Lost in the Virtual Fog – Just a Swipe to the Left

It’s been quite a while since my last column in this series, and a lot has happened in the geospatial world and the world of computing in general. I hope to give my thoughts on some of these trends over the next few months as I catch up to the world around me after finally finishing my PhD. One of the trends that I have been following with a lot of interest is definitely the move toward new ways of interacting with our computers.

To kick things off, I wanted to talk a little bit about what’s been going on with the growing presence of touch interfaces. While the keyboard and mouse still reign supreme in desktop computing, the success of the iPad and other tablets, as well as smartphones, has definitely broadened the reach of touch as a user interface. And that is filtering its way back into the desktop computing space, with the rise in popularity of all-in-one computers with touch-enabled monitors. In fact, I am writing this post on one of those new touch all-in-ones, the Lenovo A720.

I am finding my own computing behavior changing as well. For my day-to-day work and web surfing, I rely on my Windows slate tablet (ASUS Eee Slate EP121), which is touch-enabled as well. Most of the devices I interact with on a daily basis are touch interfaces and I’ve become so used to it that I often find myself touching a laptop or desktop monitor now, and wondering why nothing is happening.

So why is touch such a big deal? Because more and more of the devices that we either use now or are going to use in the near future (think smartphones and tablets) rely on a touch interface, and that means that software applications, even expert software like GIS or 3D virtual landscapes, will need to be touch-compatible if they are going to make the transition to new hardware platforms. Even more importantly, software users who haven’t worked with touch are probably going to have to come to grips with this new interface style. Some people take to touch quite quickly and intuitively, while others are going to struggle a bit.

On the developer side, writing applications with touch capabilities presents challenges, such as precision with finger movements and touch pressure and creating meaningful gestures for complex commands. When you’re talking about a complex series of tasks like working with map layers in a GIS, for instance, it can get a bit tricky. Still, we’ve already got the example of ArcGIS for iOS which is available on the small iPhone screen and the larger iPad and works quite well with a number of touch gestures. However, it’s quite a leap from the streamlined lightweight mobile apps to a full-fledged desktop GIS software package, which might require a real rethinking of how users interact with the various modules, viewers and tools to get a satisfying touch interface working.

So, even if you’re not a user of a touch device now, you may find that changing in the near future. Computing platforms and interfaces are changing whether everyone likes it or not and, while I don’t think keyboards and mice are going away anytime soon, in the world of technology they’ve been around for ages and may find themselves going the way of the punch card.


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