Getting touchy about tablets: Why one size really doesn't fit all

Getting touchy about tablets: Why one size really doesn't fit all

Summary: Touch is not just for things you can hold in one hand - we need digital whiteboards, drawing boards, light tables, canvases and more.


Paper comes in all sizes from Post-It notes to flipboards, whiteboards to canvases. So why shouldn't touchscreens?

In the analogue world, we're used to having a range of tools and creative surfaces for different purposes that are larger than we can carry around with ease: a meeting room table to lay out different documents on, a wall to pin up the layout pages for a magazine issue in process, a mood board for collecting inspiration, a drafting table, a whiteboard for architectural diagrams and brainstorming, or even a fridge door for spreading out family photos, doctors' appointments, sports fixtures and recipes.

How much of that would you want to do on a seven or ten-inch screen?

Dell's new XPS 18 is far from the only big tablet around. Sony has the 20-inch Tap, a touchscreen all-in-one you can use, flat, upright or at any angle in between thanks to a clever gearing system that keeps it at the angle you push or pull it to (it has a Core i7 and 8GB of RAM inside - these are powerful PCs).

Lenovo calls its big thin touchscreen all-in-one a table PC and has both business apps and board games for it, reminding us that big screens are good for more than one person.

And, if you have a big wall and lots of money, there's the 80-inch Perceptive Pixel touchscreen PC Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has on his office wall.

The tiltable Sony Tap

Artists have been using the rather pricey but fully pressure-sensitive Wacom Cintiq for years, usually on a table with its stand but sometimes in their laps. A composer friend pointed out the Smithson Martin Kontrol Surface, a 22-inch touchscreen mixing controller held at a 35 degree angle by its wooden sides.

touch mixing desk
The Kontrol Surface is at a comfortable angle of 35 degrees

I have to say, I don't understand the obsession with using a touch computer in your lap. Do we all work on the sofa now? We use whiteboards on a wall, drafting tables at an angle, paper stretched out on a table, depending on what we want to do and what we find comfortable and efficient. There are big touchscreens you can use flat on a table or propped up at a slight angle; when you want to do something on a larger scale, you're probably not leaning back on the sofa anyway.

And you don't want your screen trapped up on the wall either. Put the screen up when you want everyone to see it, push it down and pass it around when you want to write or draw on it. That's unless you have the money to have multiple screens, as in the Microsoft Envisioning Centre video that recently did the rounds, where you sit and stand by a display wall to have a meeting then walk over to a large screen at the angle of a drafting table, scooping up content from the wall and dropping it onto the table with a handheld tablet.

transfer gestures
In the future we might carry content from a wall to a table in a slate - and they'd all be computers

Commercial artist Christian Brown recently debunked the Minority Report interface as eye candy rather than effective, while Microsoft researcher and interaction expert Bill Buxton has pointed out that transparent screens are great for movie directors wanting to show the actor controlling the computer but terrible for productivity in the real world, as you gaze through the screen and get distracted by anyone walking past your desk. Tron had a better idea back in the day: how about a giant touch table you can swipe or type on?

But then I also want the handheld surface and the canvas surface and the whiteboard surface and the drafting surface, and I want touch in all the sizes and places, at all the angles that are useful.

I can't understand why you'd want to only have touch on something that's small enough to carry around and not on everything you work with - along with mouse and keyboard and pen and voice and eye tracking and all the other useful methods of input for what you happen to be doing at the time.

I want all the useful tools you can give me, because one size doesn't fit everything I do.

Topics: Emerging Tech, Hardware, Tablets, Microsoft Surface

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • Vertical larger displays

    Most really don't want to raise their arms up and around that far all day, just to get things done. Exception being, if it is briefly for a demonstration.
    D.J. 43
    • Yet

      people do that all day long, in lecture theatres, classrooms, meeting rooms etc. They have large whiteboards or blackboards and scrawl on them, photograph them, wipe them clean and start again.

      What if all that went straight into OneNote or Evernote and could be distributed to all attendees following the meeting? A mash up between a traditional projector/large screen TV and a whiteboard, that does both jobs is ideal for a meeting room. Getting people to actually collaborate in the meeting.

      There have been expensive alternatives over the years, but with modern technology, it is getting within reach of most companies meeting rooms or even class rooms.
      • Try it sometime.

        As somebody who has been in front of a whiteboard for long periods writing, I can assure you that it is indeed uncomfortable. Those aren't muscles that most of us use every day. You have to do it every day for months before your body develops the strength to do it without having pain at the end of the day.

        Despite that fact, I would love to have a wall sized display that allowed me to throw content onto it from my tablet. Sometimes, you just want to stand back and look at a problem for a bit to gain a different perspective. Seeing those sorts of displays depicted on shows like "Bones," really pushes the geek lust buttons on me.
    • do you get tired when you pin things on the fridge door?

      no-one is going to conduct a symphony to send an email but touching your tablet to throw content to a smartwall that you reach up and drag around? I don't have to work out at the gym to manage that for a minute or so in a meeting ;-)
  • The large-screen "touch" option is already solved

    It is called LeapMotion. This is going to give an alternative to the mouse and make touch a nonstarter, especially if you need demonstrative motions for presentations. It is surprising that the same company that produced Kinect didn't beat LeapMotion to the punch. Routine business use however, I still think the mouse as it is evolved - especially the more hand-contoured types, is most efficient and ergonomic on a vertical display. Touch is best for when your arms hang down (vertical flat).
    D.J. 43
  • Any size works just fine

    There are already many different size touch displays, from the watch size, to the white/blackboard size. Whatever we discuss here, these won't go away. Of course, every use requires different size display.

    Having said that, touching your high resolution display on a laptop or desktop is simply ridiculous. The examples given in the article, of Cintiq and Kontrol Surface are the best. These are specialised systems, that have very narrow usage. The example of the Kontrol Surface is especially useful, with it's 35 degree tilt.

    I can hardly imagine placing 65" whiteboard on one's lap.... :)
  • Touchscreen on the desk

    For doing any highly detailed task on a desktop, a touch screen is a terrible idea, much worse than a mouse. The level of control is very coarse. Skin oil and airborne dust combine to put a film of oily mud on your display, causing terrible eyestrain. The display is so far away from you that you would develop severe shoulder pain holding your arm out constantly to move the cursor around and make selections. Touchscreens on the desktop are a horrible idea, both ergonomically and from a productivity standpoint.

    The mouse and keyboard have evolved over decades to become a completely natural and comfortable way to interact with desktop displays. Don't fix what isn't broken.
  • Options....

    That is all the author is talking about, options for touch. No, maybe you do not want to HAVE to reach up and touch the screen, but why shouldn't you have that option?

    What I hear in the comments is.....

    Please don't give me more ways to do things. Please limit me to what I know now. No one needs or wants to do things differently than I am doing them today.

    Don't you see how stupid that is? No one is taking away your mouse, they are just letting you touch the screen if you want to. That is the beauty of Windows 8, works with touch, works with mouse and keyboard. The best of both worlds.