The future of touch display?

Microsoft has been showing off its second generation surface computing technology, but does the development of this technology mean that the days of the mouse and keyboard are numbered?

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By  Gareth Van Zyl Published  March 18, 2009
Since 1987, the South by South West Festival (SXSW) has been hosted in Texas and it’s been known for showcasing the latest in music, film and interactive media. This week the festival shed light on Microsoft’s second generation surface computing technology, similar to the iPhone’s multi-touch display. But does the development of this technology mean that the days of the mouse and keyboard are numbered?

The South by South West Festival has heard that Microsoft’s second generation of surface computing technology is two to three years away from being released. The project displayed at the festival is known as Surface 2 and it is based on Microsoft’s ‘Second Light’ research.

Surface 2’s predecessor (aptly known as ‘Surface’) is a multi-touch computer in the shape of a table that has embedded cameras and a flat screen that reads multi-touch gestures. It has a niche market, that of the retail, automotive, financial services, health care and hospitality industries. It has, for instance, already been installed in a number of high-end New York hotels.

Surface 2 expands upon its predecessor by having a second projector inside the device that assists in overlaying a second layer above the existing layer. This becomes useful when overlaying satellite imagery over a photograph. Surface 2 will also have infrared sensors; so, one will be able to manipulate elements displayed on the screen by just waving one’s hand over the screen.

In a Microsoft research paper entitled “Going Beyond the Display”, there is a technical description of how exactly this Second Light tech works. The gist of it is that it is based on a switchable projection screen which can be made diffuse or clear under electronic control.

According to the paper, “The screen can be continuously toggled between these two states so quickly that the switching is imperceptible to the human eye. It is then possible to rear-project what is perceived as a stable image onto the display surface, when the screen is in fact transparent for half the time. The clear periods may be used to project a second, different image through the display onto objects held above the surface. At the same time, a camera mounted behind the screen can see out into the environment.”

With Microsoft targeting a more niche market at the moment for this kind of technology, one needs to question whether it could be taken up by the mass market. It seems strange to envisage people working on touch-display computers at their offices. It just doesn’t seem practical to me and the keyboard and mouse seem to be a timeless design. I think that scenes displayed in films such as Minority Report where Tom Cruise manipulates elements on a computer screen with the wave of a hand are still science fiction then, and that the keyboard and mouse are set to stay firmly attached to our computers for a while yet.

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