Look Ma, No Buttons

Futuristic touch-screen technology is quickly becoming a present-day reality on many consumer electronic gadgets

In the 2002 thriller Minority Report, detective John Anderton, (played by Tom Cruise) uses gloved hands to manipulate images on three-dimensional charts. The depiction of futuristic technology was set in 2054.

The future arrived sooner than expected. The features that let Cruise's character quickly sift through crime data represent a new breed of gesture-based, touch-sensitive technologies that are becoming a reality in 2007—and revolutionizing consumer electronics.

iPhone Leads the Way

Apple (AAPL) Chief Executive Steve Jobs literally put his finger on the trend on Jan. 9 when he unveiled the iPhone, a cell phone that has no buttons and is operated via touch screen. Nintendo's (NTDOY) new gaming console, the Wii, uses the player's movements to control game play. Korea's LG will make its own touch-screen mobile phone, the LG Prada, designed with the fashion house of Miuccia Prada, available in Europe in February.

Those devices are just the tip of the touch-screen iceberg. Devices ranging from cell phones to TV remotes to MP3 players to global positioning systems (GPS) are due for a makeover as they incorporate touch screens and gesture-based navigation.

"There's a certain maturing now in interface and graphics," says Jeff Han, a consultant on touch-screen displays at New York University. "The computer is a little untapped right now. It's time for the computer to start doing more."

By 2012, 40% of the world's cell phones will feature touch screens, compared with only 3% today, estimates Stuart Robinson, a director with consultancy Strategy Analytics. Most of these devices may have only one button—or no buttons at all. Touch-screen technology is being used to a limited degree on personal digital assistants and tablet PCs.

But bigger changes in how users call up features on devices are long overdue, researchers say. Today's phones, remote controls, and mainstream PCs look much like they did two decades ago, with raised buttons and dial pads here and there.

"If you went to sleep in 1982 and woke up today, you'd be able to drive today's computers as well as you could drive today's cars," says Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at software giant Microsoft (MSFT). "If you look at the computer experience, things have not changed very much."

Chips Propel Progress

Thanks in part to agents of change like Apple, innovation is on the way. Advances in the software and chips on the inside of devices are also facilitating changes on the outside.

Microsoft's new Windows Vista operating system, debuting for consumers this month, as well as more capable processors from chipmakers Intel (INTC) and AMD (AMD), allow for more options in so-called input interface—the external display and keypad used to control a device.

"I don't think the technology and the processing power were there before," says Robert Nalesnik, senior director of marketing for mobile platforms at chipmaker Broadcom (BRCM). "Now you are getting to the point when you really have the horsepower to do it."

Change will also happen from the outside in, with new displays and ways of entering information transforming what machines can do and how they behave. New keypads, for example, could also change the way we type.

IBM (IBM) has developed a technology called ShapeWriter for typing on a touch screen using a stylus or a finger. Rather than pressing individual keys, a user would move his or her finger around the screen's keyboard to point out words, lifting a finger to indicate when a word is complete. Software would then match the pattern traced from letter to letter with that in a dictionary database.

The method could let a user type 30 to 40 words a minute, compared with 15 words typical for handwriting, says IBM researcher Shumin Zhai, who is hoping to offer the technology to carriers and handset makers.

Innovative Applications

Touch-screen technology can also multiply a device's features—enabling, say, a cell phone to double as other devices by doing away with dozens of specialized buttons required for specific tasks such as playing music and video. "Your phone has become a Swiss Army knife," says Nalesnik. "It's become very confusing."

But a phone equipped with a touch screen can offer separate, virtual buttons and screens for each function. So when you use it as a music player, the phone's interface only displays the pause, play, and fast-forward buttons and playlists, for example. What's more, new functions and buttons can be added to the phone with simple over-the-air software downloads.

As touch-screen technology takes off, so will haptics—a technology that makes a touch-screen button feel like a real button. On Jan. 17, Samsung said its SCH-W559 touch-screen phone will use haptics from a company called Immersion (IMMR), which holds more than 600 existing and pending patents on this technology.

Its VibeTonz technology makes a virtual key vibrate when pressed, so users feel like they are pressing real buttons. The same technology will debut this year in casino gaming touch-screen displays from 3M (MMM), letting users play multiple games on the same screen.

Meanwhile, gesture-based controls could make maps easier to use. You could zoom in on a map displayed on your cell phone or your ultramobile tablet PC by simply moving the device closer to your face.

A startup called InvenSense, whose funders include chipmaker Qualcomm (QCOM), sells sensors that let users navigate phone menus by moving a handset to the left and right (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/18/07, "Qualcomm's Crystal Ball"). This year the company’s technology, which lets users scroll through menus with gestures, will be used in mouse and TV remote control. (InvenSense hasn’t yet disclosed the manufacturer.)

In the first half of 2007, Perceptive Pixel plans to start selling 8-foot-wide touch screens to blue-chip corporations. The so-called multitouch displays, already used by the military, can take input from several fingers and several people at the same time.

So if you are looking at a hundred photos on such a screen, you might grab several with one finger's touch and group them together. With another hand, you might simultaneously zoom in on an image. "It simulates very closely how we interact with [actual things and paper] in the world," says Jeff Han, the NYU consultant who's also the company's CEO.

As Common as a Mouse

Of course, touch screens do have their faults: Smudges and scratches can make working on them a nuisance. And countless Wii remotes have already been thrown across the room by overly enthusiastic gamers.

Manufacturers are hard at work developing technology to address these problems. Synaptics' ClearPad touch screens, for instance, are made of clear plastic that's more durable than other materials. Nintendo has devised a wrist strap to keep the Wii controller in place.

Perceptive Pixel hopes to sell its screens to film companies looking for better ways to compile storyboards and to corporations for use in brainstorming meetings. "We are really encouraged by how many companies have contacted us," Han says. "I firmly believe this kind of stuff will eventually become as ubiquitous as a computer mouse."

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