Touch UI and Tablet devices for power and professional users

Is it only me who feels that the recent introduction of touch based UIs have dumbed down interfaces to a point where something as powerful as touch interface would not be lucrative for pro applications? The idioms used for touch interaction on smart phones and tablets are built for very simple interactions for mostly consumers. However, I think touch shouldn’t be limited to just that.

If we think of some professional activities before computing took over those spaces, we find that most of these activities depended on (and were enriched by) human object interactions. For eg. engineering drawing / drafting was done using rulers professionals could pick, place and manipulate and pencil sketching which gave a very satisfying tactile feedback. While computers make it easier for professionals to work through these engineering tasks, the question really is – can a touch interface make it better? We might have to take a step back from the regular swipe / poke gestures and think a bit generally about the possibilities from a high precision touch interface.

Infact, I would argue that we should take a look a professional computing setups from a fresh perspective given the advent of touch interfaces and multi-devices. May be we should bring the regular professional desk back, instead of trying to keep everything on a digital desktop spread across multiple vertical screens. Here is what I have in mind:

A professional desk is pretty much like a regular horizontal or slightly inclined desk. It has notepads, pens, clips, scissors and then may be a few tiny storage devices, tablets keyboard, mice etc. Most professionals can keep up with some complexity, so trying to unify everything on one computing device or screen might be worse off than letting different computing devices do what they are good at and interact with each other to let the user achieve what he wishes to. Different computing devices would have different weight and dimensions for the user to move around or manipulate. They may have different apps suiting the user’s workflow, some of them may be newer than others if the pro user wishes to integrate a better interface to his workflow.
Working would involve interacting using touch, or the keyboard / mice with multiple devices. For eg. the slider for a photo color saturation control could be on a touch device while the keyboard is used to quickly search for photos to touch. Or may be, the photo appears on a larger touch tablet at the center of the desk allowing the user to select photos and zoom / select a portion of the photo and a smaller tablet on the side is used for the slider controls for color manipulation. May be this side device is not a tablet at all but really a set of sliders with a small LCD panel on top showing some key interface elements.

I don’t think the keyboard will go away in the above scenario, but it may take various forms. Tactile feedback is important and so is the speed of entering text using the keyboard.

However, the above would need some serious platform software to pull this off. Different devices would need to work with each other. An app would need to spread its reach beyond just one device for the same user and for the same invocation of the app. The platform should allow the user to manage app and context around all the devices easily. The different devices might be running different versions of the platform software. The app would be interacting with different versions of platform software at the same time. The platform software on one device may have no idea what other devices in the personal network are capable off. Storage and compute resources are disaggregated so the app builders would use the platform for storage and compute heavy workloads and the platform would need to manage that well.

However, there are quite a few pleasant upsides. The professional user wouldn’t feel trapped inside a single computer. He would not have to upgrade the whole computer to get a better experience, which probably means he is going to try out many interconnecting devices to find out which works better. He wouldn’t have to shutdown his workflow to upgrade devices; he has a few of them so he can dynamically swap an upgraded one without interrupting his workflow. Upgrading local storage is easy, as is local compute capacity, as is upgrading interfaces.

P.S. I am not sure if USB or the personal area network (PAN) were supposed to address the scenarios outlined above. I do think that the above is different than one central computer controlling other peripheral devices. Having a central computer has disadvantages with upgradability to newer devices and workflow interruption on breakage / upgrade.


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