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

Touch is not just for things you can hold in one hand - we need digital whiteboards, drawing boards, light tables, canvases and more.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

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.

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