Touch Me Somewhere Else For A Change

Touch Me Somewhere Else For A Change

Summary: Multi-touch isn’t just for tablets. It’s soon going to be everywhere, as the underlying technologies (whether resistive, capacitive or optical) solve many complex user interface problems.

TOPICS: Windows

Multi-touch isn’t just for tablets. It’s soon going to be everywhere, as the underlying technologies (whether resistive, capacitive or optical) solve many complex user interface problems. Take the humble keyboard for example.

You’d think it was a simple piece of work, and something that couldn’t be made any better. However gamers and CAD users will tell you something quite different. It turns out that there’s a problem with the matrix of connections that connect each keyswitch together. Press too many at once and the keyboard controller can’t detect which keys are pressed. That’s why there’s anti-ghosting controls in your keyboard, tools that block certain key combinations from occurring. That complex combination of keys you need to finish a CAD model or to take down a gang of zombies? Sorry. It’s impossible. And what’s more annoying, different keyboards have different matrix layouts, and different key combinations locked out by anti-ghosting – even the wonderful classic IBM microswitch keyboards.

Microsoft’s new Sidewinder X4 takes a very different approach to keyboard design. Instead of the traditional matrix of switches, the keypad underlay is an array of resistive touch sensors. Touch any number of them, and the controller can determine the order in which they were pressed – using the same techniques used to work with multi-touch onscreen keyboards. Now it’s possible to handle full 10-finger key combinations. Imagine that in AutoCAD. Or in World of Warcraft.

We were able to look inside to see the printed array of resistive touch elements. They're the little black bars, and Microsoft Hardware had to do a lot of work to develop a technique for printing them on the keyboard's flexible circuit board (and still managed to keep the Sidewinder's cost under $60).

Inside the Sidewinder X4

Talking to the keyboard’s designers at CES 2010, we got a picture of just how they see this type of touch sensor powered keyboard being used. A batch of prototypes had been made up and sent out to various universities, to see just what their students would come up with. The results were nothing short of spectacular. One of our favourites was an application that turned an ordinary keyboard into one for the disabled, handling multikey presses (perhaps with a tennis ball on a manipulator) and determining user intent (much like extended T9 on a modern mobile phone) to determine what’s actually being typed.

The Sidewinder wasn’t the only intriguing touch application at CES 2010.

Implementing a table-based touch system like Microsoft’s Surface is expensive, complicated and takes up a lot of space. Cambridge-based Light Blue Optics has turned touch tables inside out, with a lightweight, extremely portable touch projector.

You’ve probably seen those red laser-projected keyboards. They’re a neat idea, but not really much use when trying to deliver whole applications. Light Blue Optics have taken laser projection, made it full colour, and using a holographic lens, have simplified the process of projecting an image on any surface at any angle. The resulting Light Touch projector mixes a small computer with a projector, as well as a set of optical sensors.

A Light Touch

Using cameras to detect hand position, the Light Touch can project all manner of interactive screens, from web browsers to games to menus. It’s surprisingly intuitive to use, and working with a touch screen on a flat surface is actually quite natural and comfortable – and like Surface it’s surprisingly social.

A Light Touch

It's easy to imaging the Light Touch in shops, with a touch-driven catalogue, or in restaurants, projecting a dynamically generated menu.

With a hefty amount of VC funding and support from several major IT companies, we’re optimistic for Light Blue Optics’ success. And it’s always good to cheer for a British company...


Topic: Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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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  • Touch Me Somewhere Else For A Change

    That laser projected desk board is fantastic. It could be used not only as a keyboard but also to get rid of the separate monitor as well. It might not be quite as good as a real keyboard for office staff who spend long hours typing, or indeed for AutoCAD engineers who spend long hours staring at details on screen, but would be great for casual infrequent home use especially for folk like my wife who can't stand the sight of any computer parts cluttering her palace.

    I'm not so sure about your comments re CAD key combinations. My customers include structural & civil engineers as well as surveyors and a few estate managers who all use CAD. They are increasingly using pads in place of mice and using k/b less and less. They can input any amount of key combinations in the command bar at the bottom and this doesn't have to be exactly simultaneous. The speed in most cases is phenomenal. However, I'm sure the Sidewinder will have many good uses for people with disabilities that affect movement of fingers, hands and arms.

    And thanks for the pictures - text only would not have been great in this case!
    Fat Pop Do Wop
  • Touch Me Somewhere Else For A Change

    Yeah good read, so they finally cracked the key ghosting issue's this is now going to lead onto better controller's for better accessibility, well hopefully.

    The optics weren't bad to, laser projector's something to think about, maybe this is the one to crack all our big screen needs, while remaining even more power efficient.