In the days of black screens and green type, the arrival of colour was somewhat puzzling. If computers had got us so far without colour, who'd want it? Everyone, it seems.
Then came windows, icons, mice and pointers. Again, we were all happy with what we had. Why rewrite everything for some gimmicky whizzbang interface? As soon as you used an Apple Mac, you knew the answer. Ordinary people were suddenly able to do extraordinary things. But it wasn't until 11 years later when Microsoft finally got its act together with Windows 95, that this interface started to become more or less ubiquitous.
And there we've stalled for 26 or 15 years, depending whether you're a Mac or a PC fan. It works. Who wants more? Well, since the time the Macintosh came out, inventors have toiled in labs to bring us a more natural, direct, interface based on fingers, hands and, in the case of horizontal displays, objects placed on the screen. In recent years pioneering companies like Perceptive Pixel, Apple and Microsoft have been selling multi-touch surface devices.
In the abstract, it all sounds jolly fine (apart from the potential for the unselfish sharing of germs). You can access, open, expand, move, rotate and contract information artefacts right there on the screen. They could be images or documents inside the computer. Some of the systems can even interact with other things lying on the screen's surface. The external artefacts might be coded underneath so the system knows what to do with them or they could be simple things like business cards or other documents, which can be scanned. In one case, a library in Delft would whizz up pictorial information about your post code as it read your library card (video here). The Microsoft Surface can recognise and communicate with a suitably enabled mobile phone. It can show the contents of your mobile phone in a notebook. Just slide items to and from the on-screen notebook, in order to update the phone contents.
You could throw a keyboard up or, indeed, a facsimile of any kind of device but the main potential at the moment seems to be exploration, manipulation and mark-up. Fingers are better at some things but certainly not everything. However, if your organisation needs to surface information to any audience, regardless of their computer skills or application knowledge, then this might be a better way to do it than the usual single touch, keyboard or mouse controls.
The Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas has a number of Microsoft Surface tables through which visitors can browse a growing part of the company's collection of rock memorabilia. The National Library of Ireland uses the same product to show rare books and manuscripts which would otherwise be kept from public view due to their fragility or value. The US military uses Perceptive Pixel's huge displays for God-knows-what but you can bet that some of it involves 3-D terrain, flying things and weapons. Then Apple, of course, has made the iPhone exceedingly sexy with its own gestural controls.
While the technolgy and the functions are intriguing and seductive, the question is whether they give sufficient advantage over what's being used today. They cannot replace the present range of control devices except in special application-specific situations. Just as mice and pointers didn't replace keyboards, nor will multi-touch replace current devices. They may complement them though, especially as they become part of the repertoire of the everyday laptop or PC.
Whenever new technologies come along, it's quite often the user department that takes them on board, side-stepping IT if possible. We saw it with PCs and spreadsheets. We saw it again with desktop publishing. And again with mobile phones and PDAs. But, eventually, either the users or the organisation realise that the greater benefit comes from integration. IT represents the great archive in the sky to which and from which intellectual artefacts can be stored and retrieved. And, once IT is involved, more things become possible; using the mobile phone as a terminal, access to and re-use of materials produced elsewhere in the company and, in the case of multi-touch, delivering the contents of information stores to the devices. Museums and libraries are, perhaps, obvious examples but some users would value a natural way to get at and drill into, say, statistical information by geography or find and explore whatever today's equivalent of a blueprint is.
Right now, you might see these multi-touch surface devices as a bit of a curiosity but, just as the mouse (first publicly demonstrated in 1968) moved into the mainstream eventually, so these things may become important to you and your organisation.
If you're interested, a great place to mug up on the background is Bill Buxton's Multi-Touch overview.