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Touch display industry

Technical Q&A with Joe Kotas and Kevin Lee from Baanto

DA: Where is the touch display industry right now and where is it going?

The Touch Industry Has Gone Viral

The touch industry is undergoing a seminal shift in user expectations due to the popularity and proliferation of smart phones and tablets. Quite simply, over 400 million new users of touch enabled devices are driving the industry in unexpected ways and into uncharted waters.

Although these are small sized commercial products, one key development is simply users have the expectation of touch enabled functions, in everything. The use of touch has moved from an incidental feature of a device like an ATM that you might use a few times a month to an intrinsic part of many people’s daily life. Touch is literally being used 100’s of time a day by hundreds of millions of people of every age around the world. As a result, touch is no longer an option, but a relevant and necessary feature in any device that humans interact with.

For example, at a shopping mall or covered bus stop, you only need to observe a digital sign for a few minutes to see obvious evidence of this trend. I would expect over 90% of users to walk up and touch the display as opposed to just looking at the content. If the display is interactive, the user becomes engaged with the content. If it’s not interactive, most users simply walk away (looking slightly embarrassed). From casual observation, the reaction is more pronounced the younger the user.

Or take a few moments to search for “infants” and “iPhone” on YouTube and you’ll get over 180 hits, and some of the videos have over a million views! This is an awesome demographic and portends a long and continuing upward trend for the touch industry.

Engineers Are Out Of Touch With Touch Users

The uncharted waters comment reflects the fact that the technology is way ahead of the users and this is not necessarily a good thing. Unfortunately this applies to both hardware and the user experience.

For example, on the hardware side, two years ago, a couple of companies including 3M announced a 20 touch 22” display. And two years later, I challenge you to find a robust application of any type that effectively uses more than three touches.

As an example my Samsung Galaxy S II phone has an app that allows me to see how many touches my phones touch screen can support. It turns out to be 10 touches. I have difficulty fitting ten of my fingers on the screen at the same time. And what apps make use of this maximum number of touches? Just the one app, the one that tell me how many touches I can have!

The danger is not in having an over-specified product; the risk is in trying to force the adoption of any one technology simply because it can outperform other solutions when held to artificial specifications and that horrible phrase “future proofing”.

Let’s Name Names: Microsoft, 3M

Quite frankly, one only has to look at Microsoft’s position with the touch specification for Windows 8. One would have to say it was designed not for the real world applications but to support one particular technology.

The cost differential between projected capacitive and alternative solutions for larger displays will slow the adoption of touch technology and most likely slow the adoption of Windows 8 in desktop applications.

Specifically, you can currently buy the 3M, 20 touch, 22” monitor I mentioned above, but at $1,350 each in the USA and about €1,500 in Europe, it’s clearly not a consumer product.

Now take a competitive solution based on an optical multi-touch technology such as Baanto’s ShadowSense that can easily support five touches and you can sell that same 22” product for under $ 350. This should be a “no-brainer”, but I think there was a fair amount of tunnel vision when the specifications were created.

In fact, a recent review of Windows 8 stated Windows 8 was “great for touch, but bad for the desktop”. While the blog was focused on the backseat the mouse and keyboard take in Windows 8, the obvious solution is to touch enable the desktop. But I certainly can’t afford multiple monitors that cost over $1K each, so my solution is to stay with Windows 7. Who wins in that scenario?

As far as the user experience, I would love to know the most frequently used gestures on iPhones. I can guess: tap, double tap, swipe, 2 finger pinches to shrink, 2 finger spread to enlarge. Maybe rotate, but I think most people simply rotate the phone. And that word “simply” is the most operative and underappreciated word in the touch industry today.

In my opinion, if it’s not simple, it won’t be used by the majority of people that don’t have an urgent need to learn something new. And worse, if it’s not standardized, the confusion in the user base will definitely slow the adoption rate.

The Future Is On Baanto’s Side

History says that when consumer products combine the complex with the confusing, they fail. Apply that model to the touch market and everyone suffers.

Gartner estimates that there will be over 600 million users of smartphones and tablets by the end of 2012 and one BILLION users by 2015. What they don’t say is that this is not one Billion individual users but ‘smart users’ with multiple smart devices. The hard core of multitouch and gesture savvy individuals will be somewhat less than that. So who in their right mind will start producing complex touch controlled equipment like kiosks, ATM’s and information terminals such as are seen at shopping malls when they know that maybe as many as two thirds of their potential users need to be trained to use them.

There will certainly be specialized markets that will tolerate, and in some cases demand, unique and complex interactions that only the most complex and expensive hardware can support. But in our opinion, a truly successful technology embraces all users, from infants to the elderly, from the capable to the handicapped. It really needs to be simple, accessible, and reliable.

What sometimes gets forgotten about in this rush for the latest technology is that the majority of touch usage does not need more than one touch and that having more than one touch would lead to an application that will take extra time to interact with. One struggles to think of any reason why you would need multitouch on a self-service check out or for picking up your cinema tickets from a kiosk or even when using an airline check-in terminal at an airport.

So just because you can do a thing does not mean you have to do a thing or should do a thing. And if you don’t heed these words it could mean that you will be tying up substantial amounts of money in technology now for something that you might never need in some ‘future time’.

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