With touch interface devices like the iPad and iPhone now outselling the traditional PC desktop (and then some), and Microsoft recently unleashing their own Windows 8 touch experience, is it possible that the days may be numbered for the traditional mouse and keyboard desktop?
Windows 8 (Microsoft's soon to be released upgrade to it's flagship product) is extremely touch centric. A mouse and keyboard can be used to navigate the OS, but the design paradigm is clearly focused more on touch. In response PC manufactures are revamping their offerings with a wide range of touch laptops, all-in-ones and touch screen monitors, but the question is; how well will touch scale to a wide range of products? Will the future of PC design force us to reach out and touch our screens?
It's a question of ergonomics. Sure touch based interfaces are intuitive but at the scale we're used to with phones and tablets we use the devices more like a pad of paper or a small note book. We usually hold the device in our hands or lay it flat. With a laptop or desktop screen at close to a 90 degree angle, we would to raise our arms and hold them suspended in air to interact with the screen.
In industrial design circles they call this problem "gorilla arms", since after a while you're arms become exhausted and tend to droop like, well, a gorilla's arms. It's kind of an awkward posture. So what's the long term solution? How do we use computers that offer mostly touch based navigation, at sizes above what will comfortably fit in your hands?
The Drafting Table Approach
If you have ever used a drafting table or an easel you're likely very accustomed to the idea of gorilla arms. When I attended art school, we we're instructed that standing made for the best posture for drawing and painting. Eventually my arms became accustomed to the posture; arms out and resting on nothing. Perhaps a similar consideration might apply to larger touch based computers?
It's possible, but there are market factor at play. Think about how we design desks; a large flat surface. This has dictated how we setup computers the way we do. Perhaps an angled computer, like a giant drafting table might sound appealing to designers and architechs, but in practice it's hardly a paradigm you can expect everyone to adopt.
On Apartment Therapy we have often explored the health benefits (and issues) of using a standing desks, so perhaps an Easel based computer isn't so far fetched for some users. Unfortunately this is of little use to the general populous, since we're unlikely to see the entire world move to a standing posture for working.
Reign Of The Typewriter
In addition to the ergonomic considerations, there is also just the simple fact that a century old invention (the typewriter) still dictates much of how we input text. The QWERTY keyboard I'm typing on today, hasn't changed much since it's development. The layout of the keyboard, (a design decision made to avoid common letters from jamming) is one we are stuck with for better or worse.
Most proficient typists would be hard pressed to make the move to an alternative layout, or text input method...never mind text input on a touch screen. Text or more importantly language input is in serious need of a interface evolution. Perhaps that will be voice dictation, or maybe one day we'll have computers that can read our thoughts, but for now a flat on your desk keyboard is still the most logical solution to getting words on the screen.
Making It Work
In the future innovations in tactile feedback, touch screen tech, and and gesture recognition will likely advance the state of touch to a point where we can really move beyond the PC paradigm that has existed since the first PC's (Microsoft itself offers a great vision of that).
Tablets will continue to take over in the consumer space, (most of them manufactured by Apple) but the old standby office desktop computer and corporate laptop will likely stay the same (in terms of how we use them) whether or not they ship with a touch screen for the forseeable future.
Personally the idea of a ridiculously large drafting table computer with a well designed touch and stylus interface is an exciting prospect, but there is a reason I still reach for my Macbook Air when I need to write long form text. While I do get work done on my iPad, a touch interface does has it's caveats. Until those are overcome, the traditional PC interface and design, will still has a place on our desks.
(images: Sean Rioux)