So the 2013 International CES conference is closing its doors in Las Vegas today. While the event may have failed to spot – or start – a real major trend that would catch on (sorry smart fridges or big, big smart TVs), during the past few years, it is still a great place for getting a feel for where the mass market is heading.
We have obviously jumped into the era of touches, at least when speaking about consumer electronic devices. Touch screens appear in tablets, mobile phones, washing machines… Woohoo, no need for buttons! And now there are even flexible displays that may be folded almost like paper, made from ultra-thin plastic rather than glass.
Unfortunately the situation went so far that now buying some non-touch smartphone with an alphanumeric keypad is almost a mission impossible, unless you accept some older devices. Yet there are still a bunch of good reasons to get a device where touches are not required for control – you can use it even in freezing cold (unless, of course, you care to sport some of the special touchscreen gloves), you can type messages without observing the display, you do not have to polish it all the time…
The touching era has even made it so far that the new operating system from Microsoft dropped what mouse lovers have come to admire – the Start button and the Start menu. It has been replaced by a new interface optimized for touch control, giving no space for users to stick to their old habits.
Discussions about this have already taken terabytes of Internet disk storage space. Microsoft’s goal is clear – to have a unified platform for touch devices and desktop computers.
Touch devices are certainly on the rise but keyboards are not going away to hide in museums in the near future. So, what are the limitations of touch devices from my experience?
Imagine that your monitor (either a desktop or a notebook) is touch-responsive and you need to touch something now and then. Either you have a physical keyboard and this switching between two (actually three) pieces of equipment can be pretty distracting. If you don’t have a keyboard at all, you get a complete touch-board displayed along the bottom of the screen – in such a case you can expect the muscles in your arm to get well developed.
In order to work effectively and quickly, the human brain requires some sort of feedback to confirm that the activity has been performed. When hitting the button on the keyboard, you are rewarded with a physical move of the key and a quiet click sound. Your forefingers still feel the stumps on the keys, constantly re-calibrating your hand position and allowing you to reach any key quickly.
Touch devices can make a sound or vibrate but the feel of physical feedback is not there. Typing is not as certain as on a physical keyboard. We have yet to see how some of the emerging haptic technologies used to create tactile feedback systems will change this when they become available.
You can get a new keyboard for $4. Covering the whole display with a reliable touch-sensitive layer costs… I do not know… less than that? I do not think so. It is not about the layer only; it includes also the driving electronic circuitry, software drivers, etc.
Quite a number of hardware defects of touch devices are caused by the touch layer – it either stops responding or it starts responding whenever it wants. The latter happened to me personally – the touch screen started to regroup the icons on my phone and in the end it called my wife. Would you dare having something like that on your company notebook full of sensitive data?
Modern touch devices report many problems when the temperature reduces. Capacitance displays (the most popular ones these days) become quite stubborn (or even do not react at all) when you try to do something with your chilled finger. Gloves do not help – the touch layer needs direct contact with your skin to recognize the touch. You can get a pair of special touch-friendly gloves but they are certainly not made by Gucci, which could be a big problem for some people.
I have checked the first computer e-shop that popped up on my mind – they are offering 512 LCD monitors, 11 of them are touch-equipped, all of these using the oldest (and the ugliest) type of matrix (TN) to keep the cost as low as possible. It seems as if LCD producers do not believe in touches. It seems that touch devices will stay in the “fun electronic” category for some more time – despite their current popularity.
I can imagine some breakthrough that would make the touch control easier to use – such as a complete voice control of the PC. I can imagine people talking to some pads on their tables, moving their hands over it now and then… but this is in the distant future – the idea of controlling electronics with our voices has been with us for ages and no major breakthrough visible.