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Last Updated: Friday, 29 June 2007, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
Has touch technology come of age?
By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

Microsoft Surface, A

Technology is going touchy-feely as products appear which threaten to replace the humble mouse with finger-touch computing.

Touch technology has been around for decades and has found a role in many professions but rarely in the gadgets consumers carry around.

Now it is finding its way into both big and small devices, such as Microsoft's table computer and Apple's iPhone, it poses the question: "Has the technology finally come of age?".

Microsoft's Surface, with its price tag of up to 5,000, is unlikely to find a place in the home.

Instead restaurants, casinos and hotels are likely to snap it up, enabling customers to use it for ordering food, playing cards and browsing the web.

As prices fall, Microsoft expects Surface to move to the home, where it could be incorporated into walls or furniture.

One touch

Microsoft is taking touch technology seriously and has worked with Hewlett-Packard on a touch-sensitive PC, dubbed TouchSmart, which was launched with Microsoft's Vista operating system in January.

"It was the perfect hardware complement for Vista," said HP's Rob Crampton.

As people use their PCs to store music, films and photos, so the keyboard, mouse and switch-on procedure makes less sense, thinks Mr Crampton.

"If computers are used for entertainment then it needs the simplicity of an entertainment device," he said.

George Schmidt holds iPhone

"We are not looking at getting rid of the keyboard. People will always want to get out the keyboard if they want to send an e-mail, but for organising photos, DVDs or music there is no need.

"People want a PC in the front room or the kitchen or wherever and one button wakes it up. Touch it twice more and the radio is on, or four times and you can print out your photos," he said.

Touch in Safari?

Apple is hoping the iPhone proves popular although it won't be the first handset to use a touch screen.

Taiwanese phone maker HTC beat it to market with its TouchFLO phone which, unlike the iPhone, comes with a back-up stylus.

Some critics have said that the iPhone's touch screen makes texting hard work but most agree that the design is likely to filter down to other mobiles.

USB analyst Benjamin Reitzes certainly thinks so.

"We expect multi-touch to be prevalent in Apple's major hardware products within three to five years - making its way into touch-screen Macs next year. We also foresee new touch-screen video iPods, ultra-portables, more phones, and possibly even TVs," he wrote in a recent research note.

Much of the hype around touch technology lies in its ability to wow audiences and make real sci-fi tech that has previously been confined to Hollywood movies.

Jeff Han's touch-screen demo at TEC 2006

New York University research scientist Jefferson Han won fans at the TED (Technology Entertainment Design) conference where he showed off the potential of the multi-touch technology he has been working on.

In the 2006 presentation he amazed the audience by conjuring up and manipulating images as if he actually held them in his hands. "This is really the way we should be interacting with machines," he told the crowd.

"There is no reason in this day and age that we should be conforming to a physical device. These interfaces should start conforming to us," he said.

This year, he showed what could be done with some complex mapping software, a pair of hands and a 2.4m display.

The technology he has developed lets users interact with the system using both hands. It uses movement and pressure from multiple inputs to convey information to the silicon under the display.

Such displays would be too expensive for consumers, but Mr Han has had interest from government intelligence agencies, Lockheed Martin, CBS and Pixar.

The technology has been spun off into a company, Perceptive Pixel, which is building multi-touch table and interactive wall displays.

Fool's game

Such screens could pop-up in shops and museums and there is clearly much excitement in the industry about the potential of the technology.

Microsoft has described the nascent market as a multi-billion dollar industry but it is not ready to sound the death-knell of the mouse just yet.

Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft, has been studying touch technology since the 1980s. In a recent paper entitled 'Multi-Touch Systems that I have known and loved' he dismissed the idea that touch technology would kill off the mouse.

"Those who try to replace the mouse play a fool's game. The mouse is great for many things, just not everything. The challenge with new input is to find devices that work together with the mouse (such as in the other hand), or things that are strong where the mouse is weak," he wrote.

HP's Crampton sees the TouchSmart PC and others as opening the door for software developers to start using touch in their designs.

He is sure the technology has come of age.

"I think touch technology will come to dominate the home computing environment within three to five years," he said.

Watch, or maybe even touch, this space.

Apple's iPhone in action

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