Thinksecret, we may have less rumours in 2008)

And one of the rival multi-touch screen developers, a Jeff Han, has already displayed a massive multi-touch screen that is 8'3' and can be bought through the American store,Neiman-Marcus online sales (for 100,000). Microsoft too have announced a touch sensitive device, a screen come table which they call Surface and costs around 10,000 (But it is actually works using an old fashioned combination of cameras and projectors for its magic. Their blurbsite
is here

But more and more -- this prediction says -- these things will spread into other areas. Starting with laptops and mobiles, but moving into interior design, shop displays, advertising...And they won't all be that expensive. The popularity of the iPhone has just reminded lots of people (or informed them) how much they enjoy touching things, rather than pointing and clicking, make running spreadsheets more like making bread...

The other gadget, component, feature, call it what you will, is a device that we are going to see the effects of, rather than see, in 2008. Once again, this is a bit of technology that has been around for quite a while, but which really came into focus last year with Nintendo's Wii and its so called Wiimote.

An accelerometer is a little -- minute -- device that measures external force on itself. So it can measure gravity or acceleration, or movement. And it can measure this in one, two or, in the case of the Wii, three dimensions. This information can then be used in a number of different ways. Originally, it could be used to register vibration on a machine, car or building. But recently, it has expanded out of that game...

As i say, this is again just an new growth in quite an old technology, but one which is now more and more in consumer devices, whether you have noticed it or not. It made an early appearance in consumer products in cars, where they are used to alert the airbag systems to sudden deceleration. And as they became widely used there, their price came down and they started to be feasible all over.

One of the first places to use them was in fitness equipment, where they were used as pedometers, detecting each step somebody took jogging or walking. Nike has one of these systems. But lately, they started to find themselves once more in phones, and personal devices.

And once again, these form part of the appeal of the far as promoting accelerometers is concerned, Apple have been helping Nintendo with the marketing, by selling iPhones.

One of the features of the iPhone (and a feature which we should see more and more of) is an accelerometer that senses which way up you phone is and adjust the phone's screen accordingly. Like so much that Apple does, this gets them lots of attention as an innovator, but has actually been around for ages.

Several generations ago, Nokia mobiles had accelerometers in them, which were used to control little games, so that you'd do something like move a little on screen ball around a maze just by tilting the phone.

So fastforward
a few years and you have phones like the N95, which has built in accelerometers, with a great deal of unused potential. Which has always offered encouragement for individuals to create their own tool. And so, one developer working on his own has already written a program which lets you control almost every feature of your N95 by shaking and twisting it. And it is notable that the program, called Nokemote (demo here) is freeware.

OK, so you can touch your mobile phone, or shake it about...does that really herald something radical in the way we use stuff?

It might, as part of a twofold change. And this is the crystal ball bit. First you'll start to notice lots more devices with multi touch screen and accelerometers involved . Or, better still, you won't actually notice that. You'll just find that it becomes a bit more obvious how to get thing to do what you want them to. You'll start interfacing with your computer (and that means, by the way, everything) in a much broader way. You don't just tap in letters, or click with your mouse, you perform little signs with your hand, little gestures which represent functions. (Microsoft attempted to coin the term "gestural computing" for this. But that doesn't mean it is just a rubbish marketeers word.

Next thing you know -- and we're into August of 2008 by now -- you might start to feel differently about your electronic devices. After all, if they seem to be more physical, so respond to your touch, or your movement, then it might be only natural that you respond to them in a more emotionally fashion. That might be an emotional change, but i think it is significant. You mobile, or your laptop become a little more like a living thing. (In sci-fi terms, our finally cosying up to androids/robots might not occur because we have designed a cute enough faces on them -- despite whatever Honda and Toyota and many other Japanese firms have to say about it. But when they respond to touch. Even if they have no cute smile, no eyes even.)

Once digital artist/engineer has already, of course, combined both the technologies I've been talking about here in one gadget (although, as i say, Apple beat him to that!) the multi-touch screen with a series of accelerometers to make a pretty impressive looking toy, er, i mean, work of art. Andrew Fentem has created a cube (which he has called the Fentix Cube) that is covered with multi-touch screens and is filled with accelerometers, so that it responds to movement and touch in most impressive ways.

Fentem has a film of it up on youtube (and that's another growing trend, previewing new inventions through youtube) emulating a Rubik's cube.

And his own site,, has a fuller demo it's called the if you want to see it in action. Could be the can't get toy of Christmas 2008. But this sort of thing is going to move from fancy toys, into everyday objects. And to kick off, how about a switching that old TV remote control for one thatincorporates multi-touch screen and an accelerometer-operated gestural interface. And of course, it should also double as a camera phone and control you Wii. A proper magic wand that would be.


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