Congratulations to Jeff Han for winning the 2008 presidential race! It’s been a long, hard road to victory. Han has been working on this day for years, slowly gathering supporters and fending off better financed rivals.
No, I’m not talking about politics. Presidents come and go. But PC user interface paradigms last for decades.
Han is the founder of Perceptive Pixel, which creates multi-touch systems in general, and built CNN’s “Magic Map” system in particular. (You may be familiar with Han is the founder of Han’s TED demo from two years ago.) The company also created ABC News’ and CBS News’ interactive election touch-screen maps.
This was by far the most technology-oriented presidential election in history. But out of all the innovation used by candidates and the news organizations I think the use of the Perceptive Pixel systems is by far the most important and impressive.
Han is locked in a pitched battle to get multi-touch systems into the public imagination, fighting against the likes of Microsoft and Apple, as well as a huge roster of university laboratories. Han doesn’t sell to consumers. Instead, he focuses on high-end, semi-custom systems for the Pentagon, architectural firms and others.
Thanks to Apple, this kind of user interface is coming to be known as multi-touch, but in fact it’s much more than that. Multi-touch capability is no good without support for “gestures” — commands sent to the system by drawing shapes on screen — as well as “physics” — objects that move like they have the physical properties like weight, mass and momentum.
What’s challenging about all this from a cultural standpoint is that people don’t like to change. Multi-touch systems will mean the end of mice forever. And keyboards become optional. I’ve written about the inevitability of multi-touch systems for a couple years now, and many readers are clearly skeptical. A lot of tech pundits are negative on the technology, too.
As Americas were glued to their TVs during the election, they saw most major networks using these systems. Unlike holograms and other goofy show-biz technology that news programs trotted out to dazzle viewers, the Perceptive Pixel systems are real. They’re not just for show, but provide an actually superior method for people, including news people, to explore rich data on the fly.
As we saw on the news, multi-touch interfaces provide what users are screaming for: More control.
Most users hate, or at least aren’t all that thrilled, with Windows Vista. The reasons for this are many, but I can oversimplify the problem by saying that the “feeling” of using Vista compared with XP is one of frustration in constantly trying to overcome obstacles between you and what you’re trying to accomplish. The Windows Vista user interface is always in the way.
The Perceptive Pixel UI, on the other hand, practically vanishes. Psychologically, you’re touching and manipulating data directly.
So how will you use your own CNN “magic map”? Well, you won’t usually use it on a flat, black-board-like configuration like CNN’s chief national correspondent John King unless you’re giving presentations. The most likely configuration will be in a drafting-table format.
Imagine a flat-screen that pivots from an upright, chalk-board configuration to a table-top orientation. Typically, you’ll have it at a slight angle. You’ll reach out and touch the screen with your fingers, conjuring up data and applications, and resizing, moving and discarding things at will. You won’t use a mouse or a keyboard. If you want to type, you’ll do the keyboard gesture, and an on-screen keyboard will appear on screen (which you can also resize).
Microsoft already promised this kind of interface for Windows 7, already sells a multi-touch computer called Surface and has hinted at its intention to create a consumer version of Surface. Apple owns key patents for this kind of user interface, and of course sells its multi-touch iPhone.
Mark my words, the “Magic Map” PC is coming to mainstream PC users, and it will change everything.
When you first try your own “Magic Map” user interface, it’ll be strange and awkward and you’ll struggle with it — like users on ABC and NBC. But over time, you’ll become a master of the UI, like CNN’s John King.
You can see in King’s mastery the main benefit of multi-touch interfaces. King zooms in, zooms out, tosses around interactive pie charts and responds to unexpected questions with the right facts instantly. King circles key states, zooms states, or key data about those dates to near full-screen, clicks back to see data from previous elections on the same map, even brings up, resizes and moves high-def video.
CNN’s “Magic Map” is just a single application. Imagine an entire ecosystem of applications designed to work in this way. It’s a big shift, and will take some getting used to. But it’s vastly superior to the old WIMP (windows, icons, menu, Pointing device) user interface. It’s change we can believe in.
So congratulations to Jeff Han, who has successfully introduced to the public the awesome power and thrill of multi-touch user interfaces. Now let’s get this revolution started!