How touching

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In the world of computer interfacing, touch screens have been around for yonks. The mass uptake of smartphones and tablets has in no small part been due to the brilliance and efficacy of the touch screens as applied to these particular form factors and the ability to directly engage with content and the interface by intuitive finger swiping actions as against other more traditional means such as the keyboard, mouse of stylus is demonstrably better.

Set against this ergonomic efficacy, of course, are a couple of trade-offs that consumers seem content to put up with. Both centre on the ubiquitous shiny, highly reflective screens that mean using such devices under bright lighting conditions – as on a sunny day, for instance – is near impossible and, to compound matters, the screens quickly take on the appearence of having been used by someone whose fingers have been marinated in lard for  a week or two. Of course the issue is easily solved and manufacturers need only furnish their offerings with matt screens and the issues more or less goes away, though presumably, manufacturers would argue that in doing so the devices would lose some of their visual sexiness. Whichever the case, the point here is that for such devices, touch screens clearly work and work well.

Given the success of touch screen on portable tablets and smartphones, one can easily see why the likes of Microsoft and others would want to extrapolate the model and extend it to large format devices, such as PC monitors and large screen all-in-one computers. From what I’ve read of the proposed offerings of Windows 8 – the next generation of Microsoft’s operating system – one of the key paradigm shifts is an overwhelming move towards touch screen interaction across all hardware configurations, including large format computer screens. From an ergonomic perspective, this is a pile of poo.

It’s one thing for Tom Cruise to whizz stuff around on a large glass screen in Minority Report via a series of rather impressive choreographed hand and arm gestures, it’s another thing entirely doing the same thing in real life. The stark reality is that to oblige someone to hold their arm extended for long periods of time while they exercise fine motor control of their wrist and finger tips is to rapidly inflict upon them a whole world of pain and neurological distress. And I’m not exaggerating.

Try it for yourself. Go through the motions of pretending that you have a touch screen computer monitor, as you sit in front of it, reach out and ‘interact’ with the screen. ‘Move’ things around on the screen, as you imagine you would have to, with your arm fully or partially extended. Do it for fifteen minutes or as long as you feel comfortable with. Try ‘browsing’ the web as you would normally, flitting frequently from site to site. Feel your shoulders tensing up? Feel your arms aching? Feel any tension building? Aside from the physical sensations, how good does the screen now look with a trail of chip fat fingerprint smears all over it? If you had to do this all day long – if this was your only way of interfacing with your computer – how long would it be before discomfort turned into excruiating agony? A day; a week; a month; a year?

Now it might be that between now and final release Microsoft might have a change of heart about employing touch screen interfacing as the default means of user interaction (I’m told that there is a poorly implemented option to revert to a traditional mode of working for users who don’t have touch screens). I’m not entirely convinced that Microsoft have thought this one through. What works well for one form factor does not necessarily work for another. Just because a thing can be done doesn’t mean that for all circumstances it should be done.

Get it wrong and quite simply it’s a pain in the neck for everyone.