Touch control is another interface technology that is here with us today, but you can expect it to become more important with time. Touch came of age two years ago with the iPhone and iPod touch, with their superior touch-screen interfaces and pinching, swiping multi-touch commands. Since then, a touch-screen interface has become the mark of the advanced portable device, whether it's a smartphone, a media player or digital camera. Touch is also crossing over into the computing sphere, with multi-touch enabled touchpads, touch-sensitive monitors, multi-touch tablets and the native integration of touch control into Windows 7.
A gimmick? Maybe not. There are definitely situations where a touch-based interface removes a barrier between technology and user. As the iPod touch and iPhone showed us, touch to select, sweep to browse and pinch to zoom are simple, natural gestures that don't require any facility with buttons, menus or slider to work. They're intuitive, and users just get them. In Windows and on Mac OS, problems remain for Touch in that support is far from ubiquitous across the most common applications, and that there's a serious problem with granularity - touch simply doesn't give you the level of fine control that you get with a mouse. However, while touch-driven PCs like the HP TouchSmart IQ810 have a whiff of style over substance today, they could be showing us the way we'll use some PCs or PC like devices tomorrow. If large-screen interactive entertainment and information displays enter our homes and workplaces, then touch may well be the primary way that we interact with them.
Look, for example, at Microsoft's Surface. On first impressions it's nothing smarter than a computer built into a coffee table with a whopping great touch-screen taking on the role of display and interface. But then you see what you can do, dragging and flicking documents and images around, rotating them or passing them to another user on the other side of the table. Place something on the table, and Surface can scan it into memory. It's even designed to transfer files from a digital camera so positioned.
Surface might not be the future of personal computing, but it might be a glimpse into the future of public computing. It's designed, you see, for use in public locations by multiple users. Early showcase applications include an educational project, TellTable, where kids can create their own dramas with characters and scenery built from imported images or ‘finger-painted' directly onto the tabletop, and a Surface version of the classic geek pastime, Dungeons and Dragons has also bee demonstrated. Future applications might include event management, where several organisers could drag and drop markers and notes around a map at the same time. Alternatively, just think of the Surface-like computer being used in M's office in the last Bond film, Quantum of Solace. It might be a CGI creation, but Surface shares much of the same functionality.