Multitouch Moves to the Big Screen: PCs

Tap doesn't look like the future of personal computing the first time you see it. A mindless little game that resembles an abstract version of Whac-A-Mole, it hooks otherwise rational people into touching colored dots on a screen in order to make them disappear. The dots come fast and furious, forcing you to use all your fingers to keep up—until you suddenly realize your fingers are no longer mere substitutes for a computer mouse. They are the basis for a much more natural way of working with objects on a screen.

Tap, part of a set of applications called Snowflake Suite from Swedish startup Natural User Interface, is designed to show off the capabilities of a new generation of multitouch displays. With the launch of Windows 7, major computer makers are introducing ­multitouch-enabled versions of laptops, all-in-one desktops, and monitors. I tested touch features on one of the first products to reach the market, the Lenovo (LNVGY) ThinkPad T400s (around $2,000, about a $225 premium over a similar model with a conventional display).

Windows 7, like its predecessors, is designed to be used with a mouse and keyboard, and its user interface really doesn't go out of its way to deploy touch as much more than a mouse substitute. But the software includes the ability to handle up to four ­simultaneous touches and process a repertoire of standard touch gestures including scrolling, rotating, stretching, and shrinking.

By baking multitouch support into the operating system this way, Microsoft has taken a powerful step forward. It has allowed programmers to focus on the creative aspects of new applications, rather than the basics of touch. All developers need to do is reach into the toolbox that Microsoft (MSFT) has provided in Win 7. Building multitouch into the software also means the new apps will all use the same set of gestures, avoiding a huge potential source of user confusion.

The makers of touchscreen-equipped PCs also are doing their bit to make the technology useful. ­Lenovo includes a feature called SimpleTap that provides touch controls for basic functions such as screen brightness and audio volume. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) has developed a multitouch photo manager, media player, and other apps for its TouchSmart all-in-ones. And Microsoft provides a free Touch Pack for Windows 7 that includes some simple multitouch games and a nifty tool for creating photo collages.

It's going to take a bit of time for software developers to move beyond what are basically demos, but the possibilities are intriguing. The iPhone has already shown the potential for multitouch games, which could be even more interesting on the bigger display of a laptop or desktop. A forthcoming version of SpaceClaim Engineer , a high-end design program, will allow 3D rotation of a model by touching one finger to the point you want to use as a pivot and rotating the drawing with a second finger. Many creative tools, such as photo editing or drawing software, will be greatly enhanced by multitouch.

As is usually the case, hardware advances are going to come ahead of the dazzling software applications. For example, falling prices for multitouch laptop and desktop displays (the former mostly using technology from Israeli startup N-trig, and the latter mainly from New Zealand's NextWindow) are the chief reasons we will soon see multitouch on lots of mainstream PCs, even though applications are still relatively limited.

The advance of touch was slowed for years because software makers were stuck on the idea of using it for mouse replacement and handwriting input. It is now pretty clear that touch won't supplant keyboards and mice for text input, editing, and certain other tasks. But with multitouch displays becoming both good and quite cheap, a major transition will soon be under way.

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