Microsoft adds some multi-touch glitz to Windows 7

Last week, on a whirlwind tour of the Microsoft campus, I had a chance to sit down with the team responsible for implementing the multi-touch feature set in Windows 7 and to see a previously unannounced product called the Microsoft Touch Pack for Windows 7, which will be available with Windows 7 on new touch-compatible PCs. But if you want to get your hands on it, you'll have to wait for a new generation of hardware.

It was exactly one year ago tomorrow that Windows 7 made its public debut in a brief demo at the D6 (All Things Digital) conference. Looking back at that video (via YouTube), it’s surprising to see that that first demo focused on multi-touch support.

Since then, several million people have downloaded the beta or release candidate of Windows 7 and are running it today. I’ll bet that only a few thousand of them have actually had a chance to use its multi-touch features. Until a few weeks ago, you could put me in that category as well. Although I own a Dell Latitude XT with a multi-touch display, the drivers that fully enable that feature in Windows 7 weren’t available until just a few weeks ago. (N-Trig, which manufactures the DuoSense multi-touch display used in the Dell Latitude XT/XT2 and HP TouchSmart TX2, released some rough, incomplete drivers back in January, but they did little to truly show off the multi-touch capabilities of the platform.)

Shortly after installing the Windows 7 Release Candidate on this notebook, I downloaded the newly released DuoSense drivers. The difference in performance and feature availability is astonishing, and I’m finally able to see some of the potential of multi-touch.

Last week, on a whirlwind tour of the Microsoft campus, I had a chance to sit down with the team responsible for implementing the multi-touch feature set in Windows 7 and to see a previously unannounced product called the Microsoft Touch Pack for Windows 7, which will be available with Windows 7 on new touch-compatible PCs.

The Touch Pack consists of three multi-player games. Rebound, shown below, works like the old air hockey games where I wasted many hours of my college years.

There’s a fish-themed screensaver whose touch gimmick is that the fish swim up to your fingers when you make the right gestures. There are also a pair of interesting applications that take advantage of multi-touch features borrowed from the Microsoft Surface platform. Microsoft Surface Collage lets you drag photos onto a surface, arrange them and rotate to create an interesting layout, then save the result as a wallpaper. Microsoft Surface Globe is the app that was demoed last year at D6, and it still offers an impressive demo of how to navigate through the Virtual Earth environment.

My experience with the new multi-touch features has been mostly positive. Today, at least, these features are most interesting when used for consuming content. Using gestures to flip quickly through PDF files and Word documents or to navigate the web quickly becomes second nature.

Ultimately, though, multi-touch is one of those features that might take years to reach critical mass. It requires some fairly significant investments from hardware makers, who have to be willing to put some R&D and engineering into designs that show off multi-touch properly. It will also take some effort from third-party software developers to come up with applications that leverage the technology. And even with all that, there’s no guarantee that this stuff will ever be more than an interesting curiosity.

Ironically, the best marketing partner Microsoft has for this endeavor is Apple, whose iPhone and iPod Touch platforms have whetted the appetite of consumers for devices that use multi-touch. Assuming Apple someday releases a larger, tablet-sized device with multi-touch capabilities, it should have some interesting competition from the PC side.