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Why Did Touch Take 4 Decades to Catch On?

timothy posted more than 6 years ago | from the perhaps-no-one-knew-of-the-happy-ending dept.

Input Devices 245

theodp writes "You probably saw media coverage of Bill Gates showing off touch-screen technology to his CEO play group last week. With the introduction of the iPhone and iPod Touch, touch (and multi-touch) technology — which folks like Ray Ozzie enjoyed as undergrads way back in the early '70s — has finally gone mainstream. The only question is: Why did it take four decades for its overnight success? Some suggest the expiration of significant patents filed during '70s and '80s may have had something to do with it — anything else?"

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For the same reason as the Wiimote. (5, Insightful)

suso (153703) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447732)

I think that the same reason why touchscreen technology never caught on until recently is the same reason why motion controllers like the Wiimote never caught on until the Wii, because the previous of both concepts where crap and didn't offer anything over a mouse, keyboard and joystick. Actually, what it really comes down to is that if a form of control doesn't give anything over the defacto form, then its pointless. How many stupid microphones and control devices have been released in the past 30 years that were no better than just pressing the button on a joystick. If it doesn't really understand that I'm saying "Fire!" instead of just blowing into it, then its pointless. It also has a lot to do with the interface being standard to the system. When its an addon, it just doesn't get as much attention.

This is for the same reason that command pipes/stdin/stdout will always be more useful in unix-like OSes than they will in Windows. Because they essentially come with the system and 90% of the programs are setup to use them. Same as why REXX was so much more successful on the Amiga than it will be on any other OS. If the Wiimote had been an option item, then the software wouldn't have been there and the Wii would have probably been a flop.

Re:For the same reason as the Wiimote. (5, Funny)

Daimanta (1140543) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447752)

think that the same reason why touchscreen technology never caught on until recently is the same reason why motion controllers like the Wiimote never caught on until the Wii,
You mean until the p-p-p-powerglove!

Re:For the same reason as the Wiimote. (0, Flamebait)

Slashdot Suxxors (1207082) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448568)

Or did you mean p-p-p-powerbook [] ?

Re:For the same reason as the Wiimote. (5, Insightful)

lorenzo.boccaccia (1263310) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447792)

those are my two cents, but I'm considering also those two factors: large touch screens were costly as hell, while the smaller one, even if affordable, were targeted to devices without the actual power to sustain a well designed gui. Even now the iphone sometimes stutter during image operations.
it's now that the cost of embedded devices, of touch screen and the relative power of embedded devices allow to build a useful gui.
tablet pc, while had touch screens, also had a keyboard and a mouse available, and most of the interaction was via those device, as those pc where targeted to the pc market where the programs are somewhat tailored to having a keyboard, so tablets didn't have enough added value to justify the increased cost. also those pc were sporting a p3 800mhz, not exactly a power monster, for the age.

Clumsy... (5, Interesting)

shmlco (594907) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448076)

A finger is a rather clumsy interface device compared to the pinpoint precision offered by a mouse. And when the OS and all of the software on that platform is designed for a keyboard and a mouse, then change becomes hard.

Read Apple's user interface guidelines for developing applications and web applications for the iPhone. Touch screen interfaces truly require (to overuse the phrase once again) a new interface paradigm.

Multitouch trackpads, on the other hand, simply overlay gestures on top of existing mechanisms. A two-finger tap is a "right click". A two-finger scrolling gesture translates easily into "scroll wheel" input. All events which existing systems and software understand.

A "pinch", however, is a new type of input that has no translation. As such, software has to be reprogramed to understand that type of event, and then perform the appropriate behavior.

Re:Clumsy... (1)

Threni (635302) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448118)

> A "pinch", however, is a new type of input that has no translation. As such, software has to be reprogramed to understand that type of
> event, and then perform the appropriate behavior.

Also, you're pinching/pressing stuff on a phone in your hand, not getting tired and greasing up your LCD by reaching forward and touching it. You can't just rub your 22inch screen clean by breathing on it then wiping it on your t-shirt.

Re:Clumsy... (1)

shmlco (594907) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448304)

Actually, that's why I'd like to try a "MInority Report" arm waving system for a while. Add a couple of wrist weights and you could get a nice workout while you work... (grin)

Seriously though, I think for a good touch-screen system to work it would almost need to be something on the order of an inclned draftsman's desk.

And I just read somewhere about some new coatings for materials that wouldn't allow oils to stick to them. Maybe they could add them to the iPhone and help you keep your t-shirt clean... (grin)

KFC. Mucky, not clumsy. (4, Funny)

refactored (260886) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448878)


Now you know why. this lower caps random characters are here merely to get around /.'s lame lameness filter that doesn't understand i used all the caps above to look like yelling because that is what anybody would be doing with a high priced bleeding edge touch screen and an umfriend with greasy kfc. what fools these admin mortals be.

Re:For the same reason as the Wiimote. (1)

urbieta (212354) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448152)

speaking of the wiimote, I remember how much I begged my dad to buy me the Nintendo power glove, and I never actually got it working, so all I remember from the glove is the cool unboxing and eventual gathering of dust over the years up until I decided to give it away along with the console and games... btw I dont think there would be much to do with a multitouch apple newton without the propper processing power/ram memory/storage/wireless/etc that comes with the current ipod/iphone []

Re:For the same reason as the Wiimote. (1)

azgard (461476) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448452)

Actually, REXX is very successful on IBM mainframe z/OS and z/VM operating system and from what I have heard, it was also used on OS/2. I don't know Amiga that well, but I doubt your claim.

Greasy fingers... (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23447768)

...from eating lunch in my cuby. The blubber is messy without napkins and my maple syrup dip makes things very sticky.

Don't mind my keyboard attracting flies but gazing through a streaky, foggy screen sucks.


Because haptics is important. (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23447774)

Touchscreens are visual interfaces, keyboards/-pads are haptic interfaces. For most devices, keys make more sense because they're always in the same place and the touch feedback makes it possible to use them without looking. I do not want a touchscreen remote control, for example. Touchscreens only make sense for complicated or multi-function devices and those haven't been portable very long.

Re:Because haptics is important. (3, Interesting)

That's What She Said (1289344) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447926)

I agree with the fixed position, but I invite you to think a little about the remote control issue.

My DVD recorder's remote has so many buttons! For example, there are 3 keys to go to on-screen menus:

* Top Menu - where you can choose what to watch from the programs recorded on the internal HD;

* Home Menu - goes to the player's menu where you can go to the "top menu" or change player settings;

* Menu - goes to the DVD menu, if there's a DVD in the player.

I know this remote control is awfully designed and could do with half of the keys, but this is only one example of how a "contextual key pad" could be used. And you need a graphical interface for that, in my opinion.

And I can't really used this remote without looking at it, I can assure you.

One could argue that a DVD recorder/player with an internal HD is a multi-function device and I could agree with that.

Re:Because haptics is important. (1)

profplump (309017) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447990)

For one thing, that's only evidence that your remote is bad for the task, not that remotes are bad in general. For another, you're assuming that changing the interface technology would improve change the interface design -- that seems unlikely to me. If your DVD player had a voice interface that had the same three options it would be just as hard to use, and somewhat slower.

Re:Because haptics is important. (1)

mikael (484) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448058)

I do not want a touchscreen remote control, for example.

The womenfolk in my family get annoyed having to have separate remote controls for each device (TV, satellite box, DVD player, VCR player, cable box). Having a universal remote is one solution to this problem, but there is still the problem of remembering which buttons control the sound volume, change channels, and knowing which channel has which number. A programmable touch screen LCD remote control seems to be a solution to this problem (if it could have a simple menu for TV/satellite/display the icons of the favorite channels), but the price for such remote controls seem to be anywhere between $600 and $1000.

Re:Because haptics is important. (2, Interesting)

maxume (22995) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448220)

I think most people have encountered this phenomenon. I don't really think the remote is the problem though, it is the multiple devices. If you (not you, them) think of everything as a channel instead of a channel on a specific device, you aren't going to do a very good job of remembering how to switch to a given channel (because it then becomes "how do I get to that channel" instead of "how do I get to that channel on that device", which is easy).

The solution is a tuner that presents a list of channels that are available and has the smarts to switch among the devices to get to each channel.

Re:Because haptics is important. (2, Insightful)

mikael (484) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448806)

The main problem is remembering the locations of all four remote controls. Not too easy when there are newspapers, cats, notepads, books in the living room area as well.

There is also the added complexity of navigating the customized menu of the DVD player itself, particularly those DVD's with multiple menu pages (for complete collections).

Doing something as simple as switching from watching Sky News to watching a DVD will involve:

1. Switch DVD player on.
2. Place DVD in DVD player.
3. Wait for copyright notice to play.
4. Wait for menu to appear
5. Ensure universal remote is in DVD mode
6. Figure out whether left arrow or down arrow moves between menu options.
7. Wander around until correct menu item is found.
8. Press [Play].
9. Adjust volume until sound level is in comfort zone.
10. Watch DVD.
11. Press stop to end DVD.
12. Remove DVD
13. Switch DVD player off.
14. Adjust satellite/TV volume to get back into comfort range (do this repeatedly due to stupid adverts maximising the sound level they are allowed to play at).

Even freeview satellite offers 300+ channels, and the channels are not easily identified. For BBC 1Scotland it is something like channel 941, for BBC London, it is something like channel 944.

Re:Because haptics is important. (1)

kestasjk (933987) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448160)

Can touchscreens be haptic too though?

Re:Because haptics is important. (1)

shmlco (594907) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448204)

Ditto with the above post. A touch screen contextual interface makes a lot of sense, as you can't really use the majority of the buttons on your remote without looking at it anyway.

Besides, I'm pretty sure I could design a system such that the most common operations were gesture-based. Take an iPhone, for example. Keep the edge volume control, and implement a menuing system that drilled down into context buttons for each known device. But on any screen, support a two-finger scroll "channel change" and a two-finger tap "menu" button and a triple-finger tap "last" ... or whatever.

Or maybe you need a half-dozen physical buttons, and all of the complex stuff is done via touch screen. (Like the Sony LCD remote.)

"Touchscreens only make sense for complicated or multi-function devices..."

Like TV/Cable/DVD/DVR/AppleTV/Surround-sound systems?

Re:Because haptics is important. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23448578)

Haptic or not. M$ makes money on mice! And touch screen didnt happen over night. First there was the Newton, but before that was the Kiosk, and before that was the HP150. Even the Pope Uses vistual interfaces..."Pie Iesu Domine. Dona Eis Requiem..."

Re:Because haptics is important. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23448590)

My dad has a touchscreen remote control. Its pretty neat. It only displays the small subset of buttons you're likely to use during any given activity, and is fully customizable.

Re:Because haptics is important. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23448624)

You may not want a touchscreen remote control but have you ever watched ordinary people trying to use those things? They always look down and hunt around, trying to interpret the many arcane accronyms, abbreviations and symbols. My mum would love a remote control that hid all the wierd stuff she never uses under some menu, and says "DVD Player" instead of "AV".

I honestly don't know why (-1, Troll)

.Bruce Perens (150539) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447782)

Because I've been touching myself nonstop to gay porn for nearly for four decades and I love it.

All the bits of the puzzle have to come together (5, Insightful)

EmbeddedJanitor (597831) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447784)

Software, electronic minaturaisation, battery technology, wireless connectivity - all at reasonable prices... plus convincing user scenarios.

Most technologies take a while to become mainstream. NAND flash was invented in 1988 and took almost 20 years to become mainstream. Linux was started in 1991?? and is almost mainstream.

Re:All the bits of the puzzle have to come togethe (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23447966)

linux is "almost mainstream" ?
honestly, as much as I'd like that to be true, you gotta be deluding yourself

Re:All the bits of the puzzle have to come togethe (2, Insightful)

linhares (1241614) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448254)

Linux is mainstream in servers; but definitely not on the desktop.

Re:All the bits of the puzzle have to come togethe (1)

wellingj (1030460) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448392)

Don't forget cell phones.

I think it's mostly a matter of design. (3, Interesting)

cryptochrome (303529) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448414)

The one piece of tech that really makes touch possible is flatscreen LCD technology with scratch-proof surfaces and rapid response. That's important. But what's even more important is designing products for touch, not just slapping it on.

Take the iPhone. When you use it, you're not just using your fingers - you're also using the hand holding the item, keeping it in place and even moving it a little to assist in accuracy. Physically it is better suited to touch than a laptop, which up until recently were thick and heavy. Also, laptops generally have a mandatory keyboard getting in the way. Worse, the keyboard/mouse combo is more convenient for the GUI OS in place. The iPhone on the other hand completely reinvented the GUI to support touch. Other new technologies like the touch table are doing much the same thing, albeit in different ways.

Not just patents (4, Insightful)

mikael_j (106439) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447790)

I don't think it was just a matter of patents expiring, it was most likely because the technology was finally ready for it. In the past most touchscreen-equipped systems I've seen seemed to be pretty weak in every area except the touchscreen, these days the machines equipped with touchscreens are powerful enough to actually take advantage of the touchscreen capabilities.

That said, I'm still waiting for a tablet mac with multitouch tech and a built-in wacom tablet (like the Cintiq) so that I can use my hands to drag stuff around on my desktop and the stylus for actually drawing stuff.


Jeff Han and YouTube (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23447804)

YouTube Link (1.9+m views) (2003) []

TED Talk []

while Jeff didnt invent multitouch, he certainly brought it to the attention of a lot of people with a good demo and a few teaser apps (maps) to show what could be done
MS, Apple and chums have a lot to thank him for as far as raising public awareness of different UI and OS possibilities, using a mouse/qwerty keyboard should not be a fundamental of interacting with computers

it didn't. touch never caught on. (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23447806)

touch is junk and nothing out there that people buy uses it. MULTI-TOUCH caught on. multi touch was invented by two professors at the university of delaware, who founded a company that made the greatest keyboard of all time, the touchstream lp. jobs saw the inherent promise of multi-touch and bought the company and all its ip, in the process making everyone sign nondisclosure agreements and burying the company. the price of the greatest keyboard ever made, no longer available due to job's actions, has rocketed to over $1000 on ebay and keeps going up.

a lot of you are reading this and thinking of non multi touch products that are getting some sales; however they use the fundamental tech that makes multi touch work. multi touch was about figuring out the shape and pressure of the fingers being applied, in addition to distinguishing multiple fingers. this eliminates the "palm brush" problem that plagued early touch pads.,2845,1039254,00.asp [] []

it took a long time for people to figure out what happened; in the end one of the delaware professors listed his profession as 'apple engineer' on a public political contribution and the mystery of the jobs touchstream "nuclear option" was solved.

the reason it's caught on "just now" is that it's actually brand new technology. hopefully someone someday will undo that damage that apple has done to the multitouch industry by buring it under NDA's and patents. in the meantime, they have usurped microsoft for title of tech company most damaging to progress. let's see how long they can hold the crown.

Re:it didn't. touch never caught on. (4, Funny)

theurge14 (820596) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448196)

Hello Ballmer.

Re:it didn't. touch never caught on. (2, Interesting)

Microlith (54737) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448214)

they have usurped microsoft for title of tech company most damaging to progress.

No, they would have to repeatedly dish out lies, FUD, and cripple other companies financially to the point that they have to sell to MS or someone else, and do so for 20+ years, before they could EVER hope to approach the damage Microsoft has done.

Re:it didn't. touch never caught on. (1)

hublan (197388) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448264)

Oh, jeesh. Like with many other small technology companies with an awesome product, they were going broke because no-one bought it. Better that someone incorporated the technology for public consumption, rather than some patent vultures snapping up the carcass and keeping multi-touch completely dead for another 20 odd years.

Don't own an Apple product but I think your tarring brush is a bit broad.

Re:it didn't. touch never caught on. (5, Insightful)

hkmarks (1080097) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448430)

Touch did so catch on. Remember the PalmPilot? All the rage like 10 years ago. Had a touch screen. The difference is -- more than multitouch, because similar things can be done with gestures -- the iPhone is 25 times faster, in color, and internet-capable, and a phone, and a camera, plays videos, and has over 16000 times more storage space. It's as fast as a desktop computer from the PalmPilot era.

All kinds of bank machines and kiosks have had touch screens for years. It's not the touch screens that caught on. It's everything else that caught up -- and got cheap enough for consumer goods.

Re:it didn't. touch never caught on. (1)

azgard (461476) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448498)

I don't think so. Palm PDAs had touch screen even before multitouch was invented. I think the relevant technology needed for touch screen was the large graphic LCD display, and those didn't started to appear until 1990s.

Re:it didn't. touch never caught on. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23448848)

My T61 Lenovo laptop has a touch pad and runs Windows XP. I have the "palm brush " problem, so are you saying Microsoft just doesn't get it and can't fix an issue that plagued early touch pads?

Re:it didn't. touch never caught on. (1)

WhoCantTakeAJoke (1257240) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448886)

Preach on brother. What Apple has done is terrible. They should be awarded the Methuselah Mouse prize.

Not effective (at least to date) (4, Insightful)

taradfong (311185) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447808)

I remember how exciting the touch screens seemed in the late 80s, but when using them reality set in - you quickly fatigue holding your arm up to touch a screen.

Plus, with any user interface people need a certain confidence in correspondence between what they do and what happens. When you push a button, you KNOW it got pressed. If you push a joystick left, you KNOW you're going left. That 'payoff' is like a contract between you and the machine that goes favorably. But if pressing the screen where you believe you need to press may or may not do what you want, that contract gets shaky. Especially since there's no click or motion to reinforce what you're doing. This, by the way, is why I think 'free space' VR controllers never caught least until the WII.

Still, software can create cues to take the place of physicality and have 'grease' to avoid common miscues. Plus, having the screen be horizontal reduces the fatigue.

But in the end, as archaic as the keyboard seems compared to touch and speech, it really is an incredibly expressive and low-energy-requirement device.

Re:Not effective (at least to date) (2, Funny)

Smallpond (221300) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447866)

I built the first touchscreen system for mainline railroad control in 1977. We knew then that you had to give immediate feedback, by blinking, that the operator had succeeded in activating a change. The reason that it didn't catch on is that the keyboard was something you could pound on in frustration when the trains didn't do what you wanted. Nothing as satisfying as keycaps flying all over the room. We sold a lot of replacement keyboards.

Re:Not effective (at least to date) (1)

fishbowl (7759) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448086)

"The reason that it didn't catch on is that the keyboard was something you could pound on in frustration when the trains didn't do what you wanted."

When "the trains don't do what you (the traffic controller) want", don't they tend to do really nasty things like roll onto closed/missing tracks, into other trains, over work crews, etc.? Seems to me "replacement keyboards" would be a small thing compared to the real cost of train operators ignoring control signals...

Re:Not effective (at least to date) (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23447868)

"Plus, with any user interface people need a certain confidence in correspondence between what they do and what happens."

I think a good way to do this would be to make ripples spread out from the point of the screen that had been touched. A bit like the xrain screensaver or whatever it's called.

Re:Not effective (at least to date) (4, Insightful)

MBCook (132727) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448120)

I agree. The iPhone interface is just so amazing. The other day I was in a big box store and we looked at the GPS units they had. The only thought I had about any of them are "these touch screens are so hard to use."

I realized that was because none of them supported multi-touch. To zoom in you had to go press a little software button, and it would zoom in one level. The levels are all arbitrary. Dragging the map was often relatively unresponsive, if you were even allowed to do it. Compared to the small amount of time I've messed with iPhones (I don't own one) it was just annoying. The interface on the iPhone is just so much better for the map.

It's the same thing at my local Borders. They've always had customer terminals around the store to look up books and such, as long as I've lived here. But a few years ago they replaced some with touch screen devices. Now I think they all are.

Before they just had a mouse and a keyboard. I could what I want in fast, and browse easily using the mouse.

Now they are touchscreen devices. Half the time they don't even seem to respond to my finger touch. I've never been able to decide if I'm touching too fast or slow, hard or soft. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The keyboard buttons (which are at least 1-1.5" on each side) are hard to hit with any accuracy. Sure my finger tip is smaller than the button, but I can't seem to press them accurately. Note that this isn't a calibration problem. Once I've figured out how off the individual machine is, it's still hard to hit the right button. The lack of any kind of tactile feedback (the auditory and visual feedback, if there, is often 100-200ms late and thus useless).

Basically, it's a pain to use. They took an easy interface everyone knew how to use, dumbed it down and made it far more useless, and spent a bunch of money in the process.

Yet I could type on the little tiny iPhone keyboard pretty well within seconds of trying. Clearly it was well written, with touch screens in mind. Compare that to the Borders system which, from what I can tell, is just a fancy website with the touchscreen operating as a mouse, distilling whatever you do into a standard mouse click. This removes all subtle differences that could be used to help figure out what you're trying to do.

This is with relatively powerful computers (1GHz plus). Imagine how well touch interfaces could have been done 15 years ago with a 25 to 100MHz processor. Thing how useful touch interfaces were 20+ years ago when most people only had character based displays and were using DOS.

I'd only now that we are getting the necessary precision, processing power, and experience to start making good (multi)touch interfaces.

Re:Not effective (at least to date) (4, Insightful)

znu (31198) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448652)

I realized that was because none of them supported multi-touch. To zoom in you had to go press a little software button, and it would zoom in one level. The levels are all arbitrary. Dragging the map was often relatively unresponsive, if you were even allowed to do it. Compared to the small amount of time I've messed with iPhones (I don't own one) it was just annoying. The interface on the iPhone is just so much better for the map.

This is an important point. Touch screen interfaces are much less abstract than non-touch interfaces. You're actually physically manipulating real little "objects", rather than issuing commands. The problem with this is, the first time you try to drag something, or scroll or zoom, and the interface element you're working with doesn't follow your finger, you're sunk. The whole illusion is shattered, and the UI feels extremely awkward.

This requires a fair bit of graphics processing capability, certainly by the standards of portable devices.

Even the iPhone's hardware isn't quick enough to scroll e.g. complex web pages like this -- so what Apple did, rather cleverly, is, rather than slowing down scrolling (failing to track the finger) until the device catches up, the device simply keeps on smoothly scrolling, filling spaces it hasn't had a chance to draw yet with a checkerboard pattern, which provides a spacial reference.

There are other little things like this that make the device feel more responsive as well. For instance, if you try to scroll off the top of a web page (or other vertically scrollable view), the phone will let you -- the scroll will keep right on following your finger. Then, once you let go, the view will bounce back.

These kinds of tricks were not particularly obvious. Natural-feeling touch UI requires an entirely new vocabulary of UI behaviors, and that's just starting to emerge now.

The Apple-effect? (0, Flamebait)

magnus.ahlberg (1211924) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447812)

This will sound like I'm a total Apple fanboy, but I'm not and I don't think that everything that Apple does is great. However, Apple has a way with understanding consumer needs and to make geeky technology attractive and useful for the average person (and by average, I of course mean anyone rich enough to by their often overpriced gear).

iphone... (1)

snarfies (115214) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447814)

To this day, I don't fully trust touchscreen, to the point where I will not even consider an iphone or any other phones without actual physical buttons. To this day I still find myself using ATM machines where I have to repeatedly jab at spots on a screen that either will not respond to touch or that are slightly misaligned.

two-handed operation (1)

petes_PoV (912422) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448002)

The nice thing about a "normal" phone is that it's possible and even easy to hold and press it's buttons with just one hand. So if you're carrying something you don't have to put it down - or if you're dangling from the end of a rope, you can all the emergency services to come and rescue you.

If you're dangling from said rope with only an iPhone in your hand, you're pretty much screwed - unless you have learned the trick of operating it's touch-screen with your nose.

Re:two-handed operation (0, Offtopic)

HairyCanary (688865) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448062)

I hold my iphone all the time with one hand and type with the thumb on that hand. The trick is applying something to the phone to give it more grip (a silicone case, or as I did, BestSkinsEver). A bare iphone is too slippery to safely hold and type with in one hand, giving it some traction makes worlds of difference.

Lightpens (2, Interesting)

gilesjuk (604902) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447824)

Lightpens never caught on, a shame really as I like the idea.

Problem is back then the screen technology was poor, low res and curved.

Re:Lightpens (1)

mikael (484) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448138)

I had the lightpen controller for the Atari 800/800XL. It was really neat just being able to point the pen at a point on the screen, press the silver contact, and have something happen - fun applications were a scientific calculator, virtual musical keyboard, and games like chess, reversi, join-the-dots, tic-tac-toe. It was much easier to play than using a joystick, especially for isometric views.

The simple answer (4, Insightful)

SoapBox17 (1020345) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447828)

Touch isn't very useful when you have room for a mouse and/or keyboard. Big and bulky desktops don't have much use for touch (except when used in place of a mouse, but that has been going on for a long time).

The reason touch has become so popular lately is because it has only been recently that powerful chips have become small enough and that power (batteries) have become light enough that we can find use for this stuff right in our pockets--where a mouse/keyboard just isn't practical. (Unless you believe in thumb keyboards, but those are very cumbersome IMO.)

Re:The simple answer (1)

HairyCanary (688865) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448074)

I agree. A touchpad doesn't make a lot of sense if you have the means to use a mouse. It's perfect for laptops and handheld devices, though.

I think it's a mistake to see touchpads as competition for mice and keyboards. It's an alternative technology, not a replacement.

Greasy.. (4, Funny)

brxndxn (461473) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447830)

The greasy 70's and sweaty 80's rendered touch screens intolerable after any sort of use. Now, people are much less greasy and sweaty.

I swear no one had AC in the 80's.

Re:Greasy.. (2, Insightful)

ozbird (127571) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448388)

Now, people are much less greasy and sweaty.

No, they're not; fingerprints are still an eyesore on monitors.

There are some appalling grotty screens around work - and they're not touch screens! Some people feel the urge to not just point at the screen, but tap it with their finger for emphasis. Plastic LCD screens aren't as abrasion-resistant as the CRT monitors that replaced them, so when they do clean the thing with whatever dust-laden rag was handy, they often leave a permanent scuff mark.

Look, but don't touch.

have we forgotten... (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23447834)

...the gorilla arm?

CHEAP LCDs (5, Insightful)

Chris Snook (872473) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447836)

Seriously, touch-screen CRTs were an extraordinary pain in the ass. Aside from the gee-whiz factor, they were useless as input devices.


Tony Hoyle (11698) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447994)

You stil see them a lot in shopping centres etc. They're not useless.. they just have very specific usages.

At the moment touch is in fashion again. After a little while it'll find its niche and be used where it's most useful. then the fave technology of the week will be something else.


Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23448114)

You are wrong. From dry cleaners to restaurants touch screens are used in a lot of places, where they are much more practical than a mouse.

You could put LCDs at a 45 degree angle (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23448418)

People keep saying that touch screen is tiring over a period of time, but if implimented correctly they would probably work fairly well. Especially with LCDs, it is possible to lay touch screens horizontally, pretty much destroying the fatigue argument. For people who want some kind of feedback, the computer can make a clicky noise in the same way that digital cameras mask a noise when a photo is taken. The last problem would be the click lag..meh.

Because it is not as easy to use. (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23447846)

I personally don't think it is as easy to use. You don't get the feed back you when you use a input device like a keyboard. You can't "feel" where the keys are. You need to stare at the screen to use the technology. On simple and small devices like phones it makes more sense because you have to cram so much into so little. For everyday workstations it does not makes sense. Look at the touch screen / motion sensitive input media wall type devices. Would you really want to stand around waving your hands all day long to manipulate your device? Some people should to get some exercise, but I think an 8 hour work day a waving your hands around would be tiring.

... because it's a terrible interface (4, Insightful)

petes_PoV (912422) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447860)

Think about it.

You have to wave your arms around - which is very tiring (much more so than a couple of finger movements for a mouse). that means you can't keep it up for more than a couple of minutes. If you don't beleive me, just try holding your arm aoutstretched for any length of time.

Second, it takes up an enormouse amount of space. Your fingers don't have the dots-per-inch resolution of a mouse, so the interface area has to be bigger and therefore more expensive.

On a purely practical point, you also cover up the object you're addressing. Unless you have transparent fingers, you can't see all the detail of whatever's underneath. A basic and unresolvable design flaw.

Finally, there's the goo factor. Imagine all the smears, stains and gunge that will accumulate on the touch surface - both from your hands and everyone else who uses it. Apart from the obvious hygiene issues, the surface will get dirty. We know how annoying the occasional fingerprint is on a screen - now think what it'll be like when the screen is covered in grease and other smudges.

In summary, it never caught on. The only people who advocate it are those who've watched Minority Report a few too many times. It's not cool, it's not futuristic and hopefully is doomed to the junkheap of techno-history along with punch-cards and robo-vacuum cleaners.

Re: ... because it's a terrible interface (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23447912)

In summary, it never caught on.

millions of iPhones/iTouches sold begs to differ about it never catching on. Not to mention that the same technology will be making its way to consumer laptops and business conference rooms. People like this technology. Yes, you will have smears on it, but with every technology, that will get better with every revision. The fact that you are so against a technology its a character flaw. Be open to it, try it and decide then. All the examples you gave were nothing by hypotheticals when a consumer device has been on the market for almost a year.

This is cool technology. This demo [] is by far my favorite.

Re: ... because it's a terrible interface (1)

Javagator (679604) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448006)

millions of iPhones/iTouches sold begs to differ

The iPhone is a portable device where a mouse is not practical. I doubt that touch screens will catch on for desktops or even laptops for all the reasons that the grand parent mentioned.

Re: ... because it's a terrible interface (1)

bigstrat2003 (1058574) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448102)

The fact that you are so against a technology its a character flaw.
Bullshit. There's nothing wrong with disliking a particular technology, and it's rather arrogant of you to imply that he must like everything.

Re: ... because it's a terrible interface (1)

Yvan256 (722131) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447954)

In summary, it never caught on.
Tell that to Nintendo, they've sold millions of Nintendo DS.

Re: ... because it's a terrible interface (1)

bigstrat2003 (1058574) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448182)

They have (indeed, I own one, and love it), but there aren't exactly any DS games I can think of which make any good use of the touch screen. The only game I've played that has a decent concept is SimCity DS, and their implementation is flawed. The haters are right on this one, the DS touch screen is a gimmick... or if it isn't, I have yet to see any evidence to the contrary.

Re: ... because it's a terrible interface (1)

icegreentea (974342) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448390)

Elite Beat Agents. Or the massive amount of relatively senseless Japanese puzzle games that are for some reason so addicting.

Re: ... because it's a terrible interface (1)

arb phd slp (1144717) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448874)

Phantom Hourglass used the touchscreen well. And every other input method except the D-pad.

Hotel Dusk Room 215 had a sortof Myst-like point-and-click thing that would not have workd well with a D-pad

The Brain Age series couldn't work without the touchscreen.

I don't know why "just a gimmick" is considered such a bad thing for a feature on a toy.

Re: ... because it's a terrible interface (1)

Yvan256 (722131) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448720)

Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is played entirely with the stylus. I had my doubts too before I purchased it, but it really is amazing. Give yourself some time to get used to it, after that it seems extremely intuitive.

Also, be aware that most third party titles usually aren't up to par with Nintendo in terms of quality (not only gameplay, but interface as well). For the Wii, I'd recommend Metroid Prime 3 in "expert mode" (or whatever it's called).

Re: ... because it's a terrible interface (1)

Steauengeglase (512315) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447962)

You use the kiosk at the bank, grocery store or public library and I don't hear any complaints about smudges or hygiene there. In those scenarios you don't want a full keyboard laying around that someone can vandalize (ie. jam the keys or rip the thing out) or get rained on.

Re: ... because it's a terrible interface (1)

75th Trombone (581309) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448180)

On a purely practical point, you also cover up the object you're addressing. Unless you have transparent fingers, you can't see all the detail of whatever's underneath. A basic and unresolvable design flaw.

Completely unresolvable, obviously, since no one ever invented a device that will show a thumbnail of what's under your finger above or to the side of it [] .

Great! Now I have to wash the screen all the time. (2, Insightful)

bAdministrator (815570) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447862)

Honestly, would you pick your nose after rubbing your finger in someone else's pee?

Re:Great! Now I have to wash the screen all the ti (1)

Mix+Master+Nixon (1018716) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448800)

Depends on the situation, I suppose.

They needed to make more money. (1)

jpellino (202698) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447906)

And the new thingy was just lying there on the bench. Yoorikah, chumps!

Innovation often enters the mainstream when someone says "they'll pay more / more often for this thingy".

Electric can openers originally existed to make more money than the saturated manual can opener market.

Beyond that, they do make sense, and "well done" to those who use it in a suddenly-obvious wonderful way.

If Apple were a normal company making a jillion dollars on Macs, you might not have ever seen the iPhone.

But then you have to factor in Steve jobs and Jonathan Ive, who don't think like normal people.

And yes, I know - the soccer ball iMac was more "because we can and you'll buy it" than "design and logic had a baby".

But hey.

The UI (2, Interesting)

cuby (832037) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447908)

Who needs touch screens to insert text in a command line? (70's and 80's way)
Unless the UI is appealing and useful, they don't add any value, that's why they are becoming popular now.

Latency (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23447924)

honestly, when thinking of the zillions of public terminals with a touch screen interface i ve used so far, i always thought touchscreens suck. like most of us, i figured it s probably because im missing the haptic feedback. however, after recent playing with the newest apple touchscreen products, i figured out the real thing that was bugging me out: for some strange bogonic reason those terminals always had an unbearable latency time, you push and then .... finally, after ages, the screen would react. the apple products have no lag, and surprise, they are actually quite enjoyable to use

Re:Latency (1)

mikael_j (106439) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448358)

That's exactly the impression I used to have of touchscreens as well, all the public terminals that seemed to react so slowly, and if it wasn't the actual touchscreen then the rest of the system seemed to be horribly slow instead, taking several seconds to do things that should happen instantly.

And then there are the UI issues, every public terminal I saw prior to 2005 that was touchscreen-equipped had a UI that looked like it had been designed by someone who just didn't understand the technology they had at hand, not to mention that any graphics and icons involved would look like they were created by a team of 50 year-old IBM engineers, bonus points if the icons despite their combination of ugly and simple still didn't make the least bit of sense.


Correct answer: Mu (5, Insightful)

sootman (158191) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447932)

Your question cannot be answered because it depends on incorrect assumptions. []

Touch didn't "just catch on." It's been around forever and has been evolving steadily and is being used in more and more places. You're postulating that because the iPhone uses touch and Bill Gates did a demo that now, May 2008, it has "arrived"? Touch isn't just now "catching on," it's simply becoming more and more common as technology improves. The regular iPod has had a touch-sensitive wheel ever since the 2nd generation. Laptops have had trackpads for ages. PDAs have had touch-sensitive screens since, well, as long as they've been around. I've seen touchscreen kiosks and ordering screens (Arby's used to have them) The only thing I can say is that as touch technology improves in the same way that all technology improves--becoming cheaper and smaller, in addition to better--it's being offered in more devices where small and cheap matters--i.e., portables.

I had a touchscreen 17" CRT at home almost ten years ago, and while it was really neat--there's something really satisfying about actually pressing a link with your finger to 'click' on it--it was a pain (literally) to use for any extended amount of time. Touch works best when your arms can be at rest, which means your hands won't move much, which means a small device. Now, who wants to poke on a tiny screen on their desk, when they could instead use a mouse and keyboard to manipulate objects on a 20" screen? No one. So, where does that leave us? Where is touch useful? Ding ding ding! In tiny devices that are already in your hand. Or, to put it another way, it's not so much that touch is just now "catching on," it's that we're finally finding things that it's really good for. Like I said, a touchscreen is not a good replacement for a regular old mouse.

Multitouch is a nice new addition to touch technology, but you know what? I hardly ever use it on my iPhone. I rarely zoom in or out. I click and drag a lot, and double-tap to zoom in and out, but this is nothing that couldn't have been done on a mid-90s Palm.

Mod parent up. Touch makes sense on handhelds. (1)

Animats (122034) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448056)

Mod parent up. Touch-screens have been around for many years, in fast food, industrial control, kiosks, and similar casual-use push-big-buttons applications. Touch screens are a huge pain for a session long enough that you want to sit down. So they're useful for palm-sized devices.

But for text editing, or graphical input? No way. It's too blunt a tool.

Re:Mod parent up. Touch makes sense on handhelds. (1)

geek (5680) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448334)

Well if you combine it with voice recognition a lot of the problems disappear. The thing is though that VR isn't very good these days. Perhaps in the future.

Heres why. (3, Insightful)

dunezone (899268) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447946)

You could ask the same question about CD technology, plasma TV, the computer. Alot of technology we have today was developed 20/30/40 years ago, the problem is that that its not profitable or easy to manufacture, develop, and sell these technologies.

This applies to the touch screen table tops and such. We had this technology for a while but its just now were the price to sell the product and the price to produce for the product is in reach of both huge corporations and smaller companies.

For the past thirty years most fast food stores were using the stander hierarchy register machine, green display, you pressed a keypad that added an item and it was top to bottom, very difficult to go back to the top of the list to modify a mistake. Now you go to Mcdonalds, they have touch screen displays, they display the image of the food(Big Mac), you press the items they want or do not want(lettuce, ketchup,mustard), and there is the order and if you need to correct a mistake you can easily click an item and fix the mistake.

Could they have had these type of registers earlier? Yeah, but they weren't cost effective till about 2000 when I believe they started to slowly replace the older registers with these registers.

The point is, the technology is there, its just a matter of making it cheap enough and affordable for companies and people to develop it and buy it.

The day I have a table the size of my kitchen table that can support six people playing an RTS, all through touch screens, none of that voice crap that ive seen on youtube, and were yelling off commands and tactics to each other against six other people in another room, will be the day I crap my pants.

Why has it caught on now? (3, Interesting)

Valkyre (101907) | more than 6 years ago | (#23447998)

I think the reason you haven't seen touch catch on before now is because of how horrendous it is. Tactile feedback isn't just a side effect of current interface methods, it's an important aspect to input. Even ignoring problems with touch that may be solved as the technology matures (dirt/grease, unintentional gestures, dirtying up a display that doubles as the input device, losing finger position), touch simply doesn't feel like interaction.

As far as actual devices go, having sold both touch and classical variants on appliances, I can say that the more often someone uses a touch interface, the less inclined they are to continue using it. When someone's favorite model transitions to a 'touch' type interface, they can't return it for what they had been using fast enough. It's the hot new thing that nobody likes to use, but everyone thinks is real pretty.

Even Star Trek, the hands-down Sci-Fi 'King of Touch' acknowledged the technology's limitations. To quote Tom Paris: "I am tired of tapping panels. For once, I want controls that let me actually feel the ship I'm piloting."

Simple (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23448020)

... because the iPhone:
  • has no mouse,
  • makes a great use of the touchscreen, and
  • hype too (well, if Apple does it, then it's fashionable).

Touchscreens have been available in all kinds of devices, but for long they were expensive, the thick glass on top of CRT diminished clarity (not to mention fingerprints), and they were poorly integrated with the system. Touchscreens were fine in information kiosks designed to use them, but no so good on my Axim and Sony UX280 which have crappy interfaces to deal with (hear that Windows).

Apple made a good job on this and they deserve the credit for it (or whoever they xerox the idea from).

Why? Simple. (1)

Todd Knarr (15451) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448048)

Two words: gorilla arm [] .

Not enough computer power. (2, Insightful)

barfy (256323) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448134)

In order for touch, and multi-touch to be successful requires a large amount of UI bandwidth for feedback and interaction, it needs to be nearly seamless to work well.

Prior to current days, hardware just made better user interactions. A keyboard or a mouse do a lot of complicated things to feel right to the user, and yet output a simple qualified input to the computer system.

Today all of that complexity and even more is being placed into the UI at the expense of other activities, which until relatively recently was mostly CPU bound.

The last was the elegant creation of the idea to fire up everyone else. In this case the Iphone.

But just like the advancements in keyboards, mouse, trackpads, and game controllers we have only seen the beginning.

My hope is that this will also catch on with the tablet form factor, where somebody will wake up and realize the best place for the menu on a tablet is probably not the upper right hand corner, where a righty will obscure the screen. And that it probably deserves to exist or the right hand side for most items, and even look a lot more like the office ribbon, than the standard menu bar.

This is cool though, we are on the cusp of the next wave of UI. That that comes after the current mouse oriented menu and panel methods. It will be cool!

smudgy stinky iphone sucks (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23448136)

I just came here to say the smudgy, stinky iPhone sucks. You can take my p910a from my cold, dead hands.

because of size you dumbass (1, Flamebait)

timmarhy (659436) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448154)

duh, pc's and screens were large and bulky in the 70's and 80's. what are you going to carry that 10kg PC around to use it's touch screen? a keyboard and mouse are still a way better interface for most things.

this has to be the most braindead post on /. ever.

Touchlib (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23448158)

I expect the growth of forums like [] and wide use of [] which is part of Google's Summer of Code 2008 projects might have something to do with it. Now that it's accessible to DIY'ers there is a lot more community support for home-lab research into materials and methods like [] or [] as examples.

Because the DS showed it to the masses (1)

HalAtWork (926717) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448176)

Because it was (re?)introduced to the masses with the DS in a way that showed them how it could be useful and entertaining. Before, all the average user could do was buy a really expensive and hard to find computer monitor with limited applications that were geared toward the device itself (as opposed to just letting you control mouse cursor clicks or menu selections). I'm sure a lot of people wanted the benefits of the device before now, but they were concerned with smearing or scratching their screens, and paying a lot for very little gain. PDAs were the only semi-common item with touch screens, but they were complicated to the average user and didn't have any entertaining or immediately appealing uses for the touch technology.

Now, on cheaper and smaller devices that have extended themselves to include many applications that familiarize users with these capabilities (iPod Touch, iPhone, DS, is there much else that is reaching the mass audience and catching the attention of your grandpa?), it sometimes makes more sense than dedicated buttons, plus anything that increases screen real-estate makes it more attractive to the consumer.

Besides, what devices could have benefited from touch screens in the past, where it wouldn't have been cost prohibitive? Were the devices missing their target audience and not being purchased because of the lack of these features? Aren't we just following the natural evolution of these devices given market reception to surprisingly successful risks that Nintendo and Apple have taken?

Durability an issue (1)

Ruprecht the Monkeyb (680597) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448184)

In addition to a lot of the reasons mentioned above, it's only recently that it's become reasonably durable and reliable. I remember the early touch screens, and the damn things couldn't hold up in public. Something that's always on the fritz, no matter how cool or easy to use, is inferior to something that's functional and reliable. In some regards, the technology probably arrived too early, and enough people got burned on the early generations that it hurt the development.

Maturity (1)

Pitr (33016) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448298)

It took a while for the mouse to catch on as a computer interface. And if you compare the first mouse to even one of today's cheapest offerings, most users will agree the original sucks in comparison. Likewise, it took time for the touch screen interface to catch on. The accuracy used to be questionable at best, and they would frequently start to fail after a modest amount of use. (as is many iPhones still developed "dead" spots on their touch screens)

Any technology takes time to "catch on" in a mainstream fashion due to several reasons. 1) it's pricey, 2) the first/early version(s) is/are lacking in ergonomics, 3) the first/early version(s) is/are lacking in quality/robustness.

All these things are improved as technology matures, the touch screen just followed the normal progression of things. It was expensive, poorly implemented, and fragile, and is now affordable, effective (for certain applications), and robust (mostly), and will continue to improve.

Patents often slow down progress (1)

waveman (66141) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448300)

This is not unusual. At the dawn of the industrial revolution, James Watts patents on a key aspect of the steam engine held back the industrial revolution by several decades.

Re:Patents often slow down progress (1)

g0at (135364) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448668)

James Watt -- singular.

Not really (0, Flamebait)

vurg (639307) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448310)

It hasn't caught on really. The technology has just gotten cheaper to whore to the general consumers by corporate dictators like Steve Jobs. People are still oohed by the coolness factor.

We had touch screen video games back in the 90's (1)

Joe The Dragon (967727) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448338)

With lots of games on them.

Eh. (1)

Vegeta99 (219501) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448472)

It "took this long" to catch on because its kinda klutzy.

My PDA phone has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard /and/ a touch-screen with a rather nice finger keyboard. But it still blows. I can type a message on the phone with the keyboard and not take my eyes off the road, but not so on a touch screen. there's no tactile feedback!

failzoErs. (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23448564)

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An idea whose time had come (1)

spaceyhackerlady (462530) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448744)

All the ingredients have been around for a while, but it's only now that they have come together in a big enough way to be noticed: battery power, compute power, UI design, display quality, applications that people will actually buy.

I have an iPod Touch and love it as a portable media/information gadget. But I also despise the way Apple are handling the SDK rollout. I'm not going to invest a dime on development for it if I have no guarantee that I will ever be able to run what I write on a real device.


Because it sucked four decades ago (1)

Rick Genter (315800) | more than 6 years ago | (#23448924)

I developed for touchscreen technology back in the early 80s (prototype calculator/point-of-sale application). Touchscreen technology just plain sucked back then. It required frequent recalibration, and its resolution was piss-poor.

Let the conspiracy theorists postulate about patents all they want, the fact of the matter is, it wasn't ready back then (and neither were the platforms to use it - who'd want a touchscreen on their 4.77 MHz 8088 PC?).
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